- From King Billy to Cú Chulainn: Loyalist and Republican Murals, Past, Present, and Future
- Irish-American Cultural Institute
- Volume 32 & Volume 33, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 1997 / Number 1-2, Earrach/Samhradh/Spring/Summ
- pp. 6-28
- View Citation
- Additional Information
COVER The front and back covers of this issue of ÉIRE-IRELAND reproduce Bill Rolston’s photographs of wall murals in Northern Ireland: on the front cover a mural on Lenadoon Avenue, West Belfast; on the back cover a mural on Newtonards Road, East Belfast. The editors wish to thank Professor Rolston for permission to reproduce these cover illustrations as well as his seven other photographs of wall murals included in the following article. FROM KING BILLY TO CÚ CHULAINN: LOYALIST AND REPUBLICAN MURALS, PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE BILL ROLSTON in the summer of 1991, an unusual image appeared in a wall mural on the Newtownards Road, East Belfast (back cover). A staunchly loyalist area, East Belfast was accustomed to murals. The first, depicting King Billy at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, was painted in 1908 on the Beersbridge Road, a few hundred yards away (Loftus 31). But the Newtownards Road mural in 1991 showed a very different warrior: Cú Chulainn, the mythological hero of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, depicted mortally wounded but dying upright, tied to a post. The image was familiar. Essentially it was copied from a bronze statue in the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin. But in the GPO, Cú Chulainn represented the Easter Rising of 1916. And in that symbolic incarnation , the image of Cú Chulainn was copied by republican muralists on walls in the North: for example, in Turf Lodge, West Belfast, in 1988 (Rolston , Drawing Support 2 58); Armagh in 1991 (28); and Lenadoon Avenue, West Belfast, in 1997 (front cover). That a mythical hero until that point monopolized by republicans and nationalists should have been adopted by loyalists seems remarkable. Furthermore , that the exact imagery in effect sanctified by republican usage LOYALIST AND REPUBLICAN MURALS, PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE 6 should have been copied in a loyalist mural is, at first appearance, incongruous . The crucial question is how one is to read the loyalist mural. The possibility of a sudden conversion to republicanism by the loyalists concerned can be quickly discounted. A variation on that theme, however, superficially appears plausible: the argument that loyalists and republicans, in drawing on common symbols, are beginning to find common political ground.1 But the evidence for such optimism is thin to the point of nonexistence. For a start, few such symbols transcend the political divide in the North of Ireland. The Red Hand of Ulster is the most obvious one, accepted by nationalists as the traditional emblem of the main northern clan, the O’Neills, and thus predating colonization. For nationalists, the unionist and loyalist appropriation of the symbol of the red hand—it is central in the Ulster flag flown by the UDA (Ulster Defense Association), and its name is invoked by a small loyalist paramilitary group linked to the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), the Red Hand Commandos—can be taken as cultural hijacking. From a loyalist point of view, the symbol not only conveys the notion that contemporary loyalists, like the northern O’Neill clan before them, are staunch and brave warriors, but also that Ulster is and always has been different from the rest of Ireland. There are few other symbols in this supposed common ground. The Ulster flag itself is another apparent candidate. But in the loyalist case, the flag is a red cross on a white background, whereas for republicans the background is yellow. Besides, nuances of color apart, everyone knows that when loyalists talk of “Ulster,” they refer to the six counties created in the early-twentieth-century partition of Ireland; republicans, on the other hand, refer to the nine counties making up the ancient province. Similarly, the shamrock may appear on the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) badge as well as exist as the emblem of the Young Citizen Volunteers, the youth wing of the UVF; but these loyalist appropriations do not necessarily mean that republicans are about to embrace either police personnel or young militant loyalists as long-lost kindred. LOYALIST AND REPUBLICAN MURALS, PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE 7 1 Although she does not consider Cú Chulainn as such, Kenney enthusiastically proclaims that “. . . there is much evidence of cultural exchange between Catholics and Protestants...