The initial source for this painting was a Granada Television episode of the World in Action programme, titled 'The H-block Fuse', transmitted on 24 November 1980. It contained footage shot inside the British government's high-security prison at Long Kesh, near Belfast, known as the Maze and as the H Blocks. The main source of the imagery, however, came from a BBC film on the same subject shown some weeks later. The conflict in Northern Ireland began to intensify in terms of violence in 1969. After a number of years, IRA prisoners in the Maze demanded to be classified as political rather than criminal offenders, and thus to be accorded a number of rights and living conditions which were being denied them. The British government refused to grant such status, and the prisoners escalated their protests, refusing to obey any prison regulations. They would not wear prison clothes, wrapping themselves only in the blankets they were provided as bedding, and lived in their own squalor, surrounded by excrement-smeared walls. Hamilton wrote in his catalogue text to accompany the 1983 exhibition A Cellular Maze [pp.7-8]:
By chance in 1980, I was struck by a scene in a TV documentary about republican prisoners in the H blocks. To the surprise of the British public film was shown of men 'on the blanket', a term used to describe action taken by detainees in defiance of prison regulations. It was a strange image of human dignity in the midst of self-created squalor and it was endowed with a mythic power most often associated with art. It manifested the noble spirit of Irish patriotism having retreated (or was it pushed?) into its own excreta.The painting consists of two canvases. The left-hand panel is vaguely abstract, and represents the excrement-daubed walls of the prisoner's cell. Hamilton noted how the calligraphic, abstract qualities of the H-block prisoner's own mark-making could be seen to have stylistic links back to the earliest phases of Irish art: 'Each cell is marked with the graphic personality of its inhabitants; the walls look different because the pigment, of their own creation, is deployed in varying ways. It isn't difficult to discern the megalithic spirals of New Grange inscribed there, nor are the Gaelic convolutions of the book of Kells remote from the wall paintings of Long Kesh.' (in A Cellular Maze, [p.8].)
Even in an environment of total deprivation humanity will find the means of protest. Violent reaction to physical and verbal abuse must lead to an escalation of force that no prisoner can hope to benefit from. Penned in, without the presence of inanimate objects to vent aggression upon, denied the tools of hostility an individual has only what he can make with his own body; the IRA daubed the walls of their cells with shit. The strategy had two virtues, it kept the screws at bay and it was newsworthy. The 'dirty' protest, as the British called it (in a refined interplay of positive and negative concepts named 'no wash' by the Irish) lasted for some five years, more than 400 prisoners were involved. It was continued with hard determination until it became clear that the action was ineffectual. A decision was taken to move on to a mass hunger strike to death as a last resort to achieve the objectives.
What we had heard of the blanket protest, mainly through the propaganda agencies of Sinn Fein, could not prepare us for the startling photographic documentation on TV. The picture presented, first by Granada Television and later by the BBC, was shocking less for its scatological content than for its potency. An oft declared British view of the IRA as thugs and hooligans did not match the materialization of Christian martyrdom so profoundly contained on film. One became acutely aware of the religious conflict that had resulted in the civil inequalities that gave a platform for IRA activity. 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.
The painting's title is taken from the 'Cyclops' episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the hero Leopold Bloom comes into conflict with a Fenian bar-fly known to all as 'citizen' (with a lower case 'c'). The citizen is associated by Joyce with an heroic Irish chieftain, Finn MacCool, as well as with the giant Polyphemus of Homer's Odyssey. The Fenians were devoted to the liberation of Ireland.
For its 1988 exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Hamilton created an installation to house the painting, a 'cell' with walls decorated in imitation of those in the protesters' cells at Long Kesh. The artist put a sponge-rubber mattress and a dirty pillow in a corner to complete the furnishing.
Rita Donagh, Richard Hamilton, A Cellular Maze, booklet to accompany exhibition at Orchard Gallery, Londonderry 1983, reproduced inside back cover
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, pp.160-5, reproduced
Richard Morphet (ed.), Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, pp.176-7, 179-180, reproduced p.125 in colour