When Art Becomes Political: An Analysis of Irish Republican Murals 1981 to 2011
For nearly thirty years in the late twentieth century, sectarian violence between Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants plagued Northern Ireland. Referred to as “the Troubles,” the violence officially lasted from 1969, when British troops were deployed to the region, until 1998, when the peace agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, was signed. Despite the changes in the government system, two things have not changed in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement: the pride both Loyalists and Republicans have in their cultures and their means to express this: murals. Traditionally a Loyalist practice dating back to late 1920s, Republican murals did not become widespread in 1981 when a real mural tradition emerged. This proliferation of Republican murals happened because of the 1981 Hunger Strike led by Bobby Sands in the H-block prison. With renewed vigor in Irish Republicanism combined with anger and sadness over the death of the hunger strikers, artists began to paint many murals in nationalist areas; in the months following Sands’ death, over one hundred murals were painted in Belfast alone. For both Republicans and Loyalists, the murals, painted on the sides of businesses and homes throughout cities in Northern Ireland, served as a way to generate and solidify popular support through non-violent means. Muralists from both sides incorporated portrayals of historical events and heroes in their activist artwork—presumably in order to stir pride and renewed commitment among their comrades and to encourage support in their respective causes. Because they are on the opposite sides of the conflict, the murals draw on completely different sources of inspiration and depict different events. By looking at the murals one can see the violence, devastation, and ultimately progress that took place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and after the Good Friday Agreement. This project demonstrates how hunger strike inspired murals painted in 1981 and 2011, for example, have differences like artistic quality, inclusion of symbols, and use of quotes, even though they are depictions of the same event. Because the political climate and the circumstances of the conflict changed, so did the murals.