The Women on the Walls
Updated: May 27, 2021
Murals, Memory and Political Participation in Belfast
In Belfast, history looms large. In the still-segregated residential neighborhoods, buildings serve as canvas for images commemorating the Troubles—three decades of violence that fed on hostilities between nationalists of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who sought to reunify Ireland, unionist militias that aimed to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, and British security forces. In nationalist neighborhoods, the protagonists of the 1916 Easter Rising, IRA martyrs of the Troubles, and fellow “freedom fighters” from Palestine to South Africa stand stories-high. Unionist murals reach back even further into history, memorializing 17th century Protestant King William of Orange alongside more contemporary paramilitary battalions shrouded in balaclavas. Conspicuously, while the unionist imagery showcases almost only men, nationalist murals repeatedly picture women combatants, from Irish independence heroine Constance Markievicz to Mairéad Farrell, an IRA militant killed by the British Army in 1988.
The consequences of this discrepancy are more than aesthetic. History shows us that women participate in conflicts, wherever they occur, but they are often erased from public memory of these events. Precise data on women’s participation in Northern Irish militant groups is hard to come by—various scholars estimate they made up between 10 and 20 percent of the IRA’s membership, and up to 6 percent of some unionist paramilitaries. On both sides, women played crucial enabling roles, supporting prisoners’ families, moving weapons, and sheltering fugitives. But the collective forgetting of these combat functions can have material and long-lasting consequences for women in post-conflict societies, in Northern Ireland and beyond. In Morocco, for example, oral histories collected by Alison Baker indicate the disappearance of women from narratives of independence created a heavy burden of testimonial proof for women resistance fighters seeking pensions from the state. More broadly, this erasure can shape public imagination about the roles and rights of women, particularly in countries where revolutionary bona fides are a prerequisite for political power.
Where women do remain part of collective memory of conflict, it is usually not out of concern for equality or historical accuracy. Political scientist Meredith Loken, drawing on a database of nearly 3,000 militant visuals, notes that armed groups often deploy images of women combatants because they are effective propaganda, signaling broad popular support for a movement or used to justify militancy. In some cases, publicizing female fighters can bolster recruitment—in Northern Ireland, female IRA members interviewed by Mia Bloom in 2009 cited the death of Mairéad Farrell, whose face is rendered on buildings across Belfast, as a reason they had joined the group. But even if the memorialization of female fighters is strategic and not necessarily intended to advance the status of women more broadly, Northern Ireland is one of numerous examples of places where women were able to leverage the memory of these figures to demand space in the post-conflict future.
The Belfast murals offer a clear study in contrasts. Bill Rolston, an expert on the city’s ever-evolving mural landscape, found that about 21 percent of nationalist murals between 1981 and 2017 contained representations of women, while only one in 200 unionist murals included a female figure. According to Sandra McEvoy, this invisibility constitutes a silencing with broader political effects. “The denial of [unionist women’s] existence by their own partisans provides a structural barrier to the representation of any unique interests they might have,” she writes. Indeed, in the first post-conflict elections following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, unionist women were barely represented.
Women’s political victories mirrored their visibility on Belfast’s walls. Several parties in the 1998 elections emerged from formerly armed groups—so-called “bullet-to-ballot” transitions. The two parties affiliated with the largest unionist militias did not elect a single female candidate. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, which originated as the political wing of the nationalist IRA, elected close to 30 percent women representatives, double the rate of the other leading nationalist party. Ex-IRA combatants interviewed by Niall Gilmartin suggested that Sinn Féin’s commitment to women’s participation “directly stems from the prominent role women played during the conflict.” This trend is replicated in post-conflict Nepal and El Salvador, where formerly armed parties that publicly lauded women combatants elected significantly more women candidates, even than parties with comparable ideologies.
Conflict disrupts existing power structures, offering a transformative opportunity to advance women’s equality, but too often women are sidelined during post-conflict transitions. Preserving the public memory of women’s participation is one tool that could help institutionalize their political voice.
For this, Belfast makes a compelling case. A two-story mural just off Falls Road—a nationalist stronghold that saw some of the worst violence of The Troubles—pictures five women from across Irish history, with gun-toting Constance Markievicz at the center. “Women in Struggle,” proclaims a banner across the top of the image, “Generations Shall Remember Them and Call Them Blessed.”
Rebecca Turkington [2020, Clare Hall] is a PhD candidate in History, studying transnational women's networks in the mid-20th century.