Book casts new light on Ireland’s dark past

IT IS a wild, wet night, and inside Kilmainham Gaol the wind wails through the steel girders on the roof. It produces an unearthly, keening howl, so eerie that many tourists mistake it for man-made sound effects, but the grim fortress of Kilmainham has never needed help with atmosphere.
Kilmainham is now a museum but it once housed generations of Irish political rebels. Most of the young leaders of Ireland’s proudest rebellion, the Easter Rising, were executed here after being held in the dark, dank, cells of what is now called the 1916 Corridor.
This night, it is again filled with Irishmen who were jailed by the British. They should have notified the Guinness book of records, jokes host Ruan O’Donnell, historian and author of a new book on the Irish Republican Army: “We might have claimed the record for the highest number of prisoners trying to get back into a jail.”
Standing in the glare of the fluorescent lights of the newer west wing are 140 people, including dozens of greying, unremarkable-looking men who have done time in British jails for offences linked to the IRA violence of the 1970s and 1980s. They are here for the launch of Dr O’Donnell’s book, which documents the story of 200 such men: Special Category: The IRA in English Prisons. Volume I, 1968-78. Dr O’Donnell is a lecturer in history at the University of Limerick. He completed his PhD — on Irish republicans transported to Australia — at the Australian National University.
He says he wrote Special Category because that aspect of Ireland’s history was undocumented but had been significant; IRA attacks on British soil received far more media and political attention than violence in Northern Ireland. He believes IRA attacks in Britain were critical to the advancement of the Northern Ireland peace process: “The bombing of Canary Wharf [in London in 1996] removed many pre-conditions and obstructions to the peace process by the British government.”
But even in Ireland, the modern IRA is not regarded in the same heroic light as the IRA that fought in Ireland’s War of Independence. What was it like to sit in a room with men who had killed and listen to their stories?
“I have a very strong sense of this balance in the realm of history,” he says. “I had no equivocation about speaking to prime movers. It’s 30 years old; it’s not political in that sense any more.”
The IRA men who moved to England lived like ghosts, talking little, leaving no fingerprints, avoiding photographs. They knew that arrest would mean a life sentence but still they did it.
John McComb, 58, spent 17 years in jail for conspiring to cause an explosion.
He says he joined the IRA as a teenager after he experienced British troops saturating his Belfast neighbourhood with “gas”: “Old-age pensioners were rolling on the floor. Babies in prams were in convulsions. You saw it every day on the news.”
Asked how he sees his life, looking back now, he says, “I’m proud to be a member of the IRA. Of course the IRA made mistakes and tragedies happened, and there’s a collective responsibility for that if you are part of an organisation, but we tried to have a clean war. We tried to give a warning before every operation. ”
He approves of the peace process and thinks it has improved equality between Catholics and Protestants. Does he think there will ever be a united Ireland? He smiles: “It’s a work in progress.”