Researching emotions in interviews with former IRA prisoners

Oral History Review has a particular interest in the various methods oral history practitioners use to analyze interviews. We are delighted to preview Dieter Reinisch’s work exploring the emotions revealed in interviews with former Irish Republican Army prisoners, drawn from his larger project, An Oral History of Irish Republican Prisoners, 1971-2000.

By Dieter Reinisch

Particularly since the widely read books by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, emotions have become a significant research subject in the humanities and social sciences, making steady inroads in fields such as social movement studies and oral history. I recently studied the role of emotions in my oral history project comprised of interviews I conducted with former IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland. Analyzing the emotions and feelings expressed in these interviews has given me insight into new facets of the Northern Irish Troubles.

I began using oral history with my MA thesis research in 2010. Since then, I have interviewed almost 100 Irish Republicans. Between 2014 and 2018, I interviewed 34 former IRA prisoners for my PhD thesis. All these interviews are life-story interviews, and each session usually lasted between two and three hours. One of the comments that regularly came up in one form or another was: “It was the best time of my life.”

Prison-Protests in Northern Ireland

What these narrators referred to as the “best time“ is the period of H-Blocks Blanket- and No-Wash-Protests of Irish Republican prisoners, which occurred between 1976 and 1981. In official Republican propaganda, it is described – perhaps rightly – as hell on earth. During these years some of my interview partners spent their time in the H-Blocks, locked up 24-hours a day, seven days a week, covered in nothing but a blanket, and sleeping on a dirty sponge mattress in a cell with no heating and broken windows.

The broken windows allowed rain and snow into the cells. Yet, the prisoners deliberately broke the windows to get rid of the stench of their excrement, which they had smeared on the walls to keep the floor dry. They did this as part of their no-wash protest, which also meant they did not shave, cut their hair, or use any bathroom facilities.

Following his visit to the H-Blocks, Cardinal Ó Fiaich said of the conditions that: “The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer-pipes in the slums of Calcutta.” The prisoners were living in these slum-like conditions, separated from their comrades, under constant threat of full body strip-searches, brutal shifts of the prisoners from one wing to another, and beatings. It was not only Republican propaganda, but most people would also indeed describe these conditions as “hell on earth.” And yet, almost four decades later, some narrators tell me that this was the best time of their lives.

It was not only Republican propaganda, but most people would also indeed describe these conditions as “hell on earth.” And yet, almost four decades later, some narrators tell me that this was the best time of their lives.

To understand these sentiments, I embarked on analyzing the feelings and emotions expressed in the interviews. Historians, including Debra Smith and Rolf Petri, have discussed the definitions of, and differences in meaning between emotion and feeling. Often, the terms of emotion, passion, and feeling are used synonymously in the literature. For the time being, I take a pragmatic approach by using these terms synonymously.

During my research, I found seven groups of emotions that are particularly relevant to understanding the prison experience: loneliness; bitterness; nostalgia; joy; pressure; and loss. I want to give a brief introduction to two of these feelings, sharing some of my preliminary findings specifically about some of the more positive emotions expressed by former prisoners in their interviews.


Susan Stewart defines nostalgia as “a longing for an imagined past,” she writes that “nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative.” It is indeed this narrative that is among the central topics expressed in the interviews and best illustrated by the above phrase: “It was the best time of my life.” IRA prisoners were segregated from other prisoners in the internment camps and prisons; this led them to perceive their prison experience as different from ordinary prisoners.

Another aspect that bound the prisoners together and allowed them to remember the prison experience as something positive was the revolutionary wave that swept through the Irish nationalist community during these times.

Malachy Trainor is a former prisoner who took part in the protest from Armagh. He remembers that

“the other bonus thing is that there was still a lot of hope that the war could have been won or the war could have been over. So, you were in between hope and, I would say, providence.”

As Trainor explains, the prisoners hoped that they were part of history, and their imprisonment was part of that historical process. This idea made them understand their situation as a useful and relevant time in the Republican struggle.

Similarly, for Laurence McKeown a former IRA hunger striker, these years were the “most educational of my life”:

“I’ve often said that even though I did go on to various studies and get a doctorate, I consider those years as being the most educational of my life because it was about unlearning. It was unlearning of a lot of the nonsense probably that was in your head that you’d just soak up from parents, teachers, the state, the church.”

Happiness and Joy

Another feeling that feeds the nostalgia in the narratives is joy and happiness. However, it is striking that most of the moments of happiness and joy remembered in the interviews involved incidents when violence was successfully directed against the prison warders or the British Army, as the following excerpt from the interview with John Nixon, another former prisoner from Armagh illustrates:

When Airey Neave was executed everyone [in jail] cheered because they thought the Provos had done it and they were shouting out: ‘What a good job!’ and ‘Up the ‘RA!’ and it was even people like myself who were INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] saying it was a good job and then there was a lot of confusion over who had done it until the INLA claimed it. There was much pressure after that, more squeezing, more beatings, the denial of privileges, no visits.”

Emotional communities

Barbara Rosenwein explains that emotional communities are social groups that share the same understanding of emotions and how these should be expressed. Furthermore, they are groups of people who have the same or similar interests and values which are connected by the style and assessment of emotions. I consider IRA prisoners an emotional community, despite the different experiences and interpretations of their time in prison, as summed up by Trainor:

“[Imprisonment] can make you a monster in the sense that bitterness takes over and your thinking becomes foggy if you let it if you go as far as it. In other words, it can also help you to have a greater understanding that you haven’t had before. So, it can be a plus in your education even though it is an expensive education. […] It can make you better; it can make you very fundamental; it can make you very suspicious. […] It might be nice even. [Laughing] It is something from a positive aspect, then it can make you a better person if you leave the actual injustices. It can make you a better person in the community even.”

In this excerpt, Trainor sums up a range of emotions, from anger that turns you into a monster to the joy that makes you a better person in the community. I chose this particular excerpt to stress that there is more to imprisonment than pain and fear. In essence, understanding the dynamics described by Trainor and other prisoners in their stories will open a new and interesting avenue of research that might help us to reconsider the motivations and lives of political activists before, during, and after their imprisonment.

While my initial research interest was the informal education of politically motivated prisoners, expanding my analysis to the emotions introduced in this article demonstrates the value of analyzing oral history interviews through several lenses.

Dr. Dieter Reinisch is a Lecturer in History and Gender Studies at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg and an Adjunct Professor in International Relations at Webster University. He holds a PhD from the European University Institute and is an editorial board member of Studi Irlandesi (Florence University Press). He will join the Institute for Advanced Study, Central European University, as a Junior Core Fellow in October 2019 to finalize his book on “An Oral History of Irish Republican prisoners, 1971-2000”. The final chapter of his book discusses the seven groups of emotions presented in this post.

Featured image: detail of “Irish hunger strikers with Frank Stagg,” licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0  by Wikimedia user Hajotthu