"Unrepentant Fenian bastards"
: The social construction of an Irish Republican prison community

  • Lawrence McKeown

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines the history of republican prisoners in the north of Ireland from 1972-1997, tracing developments in their politics and forms of social organisation during that period. This entailed focusing on those aspects of imprisonment in terms of culture, education, political struggle and organisation which are unique to political prisoners - in this case Irish republican prisoners. The thesis examines how this 'community of prisoners', functions within itself as well how it interacts and engages with the prison authorities.

Like most political prisoners, Irish republicans imprisoned at any time, anywhere have always organised themselves in a collective manner. However, the period covered by this research is of particular interest. This phase of republican struggle against the British presence in Ireland is the longest ever waged. The result of that has been that some republican prisoners have spent over three times longer in prison than most other republican prisoners this century. During such a lengthy period the social organisation of the community of republican prisoners has undergone a series of changes, most notably following the removal of political status in 2976 which heralded the most intensive and longest-ever period of protest by republican prisoners over the issue.

In the early 1970 the command structures of the prisoners were very militaristic and hierarchical in nature, reflecting more the discipline and order of a conventional army. Later they were based more on collective leadership combined with communal responsibility, input and accountability. This thesis sets out to discover, examine and analyse the main factor which influenced that change and which prompted political development in a particular direction.

The research challenges previous attempts to 'socially construct' the community of Irish republican prisoners. As 'outsider accounts', most social constructions of the republican prisoner community have not only been characterised by hostility but also homogeneity. The prisoners are generally portrayed as a 'monolithic, inhumane and quasi-racialised group of terrorists'.

The thesis demonstrates, however, that although the community of republican prisoners can be viewed as a tight cohesive entity the stereotypical and monolithic image produced by most external accounts masks many internal differences. Those differences among republican prisoners often only became apparent in periods when the group did not believe itself to be under attack from the 'outsiders' of the prison regime. This thesis examines the different political outlooks which existed within the community of republican prisoners and how the 'battle of ideas' among the grouping was waged.

This is a particular area of prison research which has not previously been examined and certainly not from the method which I adopted. In this thesis the prisoners speak for themselves. They describe their own history, aims, objectives and culture and thus construct a different interpretation of the world and their place within it than has been offered by others who have previously commented upon their lives.

The research is also unique in that its author spent 16 years imprisonment within the republican community. This allowed me to conduct the research as an 'insider', thus facilitating access to interviewees who may have been reluctant to fully engage with an 'outsider' I also participated in the research as one of the researched as well as being researcher.
Date of AwardDec 1998
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsHarold Hyam Wingate Foundation
SupervisorMichael Tomlinson (Supervisor)


  • Irish nationalism
  • Northern Ireland troubles
  • prisons
  • prisoners
  • political conflict
  • terrorism

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