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A View North: Provo literary critics maintain lofty standards

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The literary business is a dangerous one, at least if you happen to be an ex-member of the Provisional IRA-turned-informer-turned-author. So far, of the four who have ventured in this direction, i.e. Eamon Collins, Marty McGartland, Sean O’Callaghan, and Raymond Gilmour, one, Collins, has been murdered, and another, McGartland, shot and seriously wounded.

It would seem that the literary critics of the republican movement hold some authors to higher critical standards than others. Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison, and other former members of the Provisional IRA who abandon the armalite for the word processor can rest assured, one supposes, that their literary endeavors, however awful, will be visited by no such retribution. So, Adams can indulge his penchant for travel writing and pen the unforgettable line, "Donegal is great," then take his dog for a walk without fear that some enraged critic, aghast at the breathtaking banality of his prose, will try to run him over (as apparently happened to Eamon Collins last January).

And Morrison can write about the wart on his testicle in his forthcoming book based on his prison experiences and expect not to be shot but applauded — by none other than Tim Pat Coogan, who recently gushed with customary verbosity about the new tome in his column in Ireland on Sunday.

The truth is, it is not just literary standards that are applied when the Provisionals’ Lit. Crit. Department reviews a new book by a former member. Politics counts. The revelations first to the police, and then to the public, of authors like Collins and McGartland, who for the most part take a jaundiced view of their former comrades, were not welcome. Neither paint a very flattering portrait of the Provisionals, though certain individual members are singled out for praise by both McGartland and Collins.

But the overall picture of the IRA’s campaign of violence that emerges from their work is that of a nasty, dirty little war, in which neighbor is plotting against neighbor and innocent and usually defenseless victims are mercilessly murdered. And in McGartland’s book, "Fifty Dead Men Walking," an extraordinary level of incompetence is revealed in the IRA’s organization in West Belfast as far its security is concerned.

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McGartland, even when he came under suspicion of working for the police, drives from meetings with top-level IRA men to speak to his police handlers without being tailed. He displays sudden conspicuous wealth for someone who doesn’t have a real job, and still manages to continue for a year or more providing information that frustrates every operation in which he is involved. Finally, it is not the IRA that exposes him as a tout but the actions of senior officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch. They panicked and insisted that a operation in which he was involved be intercepted early, though they were warned that by doing so they risked loosing their agent. It is possibly this revelation of how easy it was to fool the Belfast Provisionals that angered and embarrassed them most.

It will be objected that the portraits painted by the likes of McGartland — a former Special Branch agent — and Collins — a man who was embittered and disillusioned by his experience — are hardly reliable. While their judgments about individuals might well be warped, their accounts of how the Provisionals operate is clearly based on firsthand knowledge. Which was one reason why the IRA was so keen to shut them up. Had Collins been the greatest prose-stylist in English since Henry James, it would not have mattered.

Unfortunately, the reason why books like "A Killing Rage" and "Fifty Dead Men Walking" stand out is that no active, or recently active, member of the IRA who is not a tout has seen fit to write his or her own account of life inside the organization. Morrison and Adams have written extensively, in journalistic works, memoirs, and fiction, about the Provisionals and the struggle in general. But they are for the most part idealizations, or in the case of Adams’s autobiography, "Before The Dawn", elaborate and usually not very convincing exercises in evasion. The portrait they paint of West Belfast makes it into a sort of Garden of Eden before the nasty British serpent arrived, and is thoroughly unrealistic. Adams never even admits to being in the IRA, and his references to his own activities makes it seem as if he spent the entire first half of the Troubles as a social worker and the second half (post-hunger strike) trying to bring about peace. That is, no one in the Provisionals has seen fit to come out and write the equivalent of Dan Breen’s "My Fight for Irish Freedom" or Tom Barry’s masterpiece, "Guerrilla Days in Ireland." No doubt those works are not completely honest, and have their self-serving aspects — any one writing about his or her role in a violent, political struggle is bound to gloss over certain unpleasant realities. But no one in the current republican movement, other than a handful of touts and renegades, has been as candid.

Dishonesty and self-delusion prevail. It is ironic indeed, then, that the reader has to turn to informers, people who sold their friends for money, for the truth — or something close to the truth.

It is a fascinating exercise to go from reading Collins’s portrait of men with nicknames like Mooch and Hardbap, chain-smoking their cheap fags, getting drunk, philandering with prisoners’ wives, to the other extreme: Congressman Peter King’s fictional account of the IRA in Belfast, "Terrible Beauty."

Leading IRA man Kieran McAloran is described in King’s recently published novel as looking "just like his pictures . . . black wavy hair . . . piercing eyes . . . neatly trimmed beard. He had to be in his late 30s, but there was not a line in his face or even a fleck of gray in his hair." Obviously, a Pierce Brosnan look-alike. He ambushes British patrols, killing two or three "Brits" at a time, gets arrested after a gun battle in which four Brits get killed, and then spends 10 months in prison "writing poetry — poetry of the sky and the ocean, of rolling fields and mountain streams, of love and despair and of birds and children." He goes from being Rambo to St. Francis of Assisi in one paragraph.

No doubt about it — Congressman King is assured of a good review from the Provisionals’ Lit. Crit. Department.

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