CAIN Web Service

Symbols Used in Northern Ireland
- A Short Essay on Symbols by Dara Mulhern



[CAIN_Home]
[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [CONFLICT_BACKGROUND]
BACKGROUND: [Acronyms] [Glossary] [NI Society] [Articles] [Chronologies] [Organisations] [CAIN_Bibliography] [Other_Bibliographies] [Research] [Photographs] [SYMBOLS] [Murals] [Maps] [Internet]
SYMBOLS: [Menu] [Essay] [Joint_Symbols] [Unionist_Loyalist] [Nationalist_Republican] [Flags] [Loyalist_Murals] [Republican_Murals] [Murals_Menu]

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

This essay 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.


A Short Essay on Symbols by Dara Mulhern

Perhaps the most striking feature of Northern Irish society is the vast array of political symbols, which range from a flag flying outside a government building to a mural painting on a gable wall. Such features tend to attract much international attention as it is seen as exclusively Northern Irish, and an innate aspect of both Protestant and Catholic traditions. Outsiders often regard these Northern Irish features as tribal and barbaric by nature, however symbols command a great deal of respect and influence from every society right across the globe.

Symbols convey a deep and almost instinctive meaning to people. Whether it is seen as embodying violence and oppression (as is usually the opinion of its given opponents) or as a rallying point, symbols make up the very fabric of identity, be it religious, ideological or cultural. Symbols can be regarded as one of the most basic systems of human expression.

A symbol's very existence and meaning depends on those who it represents. One must ask oneself, therefore, is there a fixed relationship between the symbol and those it is supposed to represent, and, indeed, those it is supposed to oppose? Evidently the answer depends entirely on the context within which it is being used, as a given symbol represents a certain tradition and culture. However, there may be a multitude of distinct cultures which regard themselves as part of a shared identity due to their combined allegiance to a common symbol, such as the British Crown, or a flag. Flags, of course, are often made up of a composite set of symbols as is the case with the flag of the United States of America or the British Union flag.

Essentially symbols offer an identity to a particular group which wishes to identify with whichever culture that symbol represents. However a symbol may also represent a group which wishes to differentiate itself from other groups. Such a blunt and simple form of representation may easily lead to misunderstanding and controversy between two cultures which see themselves as locked in a struggle with one another, and whose sometimes mutual misunderstanding develops into a deep mistrust and entrenched views of the other culture's symbols.

As a line in the North American national anthem on the struggle for independence states "And the flag was still there ", and a Ukrainian proverb says that "When flags are flying, the mind is on (war) trumpets", our most basic emblems and symbols prove to be the final rallying point when the future looks grim, and morale is low. What may be seen as outdated and futile may, in many cultures, be the exact illusion required to offer some degree of comfort. Perhaps the old saying "nailing your colours to the mast" sums up the solidarity which communities hold towards their common symbols.

Evidently, national flags, anthems and symbols are, more often than not, seen as being intrinsically militant by nature, and therefore provoke very strong emotions for those who identify with it and those who oppose it. However, the widespread use of a flag may well be seen by some as distasteful as it may be regarded as being too right-wing, rekindling a political element which has torn Europe apart in two world wars, and represents nothing but oppression and mass genocide to many. It is in this context that a national symbol may be seen as hi-jacked by an unsavoury element of a community. Where does one draw the line between patriotism and nationalism, or nationalism and fascism? The basic answer is that political points of view vary greatly on this subject and use such semantic ambiguity to suit their own means, by abusing the confusion of the situation.

The cases of Sweden and America may be briefly assessed to illustrate national symbols. Sweden, being one of the most liberal and accommodating countries in the world, has a very interesting tradition with regards to flags, as the Swedish people fly their flag widely, be it on government buildings or at a summer cottage. The Swedish right-wing party's attempts to enhance their own support by encouraging the widespread use of the national flag had precious little effect, due to the fact that the national flag is a highly respected and valued symbol to the common citizen.

It appears that some cultures simply value these symbols because they relate to some quality in the culture and the personalities of the people. Or perhaps it becomes a self perpetuating learned behaviour because it its a pervasive part of the culture in which young people are growing up. (Bryson and McCartney, 1994 p22)

Equally in the United States, there is a very strong attachment by the local culture to the national flag, with the very national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, being in honour to the national flag. As in Sweden, there appears to be very little evidence which would lead one to believe that either country mentioned is under threat from any other power, however a unique sense of independence and patriotism is an almost inbred feature of the Scandinavian countries.

Symbols are a mere front, a cover, under which lies its very life-source, it's people, who in turn, rally to it as their most pure expression of identity. Thereby the flag is more than just a colourful piece of cloth, it is a living thing whose ageless existence speaks a thousand words, offers guidance and comfort, and serves as a reminder of the fears and hopes of one's ancestors.


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


go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :