Visual History 05 – 1983-1988


After the drama of the hunger strikes, the “long war” of attrition resumed. Likewise in muraling, there was a lull in the mid-1980s in comparison with the hectic pace achieved in 1981 and 1982.

The most notable new type of republican mural (alongside the paramilitary, oppression-resistance, and traditional murals which continued to be painted) was electoral murals. Hunger striker Bobby Sands had stood for the Westminster seat of Fermanagh & South Tyrone in 1981 and was elected. The possibility of an electoral campaign in addition to the military campaign was immediately apparent: Danny Morrison famously declared “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?”. Sinn Féin ran candidates in the 1981 Assembly elections and won five seats (of 78); in the 1983 Westminster election, its candidates stood in 13 of the 17 constituencies and Gerry Adams was elected for Belfast West. Some murals encouraged voting for Sinn Féin in general and these lasted longer than murals painted for specific elections as these had a built-in expiry date and were quickly removed; they were suited to small boards as well as full-scale gables.

Loyalist muraling in Belfast saw a localised spurt in 1984 with a series of murals by Alan Skillen in Percy Place (just off the lower Shankill). These (separately) featured a variety of traditional and paramilitary imagery, such as the crown and Bible, on the one hand, and an armed and masked volunteer standing on a free-floating Northern Ireland, on the other.

The addition of masked gunmen represented a new step in PUL muraling, extending the trend seen at the end of Visual History 01 where murals with the symbols and flags of unionism and loyalism were added to the previous Williamite murals. 

The presentation of loyalist volunteers is the same in loyalist murals as in republican: non-identifiable bare faces could be painted – and sometimes were [M00818 Blythe Street; M00560 Craven Street; inside Long Kesh (Rolston 1991 p. 41)] – but masks make the volunteers appear more threatening and are easier to paint. The first identifiable – deceased – volunteers (in addition to the hunger strikers) appear in a republican mural: McLarnan and Loughran (M00383). (See the next page for portraits of deceased loyalist paramilitaries.)

Rolston states (1991 pp. 41-2) that in all of the murals featuring loyalist volunteers and their weapons, the target is never visible and he contends that this is because the target is typically a Catholic civilian and thus not “honourable” for portrayal. But the same is true of republican murals: volunteers are portrayed in firing poses but their targets are not evident. (One depiction of person in range of a weapon – the only one, if we don’t count anonymous dead Jacobite solders – is of the body of Michael McCartan in Oakman Street (M00414), a teenager shot while painting graffiti in south Belfast.)

In the mid- to late-1980s, some PUL murals were painted on the period 1912-1918, that is, the (anti-British) Ulster Volunteers as a response to Home Rule and their transformation into (pro-British) soldiers in the 36th (Ulster) Division during WWI. The theme of the ‘desertion’ of PUL Northern Ireland first appears in this period. One version of this mural concerns the vulnerability felt when PUL men leave for WWI and the other is abandonment by England – the same image of an armed farmer’s wife is used, but the date is changed to 1912. (This (latter) usage re-emerged in the post-Brexit dispute over the NI Protocol.) One possible cause of the emergence of this theme is the signing, in November of 1985, of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, by Margaret Thatcher (UK) and Garrett Fitzgerald (Ireland), giving the Republic Of Ireland an advisory role in Northern affairs. The 75th anniversary of the creation of the anti-Home Rule force the Ulster Volunteers (1912-1987) prompted several UVF murals, as the similarity in name provides the organisation with an origin-story. (The 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, in 1986, had produced only a single (known) example, included below.) 
In sum, however, we are talking about a handful of PUL murals drawing on Home Rule/WWI crisis. Traditional (King Billy), flags & symbols, and gunmen images are more plentiful.)

In terms of their production and sophistication, most murals before this point were what we have been calling “proto-murals”, by which we mean that they were limited in one or more of the following ways: not filling the entire wall,  having no background or a single-colour background, by being a montage of symbols or figures rather than an integrated scene. The increasing professionalism of murals is evident from the images on this page: many murals still fall short of full development, but some are large-scale, full-wall, pieces of some complexity. The final and most difficult feature to be added is a detailed background. The work of Gerard ‘Mo Chara’ Kelly, beginning in 1987, elevated muraling to new heights. Kelly began by painting images of Gerry Adams for the 1987 Westminster election but it was his work in the style and symbols of Jim Fitzpatrick that drew global attention. The murals were large, bright, and bold. Like any effective mural, their message could be taken in at a glance, but they also repaid slower aesthetic consideration. We consider these murals a high-point because they were rarely seen: not every mural needs to be so sophisticated – topical murals come and go quickly; murals on complicated issues might require a montage of symbols and figures; many UDA and UFF murals are symbols to mark territory; etc – and these full-detail murals are difficult to produce and (especially) maintain.


Frequent Imagery:
Republican imagery and themes remain largely the same as before, that is, a mix of traditional, paramilitary, and resistance imagery; the Sinn Féin logo and names of candidates appear in electoral murals.

For loyalist paramilitaries, the goal and the history are both bound up with the political history of Protestantism in Ireland [and very occasionally Home Rule and the creation of Northern Ireland; the first sustained muraling referring to Home Rule and partition appears in 1987].
The emblem of the UVF is a gold oval containing a red hand, with the words “For God and Ulster” around it. The youth wing, the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV) features a shamrock, in imitation of the YCV of the Home Rule/WWI era.
The emblem of the UDA is a (bleeding) red hand either on a white, six-pointed star on an Ulster Banner shield, or on a blue background beneath a crown, in both cases with the words “Quis separabit” [“Who will separate [us]”] below. The Ulster Freedom Fighters’ (UFF) emblem features a clenched red fist on a white star between laurels; the emblem of the youth wing, the Ulster Young Militants (UYM), is a red fist with the slogan “Terrae filius” [“Son of the land”].
The goal being sought is the Union with Britain. Thus, traditional symbols of the Union, Orangism, Protestantism, and the English in Ireland, continue to appear and appear alongside paramilitary images: Union flag, the crown, Bible, harp, shamrock.
Connections to Scotland (especially) and the other home countries also appear.
The Ulster Banner and the territory of Northern Ireland make an appearance. NI sometimes appears as a free-floating entity which is probably just to separate it from the Republic, but also has the effect of separating it from Britain.
The ‘previous struggle’ that serves as a historical touchstone is the campaign of William III. Thus we see Williamite slogans such as “remember 1690” and “no surrender” used in paramilitary murals, so that the connection with historical loyalism is not lost. (The UVF flag also preserves a connection to the Orange Order.)

What stays the same: 

Traditional PUL And Paramilitary Insignia continue in the mid 80s, sometimes combined, as in this image from Bond’s Place, Londonderry, showing UDA insignia next to a King Billy. (The Londonderry crest is out of shot to left).

(1985 M00375)

UDA board with Orange Order flag-bearers on either side. (Fountain, Londonderry)
(1986 M00353)

Here are a wide array of loyalist traditional and paramilitary symbols, plus the full crest of Northern Ireland (click the reference number for a close-up), with surrounding UDA and UVF insignia, in the Fountain area of Londonderry. 

(1986 begun in 1985 M00391)


Traditional CNR And Paramilitary murals continue in the mid-80s:
Here are some traditional CNR icons – the Tricolour and harp – but also included is the rarely seen (in CNR murals) shamrock – in Ardfoyle, Derry

(1984 M00236)

A verse from Padraig Pearse’s poem Mise Éire with symbols of Celtic Ireland, alongside an IRA Firing Party in Chamberlain Street, Derry.

(1985 M00261)

An illustration of Bobby Sands’s saying “Everyone … has his or her own particular part to play.” The mural, which is already graffitied in this image, would later be paintbombed and in response a plaque was added to the top left attributing this vandalism to “the destructive talents of the RUC” – click the reference link below the picture. (Westland Street, Derry)
(1985 dating to at least 1984 M00425)

Although this is a small piece on the back gates of a house in Blucher Street, Derry, it is significant for being the first (known) mention of Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg in addition to the ten deceased 1981 hunger strikers. They both died on hunger strike in English prisons in the 1970s.

(1985 M00278)

Sean Downes was shot at point-blank range with a plastic bullet in Andersonstown in August 1984, as the RUC moved to prevent Martin Galvin of NORAID from speaking. 

(1985 M00285)

The weapons of the IRA. (Whiterock Road)
(1985 M00291)

A Derry brigade roll of honour, likening the deceased to Celtic warriors.

(1985 M00319)

First plaque in the Peter Moloney Collection, to members of IRA (Belfast brigade) D Coy, 2nd Batt. (Albert Street at Joy Street, in Divis.)

(1985 M00292)

“Armed Struggle – Peoples Politics”. Volunteer with RPG. (Beechmount Avenue, Belfast)

(1986 M00438)

“SS RUC” and “Victory to the IRA”. (Whiterock Road, Belfast)

(1987 M00472)

CNR murals expressing solidarity with the struggles of other oppressed people continued. Below, “Solidarity between women in armed struggle” shows female members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Cumann na mBan, and the Southwest African People’s Organisation (from Namibia) drawn within the symbol for woman. (This replaced the controversial “We must grow tough without losing our tenderness” seen in Visual History 03.) There is a separate page on Women In Murals And Muraling with a different image of this mural.

(1983 X05531 Image by Bill Rolston, used by permission.)


What Changes

Some Short-Term Items …

The first use of the “inside” of Free Derry Corner was to repeat in Irish the slogan on the other side “You are now entering Free Derry”. The rear of Free Derry Corner has its own Visual History page.

(1983 M00178)

1984 saw a controversy over the name of the city on the Foyle: Derry or Londonderry? The council voted to change the name of the district and hence of itself to “Derry” but SDLP councillors refused to support a change in the name of the city itself, which prompted a local wag to suggest a renaming of the party (shown below). A 2007 High Court decision affirmed the official name of the city to be “Londonderry”.
“Stoop Down Low Party” (Rossville Street, Derry)

(1984 M00232)

“It’s Derry Not Londonderry” (rear of Free Derry Corner)

(1984 M00235)

Loyalist graffiti supporting “Londonderry” over “Derry”. (Kennedy Place, Londonderry)

(1985 M00356)

Testimony from a number of informants (grasses, touts) led to a large number of convictions – such as the 22 PIRA members convicted on the basis of testimony from Christopher Black in 1983 – and thus known as “supergrasses”. Convictions from supergrass trials were often overturned on appeal and the method of prosecution quickly became discredited.

“1971 – no trials [i.e. internment], 1984 show trials”. (Unity Flats)

(1985 M00297)

The last supergrass trial was in December 1985, when 25 members of the INLA were jailed on the testimony of INLA member Harry Kirkpatrick. After this, the use of informants was suspended.
“Kirkpatrick paid informer” (Unity Flats)

(1985 M00299)

Alan Skillen & Percy Place

With the support of local people, Alan Skillen painted a series of murals in (PUL) Percy Place (Rolston 1991 p. 39), seven gables and four side walls (at least). They mixed together traditional imagery – such as a mounted King Billy, the red hand, and symbols of Orangism – with paramilitary imagery – such as masked gunmen, both UDA and UVF emblems, and barbed wire (for prisoners). For further discussion and a complete set of the Percy Place murals, see the separate page on the Alan Skillen Murals

A gable mural by Alan Skillen of traditional Protestant/Orange symbol of the crown and Bible. The gable murals were all painted on bare (brick) backgrounds while the side-walls were given coloured backgrounds.

(1988 dating to 1984 M00573)

(Loyalist) Hooded Gunmen

The Skillen murals are among the first to show volunteers and not just paramilitary insignia. Here are the two images of gunmen. One shows a kneeling UVF gunman, declaring “This is loyalist west Belfast”.

The other, also on a side-wall, shows a volunteer with a rifle in his left hand and the Ulster banner on a spear in his right, standing on a free-floating Northern Ireland.

(1988 dating to 1984 M00568)

Already the trope is established that the volunteers are hooded or masked or, at the very least, wearing sunglasses. The volunteers in this Rosebank Street mural, however, do not wear masks or sunglasses.


Hooded UDA/UFF volunteers on manoeuvres. (1988 Crumlin Road, Belfast)

Perhaps the most aggressive of the mid-80s loyalist murals: UVF gunmen take aim, implementing the threat “The UVF reserve the right to strike at republican targets where and when the opportunity arises.” (Ohio Street, Belfast)

(1988 dating to at least 1985 M00549)

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 didn’t directly spawn much muraling, but it did give rise to the famous slogan “Ulster Says No” and its local variants such as “Belfast Says No”. These would be used frequently in the following decade and continue to be a familiar formulation.

(1985 M00316)

“The Fountain Says No” (Fountain Street, Londonderry) (PUL)

(1986 M00390)

Later (1989 image of a fresh-looking mural) republican reaction in Strabane, critical of Thatcher and Fitzgerald.

(1989 M00698)

A New PUL theme: Home Rule and WWI

The 75th anniversary of the Ulster Volunteers occurred in 1987 and the anniversary was recognized in a few murals. This one, on the Shankill Road at Argyle Street, Belfast, shows the Ulster Volunteers training with a rifle mounted in a horseless carriage. (The Larne gun-running was the world’s first large-scale use of the car in a military operation.)

(1988 dating to 1987 M00545)

The purpose of celebrating the anniversary, however, was not simply to remember the Ulster Volunteers; it was an attempt to give the modern UVF a foundation-myth, based on the earlier organisation of the same name. Some murals explicitly combined the Ulster Volunteers of 1912 and the modern Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Here, with period uniforms, are the UVF “Then [1912] and now [1987]” (Dover Place, Belfast). (Note, in reference to the inclusion of gunmen in PUL murals described above, that the volunteer on the right is hooded.) 

(1988 dating to 1987 M00575

With the declaration of war in 1914, the Ulster Volunteers joined up with the British Army and formed the core of the 36th (Ulster) Division, which sustained massive losses at the Somme, and in particular on the first day, July 1st 1916, in the Battle Of Albert. 

As mentioned in the introduction, the mural just below, in Craven Street, is the only known mural to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Somme in 1986. But, as with the Ulster Volunteers and the threat of Home Rule, the point was not just to remember the service of northern men on Flanders’ fields, it was to allow modern loyalist paramilitary activity to be described as a similar act of loyalty. And so this is also the first mural to put the sacrifice of the modern UVF in parallel with the sacrifice at the Somme. (The WWI soldiers are on the left and UVF volunteers on the right.) Unusually (compared to later murals) the latter’s sacrifice is not death but imprisonment; later murals will typically show mourning volunteers standing over the graves of those who have died.

(1988 dating to 1986 M00560)

In effect, the appeal to the Ulster Volunteers of 1912 and to the 36th (Ulster) Division serve the same function: to show that the PUL community in Ireland forms an authentically British colony, or simply put, is British.

The following mural (replicating a postcard from the period) shows a Protestant farmer’s wife defending their property while the husband is away at war – “Deserted – Well, I can stand alone”. “Ulster 1914” tell us that the obvious context is WWI but being deserted tells us she is defending the Britishness of the northern counties against attack from the rest of Ireland, and in this way the Home Rule and WWI crises are combined. Loyalists in Ireland were fighting for Britain abroad while facing the prospect of being abandoned (and potentially subdued) by it at home. As noted in the introduction, the appearance of this mural might have been prompted by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which was negotiated without unionist input and which gave the Republic a say in Northern Irish affairs; the old fears – of British abandonment and of Irish take-over – were rekindled. 
(M00558. See also Redcliffe Parade (east Belfast) in 1988: M00621)

As a capstone to this interpretation, we can point to a 1987 Dee Street mural which showed three armed figures, one for each of 1912, 1916, and 1987, under the slogan “Ulster will fight – never unite” (see Rolston 1991 p.45).

(From this point onward, the comparison of modern action with the heroism of the Somme would continue as a theme in PUL muraling. Somewhat beyond the scope of this page, from 1988 onwards there appear some murals commemorating WWI without any mention of the modern conflict. Rolston DS1 022 shows a watercolour-style image of soldiers walking in no-man’s land (dated 1988) and 024 shows soldiers going “over the top” (dated “mid-1980s”.) The one below, from Donegall Pass in 1990 commemorates fallen soldiers from south Belfast. (One small item of note is that it includes the shield of Ulster (the province) rather than the Ulster Banner.)
D00352 W00011 36th ulster. d.pass+

However, it is not until the re-imaging campaigns of the mid 2000s that WWI, typically with a reference to Troubles-era paramilitarism, becomes an omnipresent theme in loyalist muraling – see Visual History 09.) 

A New CNR Theme: Electoral murals
With the new strategy of the “armalite and the ballot box” (mentioned in the introduction) CNR murals appear for Sinn Féin and for specific elections and candidates.

“For A New Ireland/Vote Sinn Féin”. Although it asks people to vote for Sinn Féin and was presumably painted in time for the 1983 Westminster election, this mural is tied to on-going issues rather than to the election specifically. It remained on the wall for three years.

(1986 dating to 1983 M00399)

Sinn Féin’s logo was (and remains) the island of Ireland with the party name (or often just the capital letters) superimposed. This example is in Bishop Street, Derry.

(1984 M00240)

The Sinn Féin logo in this mural in AMCOMRI Street replaced a lark in barbed wire. The logo (but not the name to the right) would be painted out the following year.
(1986 M00406)

On the Falls Road, Belfast: “Freedom. Justice. Peace” in tricolours with SF logo and “Vote Sinn Féin” on the side-wall. The inclusion of “peace” perhaps suggests weariness with the war and that electoral success for Sinn Féin will provide an alternative and quicker route to armistice than the military campaign.

(1987 M00480)

Mo Chara Kelly
Two murals for the 1987 election were the first murals painted by Gerard ‘Mo Chara’ Kelly. Kelly had served time in Long Kesh for possession of explosives and used tracing and squaring skills he had developed in prison to paint two images of Gerry Adams for the 1987 election:

(M00464) Also Vote Adams X – M00479).

In prison he had also discovered the art of Jim Fitzpatrick. In May-June he painted a memorial to the eight IRA volunteers killed at Loughgall in the style of Fitzpatrick and then later in the year reproduced one of Fitzpatrick’s image, of Nuada, King of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Both murals were on Springhill Avenue, Belfast and mark the high-point of muraling, an elevation that could not be maintained in the political situation of the time: the murals were repeatedly paint-bombed and once Mo Chara’s reputation was established he would not have the luxury of time to paint such painstaking murals – until the ceasefire.

(1988 M00604)

(1987 in progress M00502)

The Rí Nuadha mural is important not only for its detail and completeness (which makes a stronger statement of defiance than previous murals) but perhaps also because of its theme. Although Nuada is obviously a warrior, Fitzpatrick’s image seems to transcend violence to present a positive and independent vision of Irishness, not one predicated on the struggle against British and Protestant rule. This theme would become more evident in CNR muraling with the development of murals on Gaelic culture (see the next page) and, after the peace, with the Bobby Sands saying that “our revenge will be the laughter of our children”.

On to Visual History 06 – 1988-1993


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