Tag: The Troubles

Collins The looming exit from the European Union by England will undoubtedly be watched by the whole world, which has been kept in suspense by the referendum in 2016 and failure of former British Prime Minster Theresa May to garner enough votes for a formal separation.  Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared it will happen and on January 31, 2020, he will be proven right or wrong on the matter.  In Northern Ireland, there is fear and uncertainty regarding how the move by England will affect Ulster County, the loyalist stronghold composed of majority that stands firmly behind the Crown.  The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) will be following as well to see how the move will affect its goal for a united Ireland free of British interference.  Time will tell how the departure from the European Union will affect both Britain and other nations.  Recently, I decided to do some further reading on Northern Ireland and I came across this book by Tim Pat Coogan about an Irish revolutionary I was previously unfamiliar with.  His name was Michael Collins (1890-1922) and this is the story of his group of assassins known as the Twelve Apostles and their fight for freedom from Downing Street by famed author Tim Pat Coogan.

I believe that readers will find this book enjoyable if they have a sound base of knowledge regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland.  In fact, the author Tim Pat Coogan, has written extensively about the “Troubles”, and in his book “1916: The Easter Rising“, he explains the movements of the IRA and the seizure of the General Post Office and other critical facilities in Dublin.  That uprising is considered by many to be the defining moment in the Republican goal of a united Ireland and liberation from British rule.   The execution of IRA members in the wake of the uprising turned them into the martyrs and set the stage for the decades running battle between Loyalist and Republican forces.

Collins is the focus here and the author wastes no time in getting into the story.  From the beginning it is clear that Collins is man with strong convictions and had no repulsion to using violence as a tool of effecting change.  He was a complex character but firmly committed to the expulsion of the Crown.  I warn readers that this book does not have a happy ending. In fact, the story is gritty and acts of violence occur throughout.  But I do believe that if you choose to read this book, that is something you already know and have accepted. Collins and his group that are known as the Twelve Apostles carry out acts of aggression that will shock many readers.  The events in the book take place between the years 1916 and 1922 and their savagerys rival violence seen even today.  As for Collins, Coogan remarks in the introduction that:

The Jewish leader Yitzhak Shamir both studied the methods of Michael Collins, and used the code name Michael as his own nom de guerre. And in the state of Israel which Shamir helped to form, I was made aware of a guilty foreboding on the part of those Israeli citizens who knew their history, that one day the Arabs too might produce a Michael Collins – and that if they did, there would not be a supermarket left standing in Israel“.

I completely agree and shudder to think of how the Gaza strip would be today if a Collins type figure had in fact existed and acted on behalf of the Palestinians.

In America, the murder of a policeman or elected official spurs outrage and swift action by law enforcement.  Nearly every criminal will tell you that no one wants to be charged with murdering a cop.  But for Collins and the Apostles, everyone was fair game.  No one escapes the wrath of the IRA and its band of enforcers are eerily similar to the mafia’s own Murder, Inc., based out of Brooklyn, New York.  The Apostles have a hit list and they go through it with deadly precision as part of their mission to obtain Ireland’s freedom.  Coogan tells the stories in all of their detail and at times, it felt as is a movie was being filmed. The assassinations and attacks are brazen and deadly, with an increasing body count that will cause some readers to sit in disbelief.

In December, 1921, the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, resulting in the creation of the Irish Free State, which was composed of 26 out of 32 counties in Ireland. The remaining six in Northern Ireland chose to leave and remain in firm support of England.  Collins became head of the Irish Free State and held the position until his own death in 1922.  The treaty was rejected by hardliners within the IRA and tensions led to the Irish Civil War of 1922, in which the IRA split into factions.  Collins now found himself at odds with those he had once stood next to in the fight for Ireland’s freedom including Éamon de Valera (1882-1975) who leaves and then re-enters the story at pivotal moments.  De Valera late formed Fianna Fáil in 1926 after separating from the anti-treaty Sinn Féin party.  Incredibly, he lived until the age of 92, when he died from complications of pneumonia and heart failure on August 19, 1975.

If you want to know more about the uprising in 1916 and the residual effects in the years that followed, this book is a must read.  However, it ends after Collins’ death, which comes after the Apostles have parted ways in the wake of the Irish Civil War.  Readers looking for a longer account of the conflict will be satisfied with Kevin Toolis’ “Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul” and Peter Taylor’s “Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein“. Both are highly informative and give excellent explanations about why the IRA continues to fight. And for a more personal story, I highly recommend Dennis O’ Hearn’s Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands“, which is the definitive biography of the iconic IRA figure. Tim Pat Coogan has done it again with an excellent account of the activities of Michael Collins and the origins of the long running feud known as The “Troubles”.

ASIN: B073YFPTRR

Northern Ireland

Sands1The hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981, captured the attention of the British Government and earned the IRA sympathy around the world.  On May 5, news broke that IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) had died after 66 days of refusing to eat.  Sands and his fellow strikers were determined to be recognized as political prisoners and earn several other concessions from Margaret Thatcher’s (1925-2013) government.  London had refused to give in and Thatcher had earned the nickname of “The Iron Lady”.  Today, the “Troubles” as they are known, continue in Northern Ireland.  The IRA remains committed to its goal of a unified Ireland and the removal of the British Crown from Ulster County.  Sands had risen among the ranks in the IRA and during his incarceration, his reputation as a leader and intellectual grew every day.  This book is a collection of his writings which were smuggled out in parts (The IRA prisoners at HM Prison Maze were engaged in a long running standoff with guards and were being kept in bare minimum cells with mainly a mattress and bucket to be used as waste disposal).

Gerry Adams, the former leader of Sinn Féin, provides a foreword in which he fondly remembers his friend and former fellow inmate Sands.  As the book moves on to Bobby’s words, we already know a bit of information about him.  However, for a more complete biography, I strongly recommend Dennis O’Hearn’s ‘Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands‘. It is by far a thorough and highly engaging biography of Sands. The writings here begin after Sands has been incarcerated for quite some time. He is already well into the hunger strike, has stopped bathing and living in a cell that could only be described as hell on earth.  The day begins like most others with he and the guards having their daily battles.   Sands is frank and does not mince words when he describes what is happening.  It is graphic and it is gritty but he clearly intended for readers to truly understand the treatment he and other IRA members were receiving at the prison.  Other former prisoners and priests also sounded the alarms about the inhumane treatment at the prison, but officials within the Northern Ireland and British governments steadfastly denied the accusations.  What is clear from Sands’ writings is that there was no love lost between to the opposing groups with the IRA members routinely using the term “screws” to describe the guards.

It is hard to imagine just how extreme living conditions were at the prison.  Sands describes the lack of heat and sanitary conditions.  Some readers will be disgusted and repulsed by what he says.   Putting the hunger strike aside, living conditions at the jail were more than enough to induce psychosis in even the most rational individual.  In fact, at several points in the book, Sands questions his own sanity and realizes that his mind will never be the same again.  Yet, he never wavers from his cause and stays committed to the IRA beliefs. And whether you agree with the IRA or support the Crown, Sands’ stand is more than many of us would be willing to endure.

About mid-way through the book, we are able to read a series of poems that he wrote about his time inside and the IRA cause.   He was highly talented but as one would expect, the poems are all political and focused on the Troubles.  Regardless, they are good and showcase the many skills he developed that he was never able to use outside of prison.  And while I do believe he would have remained an IRA member, perhaps his time in prison and maturity would have resulted in a different approach to resolve the Troubles.

Later in the book, we shift back to Sands’ journal that was kept mostly on toilet paper due to the lack of any type of writing materials.  As we move on to the spring of 1981, Sands reports frequently and makes sure to note his weight which by that time had dropped to a shocking 127 lbs.  After several entries they stop, presumably as Sands entered the final stages of his fight.  Had he lived, I am sure he would have put together a book that would have contained far more than what we have here. However, what he did leave us is a trove of insightful notes that show the progression of his mind and why he believed in the Republican cause.

The book is a bit short but it is focused on the strike and is not an autobiography.  Readers who have been following the Troubles and are familiar with Sands’ life will appreciate this collection of his writings from the final months of his life.

ASIN: B07QPV3MGH

Northern Ireland

Rebel Hearts.jpgThe 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.

ASIN: B00ZON5LIE

Northern Ireland