My life in the IRA:the border campaign

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Mercier Press
ISBN 9781781175187

Reviewed by Fergus Whelan

Much has been written about the IRA in the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Historians, journalists and participants have published studies on the role of the Provisional IRA in our more recent ‘troubles’. Not nearly as much attention, however, has been paid to armed republicanism in the period from the mid-1920sto the formation of the Provisional IRAin 1970. Michael Ryan’s personal memoiris most welcome, as it deals withwhat is one of the moreneglected episodes in the history of armed republicanism:‘Operation Harvest’,the IRA’s 1950s border campaign.

His memoir begins with an evocative portrayal of growing up in East Wall, Dublin, during the Second World War. Ryan was one of seven children, the eldest son of an alcoholic invalid father. His father had been wounded in the leg, a child casualty of the 1916 Rising. Owing to poverty and his father’s drinking, Ryan’s childhood memories are of constant fear and deprivation. He depicts his father with honesty and generosity. He tells us of the shame the family felt, and how he cried a lot and was angry with his father and the wrong done to the family. On the other hand, he realised that his father had had a hard life. Eventually his father lost his wounded leg to gangrene,after which ‘he became more like his real self. He was sensitive, loved music and literature, was extraordinarily well read and informed on Irish history and international events.’

In his early teenage years Ryan developed an intense interest in what he terms Ireland’s struggle for freedom.He felt a deep regretthat he had not been born early enough to participate in the War of Independence. In June 1954 the IRA raided Gough barracks in Armagh and captured 300 weapons from the British Army. By October of that year Ryan had become a member of the IRA and was attending training camps. The training was intense, concentrating on building physical fitness and familiarity with weapons. Ryan admits that he and the others in his active service unit were abysmally ignorant of military tactics and politics. They had no idea what effect military activities might have on the people, the state forces, the Protestant and Catholic populations in the North or indeed the governments of either jurisdiction.

In December 1956 Ryan was mobilised for an operation that he thought would last a few days.Little did he realise that this was the start of a campaign that would last for almost six years. He soon found himself with a ten-man column,eight of whom were from southern Ireland, trying to operate in the snow-covered mountains of north Antrim. Their inadequate, often wet, clothing and footwear, the hunger and cold, the lack of shelter and their first attempted operation going wrongwere just the curtain-raiser for years of physical misery and disappointments.

The campaign began with high hopes, which soon faltered, and then dragged on to its inevitable defeat in 1962. There are a number of common strandsin Ryan’s riveting story.There was the unrelenting hardship that he and his comrades were prepared to suffer for weeks on end. They slept in damp, cold, underground dugouts,sometimes pestered by lice and rats. Without local help north of the border they found it immensely difficult to get the intelligence necessary to mount effective attacks.

Ryan has great sympathy for the poor rural families and bachelor farmers living along the border who would leave their doors unlocked at night so that he and his men could hide out aftera usually unsuccessful operation. Often these people would have no electric light and little money or food, but it seems that they were always prepared to welcome Ryan and his comrades at any hour of the day or night. When the campaign was over, Ryan called to each of these people to thank them for their generosity and support.

Ryan is indulgent and forgiving to those of his comrades who made mistakes and who put various operations and the lives of their comrades in danger. He seems intensely loyal to almost all the comrades who soldiered with him, even those few who,when the republican movement split eight years after the campaign ended,joined the Provisionals,the opposite side to Ryan’s Official IRA. One stark exception is the future Provisional IRA leader Daithi O’Connell,whom Ryan seems to have held in utter contempt.

This valuable and highly readable book leaves a number of impressions. Ryan and his comrades were,as he admits, abysmally ignorant of politics. Most of them knew nothing of Northern Ireland. Most had never been to Northern Ireland before they crossed the border with guns in their hands. They were devout Roman Catholics who knew nothing of northern Protestants. They were idealistic, resilient and brave. The operation in which Ryan seriously injured two policemen would be an act of terrorism if carried out today. As far as Ryan and his comrades were concerned, however,they were waging war under the rules of the Geneva Convention. The campaign was a futile gesture in which they naively put their lives on the line fighting an enemy much stronger than themselves,but they never engaged in sectarian assassinations or targeted unarmed farmers or civilians. Operation Harvest had no La Mon, no Kingsmill and no Enniskillen.

Fergus Whelan is author of Dissent into treason (Brandon, 2010) and God-provoking democrat (New Island, 2015).


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