Culture, Conflict and Murals: The Irish Case

Bill Rolston

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Ireland, Colonisation and Politics

Although much less well-known, the mural tradition in the north of Ireland is as old as that in Mexico. However, the range of themes and styles in the Irish context is much more restricted than in Mexico. For a long time the murals that were painted reflected only one political point of view --unionism. To understand the mural movement in the north of Ireland, it is necessary to look historically at both the political and social context.

The colonial expansion of the British state took place over a number of centuries, and from an early stage affected Ireland. By the 17th century the part of Ireland least under British control was the north. As a result, a policy of 'plantation' was employed as the key strategy of pacification of the north. Colonists from England and Scotland were given the best land and built fortified towns. To compound matters, at the end of the 17th century a series of battles took place in Ireland between two contenders for the English crown, King James IV, the reigning monarch, and his opponent (and son-in-law) Prince William of Orange (in Holland), later King William III. Although not the most decisive of these battles, the one which became eventually the most celebrated was the Battle of the Boyne, which occurred in July, 1690.

Agitation for political independence from Britain was common from the time of the plantation on, and led to numerous attempts, military and political, by the British to contain insurgence. Thus, after the unsuccessful United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, the Act of Union was passed, creating the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland in 1801. This served to fashion political allegiances which exist to this day; thus unionists are those who wish to preserve the political link between Northern Ireland and Britain, and nationalists are those who wish to sever that link in favour of a united Ireland.1

The struggle for political independence reached a crescendo in the final years of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century. Key events in this struggle were the nationalist rebellion of 1916, the Easter Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. The British partitioned Ireland in 1921, creating two new states. In the south, the 'Irish Free State' had a semblance of independence, while in the north, 'Northern Ireland', power was in the hands of one party only, the unionists.

Nationalists were in many ways--socially, politically and culturally --relegated to the margins of society. Eventually, nationalist demands for equality led to the Civil Rights campaign of the late 1960s. The failure of the unionist government to concede any reforms spurred the British government to send in troops to restore order in 1969. It also led to the re-emergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), political descendants of those who had fought the British in 1916. It was only a short time before the IRA and British Army were involved in a low-intensity war. The loyalists were not to be left out; the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defense Association (UDA) both engaged in military action aimed in the main at terrorising the entire nationalist community. For a quarter of a century the activities of these three sets of armies constituted what was euphemistically referred to as 'the Northern Ireland troubles'.


Murals in the North of Ireland

In the midst of the political turmoil which led to the establishment of the Northern Ireland state, working-class loyalists began to paint murals; the first was in East Belfast in 1908, and depicted the Battle of the Boyne. With the emergence and consolidation of the Northern Ireland state, murals became an integral part of the annual celebrations of this event on July 12 (known as 'the Twelfth'). King Billy, as he is affectionately referred to, riding his white horse across the River Boyne, was the most common icon, although other historical events of loyalist relevance were sometimes painted. Flags, shields and other heraldic imagery were also common.

The Twelfth represented the 'imagined community' of unionism in its purest form; what if unionist workers were at loggerheads with unionist bosses at other times of the year, at least once a year they were able to celebrate as one big unionist family. Murals were a key element in celebrating and indeed creating that unity. In that sense they were more like medieval murals than those of Mexico which had emerged at around the same time.2 In fact, it is likely that loyalist murals are unique in this century, emanating as they do from a political ideology committed to conservatism and the maintenance of the status quo rather than liberation, anti-imperialism and socialism.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the penetration of transnational capital, which weakened the base of local, unionist capital, British moves to reform the Northern Ireland state, and finally the military campaign of the IRA called unionist identity into question. This became evident on the walls. The number of murals declined, in particular those depicting King Billy. The heraldic murals continued, but eventually a new form of murals emerged, which is now the most common form of loyalist imagery: the militaristic mural. Men wearing balaclavas and brandishing AK47s, rocket launchers, etc. abound, and the accompanying slogans are frequently chilling. Loyalism under siege has produced the narrowest possible set of symbols and messages in its political art.

For most of the existence of the Northern Ireland state, republicans did not paint murals. The state was founded on unionist privilege and dominance, and the streets were policed by the unionist police force. Although nationalists and republicans frequently protested their second- class citizenship and discrimination, they did not have access to the walls, even those of their own ghettos.

The republican hunger strike of 1981 changed all that. The strike was conducted by republican prisoners seeking prisoner of war status, and it led eventually to the deaths of ten prisoners. Countless nationalists and republicans took to the streets in support of the prison protest, and part of that expropriation of public space was the painting of murals in support of the prisoners.3 The early republican murals related to the hunger strike and to the armed struggle of the IRA. With the ending of the hunger strike, republican muralists turned to other themes: state repression, popular resistance, republican election campaigns and international solidarity being the most common. Throughout these developments there was the fluctuating but regular appearance of militaristic symbols in the murals. Like the loyalists, republicans paraded their hooded men and weapons. The difference, however, was that, given the greater range of themes in republican murals, the militaristic images have never dominated republican imagery to the same extent as they have on the loyalist side.

The existence of such murals revealed the centrality of 'armed struggle' in the republican strategy. But it is important to note that the anti-imperialist message was also articulated in the international solidarity murals. Republican muralists have found echoes of their own struggle in those of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), the Southwest African People's Organisation and the Sandinistas. Nelson Mandela, Ché Guevara, Zapata and Lenin have all been seen on the walls of West Belfast and Derry. It is in this regard that republican murals differ most from those of loyalists. Loyalism has few international references; some of those (such as white rule in South Africa) are no longer in the ascendant, and none of them are noted for their political art.


Political Art, Political Transition

In February 1990, as the end of apartheid drew near in South Africa, Albie Sachs, political activist and victim of a state terrorist murder attempt, addressed some provocative thoughts on culture to his fellow members of the ANC. He argued for a moratorium on the use of the metaphor of 'culture as a weapon', a metaphor which he admitted he had himself used frequently in the past. 'A gun is a gun, and if it were full of contradictions, it would fire in all sorts of directions and be useless for its purpose', he argued. Art and literature, on the other hand, deal in ambiguity and complexity. Artists need to explore the world around them in all its complexity, and this includes artists who are members of the liberation movement. However, such a subtle task is not one to which they are accustomed.

'Instead of getting real criticism, we get solidarity criticism. Our artists are not pushed to improve the quality of their work; it is enough that it be politically correct. The more fists and spears and guns, the better'.4

Coming from anyone less respected, such criticisms could have been tantamount to disloyalty. But Sachs's purpose was to challenge the liberation movement, and specifically its artists, to see a new role for themselves in the transition to a new South Africa.

Four years after this speech, Nelson Mandela was in office as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. And in the same year the Irish Republican Army called a cease-fire in a political move to facilitate inclusive negotiations which would, in their view, lead to a British withdrawal and the establishment of new structures in Ireland which were agreed by all Irish people. Loyalist armed groups later called a cease-fire also. Like South Africa at the time of Sachs's article, Ireland seemed to have entered a new phase, a phase of transition.

Ireland has its cultural critics too, perhaps not of the same stature as Sachs, but making similar criticisms from within the anti-imperialist movement. Gathered around organisations such as Derry Frontline and 2020 Vision (also in Derry), a group of community activists, artists and young people discussed the role of culture in the liberation struggle in April 1991.

. . . republican culture might provide a minority with a sense of solidarity and history. But while it defines itself merely as Brits Out, it remains purely oppositional, contradictory, and offers no vision of the future. As such, it cannot claim the status of a liberation culture. But at the same time, we shouldn't undervalue our culture of resistance. . . . it has the potential to become the motivation that will develop and sustain a culture of liberation.5

Similar political situations, similar criticisms. The question is: what, if any, is the role of political artists in the new climate in Ireland?


The Tension between Propaganda and Complexity

The first point to make is that such criticisms need not lead to a rejection of the previous period and its cultural products. In the heat of struggle, especially when there is armed insurrection and state repression, the atmosphere is not particularly conducive to artistic subtlety. While the war rages, political art is indeed a weapon. The current war in Ireland has lasted a quarter of a century, and there is, as of the time of writing, no guarantee that the British government will be imaginative enough or enthusiastic enough to facilitate rapid political change, despite the unique opportunity they have been presented with as a result of the republican and loyalist cease-fires. There is thus some debate about whether the war is in fact over, or, as slogans on militaristic republican murals in south Armagh state, merely 'on hold'. Given that, there are limits to the possibility of political artists breaking out of the more narrowly propagandistic view that 'art is a weapon' and moving on to more subtle and complex considerations of what the vision of the future might be. There may be no urgency to cease painting the guns, uniforms and hooded men which, in the South African context, Sachs judges to be passé, and which have been prominent in Irish murals.

There is a further constraint on the possibilities of moving from simple messages to complex investigations in the Irish case. Most of the muralists on both sides in the north of Ireland are untrained. Yet they have, in the pursuit of political education and agitation, espoused an art form which requires certain levels of skill, namely figurative and narrative painting. Moreover, it is often difficult for untrained muralists to transfer their articulate and well-rehearsed political views into visual form without opting for over-used clichés. Despite these limitations, it must be said that the criticism of the political muralists comes most often from those who have a political axe to grind, either in the form of representing a competing political party or ideology, or voicing the opinions of the art establishment. The latter will often dismiss muralists because they know nothing about the intricacies of contemporary art nor have a formal training, failing to recognise that there is often great skill in the art works that the muralists produce.6

A third point follows, that often those who reject the murals fail to take the time to look closely at them, and thus miss their complexity. Like advertisements which appear brash, blunt and unsubtle, political murals are viewed as bludgeoning the unsympathetic viewer; but, also similar to advertisements, which have perfected the art of telling complex stories in deceptively simple ways, political murals often can make very profound points simply. The complexity is thus often in the eye of the beholder. For example, it is possible to look at a mural commemorating the death of a plastic bullet victim and see only soldiers, guns and innocent children, an apparent collection of simplistic clichés. But if the victim was a friend, neighbour or relative of the viewer, then its apparently simple message can conjure up a myriad of emotions and considerations about life, death, the state, justice, etc. The complex message of a mural is evident in situ;7 it is those who do not share the aspirations, grief and living conditions of the people who live in the neighbourhoods where murals are painted who can most easily dismiss them as lacking in subtlety.


Murals in a Time of Transition

As well as being the year of the cease-fire, 1994 was the 25th anniversary of the deployment of British troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry. Even before the cease-fire, there was an upsurge of republican murals, most of which referred in one way or other to this anniversary (such as the reproduction of a black-and-white photograph from 1969, which showed a young Derry boy with gas mask and petrol bomb). Republican muralists also used the occasion to point out that twenty-five years was long enough and that it was time for the British to go home; in Gaelic, 'slán abhaile' means in effect 'goodbye'.

This trend continued after the cease-fire, with variations of the 'slán abhaile' mural appearing in Belfast, Derry and south of Newry, on the border. To first appearances this might seem to be an obsession with the past. But it must be stressed that it is a case of looking back in order to look forward. As human rights activists in former dictatorships in Latin America examine the brutality of the past in order to proclaim 'nunca más', so republican muralists are stating that the future must be different from the past--no more troops, repressive laws, censorship and prisons full of political activists.


Boy with petrol bomb and gas mask, painted for the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside, Bogside, Derry, 1994. Photographs of murals by Bill Rolston

Of course, this is not quite the same as painting a detailed vision of the future, but there are limits to articulating that vision at the moment. As pointed out earlier, there is no guarantee that the war is in fact over and that there is a different future to be both articulated and painted. Moreover, the task ahead is not an easy one for republicans. They have acquired great skills of expression and persuasion while in opposition, but they have to go further, to turn slogans into policies, and general aspirations into programmatic statements that can hold up in the heat of political debate. They will have to hold on to their beliefs and principles, and forge alliances with others north and south, socialist, feminist, nationalist and unionist, who agree with them. To the extent that they can do this, there will be many themes for republican muralists.

The prospects seem more limited for unionists. While the British guarantee of the Union remains, they can continue to stay true to traditional form, in effect saying 'no' to any political progress. Conversely, if political developments lead to the removal of that guarantee, the effect will be to fragment unionism. This is a scary prospect for most unionists. But in the long run, the break-up of unionism must be good for unionists. For too many years unionism has been portrayed as a monolith with a very narrow range of voices. The nuances have been lost. There are a thousand unionist voices to be heard, and they will not be heard until unionists are forced to say what they want, not what they don't want. If and when that day comes, there will be many themes for loyalist muralists too.

The reaction of loyalist muralists to the peace process is not yet inspiring. They continue to paint militaristic murals, often with the accompanying message that the war against the IRA will go on. Some see in such reactions proof that unionism is virtually incapable of culture in any broad sense of the word.8 The question is whether what has been true of the past must necessarily be true of the future. Such narrowness of artistic imagination and expression is indicative of the siege mentality of unionism. There is a wide range of issues in unionist communities which theoretically could find expression in murals, but while the siege mentality persists, there is merely silence.

One telling indication of the contrast between confident republicanism and besieged loyalism comes from Derry. In 1993, an education officer attached to Orchard Gallery had the idea of persuading republican muralists to paint a mural on boards which could be hung--and could survive!--in a loyalist area, in return for loyalist muralists painting a mural to be hung in a republican area. While he got the agreement of republican muralists, who had even proceeded to the point of discussing a possible theme for the mural, loyalist muralists could not agree to cooperate. Interestingly, the plan was resurrected after the cease-fires of 1994, although, as of the time of writing, no definite agreement on schedule or theme has been reached.

What could the theme of such murals be? The example of California shows what is possible where muralists who are rooted in their communities ('organic intellectuals', to use Gramsci's phrase) tackle issues of importance to those communities. Unemployment, women's rights, drugs, ethnic history and pride, international issues--these and other themes have been to the fore. It is not totally unrealistic to hope that such themes could emerge in the north of Ireland. Some have already been treated by republican muralists, and loyalist muralists have a long history of mural painting which might blossom if released from the narrow confines of the past.



1 In addition, loyalists are militant unionists, while republicans are militant nationalists. The bulk of unionists are Protestant, while the majority of nationalists are Catholic.

2 Unlike the murals of the Italian Renaissance which expressed the commonly held beliefs of both rulers and masses, the Mexican murals portrayed the ideology of a worker, peasant and middle class revolution against the former ruling class: capitalists, clergy and foreign interests. Since that time, in the eyes of many, the contemporary muralist has been identified with poor people, revolution and communism. "Introduction," in Eva Sperling Cockcroft and Holly Barnet-Sanchez, eds., Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals (Venice, Calif.: SPARC and Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), p. 6.

3 See Bill Rolston, Drawing Support: Murals in the North of Ireland (Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 1992).

4 Albie Sachs, "Preparing Ourselves for Freedom: The ANC and Cultural Policy," Red Letters, no. 29 (1991): 8.

5 The 2020 Papers (Derry, N. Ireland: Derry Frontline, 1994), p. 12.

6 On the almost total failure of established artists to 'do their bit' for political insurgents on either side in the North of Ireland (unlike in the case of Mexico in the 1920s or Nicaragua in the 1980s), see Bill Rolston, Politics of Painting: Murals and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Cranberry, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1991), pp. 51-54.

7 Although it is not necessary to conclude that "(T)aken out of context it would be difficult to find any real merit in these works," it is undoubtedly true that "(T)heir strength lies primarily in their location and their relationship to it." Philip Pocock and Gregory Battcock, The Obvious Illusion: Murals from the Lower East Side (New York: George Braziller, 1980), p. 12.

8 'Unsurprisingly, most artists and writers who have emerged from Ulster Protestantism have tended to move away--physically and mentally--from the world that bred them. . . . To remain is to be enclosed in a world where "culture" is restricted to little more than flute bands, Orange marches and the chanting of sectarian slogans at football matches.' Ronan Bennett, "An Irish Answer," The Guardian Weekend, 16 July 1994, p. 55.

"Slán Abhaile," 25th anniversary of the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, Ardoyne, Belfast, 1994


"Time for Peace, Time to Go," 25th anniversary of deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, Ballymurphy, Belfast, 1994


"Release Republican Political Prisoners," Bogside, Derry, 1994


Armed members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, East Belfast, 1994





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