ACIS Logo Between Theology and Republican Ideology: Catholic Liturgical Practice and Anti-Colonial Resistance in Northern Ireland

Early on the morning of February 23, 1985, Irish Republican Army Volunteers Charles Breslin, David Devine, and Michael Devine were gunned down by the British Special Air Service in their hometown of Strabane in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Soon after the funerals, friends of the deceased created the Strabane Memorial Flute Band, which has led a yearly ritual commemoration of their deaths. Though Irish republicanism has grown apart from Catholicism since the early 1980s, these commemorations still closely resemble Catholic liturgical practices and prayers.

Commentators on “the Troubles” have traditionally explained the labels Catholic and Protestant as merely ethnic markers. More recently, sociologists of religion have begun to recognize the formative role played by religion in Northern Ireland, but scholars have still not given adequate treatment of the theological ramifications of the conflict. This paper seeks to fill that gap by illuminating the anti-colonial space that emerges between theological, historical, and postcolonial readings of republican commemorations in Strabane. Reading republican commemorations through a theological lens opens up a new interpretive space in which the liberatory aspects of Catholic liturgy coexist with the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy’s opposition to republicanism.

This paper combines historical and anthropological methodologies by employing both archival material and the personal testimony and collected memorabilia of the Breslin family obtained during field work in Northern Ireland in the summer of 2018. This paper makes an intervention in Northern Irish studies by highlighting the ritual importance of Catholic liturgy for republican communities such as the one in Strabane.