Imprisoned at sea

Ruán O’Donnell reviews Republican Internment and the Prison Ship Argenta, 1922 by Denise Kleinrichert Irish Academic Press, £35 hbk

THE MOST surprising thing about this book is the ability of its American author to produce 384 pages of text, charts, illustrations and notes on such an ostensibly narrow theme.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that there is far more to the history of the early ‘troubles’ in Belfast than indicated by most previous scholarship. Kleinrichert is to be commended for contextualising the internment of IRA suspects on the Argenta prison ship and other holding centres between 1921 and 1926.

The picture of political violence detailed by the author is not only the essential background to the extraordinary story of the Argenta in the 1920s but to the later rounds of rioting, insurgency and repression which ensued.

Some of this ground has been recently covered by Jim McDermott’s impressive Northern Divisions, the Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms, 1920-22 and, indeed, Gerry Adams’ recent publication on Belfast in 1916, but nobody has researched the intriguing prison dimension with Kleinrichert’s thoroughness.

Ample and effective use has been made of prisoner’s memoirs which complement memories with highly evocative contemporaneous reflections. It seems clear that the experience of imprisonment in the aftermath of the 1916 rising and War of Independence (1919-21) transformed the nature of republican resistance ‘behind the wire’ from its raw Fenian character into recognisably modern modes of dissent. IRA internees on the Argenta, for example, recreated a chain of command linked to regional and national headquarters, arranged hunger strikes, clashed with their captors and generally comported themselves in a similar manner to those held on the Maidstone and in Long Kesh in the early 1970s.

A strong element of social history permeates the book which represents a significant addition to the literature of the 1920s.

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