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Editors’ Introduction: Irish Crime since 1921

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 49, Issues 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2014
pp. 7-21 | 10.1353/eir.2014.0010

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In the nineteenth century “Irish crime” was shorthand for an essentially colonial view of Hibernian misbehavior: Westminster politicians and Dublin Castle administrators, like the leader writers of the London dailies, spoke as if the Irish race produced its own species of atavistic lawlessness. From rapparees, Houghers, and Whiteboys to tithe warriors, Fenians, and Captain Moonlight, Irish criminality was constructed by British administrators as conspiratorial, agrarian and above all violent. Between 1835 and 1921 the Royal Irish Constabulary compiled “returns of outrages”: monthly and yearly statistical tallies of threatening letters, cattle maiming, arson, assault, and murder. These helped to consolidate the view that Irish perpetrators were primal, excitable, and irrational, threatening the security of property and person alike, and so undermining any hope of “progress” on the island. The diagnosis of “Irish crime” as premodern outrage prescribed the cure: coercive legislation to curtail civil liberties and enhance police powers. In its commission, perception, and punishment Irish crime was thoroughly colonized.

Scholars in more recent times have significantly adjusted this view by examining other varieties of illegality in nineteenth-century Ireland, by analyzing crime through other contexts such as gender and folklore, and by investigating the statistical record to show that violent crime actually decreased in Ireland in the late nineteenth century.1 Nevertheless, the perceived centrality of violence within Ireland—whether during the era of the Union, at the time of the early twentieth-century struggle for independence, or contemporaneous with the late twentieth-century Troubles—crowds out consideration of other offenses and offenders in both academic and popular accounts of what constitutes Irish crime. The subtitle of Crime in Ireland, 1945–95: Here Be Dragons (1997), coauthored by John D. Brewer, Bill Lockhart, and Paula Rogers, implied that Irish crime was an academic terra incognita. Since the mid-1990s, though, many important works have filled in the contours of criminality in the Republic. Paul O’Mahony surveyed trends in Crime and Punishment in Ireland (1993) before publishing a more incisive study of “the often neglected connections between criminal acts and social conditions, institutional reactions, and political policy” in Criminal Chaos: Seven Crises in Irish Criminal Justice (1996). The latter study is also notable for directing academic attention for the first time to the trafficking and use of illicit drugs, an issue that O’Mahony revisited in The Irish War on Drugs (2008).2 Ciaran McCullagh’s Crime in Ireland: A Sociological Introduction (1996) provided the first sociological sketch in the field of statistics, policing, sex and class-based forms of criminality, victimization, and punishment; subsequently, McCullagh directed attention to urban, rural, and even white-collar crime.3 Most recently, an interdisciplinary examination of organized crime, gangs, and violence, Understanding Limerick: Social Exclusion and Change (2011), has centered on the contributions of sociologist Niamh Hourigan.4 The most authoritative criminological volume is Crime, Punishment, and the Search for Order in Ireland (2004), edited by Shane Kilcommins and others, which connected Irish crime to debates then ongoing in Britain and the United States in the discipline about David Garland’s concept of the “culture of control.”5 Still, Ian O’Donnell—one of the coauthors and also the most prolific of Irish criminologists—claimed as recently as 2005 that criminology was Ireland’s “absentee discipline.”6 Certainly, Irish social scientists have yet to engage with more recent developments in the field such as cultural criminology, and discussion of Ireland and Irish crime is still absent from such major conversations about theories of crime and deviance in modern Europe as Dario Melossi’s Controlling Crime, Controlling Society: Thinking about Crime in Europe and America (2008).7

In the discipline of history, aside from the understandable attention to terrorist violence, crime rarely receives a mention as a feature of the social, economic, or cultural landscape in narrative texts of Irish history.8 Even T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin’s foundational The Course of Irish History (1967) remained silent on crime until two additional chapters appeared, in 2001 and 2011 respectively, to address such “crimes of the powerful” as political corruption and the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic church.9 The boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger years intensified the...

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