- Retaliate and Punish: Political Violence as form and Memory in Northern Ireland
- Irish-American Cultural Institute
- Volume 32 & Volume 33, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 1997 / Number 1-2, Earrach/Samhradh/Spring/Summ
- pp. 195-235
- View Citation
- Additional Information
RETALIATE AND PUNISH: POLITICAL VIOLENCE AS FORM AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND1 ALLEN FELDMAN “Say ground, no ground, but say ground.” —Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho! in the early days of my fieldwork in Belfast I was contacting communitybased activists and gate keepers by phone, introducing myself by saying I was interested in assembling an oral history of the conflict in Northern Ireland .2 To my surprise, one respondent enthusiastically arranged a meeting for the next day. Though he had been recommended to me as a community -based activist, I was later to learn that he was a Loyalist paramilitary, rumored to have eleven assassinations to his credit. He entered my borrowed office, introducing himself by unbuttoning his shirt, baring his chest, and giving me a guided tour of the bullet scars on his torso that culminated in a coronary bypass scar across his chest—the emblem, according to him, of two decades of stressful violent political life in Belfast. He was showing me these scars, he declared, to demonstrate “that there is very little moral history in Northern Ireland.” I had been misunderstood; on the phone and in a moment of creative cross-cultural translation he converted my request for oral history into a search for moral history. With his exposure I knew that a unique passageway into Northern Irish reality had been opened for me: in this war there was a performative disPOLITICAL VIOLENCE AS FORM AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND 195 1 I would like to acknowledge the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for inviting me to the symposium “Revenge” that took place in Princeton and Madrid, which generated this paper, and give particular thanks to Karen Colvard, program officer of the foundation , and Bruce Kapferer, conference chair and organizer, for their support and comments. 2 Fieldwork in Northern Ireland was conducted during the years 1978 to 1980, 1984 to 1987, 1990, 1992. Fieldwork in Belfast began in 1984. By agreement, all informants’ names are kept confidential, and they are identified by gender, age, paramilitary, and/or political or ethnic affiliation(s). course of the body that was disjunctive with the conventions of “moral history ,” which I glossed as formal institutional ideologies, and the official political culture of Loyalist and Republican communities. The turn to “scarification ” as the bearer of history and memory implied that there were multiple and disjunctive counter-moralities sunk into the depths of bodily experience and hidden beneath the monotheism of mutually exclusive nationalisms , state legality, and ethno-religious classification. A year later I was driving with a Republican ex-paramilitary, “Sean,” on a battlefield tour of Belfast. He was showing me the sites of INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) operations he had participated in, or possessed logistical knowledge of, to explain how urban guerrilla operations were planned and carried out. Sean discussed these issues with a mixture of professionalism and dry ironic understatement, characteristic of Belfast’s working class. We drove by a security checkpoint where, five years earlier, he had “given the message” to a policeman—Sean shot him point-blank in the head and then made the escape or “runback” in a waiting car. As we sat contemplating the scene of past violence, he started recounting a complex series of altercations in his housing estate that had recently taken place between his wife and a local “hood” (a petty criminal) who had slapped Sean’s wife. Sean, aided by other “retired members” of various Republican paramilitary organizations, had retaliated with hurly (hockey) sticks that put the “hood” into the hospital. Sean was consulting with me: did I think further action was required now that the man had been released from the hospital ? The conversation continued as we drove through a secretive cartography of clandestine war masked by the banal urban surfaces of postindustrial decay. The further measure being contemplated was “doing” the hood—that is, homicide. Sean was going to borrow a “short” (a revolver) from the one of his organization’s arms dumps—he knew their hidden locations —and get permission for the act from members of the local IRA unit, whom he viewed as colleagues. (The IRA was at that time engaging in a controversial campaign against petty criminals in...