In a TikTok video captioned “Where mah fellow Irish Hispanics at?” and scored with the old Irish rebel song “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans,” an American teen plays out a hypothetical conversation with himself. Initially he faces to the left and casually asks, “Hey, dude. Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Just wondering.” The video then jumps to a clip where his body has turned to the right; he answers himself, “A Republican … from Ireland,” while coyly turning to face the camera. Armed with a huge plastic gun, the teenager fiercely purses his lips and pretends to shoot the camera.
The video, posted last week, is both shocking and rather funny. It’s also only one of dozens of pro-IRA videos that have recently appeared on the app from young people living on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the clips, teenagers and twentysomethings brandish fake rifles and toss their backpacks under cars. They share tips on how to make your Grand Theft Auto avatar look like an IRA soldier. They chuckle darkly while showcasing their familial ties to the movement. They don balaclavas and poke fun at others assuming them to be American Republicans instead of paramilitary supporters of the cause to reunite the 32 counties of Ireland.
While sifting through the #IRA and #IrishRepublican tags on the app, you’ll also encounter videos that speak to present-day politics and priorities among young people. One video compares the number of people killed by the IRA (1,800) with the number of deaths attributed to Tory austerity measures (130,000).
Another TikTok-er identifies herself as an Irish Republican Type 1 diabetic who’s deeply worried about England’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; in her video, she stares just beyond the camera, expressing no emotion, while a mashup of the Vengaboys and Linkin Park’s “Numb” plays.
While young people living in Ireland and the U.K. speak candidly about both present-day and historical politics (including Irish Republican solidarity with Palestine), their American counterparts seem to focus on the violent radicalism of the past and the iconography of the Troubles. They also occasionally seem a bit too comfortable valorizing an organization known for brutal violence and intimidation during the conflict.
There’s a long history of Americans giving political and financial support to the IRA, dating back to the earliest days of the Troubles, but the earliest example I could find on TikTok of an adolescent American joking about supporting the Provisionals was posted in June 2019. It’s about eight seconds long and was shared by user @G_Maine. The video pans to the right until it lands on a young man hidden within a massive tree and the clip zooms in, revealing that he’s holding a toy weapon, while IRA rebel music plays. Cosplaying as IRA militants, American teens on TikTok seem to have accelerated the trend throughout this summer of racial tumult, pandemic anxiety, and protests for Black liberation.
What’s behind the sudden popularity of a mostly defunct militant group on Gen Z’s favorite social media platform? Some users are clearly hoping to go viral with incendiary content that’s also tagged as a #historymeme, a trend on TikTok that involves illustrating important flashpoints in international history with modern music, puns, or biting satire. One such example shows a teenager decked out in camo, his face masked. He dances jovially while celebrating how he “bought 200 pounds of fertilizer and 40 gallons of petrol and no one blinked an eye.” It’s also worth noting that the IRA’s image has been changing in the offline world as well. Sinn Féin, the party once known as the political wing of the IRA, won the popular vote in recent elections in the Republic of Ireland, largely thanks to young voters with little or no memory of the Troubles. The disruptions caused by Brexit have also led to an increase in support for a united Ireland among voters in the North.
As for American TikTok-ers, some might be relishing the idea of extreme and direct political action after being disillusioned by the failure of America’s two-party system to lead and take care of its citizens throughout the pandemic. (At least one pro-IRA TikTok implicitly references the fact that wearing a mask isn’t all that unfamiliar to Irish Republicans.)
The trend’s popularity might also be an opportunity for white American teenagers to reclaim an ethnic tradition of radical resistance in the Black Lives Matter era. In fact, a handful of them tag their IRA-loving videos with #BLM and #ACAB (short for “All cops are bastards”). One TikTok even encouraged Black Lives Matter organizers to get in touch with the Provos: “Um, [you] guys protesting, I recommend you call the Irish. The IRA would probably help you,” the distinctly American accent advises, “You guys need a military force.”
Again invoking ancestral ties to the political force, another video features a young woman wearing a ski mask and Ireland football jersey, identified as her “cultural clothes.”*
While none of these kids seem to be planting car bombs anytime soon, they also use TikTok as a means to chastise their cop-supporting, “traitorous” Irish American parents. For many of them, the history of a violent anti-imperialist rebel force and their connection to it (no matter how tenuous) seems in part to be a channel for more standard teenage rebellion—something no country or ethnic group has a monopoly on.
Correction, Sept. 2, 2020: This post originally misquoted a Nicki Minaj lyric. It is “mmm, Mashallah,” not “mmm, martial law.”