Contextual thoughts – Dirty Protest IRA, 1978

Dirty Protest IRA, 1978

During the peer review of my work Washboard (laundry) it was associated with the ‘Dirty protest’ in North Ireland in the 1970s and 80s.  Some information collected from different sources on the situation that led to the ‘dirty protest’, prisoner smearing their excrements onto the wall:

Bobby Sands Tribune described the escalation of the protest in North Ireland and the situation of the prisoners in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze:

‘In March 1978 some prisoners refused to leave their cells to shower or use the lavatory because of attacks by prison officers, and were provided with wash-hand basins in their cells. The prisoners requested showers installed in their cells, and when this request was turned down they refused to use the wash-hand basins. At the end of April 1978 a fight occurred between a prisoner and a prison officer in H-Block 6. The prisoner was taken away to solitary confinement, and news spread across the wing that the prisoner had been badly beaten. The prisoners responded by smashing the furniture in their cells, and the prison authorities responded by removing the remaining furniture from the cells leaving the prisoners in cells with just blankets and mattresses. The prisoners responded by refusing to leave their cells, and as a result the prison officers were unable to clear them. This resulted in the blanket protest escalating into the dirty protest, as the prisoners were unable to “slop out” (i.e., empty their chamber pots) so resorted to smearing excrement on the walls of their cells. ‘

“There were times when you would vomit. There were times when you were so run down that you would lie for days and not do anything with the maggots crawling all over you. The rain would be coming in the window and you would be lying there with the maggots all over the place.” – Pat McGeown, 1985 (prisoner)

The prison authorities attempted to keep the cells clean by breaking the cell windows and spraying in disinfectant, then temporarily removing the prisoners and sending in rubber-suited prison officers with steam hoses to clean the walls. However, as soon as the prisoners were returned to their cells they resumed their protest. By mid-1978 there were between 250 and 300 protesting prisoners, and the protest was attracting media attention from around the world.

“Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison, I was shocked at the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Blocks, three, four and five, where over 300 prisoners were incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in the sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting.” – Tomás Ó Fiaich (Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh)


I found a painting of Richard Hamilton (1981) The Citizen, where he appropriated the events and wrote: 

“The symbols of Christ’s agony were there, not only the crucifix on the neck of the prisoners and the rosary which confirmed the monastic austerity but the self inflicted suffering which has marked Christianity from the earliest times.”- Richard Hamilton

His painting reminds me of iconic painting and it brings back my research on Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Rublev


This brief research would definitely place my work or derivations of it in a quite different context. As I don’t control how the audience will perceive a work, even if provided with contextual information, it would be possibly much wiser to leave the area for response wide open. What would bring it back to my own performative painting, responding to my immediate bodily and emotional sensations, and to see when to continue and when to stop. Also to consider to which extent I want to get context inspiring my work. Julie Mehretu’s work is for me an example of how both questions (immediate response and wider context) could be combined.





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