In politics, those who want to go to war are called “hawks” while those who pursue diplomacy are “doves”. (The terminology goes back to the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain – JSTOR Daily – or to the Cuban missile crisis – New Republic.) There are no actual hawks, with sharp beaks and talons, used in murals to represent the paramilitary activity of republican groups during the Troubles. Instead, volunteers and their weapons are portrayed and, in terms of metaphorical birds, the phoenix and the lark stand in for the hawk. The phoenix in (pre-peace) republican muraling symbolises the (Provisional) IRA and harkens back to the 1916 Rising, while the lark is an image used by Bobby Sands and represents political prisoners, and both can be used to symbolise resistance generally.
It is well known that at the time of the ceasefire and the peace process – 1994 to 1998 – paramilitary images disappear from republican murals. While there are still images of historical figures bearing weapons, both from the Troubles and before, there are no longer any “hooded gunmen” murals, that is, no images of active IRA volunteers on manoeuvres or images glorifying their weaponry. Here is Bill Rolston (“Re-imaging: Mural Painting and the state in Northern Ireland”, International Journal Of Cultural Studies 15.5, 2012, p. 451): “on their own initiative and without any state funding republicans removed the guns and masked men from their murals. From that point, the only guns to be found in republican murals were in memorials to dead comrades or in murals on historical themes.” This was perhaps only one such mural, painted in the Markets area of Belfast, and this might date to the break in the ceasefire.
It’s also worth noting that at the same time as the guns disappear, the lark and the phoenix disappear from republican murals. During peace talks one might expect the phoenix to disappear, on account of its close association with the IRA. But since there were republican prisoners until their release after the Good Friday Agreement (in batches from October 1998 to July 2000), one might expect the lark to continue to fly. Instead, however, the dove is used to symbolise the plight of current prisoners and the importance of their release to the peace process. The dove, whose basic meaning is peace, promises to set the prisoners free, often flying with a set of keys in its mouth. This freedom can only come about because the struggle of the prisoners has ended, and so the lark, in its original meaning, is no longer suitable.
After the peace process the dove disappears. Unlike the guns, the lark and the phoenix return to murals. What happens to the lark and the phoenix is that they come to symbolise historical volunteers and historical prisoners, those who lived and died before a negotiated peace was contemplated by republicans. It represents the hunger strikers in the few murals in which it does appear during this period. Indeed, since republican prisoners are released as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, the lark can only bear a commemorative meaning.
So strong is this association between the lark and the non-conforming prisoners before the peace process that murals from relating to prisoners after the peace (from so-called “dissident” groups) do not use the lark to represent prisoners but only barbed wire.
This page documents the murals featuring the phoenix, lark, and dove and attempts to make the case for the theses above.
There are two types of pre-peace lark: the “caged lark” which is bound in barbed wire, and the “lark of war” as it sometimes appears with an assault rifle. (This second lark might also be called the “lark of freedom” for it frequently appears alongside this word, but “freedom” here means “freedom from British rule”. During the peace talks, the dove also appears with with the word “freedom” and very often the Irish “saoirse” but here it means “freedom for prisoners”.) The post-peace lark we call the “memorial lark”. There is some overlap between this page and the (forthcoming) page on Electoral Murals, which (among other things) charts the emergence of the word “peace” in electoral pieces.
The dove is an internationally recognised symbol of peace, an image borrowed by the early Christians from the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark, in which it symbolises the relenting of God’s wrath, and from the New Testament’s likening of the holy spirit to a dove at the anointing of Jesus of Nazareth.
The dove has been used as a symbol of Bloody Sunday, beginning with the memorial raised in Derry in 1974. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was a non-violent resistance organisation, advocating for equal rights for Catholics by means of marches and peaceful protests. On January 30th, 1972, British Army soldiers killed 13 people at a civil rights march in Derry (with another dying later).
The dove was incorporated into the official symbol for Bloody Sunday, an abstract dove in Celtic knotwork, including the oak leaf as a symbol of Derry. Here are two images, one from before and one from after the peace process.
The Lark (pre-peace)
The lark is a widely associated with daybreak (“up with the lark”) but its meaning in Irish republican murals is different. The image comes from Bobby Sands’s 1979 An Phoblacht/Republican News article, The Lark And The Freedom Fighter, in which the lark refuses to sing when it has been caged, no matter how much this is demanded by its captors. In Sands’s analogy, Irish republicans, and captured volunteers in particular, are like the lark. They have lost their freedom to British domination and to the cages of Long Kesh, and their response to this imprisonment is resistance. Sands writes, “I refuse to change to suit the people who oppress, torture and imprison me, and who wish to dehumanize me. I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment. Of course I can be murdered, but while I remain alive, I remain what I am, a political prisoner of war, and no one can change that.” The lark is thus a symbol of republican political prisoners and especially the “non-conforming” prisoners, those on the blanket, the dirty protest, and the hunger strikes. (For this reason, the lark is predominantly shown in barbed wire.)
The mural below is in Twinbrook, next to Sands’s adult home. It does not contain an image of a lark, just the title “The Lark And The Freedom Fighter”, but does have the barbed wire.
(See also 1981 DS1 061 in AMCOMRI Street.)
Here are few unentangled larks, representing resistance generally.
(1990 dating to 1989 M00832)
In this mural, the “spirit of freedom” lark appears alongside an armed volunteer, giving it a more militaristic sense.
A more aggressive version of the lark is to show it, with or without barbed wire, carrying an assault rifle.
“We Are Here To Stay” – lark of war
The barbed wire is missing and the lark is in free flight (and looking pretty angry). Ballycolman, Strabane.
Also from Ballycolman, Strabane.
This Newry image of a lark of war is from 2001 – post-peace – but is clearly quite a bit older. Please get in touch if you have an earlier date.
The Phoenix (pre-peace)
The phoenix in Clowney Street (Belfast) was first painted in 1981 and persists to the present day. Images suggest that it was touched up in 1987 and in 1990, but then not again until 2013, though it did not disappear during the interval.
This is the phoenix in Anne Street, Derry, which has survived untouched since 1981. It appears alongside the Tricolour, Starry Plough, and Sunburst flags.
(1982 dating to 1981 M00192)
An abstract phoenix holding a ribbon bearing the first names of the first six hunger strikers: Bobby, Francis, Patsy, Raymond, Joe, Martin.
Repeated from above, this time for the phoenix in the centre.
(1985 perhaps dating to 1982 M00313)
(1991 dating to 1987 M01001)
(2002 dating to 1992 M01647)
The Dove (peace process)
Although its primary meaning is to represent political prisoners, the lark stands for resistance generally and, in the lark of war, the armed struggle. Even as a symbol for prisoners it has connotations of militarism, as many prisoners were incarcerated for their roles in IRA and INLA activity. These militaristic connotations bring it into tension with the dove as symbol of peace. It is not really possible to employ both at once: even if tied to two different dimensions of the republican struggle – the military and the political – the stated goal of militant republicanism is the singular one of a united Ireland, a goal that would not be understood as peaceful by Protestants, and which is different from the meaning of “peace” immediately available to all factions as the cessation of paramilitary violence.
Thus, when the dove first appears in Sinn Féin murals – that is, in murals encouraging people to vote for Sinn Féin – and sometimes alongside the word “peace”, it indicates the beginning of a move away from the violence of the IRA and towards a political settlement. Sinn Féin and the IRA are often spoken of in one breath and in murals the Sinn Féin name or logo did sometimes appear in the context of militaristic imagery. But beginning in the late 80s, Sinn Féin and the political arm of republicanism is associated with the word “peace” and the image of the dove and is thus in tension with the militaristic murals which were so familiar up to that point. In other words, where previously political power had been a means of demonstrating support for the military campaign, it now included the suggestion of an end to the armed struggle. (Had this been foreseen, one might indeed have objected when Danny Morrison said, “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”) In short, the promise of peace gradually (from 1989 to 1994) put the armed struggle into second place.
Images of doves as standing generically for the peace process are presented first in this section, followed by the dove as freedom for prisoners specifically.
This dove – here looking more like a gull – carries a tricoloured ribbon and promises “Freedom, justice, peace” is repeated. Ballycolman, Strabane.
(1989 M00676) (See also the page on Electoral Murals.)
The broadcasting Ban was put in place in 1988, disallowing Sinn Féin representatives from speaking in their own voice on television and radio. In this mural, the dove emerging from the mouth of the tricoloured head speaks the language of peace – symbolised by the dove – suggesting again that the Sinn Féin agenda is now different from the previous simple one of a united Ireland and removal of British forces and administration.
Doves are released by hands in the colours of man over the H Blocks – all the world wants peace, it seems. In contrast, the words say “Victory will be ours” (Beidh an bua againn) and “We will be free”.
(1993 dating to 1989 M01064)
Cormac cartoon rendered as a mural on the Whiterock Road, Belfast.
(1996 dating to 1994 M01192)
This board is in Letterkenny, in the Republic of Ireland. On the left is a dove with a tricoloured ribbon; on the right is Cormac’s cartoon.
“Who Really Wants Peace?” A dove with olive branch is shackled by a British ball-and-chain. New Lodge, Belfast.
This is a Great Hunger mural (An Gorta Mór) but its ancillary symbols are a reflection of its time: at the top, a dove; at the bottom, a green ribbon, symbol of the campaign to release political prisoners. (For more on the green ribbon campaign, see Visual History 07.)
This New Lodge mural is otherwise unknown, which is very unfortunate, as it (and the tree mural in the background?) appears to represent be an early example of a non-sectarian mural. (Or quasi-sectarian mural: Peter takes pictures of political murals only. These doves qualified for a photograph, but the tree on the gable to the right did not.)
This is the sole “hooded gunman” mural from the years of the peace process, perhaps from the break in the ceasefire, in Stanfield Place in the Markets.
The dove stands for the peace process generally, but its most interesting use is in connection with political prisoners. The campaign to release prisoners got under way immediately in the process, i.e. 1994.
This dove is a fist that smashes the chains holding “700 Irish political hostages”.
This dove, on the railings outside the IRSP/INLA offices on the Falls Road, takes the place that a lark traditionally would against a background of barbed wire. Where “saoirse” would previously have meant freedom from colonial oppression by means of violence (and the elevation of the Irish language), it now means that peace is the key to the freedom of prisoners – the dove holds the keys.
The image of a dove carrying keys was a popular one. Here it is on the New Lodge Road:
This bird is somewhat ambiguous in nature. It is next to a saoirse/green ribbon mural (1995 M01241) which suggests a dove, and it is white which suggests a dove, but its plumage suggests a lark.
A dove above the Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road, similar to the 1989 Strabane dove.
Here is the sole known exception to the rule: the lark on the right hand side of the Bishop Street, Derry, hunger striker panels. It’s possible that this is post-Agreement rather than mid-90s, but not likely.
(1998 M01389 M01390)
The Dove (post peace)
After the Good Friday Agreement (1998) the dove largely disappears. Since the talks did bring peace in the sense of an end to (most) violence and eventually (in 2005) the decommissioning of IRA weapons, the dove had served its purpose and largely disappeared from republican muraling.
One use that it served was in summing up the legacy of the republican struggle and the hunger strikes in particular. Robert Ballagh was commissioned by Sinn Féin to produce a piece for the 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike and came up with the work on which the mural shown below was based, with ten doves escaping an H Block. The work was entitled “legacy” or “The Legacy Of The Hunger Strikes”. It was controversial: “Sands’s family and friends, including Bernadette Sands McKevitt, linked to the Real IRA, said the painting did not reflect the period or represent what he died for. They object to the use of 10 white doves to symbolise the hunger strikers, an image they believe fits in more with current Sinn Fein peace strategy. ‘Bobby was many things but he was not a dove’.” (Guardian)
(2001 M01471 The piece was also reproduced in Derrylin, Fermanagh (J01143), Short Strand (M02909), Carrick Hill (J1202), and Crossmaglen (M03163). It is echoed in 2014’s Ballymurphy Working Class Heroes, which also contains a large phoenix.)
In 2004, the Bogside Artists thematically thematically concluded their “People’s Gallery” series of murals with one entitled simply “Peace Mural”, featuring a dove and an oak leaf. It is reminiscent of the Bloody Sunday emblem (see above) but is (also?) intended to indicate the end and the goal of the struggle celebrated in the other murals, which portray the Battle of the Bogside, civil rights marches, Bloody Sunday, the suffering of youngsters, and the hunger strikes.
This Bone mural is interesting in that the use of doves to commemorate the lives of 38 local residents might be influenced by the Catholic influence in the street. The 1798 pike-men are well off to the side, behind the protective cordon of a Celtic cross.
(X00355 See also the hunger strikers mural/garden facing, which stated out without a statue (X00354) and then got one (X01065))
So-called “dissidents” could also use the dove to stand for the peace process that they rejected. Here are “No peace” and “Shove ur dove” graffiti at the junction of Cavehill Rd and North Circular Road.(2003 X00002)
The dove can also be used in relation to other conflicts, such as the Israel-Palestine dispute:
One strange use of the doves is an Ardoyne Fleadh mural which shows a dove emerging from the hands of Ériu (2002 M01791). The mural might simply mean that peace has come to Ireland, but the combination of mythological Ireland with the dove is unusual.
The Memorial Lark (post-peace)
Since the Agreement also brought the release of political prisoners, the lark, when it re-emerged, could only represent historical prisoners.
As a pointed example of the switch away from the dove when associated with the hunger strikers (see the Ballagh piece, above), we note that the original Mickey Devine mural (circa 2002) near his sister’s in Rathkeele, Derry, involved a dove …
… but the more recent (2016) mural has no dove and instead a lark and phoenix (2016 X03625). See also the Bobby Sands mural, below.
In this Beechmount mural it is used to commemorate those who died on hunger strike in the 20th century.
The GAA club in Twinbrook is named Cumann Na Fuiseoige (The Larks).
The Phoenix (post-peace)
The phoenix likewise returns to murals after the peace, again to symbolise the historical struggle and in particular deceased IRA volunteers.
The phoenix is used by those who wish to continue the armed struggle after the Belfsat Agreement (commonly called “dissidents”). The following mural looks much like vintage solidarity murals of previous years, but it is from 2002, on the back of the Bogside Inn (where there is much CIRA and particularly RIRA graffiti).
Non-Use Of The Lark By “Dissidents” (post-peace)
The following image is an exception that tests the rule – a lark (a lark of war, no less) in the context of Maghaberry prisoners. But the lark and the Long Kesh tower are included because of a connection between “81” and “02” – the current prisoners are the descendants of those earlier prisoners. The lark and tower are faded in the background while the barbed wire is in solid black.