Visual History 03 – The Prison Protests (1981)


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 But it was revoked for new convictions from March 1st, 1976 onwards.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. All three names are used.)

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, in both the sense of the number of murals and the sophistication of murals. Up to that point in the Troubles, CNR discontent had taken the form of violence (both street rioting and paramilitary activity), marches, posters and leaflets. Martin Luther King noted (in a 1966 interview on CBS) that “a riot is the language of the unheard” but graffiti and particularly the murals that developed in 1981 are a more articulate form of expression by the unheard. They are attempts to  communicate (with the community and sometimes with oppressors) using words and images rather than (violent) deeds. Unlike the riot, they do not immediately alienate those who are non-violent, and murals need not be considered unsightly vandalism that defaces the community, unlike graffiti. The more they are used the stronger the community’s identity becomes, since public expressions are acts of defiance. (That is, if even you don’t agree with armed violence and riots, you agree that verbal protest and self-identity should be allowed and acknowledged.)  Although the hunger strikers were IRA and INLA volunteers, the hunger strike is the ultimate non-violent protest, and the murals are driven by the idea that the CNR community can support the hunger strikers even if it disagrees with the actions that put the men in prison to begin with. Con, for example, (one of the main painters of the summer of 1981) says that the religious imagery in his work was an attempt to get practising Catholics to reconsider their perspective on the prisoners. The murals often cordon off an area and increases the information community members have about each other, encouraging more people to publicly express their views (if they are the same – if not, murals can feel repressive).

The more professional murals become the more the message becomes an expression of sober thought as compared to riots or graffiti. In artistic terms, 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, and increasingly so as the summer wore on. 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 but indicates the artistic quality that was sometimes achieved. If a mural is art, or aspires to art, is its message not worth taking seriously, both by community members and oppressors? And if murals are both many and sophisticated, they have likely been produced by a culture (rather than by lone geniuses), and so the community has an identity it can be proud of and which deserves respect.

In short, feeling that it had no form of ordinary communication with its oppressors, the CNR community made itself heard in many familiar ways but also, from 1981 onward, on the walls. The prolific and more sophisticated muraling that arrived in 1981, was, like the hunger strike, a step down in terms of violence for the CNR community (at least temporarily) and a step up in unity and self-assertion, in defiance of the Orange state and its British backers. (Compare this to the description in Visual History 01 of elitist attitudes towards the early PUL murals.) 

We will divide the 1981 murals into three themes, illustrated across two 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.

(1981 M00201 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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.

(1981 M00056)

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.

(1981 M00162 M00161)


Frequent Imagery:
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”)

(1980 M00374)

“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.

(1981 M00019 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“Bua dona fir pluid” (Victory to the blanket men) in Clonard
(1981 M00005 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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)

(1981 M00059 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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)

(1981 M00058 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“Victory to the hero’s in H-Block”

(1981 M00001 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“Smash H Block” on the Falls Road, Belfast.
(1981 M0002 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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:

(1982 M00191)

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.

(1981 M00042 Image by LC, used by permission.)

(1981 M00047 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“Political status now” (Abercorn Road, Derry)

(1981 M00089)

A coil of barbed wire representing prisoners of war. (Brighton Street, Belfast)
(1981 M00015 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“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 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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)
(1981 M00080)

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.
(1981 M0082 Image by LC, used by permission.)

Day 55. Four men still on strike, no deaths as yet. (Sinn Féin offices/art shop, Falls Road)
(1981 M00083 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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.

(1981 M00218 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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.
(1981 M00184 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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)
(1981 M00086 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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.

(1981 M00211 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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)
(1981 M00054 Image by LC, used by permission.)

Four deaths. McCreesh and O’Hara both died on May 21st.
(1981 M00198 Image by LC, used by permission.)

Six hunger strikers, with Sands quote and lark in barbed wire. (Whiterock Rd)
(1981 M00205 Image by LC, used by permission.)

A pair of hands tears 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.
(1981 M00223 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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)
(1981 M00116 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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. (Many of Con’s murals were included in the 1982 Revolutionary Calendar.)

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)
(1981 M00111 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“Blessed are those who hunger for justice” (Rockmount St)
(1981 M00131 Image by LC, used by permission.)

The names of seven hunger strikers, including Paddy Quinn, who was taken off the strike by his family after 47 days (July 31st). (Beechmount St)
(1981 M00119 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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.
(1981 M00096 Image by LC, used by permission.)

Four provinces, an angel standing over blanket man on a Tricolour – some integration of the elements in the central portion. (Whiterock Road)
(1981 M00129 Image by LC, used by permission.)

“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.

(1981 M00217 Image by LC, used by permission.)

The ninth to die: Thomas McElwee (this mural misspells his name) on August 8th. (Strabane Old Road, Derry)

(1981 M00153)

Nine are dead. The tenth would be added later (see M00159). (Andersonstown)

(1981 M00158)

“More H Blocks” and “Let Them Die” and a coffin with the number “9”. (Londonderry)

(1983 dating to 1981 M00050)

“Support the UVF – Sands rot in hell”
SandsRotInHell(unattributed X09239)

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 Image by LC, used by permission.)

Jeff Perks’s linotype “The Training Ground” is reproduced in paint. It depicts a history of English involvement in Ireland, from Cromwell to the present day.
(1981 M00123 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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 (“Castlereagh”), trial and sentencing by the Diplock (non-jury) courts (“Crumlin Road”, “Diplock Courts”), and incarceration and joining the blanket protest in the H Blocks of Long Kesh.
(1981 M00126 Image by LC, used by permission.)

At the end of the Conveyor Belt are four panels, possibly by Jack Clafferty, famous for the Troops Out Now! poster, upon which the next image is based.
(1981 M00122 Image by LC, used by permission.)

Sasanach [Sasanaigh] Amach, with the symbol of the Troops Out Movement

(1981 M00156 Image by LC, used by permission.)

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 Image by LC, used by permission.) (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. The quote is commonly attributed to Che Guevara and does not apply specifically to women. Bill Rolston writes (private correspondence) that the mural proved controversial: “a lot of republican women wanted to know why they didn’t paint a mural depicting male activists with the same slogan”.
(1981 M00100 Image by LC, used by permission.)

This image shows some paint-bombing of the mural, as well as the message on the side wall: “If interested in joining contact Sinn Féin. Done by Sinn Féin Youth!”

(1982 X05530 Image by Bill Rolston, used by permission.)

On to Visual History 04 – Paramilitary Murals … (an appendix to Visual History 04 lists all of the murals believed to have been painted in 1981)

This material copyright © Extramural Activity 2017-2022