Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries

The Loyalist Backlash

Gareth Mulvenna

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ISBN: 9781781383261

Publication: August 1, 2016

In the USA? Buy the Paperback US edition
Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries is a new oral history of the loyalist backlash of the early 1970s in Northern Ireland. In the violent maelstrom of Belfast in 1971 and 1972 many young members of loyalist youth gangs known as ‘Tartans’ converged with fledgling paramilitary groups such as the Red Hand Commando, Ulster Volunteer Force and Young Citizen Volunteers. This fresh account focuses on the manner in which the loyalist community in Belfast reacted to an increasingly vicious Provisional IRA campaign and explores the violent role that young loyalist men played in the period from 1970 – 1975. Through the use of unique one-on-one interviews former members of Tartan gangs and loyalist paramilitaries explain what motivated them to cross the Rubicon from gang activity to paramilitaries. The book utilises a wide range of sources such as newspaper articles, loyalist newssheets, coroners’ inquest reports and government memorandums to provide the context for a dynamic new study of the emergence of loyalist paramilitarism.

Gareth Mulvenna has previously worked as a parliamentary researcher in the Northern Ireland Assembly and during the writing of 'Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries' he held a Visiting Research fellowship at Queen’s University Belfast School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy. Gareth was a member of History Hub Ulster for whom he carried out research on the historic Craigavon House in East Belfast. He is a committee member of Donegall Pass Social History Group and a trustee of the REACH (Renewing, Engaging and Advancing Community Hopes) Project which seeks to address socio-economic issues in loyalist working class areas of Greater Belfast and North Down.


1. Drills, Fights and Defence
2. ‘Civil rights, unrest, death’ (1960s)
3. Football, Flags and Fighting (1970–71)
4. Protestants at War? (1971–72)
5. Convergence (1972)
6. From Boys Brigade Belts and Bibles to Bombs and Bullets (1972–75)


This is an important and valuable historical work that humanises those that suffered and those who fought in the conflict.
Sean Huddleston, Irish Studies Review


Mulvenna has made an important contribution to existing work on the loyalist paramilitaries, including that by Scottish academics Steve Bruce and Ian S Wood. The book is among the best accounts of the sweaty, bloody chaos of the early troubles and further confirmation that the best work about the conflict is that which uses oral history to full effect.

Alasdair McKillop   Scottish Review

Rather than romanticise or glorify the loyalist violence that followed from what were originally small gangs of young men dressed in tartan scarves to organised paramilitary organisations, Mulvenna breaks it down in a way that I admit made me think for the first time about my own understanding of loyalism. His book does not make for easy reading at times, but it is nonetheless an important study of the past which is incredibly relevant in the here and now. The now old men who spoke to Mulvenna about their experiences use the same language the young men of east Belfast are using now. That fear of cultural erosion may well be based on perception rather than reality but what this book demonstrates if nothing else is how unwise it is dismiss those fears and risk history repeating itself.

Allison Morris   The Irish News

Tartan Gangs makes an important contribution to one of the most contentious features of post-conflict Northern Ireland, namely the notion of 'legacy'. The author has publicly expressed frustrations that amid much focus on issues of collusion and the role of the state, the Loyalist experience, still generally portrayed as brutal and unsophisticated, remains at the edges of the “uncomfortable conversations”. Mulvenna’s study is a valiant attempt at teasing out the often overlooked motivations of Loyalism, its notions of defending its areas, its cultural and social way of life and where Republicanism is viewed, not as part of a world revolutionary movement, but as the catalyst for sectarian carnage in their communities.
Gerry Braiden   Herald Scotland

This is an important and valuable book. The story it tells is an important one and the concluding paragraph is bang on the money. Lessons still haven’t been learned from that journey from Tartan gang to paramilitary gang, so I hope that politicians – from all parties – will read this book.
Alex Kane   News Letter

...fascinating exploration of early 1970's Loyalism.
Ed Moloney   The Broken Elbow

'Gareth Mulvenna provides a fascinating insight into the world of young loyalists associated with the Tartan Gangs, Young Citizen Volunteers and Red Hand Commando. He relates these to earlier gangs and subcultures. Their mode of expression was governed by growing tensions in an increasingly divided Northern Ireland. Militant politicians, Ulster and Irish, had stirred up strife with little concern for the consequences. Young people were caught up in the violence but many eventually realised the futility of violence and worked to find a better way.'

Roy Garland, journalist and author of Gusty Spence and The Ulster Volunteer Force: Negotiating History  

'Gareth Mulvenna has written a classic with this study of the emergence of the Tartan gangs of Belfast in the early 1970’s and their subsequent absorption, often as enthusiastic killers, into the ranks of the UVF, Red Hand Commando and Ulster Defence Association. With their origins in the Glasgow gangs and the Protestant reaction to the growth of IRA violence in 1970-72, symbolised by the killing of three Scottish soldiers in 1971, the Tartan gangs were an important part of Unionist selfhood at the outbreak of the Troubles. He has also shown that despite the best efforts of the British security establishment and their political allies in the new Northern Ireland government, it is possible to write a serious and valuable history of those who participated in the violence. I have no hesitation in recommending this valuable and well written book.'

Ed Moloney, journalist and author of A Secret History of the IRA, Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat?, and Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland  

'A well written and convincing study of a neglected aspect of loyalist formation and identity, this book makes a valuable contribution to the literature on loyalism.'

Dr Graham Spencer, University of Portsmouth  

Format: Paperback

Size: 234 × 156 mm

256 Pages

12 B&W illustrations

ISBN: 9781781383261

Publication: August 1, 2016

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