Drawing the Ring of Steel: A Counter-Monument for Belfast

March 11, 2024

Designer and educator Kate Catterall, who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, describes the creative process that led to her urban intervention Drawing the Ring of Steel, which used mapping and performance to unlock memories, share stories, and encourage transgenerational conversations about the city’s recent past.


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Performers at Donegall Place (checkpoint X24) as part of Kate Catterall’s Drawing the Ring of Steel on March 22, 2022. © Johnny Frazer.

On the 50th anniversary of the date that the British Army fortified Belfast, Northern Ireland’s city center, the performative memorial event Drawing the Ring of Steel invited unheard voices, suppressed memories, and previously untold stories of the ethno-nationalist conflict known as “the Troubles.” It encouraged people to create a shared public space that occupied a place of previous oppression and invited them to tell stories of their experiences at the checkpoints. The artistic intervention employed what geographer Karen Till refers to as a “place-based ethic of care,” providing a moment of visibility and healing for the Troubles generation(s).1

1972 was the bloodiest year of the Troubles, in part because of a Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) bombing campaign designed to disrupt commerce in Northern Ireland. The campaign was reportedly responding to the indiscriminate shooting of civilians by the British Army during what is known as “Bloody Sunday.” As part of this campaign, a 100-lb bomb was detonated in lower Donegall Street on March 20. This event caused loss of life, widespread injury and destruction, and led to Direct Rule being announced on March 24. Concurrently, a security cordon known as the “ring of steel” was installed around Belfast City center over a couple of weeks between late March and early April. In the following months, talks aimed at developing a form of equitable governance through power-sharing were initiated. The talks failed, an associated PIRA/IRA ceasefire ended, and the PIRA bombing campaign resumed.

On July 21, twenty-two bombs went off during a chaotic 75-minute period. Twenty of the bombs were planted within half-a-mile of the ring of steel. I contend that this PIRA act of defiance commented directly on the ineffectiveness of the new security structures, intended to maintain business as usual in the economic heart of the country. A range of defensive strategies, including the ring of steel, transformed Belfast into “a laboratory for radical experiments on the fortification of urban space,” that made it possible for the security forces to control and surveille inhabitants and their movements throughout the city.2 To combat global terror threats in the twenty-first century, variations of the ring of steel model have been applied in London, Kabul, and elsewhere.

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Callendar Street, Belfast, 1972. Photograph of an early iteration of the ring of steel eliminating egress. © Martin Nangle.

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College Street in 2017, a thoroughfare previously used by both pedestrians and vehicular traffic circa 1971, continues to be regulated years after the removal of the historical security cordon. © Kate Catterall.

Research undertaken to prepare for Drawing the Ring of Steel mapped the perimeter of the ring of steel and exposed the existence of bollards and surveillance cameras that define the perimeter today. Drawing the Ring of Steel is in dialogue with another project on MAS Context, by photographer Henrietta Williams and mapmaker George Gingell, entitled Ring of Steel, a project that maps contemporary defensive strategies aimed at protecting the City of London onto historical Roman-era fortifications. London’s ring of steel utilized anti-terrorism strategies first tested in Belfast, and like London’s security infrastructure, Belfast’s ring of steel maps onto the route of earlier fortifications, a rammed earth rampart dating back to the 1680s that defended protestant settlers, traders, and their port, from the indigenous population of Ireland.3

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A top-down plan of Belfast by the military engineer Thomas Phillips, showing his plan for a citadel to the north of the town. Hand-colored pen and ink sketch, 1685. British Library / Public domain.

Originally intended as a temporary measure, the 2.2-mile ring of steel endured and created a citadel of the city center, a place surrounded by oppressive-looking perimeter fences, patrolled by security forces carrying machine guns, and punctuated with checkpoints for searching civilians seeking to enter the city’s center. The ring of steel killed any remaining social life in the city center, a previously lively and shared social space, transforming itineraries across Belfast while creating new and reinforcing old spaces of religious segregation. Images of the structures were broadcast far and wide making the ring of steel the defining architectural feature of Belfast during the Troubles.

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Photographer Kevin O’Farrell was invited to document the British military in Belfast. He took this black and white photograph of a soldier and police officer patrolling Donegall Place checkpoint (X24) circa 1978. The photograph shows the 12-foot-tall structure with spikes on top and pedestrians entering the checkpoint hut to be searched. It was not permissible to photograph military personnel or installations without permission. © Kevin O’Farrell.

Drawing the Ring of Steel illustrated the form of the historical security cordon that encircled Belfast’s commercial center, which was alternately known as the “barriers” or “gates” to locals, and the “ring of steel” to the British Army, who built and rebuilt the structures for two decades. The memorial event was designed to function as a counter-monument that juxtaposed an image of the historical security cordon with contemporary experiences in a city redeveloped as an exclusive destination replete with a high-end shopping mall, luxury apartment units, and fancy restaurants. The memorial undermined its own authority by inviting and then incorporating the authority of passersby, conjuring daily life against the backdrop of the conflict and recalling the process of being searched to enter the city center—one of few common experiences of the Troubles that cut across religion, age, class, and race—rendering all inhabitants suspect as they surrendered to invasive searches to gain access to the city center.

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An unpopulated checkpoint positions the viewer as an inhabitant about the enter and get searched, 2020. Illustration: collage/prismacolor pencil by Kate Catterall.

Locating Memory and Meaning

Once upon a time there was a civil war (though no one was allowed to call it that). After twenty-five years of conflict, the war ground to a halt with a ceasefire in 1994 that was later ratified by an internationally negotiated Peace Agreement. A tentative peace has persisted for over a quarter of a century, but the wounds sustained by the society between 1969–1998 remain raw even as the Troubles began to pass from living memory. The fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland was revealed in 2016 when the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was leveraged by the Conservative Party to ensure that Brexit became law. The UK’s departure from the EU heightened tensions in Northern Ireland as the specter of a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland, reminiscent of the Troubles-era, and contentious sectarian conflict were ignited over the Irish Sea border. Indeed, post-conflict generations have continued to redraw old sectarian lines, rendering the city a place of “benign apartheid,” especially in working-class sectarian enclaves with proximity to the city center where sectarian commemoration proliferates.4 Until Drawing the Ring of Steel, there had been little appetite for shared remembrance of the conflict, because in a culture with divergent understandings of history, even remembrance is sectarianized and divisive.

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Republican "Garden of Remembrance" on the Falls Road in West Belfast. © Cedric Morrison.

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Red Hand Commando (UHC) smaller Ulster loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary organization, East Belfast, 2005. © Cedric Morrison.

After the Peace Agreement, memories of life during the conflict receded and a pervasive cultural amnesia took hold as inhabitants were urged to “move on” and city center renovations elided most visual traces of the Troubles. The initial urgency to create a shared memorial had passed by the turn of the century, and the memorial proposed in the Bloomfield Report—a 1998 roadmap for peace building—remained contested and unbuilt in 2015 as sectarian forms of remembrance proliferated.

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Proof-of-concept for Drawing the Ring of Steel, 2016. © Kate Catterall.

To combat that, I came with this concept, and in 2016, I made a prototype drawing of the checkpoint at Donegall Place to engage passersby in unprompted conversations about the ring of steel, which provided me with a handful of stories about people’s experiences at the checkpoints. This important proof-of-concept helped me communicate the potential for storytelling as an integral part of shared commemoration, moving the focus of a Troubles memorial from shared grief to shared daily experiences of the conflict period, such as passing through the checkpoints.5 This reframing diminished sectarian resistance to the notion of shared remembrance and seemed to render it politically “neutral,” something that allowed local government officials and granting agencies to support the concept as it developed towards implementation.

Workshops: Building Community

I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, but have lived outside of Northern Ireland since 1986, most of that time in the United States. I was conscious of being an expert with lived experience of the conflict, and simultaneously an expat “helicoptering in” with a solution to a problem that perhaps no one was interested in resolving. Because the project was not the result of a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), I had to negotiate the concept into being by talking with nearly a hundred people over a seven-year period. Those conversations with community groups, artists, academics, local and national politicians, victims’ rights organizations, and activists, evolved into a co-design process of sorts, aimed at ensuring that the direction and tone of the proposal would be aligned with local needs.

I wanted to go beyond conversations and design with and for the current inhabitants of Belfast, so I organized seven workshops in Belfast between 2017–2019 aimed at testing the local appetite for commemoration and co-creating unconventional memorial proposals. Participants were asked to consider remembrances that prioritize shared experience of daily life during the conflict. In most sessions this meant introducing younger participants, or more recent transplants to the city, to Belfast’s recent and traumatic past. Then, as a group, we considered how public art was being employed as an integral part of redevelopment of the city center, mostly as abstract and apolitical works signaling a new wealth and stability. We also reflected on the parameters of a stalled plan for a rural memorial building filled with “palliative artworks” outlined in the Bloomfield Report. Attendees then worked in groups with me to conceptualize designs that might encourage transgenerational conversations about the past. The results included a series of wearable items designed to provoke conversations on the street (Students from the University of Ulster), a circular garden/greenbelt around the city center that would “re-green” the still-barren post-war environment (Belfast Exposed Gallery), and a collaborative GIS mapping project that was proposed by geographer James Bamford during the last workshop at Place: Built Environment Center in 2019, and later funded by the Community Relations Council of Belfast.

In 2018, I approached Paula McFetridge, the Creative Director of Kabosh theater in Belfast after learning about their play Green & Blue, which “explore[d] the painful and humorous realities faced by the individuals who patrolled the border during the height of the conflict.” From early 2019, we began working collaboratively to bring the proposed performative memorial to fruition.

The stage set

Pre-existing architectural drawings of the checkpoints in the ring of steel did not exist, so the location and scale had to be determined from an aerial photograph, historical photographs from journalists, and by locating the sites using Google maps and on-site surveys leading to accurate architectural drawings of the structures.

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Mapping the ring of steel. © James Bamford and Kate Catterall.

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Google image locating the four main checkpoints (N, S, W, E) of the ring of steel. © Kate Catterall.

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Locating Donegall Place Checkpoints (X24) with gates and drop-arm barrier between search huts in contemporary Belfast, 2020. © Google map with illustration of site.

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Orthographic plan drawing of X24 used as a guide to delineate the structures, at scale and on the original site, March 2022. © Kate Catterall.

The day before the event, the project was announced widely on news and social media. The architectural drawings were also carefully marked out on the sites using yellow tape and chalk. As we installed the drawings, the stories started flowing as passersby stopped to make inquiries and chat.

On the day of the event, boxes of materials and props needed for the day were delivered and vertical triangular billboards designed to announce the project were installed at each checkpoint. They displayed images of the ring of steel circa 1972 and provided a link to the project website.

Activating the sites

Two days prior to the event, a one-day rehearsal introduced ten performers tasked with story-gathering to their recording equipment, and fifty other performers to costumes and whistles. This group tried on their yellow costumes and learned a spare routine, evoking search and frisk movements, that had been developed by choreographer Paula O’Reilly. The motions were conceived after being trained in search and frisk procedures by two ex-RUC officers who had once been responsible for training civilian searchers for service at the checkpoints.

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One-day rehearsal for Drawing the Ring of Steel, March 22, 2022. © Kate Catterall.

The Day of Drawing the Ring of Steel

Two visions of Belfast city center offered themselves up to our gaze during Drawing the Ring of Steel. An image of the city center encircled by an oppressive security cordon and manned by soldiers with machine guns became visible once again within the contemporary city center, an environment that now reads much like any other across the United Kingdom.

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Interviewers gathering stories at Donegall Place (X24, the southern checkpoint) as performers redraw the architectural plans throughout the day and activate the site with choreographed search and frisk movements and loud whistles. © Kate Catterall.

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Donegall Place (X24, the southern checkpoint). © Kate Catterall.

Performers activated the checkpoints engaging passersby by sharing the history of the checkpoints with some and gathering stories of experiences at the site from others. The event lasted twelve hours to ensure that the broadest cross-section of the community would have an opportunity to inhabit history and learn about the historical sites and contribute to the story-gathering event.

The day started slowly with people rushing to work and less able to stop and talk but, by mid-morning, what might have been a somber day of remembrance began to take on a liberatory tone and an almost festive atmosphere evolved into the late afternoon with choreography and whistles blowing and people gathering around to tell their stories. By evening, the North and West checkpoints were almost empty, but the atypically warm evening meant socializing near the South and East checkpoints continued through to the conclusion of the event with a group performance on Donegall Place, blocking the road in front of City Hall at 8 pm.

We had expected to collect in the range of 100 stories, but the flood of memories was so great that at times the yellow-suited performers took out their own phones to assist the designated interviewers. The event provoked an outpouring of memories about experiences at the checkpoints. Some of the memories shared were common to all checkpoints: “it was normal;” “it’s just the way it was;” “it shows you how far we’ve come;” and “I remember going on holiday and showing my bag entering a shop. That’s when I realized that things were different elsewhere.”

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Interviewer and performers on location at Donegall Place (X24, the southern checkpoint). © Kate Catterall/Kabosh. Photograph by Johnny Frazer.

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Passerby being interviewed on location at High Street (X23, the eastern checkpoint). © Kate Catterall/Kabosh. Photograph by Johnny Frazer.

People contributed stories of transgression as well as humorous and poignant memories of negotiating the ring of steel. One person apologized as he told the interviewer about an experience at the main checkpoint to the west at the intersection of Castle Street and Queen Street. As a young boy, he had been waiting to get searched and enter town when a young policeman standing on the corner smiled at him, a second later the policeman was shot in the head and fell. The boy, now a middle-aged man, told the interviewer, “I don’t mean to burden you, but thank you for asking. No one has ever asked me about any of this before, but you know I pass this corner on the way to work, and I still see that fella every day.”


On the day of the event, more than 700 stories were gathered about daily life at the ring of steel. In the stories, the phenomenon of “living in history” was a recurring theme as those who had endured the conflict revealed memories that were very present and mapped onto the topography of the city. Another interviewer reported that as she was explaining to a group of teenage girls that “the checkpoints were right here and you would get your bags searched and get frisked down to check for bombs and weapons and stuff,” an older woman, maybe in her 80s, walked up and said pointing to her head: “the gates are still here love, they’ll always be here.”

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Public notification of new security segments from 1972. © Independent News and Media PLC. Images created courtesy of The British Library Board.

The ring of steel was a failure that seeded far-reaching problems in Belfast. It was unable to stop destruction in the city center: The introduction of small incendiary devices rapidly replaced car bombs and burned away profits inside the security cordon. It didn’t stop the bloodshed caused by car bombs: short months after the completion of the ring of steel, the cordon became the fulcrum of a PIRA offensive. On Friday, July 21, 1972, in an event later known as “Bloody Friday,” twenty bombs were detonated in Belfast; all but two were under a mile from the cordon. The security cordon, a fixed reaction to a fluid situation, could not effectively prevent attacks on the center, and arguably exacerbated the security situation over time by becoming a primary target for attacks. The ring of steel all but killed commerce in and around the cordon and changed egress through the city permanently. It also eliminated the only shared social space in Belfast, driving people to socialize separately in isolated sectarian neighborhoods, something the city still struggles to overcome.

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A fire at Primark Bank Buildings store in 2018 necessitated a cordon around the site and significant rerouting of traffic. The cordon, reminiscent of the ring of steel, cast a chill over the city. Visitor numbers to the area dropped as latent memories of the Troubles disrupted post-conflict habits. © Kate Catterall.

Post-conflict regeneration plans also neglected the needs of people. The peace, predicated on an extended ceasefire, left the past unresolved, so it was safer to focus on the future. The imperative to “move on” created a collective amnesia about the Troubles as city center renovations elided most visual traces of the conflict within the area of the security cordon. What Drawing the Ring of Steel uncovered and confirmed was that while the city moved on, many people didn’t, or couldn’t, and traces of the conflict persist in both the city’s built environment and the psyche of its inhabitants.

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Victoria Street entrance to a new urban mall. Bollards protect the pedestrian precinct from global terror attacks on the contemporary city and map onto the perimeter of the historical ring of steel. © Kate Catterall.

1 Karen E. Till, “Wounded Cities: Memory-Work and a Place-Based Ethics of Care,” Political Geography 31.1 (2012): 3–14.
2 Jon Coaffee, Terrorism, Risk and the Global City: Towards Urban Resilience, (London: Routledge, 2009).
3 Frederick W. Boal, Shaping a City: Belfast in the Late Twentieth Century, (Belfast: Queen's University of Belfast, 1995).
4 Amanda E. Donahoe, “Benign Apartheid,” in Peacebuilding through Women’s Community Development (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
5 Kenneth Bloomfield, “We Will Remember Them: Report of the Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield KCB,” The Stationery Office Northern Ireland, April 1998.