Irish Legends and Belfast Murals


Amongst the various murals we were shown in Belfast were these two, standing near each other in Shankill. One shows the Irish hero, Cúchulainn. Apparently he regularly features on murals from both sides of the divide.

‘The image of Cú Chulainn is invoked by both Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists. Irish nationalists see him as the most important Celtic Irish hero, and thus he is important to their whole culture. By contrast, unionists see him as an Ulsterman defending the province from enemies to the south.

Like all Irish folk I know the legend of Cúchulainn from my schooldays; the story of the how the Red Hand became the symbol of Ulster (on the other hand) was new to me. Our taxi driver/guide told us that there are many versions but they all involve a race between two boats.

The boats are racing for the leadership of the province of Ulster -whoever  touches land first will win.  As one boat draws in front the captain of the second ship draws his sword, chops off his own hand and throws it to shore, thus becoming (with his blood -red hand) the first to touch land.


The end of every row of houses in this Unionist estate are painted. You can see how imposing the murals are – look how tiny Michael is beside that hand. The hand turns up on everything, including Belfast beer!


Coming to terms with the terms


“When are we going to visit “The North”?

Something I’ve been asking for 5 years now. Well, last month, we went. Mel and I finally drove 3 hours or so up to Belfast. While there, we took one of the “Black Taxi Tours”. These are given by taxi drivers, in their taxis, traditionally black in colour, hence the name. The primary thing they take you to see are murals painted on buildings and walls in west Belfast, the area of most of the fighting during the worst of the ongoing war known as the “Troubles”. The murals are not amazing in their own right, but a useful jumping off point to discuss and try to explain the history to outsiders.

“The Troubles.” Sigh. This expression is just the first hurdle of tackling the complexities of talking about Belfast and Northern Ireland. It’s an inadequate, understated name for what has been, off and on, a long, emotional, often violent conflict over who should rule the northeast part of the Irish island, called Northern Ireland. And coming to terms with the terms is just the beginning.

Here’s the basics (primarily for Americans):

The Irish Republic, ROI, Republic of Ireland, the South, or just plain Ireland:

This is where I live. With Dublin as its capital, it is an independent country, part of the EU, and what most people think of as “Ireland”, but Not part of the United Kingdom, and definitely Not part of the “British Isles”. Uses the Euro for money.

People from The Republic of Ireland call themselves Irish.

Northern Ireland:

Much smaller land-wise than the south, and part of the “nation” known as the United Kingdom or Great Britain, along with Wales, Scotland, and England. Also in the EU, but, to confuse things, like the rest of the United Kingdom, uses British Sterling for money, other wise known as the “Pound”.

Someone from Northern Ireland could be called, or call themselves, British, Northern Irish, or just Irish.

The Island of Ireland:

This is the island itself, the geographic landmass surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Celtic Sea to the south, and the Irish Sea to the east. Comprised of both The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The North:

Anything in Ulster, the northern part of the Irish Island, but specifically Northern Ireland.


The northern part of the Irish Island, one of 4 ancient provinces of Ireland, along with Leinster, Munster, and Connacht.

Most confusing – All of Northern Ireland is part of Ulster, but Ulster is not all Northern Ireland… Ulster also includes 3 Irish Republic counties – Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal. So this Irish province has two countries with two currencies…

So, to be as clear as mud, most of Donegal (part of The South) is further north than what’s referred to as The North, or Northern Ireland.

And anyone from the Island of Ireland, would generally just be called “Irish”. If someone becomes famous for something, no matter which side they are from, then they are definitely, Irish.

Famous actor Kenneth Brannagh for instance. He is from Northern Ireland. So here he is definitely Irish rather than British. But, naturally, in England, he is clearly British. Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy prefers to be called British, but English actor Daniel Day Lewis, (who spent a lot if his life in Ireland and lives close by) is practically Irish.

The complexities that show up in sport are enlightening. In most sports, like the Olympics, the Northern Irish can play for the all powerful British team, but in World Cup Soccer, tiny Northern Ireland, with it’s 1.8 million people, must compete against the rest of the world, including 50 million strong England. In professional rugby, Ulster has it’s own team comprised of North and some of the South. But in World Cup Rugby, the Northern Irish play together with all of the south in the all “Irish” team against England. And the “Lions” team, is all of the UK and all of Ireland together against the southern hemisphere teams.

And… if you are from Northern Ireland, you can have double identity. For example, you are eligible for both Irish and British literary awards, and can hold both Irish and British passports. I spoke to a businessman who keeps British Pounds in his left pocket and Euros in his right. More about money later.

Here are some of the Belfast murals from both sides of the divide –