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The Warrior and the Phoenix

 No silky coat of well-combed hair, smooth ‘neath the children’s hand,
But a fierce mastiff, gaunt and grim, when strife invades the land;
Where fords are weak, where forts blaze red, where trumpets sound for war,
The ‘Hound of Ulster’ stands at guard, or drives the foe afar.

 – The Boys’ Cuchulain, Eleanor Hull

Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland. Six of Ulster’s nine counties comprise Northern Ireland, which has been part of the United Kingdom since 1921. We spent four days in this small country, visiting Enniskillen, Derry and Belfast, as well as the column-like rock formations of the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. Our local guide entertained us with folk stories about the northern beaches and skerries; a rock turned on its side in the ocean was the profile of a drowned warrior, while a nearby waterfall represented the tears of his widow.  

Irish mythology has four great Cycles, one of which is set in the Ulster region in and around the reign of King Conchobar mac Nessa. The stories also feature his warrior nephews, Cu Chulainn and Conall Cernach, and his enemies, Queen Medb and her husband Ailill of Connacht. While I haven’t attempted any serious illustrations of these characters, I have attached three quick pen sketches of fairies, leprechauns and a restful Cu Chulainn. Old Irish scholar Eleanor Hull translated the Ulster Cycle into English in the early 1900s, including the opening quote of this post, which comes from her children’s book, The Boys’ ChulainnIt is a shame that Gaelic names are so difficult to pronounce!

The modern day stories of Ulster are far less entertaining. Nationalistic unrest pervaded Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998; Derry and Belfast seem to have been equally affected by The Troubles. In Belfast, some communities are still gated at nightfall and the towering “peace wall” that subdivides the city reminded me a little too much of the Berlin Wall. The capital was decked out for the Marching Season. Hundreds of British flags were strung across the streets and a leaning tower of beer crates was poised to go up in flames on the Twelfth. The bonfire was obviously intended to be visible in neighbouring Catholic/Republican districts. Unfortunately, a couple of days after we returned to Dublin, the Twelfth parades spilled over into three nights of brutal gang riots. 

Many Irish people were quick to assure us that it is only a very small portion of the population 
that aren’t committed to peace – “tha fecking hoodlums, with no education like.”  An old man we met in Derry described his city as a “phoenix rising from the ashes”. It is true that the country has come a along way in the past ten years. While both cities had provocative murals (some of them Heritage Listed!), there are just as many pieces of public art that promote reconciliation and commemorate the civilians who lost their lives. At the end of the day, art only plays a small role in social change, but I think these murals are reflective of a positive shift in attitude and a mutual desire to move forward.  

My trip home from Dublin to Melbourne was a 35 hour exercise that I will try hard to forget! I am sorry to say that my adventure is over and I now have to forge a new (somewhat poorer) existence in Victoria. I have travelled overland from Egypt to Germany and then spent a month tramping the hillsides of Scotland and Ireland. Having backpacked alone in the past, I feel really fortunate to have shared the last four months with such close friends – not to mention all the awesome people I met along the way. It has been my best overseas trip so far and hopefully not my last (South America anyone?)! I intend to dedicate the next eighteen months to ‘zee Art, darling, zee Art’. I have been admitted into the second half of NMIT’s Bachelor of Illustration program, so expect to see a lot more projects detailed here in the weeks to come.    

Cú Chulainn

This scan is a bit damaged but it is just a quick concept sketch 

Inset illustration from The Boys’ Cuchulain by Scottish artist Stephen Reid 

Belfast mural
Belfast mural

Image from the Belfast Telegraph (30 June 2011) taken during riots in East Belfast (whilst we were in Dublin)

Belfast mural

Belfast mural – comment on other world troubles!

Derry mural


Mural dedicated to the 100th casualty, a schoolgirl caught in the crossfire in Derry



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