Cautionary Tale From an Irish Republican

I’ve know terrorists—college educated, middle class kids who planted bombs, phoned warnings and dispatched communiqués denouncing imperialism, capitalism and racism. Of course they didn’t think of themselves as terrorists. Like many others who planted bombs, they thought of themselves as revolutionaries. After a while, most of them returned to the middle class into which they were born, found good jobs as professionals, helped those less fortunate than they, raised families and supported leftwing causes with checks and with letters and pleas to governors and senators calling for justice.

Yes, I’ve known bomb-makers and rebels with guns and dynamite, but I’ve never known anyone like John Crawley, an American citizen who joined the Marines, learned about weapons and how to use them, and then crossed the Atlantic and gave all he could give to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the organization that sought the liberation of Ireland from British rule and the British empire.

Crawley tells much of his story in The Yank, (Melville House; $28.99), though surely not all of his history. To do so would jeopardize the freedom of former comrades. The Irish called Crawley “The Yank” because he was an American citizen, though he didn’t like the label. So why did he borrow their word for the title of his book? He doesn’t say. Yank is a cautionary tale. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading this memoir and deciding to take up arms and deliver blows to any empire, or authoritarian regime. Crawley failed at the missions that he undertook, including gun smuggling and a crazy plot to blow up an electrical grid in England and bring the London economy to a halt. Call him delusional. He was arrested twice and served long prison terms, which he describes in a cursory way.

It was in prison where he first read Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin. Crawley was not an ideological soldier of fortune or “republican,” as he calls himself over and over again, and, while he praises some members of the IRA, he damns most of the IRA leadership. In his telling, the organization is more mythic than actual. “There wasn’t one IRA but a dozen different IRAs depending on the area and the caliber of the local commander,” he writes. One group he joins strikes him as “an unorganized group of armed civilians.” The kinds of armed actions that he endorses are largely spontaneous and improvised with no endorsement or approval from IRA leaders at the top of the organization.

By the end of his story, he’s married to an Irish woman and raising a family, with help from a relative who leaves him a hefty sum of money in her will. To the bitter end, Crawley holds on to his dreams and his core beliefs. He wants “democracy, equality and fraternity,” but he also sounds like a cynic. His experiences lead him to a “truism” of George Orwell’s who apparently observed—Crawley offers the quotation on the next-to-the-last-page—that, “nine times out of ten, a revolutionary is just a social climber with a bomb in his pocket.” Crawley wasn’t a social climber. Joining the IRA didn’t bring him wealth or power, though publication of The Yank might bring him some notoriety.

A blurb on the front cover of the book describes Crawley as “the Jason Bourne of the IRA.” Those words might boost sales, but in no way can one put Crawley in the same league as Bourne, the seemingly indestructible secret agent who evades every trap that’s set for him and who triumphs over all his foes. Crawley falls into one trap after another. The police are always one step ahead of him. Prison is his destiny.

Only because of the “Good Friday Agreement” which brought an end to hostilities between the occupying British forces and Irish rebels, was Crawley released from prison on 22 May 2000. He had served four years of a thirty-five-year sentence. Is he grateful? He doesn’t seem to be. In prison he acted like a tough guy, especially when dealing with the authorities. He told himself that he had been handed a ticket “to the Playboy mansion,” not time in a prison cell. Ha ha ha! In one penal institution he was moved from a section that housed republican prisoners to another filled with the general population. “It was my first time mixing with common criminals and I didn’t like it,” he writes. Comments like the above make it challenging for a reader to be empathetic with Crawley who can sound like a snob. One doesn’t wish him ill or want to see him punished any more than he has already been punished, but to regard him as a hero would be a stretch of the imagination, indeed.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.