Political Imprisonment in Ireland: The Recent Literature

Internment and political imprisonment of Irish activists have drawn significant academic and public attention for decades. Dieter Reinisch looks at some of the recent academic publications in this wide field. He is Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Political Imprisonment in Ireland: Some Recent Publications

Hennessey, T. (2014). Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher's Battle with the IRA. Dublin/Portland: Irish Academic Press.

McAtackney, L. (2014). An Archaeology of the Troubles: The Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McConville, S. (2014). Irish Political Prisoners, 1920-1962. Pilgrimage of Desolation. Oxon/New York: Routledge.

Murphy, W. (2014). Political Imprisonment & the Irish, 1912-1921. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Political Imprisonment in Ireland is an issue never out of date. Developments surrounding Irish prisoners have attracted national and international attention since the 19th century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels showed their support with the Fenian Prisoners; the 1916-Rising and its aftermath was heavily discussed within Russian Social-democracy at that time; the German RAF prisoners circulated the history of the IRA prison protests in their internal communications; and the international solidarity for the 1981-hunger strikers is well documented. Similarly, all shades of the Irish political landscape can find a way to solidarise with this or that aspect of the history of political imprisonment, be it the Suffragettes, Frongoch, Kilmainham Gaol, Curragh Interment Camp, 1981, or the current republican protests.

Likewise, political imprisonment in Ireland has drawn significant academic attention. While public debate has focused on Richard O’Rawe’s claims of a proposed deal in summer 1981, the story of political imprisonment in Ireland has been studied from many different angles. Indeed, recent years have seen the publication of particularly interesting studies of republican imprisonment during the war in the 6 Counties; among these publications are Diarmait MacGiollaChríost (2012) and Feargal MacIonnrachtaigh’s (2013) books on republican prisoners and the Irish Language, Ruan O’Donnell’s first volume on IRA prisoners in British prisons (2012), and Stuart Ross’ portrait of the popular movement in support of the protesting republican prisoners in the H-Blocks. (2011)

In this review I will focus on four books published in the previous twelve months. The different methodological and historiographical angles to tell the multiple stories of political imprisonment in Ireland are mirrored in these books.

The first book is William Murphy’s Political Imprisonment & the Irish, 1912-192. (2014) Murphy is Lecturer in Irish Studies at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University. The book covers the last decade of British rule over the whole island before the independence of the 26 southern Counties. Drawing on a wide range of archival sources, manuscripts, contemporary publications, memoirs, and secondary literature, Murphy provides a social and cultural history of political imprisonment. This is a welcome approach, moving the focus away from previous research on political developments surrounding certain prisons and individuals.

It has often been said that the use of hunger strikes by Irish republicans developed from an ancient tradition of hunger strikes during the era of Gaelic Ireland. Rather, the introduction of hunger strikes in early 20th century Ireland followed developments in the British Suffragettes movement. Thus, putting republican imprisonment in the post-1916 era in the broader context of political imprisonment in early 20th century Ireland contradicts the mystified notion of republican hunger strikes originating from ancient traditions. This alone is an important achievement of this well-written and easy to read book.

Contrary to Murphy’s publication which is similarly easy accessible for both academics as well as the general public, Seán McConville’s opus Irish Political Prisoners, 1920-1962: Pilgrimage of Desolation (2014) will put off some readers due to the sheer length of nearly 1.200 pages and the price of € 190. However, if you are willing to plough yourself through this vast volume, it offers some remarkable insight into political imprisonment in Ireland.

McConville is Professor of Law and Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He has previously published on the history of English prisons in the 18th and 19th century. Pilgrimage of Desolation is the second volume of his history of Irish political prisoners. The first volume, Theatres of War, spans the period from 1848 until the independence of the 26 southern Counties (2003), whereas this volume covers the years from Independence until the end of Operation Harvest, the so-called Border Campaign of the IRA. McConville draws on a vast amount of archival material, legal reports, manuscripts, and cases, introducing an interesting legal perspective into the recent academic debate on political imprisonment in Ireland.

The existing literature on Irish political imprisonment after the Anglo-Irish Treaty shows one significant weaknesses. Namely, there is a divide in the literature on political imprisonment in the 6 Counties on the one hand and the literature on political internment and imprisonment in the 26 southern Counties on the other hand. Consequently, there is no comparative study on political imprisonment in both parts of Ireland. McConville provides an exemption from this artificial divide in academic literature. The first volume of his trilogy on Irish political prisoners was published in 2003, followed by this volume a decade later. The quality of these academic works can only make us hope that the publication of the final volume, dealing with the period until the closure of Long Kesh/HMP Maze in 2000, will not take another ten years.

Thomas Hennessey’s Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle with the IRA (2004), draws extensively on newly declassified British government documents, putting Margaret Thatcher and the British cabinet at the centre of the story of the Irish republican hunger strikes. Hennessey is Professor of Modern British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University. Among his previous publications are the well-received Evolution of the Troubles, 1970-72, and Northern Ireland: The Origins of the Troubles. (2005, 2007)

However, Hennessey latest book has drawn harsh criticism from Mark Hayes on The Pensive Quill. (see TPQ: Hennessy And The Hunger Strike: Doubting Thomas; March 18, 2014) While the sentiments expressed by Hayes are understandable, Hennessey’s book is still a useful account of the republican prison protests. Hennessey bases his analyses mainly on British documents, precisely on recently declassified documents from the National Archives (Cabinet Office, Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office), PRONI (Cabinet Records, Central Secretariat, NIO), as well as material from the Thatcher Foundation. Indeed, some of these documents are an uncomfortable read for republican activists and their sympathisers. Nonetheless, Hennessey introduces an interesting Unionist and British perspective into the debate on the republican hunger strikes.

While such a perspective is needed to get a better picture of developments surrounding republican imprisonment during that era, the publisher’s announcement of Hennessey’s book being the “definitive account” of the hunger strikes is overestimating and misleading. The book is neither more nor less than a Unionist and British view on republican prison protests. In fact, this is a valuable achievement of Hennessey.

The last three decades saw a bulk of literature published on Long Kesh/HMP Maze. Under those circumstances, providing a different view on an already told story is a remarkable achievement. Hence, while most of the previously mentioned new publications provide a better understanding of specific aspects of political internment and imprisonment in Ireland, Laura McAtackney’s An Archaeology of the Troubles: The dark heritage of Long Kesh/Maze prison is most significant. (2014)

Compared to the above mentioned publications, her book provides less new information, drawing on fewer archival and literary research. Rather, she provides a new interpretation and understanding of existing material. By asking new questions of already collected and published material and by using a different methodological approach to analyse these sources, she writes a new and different history of Long Kesh/HMP Maze in particular and political imprisonment in the 6 Counties in general. Indeed, telling an already known story differently from the accepted historical, academic narrative is a remarkable achievement that makes her book an outstanding publication.

McAtackney is Postdoctoral fellow at the School of Social Justice, University College Dublin. Her approach is that of “historical archaeology.” This use of archaeological approaches to interpret modern and contemporary history is a growing academic field. In recent years, due to the centenary of the First World War, an archaeological field named “battlefield archaeology” or “conflict archaeology” arose on the intersection between military history, social history, and archaeology. This approach has also been used to research internment camps and prisons. In Ireland, it was Louise Purbrick who used archaeological methods to analyse former prison sites some years before this publication.

McAtackney puts these developments into a broader context, providing an in-depth historical archaeological case study on Long Kesh/HMP Maze. Her aim is “to move beyond traditional accounts of this highly mythologized site” by understanding the interaction of prisoners with artefacts, the buildings, and the wider landscape within which they are set. In essence, due to McAtackney’s innovative approach to political imprisonment in Ireland, this is one of the most remarkable publications in recent years.

To conclude, the vast literature on political imprisonment in Ireland focuses on prominent individuals, events, or political developments such as resistance in the internment camps and prisons. However, beyond the famous and infamous leaders comparative insight into social and cultural aspects of political imprisonment in both parts of Ireland is desirable. Providing this insight into the daily life of the prison population in Ireland will move our understanding of political imprisonment beyond the grand biased narratives and towards a more realistic approach of one of the most relevant aspects of modern Irish history. The publications discussed in this review provide useful steps into this direction.

Books mentioned in this review:

Hennessey, T. (2005). Northern Ireland: the origins of the Troubles. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Hennessey, T. (2007). The evolution of the troubles, 1970-72. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Hennessey, T. (2014). Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher's Battle with the IRA. Dublin/Portland: Irish Academic Press.

MacGiollaChríost, D. (2012). Jailtacht: The Irish language, symbolic power and political violence in Northern Ireland, 1972 - 2008. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

MacIonnrachtaigh, F. (2013). Language, Resistance and Revival. Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in The North of Ireland. London: Pluto Press.

McAtackney, L. (2014). An Archaeology of the Troubles: The Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McConville, S. (2003). Irish Political Prisoners 1848-1922. Theatres of War. London/New York: Routledge.

McConville, S. (2014). Irish Political Prisoners, 1920-1962. Pilgrimage of Desolation. Oxon/New York: Routledge.

Murphy, W. (2014). Political Imprisonment & the Irish, 1912-1921. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O'Donnell, R. (2012). Special category: the IRA in English Prisons, 1968 - 1978. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Ross, F. S. (2011). Smashing H-block: The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign Against Criminalization, 1976-1982. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Good man Dieter. The only criticism I have is that the 26-Counties did not gain or assert independence in 1922. It remains the product of the 1920 Westminster Government of Ireland Act.