Home > analysis, folklore, Northern Ireland > Sharing the Divide: Folk Traditions Use and Methods in Northern Ireland

Sharing the Divide: Folk Traditions Use and Methods in Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland is a place of many complications; a place where in the past several hundred years two religious groups, Catholics and Protestants, have coalesced themselves into separate groups that are daily in contact with one another. This division eventually erupted itself a decade long conflict in the late-twentieth century between members of the two groups, in regard to competing nationalisms. Both Catholic Nationalists, who aim to have Northern Ireland unite with the Republic of Ireland, and Protestant Loyalists1, those who want to remain as part of the United Kingdom, uses direct and indirect methods of political and social power to justify their claims.

This is done most notably with bombings and shootings, but also extends largely to parades, music, and other expressive forms. All of these forms, violent or not, are used by both groups with a similar methodology and utilize nearly identical purposes for carrying out this purpose. For example, in the case of ballad singing traditions in the nineteenth century, Mary Catherine Kenney noted that, “It is apparent that the sharing of elements of (political) culture between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has been going on for a long time.”i They invoke a shared folk tradition between the two groups. This paper will look at two of the most prolific of these forms; bonfire festivals and mural paintings. Both bonfire holidays and murals are used by Nationalists and Loyalists, sharing a similar pool of folk traditions, but are used to accomplish the political and social agendas of both groups.

The Twelfth of July is probably the most important of Protestant holidays in NI

Northern Ireland has several occasions in which bonfires are used as a means of celebration. For the most part these celebrations are sectarian and mutually exclusive. Jack Santino reinforces this idea, “These summer night bonfire celebrations, both Catholic and Protestant, are clearly and manifestly political and often overtly sectarian events.”ii The most notable of these events being the Twelfth of July for Protestants as a form of celebration of King Williams’ victory at the Battle of the Boyne, which Unionists view as form of legitimizing Protestant dominance in Northern Ireland, and the Nationalist bonfires taking place only a few weeks later to serve as a memorial to commencement of internment2. While there are many other bonfire festivals throughout the year, these two offer a stark contrast. The Loyalist festival is celebratory, while the Nationalist one serves as a memorial. Beyond the usage of a bonfire as the centerpiece of festivity they both serve to legitimize their groups’ claims; Unionists as the successors of the English Protestant state, Nationalists as oppressed and morally justified.

The to-be site of a Protestant on the 12th

In the midst of these sectarian bonfire festivals, the celebration of Halloween (or Hallowe’en in Northern Ireland) stands out starkly in these celebrations. It’s a holiday that is mutually celebrated by both Protestants and Catholics. For the former, it has a vagueness of association of Guy Fawkes Day3 and other Hallowe’en festivities. There is no distinct characteristic to Protestant reasoning other than the activities performed. However, Catholics see Hallowe’en derived from the Celtic/Gaelic Samhain (pronounced sow-en), which shares the same date as the modern incarnation of the holiday and brings in a sacred element to the use of bonfires.iii Such associations have led one city official to claim that Hallowe’en is for the Nationalists, while a separate Loyalist bonfire festival in February belongs to the Protestants.iv Such distinctions create an other-ness that certainly exists in most bonfire festivals in terms of the goal they intend to achieve, but Hallowe’en works outside that space in terms of its celebrations. It has different meanings for different people, but the activities remain constant. Santion states, “What I think is important about all this…is that Hallowe’en is not neutral: it contains symbolism that has the potential to be read in divisive sectarian terms, and on some occasions is.”v This is an important distinction made, in that, there is a space for interpretation for groups to fill in their own symbolism for Hallowe’en festivities, but for other bonfire festivals as well. There is a constructed framework for these celebrations that can be assigned, as they are for most of the celebrations, but those for Hallowe’en demonstrate there is a shared capacity and similar stylings in the usage of folk traditions between Catholics and Protestants.

In Northern Ireland, Hallowe’en is the big holiday for fireworks

Like bonfire festivals, murals also have shared methodology and purposes, but are largely sectarian. Beyond physical violence, murals serve as the most expressive form in Northen Ireland, enforcing sectarianism and also contesting the use of a shared folk tradition. In a separate study, Santino claims that through murals, “The children of Ulster are socialized through these activities and others into the “us vs. them” mentality that is prevalent there.”vi As mentioned, they also share similar use of folk and cultural symbols between the two. Both Nationalist and Loyalist murals prominently display and glorify their own paramilitary soldiers, ‘martyrs’ of sectarian violence, international solidarties, and distinct folk heroes for the groups.4 These icons are largely individualized for both groups, though carry the same styles of iconography. Their intended responses are to insulate their groups’ doctrine and to contest with murals and actions of opposing sectarian actions. While this style of mural is very prominent throughout Northern Ireland, there has also been a trend to share the same images or figure, with the same sectarian purposes.

A Nationalist Cu Chulainn mural

The most prominent of these shared images is that of Cú Chulainn, the Irish mythological hero of the epic Táin Bó Cúalinge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), who is used in both Nationalist and Loyalist murals. Cú Chulainn’s legacy is largely owned by Irish Catholics as it stems from their folk traditions, so it initially comes surprsing to see the Irish figure being used as an icon by Loyalists. This is part of the complexity of the use of folk traditions in Northen Ireland. While there is a sense that certain traditions or figures belong to an isolated group they often extend beyond that. As noted in the case of Hallowe’en celebrations there is opportunities for symbolism that can be allocated, or otherwise left alone for a collective non-sectarian use. In the case of Cú Chulainn, the use of Loyalist murals of the Irish hero establishes a collective sectarian symbolism. Santino explains this:

“It allows Unionists to maintain that theis is a pre-Celtic culture and that Cuchulain was defending Ulster from Irish-Celtic invaders from the South—just as the Loyalist paramilitary groups today are doing. This is the important rhetorical point—just as the paramilitaries are legitimized by reference to previous military units, Cuchulain is by the same strategy constructed in the image of the contemporary Loyalist, fighting for his non-Gaelicized country and culture, his non-Gaelicized territory.”vii

Despite being an integral part of Irish mythology, Cú Chulainn is stripped of this folk identity when used in Loyalist murals. For the most part, the depiction of Cú Chulainn remains constant between both Nationalist and Loyalist murals, inspired by a sculpture in the General Post Office in Dublin,5 serving as another layer in which the murals of the latter group reconstruct symbols. Through these specific murals, as well as those that differ on direct image yet serve the same purpose, both Catholic and Protestant groups legitimize themselves in a collective methodology and purpose.

Loyalist Cu Chulainn mural

Though sectarianism is rampant throughout Northern Irish culture, there is a collective openness of shared folk symbols between Catholic and Protestant groups. Both use bonfire festivals to insulate themselves politically and socially, but also use the celebrations of Hallowe’en in different symbolic light. Murals from Nationalists and Loyalists use similar visual rhetoric, as well as construct and reconstruct different sectarian interpretations with the shared image of Cú Chulainn. While sectarianism does still exist in Northern Ireland, there remains an underlying shared use of how folk traditions are carried out, how they’re used, and their intent. Regardless of group identification, there is a strong adherence to these styles and they remain an integral part of Northern Ireland.


Notes and Citations:

1This is a generalization made to understand the methods and usage of the two groups. Nationalisms of the Catholic and Protestant communities are far more complicated and diverse than those listed.
2 With internment the U.K. Government and police force could arrest anyone, even without criminal charges. This mostly affected Catholic groups.
3An English holiday, celebrated on November 5th, involving bonfires and burning effigies.
4 Loyalists heroes include King William and other Protestant leaders, while Nationalists invoke images of ‘martyrs’ that transcend into folk iconography, such as the hunger striker, Bobby Sands. Loyalists tend to establish solidarity with Scots-Irish in the United States, while Nationalists show global solidarity with nationalist struggles.
5 The statue there serves a metaphor for the Easter 1916 Uprising, which began at the Dublin GPO.
iMary Catherine Kenney, “The Phoenix and the Lark:Revolutionary Mythology and Iconographic Creativity in Belfast’s Republican Districts,“ in Symbols in Northern Ireland, ed. Anthony D. Buckley (Belfast, Queen’s University of Belfast, 1998), 165.
iiJohn Santino, “Light Up the Sky: Halloween Bonfires and Cultural Hegemony in Northern Ireland,” in Symbols in Northern Ireland, ed. Anthony D. Buckley (Belfast, Queen’s University of Belfast, 1998), 67.
iiiJeanne Cooper Foster, Ulster Folklore (Belfast, HR. Carter Publications, 1951), 26.
ivSantino, 78.
vIbid, 78.
viJohn Santino, “Public Protest and Popular Style: Resistance from the Right in Northen Ireland and South Boston” American Anthropologist 101, no. 3 (Spetember 1999),522.
viiIbid, 520


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