Murals in Northern Ireland occupy a highly contested space. Created by both Protestant and Catholic communities, political murals proliferated during the decades known as the Troubles – an ethnonationalist conflict centered around the status of Northern Ireland. Republicans, largely Catholic, sought a unified Irish state, while Unionists, largely protestant, wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Drawing on significant cultural themes, republicans and unionists both painted murals to display territory, cultural memory, and identity. These murals were inherently political, sectarian, and oftentimes violent. In a post-conflict society, Is there value in these murals? Ultimately, because they are an interesting tool to question the conflict, the narratives each side created, and the peace process, there is.
Northern Ireland’s cultural landscape is unique due to the nature of its society. Protestant and Catholic communities used cultural expressions, such as flags, curbstone painting, and later, murals, to reinforce the sectarian division of space. Protestant mural production originated with the Orange Order and July 12th celebrations of the victory of “King Billy” at the Battle of the Boyne. Specifically, a mural painted in 1908 shifted the tradition of celebration onto gable walls to be viewed all year long instead of just the one day. Protestants painted other themes in the early twentieth-century, but unionist solidarity, British imperial power, biblical stories, and “King Billy” predominated, even before the partition of Ireland. Unionist murals tended to have a consistent “heraldic style” relying on a discrete number of symbols and symbolic objects. Conversely, Catholic murals varied greatly in style and subject, but have a much shorter history in Northern Ireland’s culture. Catholic nationalists had little opportunity to paint murals until the late 1960s. Public space was presumed to be unionist, Protestant, and British, and legislation prevented “any ostensible representations of Nationalist politics and culture.” In the context of the civil rights movement and new political claims, Catholic mural painting began
Primarily, Northern Ireland’s murals can help trace the conflict and the communities involved. Both sides created murals to transmit political messages, mobilize their communities, and generate awareness for their terrorist and political campaigns. Murals were both useful political tools and visually recorded the conflict. Given that established art was self-censored, and thus, gave no indication of the Troubles whatsoever, murals offer a unique and invaluable cultural perspective on the conflict. They are a rare source to examine how each community viewed the conflict and the narratives they constructed, while also being a part of the engagement itself. Muralists understood themselves as political actors who painted, just as others marched, picketed, wrote and shared information, or carried weapons. Political mural culture is a crucial visual representation of the Troubles and gave each community the ability to express their discontents and understanding of the conflict.
This was particularly important and taken advantage of by Catholic nationalists. Republican hunger striking campaigns in the 1980s to gain political prisoner status stimulated an extensive mural movement. In particular, the death of Bobby Sands led to this new tradition in republican culture. Practically overnight, murals proliferated in nationalist communities, supporting the hunger strikers, their political claims, and the republican movement. The themes of these murals later expanded to incorporate Irish history and express solidarity with other “divided societies”. These murals functioned as an important source of resistance and cultural unity for the community, and ultimately an important communication channel during the conflict. Furthermore, the media censored much republican ideology and murals offered a crucial opportunity to forward their political message. International media spread images of Northern Ireland’s streets while reporting on the conflict, thus facilitating a medium – murals – for the IRA to transmit its goals, identity, and ideology to the world. Speaking in 2011 about the IRA and its use of murals during the Troubles, Irish artist, Brian McCarthy explained, “It’s control, it’s territory, it’s Public Relations, that’s all that is…It’s propaganda.” Murals became a significant component of republican campaigns, allowing leaders to garner community support and spread propaganda beyond their neighbourhoods. The murals represented Catholic grievances, historical events, and IRA mentality, and as such, offer invaluable insight into their understanding of the conflict – a perspective lost in other mediums due to censorship and public repression of Catholics and republicanism in Northern Ireland.
Similarly, the 1980s were also a significant turning point in mural culture among Protestant communities. The Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 catalyzed unionist murals in a violent and militaristic direction. In response to Ireland’s increased ability to have input on Northern Ireland’s affairs, Protestant murals became increasingly filled with paramilitary symbols and imagery. Previously, unionist murals claimed to speak for an entire working-class community, but with this political shift, they became explicitly loyalist. “King Billy” no longer adorned walls, and instead, representations of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) or Ulster Defence Association (UDA), usually featuring members wearing ski masks and brandishing weapons, became the overriding image. For instance, a series of murals named “Ulster’s Freedom Corner” in East Belfast reflect a growing impatience and militancy among younger Ulster Protestants (https://www.virtualbelfastmuraltour.com/ulster-freedom-corner-mural.htm) The phrase, “tomorrow belongs to us”, is proudly stated on a banner for a mural in support of a loyalist youth group. Further down, among these murals, “The Ulster conflict is about nationality this we shall maintain” is stated alongside the Welsh, Scottish, English, and Ulster flags with the Union Flag in the centre. A separate mural on Castlereagh Road in Belfast depicts three armed and masked men and the phrase “For God and Ulster” (https://www.virtualbelfastmuraltour.com/for-god-and-ulster-mural.htm). Taken in conversation with additional unionist murals, these images and slogans show the extent to which contestation in Northern Ireland is varied and complex. Moreover, unionist paramilitary groups borrowed liberally from British military iconography. This particular incorporation of British culture reflects unionist beliefs that they were acting as an extension of the state. In fact, loyalists viewed their murals as “an expression of civic responsibility.” Unionist paramilitaries viewed their violence as helping the British state, which is restricted by law, tackle republican terrorism. Again, murals provide an interesting point to examine paramilitary mentality, tactics, and understanding of the conflict.
This analysis of mural imagery can be extended further to explore the types of narratives each side constructed during the Troubles and continue to forward in a post-conflict society. Beyond detailing historical facts and paramilitary strategy, political murals in Northern Ireland provide an indication of how both communities attempted to portray themselves in relation to the conflict and each other. While republican murals depicted masked IRA members with guns, this was one theme in a larger repertoire of cultural imagery. The use of other themes allowed the IRA to effectively hide their propaganda and subtly forward their understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Some of the earliest republican murals of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers made an effort to depict them as “victims of a brutal system” rather than participants in a violent engagement. For instance, a mural on Sevastopol Street in Belfast depicts Sands bordered by breaking chains and birds (https://www.virtualbelfastmuraltour.com/bobby-sands-mural.htm). These decorative choices are highly symbolic; the hunger strikers are clearly portrayed as breaking free of a repressive system. Furthermore, republicans increasingly appealed to international themes. Murals relating to South Africa, East Timor, Nicaragua, and Palestine, or featuring individuals like Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X were common in republican areas. In particular, the West Falls Road murals in Belfast are a striking example. One mural depicts Irish and Palestinian flags with the phrases, “free all political prisoners”, “end internment”, and “end administrative detention” (https://www.virtualbelfastmuraltour.com/the-falls-road-wall-mural.htm). Republicans are drawing a clear comparison between their imprisonment by the British and Palestinian political prisoners in Israel, such as Bilal Kayed. Right beside this image, is Leonard Peltier, an American indigenous activist, who many consider to be wrongly imprisoned in the United States. Along with his likeness are the lyrics to an Irish ballad relating the events of the Easter Uprising, which encourages the Irish to fight for Ireland instead of Britain. Effectively, Irish republicans endeared themselves to other cultural groups, painting themselves as a wronged party with who the international community could identify. In this regard, murals indicate the IRA’s intense (and overly simplistic) belief that British colonialism in Ireland was the cause of the Troubles.
Republican muralists also called on history and mythology, depicting episodes of Irish victimhood and resistance, such as the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 and explicitly the 1916 Easter Rising. Further, in 1997 the IRA commissioned a commemorative mural for the 150th anniversary of the worst years of the Irish Famine. The intentions were clear; the murals were to emphasize Irish innocence and Protestant wrongdoing. Muralists also made an effort to document more recent history and commemorate the lives lost during the Troubles. Maximilian Rapp and Markus Rhomberg forward that, “commemoration murals were designed with an additional message to influence the subconsciousness and make clear that the Protestants are guilty of various war crimes.” A mural on Islandbawn Street in Belfast decries Britain’s imposition of “civil order” (See https://www.virtualbelfastmuraltour.com/civil-order-mural.htm). The mural matter-of-factly states, “since 1970 seventeen people killed – including 8 children,” above the image of each of these individuals’ faces, with their names and ages. The faces are painted on the plastic bullets used by British forces to maintain civil order. These are clearly victims of the British state. Similarly, a mural on Donore Court, Belfast depicts the “New Lodge Six” as innocent men “murdered by the British Army 1973” (https://www.virtualbelfastmuraltour.com/the-newlodge-six-mural.htm). In this image, these men were murdered, instead of just having died as a product of the conflict. In this way, the murals served as unique propagandist images and constructed a clear republican narrative of Irish history, without focusing on the armed struggle. Examining the conflict through their murals, it is abundantly clear that republicans presented the Troubles as a colonial struggle, positioning themselves as innocent and resisting British subjugation.
This narrative construction has increasingly interesting implications in a supposedly post-conflict society and played a role in the peace process. Leading up to the Good Friday agreement, republicans directed murals to express their innocence, but also that the conflict would not end while British forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) continued to patrol. Rapp and Rhomberg observe:
”Images against the use of plastic-bullets from the RUC as well as murals about collusion, the composition of security forces and loyalists paramilitary organizations, were painted and […] address[ed] all Catholics not to be content with the milestone on Good Friday, but to demand the disorganization of the RUC and the drawback of British troops from Northern Ireland.”
These murals point to the ongoing tension in Northern Ireland, despite ceasefire. Even more so, unionist murals during the peace process and after indicate the complex mentality of society. While the Good Friday agreement signified a shift away from explicitly militaristic imagery in republican mural painting, loyalist murals became increasingly belligerent and intense. Loyalists saw the agreement almost as a betrayal by this state; this is reflected in their murals. Even after ceasefire in October 1994, masked gunmen and violent iconography dominated new unionist murals. Conversely, republican muralists, on their own initiative, removed weapons from past murals, and all new murals depicting IRA members were memorials for specific individuals and demonstrated their role in the community, rather than a general threat to Protestants. The differing approaches to post-peace imagery indicate the different motivations and tactics of the two paramilitary communities. Republicans attempted to relate to larger international themes, integrating themselves into a narrative of colonial oppression and resistance, rather than continuing to accomplish their goals through intimidation. The lack of changed iconography in loyalist murals points to an ambivalence towards the peace process and a continued warning to politicians and republicans during the negotiations and after. Implicit in their imagery is the message that with endurance will come victory. “No Surrender” and “Ulster Says No” continue to hold significant space in Northern Ireland. Painted initially in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the fact that these slogans remain speaks deeply to the continuing tension in society. Looking at these two very different approaches to political murals in post-conflict Northern Ireland, it becomes increasingly clear there are two conflicting claims to reality, which are mutually exclusive.
In sum, negotiations over the division of space and nature of post-conflict society in Northern Ireland are still ongoing. Political murals offer an interesting way to explore this long history and think about implications for the future. As a part of paramilitary campaigns and community assertions of identity and history, political murals preserve the mentalities, experiences, and constructed stories of both major communities during a period of major change and instability in Northern Ireland.