Ag Foghlam Faoi Ghlas: IRA Prisoners and Political Education



Prison is not always thought of when it comes to education. In the 1970–1990s, Irish political prisoners organized their own school within the walls, as Deaglán Ó Mocháin recounts in this semi-autobiographical text. This political education involved an acute understanding of the political and historical conditions that framed the IRA struggle, but also the teaching of Irish language and a broader knowledge of internationalism.

O Mochain Funambulist 1
A prison bibliography: books from Deaglán Ó Mocháin’s library. / Photo taken in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, an Irish language, arts, and culture center in Derry (2023).

Regardless of where they are imprisoned, or for how long, and irrespective of their official legal status, Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners view themselves as political actors, and behave accordingly. They will organize themselves into some form of IRA structure, and appoint a leadership to act and negotiate in the communal interest, and communicate with comrades on the outside. They will develop an approach to improving their living conditions – on issues like access to visits and legal advice, parcels from outside, as well as recreational activities like sports, exercise, and entertainment. They will develop educational classes—they will organize discussions and debates, they will create or register for courses, and they will often start ranganna (Irish language classes) or engage in other cultural activities. They will also immediately try to organize an éalú (escape), if at all possible, even if it seems impossible. The key concepts in respect of IRA imprisonment will almost always feature a political and/or military structure, an overarching political awareness, a strong focus on education and an emphasis on communal action and thought—a world away from popular depictions of prison life as one of intimidation, communal violence, and chaos.