April 25th was the anniversary of the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland. A military failure, that moment in Irish history serves as one of the most important markers of the long struggle for Irish independence from England. After several of the participants were executed or jailed, others fled the country. The nation of Ireland was granted its independence, but was also divided, leaving the six northern counties under the rule of the Crown. The struggle for an independent Ireland became the struggle for a united Ireland. For the next few decades it was a mostly underground struggle, with the Loyalists and Britain maintaining the upper hand.
That all changed in the late 1960s. A combination of stepped-up attacks by Loyalists on Irish neighborhoods and greater repression of those communities combined with a renewed desire to end British rule in the six northern counties led to an intensification of the struggle. This period would become known internationally as “the Troubles.” It would bring about an intensification of the armed struggle, an occupation of northern Ireland by the British military, and the development of a powerful political wing of the Irish republican cause. The toll would be great, with the bulk of it being paid by those who supported the Republican cause in the cities of northern Ireland. Despite this fact, reading the mainstream media at the time could easily convince the reader that it was the British who suffered the most.
This misconception was furthered by the spectacular attacks pulled off by the IRA in England. Of those attacks, the two that stand out the most in this writer’s mind were the assassination of Lord Mountbatten in August of 1979 and the bombing of a Conservative Party meeting at the Grand Brighton Hotel in October of 1984. It is widely assumed that the target of that blast was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She escaped the blast, but other members of the party were killed. Among them was Sir Anthony Berry, who was a sitting member of Parliament at the time.
I mention Berry because his death is a crucial element of Where Grieving Begins: A Memoir by Patrick Magee, the man who planted the bomb in the hotel. In fact, the last few chapters describe Magee’s participation in various endeavors working at reconciling former antagonists in Ireland and Britain after the Good Friday peace agreement was signed. These endeavors were part of (and a result of) meetings initiated by Berry’s daughter, Joanna Berry. In writing about those meetings, Magee discusses how he was forced to deal with the results of his actions. He had killed somebody’s father—an individual who, after all is said and done, a human being. Someone who had loved and been loved by others. This acknowledgment provokes an internal dialogue that Magee describes with a single sentence: “For the first time I opened to the recognition that I was guilty of something I readily attributed to our enemies.” In other words, war had made murderers of them all.
It is this revelation and Magee’s narrative describing the efforts of Joanna Berry, himself and others on both sides of the conflict to deal with the aftermath of the years of conflict that are the center of this text. For Magee and the revolutionaries who were genuinely fighting against colonialism and the oppression and injustices the colonial situation requires of the colonizer, this meant reconciling their political and tactical decisions with their desire to reconcile with those individuals whose lives had been shattered or otherwise affected by the Irish armed struggle. As Magee tells the reader, his efforts were not necessarily supported by all of his former comrades. In a similar manner, neither were Joanna Berry’s supported by many of her compatriots.
The story Magee sets down in this pages is a story of a struggle for justice. His early years were somewhat typical of a working-class Irish lad of his time. His father worked hard to keep the Magees housed and fed. Their life in the Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast was often difficult and occasionally lighthearted, but it was what they knew. When his family followed their father to a better paying job in England, the community Magee knew as a youngster disappeared. It also provided him with opportunities he would not have had in Belfast. Despite this, his family returned to Belfast in 1971—as the Troubles were becoming more violent and the British troops were making it clear that they were there not to protect the Catholic population but to help the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) keep them down.
It was during a six-week solo visit to Belfast in 1970 that Magee began to realize the situation of the Catholic Irish in Northern Ireland. It was this visit which opened up his adolescent eyes to a system of oppression; an insight informed by his recent discovery of the writings of Karl Marx and other socialist writers. After his family returned to Belfast in 1971, Patrick Magee began to seriously consider joining the Provisional IRA as he watched Loyalist gangs beat and even kill Irish Catholics, seemingly at will. In 1972, he was arrested in a raid on a social club in a Catholic section of Belfast. This raid was part of a bigger operation designed to fingerprint and photograph as many Irish Catholic men and boys and create a database for the British military and the RUC. By 1973, he was interned along with dozens of others in the infamous Long Kesh internment camps. His commitment to the struggle only deepened as the result of the internment and the abuses he experienced and witnessed there. There would be no turning back. The colonial forces had more than convinced another of its subjects that the only solution to the situation was an armed one.
Magee’s narrative is calm and collected; analytical and poetic. His emotional commitment to the cause of Irish independence simmers throughout the text. His emotional desire for reconciliation comes across as genuine and heartfelt. His intellectual understanding that the two are not diametrically opposed and that both are necessary for justice to exist creates a dynamic that does justice to the Irish struggle for freedom and hope for a future where deadly conflict is rejected by all sides.