He planned the spectacular helicopter escape from Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail and, a year later, planned another escape from there, blasting their way out with smuggled-in explosives. Before he began planning escapes, he operated early in his IRA career as commander of an armed robbery unit, ‘fund-raising’ for the Movement. But when he began robbing banks for himself and his family, the Movement sent assassins to kill him. Up Like a Bird is the story of that man, Brendan Hughes, nowhere near as celebrated as his other IRA namesake but certainly deserving of much more fame than he has received to date.
Douglas Dalby’s handling of Hughes’ reminiscences, told in Hughes’ voice, is masterly. The book reads like a thriller, hard to put down; we are driven to turn the next page to see what will happen – even when, through history, we know the eventual outcome. We know, for example, that the helicopter escape was carried out and yet, as readers, we tense as Hughes does his investigations, tense tighter as he identifies the components of the plan, moan with frustration at a delay or last-minute hitch, hold our breaths as the action takes place.
The helicopter escape was carried out on 31st October 1973 and from the prison exercise yard three high-level IRA officers were flown to freedom: Chief of Staff Séamus Twomey and senior Volunteers JB O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon. The following year, on 18th August 1974, 19 prisoners escaped, blasting their way through a gate with a small amount of smuggled gelignite. Not only had Hughes planned that operation – he himself was leading the escapers.
Apart from the excitement in reading, the book gives us an insight into the world of IRA volunteers active in Dublin and surrounding areas in the 1970s – the ‘safe-houses’ and network of active supporters, the ‘fund-raising’, stolen getaway cars, false identification documents, high-level awareness of the hunted, carrying concealed weapons, the even better-armed police ….
The Mountjoy helicopter escape revealed something even more important and enduring – the cultural bedrock within the Irish state, the sharp division between the elite and the mass. Although the majority of politicians had voted in 1972 for repressive legislation against Republicans and special no-jury courts to sentence them, a song celebrating the escape reached No.1 in the Irish singles disc charts, selling 12,000 copies in the first week despite being banned by the national broadcaster, RTÉ! Composed by Sean McGinley from Castlefin, Co. Donegal and performed by the folk and ‘rebel song’ band The Wolfe Tones1, Up and Away (the Helicopter Song) became the most-played and most-purchased disc for four weeks until nudged out by Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody. It is tempting to think that if the escape had taken place a longer period before the approach of the festive season, that the recording might have remained at the top of the charts for months on end. The counterposing of the anger and embarrassment in elite circles, reflected in ranting of politicians, Garda sweeps and raids and media outrage on the one hand, with the delight and empathy at the lower levels revealed much of the tensions in Irish society and the opposing sympathies of different social classes.
Hughes was a maverick, revelling in the description and though for much of his career that was of value to the Provos, there came a time when it ceased to be so. A guerrilla army must have discipline, of course but it also needs volunteers who can quickly assess a situation and seize the initiative, without referring back to the command structure. The balance between both requirements must be very hard to strike — for individuals as well as for the organisation.
When he and other such activists fell out with their leaderships or “went solo”, they were shunned or worse. In Hughes’ final spell in Mountjoy jail, he was on the “non-aligned” wing of the jail, a Republican prisoner but not under Republican leadership control.
Hughes says that assassins were sent to kill him – he stayed low and carried a loaded .44 Magnum. The leadership of the Republican movement does not always shoot or beat up its dissidents – more usually, it seeks to isolate them. Friends, neighbours, former comrades and even relatives will be advised to shun those no longer welcome, they and their families.
The family feeling, the communal solidarity in the movement becomes its opposite when the leadership brands its pariahs.
Hughes feels he was betrayed to the political police, the Special Branch of the Irish State. But what he says he felt the worst was the treatment of his family while he was in jail. No space on a Republican prison visitor communal transport was made available to his wife and children and cars containing former friends and acquaintances would pass them at the side of the road, even in the rain.
It seems Hughes finds that unforgivable — and no wonder.
As a postscript, Hughes surprisingly declares his support for the Good Friday Agreement, the pacification process. He had been a man of action and, as he said himself, not one for thinking through ideology or politics. But it doesn’t take any great grasp of ideology or politics to see that today it’s more or less business as before in a partitioned Ireland occupied by a foreign power.
UP LIKE A BIRD, Hughes, Brendan; Dalby, Douglas (2022)
1Named after Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leader of Irish republican revolutionary organisation the United Irishmen, died in prison in 1798.
(Reading time: 10 minutes)
(Translation by Diarmuid Breatnach of review in Castillian in 2016 of the book of that title and interview with one of the authors in El Confidencial). Para versión original en Castellano mirase al enlace al fin.
‘The boarding schools of fear’ (Ed. Now Books) came into our hands a few days ago. We devoured the 300-page book in just three afternoons. Each page that we turned was leaving us more exhausted, confused and horrified. How is it possible that even today there are no consequences following what happened then?
We talked about sexual abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, experimental operations, baby theft and slavery, among other things, that thousands of children experienced during the Franco regime only because they were classified as ‘children of sin’. These children were children of single mothers, they came from poor families or, what was even worse at the time, their parents were Republicans.
The State ‘hunted’ these children and interned them in centres, of which the vast majority were managed by religious orders by government grant. Judging from the research in the book, in what more than boarding schools looked like prisons and torture rooms for minors. In the text we read a dozen testimonies of victims that leave us nauseous: boys raped by priests, nuns who mistreated hundreds of girls until they tired of it, Salesians who employed all kinds of torture, children who died of beatings, minors who were sold as slaves for 100,000 pesetas (600 euros today), young people locked up in psychiatric hospitals who were subjected to injections the nature of which remainsunknown … A series of horrors that have never been recognized by the State (it was the entity in overall charge of the centres and had the judicial guardianship of minors), nor by the Church (according to the book, hundreds of Salesians, priests and nuns committed atrocities with children), much less by companies that benefited from the slave labour of these imprisoned children.
We have many doubts and we want to know more. We need someone to explain to us how even still this can be silenced. That is why we get in touch with Ricard Belis, one of the authors of the book, together with Montse Armengou, who offers us his view of the past, present and future of this situation. Ricard is an expert in Franco’s history, a subject to which he has dedicated decades of journalistic research. After chatting with him, we come to a valuable conclusion: the damage is already done, but to make known the history of these children and that those responsible for it be known publicly can heal the pain of many victims of the ‘boarding schools of fear’.
QUESTION: As soon as we begin the book we find a statement. You say that, contrary to what happens in other countries – from Argentina to South Africa through the Congo, Bosnia and other places – here in Spain there is no state agency responsible for investigating complaints that arise from people who, from one way or another, themselves suffered from the Franco dictatorship. Why is there no such body in Spain?
ANSWER: Everything is the result of the transition to democracy in Spain. It was done with a system that, although in the first years had its reason for being, decided not to look back at any time. In this way, one enters into a dynamic of many years of silence, which leaves all the victims of the regime forgotten and separated. That has done terrible damage to the victims themselves – for the fact of not being able to express their pain and having it remain inside them – and to Spanish society in general – because the fact of not knowing well what happened would be quite unthinkable in another democratic country.
Q: Do you think that at some point such a state agency could be created or do you consider it something utopian?
A: Well, I would like to see it … but I see it as impossible in near future. This book is the offspring of a documentary that was screened in Catalonia, where it was successful in terms of viewing figures, but nothing happened. There were signatures to a petition demanding that the Church ask for forgiveness, but nothing more. I think it is of greater importance that the Spanish State make these apologies, because it is ultimately responsible for the majority of these boarding schools, centres that were run by religious orders but by state concession. That task remains pending.
I will recount you an anecdote. We took this documentary to a very famous festival in France, in which reports from other countries were screened. After viewing our investigation, the French public did not understand how the Spanish State never apologised or accepted what happened to those interned. Then, by coincidence in the same room a Swiss documentary of a similar theme was projected (child abuse in Swiss boarding schools). The big difference is that this documentary began with the current Swiss Government asking for forgiveness for what previous governments had done.
TV3 DOCUMENTARY ON WHICH THE BOOK IS BASED
Q: In the absence of policies on historical memory, in a country denounced by different international organizations (UN, Amnesty International and the Council of Europe) and with a Partido Popular Government that fulfilled its electoral promise to close the office of Victims of the Civil War and Dictatorship, associations and the media are the only platforms to which those affected can go. Could this situation change with a new government? If, for example, a new political party like Podemos won the elections, do you think they would be willing to investigate all these cases and apply pressure for the creation of such an organization?
A: I am not optimistic for two reasons: first because there is no survey that predicts victory for Podemos, which, although it is one of the few parties presenting at state-level which contains this in its electoral program, it is hardly going to obtain an absolute majority to implement the policies they propose; and second, in this country we have had more years of left-wing than right-wing governments and both have been very shy and inactive on this issue, including the PSOE. It is true that Zapatero brought in a Law of Historical Memory, but it fell short and has hardly been applied. Anyway, I’m not very optimistic. I hope that some year something will happen, although at this rate I fear it will be when the victims are no longer alive.
Q: Why does the Spanish Government not pronounce on this? Is it afraid of the reaction of society?
A: I don’t know very well how to answer that question, because its inactivity is incomprehensible. Because it does not matter if a government is right-wing or left-wing, what cannot be consented to is that the victims of a dictatorship are forgotten and the pain they have suffered is not recognised. I give the example of Angela Merkel, who strongly condemns the crimes committed in the Nazi era.
P: The children of these boarding schools were mistreated both psychologically and physically. They burned their bums with a candle, were forced to eat their own vomit full of insects, were subjected to sexual abuse … Is this perhaps the worst episode that has happened in the history of Spain?
A: The theme of childhood is one of the toughest episodes. When abuse, violence and ill-treatment is employed against a child, it is very traumatic. And not only the pain left inside them but also in their families. It is difficult to rank the hardest moments in the history of this country.
One of the things that has impressed me most doing this research, beyond the abuse, violence and ill-treatmentis the fear and lack of affection felt by most children who lived in these boarding schools. Such was this lack of affection that many of those children came to confuse the first symptoms of sexual abuse as affection. I think it’s a terrible perversion. Some children who have never received a caress, accustomed to receiving beatings, when a priest arrives, touches them and that ends in sexual abuse … it has to mark them for a lifetime.
We always emphasise that this is not a historical investigation, but that it is current, because the damage that was done is still present. That the State does not recognize what happened only increases and magnifies the damage to the victims. The damage that the Dictatorship did is multiplied by the neglect of democracy.
Q: The Church played a great role in that drama. Do you think that with your research, like the one in this book, you will end up engendering a total rejection of the Church in the new generations?
A: I believe that the Church, on a global level, is beginning the process of acknowledging its guilt. The previous Pope, Benedict XVI, has already begun a firm policy against child abuse and sexual abuse, and in that sense it can be said that they are beginning to clean up their house. Late, yes, but we already know that the Church goes a little slower in everything. Here in Spain, there has not been any movement yet. The Church needs a modernization and many duties remain to be carried out, therefore it is normal for new generations to find it harder to believe in the Church.
We have testimonies of victims who ask that the Church apologize, because they are believers and for them it would be of great significance and even very restorative. Others, on the other hand, do not want to know anything about the religious orders, since they are never going to forgive them. In this regard, I think it would be good for the Church to ask for forgiveness, but I think it is more important for the Government to do so, because it is the one ultimately responsible. Although the Popular Party, which currently governs, has no responsibility for what happened, it is the heir of that State. It would be Mariano Rajoy who should ask for forgiveness, but not for anything on his own behalf but rather because he is the current President of Spain (since this was written Sanchez of the PSOE has been the President of the Spanish State – Trans.).
Q: If Mariano Rajoy recognized and apologized for what happened in those boarding schools, would it benefit him in any way with regard to public opinion?
A: In any case it would not hurt him. That a leader recognizes that the State did something wrong, but has no responsibility for it himself, is worthy of admiration. So I think it would mostly be to his benefit. I do not think that it would seem bad to any well-intentioned person that he apologized for the abuses that were committed at that time. Rajoy has no responsibility for it but he is the heir of that dictatorship.
Q: A lot of money was generated around the boarding schools. The Church received huge amounts from the State for the support of the little ones (and only a small part of it reached the minors, since they lived in subhuman conditions and were very hungry) and also pocketed millions of pesetas with the sale and labour exploitation of these children…
A: Yes, the Church took advantage of the situation and profited by it. The minors were a source of funding. The Church found a workforce to which they taught trades with the excuse of training, but the situation resulted in pure and hard exploitation. This situation reminds me of what happens in other countries, where thousands of children, such as from India or Asia, are exploited.
Q: In addition to the Church, large companies in our country also took advantage of the situation and hired this cheap workforce. In the book you mention El Corte Inglés – which at that time were the Almacenes Preciados (Precious Stores – Trans.) – and even Banco Popular and Caja Madrid. Did these companies know that they were hiring exploited children who lived as ‘prisoners’ in boarding schools?
A: I give you the example of El Corte Inglés (chain of shopping malls in the Spanish State – Trans.). They went to religious orders and paid the nuns for labour. They paid little, but they paid. They never hired a child directly. What happens is that, of course, we could say that they could suspect or intuit something with regard to the service being provided so cheaply. I could not tell you that these department stores are directly responsible, because they did not hire the children, although they have some social responsibility. They could imagine what was happening there.
Q: You spoke with those responsible for El Corte Inglés about the subject. And, although at the beginning of the conversations they were pleasant, they ended abruptly with a total refusal on their part to collaborate with your investigation. Do you think that if it was shown that these department stores made use of these children for their business, it would affect their reputation or sales?
A: I think it has been a long time. They are tactics that are currently being used by numerous countries abroad. And, in addition, it could not prove more than than that the Cortes Inglés had a contract with religious orders. The company did not have to know what was done with these children or if they were paid. They could intuit what was happening, but they did nothing illegal. It would be more of a moral issue.
Q: As for you, after gathering so many testimonies and talking to more than 200 victims of these abuses, do you feel that this investigation has taken its toll in some way?
A: We are not made of stone. When you talk to a person who has suffered these abuses you are making her return to one of the worst episodes of her life. Sometimes you leave the interviews affected. But on the other hand it is very comforting, because the victims feel relief through having the opportunity to tell their story to their fellow citizens. In addition, these investigations are doing what the State should do, in the sense of making it known and recognizing it, which is the start of repairing the damage caused.
History can and should be researched, interpreted, discussed, argued and used for lessons on current questions and projections into the future. It can also be used in fiction: as the backdrop for a novel; as a way of bringing historical events to life; as a what-if speculative story.
James Plunkett (21 May 1920 – 28 May 2003) used the Dublin Lockout as a backdrop for his Strumpet City and did it wonderfully well; Walter Macken (3 May 1915 – 22 April 1967) wrote a fictionalised account of brothers in the War of Independence and the Civil War in The Scorching Wind and also did it well1. Roddy Doyle did NOT do it well at all in his historical novel (A Star Called Henry) and sadly nor did Darran McCann in “After the Lockout”. Interestingly, the central characters in both latter books were what one might call “Left critics” of the leaders of the struggle and one is tempted to conclude that the attitudes of the central characters mirror those of their creators.
It seems fair enough that we can play with history in fiction but, when using it as a backdrop for a story, it should be accurately represented – otherwise, surely one should invent something else entirely?
Doyle did some reading on the GPO garrison’s struggle for the background of his “A Star Called Henry” but seemed to have done none for the War of Independence, in which he had his hero and heroine like a kind of Republican Bonny and Clyde living in ditches and shooting up the Free State forces. McCann seems to have done hardly any reading on the Lockout (and not that much on the GPO garrison’s fight either). Having Jim Larkin give a speech from the restaurant in Murphy’s Imperial Hotel restaurant window is bad enough – when we know he only got to say a few sentences before the Dublin Metropolitan Police ran in to arrest him – but having him then shin down a rope and get away is absolutely ridiculous.
McCann set the story of his central character, Victor Lennon, in between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence and it has many of the elements of the story of James Gralton (17 April 1886 – 29 December 1945), the only Irish person to have been officially exiled from Ireland by an Irish government (in 1933).
McCann’s Victor Lennon, a communist and member of the Irish Citizen Army, gets people in his home town to build a dance hall in opposition to the local Bishop, which a mob then burns down. Gralton, a communist also, did that too, in Leitrim; however, he ran dances there and also gave talks – it was a success, to a considerable degree. The Irish Catholic Church vehemently opposed Gralton and in McCann’s novel the Bishop and local supporters also mobilise against Victor: the hall is burned down before any dance is held in it. Like Gralton’s story, there is a shooting incident around the dance hall too – a fatal one, in which Victor’s father and two IRA men are killed. But instead of being deported from Ireland, as Gralton was (illegally) by an Irish Government, which in McCann’s story had not yet come into existence, Victor heads off for Dublin to join the Volunteers in what will become the IRA and the War of Independence.
Roddy Doyle wrote very disrespectfully about Volunteers, Pearse and a number of other leaders and even salaciously about anonymous wives of martyred men. He did so by placing those words and thoughts in the mouth and mind of his central character, Henry Smart. McCann does somewhat the same but to nowhere near the same extent as did Doyle.
I admit to finding that lack of respect extremely distasteful but also from a historical point of view I see it as anachronistic. I find it hard to believe that those who took part in the Rising despised those who fought alongside them, no matter the difference in ideology – or that they spoke so contemptuously of their leaders, martyred or not. Disagreed, certainly – disagreed strongly, probably. But disrespect and contempt? No, that is attaching a post-Free State intellectual revisionist attitude on to participants in the Rising and in the War of Independence. Later, there would be fear and hatred, during the Civil War, but even then, none of that contemptuous and dismissive attitude.
I am not the only critic from a historical perspective, as I see from a quick Googling. Reviewing the book for the Irish Independent in 2012, Pat Hunt had this to say:
“The opening section set in Dublin reads more like a 1917 Thom’s Street Directory and a survey of political events and personalities of the time. The seediness of the red-light Monto district in the inner city does not ring true. The period feel of the city of Armagh is much better realised.
“The author’s editor has done him no favours. It was never possible to hop on a train at Amiens Street and hop off at Harcourt Street station (not unless one took a scenic route via Bray).
“The Big Wind of 1839 occurred on the Feast of the Epiphany, not Pentecost. Forecasts of wine lakes and butter mountains (concepts that emerged with the EEC and its common agricultural policy) could not have been envisioned by even the most ardent socialist in 1917.”
Hilary Mantel, who writes historical fiction, praised McCann’s book and I can only assume that she knows very little of Irish history, nor indeed should we expect that she should – her background is not Irish. Glen Patterson, novelist from the Six Counties, praised it highly too and I assume did so on the composition of the writing, turn of phrase, story-telling etc – but I sincerely hope he did not do so on a historical basis.
After the Lockout, Darran McCann, Harper Collins 2012.
1 Though not perhaps as well as the other two books in the trilogy, those dealing with the Cromwellian war and Great Hunger periods: Seek the Fair Land and The Silent People)
To discuss a thriller-writer who was in jail in the USA for one of the largest payroll heists in US history and who before that was in the H Blocks, an incarcerated IRA Volunteer, is to have most people thinking one is writing about a fictional character – but I’m not. The man exists and his name is Sam Millar.
Millar has a number of novels and a memoir to his credit, all the most recent published by the O’Brien Press. Some of them are detective novels, centred around Karl Kane, a tough private investigator, back-talking cops and gangsters alike. Yes, we’re familiar with the type, from Chandler’ Philip Marlowe to Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Hammet’s Sam Spade or Towne’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974). But if we’ve liked his type in print or film before, them then we tend to like him again. To be truthful, Kane is a bit different: I can’t recall or even imagine any of the others ever opening their front door dressed only in their lover’s short pink dressing gown and falling on their arse, accidentally flashing their tackle at passing schoolgirls. And Kane’s health problems are perhaps more reminiscent of some of the Scandinavian fictional police detective heroes (and heroines) than his fast riposting counterparts in the USA-based stories.
The dialogue and commentary in the Karl Kane novels is good with some very funny lines, his plots interesting and he keeps the story moving along at a good pace, with a few twists along the way. Kane, like Marlowe has a conscience pushing through his hard exterior and though he’s tough he tends not to invite more slaps after the first few. And not every thread in the story is tidily tied up at the end of the book.
The dialogue is not so slick in some of his other novels (one set in the USA) but the conjuring of the ill-boding atmosphere is well done, as is the description of the thinking in the adolescent characters’ minds.
Belfast is where his writing is centred now:
“I have deliberately used (Belfast) as a backdrop for all my crime noir novels for a number of reasons”, he was quoted as saying in a Crime Review author profile “- mainly because I know it so well, but chiefly to bring the imaginary one-dimensional Belfast of badly written novels into the modern era.”
His stories are dark (which is part of the meaning of “noir”) but generally not without humour or redemption, at least for some of the characters. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not presented as shining good guys and in that Millar fits in with the general attitude to the enforcers of law and order in the detective noir stories: the cast of cops usually includes the downright nasty (and often corrupt), the in-between and the good guy – the latter being the cop who feeds the private investigator information or warns him of trouble coming his way from the cop’s superiors. For the genre and for Millar’s stories it works, providing one doesn’t step back too much to think about the sectarian and often murderous RUC now transformed by name into the PSNI.
However, Millar doesn’t try and paint a rosy picture of a post-Good Friday Agreement society and has been quite open about his own views: “I hate bursting people’s bubbles, everybody wants to believe something like a fairytale has happened over here but it hasn’t”, he said in a 2014 interview with David Henessy in the Irish in Britain weekly The Irish World.
“It’s changed superficially but for working-class Protestants and working-class Catholics it hasn’t changed. There’s still a lot of people out of work, a lot of poverty and it seems the politicians are the only ones who seem to benefit out of this Good Friday Agreement which has been a terrible let down, to be honest with you, especially in nationalist communities.
“But for myself being a writer, of course, I have been able to move away and I felt guilty. You don’t want to turn your back on your neighbourhood but at the same time, I’ve young children. I want them to have a better life…”
SELLING WELL ABROAD
A number of Millar’s books have been translated and sold well in France (where he was won a number of literary awards), Italy, Germany and Poland and some as far as Turkey and Bulgaria. He is not without Irish awards either: the prestigious Aisling Award for Art and Culture; Martin Healy Short Story Award; Brian Moore Award and Cork Literary Review Award, et al.
“I could probably sell more books in Ireland if I kept my mouth shut about what I thought,” Millar commented more recently. Perhaps he’s right. I find it hard to believe I never heard about him until picking out a book by chance in the library, saw it was about a PI working in Belfast and with a sigh, felt obligated to read it. But without any great expectations, having come across some novels allegedly about the Six Counties that seemed to be about somewhere else in the world but also bearing Ulster place and family names. I was glad I chose it and am now working my way through his other published works.
Asking some Dublin Republicans about Millar and his writing, I was again surprised that they had not heard of him, particularly since they would share his view of the Six Counties today.
IRA VOLUNTEER AND HEIST
Millar was brought up a Catholic in Belfast (but with a Protestant grandfather), became politically active and went to jail in 1973, “the first nationalist put away under the Diplock court system. That’s a forgotten historical footnote, except for me”, he says. Released in 1975, his days of freedom were short, like many another in those days and a year later he was back inside after being caught with explosives in Belfast city centre. He joined the blanket protest against the British policy of criminalisation of Republican prisoners.
Released from the H-Blocks in 1982, he got acquainted with Bernadette, now his wife, whom he had known as a child, a few streets away from his family‘s home.
Moving to the USA, in 1993 Millar got involved in the New York Brinks Armoured Car Depot robbery, “the biggest in US history” (in which no-one was killed), for which he got caught a year later and served six years in a penitentiary, to be released by Clinton. Millar wrote about the heist in On the Brinks (2003) and apparently investigators believe that though Millar masterminded the robbery, he fictionalised some of the details in order to protect some accomplices.
Warner Bros. bought the rights to the book for a screenplay before backing out of making the film and a long “and draining” legal battle followed as Millar fought to win back the rights, so as to have some other company make the film.
THRILLER WRITER AND REVIEWER
Writing for the New York Journal of Books, Millar said he had “reviewed tons of books”, in reply to an accusation by Armagh author Stuart Neville that he had indulged in “sock puppeting”, i.e using fake identities to rate his own work highly and do down some others, including Neville’s.
“If you look at my books reviewed by people on Amazon,” said Millar to Nuala McCann for BBC News in September 2012, “you will see one stars and two stars, some by writers. I have never asked Amazon to remove them, nor complained on line about them.
“Ironically, the only book I’ve ever read by Mister Neville I reviewed for the influential website New York Journal of Books,” he added.
“I think if you read it, it wasn’t too bad a review. I get lousy reviews sometimes myself, but take it on the chin. I’ve reviewed ‘tons’ of fiction/crime books for writers, and never given a negative review of any of them.
“If I don’t like a book (after a few chapters) I will not review it, as I do not like to give bad reviews to fellow writers, as I know how difficult enough it is without adding grief.”
Sam Millar has another anti-hero novel (not Kane) novel due out in June, The Bespoke Hitman, as part of a three-book deal with O’Brien. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Dark Souls (April 2003)
The Redemption Factory (July 2005)
The Darkness of Bones (2006)
Bloodstorm: A Karl Kane Book (2008)
The Dark Place: A Karl Kane Book (2009)
The Dead of Winter: A Karl Kane Book (2012)
Brothers In Arms (Stage play 2012)
Black’s Creek [originally Small Town Killing] (2014)
On The Brinks, O’Brien Press (April, 2014) [but originally by Wynkin de Worde (Sep. 2003) then bought by Millar’s present publisher, The O’Brien Press]
The prison experience and escape of IRA man Seán Murphy as related by himself in book form was launched on 31st March to a large audience in Wynne’s Hotel. Republicans of all shades not part of Sinn Féin (and perhaps some of those too) attended the event, bought copies of Having It Away and queued to have them signed by Seán’s widow, Betty Murphy. Seán O’Mahony, whose assistance with the publication of the book was acknowledged by Sean Murphy’s family, presided over the event.
On 13th August 1955, a party of the IRA led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh raided Arborfield British Army Depot and came away with many guns and ammunition; the party’s members were Seán Murphy, Donal Murphy (no relation), Frank Skuse, Jack Hick, Tom Fitzgerald, Joseph Doyle, Liam Walsh and Paddy Considine. One of the party’s vehicles was apprehended by British police and the weapons later recovered. Three IRA Volunteers of those ten who took part were captured and, after trial, sentenced to life imprisonment. Donal Murphy and Joseph Doyle were two of them, the third was Seán Murphy and the book is his story.
The book is what most people would call “a great read”. Murphy’s descriptions of the grim realities of prison life, his interactions with other prisoners political and non-political, as well as the screws (prison officers) and Governor, are pointed and yet often humorous.
Cathal Goulding was in the jail before Murphy arrived and after an attempted escape was obliged to wear “patches”, these being large and of a contrasting colour, sown on to a prison uniform. A prisoner wearing “patches” was under constant surveillance in the prison and was kept in solitary confinement when not on exercise. The prison Governor tried to get Goulding to promise not to escape, which Goulding felt unable to do, considering it his duty to escape whenever a decent opportunity presented itself.
Murphy’s opinion expressed in the book is that Goulding should have given his promise and then escape when possible, considering that one was not bound to honesty with one’s captors. Murphy’s position is not without rationality and even morality but it is in strange contrast to he and his two co-accused refusing to provide a defence against the charges, since that would have meant “recognising the British court”.
The Republican prisoners considered themselves political prisoners but they did not seek segregation from social prisoners as later generations of Republican prisoners have done. And in fact, Murpy made friends among a number of prisoners convicted of social rather than political offences, some of whom went to some lengths to help him and put their scheduled liberty at jeopardy in doing so. Murphy has this to say about them (and Sean O’Mahony quite rightly included that phrase too in his written introduction): “Taken all round, the circle of friends we had collected in this prison were made up of men, generous and decent almost beyond belief and one would be hard put to find their equals in any walk of life.”
On the other hand, interaction with other political prisoners also forms part of the narrative. These included Klaus Fuchs, a German Communist who had fled Nazi Germany and became naturalised in Britain. He was a physicist and after the War was hired as part of the team developing the Atomic Bomb at Los Alamos in the USA. From there he had passed information to the USSR to help them in their development of the their own atomic weapon. for which he was sentenced in 1950 to fourteen years imprisonment and had his British citizenship removed. Released not long after Murphy’s escape, having served nine years, we went to the GDR (East Germany) where he remained until his death in 1988 at the age of seventy-six.
Although Fuchs was already there when Murphy arrived, other prisoners arrived afterwards from the struggle against the British in Cyprus. These were from EOKA, a Greek-Cypriot guerrilla organisation which from 1954-’59, fought to end British rule in Cyprus and for union with Greece (“enosis”). Many soldiers, guerillas and civilians were killed in the conflict, the British executed a number and also practiced torture on prisoners. In addition, the British recruited their colonial police force exclusively from among the Turkish minority on the island, which helped entrench and deepen communal tensions. Unlike EOKA B, which was considered right-wing, had links to fascist Greek colonels and was responsible for a massacre and rape of Turkish-Cypriot civilians, Eoka had socialist national liberation leanings and one of the prisoners in jail with Murphy went on to translate James Connolly’s writings into Greek. Some of EOKA supporters, like Bishop Makarios, later went on to advocate complete independence from either Greece or Turkey but an attempted EOKA B coup sparked a Turkish invasion and another massacre, this time of Greek-Cypriot civilians. Today the island is partioned between an independent Cyprus and the Turkish state, each area more or less abandoned by the other major ethnic group.
One of the EOKA prisoners sharing Wakefield Prison with Murphy was Nicos Sampson who had a dark history by then and which got no lighter as time went on.
Almost incredibly, one of the Eoka prisoners, serving five years in jail, was a member of the British Army who had deserted and fought alongside the Greek Cypriots – his name was Tony Martin.
The typography of the book leaves much to be desired – something seems to have gone amiss between editing, proofing and checking the galley copy. Punctuation has suffered and occasionally spelling too; sentences are broken up by large spaces and footnotes end up half-way down the the next page. Somehow however, though one is aware of those faults, the narrative grabs most of the attention.
More irritating than the faulty typography are the omissions: what went wrong that of the escape party of five, only one made it? How did those left behind fare? Did the British seek his extradition from the Irish state? What did Murphy make of the subsequent twists and turns in the Republican movement and of its various splits? Some information on the subsequent lives of some players in the prison and escape organisation is provided in two pages of Biographical Notes but I found it nowhere enough to satisfy my curiosity. For example, Murphy rates Cathal Goulding very highly in the book’s narrative yet I am given to understand that he did not support the line taken by what became Official Sinn Féin (and eventually The Workers’ Party) and the Official IRA, led by Goulding.
All that said, the book is very readable and also well worth reading.
Although Murphy’s writing reveals a strong leaning towards socialist republicanism and therefore the comment in the Irish Times obituary that “he did not embrace Goulding’s move to socialism” should be treated with caution. Nevertheless he did not by all accounts support the Official IRA after the 1969 split in the Republican movement; this may have been due to the failure of the IRA leadership to organise support for an escape, while most of those who did spring him seem to have come from the Saor Uladh or Christle faction groups. Murphy appears to have dropped out of active participation in politics after his escape but in recent years was known to be opposed to the Belfast Agreement.
Seamus Murphy was born 1935 and raised in Castledermot, Co.Kildare and joined the IRA while attending Terenure College, Dublin. In 1963, four years after his escape and return to Ireland, Murphy married Betty O’Donaghue from his home county in 1963; they settled down in Bray and had a son, Pearse. Murphy was writing his memoire unbeknownst to most people and though he received some assistance with it he died in 2015, three years before it was published.
On a very stormy Wednesday night (17 Nov. 2015) in Dublin around 150 people attended the launch of the video “Laneways of History” at Wynne’s Hotel, Lwr. Abbey Street.
The video maker is Marcus Howard who has videoed a number of interviews with relatives of 1916 heroes as part of a campaign to preserve the historic Moore Street 1916 Terrace and the laneways surrounding it. Marcus also videoed the second Arms Around Moore Street event, which was organised by the Save Moore Street Demolition campaign.
The video itself uses footage shot in a Dublin of today, tracing the footsteps in Easter Week 1916 of James Connolly from Williams Lane to the GPO, then of the garrison’s retreat from the burning building to Moore Street. It also stops at 21 Henry St. where the 1916 Proclamation was signed and follows the ill-fated heroic charge led by The O’Rahilly up Moore Street against the British barricade at the end, on Parnell Street.
The narrative is provided by Jim Connolly Heron (great grandson of James Connolly) and Proinsias O Rathaille, grandson of The O’Rahilly, and also by excerpts from witness statements of participants read by Marcus Howardand a woman whose name I did not catch (but will record when I find out).
Sound effects on images of the past are firing from artillery, rifles and machine guns and clips from the Cabra Historical Society are used to good effect. The video also includes recent footage from the campaign, including Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny being shown around the Moore Street Battlefield and the 2nd Arms Around Moore Street event, which was organised by the Save Moore Street from Demolition campaign.
Around the function room there were men and women in Ctiizen Army and Volunteer uniforms and typical IRA War of Independence dress to protect us from a raid by the British Army, Dublin Metropolitan Police or the Auxillaries (or perhaps to keep an eye out for unruly elements).
Music and some songs were provided before the speakers by two members of the Dublin band The Invincibles, one of which Paul Stone, sang Where Is Our James Connolly to a hushed room.
The main speakers were James Connolly Heron, Críona Ní Dhálaigh (SF Mayor of Dublin), Proinsias O Rathaille and Marcus Howard. Also called up to speak a few words were long-time supporters of the campaign TD Maureen O’Sullivan and Frank Allen.
Frank unveilled the 1916 Commemoration Bond and invited everyone to buy one at €100 each. Frank announced that the aim is to make sufficient on sales at home and abroad, to buy the threatened 1916 Terrace.
Presentations of the first three bonds were made to long-time supporters of the campaign Brendan O Neill, Colette Palsgraaf and Pat Waters (who had written the song for the “16 Signatories” production).
Frank also thanked Diarmuid and Mel (also thanked by Marcus Howard) for their long presence in Moore Street (the Save Moore Street from Demolition Campaign, which also includes Bróna Uí Loing).
There were some questions and interventions from the floor before people repaired to buy a DVD and/or a bond and thence to the bar, to chat and no doubt plot further steps in the campaign. Among the contributors from the floor were TV presenter Duncan Stewart, Donna Cooney (PRO 1916 Relatives’ Committee and grand-niece of Elizabeth O’Farrell), Manus O’Riordan (includ. Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland), Diarmuid Breatnach (includ. Save Moore Street from Demolition campaign), Bernie Hughes (Finglas community campaigner against the Water Charge). A Dutch woman living here 15 years made the point that migrants should be included in the vision — a point echoed by at least another two from the floor, one of whom drew attention to the fact that James Connolly had been a migrant.
Indeed, this was so, both to the USA and to Ireland, as was the case with Jim Larkin too; Tom Clarke had been born in England also and a number of those who fought for the Republic in the Rising (especially the Kimmage group) had been born and brought up in British cities and a few had no Irish connections at all.
Two women drew attention to the exclusion of the Irish language from the video and presentation. This last was a particularly relevant point, given that one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation was a writer in Irish and in English, as well as an educator and that five of them had been members of the Gaelic League (as were others of the executed or who died in the fight). One asked what the strategic purpose of the bonds was and how this fit into the campaign.
Overall, any criticisms or doubts aside, everyone who spoke was positive about the video and wholeheartedly in favour of the retention of the historic buildings and laneways. It was notable that no-one, from panel, podium or the floor, expressed faith in the Government or in most politicians — quite the contrary.
Among the historians present were Lorcán Ó Coilleáin and Mícheál Ó Doibhlín. Also seen were Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD, Robert Ballagh (Reclaim the Spirit of 1916) and Barry Lyons (Save 16 Moore Street).
(Photos, mostly long-range dodgy mobile ones: D.Breatnach)
The role of women has been often ignored and undervalued in the body of Irish historical writing. Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, a tendency in more recent writing has been, at least to a degree, to attempt to rectify this. In the decades since Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries (Brandon, Ireland, 1983), this rectification has been slowly gathering pace. Dissidents – Irish Republican women 1923-1941, by Anne Matthews (Mercier, 2012), is a contribution to this movement in historical writing; it is essentially the history of an Irish women’s political movement, Cumann na mBan, during the years outlined. A previous work of hers, “Renegades”, deals with Irish Republican women from 1901 to 1922.
Although Dissidents deals with the period 1923-1941, Cumann na mBan was founded on 2nd April 1914 as an auxiliary to the all-male Irish Volunteers’ organisation, which had been founded in 1913. In 1914 the Volunteers split after John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (in Westminster) and the main open Irish political party in Ireland, committed the Irish Volunteers to fight in the British Army in WW1. The smaller section of the split went on to participate in the 1916 Uprising and more coherently later in the War of Independence (1919-1921). Redmond’s party and “constitutional” Irish nationalism was all but wiped out in the British General Elections of 1918, at which time the whole of Ireland was still under British rule and Redmond’s nationalist opponents, then amalgamated under the name of the reformed Sinn Féin, gained the vast majority of parliamentary seats in Ireland.
Today it is common to define the ideology of both both Cumann na mBan and the Irish Volunteers as “Irish Republican” and, although they quickly became so, and the impulse in the formation of the Volunteers in 1913 was of the secret Republican organisation the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), both organisations at first could be more accurately described as broadly nationalist. Both organisations contained prominently in their midst people whose ideology conformed to that of Irish Republicanism as well as those whose thinking did not, people who expressed a strong interest in equality for women as well as those who were against it, people with at least a sympathy for socialist ideas and those who condemned any such tendencies – and of course variations in between.
In the period specifically chosen by Matthews, 1923-1941, the Irish Volunteers had morphed into the political party Sinn Féin and the armed organisation the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and become Irish Republican in ideology, as had Cumann na mBan. They had in fact been that way since 1919, although the period 1921-’23 was to expose some deep fracture lines which found expression in the Civil War (1922-1923) and later again with the founding of Fianna Fáil and its eventual management of the Irish State (the 26 Counties).
In order to compile her history, Matthews has consulted minutes of committee meetings of Cumann na mBan in its various incarnations (she identifies four periods, or versions of the organisation), personal recollections of participants recorded in writings, interviews, comments quoted by contemporaries, newspaper reports and articles, the Republican movement’s own publications, as well as records of prisons and police under both British and subsequently Free State rule. And she has used some of this material to reproduce and also compile lists such as the numbers and names of women convicted and jailed, the women who went on hunger-strike and the length of time on that protest. The lists also include figures on the decline of Cumann branches between 1934 and 1936, as well as a list of “women in organisations listed as dangerous by the Free State CID in 1934”. These lists are a particularly valuable contribution and will be of great use to many writing on the political movements of the period in Ireland.
Looking at some of those lists alone, one is struck by the sheer extent to which the contribution of women activists to the struggle for Irish independence, and the price they had to pay, has been overlooked. In 1930 twenty-nine women were in organisations listed as “dangerous” by the Free State detective branch of the police – twelve of these were in senior positions of Cumann na mBan, three in directing positions in Saor Éire, three for Comhairle na Poblachta, three also for Sinn Féin, one for the Prisoners’ Defence Organisation, two for Women Prisoners’ Defence League and one for the Anti-Imperialist League. The rest were rank-and-file members of those organisations and one was in Friends of Soviet Russia.
The Free State interned 645 women during the Civil War (as against over16,000 men). In her Introduction, Matthews points out that “There were twenty-four strikes in the three (women’s) prisons during the period from November 1922 to November 1923, in which 219 women took part.” According to the table drawn up by Matthews, one woman was on hunger strike for 35 days, another for 34, seven for 31, many for different amounts of days but the vast majority into double figures. Furthermore, some of them were on hunger strike more than once.
Matthews also provides a list of the occupations of 79 women activists jailed in the North Dublin Union, which were surveyed in August 1923: the highest number for a single occupation were the 19 listed as “at home”, while the next were 11 whose occupations were given as “packer in Jacob’s” (the biscuit factory in Dublin); 10 had been engaged in “printing”; eight were “shop assistants” while 15 were variously listed as “typist” or “clerk”. This list shows quite a variety of social background among what one presumes to be fairly politically-active women which the Free State considered its enemies.
Republican women acting as couriers or delivering weapons made many journeys by bicycle, often at night without lights in order to avoid Free State patrols, “often round trips of up to forty miles” Matthew tells us (p.32).
As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, history writing involves a degree of bias. This bias is exercised not only in explicit judgements but in inferences made, choice of phrasing and so on. Choices are made in what sources to use and what prominence to give them as well as in the opposite, which sources to disregard.
If the Fall of Lucifer and his angel followers were a historical event, for example, we would expect Lucifer’s version to be very different from the Judaeo-Christian story with its sympathy for the Archangel Michael (a great example of history being written by the victors). There might be yet other versions, for example by the Seraphim and Cherubim, one of which might be in partial sympathy with the Fallen side and the other which might be against both sides of the conflict.
Whereas in the ancient past history writing was blatantly partial, in the past century historians have generally claimed to be impartial dispassionate observers recording what they discover. But every one of those writers had views influenced by class, ethnicity, gender, position in or out of power groups, status, upbringing and personal experience. And those views influenced their historical judgements, quite likely their choice of sources and possibly their choice of audience. Written records could only be left by literate people and yet for most of history the majority of people have been illiterate. A more recent trend in history writing is to recognise the inevitability of bias and for the historian to declare which is his or hers.
One should beware of historians who don’t declare their bias at the outset. That will not be a problem with Anne Matthews because although she does not formally introduce her bias to her readers, it very soon becomes clear. Or maybe that is not quite accurate, for in order to have a bias against a group one must presumably also have a bias in favour of another. It is difficult indeed in the pages of this book to find any group for which Matthews has any sympathy or, even more important for a historian, empathy.
To express a bias is expected, as I commented earlier. But unless one is engaged in pure propaganda or character assassination (or glorification), one should present the evidence in favour as well as that against and, in weighing one against the other, make a judgement. When Matthews has anything favourable to say about her subjects it seems to be an accident which will soon be remedied a little later – just keep reading!
A particularly clear and nasty example of this bias is in Matthews’ treatment of Constance Markievicz whom she calls a “self-proclaimed heroine” (p.28) but does not tell us when and where Markievicz allegedly “proclaimed” herself to be a “heroine”. Matthews also inferred that Markievicz was a given to warlike statements but a coward who ran away to Scotland. Whatever the reason for her departure in 1922, one wonders how, no matter how much she may dislike the person, someone could call Markievicz, who prominently took up arms and fought for a week against the British Empire, a coward.
In the Matthews view of the organisation, Cumann na mBan was a largely ineffective body, doctrinaire and full of in-fighting. The leadership and many prominent activists were aristocratic or upper middle class, used to the privileges afforded by their class. The working and lower-middle class members accepted the leadership’s decisions or just deserted.
Some of those things may be true and there might even be some truth in all of them — but where is the counter-argument before coming to judge? One doesn’t find it in Matthews, except by an inference that one can make from the lists I mentioned earlier and other information.
If a woman came from a higher social class and was used to having servants do her cleaning, do those facts diminish in the least her courage in facing bullets in insurrection, the threat of the firing squad, the pangs on hunger-strike and the risk of permanent damage to health, the risk of physical beatings and unhealthy prison conditions? Or on the contrary, in some ways, are those risks and sacrifices not all the more remarkable for one from such a background as that? And if an upper-class mother can pay a nanny to look after her children while she herself in in jail, does that take away from her courage and fortitude? A working-class mother without those resources (though she might be able to avail of extended family) of course has even more obstacles to surmount and deserves our greater praise but that is no reason to disparage the sacrifice or commitment of a woman of a higher class.
And if infighting and bad policy choices were a significant feature of the organisation, were there not others to weigh against them on the scales of judgement? What of transporting, hiding and distributing weapons? Of carrying secret correspondence and intelligence? Or of continuing to feed the flame of resistance while men were in prison, organising pickets and demonstrations, outside jails etc? What of creating the enduring 1916 emblem and Republican commemoration emblem, the Easter Lilly? Or of organising Republican commemorations year after year, as well as funerals of fighters in the midst of repression? Or the work of supporting prisoners and their dependents? Matthews records these and often the difficulties entailed but without a word of approval to balance the censorious words used in her criticisms. Nor do we see an attempt to understand the choices these women made or the constraints upon them, much less see anything to admire; we are shown few lessons to learn from, unless it is something like “don’t be these people or anything like them”.
In Dissidents, Anne Matthews has made a contribution to the story of Republican women but its judgement is clearly skewed and the work suffers as a result. Matthews could have recorded all the negative information that she did but also the points to throw in the balance – had she done so, her book would have been a much better return on her investment in historical research and writing as well as a better reward for the reader.