Visual History 03 – The Prison Protests (1981)


Special Category status – political prisoner status – had been granted to republican prisoners since 1972 after a hunger strike involving 40 prisoners in Crumlin Road Gaol but it was revoked for new convictions from March 1st, 1976 onwards.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.

The work varies greatly in its sophistication. Some of the work is graffiti (writing) only. What might be called “proto-murals” or “flat murals” 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 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) British oppression and Irish aspiration (the causes and goals of the struggle, as well as general calls to resist) – these murals were included in Visual History 2 – (2) the prison protests, that is, the blanket protest and the (second) hunger strike – on this page – and (3) the armed struggle – see Visual History 4.

This separation is artificial. The hunger strikers are IRA and INLA volunteers and the reason for their taking up arms is the occupation of Ireland. Although the hunger strike itself was the subject of many murals, the hunger strikes brought to the boiling point the simmering dissatisfaction of nationalists and unleashed a wave of murals on many aspects of their situation and attempts to resist it.
Hence we find more than one of these three 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)

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).

(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 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 the hero’s in H-Block”
(1981 M00001)

“Smash H Block” on the Falls Road, Belfast.
(1981 M0002)

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)

(1981 M00047)

“Bua dona fir pluid” (Victory to the blanket men) in Clonard(1981 M00005)

“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)

The words in this mural are the chorus of Francie Brolly’s H Block Song on the Whiterock Road. The crude fist at the top shows that the original intent was to fill the entire gable. Perhaps only one large mural was painted in 1981 – it was shown in Visual History 2.
(1981 M00184)

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)

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)

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)

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)

“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.

“Political status now” (Abercorn Road, Derry)

(1981 M00089)

A coil of barbed wire representing prisoners of war.(1981 M00015)

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

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.
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)

“Blessed are those who hunger for justice” (Rockmount St)

(1981 M00131)

By Day 32, four men were refusing food. (William St, Derry)
(1981 M00080)

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.
(1981 M00086)

The names of the first four hunger strikers, with INLA symbols: hammer and sickle, red star, Starry Plough.
(1981 M00218)

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)

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

Don’t Let Them Die (Creggan, Derry)

(1982 dating to 1981 M00030)

“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)

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)

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)
(1981 M00205)

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.
(1981 M00223)

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. (Rockdale St)

(1981 M00116)

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)

The eighth to die: Kieran Doherty on August 2nd.
(1981 M00096)

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)

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

(1981 M00119)

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

(1983 dating to 1981 M00050)

After the hunger strikes end, on October 3rd, 1981, murals depicting prison protests were no longer painted. Memorials to the hunger strikers, collectively and individually, continued.

On to Visual History 04 – Paramilitary Murals …


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