A woman checks in with police at a security point

Design Professor Commemorates Forgotten History in Belfast

  • Apr 18, 2023

For more than two decades, anyone entering the Belfast City Centre was required to pass through the Ring of Steel, a series of security checkpoints and barricades set up during an era of ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland. This security cordon remained in place until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — finalized 25 years ago today, on April 18, 1998 — brokered peace in the region and practically erased all evidence of the former boundaries. 

While teaching in Milan in 2016, associate professor Kate Catterall in UT Austin Department of Design began working on her project, “Drawing the Ring of Steel.” She wanted to design an experience that would spark conversation between the older and younger generations in Ireland, remembering the lives lost during the conflict and celebrating those who carried those memories within them. 

Using design principles and methods, Catterall convinced a still-divided city that it was possible to remember a dark time together. Catterall drew plans of the barricades based on GPS estimates, Google Images, a period ordinance survey, newspaper photographs and site surveys. She then negotiated with the Belfast City Council to bring her project to fruition.  

“The cordon was hugely political, but nobody said a word about that,” said Kate Catterall, associate professor in the Department of Design, who was born in Belfast. 

On March 24, 2022, Catterall’s free 12-hour performative event took place at the four main checkpoints in and outside of the city center, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Ring of Steel’s construction.  

Some performers interviewed passersby to gather memories and stories of the Ring of Steel, while others directed pedestrians and enacted search-and-frisk motions at intervals. Passersby intermingled with performers, inhabiting history, contributing to, or observing, the event. 

“It engaged people across the age spectrum, the ability spectrum, the religious spectrum — you name it,” Catterall said. “We met people from every walk of life that day. And there was a real sort of festival feel to it. It was a reminder of back then and a celebration of the fact that the Ring of Steel was gone.”    

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