Murals versus Flags: A Symbolically Dense Landscape, continued



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As I said in my previous blog, the Catholic areas in Belfast tend to be symbolically demarcated primarily with murals, while the Protestant ones are festooned with flags. The distinction is not absolute, and you can see the Irish Tricolor (green-white-orange) in two photographs in the previous blog. Still, they are mostly found in the cemeteries, such as at the County Antrim Memorial in Milltown Cemetery:


In fact, when traversing Republican areas in Belfast, I’ve seen more Brazilian flags than Irish tricolors (because this was during the World Cup).

In Protestant areas, you see a variety of flags, plus a lot of red-white-blue bunting, as in this neighborhood in East Belfast:


The most common flags are the Union Jack, the Red Hand of Ulster Flag (you see both of them in the photo above, the Ulster Banner is the one with a red cross on white background), and the Orange Order flag. Here’s what the Orange Order flag looks like:


This photo, actually, was taken just around the corner from where our hotel was. Although, as I said, our hotel was in a neutral area, by walking 100 feet from its entrance you would cross into the staunchly Loyalist neighborhood of Sandy Row. The building above is the Sandy Row Orange Hall. Also note the banner with the British royals (another very common Loyalist symbol).

A bit of history: the Orangemen take their name from William of Orange, the Dutch Elector who successfully invaded England in 1688, defeated the troops of the last Catholic English king, James II, and was crowned as King of England. These events are also known as the Glorious Revolution. On July 12, 1690 William and James fought the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland , in which William was victorious. The Orangemen now commemorate the date of the battle with a parade and huge bonfires.

We were in Belfast just a week before July 12, and preparations for the celebrations were in full swing. I don’t have pictures of the huge pyres that Orangemen constructed all over Belfast, so here is one published by the Guardian:

A loyalist waves A union jack on top of a pyre that will be lit to mark 12 July Orange Order parades

A loyalist waves the union jack on top of a pyre that will be lit to mark the start of the annual 12 July Orange Order parades. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

July 12 celebrations are highly divisive in Northern Ireland, since the Catholics are obviously not enthused about commemorating the battle that ensured the domination of Ireland by the Protestants for more than two centuries.

When the bonfires are lit up at night, they create another kind of symbolic landscape:



The Shankill area is another Loyalist stronghold:


Note the tattoo on the forearm of the man in the foreground. I’ve never seen such a density of tattoo parlors anywhere else.

The blue flag on the lamp post is that of the Ulster Defense Association, one of the two main Loyalist paramilitary groups:


There is an interesting interaction between ethnicity and class in Belfast. From what Kevin told us and we saw, Belfast seems to have three kinds of areas. The better-off live in mansions and stand-alone houses situated on elegant ‘leafy’ (lots of greenery) streets. These neighborhoods are innocent of any sectarian symbols, whether they are Catholic or Protestant (and some are, I believe, integrated).

The middle classes live in two-story brick row-houses, utterly familiar to anybody who has been to London suburbs. Such neighborhoods are usually clearly demarcated by sectarian symbols. However, the highest density of symbols we saw were in poorer neighborhoods where people leave in multi-apartment buildings, as in the photo above. The ones I saw were mostly Protestant, and there you see flags in profusion. Anything and everything can be adorned with flags:



And if you still don’t get the message, it is spelled out for you:


Although flags are the most important type of Loyalist symbols, they also use murals and memorials, which are similar to the ones I saw in Catholic areas. For example:


Apparently, there used to be many Loyalist murals with pretty menacing images of masked paramilitaries armed with automatic weapons, but I haven’t seen any. There was recently a push to replace them with either neutral or even nonpartisan, or “trans-sectarian” future- and peace-oriented ones. Like this one:


Some may dismiss the sentiments expressed in this mural as naive and wishful, but I disagree. More generally, Northern Ireland has two lessons for all of us who are interested in the matters of war – and peace.

First, we think of Western Europe as a place that has moved beyond such archaic, non-civilized occurrences as societal collapse and sectarian bloodshed. Yet Northern Ireland shows that even Europe is not immune. We just don’t realize how fragile our civilization is; how easy it is for social cooperation to unravel.

Second, and perhaps even more important, Northern Ireland also shows that it is possible to exit a seemingly intractable conflict. I remember the Troubles during the 1970s and 1980s. It seemed at the time that differences between opposing sides were so deep that they could never be reconciled. Yet it happened during the 1990s, and the peace has held since then. There is no guarantee that it will continue to hold (and there are some worrying signs that it may not), but still it gives me hope.

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Many of the Northern Irish Protestants originally came from the northern tier of English counties and the southern tier of Scots ones. These people were part of the very turbulent border culture when England and Scotland were separate nations. Only with the Union of the Crowns was the UK able to suppress tit-for-tat violence along the border on the part of smugglers, cattle rustlers, and kindred ruffians. Think Crips and Bloods. The now unemployed warriors on both sides we enrolled in Border Horse regiments and sent to Ireland to fight the Catholics. Many of these people ended up in the South Eastern US where we know them as the Scots-Irish. Our Catholic Irish immigrants disproportionately went to the North, so we have few if any cities with large numbers of both working class Catholic Irish and Scots-Irish. If we did, I venture to guess that the situation would resemble Belfast.

Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s 1996 book on the Southern Culture of Honor tells part of this story as does David Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed. The old border country along the line of Hadrian’s Wall is worth a visit. There are lots of reminders of this history.

Peter Turchin

Pete, when I compiled my database of political violence in America, I noted a number of riots between the Irish Protestants and Catholics in New York City. I went to my database, and I found that in 1870 the July 12 parade in NYC resulted in three fatalities. Next year, things got really out of hand (there were between 50 and 100 people killed):

THE HIBERNIAN RIOTS; ORDER COMPLETELY RESTORED List of the Killed and Wounded EXAMINATION OF THE RIOTERS IN COURT FULL PARTICULARS OF THE CONFLICT Threats Against Governor Hoffman All Quiet Again–The Feeling in the City –Governor Hoffman Denounced by the Irish Sensational Rumors not Confirmed Examination of Rioters at the Tombs Visiting the Scene of Carnage The Shop-Keepers’ Story Statement of an Eye Witness’ Death of Several Wounded Flag Half-Mast at the Grand Opera House Shooting of a Newark Lad Killing of Woman and Little Girl List of Troops Wounded The Dead Bodies Identified Affecting Scenes at the Morgue A Narrow Escape Broadway and Bowery Deserted At Jefferson Market Court Estimates of the Killed Mayor Hall Interviewed Why the 84th Fired Orange Day in Quebec
Hartford Daily Courant (1840-1887). Hartford, Conn.: Jul 14, 1871. pg. 3, 1 pgs
Abstract (Summary)

NEW YORK, July 13.–All parts of the city are quiet to-day, and police do not apprehend further disturbances. The riot of yesterday is the chief topic of conversation, and the conduct of the police and military is highly praised by all respectable citizens, while the killing of the some innocent persons by the fire of the troops is greatly regretted…



I didn’t realize that Protestant and Catholic Irish ever interacted in the US. Today of course they are largely on opposite sides of the US political spectrum but largely geographically separated. Do we know any exceptions to that today?



I was going to say: read up on “Gangs of New York”

BTW, the two aren’t always on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Irish Catholics in the US tend to be socially conservative, economically liberal, and traditionally have heavily supported the Democratic party (concentrated in northern cities).

The Scotch-Irish in the US are concentrated in the Backcountry, tend to be socially conservative, & against outsiders intruding on them (so their main political opponents in the early days were the southern slaveholding plantation owners; then Northerners–however, unlike Yankees & the Deep South, who have pretty much always been opposed in American politics, even as they both switched parties, the Backcountry is a swing region when it comes to American political alignment). Traditionally more Republican-leaning than the rest of the South, but with large numbers supporting the Democrats, now, the Scotch-Irish are pretty solidly Republican.

And no, you haven’t seen politically-motivated violence between Irish Catholics and Scotch-Irish Protestants (who pretty much all identify solely as “American” these days) in the US for a while now. You’re not American?


Native Californian. We have historically lots of Catholic Irish around San Francisco and many Dust Bowl Scots-Irish migrants to the San Joaquin Valley. I don’t know of any places where large aggregations of Orange and Green Irish live as neighbors in California.


Well, the Orange Irish in the US haven’t identified as Orange Irish for generations now (if ever; many of the Scots-Irish came directly from North Britain). Many folks from Appalachia & the Backcountry did migrate up to northern industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the 20th century, but they identified as “American” by that point.

BTW, you will find more Orange/Green Irish tensions throughout Canadian history.


I think the Scots-Irish remain a distinctive ethnicity. As far as I know, you are right that they don’t wave orange flags, though they might wave the Stars and Bars. You are also right that Scots-Irish is a bit of a misnomer as many people came from the border region directly rather than from Ireland. But they disproportionately settled in the Southeast and maintained a distinct subculture. They generally speak Southern accented English, worship in Conservative Protestant Churches, and listen to country and western music. In the Civil Rights era they switched en mass to the Republican party. Of course, you can find many individuals who have abandoned Scots-Irish American culture and, no doubt people of other backgrounds who have assimilated to it. See Fischer’s book for details.


Actually, they speak with a South Midlands accent, which is distinctly different from the various southern accents of the Coastal South and Deep South. They aren’t always aligned with the Deep South (or Tidewater) politically. During the the Civil War, they were the only part of the slave states with strong Union sympathies.



Also, WV split off from VA to stay with the Union.
Note as well that the slave states of KY and MO also stayed loyal to the Union.

All were Appalachia/Backcountry and heavily populated by the Scotch-Irish.

Chris Kavanagh

I wonder Peter if your guide told you/you were already aware of the City Hall flag controversy that occurred relatively recently: The cliff notes version is that the new NI coalition government made changes to reduce how many days the British flag would be flown over government buildings and the staunch loyalist community saw this as unacceptable and caused some havoc. Wherever your sympathy lies on such an issue, its a good illustration of just how poignant the British flag is as a symbolic identity marker for the loyalist community in Northern Ireland and how people react when they feel a sacred value being threatened.

Wikipedia also has a surprisingly nice collection of murals, highlighting the paramilitary images which are apparently becoming less prominent:

Belfast is definitely an unusual place and an important case for those who portray Western Europe as the bastion of civilized behaviour but I really wouldn’t be concerned about any widespread fall back into sectarianism. The general population of NI is tired of fighting and the younger generations are growing up in a society where sectarian violence is a rarity rather than a daily occurrence. That changes things over time. I also remember a few years back there being a spate of attacks by dissident Republicans and then being shocked to see that a few days later there was a joint Protestant and Catholic march to display unity in front of Belfast City Hall. That would have been unthinkable or at least very poorly attended when I was growing up. Hence, I’m optimistic…


It might be argued that the history of this conflict does illustrate the status of Europe as a bastion of civilized behavior. In some other part of the world people would be killing each other for another couple centuries.


The Europeans have a short post 1945 history of generally civilized behavior, no more. Two great wars in the first half of the 20th Century, and several centuries of brutal colonial wars before that. The Napoleonic wars. What was it Gandhi said: “European Civilization, that would be a good idea!”


It’s been almost 70 years since WWII, that’s thee generations. And the aversion to violence remains surprisingly strong. Just recently, the commander of Russian paramilitaries fighting in Ukraine publicly complained that he couldn’t find any volunteers, despite a media campaign all over Russia.

Peter Turchin

I am an optimist by nature, but the problem is that a new generation is growing up who never experienced the Troubles. History shows that political violence tends to recur with ~50 year periodicity, probably because the new generation, which wasn’t immunized against violence, is willing to repeat the mistakes of their grandfathers all over again. Adding 50 years to 1969 we have 2019 – just a few years in the future… I hope this pessimistic prediction is wrong.

Chris Kavanagh

It is possible but I think a lot of the steam has dissipated because a number of historic grievances have been addressed i.e. police service reform, British army withdrawn, ‘home’ rule by coalition government, growing economic parity between Catholics/Protestants, disarmament of paramilitary groups and so on. That said, the vast majority of schools remain segregated and communities are not exactly integrated so I guess time will tell.

Peter Turchin

For the Catholic side, I believe, you are right. But resentment is growing among the poorer Protestant youth. At least, that’s what I read in the press when I was there.


This is an interesting observation – no sectarian symbols in the nicest neighborhoods. It’s very telling.

Peter Turchin

And here’s the Hartford Courant reporting on the July 12, 1870 riot:

Hartford Daily Courant (1840-1887). Hartford, Conn.: Jul 13, 1870. pg. 3, 1 pgs
Abstract (Summary)

The Orangemen of New York city, celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne at Elm Park on Tuesday, were attacked by a party of 300 Irish laborers, whose anger had been roused by some expressions made by the Orangemen which were insulting to their nationality and faith. The assailants used stones and the implements with which…

Antonio Silva

As part of a research project in Belfast on cooperation between and within Catholics and Protestants, I’ve collected data on numbers and locations of flags across different neighbourhoods in the city. The idea is to investigate how the distribution of flags was associated with proximity between groups, and I’ve started to question whether the function of flags here is related to markers of coordination, as in the ethnic marker hypothesis, or is in fact is just a territorial marker. How was wondering what people here think is the main function of flags (and other markers) in this context.

Peter Turchin

Antonio, it sounds like a very interesting research project that you are doing. Would you be interested in writing a guest blog about it here on the SEF? If yes, send me an e-mail

Chris Kavanagh

Hey Antonio,

I remember meeting you at EHBEA this year. I wasn’t aware that anyone was arguing that the flags don’t act as territory markers? Is that a debate in the research community? My personal experience is that they very much act like territory markers i.e. I would feel very insecure about entering areas with British flags/Loyalist murals when younger but completely relaxed in areas with lots of Irish flags/Republican murals. I had no anticipation that I would receive higher levels of cooperation or that things would be coordinated between Catholic areas though, just that it was unlikely I would be attacked for being from the Catholic community.

Would be interesting to hear some quantitative data about the distribution of flags!

Antonio Silva

Chris, I think the flags are indeed territory markers, but my question is whether they also function as markers of shared norms – as described in McElreath et al (2003). Shared norms and the evolution of ethnic markers – which would facilitate cooperative interactions between members of the same group. In the context of NI, one of the issues is whether the differences in cultural norms between the groups are striking enough to lead coordination issues and I’m not sure they are.


Video worth watching to get an idea of how it is. It’s complicated. ‘…there are still many people on each side who feel oppressed by the other.’

Subtitles really help.

Belfast Burning

‘ Though the city’s youngest adults can barely remember the Troubles themselves, they’re increasingly becoming radicalised. Poverty in Belfast is at a 10-year high; unemployment hovers near 8 percent, with about one in four 18- to 24-year-olds out of work in 2013. And so with few jobs and often inadequate education, young men are indoctrinated by paramilitary groups still left over from the fighting of the past.

VICE News went to the biggest bonfire in Northern Ireland, on Belfast’s notorious Shankill Road, to watch Unionists celebrate – and drink, fight and burn Irish flags.’

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