Natalie McCabe
Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma

Creative Commons 4.0 by Natalie McCabe. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Anne Kane and Dieter Reinscheck, eds.

Routledge, 2023. 174 pages.

ISBN: 9781032208411

How did a “counterpublic” gain significant support from isolated, underrepresented populations among Northern Ireland’s Catholic inhabitants, becoming a vast social movement resisting British rule, bolstering the Provisional Irish Republican Army, upholding momentum for nearly three decades between 1969 and 1998 – and, in fact, beyond? Aspects of this question are answered in Irish Republican Counterpublic: Armed Struggle and the Construction of a Radical Nationalist Community in Northern Ireland, 1969 – 1998, edited by Dieter Reinisch and Anne Kane. The book, the fourth in a collection sponsored by the Hansen Collection on Peace and Nonviolence Research and dedicated to interrogating the connection of passive agents of social change with political violence, fills a gap in research surrounding communities of support behind this social movement.

Reinisch and Kane’s edited volume centres upon the idea of a “counterpublic” and its expansion within and alongside the Northern Irish Republican Nationalist social movement. In the introduction, labelled chapter one and penned by the book’s editors, the text contends that “a counterpublic may develop along with a social movement, as we argue is the case in Northern Ireland during the Troubles” (11). Specifically, the chapters examine how this notion assisted the social movement’s “‘community-building’ efforts” (1) as significantly more support was built during the second half of the twentieth century from the late 1960s through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Here, the editors utilize the definition of counterpublic put forth in Civil Sphere Theory by Jeffrey Alexander: “The subaltern, shadow community of discourse and institutions upon which a social movement by a subordinate, excluded social group is built” (cited in Kane and Reinisch 2). The introductory chapter justifies the book by explaining that examining the “‘community building’ efforts” through a counterpublic lens fills a gap in the research into this time and place (1).

A description of the book on the back cover identifies a specific audience, including sociology, history, and political scholars. As such, this volume acknowledges that its target readership comprises academics and scholars of the aforementioned research areas, especially given its earliest beginnings as a conference panel. In other words, the book is not for the reader looking for a general overview of “The Troubles”. Fortunately, for those outside of these specialties, most chapters in the book specifically define, outline, and elaborate upon their terminology and thesis statements, making for an organized and advanced read.

The collection spans seven chapters, including an introduction and afterword, written by various authors. Each chapter probes different aspects of the issue contributing to the overall notion of how this Irish Republican counterpublic was formed and gained momentum. The chapters were initially papers presented as a session during the 2021 American Conference for Irish Studies, held in Derry, Northern Ireland. The first chapter, by the book’s editors, Anne Kane and Dieter Reinisch, is titled “Social Movements and Counterpublics: The Northern Irish Republican Movement, 1969 – 1998”. Kane also wrote Chapter Two, “The Northern Ireland Republican Movement and Counterpublic Construction, 1969 – 1976”, exploring the early years of this movement. Chapter Three, “Irish Republican Counterpublic and Media Activism”, by Stephen Goulding and Paddy Hoey, explores the effect of various forms of media on building identities integral to sustaining support. Chapter Four, “Troubled Mothers: The Mobilization of Republican Motherhood during the Northern Irish Conflict”, by Miren Mohrenweiser, explores women’s power within this counterpublic, within and outside of the gendered space of their homes. Dieter Reinisch penned Chapter Five, “The Republican Counterpublic in the H-Blocks, 1983 – 1989”, observing how those imprisoned during this time built upon such identities. Chapter Six, “The Prisoners’ Support Campaign: How Hunger Strikes Facilitated the Counterpublic”, enhances Reinisch’s work discussing the social movement within the prisons in a specific exploration of prisoner resistance. The conclusion summarizes and reiterates many of the collection’s main ideas in its Afterword, Chapter Seven, “The Irish Republican Counterpublic: A Processual Perspective”, by Lorenzo Bosi. Each chapter encompasses an impressively documented exploration of specific avenues within the broader categories mentioned above.

In Chapter Two, Anne Kane cites the diverse array of groups and people at the movement’s beginning as providing a foundation for the movement: “Politicized by extreme measures of British domination and repression, the working-class Nationalist population became active in myriad volunteer organizations of resistance and opposition” (17). Even so, she points out that this book does not and cannot cover all of the individual situations and groups, leaving the discussion open for further exploration in the future. Still, this chapter provides a solid base for subsequent chapters.

Stephen Goulding and Paddy Hoey investigate the assorted techniques and technologies used to grow its counterpublic, which was aware of the movement’s “subaltern” status in Chapter Three. The message was put out via newspapers, magazines, broadsheets, and, later, forms of street art such as murals, some of the latter of which are still visible today. Including visual art forms contributes to the article’s inclusiveness and expansive assessment.

Chapter Four, by Miren Mohrenweiser, is particularly noteworthy. Even among marginalized groups, mothers are often cast aside or relegated to basic supporting roles; the same remains true in academia and the areas focused upon in this book. Initially, this chapter references the more passive role mothers held in early Republican ideology. Several works are cited, leading to the idea that “Women’s sacrifice in the form of visiting prisoners and performing the ritual mourning the death of sons was seen as expected, and, therefore, uncelebrated and unglorified within the patrilineage” (75). Later, she discusses “maternal activism” in such depth that the chapter is divided into multiple categories, labelling it overall a “liminal action” that is “between the public and private spheres” (76). The book notes that part of this was done in line with gendered spaces; typically, the areas within the four walls of a home are gendered female. With men largely active on the outside for work, for activism, and, occasionally, in prison, their wives, often also in roles as mothers to many children, were left to emphasize authority in the home away from the influence and control of the British government. While the research presented in this book adds new insights into the growth in the support for the Nationalist Republican movement in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the twentieth century, this chapter in particular enriches scholarship by delving into the realm of women’s and gender studies, appallingly understudied areas. By doing so, the text brilliantly adds to several lines of conversation in a particularly timely fashion. It removes women, specifically mothers, from their frequently static stereotype of being impacted by, but not actually performing or contributing to, the violence and sacrifice committed by and against men in such Republican ideology and, instead, inserts them as active players, supporters, and proponents of the cause, within and outside of the four walls of their homes. Going further, the chapter discusses women developing strong support networks for other women, especially mothers, often left solo parenting with husbands and fathers working elsewhere or otherwise being involved with and/or imprisoned during this time. This chapter stands out as an especially timely discussion of women’s and, specifically, mothers’ invaluable contributions at a time when the rights and roles of women continue to be debated and curtailed in other Western nations. The nationalist movement of the early-twentieth century often personified Ireland as a woman, a widow, and a mother bemoaning the theft of her four green fields enticing men to die for her, if they were not already dead. Here, women, including mothers, are placed as active players constructively contributing to a movement, a counterpublic, in ways often not discussed in research or elsewhere.

Two subsequent chapters focus on the movements and situations inside prisons of Northern Ireland from this time. In Chapter 5, Dieter Reinisch, using Alexander’s definitions as mentioned for other terms in this book, casts prisoners as actors, their protests and actions as performances, and prisons as stages (cited in Kane and Reinisch 19). Reinisch labels the prison theatrics an avenue of public dialogue through which the Northern Irish Republican counterpublic gained further support. He charts the prisoners’ struggle to attain and maintain political prisoner status. Defining the specific logistics with such a distinction in status would help augment this already-thorough article, though most, if not all, readers in the overall book’s scholarly target audience base likely have that understanding beforehand.

Stuart Ross’s Chapter Six takes a particular angle when detailing various hunger strikes in Northern Irish prisons of this time, some of which resulted in deaths of such now-prominent figures as Bobby Sands. While the hunger strikes and tragic associated deaths are not news, this chapter references and explains the application and elimination of “special prisoner status” – that is, applying and then denying the right of detainees to be categorized as prisoners of war – to imprisoned Republican Nationalists. It makes the argument that the self-induced starvation worked the opposite way from what the British government hoped it would. Instead of reducing support for the Nationalist Republican movement, it spurred the counterpublic along, becoming a further threat to the British government.

Lorenzo Bosi’s chapter concludes the book with further avenues ripe for interrogation. Bosi reiterates Sinn Féin’s current support and leaves open the question of whether or not that support results from the continued presence of an Irish Republican counterpublic in the wake of the Good Friday Peace Accord.

The book’s timing is exceptional. Compiling a variety of topics into different chapters in one volume enhances the book’s appeal, particularly given the current political situation in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. As mentioned in the Acknowledgements section, at the time this book was finished, Sinn Féin was “the largest political party in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, it won the local parliament elections in May 2022, finishing first for the first time in the history of the statelet” (xiv). Now there is a volume of collected works contributing to the understanding of how the support for this began, leaving open room for questions about its future.