Special Category status – political prisoner status – had been granted to republican (IRA and INLA) prisoners since 1972, after a hunger strike involving 40 prisoners in Crumlin Road Gaol. But it was revoked for new convictions from March 1st, 1976 onwards. These prisoners were placed in the newly constructed “H-Blocks”. (With the construction of the H-Blocks, Long Kesh was renamed HMP Maze.)
Republicans, beginning with Kieran Nugent, went on the blanket in September 1976 – that is, they refused to wear prison uniforms, which also meant they could not leave their cells, including going to receive visitors. This escalated into the “dirty” or “no wash” protest in 1978 when prisoners refused to leave their cells to use toilet facilities for fear of being beaten.
The prisoners made five demands: the right not to wear a prison uniform; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits; the right to one visit, one letter, and one parcel per week; full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
A hunger strike began in 1980, involving seven prisoners from Long Kesh and three of the thirty women from the no-wash protest in Armagh Women’s Gaol. It ended in December after 53 days when the UK government appeared to concede the demands. A second hunger strike commenced on March 1st, 1981, with Bobby Sands, IRA Officer Commanding in the H Blocks, refused food. While on strike, he was elected to Westminster for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, prompting the appearance of graffiti saying “Thirty thousand can’t be wrong”. He and nine others would eventually die.
In 1981, at the time of second H-Block hunger strike, republican muraling burgeoned. Where before there had been only simple graffitied slogans, some pieces began by painting the wall a single colour. Others added traditional symbols of republicanism. These might be called “proto-murals” or “flat murals” – they might involve symbols as well as writing, but don’t involve a scene-setting background (they are painted on bare walls or walls covered in a single colour) or any use of depth or perspective, and often don’t fill an entire wall. The simplest of these are painted only in one colour. The great majority of murals from 1981 involve one or more symbols and multiple colours, but they were painted on a bare wall or solid background, without any depth. A few, however, are professional pieces of work. Belinda Loftus (1982 p. 122) notes that some of the early republican artists were trained in art and that “whereas Protestant wallpaintings generally aspire to skill and craft, Catholic murals aspire to art”. This appears to be an overstatement when a fuller catalogue of murals is considered.
We will divide the 1981 murals into three pages. This division by itself is meant to give an impression of the magnitude of the energy that went into mural painting at the time. The three main themes are (1) the prison protests, that is, the blanket protest and the (second) hunger strike (shown on this page), (2) other aspects of British oppression and Irish aspiration, the causes and goals of the struggle (shown on this page) and (3) the armed struggle – see Visual History 04.
This division is artificial and merely done for the sake of pages of roughly equal length. In reality, the hunger strike was often joined by support for the armed struggle, and/or by one or more of the reasons for the taking up of arms. Hence we find various themes in a single mural or adjacent to one another. For example, in the image just below we have both “Victory to the Armagh women” and “Provisional IRA”. The prison protests were undertaken by members of the IRA and INLA and graffiti and murals often expressed support for both forms of struggle.
And in this image too we see both “Provos” and “Victory to the hunger strikers”, as well as an earlier circus mural intended to brighten up a desolate area (the rear of Rossville flats in Derry) – see Visual History 10 for some discussion of this initiative.
And again, in the following two images, of (most of) the panels on the bottom of Rossville flats, many of the themes of republican muraling are present. From left to right are shown: volunteers firing over phoenix, lark in barbed wire, volunteer beside fire (based on a famous image of OIRA volunteer Joe McCann), an assault rifle, cross with names of Bloody Sunday victims (dating to 1976), INLA Starry Plough, a celtic cross with flags, Tricoloured island of Ireland, a phoenix, Pearse and Connolly, Thatcher-shaped Britain nipping Ireland, IRA volunteers with RPG. Not visible on the far left is an IRA roll of honour with Cú Chulainn, and an armed volunteer in front of a Tricolour and pike.
the letter “H”, prisoners on the blanket, portraits of the hunger strikers, barbed wire, the lark, the Five Demands.
The historical and pre-historical symbols are used as complements to these themes. To repeat, these are:
Robert Emmet and imagery of pikemen and pikes, and of the distinctive harp used by the Society of United Irishmen;
The figures and words of Pearse and Connolly, as well as the imagery of the GPO, the Easter lily, the Tricolour, and the Starry Plough;
the Celtic cross, Celtic knotwork, the Irish language, the four provinces, the harp, the island of Ireland.
Photographs of murals and graffiti burgeoned too in 1981. It’s not clear that all of the works shown in the images below dated “1981” were created in 1981 or were in fact painted before the hunger strike. It’s likely that some of the works relating to the blanket protest pre-date 1981, but to verify this would require images or descriptions recorded before 1981.
“Political status must stay” (and “Brits out, peace in”)
“Victory to our blanket-women” in Ballymurphy. Women prisoners were in fact allowed to wear their own clothes and so, strictly speaking, the women in Armagh were on a no-work and no-wash protest but not a blanket protest. But the phrase “blanket protest” serves as a generic term, for both the Armagh and H Block protests.
“Bua dona fir pluid” (Victory to the blanket men) in Clonard(1981 M00005)
The demand for political (rather than criminal status) comprised five demands, though there were various formulations of the five. In this mural, they are no prison uniform, no prison work, free association, education facilities, full remission. (Top of Whiterock Rd)
Another version of the five demands, with parcels instead of education, below a line drawing of a blanket man on his knees: “No, not a dog, but a POW”. (Ballymurphy shops)
“Victory to the hero’s in H-Block”
“Smash H Block” on the Falls Road, Belfast.
The image of the lark (often in barbed wire) comes from Bobby Sands’s essay The Lark And The Freedom Fighter and was used by Sands in his hunger strike diary. Here is a 1982 image from Westland St, Derry:
Two images of the Falls Road library. On the front, “Smash H Block” and on the Sevastopol Street side “13 gone but not forgotten” – a reference to Bloody Sunday 1972 – and “We got 18 and Mounbatten” – a reference to the “Narrow Water” (Warrenpoint) killing of 18 British Army soldiers and the Earl Louis Mountbatten, both on August 27th, 1979.
“Political status now” (Abercorn Road, Derry)
A coil of barbed wire representing prisoners of war. (Brighton Street, Belfast)(1981 M00015)
“Give them their 5 demands”, with Tricolour and Starry Plough flags in colour, and fist breaking an “H”, all on a black background outside the Busy Bee on the Andersonstown Road.(1981 M00020)
The first (1980) hunger strike concluded when the prisoners thought the British had conceded the demands. When it became clear that they had not, the second (1981) hunger strike was organised.
By Day 32, four men were refusing food. (William St, Derry)
Above, “Unite to fight hunger torture death”; bottom right, a celtic cross with the names of the first four hunger strikers in Irish; bottom left, a Tricolour with “IRA” graffitied on it.
Day 55. Four men still on strike, no deaths as yet. (Sinn Féin offices/art shop, Falls Road)
Don’t Let Them Die (Creggan, Derry)
(1982 dating to 1981 M00030)
The names of the first four hunger strikers, with INLA symbols: hammer and sickle, red star, Starry Plough.
The words in this mural are the chorus of Francie Brolly’s H Block Song on the Whiterock Road. Rolston (1991) states that this was the first mural in the proper sense, with an image (rather than a symbol). The crude fist at the top shows that the original intent was to fill the entire gable. Perhaps only one larger mural was painted in 1981 – it was shown in Visual History 02.
And this (Rolston claims) is the second: a portrait of a blanket man and two Tricolours at elevation, Springfield-Whiterock junction. “H” for “H Blocks” and “A” for “Armagh”. The names of the first four hunger strikers are in the corners. Both this and the previous mural were painted before the death of Bobby Sands, on May 5th. (Rolston 1991 p. 78)
A variety of symbols presented together: Irish harp (probably inspired by the Society of United Irishmen), the “bitch!” Thatcher, Tricolours, phoenix, and blanket man on his knees, barbed wire, (and a dagger) on a painted-black half wall.(1981 M00095)
Break Thatcher’s Back. The quote on the left is not from Bobby Sands but Sean O’Casey. It would later be replaced by an Easter lily. The blanket man on the right is defiant rather than on all fours. “Free Belfast” is just out of shot in the upper left.
Funeral volley over the coffin of Bobby Sands, the first hunger striker to die, with quotations from Sands’s The Lark And The Freedom Fighter, published in An Phoblacht of February 3rd, 1979. (Corrody Road, Derry)
“I refuse to change to suit people
Who oppress, torture and imprison me.
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.”(1981 M00152)
Crude portrait of Sands, barbed wire over a Tricolour, and lots of writing, on a black background. (Shaws Road)
Four deaths. McCreesh and O’Hara both died on May 21st.(1981 M00198)
Six hunger strikers, with Sands quote and lark in barbed wire. (Whiterock Rd)
A pair of hands tear apart an “H” of brick: “Our fetters rent in twain” from A Nation Once Again. With the names of six hunger strikers, phoenix, lark in barbed wire, four provinces.
Funeral volley over the first names of the first six hunger strikers. Note that the Tricolours are mounted on pikes (a reference to the 1798 Rebellion), as is almost always the case when a pole is shown. Con’s first mural. (Rockdale St)
In terms of complexity and sophistication of the painting, this image and the next are of colour murals with depth-perspective, though both employ in part a black background. Both were painted by Con, an ex-prisoner who had gotten an A-level in Art while in prison.
Parents hold the dying or dead body of a hunger striker in Long Kesh. The blanket in this case is the Irish Tricolour. (Top of Donegall Road)
“Blessed are those who hunger for justice” (Rockmount St)
The names of seven hunger strikers, including Paddy Quinn, who was taken off the strike by his family after 47 days (July 31st). (Beechmount)
The eighth to die: Kieran Doherty on August 2nd. Like Sands, Doherty had successfully stood for election, in the Republic Of Ireland, for Cavan-Monaghan.
Four provinces, an angel standing over blanket man on a Tricolour – some integration of the elements in the central portion. (Whiterock Road)
“The people arose in 69/They will do it again any time. Maggie Thatcher think again/Don’t let our brave men die again”. This Clowney Street mural (repainted) exists to the present day.
The ninth to die: Thomas McElwee (this mural misspells his name) on August 8th. (Strabane Old Road, Derry)
Nine are dead. The tenth would be added later (see M00159). (Andersonstown)
“More H Blocks” and “Let Them Die” and a coffin with the number “9”.
(1983 dating to 1981 M00050)
After the hunger strike ended, on October 3rd, 1981, murals depicting prison protests were no longer painted. Memorials to the hunger strikers, collectively and individually, continued.
As mentioned above, although the hunger strike was the catalyst for republican muraling, it took place against a history of many causes and aspirations, and these were painted in murals too. This page ends with a few examples of such murals, all from 1981. (On the next page, paramilitary (IRA and INLA) murals from 1981 and thereafter will be presented.)
The Tricolour and the Starry Plough are used to represent the IRA and INLA, but they are also more generally symbols of Irish nationalism and of socialism. This mural, which is more “complete” than most of the period, features socialist leader James Connolly and is “sponsored by Trade Union Group”.(1981 M00135)
The person arrested at the end of Perks’s piece is used as a segue to ‘the Conveyor Belt’: the process of interrogation by the police and Army, trial and sentencing by the Diplock (non-jury) courts, and incarceration and joining the blanket protest in the H Blocks of Long Kesh.
Sasanach [Sasanaigh] Amach, with the symbol of the Troops Out Movement
The use of rubber bullets and then plastic bullets (1975 onward) by both the RUC and the British Army would be a contentious issue throughout the Troubles. This mural in Linden Street is next to the spot where Nora McCabe was shot in the back of the head by a plastic bullet by the RUC.(1981 M00148) (See also Sean Downes 1985 M00285, Stephen McConomy 1989 M00631)
“Resistance” on the Falls Road was full size, with the elements (three female activists and a Tricolour) slightly overlapping. However, the chimney is unpainted and the mural uses a solid black background. (1981 M00100)
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