Into the Dark: 30 Years in the RUC – Johnston Brown

thedarkThe conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” claimed over thirty-five hundred lives and brought the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) into sharp focus as bombings, assassinations, and paramilitary operations spread fear across the United Kingdom. However, within Ulster Province in Northern Ireland, loyalists confronted their own demons in the form of paramilitary groups determined to eradicate the IRA and Catholics committed to a fully independent Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (“RUC”) was formed in 1922 after the partition of Ireland and found itself tasked with addressing a conflict that escalated by the minute. Over the course of thirty years, Johnston Brown served as an officer in the RUC and witnessed some of the darkest moments in the history of the Troubles. This is his account of his career in the RUC and the people he encountered. And like the title says, there were times where it was necessary to go into the dark.

Though it is not a necessity, readers will benefit by having a general understanding of the conflict and events that followed the partition of Ireland in 1921. Further, this book is written by an officer on the side of Ulster law enforcement but not from the view of a Protestant or a loyalist. In fact, nowhere in the book does Johnston show any hint of bias regarding faith or politics. Known affectionately by his peers as “Jonty”, his job and goal was to protect and serve, and that meant breaking down paramilitary groups whether they were for partition to remain or a united Ireland. But before he joined the RUC, he had to navigate a turbulent life which included living under the roof of a tyrant posing as a father. The author speaks frankly about his childhood and the difficulties that came with the dysfunction created by his domineering father. But in an ironic twist, had it not been for the police officers he encountered, this book may not have been written. His account of his childhood is tough to read at times but there are bright moments in the story. And as shocking as those events are, there is far more in the book to learn as the story takes a dark and disturbing turn.

Johnston’s career as a police officer is routine until he makes the arrest of several men involved in a covert paramilitary operation. They are loyalists and as Johnston learns, they have friends in high places, which includes his unit and the Special Branch, an intelligence division whose role in the story will leave readers staring in disbelief. To put the events to come into perspective, Johnston remarks early in the book that,

“The very last thing I ever expected was to be obstructed by members of the institution to which I devoted almost 30 years of my life. I did not anticipate that some of the worst difficulties and dangers I would face were to come from within the very organisation of which I was part.”

Readers might wonder how threats from within could be more dangerous than those from either the IRA or loyalist factions such as the Ulster Defence Association (“UDA”) and Ulster Volunteer Force (“UVF”). Well, the revelations by Johnston will remove any doubt of the dangers he faced as he and other officers in his unit struggled to contain the tensions in Northern Ireland that repeatedly erupted in deadly violence. In relation to the arrests and release of the men suspected of executing a covert mission, Johnston has a physical encounter with a fellow officer in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that leaves him puzzled and dazed. However, the fog slowly begins to clear as he realizes that the Special Branch has a bag of tricks and when they go into the dark, it is better to stay way. And this cold truth shows itself midway through the book when Johnston is contacted by a loyalist rebel named Ken Barrett, one of the book’s most unsavory figures. But the part about Barrett’s story that caused me to recoil was the murder of solicitor (lawyer) Pat Finucane (1949-1989). I knew Finucane’s story from other books I had read and reviewed about the Troubles, but I did not know of Barrett’s role and his status as a confidential informant. And an admission by a Special Branch officer in Johnston’s company left me speechless. It is at this moment in the book where we have gone fully into the dark.

After Barrett’s entry into the story, nothing is the same again. In fact, we follow the author as he works on other cases involving Ulster loyalists who commit horrific acts. Yet, the Special Branch remains a source of danger and irritation. To say that their actions are astonishing would be an understatement. But as the author clarifies, the dark figures moving around in the Special Branch should allow readers to paint them all with the same brush. However, the dangerous elements within the Special Branch make their presence felt in the book and had Johnston in their crosshairs. What evolves is a dangerous game in which Johnston and the Special Branch tip toe around each other while working informants and making arrests of men who would not hesitate to kill anyone deemed fit to be eliminated. And towards the end of the book, the name of Johnny Adair will be etched into the reader’s memory when he emerges as the biggest threat to Johnston and his family. And before the story is over, Adair and his loyalist conspirators get up close and personal with Johnston who eventually retires from the RUC but remains on high alert.

This is the first book I have read by a police officer on the Ulster side of the conflict. Discussions of the Troubles often center around the IRA but as we see here, the loyalist side was equally as deadly, and the Ulster police were at risk for murder by both Protestants and Catholics. Officers such as Johnston were navigating deadly waters as they tried to maintain order in Ulster Province where all hell repeatedly broke loose. The story is tough to accept but this was his reality every day as a member of the RUC who came face to face with the people who went into the dark and tried to take everyone else with them. Johnston is alive to tell his story, but thousands of others did not live to see the Good Friday Agreement and current day Ireland. On a side note, there were ramifications of the agreement that gave me chills as I read Johnston’s words. This book is an asset in preserving the history of the Troubles, a conflict that haunts the United Kingdom to this day. And if Johnston publishes another volume as indicated, I will be waiting for its release.


A New Ireland: How Europe’s Most Conservative Country Became Its Most Liberal – Niall O’ Dowd

odowdIn April 1916, Irish Republicans used the Easter holiday week to launch an insurrection against British rule in Ireland. Through the British regained control of Dublin and later conducted executions of selected participants, the uprising stands to this day as a pivotal moment in the movement for a united Ireland. When I visited Dublin in February 2016, I took a moment to observe murals dedicated to Irish history. I realized that the Ireland I was visiting had changed since the visit of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) in April 1963. Ireland was once known was the most conservative country in Europe but had now become the most liberal. As I walked the streets of Dublin, I heard accents from countries throughout the world and the diversity of languages reminded me of my hometown, New York City. But how did Ireland undergo such a drastic change? The answer can be found in this book that captures an important aspect of Irish history.

Books I have previously read about Ireland heavily focused on the conflict known as “The Troubles”. The struggle between Irish Republicans and Irish Protestants loyal to the British Parliament has left Northern Ireland with physical scars and dark memories. There is peace today but tensions between the two factions have never completely dissipated. And Britain’s exit from the European Union raised the question, what will happen to Northern Ireland? The future remains to be seen. It is not necessary to have an extensive knowledge of the Troubles to enjoy this book. The story at hand is truly remarkable but it is also filled with shocking and revolting moments that forced Ireland to look in the mirror.

I appreciated the discussion of Irish history that explains how religion evolved in Ireland. It quickly becomes apparent that Catholicism is viewed with suspicion and to be a Catholic could result in acts of violence and even death. I found myself speechless when I learned of the reaction to and persecution of Catholic Bishops. This part of the book is mortifying and not for the faint of heart. Irish Catholics also faced daily insults and risks but remained true to their faith. However, the potato famine in 1845-1846 resulted in the exodus of over one million Irish citizens. For the new emigrants, America became the primary destination and the men and women who moved to the United States would never forget their brethren back in Ireland. As the 1800s moved forward, the Irish Republican Brotherhood established itself as a new force to lead the movement for independence and freedom for Catholics. No one in Ireland could have known what was in store for the nation during 1900s when Ireland would see bloodshed, scandal, peace, and transformation. And it would not be until 1998 when both sides came together and signed the Good Friday Agreement.

I must disclose that for all the inspiring actions to support the Catholic faith, the dark side of the church rears its ugly head. Readers who are Catholic may find these parts of the book upsetting. I think everyone will find them disturbing. Before I had finished the book, the names Father Michael Cleary (1934-1993) and Bishop Eamonn Casey (1927-2017) were seared into my memory. Their stories form the nucleus of the turn away from faith and towards modernity. I cannot overstate how crucial their roles were in Ireland’s social fabric and readers will need a moment to digest what they learn. However, the darkest moment of the book is the story of Brendan Smyth (1927-1997) a Catholic priest from Belfast whose role is chilling. Frankly, steel yourself when you get to this part.

As a conservative republic, Ireland also faced the issue of gay rights. In an overwhelmingly religious environment, there was no safe have for the LGBT in Ireland and the murder of Declan Flynn (1952-1982) sent chills down my spine. The crime and its aftermath receive a section in the book and will leave readers speechless. But on a positive note, readers will also be surprised to learn of the LGBT community’s role in the Easter Uprising in 1916. I did not know of this previously and was surprised to learn of its involvement. In a moment of tense introspection, Ireland had to confront the subject of same-sex attraction as Catholic leaders fell from grace. As I read, I thought of the 2015 film “Spotlight” starring Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, which I highly recommend.

The church’s fall from grace is only part of the story and Ireland still had to confront sexism and other draconian aspects of its culture that needed to be addressed if the country was going to move forward. The task was not easy, and the past continued to shape the future. Women were seen but still needed a voice. And in a country shaped by the legacies of men such as Eamon De Valera (1882-1975) and Michael Collins (1890-1922), the road to female politicians was filled with obstacles. However, Ireland was changing, and the election of Mary Robinson modified the country permanently. And the arrival of Leo Varadkar ensured that Ireland had passed the point of no return. Women’s rights were another hurdle to overcome but Ireland was up to the task and moved forward haunted by the ghost of Savita Andanappa Yalag (1981-2012) and other women in similar situations.

Today it is hard to imagine Ireland as Europe’s most conservative country. Upon returning to New York after my trip, I knew that one day I would return to Dublin and finish exploring the Irish Republic. I know that the country is far from perfect, and its dark past is never that far away. But Ireland stands as a shining example of a country that understands a fundamental concept: if you do not keep up, you get left behind. Those who want to understand the social fabric of Ireland and its history will find this book to be invaluable. Highly recommended.

“When you travel the world, you have to watch and you have to listen. We’re not going to come in to Ireland without an understanding that there’s a history that’s very sensitive.” – Chuck D


Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 – Susan Campbell Bartoletti

PotatoesJoseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) frequently reminded those he knew that his ancestor had come to America to escape the “potato famine” in Ireland.  While Kennedy was certainly well versed at re-writing his family’s history, the famine did indeed exist and caused death and destruction across southern and western Ireland.  I had known of the famine and it resulting in the mass exodus of Irish families who made new lives in North America.  However, there was much about the famine that I did not know and felt that this book was the perfect choice to learn about a historical event that changed Irish history.  Those of you who follow this blog might recall some of the reviews I have posted regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles”.  Here, I am shifting gears a bit and taking a step back further in time.  And the first question I had for myself before reading this book was just what exactly did happen during the famine?   Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti provides the answer to that question and a wealth of information that will allow any reader of this book to fully understand the cause of the famine and the events that transpired. 

The story begins in 1845 as farmers begin to notice that their potato crops are turning black in color without any reasonable explanation.  Without the benefit of modern science, the farmers were at a loss trying to figure out the cause of the widespread devastation of their crops.  The actual cause is revealed by the author but the farmers could not have known in 1845 that it even existed.  Their response was to try all sorts of remedies that did nothing to stop the growing menace.  The diminishing of potatoes resulted in widespread panic and Britain began to take notice.   The relationship between Ireland and England has always been filled with tension and the cause can be traced back hundreds of years beginning with the actions of Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1536 that gave the Crown a stronghold over Ireland that lasted until 1921 when the Republic of Ireland was formally created and instituted the persecution of Irish Catholics.   And in 1695, the archaic Penal Laws pushed the Catholic population into further destitution.   By 1845, Henry VIII was a distant memory but Queen Victoria was faced with a dire situation in the Irish colony.   Yet, even she could not have predicted just how deadly the famine would become. 

Before purchasing this book, I honestly do not think I had a fully accurate picture of life in Ireland during the famine. To say that life was hard would be an understatement.  It was nothing short of brutal and the average life expectancy was nothing to admire.  As the famine begins to take hold of Ireland, British officials realize that trouble is brewing and implement a series of relief measures to feed the population and prevent the outbreak of deadly viruses and diseases.  Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) was the first to act upon realizing that the famine was causing a staggering number of deaths.  However, his efforts while heroic in many ways, were not enough and his successor, Lord John Russell (1792-1878) did not share the same beliefs.  Russell diverted from his predecessor’s path and took actions that only enhanced the misery of the Irish Catholics.  But in spite of the laws that are passed by Britain, we are left to ask the question, could the famine have been prevented in the first place?  

Bartoletti highlights a tragic irony of the situation that will make readers question why the famine was not prevented?  As I read through this section, I felt a sense of anger at British officials and empathy for the Irish families that starved and died horrific deaths in living conditions that were beyond sub-human.  And the descriptions of their lives will help readers understand the reason why even today, Irish Catholics want the British government to fully relinquish all control of Irish territory.   You might be wondering what the Irish did to help themselves and take action against Britain? Well, there are interesting facts presented in the book and the section regarding the Young Ireland revolutionary group is of particular interest, for it serves as a premonition to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Republican Army. 

I do want to warn readers that the descriptions of the living conditions in Irish slums is not for the faint at heart.  The author thoroughly discusses each and how the human body is affected until death is the end result.  The memories provided in quotes are equally as macabre and readers sensitive to descriptions of the deceased may have a difficult time with those sections in the book.  However, to fully understand just how deadly the famine was and just how miserable life was for Irish Catholics during the famine, it is necessary to know these stories.  Further, religion enters the picture as well and actions taken by the Protestants who are there to “help” the Catholics are in some cases, repulsive.  The divide is sharp and sadly continues to this day.  These tragic conditions are supported by the actions of Britain that is not sure how to save the Irish and compounds the problem in some situations.  Its official policy of laissez-faire is put under the microscope and its effect on the problem will have readers staring in disbelief.  Of course, there is far more to the story and this book is mainly a primer on the situation.  

Conditions continued to deteriorate and the Irish were left with one choice: emigrate.  Many families do leave Ireland and the journey they take to reach North America is simply surreal.  Large numbers did not survive the journey and the reasons for which are explained in the book. Further, conditions aboard the vessels are explored as well, in addition to the reality that awaited the new Irish settlers.  The romanticized image of Ellis Island welcoming new immigrants to America does not apply here and the reality for the Irish was far darker and without glamour.  The policy of many places against hiring the Irish immigrants is a sad example.  Today, we know that the Irish have prospered in America.  John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is considered by many to be proof that the Irish had reached the top of American society.  Kennedy is only one person and there are many Irish men and women who have contributed greatly to the American experience.  But for all of them, their ancestors’ lives were stories to be remembered from an era when death was more widespread than life and an entire generation of people were subjected to the tyranny of the Crown’s rule, while enduring unimaginable living conditions in an ugly class-base system. The potato famine amplified the inequality between Irish and British and left Ireland a very different country.  If you are looking to understand the Irish potato famine from start to finish, this is a great place to start. 

“The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland forever. It swept away whole families and villages. It nearly wiped out the Irish language and centuries-old traditions and folk beliefs. Some even say it killed the fairies.”