Still, Séanna hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Our delegation of students and faculty from John Carroll University have just arrived to Belfast from America on an overnight flight, bleary-eyed, and now find ourselves at Malone Lodge Apartments hosting Séanna and his comrade Jim Gibney, prominent activists in the Republican movement, party members of Sinn Fein.
Leaning in on the rickety chair we’ve set up for him, Séanna asks us, “Have you had any rest yet?”
“None at all,” I say, hoping the legs of the chair don’t give out underneath him.
“Then you’ll get some during this talk,” he quips, leaning back. We laugh, and the ghost of a smile seems to pass over his face.
Perhaps he’s softened a bit, since I first met him eight years before, but it’s hard to tell.
Just behind him the bay window opens up, and the city is spread out below, all the way to the Black Mountain that stands at its far edge.
During the Troubles, that thirty-year descent into political violence that led to the deaths of thousands and tore the country apart, Séanna and Jim believed themselves to be revolutionaries in a war for freedom from British rule. Today, twenty years after the 1998 peace accords, even the name of this country is still contested. For the Protestant Unionists and Loyalists, we are now in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. For our guests, staunch Republicans, this is the North of Ireland: the last remnant of Eire still under British control. It depends on your point of view, what name you were willing to stand by, or even kill or die for. Séanna was prepared to do all three.
Now, during peacetime, the question is more mundane, and perhaps more difficult: What are you willing to live for?
Since 2011, with the assistance of Raymond Lennon, I’ve been coordinating study tours on the peace-building and conflict transformation process in Northern Ireland for John Carroll University, meeting with locals who lived through the tumult of the Troubles and have come out on the other side of violence. Séanna and Jim have been stalwarts of our program, crucial inputs in a complex array of perspectives. I think of them as a pair, since every time I’ve met them, they’ve been together.
Perhaps it’s because they grew up together in a Catholic enclave of Protestant East Belfast known as “the Short Strand.” The little beach. The Short Strand, pronounced here as “strahned,” was an island stranded in the middle of a sea of Loyalism, and those who grew up there knew what it meant to look out for your own.
Séanna’s large and quiet presence fills the room. When he’s handed a cup by one of the students, he frowns. “This tea is cold!”
Karly, the student, blanches, wordless, horrified. She’s failed at her first job, making what they call a spot of tea. She just couldn’t figure out when the electric teapot had come to a boil.
Walsh gets up and heats it up himself, mumbling a half-joke about the service around here.
In the margins of my notebook, I’m scrawling potential titles for the name of our meeting: Tea with Terrorists? Victims of IRA violence would call them murderers and worse. Séanna and Jim won’t say what they have done, because, twenty years after the peace accords, they still could go to jail if those words or old crimes came to light.
I wonder what it’s like to carry those secrets in the plain light of peacetime.
It’s not fair to just call them terrorists. Look at them: Séanna and his gray-white hair, looking like someone’s tough uncle, Jim and his piercing eyes and stylish frames, resembling a college history professor. They are like all of us, with complicated lives and reasons for what they have done or what they have failed to do.
But the truth is that I’m also a little afraid of them. I know their ferocious commitment; I can see the fierceness in their faces, and also the hurt.
How long does it take for a warrior to come home? In The Odyssey, after fighting in a decade-long war, Odysseus takes ten years to get home. In my favorite reading of the epic poem, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay proposes that the journey is a powerful allegory for the painful and circuitous route that every soldier needs to take in order to come home again. Working with veterans at the VA, many of whom struggled with PTSD and other emotional stress from combat, Shay comes to see each episode—from the poppy eaters to his long stay with Circe—as metaphors for the ways that soldiers rely on narcotics or sex to try to numb the pain.
A Republican and lifelong activist who also spent some of the Troubles in prison (despite never having been convicted), Jim Gibney is small and voluble, with intense blue eyes shining through his horn-rimmed glasses. He’s the thinker, launching into his narrative of the North as a colonial problem, something that’s been going on for “many centuries” but only “became armed in the last fifty years.”
“I didn’t like prison,” Jim admits, as if embarrassed to say it in front of his friend and us. “In essence, though,” he pauses, “it was education. Comradeship.”
He leans forward, trying to find the words.
“I was transformed from being a boy who wouldn’t have read a book to one who was a custodian of books.”
When Séanna first went to prison back in 1973 for a failed bank robbery, he was no ordinary criminal seeking easy money. He was funding the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Séanna got involved in the movement when Loyalists killed his friend Patrick McGrory. Because history has a way of repeating itself here, it also happened to be in the same neighborhood that the B-Specials, a particularly vicious arm of the security forces in Northern Ireland, had murdered his grandfather fifty years earlier. All this history within arm’s length of where Séanna and Patrick would have played on the streets as children.
In prison, Walsh got an education that his public schooling had never taught him—about Irish history, politics, and language. What began as anger turned into ideology.
“The British couldn’t kill the fish,” Séanna says, “so they tried to pollute the sea.”
By age twenty, Séanna was appointed the IRA commanding officer in the Crumlin Road jail and was considered an old-timer.
As the sides entrenched, the Troubles got uglier—with all sides committing greater and more brutal acts of violence. The IRA and other paramilitary organizations on both sides of the conflict engaged in regular bombing campaigns in which civilians frequently died. They even terrorized their own communities, using kneecappings, banishment, or even disappearance to stop collaborators or criminals from interfering with the struggle. With the complete breakdown of local policing, paramilitaries functioned as law enforcement. If the person’s crime were bad, they would get a “kneecapping”—that is, a bullet to the knee. But if the crime was egregious, they’d get a “six pack”—shots to both knees, ankles, and elbows. There were nearly as many kneecapping victims as there were deaths during the Troubles.
At the same time, the Shankill Butchers, a rogue gang affiliated with the Ulster Volunteer Force, terrorized Catholic neighborhoods by randomly torturing and murdering civilians in the late 1970s. Their crimes were among the most shocking of the Troubles. While the IRA could be seen as selecting its attacks against what they deemed were British military targets, the Butchers went further by randomly picking Catholics off the streets and subjecting them to the depths of human cruelty—pulling out teeth, beatings, and cutting throats all the way to the spine.
Ostensibly to restore public order, but also to break the Republican movement, the British government ended the political status of paramilitary prisoners in 1976 through the policy of Criminalization. Then, to crack down on the organizing happening in prison, the British government phased out the use of Crumlin Road jail and the open Nissen huts of Long Kesh prison, replacing them with the H-Blocks of The Maze, isolating the prisoners from one another.
If Criminalization was an attempt to delegitimize paramilitary activity, it only made the paramilitaries resist further. The IRA found new ways to organize and resist. Landing in prison a second time on weapons charges, Séanna participated in the Blanket Protest, begun in 1976 when IRA volunteer Kieran Nugent refused to wear the prison uniform given to him in the H-Block, wrapping himself instead in a blanket. By 1978 three hundred volunteers, including Séanna, had donned the blanket, refusing any accommodation.
“There was no master plan,” Séanna says. “Just a young man who resisted.”
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