When I lived in the Bronx in 1973 and early 1974, I used to go to a bar up Fordham Road. I was attending Fordham University at the time and it was the custodian who cleaned our dorm hallways and bathrooms who first took me there. He was IRA through and through. So was the bar. There was nothing but Irish songs on the jukebox and various revolutionary flags hung on the walls. The regulars at the bar were mostly in their thirties and forties and were mostly working-class men. IRA newspapers and pamphlets were available for purchase. Like the conversation at the bar, the tables and around the pool table, some were in English and some were in Gaelic. I was not privy to any of those conversations, but I did learn about boilermakers there. And read the newspapers.
Ten years later I was in the San Francisco Bay Area. In March of that year, Queen Elizabeth showed up in San Francisco with Nancy Reagan and a host of other out of touch ruling class types. I spent several hours in the streets protesting their visit. Most of the protesters were IRA supporters, who mingled with gay men and lesbians protesting the Reagan administration’s heartless policy regarding HIV-AIDS. The Irish-American protesters were mostly leftists, but there were many Catholics involved, too. This combination of socially conservative Catholics and gays and lesbians made for an unusual crowd. A friend of mine threw himself in front of the Queen’s motorcade protesting the British occupation of Ulster. The cars were moving at a snail’s pace on their way to a special performance of the San Francisco Opera for the queen. He was taken away and was released after the Queen was back at her temporary residence.
Being raised as a Catholic in the United States, the story of the Irish was always present. Usually, the version I was told by different priests and Irish Catholic friends of my parents involved St. Patrick, snakes, clover, the Kennedy family and Oliver Cromwell. As I became more politically aware, I found out about the Easter Rebellion and the Irish Republican Army. My interaction with IRA supporters increased when I lived in western Germany and attended meetings organized by new leftists, democratic socialists and communists. Still, my understanding of the political and tactical debates inside the organization was limited.
A new book, titled One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA, does a fine job at remedying this ignorance. Written by the Deputy Editor of the New Left Review Daniel Finn, this text provides a concise yet detailed discussion of the modern Irish Republican movement. Beginning with a brief summary of the movement for Irish independence up to the 1960s, Finn highlights the dominant arguments in the organization over that time. As he does throughout the text, he neatly weaves the history of the movement’s political and military wings into a broader history of the Irish people. Although he opens the book with a brief description of a failed IRA operation in 1956 and then the aforementioned summary, the bulk of the narrative is about the history of the Irish Republican movement from the mid-1960s up to the second decade of the twenty-first century.
The text is a clearly written discussion of the political debates within the organization during this period. Personalities are obviously involved, especially in relation to their particular political positions in the ongoing debates that take place in any revolutionary group. Discussions of the military actions undertaken by the IRA as a unified organization and after its various splits are presented only in their political context. In other words, their effect positive or negative on the political struggle and as part of that struggle is the context in which Finn discusses them. The same is true regarding personalities in the movement’s leadership.
As the title implies, organizations like the IRA are historically subject to slander and misrepresentation because of their military actions against the state and its representatives. In the case of the IRA, not only was the state they were up against on of the world’s one-time great colonial powers, the nature of some of their attacks opened them to charges of murder and terrorism. It can therefore be quite a challenge to frame the organization in purely political terms. When one adds the fact of the role the media has played in casting the IRA as a greater killer than the British Empire, Finn’s job in this text is remarkable. Considering the text’s brevity, the author’s intent does not seem to be one of chronicling every political and military decision of the IRA, but to provide a concise, understandable, and radical discussion of the Irish freedom struggle through a leftist and radical lens. In my estimation, he succeeds in that endeavor.