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The Writing on the Wall: Continuity and Change as Represented in the Republican Murals of West Belfast

Michael Buckley

    On 27 October 1980, seven political dissidents in Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, began a hunger strike to protest their treatment by the British correctional authorities. Republicans by birth and by allegiance, these seven and their fellows sought to end the partition of their country into a British north and Irish south, envisioning the political, economic, and cultural independence of all thirty-two counties of Ireland. In Catholic West Belfast, a stronghold of Republicanism and its attendant paramilitary organizations, the plight of the hunger strikers became a cause célèbre, engendering widespread political and paramilitary activism. Republicans and their sympathizers publicly pressed the issue of prison reform by both time-tested modes of agitation, including picketing and terrorist bombing, and a new, more experimental medium: the mural. Although initially modest in scope and quality, these murals proved both popular and effective in the long term. In the months following October 1980, the Republicans of West Belfast (Map I) transformed their drab, working-class neighborhoods into colorful tapestries of politics and history, with even the curbs of the sidewalks painted in the green, white, and orange of the Irish tricolor. Ultimately, their work became among the most potent and poetic public expressions of the subtleties of Republicanism. As radical nationalists, Republicans have a strong sense of their own legitimacy and identity: why they must fight and for whom, respectively. The products of a long-standing preoccupation with continuity and ancestry, these facets of Republicanism have limited flexibility at best. However, like any viable ideology, Republicanism must and does adapt itself to internal and external influences, even against the rigidity of legitimacy and identity. The murals reflect these often conflicting aspects of Republicanism, representing continuity with the past and Catholic, Gaelic identity on the one hand, and more recent realignments with terrorism and international socialism on the other (1).

    Republicans believe that their legitimacy ultimately proceeds from continuity: a seamless, familial connection with the radical nationalism of the past. They conceive of this continuity not in terms of years, but of generations, as in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916:

Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom. . . . In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty. [S]ix times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms (2).

Republicans of the 1920s and later have encapsulated these passages of the Proclamation in a shorter catch phrase, "A rising in each generation." Rather than an intangible political ethos, Republicanism becomes a family, bound by nationalism and the willingness to "assert itself in arms." In cyclical fashion, each generation inherits, asserts, and bequeaths this revolutionary impetus: yesterday's Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood engenders today's Easter Rising, which in turn engenders tomorrow's Irish Republican Army. In this conceptual framework, legitimacy, defined as the right to exist in a specific station or role, arises by two functionally interdependent processes, the intrinsic and extrinsic. First, Republicans understand the "armed struggle" as a birthright, akin to a hereditary title or an estate held within one family for generations. The rightness or wrongness of his politics aside, the modern Republican has an intrinsic prerogative to revolt by virtue of his very birth. Tim Pat Coogan, a prominent Irish journalist, speculates that even if partition and British occupation came to an end, "some Republicans somewhere would still claim to be the lawful inheritors of Ireland's revolutionary traditions" (3). Second, any other indication of legitimacy, such as a public vote of confidence in the movement and its methods, is incorporated into the Republican heritage; the extrinsic, in that it originates in the community at large as opposed to within the Republican family itself, becomes the intrinsic. For example, Republicans of today still cite the election of the First Dáil Éireann in 1918 as the proof of their "mandate" (4). Outside this conceptual framework, the central tenets of Republicanism do command an absolute moral authority, especially in the light of Western political philosophy. Wilson's "Fourteen Points," the Atlantic Charter, and the United Nations all bear out national self-determination and anti-imperialism, the two halves of the heart of Republicanism. However, while doubtlessly cognizant of this "absolutism," Republicans still defer primarily to the familial model as the basis of legitimacy.

    In practice, the nearly religious veneration of past revolutionaries maintains and propagates this Republican family. For example, each issue of the Wolfe Tone Annual, a popular publication of the 1940s and 1950s, glorifies a particular Republican hero, emphasizing not only that individual's personal qualities and accomplishments, but also his or her part in the transmission of the revolutionary impetus between generations. Couched in passionate grandiloquence, these biographies liken such "ancestor figures" to saints. Editor Brian O'Higgins writes of John Mitchel, a leader of the Young Ireland movement of the late 1840s:

He was the greatest man of his time in all the virtues and good qualities that inspire youth and unbought manhood, and if the Separatist faith and tradition have been carried into our own day by the sacrifices of the Fenians and of the men who learned from them the gospel of nationhood, to John Mitchel, under the good God in Heaven, let praise and thanks be accorded. Whoever doubts the truth of this, let him read Mitchel again . . . and study every single thing connected with his life of unselfishness, of sacrifice, of suffering, of sorrow, of unblemished patriotism. . . . No greater, truer man has ever lived and fought and died for Ireland (5).

O'Higgins attributes to Mitchel both personal and Republican virtues; his "selflessness" complements his "patriotism" such that he becomes an "unblemished" vessel of the "gospel of nationhood." Through Mitchel, O'Higgins can actually blend individual Christian virtues with Republicanism, reinforcing the politics of the latter with the personal morality of the former. Simultaneously, he credits Mitchel with the successful dissemination of Republicanism from the Young Irelanders to the Fenians and onward, recalling the familial continuity so integral to legitimacy. In the synthesis of these two representations, Mitchel emerges as a "saintly ancestor," an Abraham Lincoln of Republicanism with a more Catholic and less folksy aura. By the 1950s, a cult had grown up around Mitchel and other such ancestors, including Theobald Wolfe Tone, Pádraig Pearse, and James Connolly.

    Through the efforts of O'Higgins and other propagandists, the cult of ancestors lends practical and moral substance to the abstraction, "A rising in each generation." On the one hand, the ancestors flesh out the Republican pedigree: modern Republicans can identify one or more ancestors with each rising, and therefore each generation. They can easily trace or represent their Republican heritage with images or symbols that suggest the appropriate ancestors. On the other hand, the cult of ancestors infuses Republicanism with a personal morality absent from its politics. Whatever the storied history or absolute rightness of national self-determination and anti-imperialism, they do not necessarily inform upon or compensate for the personal morality of their proponents, another important influence on public opinion and extrinsic legitimacy. Despite Charles Stewart Parnell's adherence to nationalism, a failing of personal morality (his long-standing relationship with a married woman) ended his political career as well as a generation's hopes of Home Rule. The cult of ancestors fills this void in Republicanism by interweaving the personal and political, the saintly and the nationalist, as in the quotation on John Mitchel. However, investing the political with personal morality has its disadvantages. Grandiosities about "selflessness and trueness" apply directly to the ancestors, but only obliquely to their descendants: O'Higgins' readers expect the best of modern Republicanism because of its distinguished roots, but present expectations have only a modicum of the moral authority of past realities (6). Moreover, to achieve moral parity with the past, the present must actually meet these expectations, a difficult prospect in light of O'Higgins' penchant for exaggeration. In the final analysis, the cult of ancestors strengthens the morality and politics of the past, the wellspring of legitimacy, but also sets an unrealistic standard for the present.

    In the 1980s, when their murals first appeared in West Belfast, Republicans had the same concerns about continuity and ancestry as their predecessors. In Free Ireland, a manifesto of Republicanism that he first published in 1986, Gerry Adams "traces the IRA's ancestry" to before the Easter Rising:

Óglaigh na hÉireann [the Army of Ireland] takes its historical and organisational origins from the forces which engaged in the Easter Rising of 1916, though one can trace its ancestry much further back. . . . All of [the] elements [of Republicanism] were crystallised in the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 and developed further in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. These documents have never been implemented . . . yet they are as relevant today as they were when their basic principles were conceived (7).

Like O'Higgins, Adams repeatedly invokes the cult of ancestors as a complement to these claims of continuity. He quotes Wolfe Tone on England, "the never failing source of all our political evils," and introduces his chapter on Irish language and culture with Pádraig Pearse's poem "Mise Éire" (8). In Catholic Belfast at large, Tone, Pearse and company still commanded considerable respect. In a 1989 public opinion survey in Divis Flats, a housing project in the Lower Falls, several of the respondents reminisced about the IRA of the past, especially its high standards of personal conduct. Jeffrey Sluka, the author of the survey, writes:

To hear many people, one might think that in the past all IRA men were saints. They often tell of how difficult it was to join the IRA "in the old days." Prospective IRA Volunteers were required to have character references, they could not have any sort of criminal record, and they were required to go through a probationary period before they were finally accepted into the organization (9).

For their part, the murals reflected and reinforced both the Republican leadership's concerns about continuity and the community's deference for the cult of ancestors. Culled from the ranks of Sinn Féin Youth, the muralists simply painted in accordance with the propaganda dispensed on the streets by polemics like Adams and in the home by relatives and friends. In turn, their work became part of the propaganda itself in a self-perpetuating cycle of mutual reinforcement.

    However, disagreements over the extent of continuity did complicate this symbiosis between the Republican leadership, community, and muralist. Republican leaders like Adams valued the past more for how it reflected on the present, how it provided for their own legitimacy. In Free Ireland, Adams plies continuity and ancestry time and again, but mostly to advance the Sinn Féin and IRA of today and tomorrow. By contrast, the Republican community at large appreciated the past for its own sake, waxing nostalgic for a "golden age" of Republican gallantry. In its less utilitarian view of history, it not only compared, but also contrasted the past and present: on the one hand, it considered Adams and company the rightful heirs to the Republican legacy; on the other, it felt their chivalry somewhat lacking in light of the precedent of the cult of ancestors:

[The residents of Divis Flats] say that today it is easier to join the IRA and INLA [Irish National Liberation Army], and some people think that the character and moral fiber of the Volunteers has declined in the current campaign (10).

The cult of ancestors had indeed set a standard that the present could not seem to meet. If anything, this conflict of historical perception strengthened the representation of continuity in the murals. In pursuit of parity with the ancestors, and therefore the unqualified support of the community, Republican leaders stressed political and moral continuity more than they may have under more confident circumstances: what better way to escape the stigma of the "prodigal son" than to reaffirm fealty to the example and memory of one's forefathers? Their charges in Sinn Féin Youth translated this excess concern into the predominant theme of their murals.

    Continuity manifests itself in Republican murals primarily by three devices, the explicit, ancestral, and heraldic (11). In the explicit, the muralist draws the connection with the past as expressly as possible with both literal and figurative representations of Republicanism, as in this example on Islandbawn Street in the Lower Falls (Image I). On the left, identifiable by the adjacent graffito "1916," the rebel of the Easter Rising leans on a rifle of the First World War variety, outfitted in gray uniform and knee-high boots. Opposite on the right, the modern guerrilla in his camouflage fatigues wields a machine gun, complete with bipod extended below the muzzle. A banner reading "Oglaigh na hEireann," or "the Army of Ireland," runs across the top, with a tricolor and the graffito "Saoirse," or "Freedom," beneath (12). Along the bottom, another banner reads, "We are here to stay." In terms of visual symbolism, the IRA, as represented literally by the banner "Oglaigh na hEireann," spans both "then" and "now." As two moments in the same history, "then" and "now" fight under the same flag toward the same goal: the tricolor and freedom, respectively. Only the military hardware has changed, as evidenced by the modern guerrilla's relatively more sophisticated dress and weaponry. The rebel and guerrilla themselves lend humanity to this continuum, in accordance with Republicanism's familial concept of history. In their absence, only the graffitos "1916" and "1982" would mark the passage of time. However, in their presence, one can identify each date with a representative human figure: the "generations" that have born and passed on the revolutionary impetus. The banner "We are here to stay" summarizes and reinforces the visual symbolism. Though the explicit appears least frequently of the three primary devices of continuity, it communicates the intended theme simply and effectively.

    With the ancestral device, the muralist conveys continuity by invoking past revolutionary heroes: the cult of ancestors. This example from Turf Lodge, a predominantly Catholic neighborhood south and west of the Falls, recalls the martyrs of 1916 (Image II). In the lower left, against the backdrop of the tricolor, Pádraig Pearse looks away into the distance, presented in profile as in his photograph in the Irish Times' "1916 Rebellion Handbook" (13). Opposite, in the lower right, a mustached and slightly balding James Connolly stands before the "starry plough," the flag of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen Army (14). Between them, in the foreground, a flaming wand or sword extends from the southeast to the northwest of an appropriately green Ireland. The banner above reads "Éire saor ó lár go farraige," or "Ireland free from center to sea." In terms of the cult of ancestors, Pearse and Connolly rightfully enjoy exalted status: together, they wrote the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, one of the formative documents of Republicanism; both died in the spate of executions that followed the Easter Rising. Superficially, the mural honors Pearse and Connolly like the monuments to famous heads of state found in capitols world-wide: the present expresses gratitude to the past both for its contributions to and sacrifices for a political ideology. However, to those familiar with the cult of ancestors, Pearse and Connolly have wider significance. First, they serve as prime movers in the transmission of revolutionary impetus through the generations, and therefore as founders of legitimacy. Second, their moral authority, though a product of propaganda, strengthens the very continuity that flows from them: the modern Republican can boast not only of his forefathers' politics, but also of their character. In light of the Republican cult of ancestors, the memorial to Pearse and Connolly honors not only a legacy of politics, but of family and morality, both of which inform on the legitimacy of the present. The symbol of the flaming sword poetically encapsulates the ancestral device as a whole: though Pearse and Connolly have passed away, their spirit continues to burn in Ireland in the person of the modern Republican.

    The third device of interest, the heraldic, employs past and present symbols of Republicanism, such as flags and other emblems, to communicate continuity. In this example from Kashmir Road in the Lower Falls, the muralist associates modern Republicanism with heraldry dating from as far back as the eighteenth century (Image III). In the foreground, the generic modern guerrilla, with his signature camouflage fatigues and gray hood, takes aim with his assault rifle. Behind him is a large tricolor, famously raised over Dublin during the Easter Rising and now the flag of both the Twenty-six Counties and modern Republicanism. To the left are the starry plough, the flag of the IRB, and the pike and halberd, symbolic of the United Irishmen rising of 1798. Just below and in front is the "sunburst," a flag designed by Constance Markievicz for the Fianna Éireann, a Republican youth organization founded in 1909 (15). At the very bottom, a furled, gray banner reads "Saoirse," or "Freedom." Beginning with the pike and ending with the tricolor, the muralist symbolically recounts two hundred years of Republicanism. The story culminates with the modern guerrilla, fighting under the auspices of all three Republican flags and in the spirit of Wolfe Tone, as represented by the pike. The muralists favor the heraldic device more than any other; they often reinforce the explicit and ancestral with the heraldic, such as in the memorial to Pearse and Connolly in Turf Lodge.

    As the well spring of legitimacy, continuity is necessarily a central theme of Republican murals. With only three primary devices, the muralists well represent several different elements of the Republican conception of the past: politics, family, and personal morality. However, as well as these devices proclaim the Republican pedigree, they ignore two other significant dimensions of a nationalist ideology: religion and culture. Above and beyond even politics, religion and culture have defined the modern conflict in Northern Ireland; for example, the media seem to speak more often of Catholic and Protestant than of Republican and Unionist. This confusion of terms reflects a certain measure of truth, in that modern Republicanism has coupled its politics to a strong sense of Catholic and Gaelic identity. In this broader conceptual framework, religion and culture play temporally opposed, but equally important parts: Catholicism interacts primarily with political continuity and legitimacy, both functions of the past, while Gaelic revivalism figures in the prospects for eventual independence, the hope for the future.

    As best captured by Republican propaganda, Catholic identity both facilitates and limits political continuity, sheltering it from "imperialism" on the one hand, precluding the participation of Protestants on the other. In the Wolfe Tone Annual, Brian O'Higgins credits Catholicism with sustaining Irish nationalism in the face of British colonization:

[H]ere were the hypocrites and thieves who professed to be doing God's work, solemnly raffling Ireland and commanding its people to become . . . extinct. . . . [B]ut the Irish nation lives, thanks under God, to the potency of . . . its faithful, patient . . . prayerful people . . . who put their trust in God and His Mother and never went wrong (16).

Constancy of faith provides the "potency" of character through which Republicanism survives imperialist aggression. In this regard, Catholic identity has a continuity of its own: the people of the "Irish nation" entrusted themselves to "God and His Mother" at the advent of Christianity and have never deviated from that covenant. Moreover, as the sustenance of Republicanism, Catholicism becomes prerequisite to the phenomenon underlying both political continuity and legitimacy: the transmission of the revolutionary impetus between generations. As only Catholics can protect the revolutionary impetus from its enemies, only they can possess it or pass it on; by contrast, Protestants lack the "potency" to safeguard the impetus effectively, such that, in their care, it would dissipate before passing into the next generation. Integral to the process by which legitimacy arises, Catholicism becomes integral to legitimacy itself.

    Notably, such a Catholic centricity conflicts with the cult of ancestors and its relatively extensive Protestant membership. John Mitchel, the "greatest and truest man to every fight and die for Ireland," was Presbyterian; the leader of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was Anglican (17). How could either fit into a continuity effectively circumscribed by Catholicism? The propagandists resolve this divergence of history and identity by coloring the Protestant ancestors with Catholic allusions. For example, O'Higgins writes that Wolfe Tone regularly attended Mass during his exile on the Continent. Moreover, he supposedly thought of the Church as the foundation of an independent Ireland, as in his dealings with revolutionary France:

When [Wolfe Tone], an unknown young man, without wealth or influence, made his way to the side of the greatest . . . men in a France that had no love for the Church . . . [and] was asked for his credentials, he produced quite proudly the testimonials given to him by the General Committee of the Catholics of Ireland! And when he was asked later to name the body . . . on which he proposed to build the future government of an independent Ireland, he named first and foremost the General Committee of the Catholics, as being the most representative body in the country (18).

Though Protestant by birth, Wolfe Tone becomes Catholic at heart by a simple exercise in revisionist history. Such window dressing obviates compromise between political continuity and Catholic identity: Republicanism can revere Protestants like Wolfe Tone as part of the cult of ancestors while remaining fundamentally, if not nominally, Catholic.

    While Catholic potency forestalls retreat before the forces of imperialism, Gaelic restoration has the potential, yet unrealized, to propel Republicanism to victory. Unlike Catholicism, which remains firmly entrenched in Ireland even today, Gaelic language and culture suffered greatly under British rule. By 1925, the population of Irish-speaking districts, collectively known as the Gaeltacht, had declined to a few hundred thousand in a country of several million. Today, as few as one hundred thousand people speak Irish in the home (19). With native language and culture clearly diminished, Republicanism does not lay claim to "Gaelicness" in fact, only in intention. O'Higgins writes of the Gaelic revival as a "training ground" for independence:

I first blinked and trembled before an audience half a century ago, and then, gathering to myself a little courage and forgetfulness of my shortcomings, pleaded for the revival of our own language, the restoration of our games and customs and industries and way of life, as a training, a necessary training for the battles that would win our freedom (20).

In Free Ireland, Gerry Adams quotes the scholar Máirtín Ó Cadhain to the same effect:

Tosóidh athghabháil na hÉireann le hathghabháil na Gaeilge (21). (The reconquest of Ireland will begin with the reconquest of the Irish language.)

To the present, Catholicism has kept "British imperialism" at bay, but has not actually advanced the cause of national self-determination. Cultural integrity promises to shift the balance in favor of Republicanism: in shedding the "language, customs, and industries" of the invader in favor of those of their native country, the Irish will acquire the cultural "potency" to win their political independence. By contrast with politics and religion, this "Gaelic intention" looks to the future, to an ideal in the making rather than a tradition well-established, and therefore informs little on a legitimacy that follows from continuity with the past. However, it speaks to the ultimate goal of continuity, to why legitimacy even matters: Republicans have a right to revolt by virtue of their political and religious pedigree; they act on that prerogative in pursuit of a wholly independent Ireland, the realization of which must coincide with Gaelic restoration.

    Given their relevance to political continuity and legitimacy, Catholic identity and Gaelic intention find expression in Republican murals. The former appears most frequently in the context of the H-block protest of 1980 and 1981. As "prisoners of war," Republican inmates of the H-block at Long Kesh Prison claimed "political status," as defined by "five reasonable demands:" the rights to wear their own clothes rather than uniforms, to abstain from prison work, to associate freely among themselves, to maintain correspondence with family and friends, and to remission of sentences (22). The prisoners employed a variety of modes of agitation, clothing themselves in blankets in lieu of uniforms, smearing their feces on the walls of their cells, and resorting finally to the hunger strike that killed ten of their own number. This last measure of protest and the accompanying outpouring of popular sympathy actually inspired the first Republican murals in West Belfast.

    One of these early Catholic, Republican murals appears on Rockmount Street in the Lower Falls (Image IV). Bedridden, eyes wide with starvation, the hunger striker clutches at his rosary in the foreground. Behind and slightly to the left, clad in her iconic blue and white, crowned with a silver halo, the Virgin Mary projects her benevolence or blessings, rendered as beams emanating from her upturned hands, onto him. In the background stands a large "H," suitably blockish and imposing, in reference to the Republican ward at Long Kesh, the nexus of the hunger strike itself. At the very top of the mural, in nobly serifed script, a banner quotes the Beatitudes, "Blessed are those who hunger for justice" (23). Plainly, the mural abounds with Catholic allusions: the hunger striker's rosary, Mary, to whom Catholicism accords a special reverence, and the quotation from scripture. Moreover, in the Republican bent, Catholicism seems to lend the hunger striker the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. The desperation of starvation evident in his wide-eyed gaze and the unnatural length and twist of his neck, the hunger striker turns to faith, the rosary held to his lips, for resolve. In answer to his prayer, the Virgin infuses him with her "blessing," as in the Beatitudes. Notably, however, the mural does not predict or even foreshadow that a tangible victory, such as British acquiescence in the five demands, will follow from faith. Rather, as in the writings of O'Higgins and Adams, Catholicism can only stay the advance of "imperialism." In this case, steeled perhaps by their faith, ten hunger strikers effectively defied Britain's attempts to smother their Republicanism with prison uniforms. Their plight stirred the Republican leadership and Catholic community into renewed political and popular action that garnished some electoral success, but, in the end, their deaths did not force any concessions from the British, even in the matter of political status.

    With regard to Gaelic intention, the Republican muralists rely primarily on two devices: the linguistic and folkloric. The former consists simply of the graffitos and banners in Irish that accompany many of the murals, including several of those already visited. They range in length from individual words to short catch phrases, but rarely exceed a sentence. For a few examples, the central graffito of the Islandbawn Street mural declares simply, "Saoirse," or "Freedom" (Image I); the banner across the top of the Turf Lodge mural reads "Éire saor ó lár go farraige," or "Ireland free from center to sea" (Image II).  In an alley of Andersontown Estate, another banner holds forth, "Beidh ár lá linn," or, "Our day will come," as commonly translated (Image V, 24). In this last case, the muralist even employs old Gaelic script, the official standard for written Irish until the adoption of modern spelling conventions in 1948. The "a" has characteristically short legs and wide girth; the stem of the "d" curves to the left, lying almost horizontally. The Irish in the murals reflects Gaelic intention both by its very existence and its simple content: on the one hand, the public exposure afforded by the murals promotes the language, the focal point of both Republican and apolitical revivalism. On the other, the muralists restrict their Irish to catch phrases, well aware that much of their audience has little or no knowledge of the language: the unfortunate circumstance that actually necessitates revival. Even Béarlóir or Foghlaimeoir (English monoglots or students of Irish, respectively), can learn single words or short sentences with relatively little difficulty. Moreover, the muralists tend to reserve Irish for the expression of goals or eventualities, in accordance with Gaelic intention's forward-looking aspect. "Beidh ár lá linn" poetically synthesizes the Republican's hope of victory, the coming of that "day," with the vehicle by which he or she must surely attain it, the restoration of Gaelic culture, represented in this case by language.

    In the folkloric device of Gaelic intention, the muralist invokes appropriate figures in Irish mythology as allegory for the present struggle with imperialism. A visually spectacular example appears on Springhill Avenue in the neighborhood of the same name, covering an entire wall of a two-story tenement (Image VI). In the foreground, Nuadha, a mythological king of Ireland, surges upward from a shallow lake with reeds along its shore and stones breaching its surface. He fixes a purposeful gaze on the sky, his left arm outstretched before him, fist clenched. Clad in flowing red cloak, horned helmet and ringed-mail, wielding a flaming sword, he has all the trappings of a king and warrior. Heavy clouds and green hills, a cromlech and inscribed megalith lend a mythic, Celtic aura to the landscape (25). The outer edge of an intricate design of concentric rings and spokes, a banner reads, "Is é seo Nuadha, R' Tuatha Dé Danann," or "It is he, Nuadha, King of the Tuatha Dé Danann" (26). Like its linguistic counterpart, the folkloric device operates on both practical and figurative levels. Such a striking and heroic portrayal of Nuadha may help restore his allure, and that of the legends associated with him, in the eyes of the residents of Springhill; the resurrection of a popular mythology would further the Gaelic revival, perhaps even rekindling interest in Irish language and culture: the mother tongue and way of life of the mythic heroes themselves. The production of the Nuadha mural involved the public even more directly: the principal artist, a former Republican prisoner by the name of Gerry Kelly, outlined the image in black himself and then recruited local children to fill in the colors (27). The neighborhood found itself not only the target audience of, but an important participant in, the resurrection of Irish mythology as part of the Republican program of cultural revival.

    In a figurative vein, Nuadha's story also seems an apt allegory for the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, at least from the Republican perspective. The first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the original Irish in the mythological tradition), Nuadha loses his arm in battle and must abdicate the throne. His successor, Bres, allows the Tuatha Dé to fall under the tyranny of the Fomor, a brutish race of giants who dwell "across the sea." His arm healed by druids, Nuadha regains the kingship of the Tuatha Dé and leads a revolt against the foreigners, reclaiming Ireland's independence though he himself dies in the effort. Each character in the myth has a readily identifiable modern correlate: the Fomor represent the British, foreign imperialists bent on the subjugation of Ireland. Like the Irish collaborator, Bres permits the imperialists entry, thereby exposing Ireland's native "language, games, and industries" to nefarious foreign influences. Finally, Nuadha, the gallant Republican, expels the collaborators and the imperialists, liberating the Irish economically and politically. Notably, the druids, the guardians of Irish wisdom, restore Nuadha's strength such that he can reclaim the kingship and successfully prosecute the revolution against the Fomor. Likewise, the modern Republican looks to the restoration of Irish language and culture, the wisdom safeguarded by the druids in the mythology, to empower him in his struggle with the British. Regardless of the intentions of those who crafted the original legend, modern Republicanism cleverly seizes on it to advance their twin cultural and political agenda (28).

    As well evidenced by the murals of West Belfast, the Republicans of the 1980s remained convinced of the conceptions of continuity, identity, and legitimacy formulated by their progenitors. Working with a palette of figurative devices, the Republican muralist effectively renders the present as the legitimate heir to the past, Catholicism as his refuge, and Gaelic restoration as his deliverance. In most cases, the propaganda of Gerry Adams, the recognized leader of Republicanism for the past two decades, reaffirms these themes of the murals. But, to what extent does the content of the murals reflect reality? Have Republicans in truth remained entirely loyal to the politics and identity bequeathed to them by their ancestors, as attested to in the murals, or have they only conjured the semblance of continuity in the interest of legitimacy? Unable or unwilling to abandon the ideology that bound legitimacy and hope to continuity and identity, modern Republicanism has still managed to adjust to its own paramilitary and political milieu, aligning itself from the 1970s onward with international terrorism and socialism. However, if it avoids stagnation, it suffers from seemingly inevitable contradictions between the old and the new. Such internal tensions also manifest themselves in the murals, often alongside the very devices of continuity and identity.

    In the paramilitary realm, the tactics of terrorism broke with the old paradigm of the "rising," aggravating Republicanism's already delicate relationship with the Catholic Church. With the exception of the War of Independence in the early 1920s, Republicans had generally fancied themselves as a standing army: dressed in military-style uniforms, Pearse and his compatriots had forcefully occupied public buildings in Dublin during the Easter Rising, fully intending to defend them from the "forces of occupation." In 1939, the IRA leadership actually served an official declaration of war on the British Prime Minister before beginning a bombing campaign in London and its environs (29). In the words of its master mind, Charlie Murphy, the Border Campaign of 1956 to 1962 began with an offensive reminiscent of the Western Front (30). However, by the 1980s, the IRA had abandoned the pretenses of a standing army and fully embraced guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The modern guerrilla wore camouflage fatigues in lieu of a uniform and hid his face beneath a hood. He struck frequently, but without official declarations or intent to capture property. He aimed not to reconquer Northern Ireland in the traditional sense, but to disturb the functions of government and society to such an extent that the British would surrender from exhaustion. Adams himself admits the revision in tactics:

The current phase of armed struggle is different from any other, apart perhaps from a resemblance to the Black and Tan War. . . . What particularly characterised this phase is that the IRA fought within the occupied area and existed cheek by jowl with the British forces. . . . The IRA is one of the few guerrilla forces in the world which has operated in and from within the occupied area, and despite the long duration of this phase of struggle, the IRA has continued to enjoy . . . community support (31).

For their part, the murals portray the modern IRA almost exclusively in this guerrilla mold. For example, the Andersontown mural includes a collage of nine guerrillas, hooded, brandishing modern rifles, rockets, and hand grenades. The nine do not seem to act in concert, as would a "standing army;" rather, the muralist divides them into small groups of two or three, the size of most IRA units at the height of the modern conflict (32). Moreover, the collage seems almost impressionistic, a collection of snapshots from everyday experience in Andersontown; as in the quotation from Adams, the mural reminds the passerby of the guerrillas' constant, if elusive presence. Juxtaposed with this poignant display of change, the heraldry of continuity, a sunburst as on the flag of Fianna Éireann, rises in the background, emblematic of the tension between new and old.

    Never a proponent of Republicanism, the Catholic Church strengthened its opposition with the transition to terrorism, precipitating a reevaluation, if not an abandonment, of faith in the movement's perceptions of its own identity. At the beginning of the Border Campaign in December 1956, Cardinal D'Alton, the prelate of Irish Catholicism, gently admonished the Republicans among his flock to abstain from violence:

Pray with especial earnestness for peace in our country. Though the injustice of partition should be manifest to all, once more in this season of peace and good will, I wish to remind our young men that acts of violence will not advance the cause they have at heart (33).

The Cardinal suggested that the young men in question had a just cause "at heart" and had simply fallen into a wrongheaded means of pursuing it. A "reminder" would suffice to shepherd them back into the fold. However, by the 1980s, the Church's attitude toward Republicanism had soured; some religious, including Cardinal Ó Fiaich, did ally with the Republicans in the limited case of the H-block protest, but, more generally, the Church hierarchy would not tolerate car bombings and assassinations, regardless of the justice of the underlying cause. From the early 1980s onward, Bishop Daly of Derry proved a particularly sharp thorn in the side of the Republican leadership (34).

    By contrast with their predecessors in the 1950s, Adams and company did not resign themselves obediently to the criticism of the Church hierarchy. Men raised on the propaganda of Catholic, Republican polemics like Brian O'Higgins, the leaders of the Border Campaign IRA had uncommon spiritual and political devotion. Tim Pat Coogan describes Anthony Magan, the de facto Commander-in-Chief of the IRA from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, as "priest-like:"

[T]he priest-like Anthony Magan, a bachelor and County Meath farmer who had given all his money, time and thought to the IRA, a deeply religious man of the old-guard school of Irish Catholicism. . . . [His contemporary Michael] Conway actually went into the Church and several people I interviewed told me that they felt Magan belonged there too: when he was again interned in the Curragh during the [Border C]ampaign he organised a flourishing branch of the Legion of Mary (35).

The disapproval of the Church hierarchy fomented a crisis of faith among Magan and his young charges, many of whom had similar religious convictions: which to choose, God or country? In the end, the Republicans of the 1950s opted for both; they persisted with the armed struggle in seeming defiance of Cardinal D'Alton, but never presumed to argue publicly either the substance of his admonitions or his right to make them. Moreover, in the 1950s, individual religious did not always fall in line with the hierarchy. Sympathetic priests did much to ease the religious anxieties of Border Campaign Republicans: Coogan recounts that Magan's Sinn Féin submitted key political and economic policies for review by friendly clergy, "to ensure that they contained nothing contrary to Catholic teaching" (36). In the 1980s, however, a more political, less "priest-like" Adams responded to the Church's criticism in kind:

[F]ollowing a series of particularly anti-IRA remarks by . . . Daly . . . I challenged him to outline the hierarchy's attitude to the injustice of partition. I challenged him to give us the benefit of his views on British occupation; on the methods of pacification and repression deployed by the British government in our country. I called on him to stop condemning the IRA and to apply himself instead to developing solutions to the problems which faced us (37).

In a similar show of defiance, Bernadette McAliskey, civil rights activist and Republican sympathizer, immediately left the funeral of Tom McElwee, one of the ten unfortunate hunger strikers, when the presiding priest openly advocated ending the H-block standoff (38). Between 1950 and 1980, Republicanism's conception of its Catholic identity had changed fundamentally; instead of joining the ranks of the religious themselves, as had Michael Conway, Adams and McAliskey turned in confrontation or walked away when the hierarchy voiced its opposition. Modern Republicans still considered themselves Catholic, but their faith did not entail abject obedience or shame-faced skulking to circumvent the Church's disapproval. Formerly dependent on Catholicism for sustenance and legitimacy, Republicanism had now asserted a modicum of independence. In this light, the Rockmount Street mural and its banner, "Blessed are those who hunger for justice," seems as much a response to the critics of the H-block protest as a reaffirmation of Catholic identity.

    In parallel with these changes in its paramilitary mission and religious allegiance, Republicanism also redefined its politics, fleshing out the older nationalist and anti-imperialist agenda with socialism. In accordance with the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, Border Campaign Republicans had opposed the "welfare state," as it deprived the individual of responsibility for his or her own well-being (39). They understood "imperialism" in a purely geographical sense: the partition of Ireland into Éire and the "Six Counties." However, at the beginning of the 1960s, Republican politics acquired a new sophistication. In British prisons, Republicans encountered for the first time other revolutionaries from around the world, including Cypriot nationalists of the EOKA. For example, Donal Murphy, younger brother of Charlie, forged a unique friendship with the Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale during their joint tenure in an English jail (40). These foreign contacts introduced Republicans to international socialism, which became their new language and ideology by the 1970s. Published in 1983 by the Irish Freedom Movement, another manifestation of the IRA and INLA, An Anti-Imperialist's Guide to the Irish War applies the Marxist terminology of class-struggle to partition:

The Protestant working class has no existence as a class - it acts and fights as part of the Loyalist community. Discrimination in jobs, housing, and social services ensures that Loyalist workers have a direct stake in the British connection and its corollary - the partition of Ireland and oppression of the nationalist community. Unity between Protestant and Catholic workers is out of the question (41).

In his treatment of Ireland's economic future, Gerry Adams likewise deviates from the order of Rerum Novarum, proposing public ownership of the "means of production, distribution, and exchange" and an economy governed by "human need rather than private profit" (42).

    The political realignment to the left broadened the Republican conception of identity beyond the domestic, religious and cultural to the international and economic. Like the Comintern of the first half of the twentieth century, the modern socialist revolutionary seeks to uplift the working class not only domestically, but world-wide. For example, Adams writes of the "natural affinity" between Irish Republicans and other "oppressed peoples" struggling against the bourgeois capitalists (43). This global consciousness manifests itself quite explicitly in the murals of West Belfast, as in this example on Beechmount Avenue in Andersontown (Image VII). At the center, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the IRA stand united, each identified by the appropriate heraldry: the PLO man with the checkered scarf and flag of Palestine; the IRA man with the gray hood and tricolor. Together, they hold up a rocket, representative of their unity of purpose in the international fight against capitalist oppression. At the bottom of the mural, a banner reading, "One struggle," reinforces the visual symbolism. Such "affinity" with international socialism complicated the relatively simple conception of Republicanism inherited from O'Higgins: working class, in a distinctly global sense, joined Catholic and Gaelic, both primarily domestic, in the lexicon of Republican identity, begging the question of which would have precedence. As born out by the many Catholic and Gaelic allusions in the murals, socialism never replaced the old marks of identity; rather, it opened Republicanism to the potential for new alliances abroad and at home. By the 1990s, Republicans even thought to reach out to the Unionist majority, a segment of the Northern Irish population essentially ignored or lumped together with the "foreign imperialists" in the 1950s:

The Protestants . . . have been cheated for long enough. They have been cheated by being ensnared into that sectarian trap prepared for them by British imperial administrations. . . . Protestants need to be encouraged to recognise that the common history they share with their Catholic fellow countrymen and women in the common territory of Ireland is quite foreign to any British experience. They need to be encouraged to look at the traditions of which we can be proud, and in this regard where else need we look but to . . . Protestant participation in the democratic struggle of the Irish people for self-government (44).

    Originally inspired by a specific moment in Republican history, the H-block protest, the murals of West Belfast grew to embody both a continuum of politics and identity as well as an undercurrent of change. A radical nationalist ideology, Republicanism concerns itself much with its "right to fight," its legitimacy, which in its own conceptual framework arises from a familial continuity with the past. Republican muralists express these concerns by several devices, some explicit, others more figurative, drawing at times on allusions to the cult of ancestors and its heraldry. In addition, Republicanism has a strong sense of its religious and cultural identity: for whom it must fight. Its traditional allegiance to Catholicism actually feeds back onto its first concern, legitimacy, by facilitating the process of continuity but delimiting who may participate. By contrast, Republicanism's "Gaelic intention" looks not to the past, but to the future: the eventual restoration, rather than the present reality, of cultural integrity will lead to independence from Britain. Like continuity, this Catholic, Gaelic identity manifests itself in the murals both explicitly and figuratively; common devices include iconography, Irish language, and allegory with mythology. However, beneath this veneer of continuity, the tactics and politics of Republicanism have changed, gravitating toward terrorism and socialism, respectively. These recent realignments clearly contradict the traditional conceptions of continuity and identity; yet, the muralists represent both, the new and the traditional, beside each other on the same walls. In this regard, their work serves as a window into an ideology in transition. Republicanism has adapted to new tactical realities and political influences, acquiring a modern sophistication in the process, but it has not redefined itself by such change. It even retains a vestige of continuity in its insistence on the old forms of legitimacy and identity, whatever their modern applicability. Though awkward in its contradictions, this balance of new and old also has a practical elegance: Republicans can still ply a mode of legitimacy and a sense of identity that appeal to themselves and their sympathizers, thereby cultivating internal morale and popular support, but need not sacrifice the political and tactical flexibility to survive in a modern revolutionary conflict. The murals embody this compromise, powerfully and often beautifully.


(1) Throughout its history, Republicanism has split into rival factions time and again. Unless otherwise specified, the terms "Republican" or "Republicanism" refer here to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, known today simply as Sinn Féin, the predominant manifestations of the movement since the 1970s. The Provisional IRA and its associated youth organizations have painted the vast majority of Republican murals in West Belfast. Other, smaller Republican groups include the Official IRA, Continuity IRA, Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and Republican Sinn Féin, among others.

(2) As reproduced in "1916 Rebellion Handbook," Irish Times, 1916, vii; reprinted Dublin: Mourne River Press, 1998.

(3) Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA (Fontana, 1980) 279, 280.

(4) The following quotation appears on the front page of the May 2000 edition of Saoirse, the organ of Republican Sinn Féin: "We stand on the rock of the All-Ireland Republic of 1916 and of the First . . . Dáil." Inside, an article on the April commemorations of the Easter Rising quotes Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, a Republican activist since the 1950s: "Those who continue the struggle against British rule in Ireland at this time have the same mandate for their actions as did the men and women of 1916. . . . Irish people the world over remember with pride every Easter those who stayed at home and fought for Ireland, with . . . an electoral mandate" (Saoirse, May 2000, 1, 4).

(5) Brian O'Higgins, ed., "John Mitchel: First Felon for Ireland," Wolfe Tone Annual [Dublin], 1947, 19.

(6) Realities as presented by propaganda, with its tendency for exaggeration.

(7) Gerry Adams, Free Ireland: Towards a Lasting Peace (Dingle: Brandon, 1995) 50, 132.

(8) Adams 88, 136. "Mise Éire" means "I am Ireland."

(9) Jeffrey Sluka, Hearts and Minds, Water and Fish: Support for the IRA and INLA in a Northern Irish Ghetto (Greenwich: JAI, 1989) 148.

(10) Sluka 148.

(11) All photographs of the murals referred to in the following discussion are part of the Ciaran MacGowan Collection, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

(12) In Official Standard Irish, "Óglaigh na hÉireann" has accents above the O and E, as shown.

(13) "1916 Rebellion Handbook," Irish Times, 1916, vii; reprinted Dublin: Mourne River Press, 1998.

(14) Ciaran MacGowan Collection, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

(15) MacGowan.

(16) "The Rising of 1641," Wolfe Tone Annual, 1951, 67.

(17) R. F. Foster, "Ascendancy and Union," The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, ed. R. F. Foster (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998) 181, 210.

(18) "Wolfe Tone and His Comrades," Wolfe Tone Annual, 1948, 22.

(19) Mícheál Ó Siadhail, Learning Irish (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995) vi.

(20) "My Songs and Myself," Wolfe Tone Annual, 1949, 16.

(21) Adams 144.

(22) J. Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army: The IRA, 3rd ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1997) 495.

(23) Matthew 5:6.

(24) "Beidh ár lá linn" literally means "Our day will be with us."

(25) The cromlech is a neolithic Celtic monument consisting of two upright stone posts crossed by a lintel, as at the famous Stonehenge.

(26) More literally, "Is é seo Nuadha" means "This is Nuadha."

(27) MacGowan.

(28) Before the conflict with the Fomor, the Tuatha Dé themselves invaded and conquered Ireland, displacing another "race" known as the Fir Bolg. However, the assorted modern versions of the mythology disagree as to the legitimacy of the Tuatha Dé's claim to Irish suzerainty. In Lady Gregory's famous compendium of Irish mythology, the Tuatha Dé speak Irish, but give no other indication of their degree of "nativeness": "Bres [of the Tuatha Dé] was the first to speak, and when Sreng [of the Fir Bolg] heard it was Irish he was talking, his own tongue, he was less uneasy, and they drew nearer, and asked questions as to one another's family and race" (Augusta Gregory, Irish Myths and Legends (Philadelphia: Courage, 1998) 28). By contrast, in The Book of Conquests by the artist Jim Fitzpatrick, Nuadha himself speaks of Ireland as the Tuatha Dé's native land, which they intend to reconquer, not steal, from the Fir Bolg: "We . . . wandered the plains of Scythia for many years. . . . Yet still we could not forget our native land of Éireann with its dancing streams , the bird-song in the hazel groves, the gentle mists and warm rains. We survived those years of suffering and hardship, sustained by . . . the hopes of our people . . . to return to this our own, our native land" (Jim Fitzpatrick, The Book of Conquests (New York: Dutton, 1978) 3:4). Gerry Kelly actually models his mural after Fitzpatrick's illustrations, perhaps because the "nativeness" of the Tuatha Dé in the latter's rendition strengthens the allegory with present Republicanism.

(29) Coogan 165.

(30) Coogan 387.

(31) Adams 49.

(32) Coogan 484.

(33) "Cardinal Deprecates Use of Violence," Irish Times, 25, 26, and 27 December 1956, 7.

(34) Bell 483 on Ó Fiaich's role in the H-block protest; Adams 193 on Daly's criticism of the IRA.

(35) Coogan 325.

(36) Coogan 330.

(37) Adams 193.

(38) Bell 508. McAliskey is better known by her maiden name, Devlin.

(39) Coogan 330.

(40) Coogan 345, 346.

(41) The Irish Freedom Movement, An Anti-Imperialist's Guide to the Irish War (London: Junius, 1983) 22.

(42) Adams 126.

(43) Adams 129.

(44) Adams 124.

Works Cited

"1916 Rebellion Handbook." Irish Times, 1916. Reprinted Dublin: Mourne River Press, 1998.

Adams, Gerry. Free Ireland: Towards a Lasting Peace. Dingle: Brandon, 1995.

Bell, J Bowyer. The Secret Army: The IRA. 3rd ed.. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1997.

"Cardinal Deprecates Use of Violence." Irish Times, 25, 26, and 27 December 1956, 7.

Ciaran MacGowan Collection, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. Fontana, 1980.

Fitzpatrick, Jim. The Book of Conquests. New York: Dutton, 1978.

Foster, R. F.. "Ascendancy and Union." The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Ed. R. F. Foster. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. Irish Myths and Legends. Philadelphia: Courage, 1998.

Irish Freedom Movement, The. An Anti-Imperialist's Guide to the Irish War. London: Junius, 1983.

O'Higgins, Brian, ed. "John Mitchel: First Felon for Ireland." Wolfe Tone Annual [Dublin], 1947.

---, ed. "Wolfe Tone and His Comrades." Wolfe Tone Annual [Dublin], 1948.

---, ed. "My Songs and Myself." Wolfe Tone Annual [Dublin], 1949.

---, ed. "The Rising of 1641." Wolfe Tone Annual [Dublin], 1951.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál. Learning Irish. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Saoirse [Dublin: Republican Sinn Féin], May 2000.

Sluka, Jeffrey. Hearts and Minds, Water and Fish: Support for the IRA and INLA in a Northern Irish Ghetto.  Greenwich: JAI, 1989.