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Symbols Used in Northern Ireland - An Introduction

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Text and Research: Dara Mulhern ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

The text and other material on the following pages were contributed by Dara Mulhern, then a temporary research student at INCORE. The views expressed in this section do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributors.
The material is copyright (© 1999) of Dara Mulhern and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

An Introduction to the Use of Symbols in Northern Ireland


Visitors to Northern Ireland are often struck by the colourful range of symbols which are most apparent in working-class Protestant and Catholic communities. These symbols can be found in various different forms, such as part of murals painted on gable walls, as flags flying from lampposts, or as basic colours painted on kerbstones. Symbols can represent either an ideology, religion or culture, and some represent all three. The precise meaning of some symbolism in Northern Ireland may often be ambiguous, especially from an external perspective, and onlookers may be somewhat perplexed at the use or indeed the significance of some particular symbols.

Symbols have played a central role during 'the Troubles' and continue to represent the very essence of the conflicting identities within Northern Ireland. The use of symbols can also be indicative of sections of the community within the the region given that a specific display usually coincides with the general sentiment of the population of particular areas. The symbols in the linked pages below were selected as a sample of the more important and widely used emblems in Northern Ireland. It is hoped that these pages will help promote a greater understanding of the significant role which symbolism plays in the conflict.

Further Sources

Short essay on symbols by Dara Mulhern.

Melaugh, Martin. (2013). A background note on the protests and violence related to the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall, December 2012 - January 2013. CAIN:

The closely associated section on murals in Northern Ireland provides extracts from a number of books on the topic.

Suggested Reading:

Bryan, Dominic., Stevenson, Clifford., Gillespie, Gordon., and Bell, John. (2010). Public Displays of Flags and Emblems in Northern Ireland: Survey 2006-2009, (May 2010), [PDF; 1390KB]. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast.
      See also: Press Release, [PDF; 17KB]
Bryan, Dominic., and Gillespie, Gordon.
(2005). Transforming Conflict: Flags and Emblems, (March 2005), [PDF; 714KB]. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast.
Bryson, L., and McCartney, C. (1994). Clashing Symbols? A report on the use of flags, anthems and other national symbols in Northern Ireland. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen's University of Belfast.
Buckley, A. (ed.) (1998). Symbols in Northern Ireland. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen's University of Belfast.
Buckley, A., and Paisley, R. (1994). Symbols. Belfast: Cultural Traditions Group of the Community Relations Council.
Law, G. (1998). The Cultural Traditions Dictionary. Belfast: The Blackstaff Press.
Wilson, Robin. (2000). Flagging concern: the controversy over flags and emblems, (July 2000), (Democratic Dialogue Discussion Paper). Belfast: Democratic Dialogue.

See also:
List of publications in the CAIN Bibliography on the topics of flags, emblems, and symbols;
and publications in the CAIN Bibliography related to the topic of identity.


Examples of Symbols

The following links provide examples of commonly occuring symbols used in Northern Ireland. These examples represent a selection from the many symbols that have been used during the course of 'the Troubles'. They have been arranged into a number of categories. On each page there is an image of the symbol in question and an explanation of it. The explanation contains a title, details of any text that appears on the symbol (in case the image is unclear to the user), and a brief description of the image. In most cases the images form a link to a larger picture or further information. The symbols are also arranged from basic elements to more complicated symbols involving a number of elements.


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.

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