In China, a ten-hour flight from Ireland and the UK, a class of children are sitting down for an English lesson. Their teacher, an Irishman, has devised a helpful chant to acquaint them with the language. "Okay, everybody!" he says, banging his fist on a table. They begin to shout in unison:
"Ooh, aah, up the RA! Ooh, aah, up the RA!"
Something peculiar happened in Ireland during the two decades following the Good Friday Agreement. In the absence of conflict, slogans, songs and iconography associated with militant Irish Republicanism have become detached from their original meaning. Once explicit expressions of support for the IRA, phrases like "Up the RA", "Tiocfaidh ár lá" (Irish for "our day will come") and "Brits out" have been appropriated by young people, the majority of whom came of age after The Troubles. References to the legacy of Republicanism have become suffused with irony, meme-fodder for Irish Twitter, Leftbook and Ireland Simpsons Fans (ISF), a Facebook group with around 80,000 members that has gradually become a significant player in Irish political commentary.
The descent of Irish Republican slogans into absurdity is rooted in a folklore that romanticised the IRA as exemplars of a hyper-masculine heroism to which young, disenfranchised Irish men could aspire, post-peace process.
"We didn't really know what they were, simply that they were big strong men, they were feared," says satirist Blindboy Boatclub, of The Rubberbandits, discussing his teenage years in Limerick in the early-2000s. "Our heroes were 2Pac and Bob Marley – they represented a rejection of authority, a form of fearless masculinity. The IRA fit a template of gun-toting, outlaw rebel that we were trying to identify with. But importantly, the RA were ours, they were Irish."
As Blindboy's friends began to use "Up the RA" as an expression of masculinity, their lack of self-awareness and historical knowledge became apparent: "Everyone I knew would effortlessly write 'Up Da Ra' as meaningless graffiti, and try to interchange it with Compton, or Jamaica. With no irony. I found this fucking hilarious when I looked back," he says.
This would inform the aesthetic of "Republican absurdism" present in much of The Rubberbandits' work, which was a precursor to the widespread use of Republican-themed memes and appropriated slogans you see today. In 2008, the group released "Up the RA", which features a character confidently asserting that a list of celebrities including Quentin Tarantino, Dr Dre and Michelle Pfeiffer are members of the IRA. Another song describes taking ecstasy with the ghost of 20th century Irish political figure Éamonn de Valera. Before the Queen's visit to Ireland in 2011, the pair released a fake IRA training video in which they threatened to chase her with dog shit on a golf club.
Last month, following the announcement that the Gardaí (police) are compiling a new list of people who sympathise with dissident Republicanism for use in the event of a return to a hard border, Ireland Simpsons Fans posted in jest that many of its members might end up making the list. To people not in on the joke, the group's content could be interpreted as menacing. "I don't think every meme mocking Brits is inherently sectarian," explains Brian Quinn, a moderator for the group. "Up to a point, it’s very much about punching up."
While most of the page's content is posted with a knowing irony, the frequency at which certain gags are made suggests that some ISF members have not fully grasped the issues affecting Northern Ireland.
An Ireland Simpsons Fans meme posted after news that Gardai were compiling a list of IRA sympathisers. Image via @iresimpsonsfans
"What I've observed is that any meme we’ve had where protestants are the butt of the joke tends to be along the lines of 'When you go round to your protestant friend's house for dinner,' and the scene depicted is the one from the Halloween episode where Homer returns from the past to discover his family are now very wealthy," says Quinn. "I don't think that's in and of itself a nasty joke or anything, but it would tell me that people in the Republic don’t realise that working class unionism exists."
The proliferation of appropriated Republican slogans may also be indicative of a sympathy among millennials for the grievances of Irish Republicans not held by their parents. This is also suggested by the popularity of Sinn Fein among people aged 18 to 24. "It's a consequence of time. That's not a moral statement about people in the South, but of course it's easier to identify with the armed struggle of 1970s now, because if you've come of age only after the Good Friday Agreement, then you don't remember how unpopular it was," says historian Brian Hanley, author of The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers' Party.
While certain IRA actions during The Troubles received sympathy in the Republic of Ireland, the group were mostly condemned as murderous terrorists. "You've got, on the one hand, very audacious operations like the Brighton bombing and the attempt to kill Thatcher – a lot of people beyond Republicans would have had a sneaking regard for that," he continues. "It was during the miners' strike; many people would have hated her. People who wouldn’t have supported the IRA might have thought, 'Well, if they're going to kill somebody.' But during all this there was also a constant stream of accidents and bombs that went wrong, of warnings that are inadequate, of atrocities, that people hated."
The difference between young people and their parents' relationship with Irish Republicanism appears even more pronounced when studying the Irish establishment media, which has failed to acknowledge the widespread understanding that Republican slogans have been denuded of militaristic connotations by most people who use them. In March of last year, as Irish meme-lords continued to post a zesty mixture of IRA, Republican and Gerry Adams memes ad nauseum (some even appearing on Sinn Fein’s official social media pages), Mary Lou McDonald was being slated in the Irish press for saying "tiocfaidh ár lá" during a speech at a party conference.
"The language of Official Ireland, of old-fashioned mainstream media, is still a bit uptight," says Paddy Hoey, author of Shinners, Dissos and Dissenters: Irish Republican Media Activism since the Good Friday Agreement. To Hoey, the use of Republican slang online is not grounded in bigotry, but he can foresee a future scenario in which it is a source of tension: "If an organisation like The Belfast Telegraph, who seem to be rigorously sectarianising a lot of their discourse, decide to make something of this, I think the use of appropriated slogans may become a very divisive thing."
That said, in the Republic of Ireland, as the likelihood of reunification increases, one thing is becoming clear: fear of the North is not as acute as it once was.
"'Tiocfaidh ár lá' or 'Up the RA', however depthless or however ironic – there may be a kind of enduring romantic nationalist tradition that younger people are much happier with than anybody of my age," says Hoey. "There isn't the same type of baggage."