November 7, 2003


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: November 7, 2003


Chair: Martin J. Burke


Speaker: Prof. Bill Rolston

            Professor of Sociology, University of Ulster, Jordanstown.


Title of Talk:   “Visions or Nightmares?  Murals and Imagining the Future in Northern Ireland”


Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons


Attendees: James Gleason; Mary Butler Shannon (Bergen Community College); Megan McCarthy (Columbia University); Lucy Oakley (New York University); Joshua Perl (New York University); Anna Eggert-Rolston (University of Ulster, Jordanstown/Belfast); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Sheila Gorman (Columbia University); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College); Kate Fernoib; Becky Amato (CUNY); Judy Vannais; Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Conn.); Alice Naughton; Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Frank Naughton (Kean University); Bill McGimpsey, Michael Bolger; Will Hatheway (CUNY); Beth Gilmartin (Monmouth University); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College).


“Visions or Nightmares? Murals and Imagining the Future in Northern Ireland”

Prof. Rolston’s paper is forthcoming in a volume by the Royal Irish Academy.  A copy of the paper that Prof. Rolston gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.


Prof. Rolston begins his paper with a discussion of Benedict Anderson’s idea of an “imagined community”, which he argues is a recognition of the fact that such identities as nationality and ethnicity are social constructs.  In attempting to make sense of their world, groups draw on certain elements of cultural capital, which are sometimes disputed and can lead to forceful exclusion of those who do not share those elements.  Prof. Rolston’s paper seeks to examine a selection of wall murals in the North of Ireland in the context of these arguments.

            These murals are intended as political mobilisation, education and propaganda—hence the title of Prof. Rolston’s books on the matter, Drawing Support.  Republican muralists have often been at the forefront of political thinking, supporting the idea of a political republican strategy in the 1980s, and later acceptance of the Belfast Agreement.  In addition, republican muralists have borrowed images from political struggles around the world—from Palestine to Nicaragua—a fact that represents the broadness of the republican movement.  For loyalists, on the other hand, international identification is much more difficult—theirs is a marrow message of maintaining the status quo in the North.  The rhetoric of civil rights does not come easily to loyalism, and the slogan “no surrender” allies loyalism with dominant and oppressive groups.  Their vocabulary of political expression has been severely limited. 

            A means of identifying a community is to express its uniqueness by way of creating and sustaining myths of origin.  Republican muralists have drawn on a vast pool of Irish mythology and history in their expression of origins—the Táin, and the heroism of Cúchulain in particular, has been a favoured source for republicans.  Loyalists have at times recast Cúchulain as a loyalist Pict driving out the Celtic Mebh, and sometimes the muralists have actually used the statue of him in the GPO in Dublin—commissioned by de Valera—as the model for their images.  Historical republican murals depict narrowly violent events such as the struggles of 1798, 1803 and 1916, as well wider historical stories such as those of the Penal Laws, hedge schools and the famine.  Loyalist murals have traditionally looked to King Billy as a historical figure, but with recent disunity among loyalists his popularity has faded.  In UDA areas he has been replaced by images of the 1641 massacres and the siege of Derry.  UVF muralists have a more definite institutional and exclusive history to refer to—that of the Ulster Volunteers in the early twentieth century.  This narrowly organisational approach to murals, Prof. Rolston suggests, can be traced both to the division within loyalism, and also to a crisis in formal education in Protestant areas, which leads to an ignorance of history, or a narrowly sectarian vision of history.  The Ulster Scots Heritage Council is trying to enrich the Protestant sense of history.

            The confidence, focus, determination and articulateness of the republican community is the stuff of loyalist nightmares.  Republicans see time and change as being on their side, and republicanism can represent itself as visionary.  Loyalists do not find it easy to depict their responses to republicanism as rational or productive.  Loyalist muralists cannot put into visual form aspirations that are not there—hence the continuing popularity in loyalist areas of paramilitary images even in the midst of a peace process.




Q. Within Republican murals are there any different types for different groups?

A. Loyalist imagery is 70% or more paramilitary.  After 1994 republicans stopped painting hooded men with guns.  Recently there has been a return of men with guns but they are now identifiable local heroes.  The Continuity IRA and the Real IRA have painted some—four that I know of.  Two are very traditional.  Two relate to prisoners rights.  However, there is no equivalent of the unionist divisions.

Q. Are the murals being defaced?

A. Yes, some are being defaced.  Traditionally, republican murals were defaced by the police or the army. In the last few years, however, more people having crossing sectarian lines to deface murals—it is a paradox of the Belfast Agreement, which made crossing the lines easier.  There are two principal types of destruction, however: the weather, and re-painting.  The worst type of destruction takes place when one loyalist faction defaces the murals of another.  The UDA destroyed one republican mural.

Q. The old origin myths of Ireland are very assimilationist.  Are there any republican murals that depict assimilation?

A. No.  Nobody is coming together to paint.  Only once, in the Ulster Museum, did republican and loyalist muralists come together.

Q. How about murals depicting 1798?  Are they more assimilationist than others?

A. Do the people who paint 1798 murals intend them to be threatening?  No, I don’t believe so.  But there are some that are intentionally threatening, e.g. the paramilitary ones.  Waves of invasion are not part of the republican murals, but they also don’t threaten in the way that loyalist murals do.

Q. I noticed that republican murals would say “Release the Prisoners,” and loyalist ones “Release our Prisoners”.

A. That was true also during the hunger strikes.  Republican prisoners struck for all prisoners’ rights.

Q. Are there any women muralists?

A. On the loyalist side there have been none.  On the republican side there have been six, but none is active right now.

Q. Are there master murals and apprentices?

A. Yes, there are masters who advise, who work with young people.  It is, in effect, a master-apprentice relationship.  Almost none of the apprentices stick to it.

Q. Are the muralists men who came of age in the 1960s?

A. One was a prisoner who started it in prison.  Two of the women have a background in art.  Mostly, they children of the hunger strike era.

Q. What is the process involved in putting up a mural?

A. Most loyalist murals are commissioned; most republican are spontaneous.  One loyalist muralist, with 15 years of experience painting murals, has told me that he just does what he is told, where he is told.  On the republican side, things are more fluid.  Sometimes they are asked to paint something, and will go out to find a wall and paint it.  Mostly they are spontaneous creations on a wall that they have grabbed.

The difference is based in the fact that the republicans muralists work within a movement, the loyalists within a group.  The former is open, the latter closed.

Q. Are the murals maintained?

A. No, except for memorial murals.

Q. Do the muralists use mural paint?

A. No, they use anything they can get their hands on.  Their situation is very different from that of muralists in the US.  On the back of Free Derry Corner, there are constantly changing murals.  Two years ago a republican muralist painted a gay and lesbian rights mural there—in pink paint.  This was not well received in the republican community.  A short time later a senior republican died, and the remaining pink paint was used to paint his memorial!

Q. Do republican murals have a lot of religious imagery?  I have seen one on the Falls Road of the Virgin Mary.

A. They are mostly no religious.  The mural of the Virgin Mary is not a republican mural—indeed, the Catholic Church is happy to see it there because it keeps a republican mural off that wall.  During the hunger strikes, however, some murals were quite religious in their iconography.

Q. I am thinking of the 1798 murals and those of the US Presidents.  How much do people really understand the history?  Many of the presidents were Presbyterians, therefore their families were pushed out for religious reasons.

A. The murals are genuine political education (those of the Ulster Scots Heritage Council) and the first of their kind—many before them were means of political reinforcement.  This is reimagining history, which is healthy.  The Ulster Scots Academy at Magee College is an uncritical body, but at least there are the beginnings of a debate about Ulster heritage.  I am very positive about the USHC murals, except for the language ones.

Q. The murals of the US presidents are a big step, as the US was seen previously as republican.

Q. Have your books had any effect?  You seem to move easily between communities.

A. I’ve been able to move between the communities, and it is easier since the peace process.  Loyalist muralists are receptive to me, despite the fact that I am clear where I stand.  The book is popular—it is often stolen!  Very often it is stolen by young loyalists who want to see what the republicans are up to.

Q. In prison there is heavy emphasis among republicans on education, while loyalists tend to spend their time weightlifting.  Is this because of differing values?

A. Possibly.  There is less emphasis on education in loyalist communities.  This question is about the notion of vision.  One loyalist saw his time in prison as a waste, so he turned to painting murals.  But republicans have seen it as a part of the struggle.  As a result there is possibly a very different attitude to prison, depending on the community.

Q. When I was in Belfast I took a bus-tour of murals.  Is there a consciousness of outsiders?

A. Always.  Murals are always the backdrop to news reports.  But who are they painted for?  Not for tourists or the media; not against the other side; but to the community.  The vast bulk of murals are painted not at the but in the centre of communities.