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Masculinity and the Irish Republican Psyche of the Troubles

Research presentation

Fifth Annual Cambridge-Edinburgh Joint Conference

In the opening pages of his 2001 work Masculinities and Culture, John Beynon reminded his readers: ‘Men are not born with masculinity as part of their genetic makeup; rather it is something into which they are acculturated and which is composed of social codes of behaviour which they learn to reproduce in culturally appropriate ways.’[1] Masculinity, then, is a cultural phenomenon, developed, nurtured, and imbued in individuals through an array of sources. This being true, it is worth considering what masculinity looked like in the context of the ‘Troubles,’ what role it played in the conflict and how the conflict in turn changed understandings of masculinity on the island of Ireland.

While the ‘Troubles’ has been the subject of innumerable scholarly studies, consideration of the function of masculinity in the conflict proves sparse. In the aftermath of the Peace Process, some academics have written about the impact and aftermaths of male-dominated republican violence, but these considerations of masculinity are often not written by historians, teleological in light of the Peace Process, and heavily emphasise the 1980s and 1990s years of the ‘Troubles.’[2] More generally, an analysis of the most cited general historical works on the Irish Republican Army turn up almost no references to the term ‘masculinity,’ and still fewer feature any kind of sustained analysis of the concept. This opaqueness, though, is not from lack material. So, what I shall endeavour to do here is start a conversation about masculinity by focusing my attentions on the first decade of the ‘Troubles,’ exploring how those in positions of leadership constructed their version of ‘IRA men’ and true ‘republican masculinity.’

With an all-encompassing political and economic agenda, it is unsurprising that the IRA’s leadership also had profuse qualifications for what republican masculinity looked like. Rather than simply a matter of biology, IRA thinkers constructed a vision of masculinity that included a curious mind, politicised way of viewing the world, and regimented approach to life. It might be called an embodied, radical intellectualism.

Such a construction of manhood was both subliminally and overtly marketed towards volunteers through an array of means. Firstly, The Green Book advocated for volunteers to engage in ‘self and group education,’ and goes on to talk about the enemy of ‘ignorance,’ that it says the IRA wanted to depict itself as well-informed, its members constantly engaging in education and self-improvement.[3] The IRA leadership provided volunteers with much of the content that they ‘needed’ to fulfil this aspect of their mission, with propagandistic newspapers, speeches, and books informing volunteers about economic imperialism, democratic socialism, radical political thoughts and actions overseas, theologies regarding violence, and studies of the ancient and modern histories of Ireland. Reading lists and book groups were also advertised in IRA newspapers on a weekly basis.[4]

This is not to say that the IRA advanced a definition of masculinity synonymous with bookishness. Rather, it encouraged a particular breed of radical, autodidactic intellectual who lived out his ideology. Propaganda told volunteers to the embodiment of masculinity came through attending marches and having political conversations with other volunteers and family members. They were also to learn physical activities including weapons-training, bomb-building, and analysis of military manoeuvres. Coupling of abstract, philosophical forms of knowledge and material, tactical ones, leaders said, would allow members to both better see the evil imperialistic nature of the British state and then know how to fight it.

Building upon this, the group incorporated into it concepts of chauvinism—both the classic definition based on the legend of Nicolas Chauvin, of an extreme nationalism, and the more colloquial term relating to how men treat women.[5] The IRA’s vilification of the British and its nostalgic, romantically-described love for the island of Ireland are classic plays to chauvinism. The Green Book, IRA speeches, newspaper articles, and IRA leaders’ memoirs all speak passionately and frequently of the British state as imperialistic, genocidal, immoral, and bloodthirsty.[6] As one An Phoblacht article observed:

It would be well therefore for those who clamour for the IRA to give up their arms to realise that if this happened the killing and beating and expulsion of defenceless Irish men and women and children would start again with redoubled vigor.[7]
Coupling both iterations of chauvinism, women were particularly pointedly described as being subject to the negative influences of the British state, a vulnerable population who must be protected. Running parallel to this was the narrative that someone had to defend the island and its women from such harm. Real men, the IRA argued, had an innate sense to protect themselves and their loved ones against oppression, something deepened in IRA men through their studies. When trying to articulate why they promoted violence against the state and its supporters, the IRA said that this was the natural reaction of man to repression. Masculinity within the IRA definition was thereby expressed by fighting, by a willingness to defend against British incursions; those unwilling to stand up and fight the state were referred to as effeminate, further driving home IRA definitions of masculinity.[8]

With a rationality born from a robust study and a nature compelled to defensive action as a result of oppression, IRA masculinity was demonstrated when through a man’s profound sense of self-control and his willingness to go to extremes to defend his nation. For example, the IRA’s leaders spoke often to members about controlling, suppressing, and channelling emotions. The images they presented of masculinity were those of men governed by careful planning, an ability to stifle or otherwise compartmentalise emotions, and follow through on plans, even one that might prove bloody.[9] Another element of self-control was managing relationships with family and friends, as well as moderating oneself in relation to vice. One piece read:

He should not join the Army because of emotionalism, sensationalism, or adventurism. He should examine fully his own motives, knowing the dangers involved and know that he will find no romance within the Movement. [10]
These articulations of masculinity and advice on how men should govern themselves were not without discrepancies and without a great deal of mixed signals. For example, there is a confused logic, I would argue, behind saying that someone cannot join the IRA based on emotionalism or sentimental ties to the nation, and yet claiming that their sense of justice should be enflamed by British violence to the point where they can kill others or be willing to be killed. The articulation of an IRA man as an embodied intellectual who was the master of his own mind and the protector of many others is also problematic when juxtaposed with the narratives of oppression and societal deterioration that the IRA wanted to tell in order to radicalise audiences. The IRA projected masculinity as based on nouns and adjectives such as controlled, powerful, warrior, defender, intellectual, and yet other pieces of work described the Irish people as subjugated, victims, struggling, colonised, slaves, and out of control.

My thinking is that this dichotomy was not accidental. Studies have shown that men can be compelled to extreme behaviour in situations in which they feel they have lost control or are being emasculated.[11] By articulating for men a definition of masculinity that was hard to attain under the given political conditions, and allowing them to fight alongside other men in pursuit of living out such masculine ends, the IRA appear to be attempting to radicalise men by angering them over threats to their masculinity.

None of this is to argue that the standard of masculinity advanced by the IRA in the early ‘Troubles’ is so diametrically different from later years in the conflict, from other separatist outfits of the period, or even from the masculinities promoted by their professed enemies. However, it is intended to make those of us studying ‘Troubles’ start having direct and honest discussions about masculinity as an impactful force within republicanism, the construction and performance of it all, that we have shied away from to date.



[1] John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2001), 2.

[2] For example: Sarah Edge, ‘“He’s a Good Soldier, He cares About the Future”: Post-Feminist Masculinities, The IRA Man and “Peace” in Northern Ireland,’ Masculinity And Irish Popular Culture Tiger’s Tales (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), 195-206; Fidelma Ashe and Ken Harland, ‘Troubling Masculinities: Changing Patterns of Violent Masculinities in a Society Emerging from Political Conflict,’ Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 37 (2014), 747-762; Sean Brady, ‘Why examine men, masculinities and religion in Northern Ireland,’ in Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain, Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan [eds.], (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 218-251.

[3] Irish Republican Army, Irish Republican Army “Green Book” Vol. I & II, (Unknown: Irish Republican Army, Unknown), 6.

[4] An Phoblacht; The United Irishman; An tOglach.

[5] ‘Chauvinism,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/chauvinism.

[6] Irish Republican Army, Irish Republican Army “Green Book”; An Phoblacht; The United Irishman.

[7] ‘They Gave Their Lives for the Republic 1923,’ An Phoblacht (July 1971), 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Irish Republican Army, Irish Republican Army “Green Book,” 2.

[11] For example: Maria N. Scaptura and Kaitlin M. Boyle, ‘Masculinity Threat, “Incel” Traits, and Violent Fantasies Among Heterosexual Men in the United States,’ Feminist Criminology (2019), 1-21.

(Image: Burns Library, Boston College Flickr)