- The Bell and the Blanket: Journals of Irish Republican Dissent
Two publications that appeared at different points of modern Irish history, and which took radically different editorial approaches—the literary journal, the Bell (1940–1954) and the dissident republican online magazine, the Blanket (2001–2007)—evince some compelling shared preoccupations. The Bell is seldom considered as representing the Irish republican tradition; yet both publications question the rewriting of history by republican reformists, and share a spirit of dissent at odds with the historical periods of republican consolidation in which they operated. More important, perhaps, both journals provided fora for radical Protestant voices that ran contrary to their own political outlooks. The publication of such articles was, by definition, a form of resistance to censorship, whether the censors were the state, the IRA, or the modern Sinn Féin.
Carrie Twomey, the founding editor of the Blanket, was not cognizant of the content of the Bell. But remarkably, her vision for the magazine instinctively drew on a culture of dissent that sought to highlight inconsistencies within mainstream republican dogma—as the Bell had done six decades previously. The stance of the Blanket toward republicanism in particular is not without its critics. Its attacks on Sinn Féin’s abandonment of republican principles is tinged with a regret that—had they known where the party was going to end up—many of its writers would not have taken part in violence during the “Troubles.”1
In 2001, Billy Mitchell, a former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) chief of staff who had been sentenced to two life sentences in the late 1970s, published a series of articles in the Blanket. These articles demonstrate both the journal’s commitment to publishing a progressive voice from loyalist circles, and make explicit the connection between the Blanket and the Bell. Mitchell, who had become a [End Page 75] devout Christian in jail, had developed a sophisticated vision of Northern Irish identity and how it could be refined to accommodate all religious and political traditions. He saw identity politics as a barrier to reconciliation. Mitchell contended that the demarcation of identities, Irish Catholic versus British Protestant, failed to recognize the shared aspects of modern Northern Irish identity. Such identifications, said Mitchell, allowed parties like the DUP and Sinn Féin to dominate the political landscape through isolationist sectarianism.2
Mitchell was unrepentant about his Protestant heritage, but he saw common ground between religious and political traditions. In one of his earliest Blanket articles, he speaks of the four cultural identities in modern Ireland: “indigenous Irish Gaelic culture, Anglo-Irish culture, Ulster-Scots culture, and, the cultures of those ethnic groups who have settled in the Province in more recent times.”3 For Mitchell, the only true path to reconciliation in Northern Irish life lay not in the ossifying enshrinement of cultural difference that had resulted in deeper social divisions in the era that followed the Good Friday Agreement, but in a shared embracing and celebration of all these identities:
Each citizen of Northern Ireland has an inalienable right to watch over, promote, protect and enjoy the cultural tradition with which he or she chooses to identify. It is incumbent upon all of us to validate each of these cultures, together with the modes of expression and celebration associated with them.4
Mitchell’s argument had been suggested sixty years previously by Sean O’Faolain, the Bell’s founding editor. In “The Five Strains,” O’Faolain presents a similar description of the racial “strains” which contributed to Irish identity. However, he made no reference to the Scots-Protestant planters of Northern Ireland.5 Although O’Faolain published a codicil in the next issue in the form of “The Scottish Strain” by James J. Auchmutty, this was denigrated to the position of “Public Opinion.”6 O’Faolain likewise showed his resistance to acknowledging the Scottish strain by his decision to omit them again when he wrote his history of Irish identity, The Irish (1947).7 Despite the publication of radical Protestant voices in the Bell, the move reveals O’Faolain’s deeper sympathies with the republican tradition. [End Page 76]
In an article published by...