The conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestants and Republic Catholics, is the longest running feud to date. The planned exit by England from the European Union has resulted in suspense and apprehension throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The Irish have undoubtedly been watching closely as any movement by England will have a ripple effect that will eventually reach their shores. Belfast remains a major tourist attraction in the north, similar to its southern counterpart Dublin, and receives millions of visitors each year. History buffs may recall that Belfast is the city in which Harland and Wolff built the world-famous RMS Titanic for the White Star Line. But behind the fame of the doomed ocean liner, lies a dark side that has taken more lives than anyone could have ever imagined. Belfast and Londonberry (“Derry”) have served as the battlegrounds for the deadly war between Nationalists and Republicans forces. Across Ulster province, six of the nine counties are protected by the British Crown (“the Crown”) and unofficially by the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) stands firm as the opposition force founded to defend the minority Catholic population from what they believe to be the refusal of the Crown to let Ireland become a united country. Kevin Toolis is a journalist and screenwriter born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish parents. In this eye-opening and chilling book, he travels back to the country of his ancestors, seeking to understand what drives the men and women of the IRA.
I believe that anyone interested in this book probably has a fair amount of knowledge regarding the IRA and “the troubles” as they are known by the Irish. Toolis does not simply relay their well-known attacks but instead seeks to understand the mindset and conviction of those who have taken the pledge to see the Crown removed from Irish soil. He interviewed many high-ranking members, some of whom are now deceased such as Martin McGuinnness (1950-2017), families of fallen IRA members and even those on the other side of the conflict. And what he has come away with will shock readers who live outside of Ireland and are not of Irish ancestry. To outsiders, the conflict seems surreal and the deaths of so many beyond needless. It is a conflict that has no restrictions on violence and the ideology that fuels both sides is as strong as any found throughout the world. However, as I read the book, I did find myself aghast at the ease in which so many accepted jail and death as part of the plan. As the author shows, to nearly all of the figures, taking up the IRA flag is seen as an act of honor, even if it means certain death and/or prison time. It is a thought process that neither I nor many readers outside of the United Kingdom will be able to associate with. But for those that remain in Northern Ireland, the troubles have never gone away.
The author provides a clear and thorough explanation for the origins of the conflict and the imposition of the Crown more than 400 years ago when Oliver Cromwell led the Crown in the War of Three Kingdoms, setting the stage for British rule. As the book moves along, we are introduced to the IRA through polarizing and deadly figures. The uprising of 1916 by Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) marked a new era in the Republic of Ireland. His life and last moments are revisited here, showing the reader the level of conviction behind the Republican cause. The IRA has been home to a large number of larger-than-life characters including the late Bobby Sands (1954-1981), whose hunger strike and death at HM Prison Maze, Long Kesh earned the IRA a major publicity coup against the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Sands’ legacy and spirit are alive and well as a martyr in the cause for a united republic. Toolis moves through IRA circles with bravado and fear, knowing full well just how dangerous the interviewees were. But his journalist background, allowed him to continue his research as he descended deeper into the IRA’s soul.
The book is far more than just a collection of missions carried out by the IRA. Here we learn the names and personal stories of several figures who became popular and infamous in IRA lore. Some were heroes, others informers and the rest, tragically became casualties of war. Regardless of their roles, each has their own story to tell about their life in Ireland and whey they feel that the Crown should no longer remain in power in the north. One thing that did stand out is that in nearly every story, a common theme is terrible poverty and discrimination as a result of the majority Protestant rule. In fact, not one person in the book that Toolis interviewed, came from a family of extreme wealth. The opposite was more often than not true, and their prospects in life were grim. But the IRA and the dream of a united Ireland, was enough to lure many into committing acts intended to drive the British away once and for all. Frankie Ryan, Mairéad Farrell (1957-1988), Sean Savage (1965-1988), Daniel McCann(1957-1988), Joseph MacManus and Patricia Black (1972-1991) are just some of the names listed in the long register of IRA members who died tragically on behalf of the IRA. Their goal to force the Crown to leave Ireland has not materialized but the IRA continues to stick to its core mission.
At first glance, it is easy to write off the voices in this book as delusional militants whose numbers were never any match for the Crown of the British military. The six counties in Ulster province are still under the Crown but the IRA is recognized world-wide as the Catholic voice across the north. As I read the stories of the figures being interviewed, I continued to ask myself if there was any possibility that they could have taken a different path in life. For some, it almost seems that they were destined to join the IRA. In fact, as a few explain, it is what they grew up with and a part of life that became accepted. But those of us looking from the outside in may ask is the heartache and death truly worth it? Those part of the IRA will undoubtedly say yes it is. Even those that have been forced to bury siblings and even children, remain committed to the IRA’s cause: a British-free and unified Republic of Ireland.
Those who decide to read the book through pure fascination with the violence and gore that occurs will miss the point of the book. What Toolis has done is to allow us to see how and why young men and women who could have led ordinary and long lives, made the decision to join a cause that many of them knew from the beginning would result in prison and death. Their rationale for answering the call to arms and joining the IRA will provoke a range of reaction in readers. Some of us will be empathetic while others may dismiss them as nothing more than rebel hearts. But regardless of our own personal opinions, these are their stories and the reasons behind their decisions and actions. We do not have to agree with them but we can make the effort to understand their position. Furthermore, we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in their place.
The British side of the question is not left out and the Crown does make an impact in the story through counter-intelligence missions spearheaded by MI5 and the Special Air Service (“SAS”), police action through the Royal Ulster Constabulary and informers within the IRA’s ranks. Deadly games of espionage, double-agents and collateral damage, turned Northern Ireland and even London in battlegrounds to force change to 10 Downing Street’s foreign policy toward its Irish neighbors.
Today there is a form of peace in Ireland but the Provisional IRA, which split for the traditional IRA in 1969, continues to operate. Time will tell if peace will continue or if the troubles will once again be re-ignited. As Britain struggles to find a suitable exit from the European Union, many eyes are on Ireland and the fears abound of the possible deadly impact of London’s final decision. There may indeed come a day when the Crown is finally removed from Irish soil and the dream of a united Irish Republic becomes reality. Protestants will have to make life changing decisions and for some that might include the use of violence. We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and a British exit from Ireland will be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion. But until that day comes, the IRA remains a force to be reckoned with and a voice for an oppressed minority seeking to change social conditions that have caused thousands of deaths. They are supported throughout Ireland and even here in the United States. But if peace will have a chance of prevailing through a long term solution, we must first understand those that have served and died in their commitment to the IRA. Some of those incredible and heartbreaking stories are captured here by Kevin Toolis in this breathtaking journey into the heart of the IRA.