ACIS Logo Torn away, bonded together: Prison music in the Northern Irish conflict.

By Claire Green

Political music simultaneously bonds and divides individuals, communities and societies. Both sides in the so-called Troubles had dense and varied musical traditions through which communal ties and ruptures were reflected, transmitted and reinforced, incorporating key historical themes, figures and events and enshrining their contemporary equivalents into the canon. The prison, in particular Long Kesh/ Maze where the vast majority of politically-motivated prisoners were held, was a microcosm of the wider conflict and cultural identity struggle within it. Naturally, therefore, music played a key role in those prisoners’ cultural, personal and political lives, just as it did for related groups on the outside. Prisoners occupied a strange, liminal space: physically separated from the wider conflict and central to it. Music was integral to making sense of their situation, boosting morale and linking their struggle to historical narratives and communal support. They were at once torn away from their families, communities and day-to-day lives, attempting to maintain those links through prison walls, and engaged in the consolidation of their political prisoner identity and culture, which was able to develop particularly strongly in the unusual penal environment of Long Kesh/ Maze. Moreover, both republican and loyalist prisoners had to negotiate power, space and autonomy between themselves and in relation to staff. This paper will examine how music was utilised by loyalist and republican prisoners during the Northern Irish conflict to achieve these aims: bonding some and dividing others, breaking through prison walls and enforcing boundaries, hierarchies and cultural norms within them.

Published on: March 29, 2020