I first met Gerry Adams when I was eighteen. It was the spring of 2005, and we were standing in a sort of ballroom somewhere on the upper floors of the Millenium Hotel, in Cincinnati, Ohio. I knew him then simply as the president of the Irish Republican party Sinn Féin, and I knew that this party had some hard-to-define link to the Irish Republican Army. My then-girlfriend’s father was a fundraiser for the party, and he possessed, I think, some of the worry that almost all Irish-Americans share – I certainly did – that the term Irish-American is becoming meaningless.
My girlfriend had told him about my sense of Irishness and passion for the politics of Ireland, which I had followed since reading an article about the north in a children’s edition of Time magazine in fifth grade. I was enamored of the idea of the IRA, though even then I understood the attraction to be somewhat shameful – an unaccountable affinity that it was important to keep private.
I had been raised in a family with no connection but blood to Ireland, with pacifist, left-wing, parents who dragged me to Quaker meetings every Sunday. Like most children of left-wing or liberal parents of my generation, I’d had very little experience of anything like national feeling or patriotism – in that part of the country, just after the re-election of George W. Bush, there was a sort of consensus that liberals and leftists had no right to the American flag. To fly one on your lawn was to support the president, to support the wars, to embrace the power then ascendant in the country, and to do so without supporting these things was to step outside your lines, to claim a belonging you had no right to. This may not have been true in New York or Seattle, but growing up in Ohio everyone I knew accepted it implicitly. I had no experience then of the reality of violence, political or otherwise, and, as I got older I was shocked by how nice it was to feel like I belonged to a national community, even if it was a community of a nation I’d never visited. I found the way that the Republican movement, and Irish culture in general, blended the concepts of rebel and patriot to be unimaginably seductive. It may be that most Irish-Americans who discover the Republican movement use it as a way to connect with their family heritage. I used my family’s Irish blood as an excuse to connect with a Republican movement that had already seduced me.
The party was a meet-and-greet tied to the many American fundraising events that are the main source of Sinn Féin’s income, though the need for American support had by then become less clear, as Sinn Féin had just marched into power as the largest nationalist party in the north. As I walked in I was led immediately towards Adams, in a circle at the center of the room.
Adams interrupted the conversation to introduce himself – and said, ‘Very pleased to meet you, Jamie,’ in a way that seemed so convincingly genuine that it almost overwhelmed me.
It would have been far beyond me then to try to explain the roles of the men I was talking to. Since 1983 Adams and his longtime ally Martin McGuinness, who, unlike Adams, has publically acknoweldged his membership in the IRA, have been the leaders of Sinn Féin, an organization that I understand not as a subservient ‘political wing’ of the Provisional IRA – as it was once understood by most Americans – or as a political party acting with a residual rump of former IRA members – as it’s often described in papers today – but, as British security services have finally acknowledged publicly, an entire politico-military complex known as the Provisional Movement.
This movement is in a vague sense the inheritor of the IRA that formed after the 1916 Easter Rising, and eventually fought the British to a negotiated withdrawal from most of Ireland’s thirty-two counties in 1921 – but so is almost every major party in Ireland: the two main parties in the contemporary southern Irish state, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are descendants of the split between pro- and anti-treaty factions in the nationalist political sphere in the run-up to the Irish Civil War. The treaty of 1921 divided Ireland between a six-county statelet cut from the northern province of Ulster, with a durable protestant majority, and a 26-county Irish ‘Free State’ that remained for the time being part of the British Commonwealth. Most of the IRA opposed the treaty, and a large portion of them went to war with the state that it created. The section of the IRA that supported the treaty became the Free State’s army, and in a tiny country the fighting between people who had months earlier been comrades was far more personal and brutal than casualty figures can really capture. The IRA lost and went into hiding, and the basic two-part question raised by the civil war has remained a fundamental issue of Irish politics ever since: what is the nature of a free Republic, and does Ireland have one?
An Irish Republican, put simply, is someone who continues to answer the second part of the question in the negative. Answering the first part of the question has always been much harder. When James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse signed their names to the proclamation of 1916 – the declaration of an Irish Republic published during the Easter Rising – they were in a way the two apotheoses of the competing trends in Republicanism: Jacobin utopianism set against Jacobite cultural nationalism. The public face of the Republican movement has always been Jacobin and political, its heart Jacobite and spiritual, a sort of unformed longing for a redemption of the Gael. Connolly was a practical man, relatively speaking, who believed that a free Ireland without a socialist revolution would barely be an improvement over British rule. Pearse gradually grew into the role of a military martyr for the nation – and he reveled in it. His most famous pronouncements barely point to political solutions, they look instead to an entire people reborn out of cultural and military struggle: ‘Ireland unfree will never be at peace,’ ‘Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam – A country without a language is a country without a soul.’
And it’s Pearse, in the end, who shaped the Republican principles of the Provisionals. The IRA, and Sinn Féin – which had won a huge majority of Ireland’s seats in the last election under British rule and had formed a breakaway government in 1919 – split again in 1926, when Éamon de Valera accepted the logic of constitutional politics and swept into power with his party the Fianna Fáil. When the Troubles broke out in 1968 the IRA had again drifted towards politics, becoming a largely Marxist and mostly peaceful organization. Sinn Féin, at the time, was little more than a social club. A section of the army led by men who had imbibed fully the mythologies of sacrifice and violence in defense of the nation organized a split between the so-called Official IRA and Sinn Féin and the Provisionals, and the latter quickly became the organization that defined the Republican movement for the thirty-year war to come. On a basic level, they had no goal but to fight. ‘We seem to have lost,’ Pearse said at his court martial in 1916. ‘We have not lost. To refuse to fight would have been to lose – to fight is to win. We have kept faith with the past, and handed on a tradition to the future.’
The night that I met him, Adams explained that the summer of 2005 would be the end of the tradition of sacrifice and resistance. He said the IRA was going to go away. He said that they were participating fully in the process of decommissioning their weapons. He said that they had not participated in any of the illegal acts they’d been accused of around that time – continued military operations, the huge Northern Bank robbery, the murder of a man named Robert McCartney and subsequent cover-up of the killing, when it turned out that every one of the dozens of people who’d been at the bar where he was stabbed to death were on the phone or in the bathroom when it happened.
It’s hard to admit, but there is a level on which I heard this speech with profound disappointment. I was eighteen, and had just discovered something that was violent and exciting and had brought all the rest of the people in the room very close together and given them a very serious sense of identity and purpose. I had the feeling of having found it just in time for it to be taken away.
When the IRA announced that summer that it had ‘left the stage,’ this was a lie. Everything Adams said to me that night was a lie. A great, if unknowable, number of Republicans held on to the old dream and began forming their own groups, muttering in bars, siphoning off weapons before the arms dumps were all closed up. Just this past March an umbrella group calling itself the New IRA claimed responsibility for a bomb that exploded under a prison officer’s van. The officer died of his injuries shortly after. The IRA remained – not to continue the old war, but to fight a shadow war protecting the Provisional movement’s control of its own communities, as Adams and Sinn Féin cemented political power in the north and began their slow march towards government in the south. It took a decade of private obsession with the movement before I finally went to see all this for myself.
‘The only thing that the word nationalism in this country means to me,’ my new friend was saying, ‘Is them killing Prods down along the border.’ It was 3 a.m. at the end of the first day I had ever spent in Ireland, and I had driven aimlessly that morning from the car rental place at the Dublin airport to Sligo, found a hotel, found a bar, found some friends, and been invited to an after-hours bar. We were all very drunk. It was dark, and loud hip-hop was playing over the sound system. ‘And you know,’ he went on, ‘Sligo is a working-class soccer-loving little city. Here we don’t have all the craziness. You, you’re an American, and you believe in the Republic and probably go in for all the wayside crosses marking the graves of heroes and blood of martyrs on the fields of liberty crap they talk. They sound like fucking ISIS, the ones who still talk about it out loud.’
He was ranting now. ‘And the politicians and the respectable people and the writers and the intellectuals are the worst fuckers of them all, because they pretend that it’s all over. And they act like if they just repeat the words peace and reconciliation and all that crap that they can take away what is in the blood of this country. They fucking said the IRA had gone away.’
I had arrived in Ireland at a moment when this sort of thing was very much under discussion. For ten years, people living in areas where the Provisional Irish Republican Army had been active during the Troubles in Northern Ireland had been saying that the IRA had never ceased to exist, and in fact was very active in controlling those communities. ‘We’ve lost control of Ardoyne, IRA Warns’, reads an Observer headline from 2009, describing a warning from the Provisional movement to the Irish government that it had lost control of the traditionally hardline North Belfast neighborhood. When I went there six years later, with a Sinn Féin member and former IRA prisoner, he was noticeably edgy and uncomfortable. How it was possible that a non-existent and outlawed organization was supposed to be controlling Ardoyne in the first place was not addressed in the story – or for six more years.
The innumerable governments and security agencies involved in maintaining the Peace Process scrupulously avoided all comment on the subject until a murder in Belfast was described by police as having been carried out by ‘current members’ of the group in August 2015 – this occasioned such an uproar on the island that MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland were forced to release an intelligence assessment, which essentially admitted that they’d known the IRA had never gone away.
Michael McDowell, the Irish Justice at the time of decommissioning, explained the world’s silence on the subject: ‘The choice was between an IRA that became an inert, unarmed and withering husk or an open-goal opportunity for dissidents to re-form an Army Council as the legitimate heir of the body which had been “treacherously” wound up . . . The governments took the view that an inert, freeze-dried husk of the IRA was preferable to passing the ideological torch to the dissidents.’ Most observers of Northern Ireland already knew that this decision had been taken, but still, the implications of a public admission like this go so far as to be almost impossible to believe: he’s describing a genuine international conspiracy between ‘the governments’ – which is to say the United States, Britain and Ireland – to participate in covering up the existence of a guerrilla organization whose very existence violated the principles of the agreement they’d just negotiated. It’s not hard to see how so many have become so sick of the Peace Process, when the cynicism that made it was so unspeakable.
A few days later I was on the way into Crossmaglen, a once-famous little garrison of Republican support on the southern edge of County Armagh, looking out my windshield at neatly-shaped plywood letters, each painted a color of the Irish flag – green I, white R, orange A – screwed high up on telephones poles. The soldiers would have passed them on their way into what they called XMG, back when it was the most dangerous posting for a British serviceman anywhere in the world, and they’re famous signs, at least to people who follow things in Northern Ireland. But the image I had in my mind is of a snapshot that seems to be from the late eighties, showing an Irish-American stockbroker from Florida named Mike Logan, smiling on a sunny day under the IRA letters, on his way into the town he must have heard so much about. Logan left Crossmaglen, went to Belfast, and alleges he found himself being asked by Spike Murray – a prominent Sinn Féin operative currently under investigation for his involvement in gunrunning – to find him guns. He sent guns for a decade. According to Logan, Murray told him at one point that one of the Glocks he’d shipped disassembled and hidden inside a toy fire truck had been used to kill two police officers in Lurgan, in 1997. Logan broke down, and expressed his remorse publically in a BBC Spotlight programme. (Mr Murray has denied the allegations.) I was fascinated by what it was about this world that drew people in – Irish-Americans especially – that was drawing me there now.
The letters on the telephone poles are now warped with weather, the oil paint is peeling, and they’re soon to fall. It has been a decade since the IRA was supposed to have left the stage. No one has gone out to repair them, but neither has anyone seen fit to get up on a ladder and take them down.
Later, I had a few cups of tea with a prominent Irish theater producer, at a nice hotel in Dublin, a friend of a friend who knew nothing about me before we met and who was visibly uncomfortable when I told her I’d visited Crossmaglen. ‘That,’ she said, ‘is a place from our past.’ This is how respectable Ireland would like it to be, but I myself do not understand how a place can be from the past when you can still rent a car and drive to it.
It’s hard to make friends at a bar on a Saturday unless you start drinking early, before everyone has found their group and it becomes weird to be the lone guy out on a weekend. So I checked into the one hotel in town, where the sharp woman at the desk carefully avoided asking me what had brought me there, and walked out without bothering to eat dinner to find a place to post up and drink.
It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere of Cross at dusk; you can no longer think of Crossmaglen as a place at war, but the peace is of a kind that not very many people from where I’m from would recognize. Big men with closely-cut graying hair and thin little chains holding Celtic crosses parked Land Rovers on the sidewalks and stood in groups, refusing – so, so, strangely for rural Ireland – to return my nods as I passed. The shopkeeper at the little market where I bought a newspaper to pretend to read if I felt awkward at the bar looked at me with something like genuine alarm. The big police barracks was silent, and the overall feeling was of a place more grim and suspicious than anything I had ever seen in years of working as a reporter.
I found Murtagh’s pub – a famous little place outside of which a young soldier happened to be shot by one of the South Armagh Snipers in 1993 – and I walked in, sat down, and ordered a Harp. The little front bar, closed off from the lounge, was already packed and loud, and the bartender yelled to me to make sure she got my order. I repeated it, louder, such that I suppose you could hear my American accent, and the bar went absolutely silent, the noise from the lounge filtering bizarrely in through the closed door. The man to my left, another big fellow with close-cut graying hair who was indistinguishable without close study from the grim men standing out on the corners by their Land Rovers turned to me and asked, very slowly, ‘And what is it that brought you to Cross?’
I said that I was just stopping in.
‘No one,’ he said, ‘just “stops in” to Crossmaglen.’ The bartender turned and told him to leave me alone. ‘He’s sitting up here at the bar with us, can’t I talk to the man then?’ he asked, and then repeated the line about no one just stopping in. ‘Have you not heard of it then?’ he asked. I said that I had.
‘So it wouldn’t have just been chance that brought you here then?’
I admitted the logic of this.
‘And what exactly did you hear about it?’ he asked.
One of the things I’d heard is that people in Crossmaglen took care to get to know someone before they answered too many questions.
He nodded and turned back to the bartender. ‘I don’t like this,’ he said, and went out for a smoke.
I followed him, annoyed, and found him standing outside with a group of people about my age, smoking and making sex jokes and drinking Red Bull and vodka – which much more than Guinness or Jameson is the true drink of the young Irish Republican. The older man turned to them and said, ‘This American says he’s heard of Cross but that he’s still just passing through.’ The kids roared.
‘What did you hear?’ the obvious leader of the group asked me. He was tall and dark-haired and wearing a white Adidas track suit. I said that I’d heard what everyone had heard. He laughed and formed the shape of a pistol with his right hand. ‘Well you heard that part, didn’t ya?’ He held the pistol shape with his hand for a moment. ‘That is one thing that will never change here.’
I laughed incongruously. I had never expected someone to say it so openly, minutes into the first conversation I’d had in town. But it’s this sense of constant struggle that draws the two strands of Republicanism together. Republican philosophy has always had a sort of two-fold justification for violence built into its very core: on the one hand it has, to the Republican mind, been the risings and rebellions that kept the flame of nationhood alive in the country; on the other hand, at every split and juncture, the harder-line Republicans have always maintained that absent a Republic that’s united, Gaelic and free, the true representative of the Irish people is not whatever governments sit in Dublin and Belfast but the IRA’s Army Council.
When the IRA announced in 2005 that it had ‘left the stage’, the silence that followed was some kind of conspiracy participated in to some degree by the Irish, American and British governments – as well as British intelligence and security services on both sides of the border – to hide the fact that the organization had not fully disarmed, that it retained command structures, and that it had slowly morphed into a tool for the Provisionals to use to control Republican-minded communities like Crossmaglen and West Belfast. Saying this a year ago could cause even Irish people to look at you like you were insane. But by the time I arrived it was an inescapable fact – soon the Police Service of Northern Ireland, MI5 and the Gardaí in the south were all forced under public pressure to admit that they’d known not only that a paramilitary rump existed but that the IRA’s Army Council was still in place, that the organization had ready access to arms, and, in the strange formulation of an intelligence assessment released jointly by the PSNI and MI5 in the north, that IRA members believe today that the Army Council ‘oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy.’
The man at the head of that Army Council has long been thought to be Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, a South Armagh man with genuinely incalculable wealth and power – he was described in 2007 as owning 250 properties in the Manchester area alone, worth a combined £30 million. During the Troubles his part of the world – the part I was in now – was known as ‘bandit country’, and to many people the appellation had become a point of pride.
We came back into the bar and I happened to set my pack of American Spirit cigarettes on the table. The tracksuited leader of the pack sat down next to me, introduced himself as Ryan (not his real name) and picked up the pack, inspecting it closely. ‘What the fuck are these?’ he asked, finally.
I told him they were my favorite American cigarettes. He began to ask me a series of extremely detailed questions – about their tar content, tax stamps, availability in Europe. People began to come over. I was suddenly an object of interest.
‘How much does a pack cost where you are?’ an old man asked.
I told him fourteen dollars, but that near where I’d grown up, in Kentucky, I could buy them for six.
‘You know what young Ryan would do if he were you?’ the old fellow said.
‘He knows what I would do,’ Ryan said. ‘He didn’t come to bandit country without knowing what we do, did he?’
‘You wouldn’t make it half the way from Kentucky, young Ryan,’ the man who’d been asking me questions said.
‘And what would you know about it, you old traitor?’ Ryan said.
‘Shut your mouth, you,’ the bartender said to Ryan, ‘or I’ll have you out for the month.’ But the man left, muttering. Ryan and his crowd repaired to a table, after inviting me to come with them to drink back at the hotel bar later. I was already approaching drunk, having forsaken dinner.
A large, freckled, red-headed woman in her fifties wearing a baggy tank top and a stained gray cardigan came up and sat down at the bar next to me. ‘He’s my nephew,’ she said. I said that was nice.
‘And he’s a smuggler.’ I said that I’d divined that part.
‘He makes ten thousand pounds every time he brings a diesel tank over, and they do that sometimes every night of the week. And that’s without the cigarettes and the cattle and everything else.’ She introduced herself as Bridget and asked did I ‘not want a wee whiskey’. I said I should probably find myself some dinner before I moved on to hard liquor. ‘Oh you sweet young thing,’ she said. ‘Drink now. You’ll eat a big breakfast tomorrow and it’ll be alright.’
As it happened, I had read the name of the young smuggler, years ago, in a Guardian story that depicted a feud between hard line Republicans and the Provisionals in Crossmaglen. The conflict was depicted as isolated – which seemed doubtful to me – but I remembered the details vividly. His father was apparently a prominent member of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. Two of his uncles had died in the war. The father opposed the Good Friday Agreement and was supposedly active in dissident groups and smuggling. The Provisionals objected either to his politics or to the competition in their main line of business, an incalculable profit source for the IRA in places like Crossmaglen: no one at all has a very good idea of how much money men like Slab Murphy take in through smuggling of diesel and cigarettes across the border, through real estate investments in things like Spanish vacation resorts, through drug and extortion rackets and various other lines of business so heavily integrated into the economy of both north and south that it becomes hard to say what is legitimate and what is paramilitary activity. But the surest signs are the Land Rovers and gated mansions covering the hillsides along the border in South Armagh and East Tyrone.
In any case, the father was taken by the IRA and beaten until his legs were broken with a baseball bat. Ryan came into the article because he was named as having driven, at 21, his bleeding father up to the hospital in Belfast in the dead of night.
Bridget sat very close to me, such that our thighs touched, and asked what I did for a living.
I told her I was a reporter, but that wasn’t why I’d come.
‘And why are you here, then?’
I told her I had met ‘Mr Adams,’ many years ago, and that it sparked something in me.
She looked sharply at me for a moment. ‘You say you met Mr Adams,’ she repeated, slowly. This is how Republican code works – the slight ironic note that came with saying ‘Mr’ as opposed to ‘Gerry’ Adams indicated something to her. If it wasn’t what she had wanted to hear it would have been something I’d have been able to deny, but since it was what she wanted to hear, and since she’d caught the intonation, her whole bearing towards me changed. ‘You know more about politics here than you’re pretending,’ she said. I looked at her for a moment and she said, ‘Never mind, don’t answer that here. Let’s go find young Ryan.’
We walked over to the hotel, where the woman who’d checked me in was now running the bar, handing out Red Bull and vodka to Ryan and his crew, which now numbered about eight. Bridget took off her cardigan, exposing a very large set of freckled arms, and set me up at a bar stool. ‘Ryan,’ she said. ‘You would never have thought, but this young American is with us.’ He handed me a drink and I tried to pay him back. ‘Let him pay,’ Bridget said. ‘I told you how much he makes.’
‘Yeah, he’s having a good time, isn’t he?’ he said, without interest.
‘No Ryan,’ she said. ‘I mean he’s with us.’ He stopped for a moment. His face, which was a very charismatic, angular, lively face, suddenly bore no expression at all. ‘Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? I’ve never met an American terrorist before.’ He was being slightly ironic, but not entirely. ‘You don’t want to get too far in with us unless you’re ready for what’s coming.’
The feeling I had in this moment was very similar to the feeling I’d had my entire time in Ireland, that I had everywhere in the north, of having been in the place already and of knowing what was going to happen before it did: I had known before I even bought the ticket that if I went to Ireland I would end up on a weekend night drinking in a bar on Crossmaglen square, which I’d seen in pictures, across from the big memorial to everyone who’d died in the thousands of years of scattered conflict, an uncharacteristically ambitious and somewhat disturbing bronze statue of a chiseled, naked and deliberately grotesque male figure with clenched fists, rising in what looks like agony alongside a phoenix, all above a pedestal reading, in Irish and English: ‘glory to all, you praised and humble heroes, who have willingly suffered for your unselfish love of irish freedom.’
Something in the agony of the figure speaks to the whole grim and pitiful physical reality of the Republican struggle: you look at it and see the cold, humid local gaols and the grim, dirty little row houses filled with cigarette butts and empty beer cans where so many people who fought still live, the beatings and torture and kneecappings received from and given to people much more similar to you than they are different, the rain and the cold and the nasty fungal clothes worn day after day on the run, the hunger strikes and years of protests in the prisons, first without clothes, then refusing to wash and choosing to smear feces on the walls of their own cells and to live there without ever exiting, the lost limbs and disfigured faces from the bombs gone off too early, the blow of the fist or truncheon to the prisoner tied to the chair whether that prisoner be a Republican in the interrogation room or a suspected informer in some dank Belfast basement, and above all the mean and twisted reality of the bomber watching on TV as the child killed mistakenly or not mistakenly by him gets pulled from the rubble. For centuries people have looked at what Republicans put themselves through and the evil things they worked and wondered how on earth they thought it was worth it.
We got tremendously drunk. I spent a bizarre moment sharing a cigarette with Ryan’s girlfriend, a pretty English girl he’d met when he went away to college and who had followed him back – to Crossmaglen of all places. She was very much in love with him, and it was strange to wonder what sort of future they had in store, with him being a smuggler for a living and a member of a dissident clan that had gone to war with the IRA before and might well prepare to do so again.
Ryan came out and called a sort of squat limousine to take everyone to a hotel south of the border, in Monaghan, where they’d be able to drink late. A fat young kid in his early twenties who’d been hanging with the group the whole night got in, and suddenly there was shouting. I’d talked politics inside with him, and I knew he was active in Sinn Féin, and it quickly became clear that he’d called Ryan, just messing with him, a ‘dissident Republican’.
We stood in the night and watched as Ryan came up to him, his lean figure towering over the poor Sinn Féin activist, and said very slowly, ‘There are only two words that matter: Republican, and traitor.’ Bridget lit a cigarette and raised her eyebrows at me. ‘I am a Republican.’ he said. ‘And you are a traitor. I like you but someday all of youse are going to get what’s coming and that won’t be anyone’s problem but your own.’ He got in the car with the rest of his posse, shut the door, and left the kid standing there looking at us.
‘Fucking Shinner,’ Bridget said, as the kid walked off alone. I asked if we could leave and go somewhere to hear some music. ‘All the bars with music tonight are Shinner bars,’ she said. ‘But come on, we’ll find a place.’
We found a place; she sat very close to me, such that her big bare arms and legs touched mine constantly. ‘I lost two brothers in the war,’ she said. ‘I never married. I gave my entire youth to helping the cause. I never got rich like the rest of them. They disdain me. They call me fat, the men won’t look at me. They don’t like that I’m loud, that I talk. No one in Ireland likes it when you talk about anything real, that is the curse of this country. But we here, who they abandoned before the war, who they abandoned during the war, and who they try to forget and pretend we don’t exist now, are the most Irish people in Ireland. That is South Armagh. That is bandit country. That’s why we fought so hard. It’s not politics. It’s something that goes back six thousand years and you can disdain it or not but if they haven’t killed it yet when will they kill it? We are the ones who are the reason this nation still exists.’
I asked her what she hoped for now, and she said something that I think most Republicans today would, in their deepest hearts, agree with. It’s not a happy thought: ‘I don’t think we ever will get a united Ireland. There’s one million Unionists in the north and who are we to say now that they should leave. They should have never fucking come, but if there was a united Ireland today there would be war worse than anything I saw in my lifetime, because some of them are good people and some of them are stubborn, hateful bastards. If I could have one wish I would leave the Protestants to it and I would put a bullet in the skull of Gerry Adams and another in the skull of Slab Murphy.’ I asked if she wasn’t worried someone would hear her.
‘Let them hear me,’ she yelled. Most of the bar had turned towards her. ‘Fuck them that don’t care. What else can they take from me? I would put a bullet in the back of his fucking head.’
‘Don’t listen to the Shinners when they talk,’ she said a little later, as we stood outside smoking. ‘We lost. Everything that ever happened in this town was a waste.’
A few days after I left Crossmaglen I was sitting outside of Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast City Center. I overheard a very drunk man talking about the funeral of Peggy O’Hara, the mother of a prisoner who died in the Republican hunger strikes of 1981. I was intrigued, and provoked the drunk man into talking to me as a way of insinuating myself into the conversation.
‘Back then he called us traitors,’ he said, referring to the time in 2009 that McGuinness had called the group who killed two British soldiers outside the Masarreene Barracks ‘traitors to the island of Ireland.’
‘How can the man who called us traitors show up to that funeral,’ he went on. ‘We are the ones who love Ireland. Ireland only exists because of people who fought. You go back to fucking Strongbow and this nation could have stopped existing a thousand years ago but we are still here because we fought every fucker who came.’ He was speaking very loudly now. I looked at the man he was talking to, who still hadn’t said anything. He raised his eyebrows at me.
‘McGuinness is the traitor,’ the drunk said. ‘And what is the punishment for traitors?’ He was talking very loudly now. ‘It’s death. And,’ – he pointed at my new friend – ‘it’s you who let him live. You’re cowards and traitors yourselves. He’s only alive because the fucking IRA keeps him alive and you’re too scared of them to do anything.’ He got up to take a piss. I asked the serious man if he needed another beer. He took my meaning, and we ditched the ranter and went inside.
The serious man’s name was Marty, and he’d been in the Provisional movement for decades before leaving after the Good Friday Agreement. He was wiry, middling height, with graying hair and a lined face and – like most of the people who had seen and done terrible things in that world – had an ebullient cheer and sense of irony about it all. I tend to think of it as a way of coping with patriotic feelings that go so deep they almost sound absurd if you try to express them. They are embarrassing to say out loud.
‘You don’t talk like that in public,’ Marty said about the ranting man. ‘You don’t talk like that in private. I shouldn’t even talk to you.’
‘It’s a hard thing,’ he told me at the next bar. ‘I thought they ended the war too soon, but I knew the war had to end. The kids like that don’t even know what it means, the songs are just a bit of fun and a way for the IRA to keep them involved without doing anything stupid.’
I asked him about the violence. ‘The first thing I remember,’ he told me ‘was seeing this man from the Officials get shot on the street. And we were with the Provisionals, so I saw him get shot in the back of the head out the living room window and I let out this whoop. A cheer, you know? And my dad hit me across the face. I said what’d you do that for? And he said, “Don’t you ever cheer a man dying.” That was the first thing I remember.’
I paused for a minute. ‘And you know RPG Avenue, up there?’ There’s a street off the Falls Road that everyone calls RPG Avenue, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. It even has an improvised street sign. ‘I remember seeing a soldier get hit with an RPG right at the end of that street, and him lying screaming “Where’s my arm? Where’s my arm?” The kids had come out and one of them picked the man’s arm up, and they laughed as they showed it to him, like, “Your arm’s right here!” I left the movement, and I thought they ended the war too soon, but how can you go back to things like that? Those were children, holding a man’s arm, and laughing.’
I asked what would happen now. ‘See, they said they got rid of the weapons,’ he said. ‘But actually they got rid of some of them, and some they kept, and a lot they gave to the dissidents. The only things they held back was the really high quality Semtex’ – a plastic explosive – ‘and things like that. It’s not always this thing of you’re either IRA or you’re a dissident. Some people have sympathies that go both ways. It’s a very small country. And some people who felt that going along with the leadership to make peace was right still thought that you must have some kind of resistance.’ A few days later the Police Service of Northern Ireland found a cache of Semtex in a house just a few blocks from where we’d been talking.
‘And now the IRA, they’re worse than the mafia. They’ll beat you, kill you, sell you to the police. Everyone is scared of them. It’s not peace that made me leave them, it’s that, what they do to keep the peace.’
‘You know I do think,’ Marty told me, a few more beers in, rambling, ‘that this has been going on for however many thousand years and every time they say it’s over for good it happens again. It’s like a sickness that some of us have. But as long as one of us has that sickness and passes it on we know our day will come.’