Lessons in Irish republicanism from the Sinn Féin online store

Maurice John Casey explores Sinn Féin’s online store and draws conclusions about the state of contemporary republicanism.

“Great shirt! Already got me thrown out of a bar!” Thus begins one review of a t-shirt bearing the highly debatable slogan: ‘IRA: Undefeated Army’, available to purchase on the Sinn Féin online store. Once you see the low resolution logo of a coffee cup bearing the SF logo, with what could easily be a Tiocfaidh ár Latté, you know that you have arrived at the Sinn Féin Café and Bookstore’s online identity: sinnfeinbookshop.com. This is a baffling webstore where an anonymous reviewer of an Antrim jersey, bearing the dual image of Bobby Sands and a generic armed Republican, can open his assessment with the reverential lines: ‘Great man, Great cause, Great shirt.’

Though they will not echo through history in the manner of the words of the Irish proclamation, the ramblings and recommendations of the Sinn Féin Online Store tell a wholly different story of Irish Republicanism and where it stands today. From wooden carvings of Pádraig Pearse to baby bibs denoting a child’s professed allegiances to Fenianism, sinnfeinbookshop.com can cater to the needs of all age groups, and most levels of sanity. Not satisfied with mere Irish separatism? The site also stocks Basque independence baseball caps and some Catalonian badges, just in case you want to coordinate your wardrobe around armed nationalist struggles. Many of the products for sale could easily be mistaken for satire, yet the online store and those that feel encouraged to post their reviews on it seem to be utterly devoid of irony. The reviews are at times as revealing as they are hilarious. They evidence a pattern that recurs right through the history of the Sinn Féin movement, from its founding right up to the present day: the constant, and frequently ill-informed, funding of the movement by Irish-Americans.

There are very few people that could pull off wearing a t-shirt that simply says ‘FENIANS’ down a Dublin street; there are even fewer that could rock on down to the shop wearing a hoodie that states its bearer is an ‘Unrepentant Fenian Bastard.’ Yet in North America these Fenian fashion faux pas seem to be a non-issue. One American reviewer of the aforementioned ‘FENIANS’ t-shirt wrote “I was walking down the road when an older gentleman with a thick Irish accent said ‘I love your shirt! Wear it proud!’ I assured him I would do just that!” It seems like this exchange could only have occurred in some strange twilight zone, where nobody fully understands the complexities and tragedies of Ireland’s sectarian division. Some bizarro-land where your great-great grandfather’s pre-emigration fling with a Connemara lass up against the walls of a Quaker soup kitchen in the 19th century makes you a member of one of history’s most clingy diasporas. This is the community called Irish-America. I’m not saying that all Irish-American’s are oblivious to the true connotations of an IRA t-shirt; I’m just saying that the Irish-Americans that do know the difference between Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin are not buying apparel from the latter.

On another part of the site, a jersey that, quite contentiously, has ‘Republic of Ireland, est. 1916’ emblazoned across it is given the recommendation “The shirts are awesome informative with facts.” “We have purchased numerous jerseys and tee shirts from your store” the review continues. ”We are a proud American family of our Irish descent we thank you for the great quality of apperal that is available to us thank you.” Again and again the pattern repeats across the site of Irish Americans praising the quality of the t-shirt, the veracity of the political message, and their own personal pride at flaunting this intrinsically Irish piece of clothing.

In October of 2008 the incensed Yahoo Answers user Chocablock took to the forum to ask the question “Irish Americans? Did you give money to the IRA?” The question was poorly phrased and its target was wide, but it did make a larger point. From its inception under the debatable auspices of legitimacy, to its extended forays into transnational terrorism, the Republican movement has been flying on a magic carpet of American cheques. It began with the lecturing tours undertaken by icons of Irish independence across the major US cities before the rising of 1916, and has now advanced into the modern age with the Sinn Féin online store. Even if it is beginning to look like a strange kind of self-parody, Sinn Féin’s peculiar slice of the online market still has a lot to tell us about the close financial links between Sinn Féin and a particular section of the almost 37 million-strong Irish American community.