Manly Warriors: A Four Nations Approach to the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’

Manly Warriors: A Four Nations Approach to the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’

This week, PhD student Edwin Coomasaru (The Courtauld Institute of Art) examines the Victorian connection to ideas of masculinity during the Northern Irish Troubles. 


One particular picture caught my eye in Linen Hall Library’s 2014 exhibition of political posters from the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ (1968-98): a muscular male nude, slumped on the ground, eyes downcast (Fig. 1). This idealised portrayal of a defeated warrior was used as an image for the 1976 Republican campaign in support of political status for paramilitary prisoners. The deliberate reference to ancient classical sculpture in the midst of the ‘Troubles’ was perhaps somewhat unexpected on first glance.

In fact, the poster is an illustration of The Dying Gaul, a Victorian copy of a Roman statue based on a third century BCE Greek Bronze. The figure was widely reproduced through the UK in the nineteenth century, at a time when artists sought to associate the British imperialism with past European empires.[1] This link was made by drawing on historical ‘high culture’ to evoke the supposed peaks of ‘civilisation’, through depictions of the male body.

British colonial discourse often justified the country’s subjugation of other nations through rhetoric of the supposedly ‘civilised’ merely ‘helping out’ those allegedly in a state of ‘barbarism’. In this construct, civilisation was a by-word for control: painting a picture of colonised populations as ‘unruly’ in order to attempt to justify their oppression. This relationship was particularly gendered: patriarchal and militaristic stereotypes came together in metaphors of manly strength ordering apparently ‘emotional’ and ‘irrational’ femininity.[2] Ireland was often depicted as womanly and Fenians as apes in British newspaper cartoons at the time (Fig. 2, 1866).

Fig 2

While British Victorians might have identified more with the Roman Empire than the anti-colonial militant in The Dying Gaul, the Celt still represented as an ideal male fighter. Even in death, the warrior appears muscular and stoic: his body and mind exhibiting a degree of self-control that would have chimed with popular fantasies of sacrificial chivalric knighthood.[3] Such ideas of military of masculinity were subsequently adopted by the Irish Republican Army in the early twentieth century.[4] Decades later, similar notions of being a man and soldier (and man as soldier) cropped up in ‘Troubles’ paramilitary visual culture, like the 1976 Republican poster. Although Northern Ireland is a country and not a colony, the legacy of the island of Ireland’s colonial history certainly informed ‘Troubles’ sectarian identity politics.

While imperial and anti-colonial forces are often considered irredeemably opposing, it’s interesting to consider how in the UK and Ireland historically both have shared certain gender norms. And this is no accident: Republican paramilitaries deliberately drew on the very logic used to associate them with ‘effeminate apes’ to argue that their ‘manly’ self-control testified to their right to self-sovereignty.[5] But this claim was made without necessarily challenging conservative stereotypes of masculinity and femininity embedded in British and Irish culture.

Considering this point of commonality from a ‘four nations’ approach is important to approaching the ‘Troubles’ from a feminist-pacifist perspective. I often hear people associate Republicanism with revolution and Loyalism with preserving the status quo. Whatever the specifics of each group’s history, both have had shades of patriarchy and militarism to them.[6] Warring nations or groups do not exist in a vacuum from each other: studying them in relation opens up questions about the bigger picture. It is also a means of trying to foster a perspective beyond sectarianism, maintaining a commitment to equality and democratic process.


[1] Kasahara Yorimichi, ‘Byron’s Dying Gladiator within its Context’, in Richard Gravil ed., Grasmere 2008: Selected Papers from the Wordsworth Summer Conference (Penrith, Cumbria: Humanities-Ebooks, 2009), pp.125-145; Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), p.37-52, p.54-58, p.60-61.

[2] Joseph Valente, The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922 (Chicago: Illinois University Press, 2011),, p.8-9, p.11-12, p.14, p.16, p.25; Elaine Sisson, Pearse’s Patriots: St Enda’s and the Cult of Boyhood (Cork: Cork University Press, 2004), p.11-12; Begoña Aretxaga, Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p.82, p.108-110, p.148, p.150; Elizabeth Cullingford ‘’Thinking of Her . . . as . . . Ireland’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney’, in Textual Practice, 4:1 (1990), pp.1-21, p.6; C.L. Innes, Women and Nation in Irish Literature and Society, 1880-1935 (Athens, Georgia: Georgia University Press, 1993), p.9.

[3] Lloyd Kramer, Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Cultures and Identities Since 1775 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2011), p.98, p.107-111, p.114-115; Valente, p.2-3, p.5-8; Sisson, p.120-121, p.134.

[4] Valente, p.23.

[5] Valente, p.19; Sisson, p.37, p.127, p.129; Debbie Ging, Men and Masculinities in Irish Cinema (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p.26-27.

[6] Rosemary Sales, Women Divided: Gender, Religion, and Politics in Northern Ireland (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p.32.


Fig. 1: Relatives Action Committee, Maintain Political Status, 1976, poster, Linen Hall Library, Belfast. Source: Edwin Coomasaru, 2014.

Fig. 2: ‘The Fenian-Pest’, 3/3/1866, Punch magazine illustration, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Source: Joseph Valente, The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922 (Chicago: Illinois University Press, 2011), p.17.

Edwin Coomasaru is Director of the International New Media Gallery and a PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art, researching Northern Irish masculinities and the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ in contemporary art.


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