Voices From The Grave
Two Men’s War in Ireland
Faber and Faber
A lot of courage went into this book so it should be better.
I want to concentrate on the first part, which is unfair to David
Ervine whose interview completes the book, but the story of Brendan
Hughes has been more poltiically relevant.
Brendan Hughes risked his standing within the IRA’s collective memory to give an account of the armed campaign and what he saw as its betrayal by Gerry Adams.
As a committed IRA militant over a period of decades, with uncounted
killings under his belt, he was in a position to tell us much more
than he did.
He will have known that he was likely to be dismissed as a traitor by
some and reviled as a coward by others when the story he told to
Boston College was published.
And that is how it has been.
He has been accused of whinging that big boys made him do bad things, a reading of the book which sees Hughes eschewing his own moral responsibility. By this version, he now regrets having killed people and is unable to face the reality that he didn’t get what he thought he was fighting for.
Actually there is little sense in the book that Hughes regretted
anything that he did, apart from ending the first Hunger Strike to
There is also very little indication that he personally did anything bad at all.
He says that he wanted to kill as many soldiers and policemen as
possible and get as many bombs into Belfast as he could. But far from pleading innocence of bad deeds by attributing the blame to others who directed him, he does not actually own up to anything.
And, harsh as it may seem to say this, it is because we never have an account of Hughes actually killing anyone that we can’t judge him from his words.
For example, in the story about the murder of Jean McConville, Hughes attributes the decision to ‘disappear’ her to Gerry Adams. But he says he heard this from Ivor Bell. He never puts himself close enough to the decision to kill her to give that claim authority.
As it stands, it is hearsay.
Now, of course, Brendan Hughes may know more than he is owning up to.
He will have felt a responsibility to defend those close to the
action and he was making some concession to the IRA’s requirement of secrecy.
But it’s still just hearsay.
As one of the key leaders of the IRA in Belfast at the most violent
period of the Troubles he had blood on his hands. But this account
puts him at a distance from the action, and that is ironic given that
his charge against Gerry Adams is that he denies what he did.
The contrast offered between Adams and Hughes is that the one denies his IRA past and the other owns up to his and is proud of it.
But Brendan Hughes does not own up to very much.
And the reader will suspect that that is because he wants to think
well of his IRA career and he wants us to think well of him as a
So we have the old myth that the IRA defended the community, was loved by the community and that Brendan was a hero to his people.
Moloney has responsibilities in this too.
The account of the riots in August 1969, in which Brendan Hughes
decided he needed to arm himself and defend the people is just the old standard republican baloney that the Catholic Falls was attacked by the Loyalists. I thought this was dispensed with years ago.
The fact that the rioting was initiated on the Falls Road in an
organised effort to burn out Hastings Street police station, and that
this attack was kept up for hours before there was any shooting at all by any side, or any intrusion of Loyalists onto the Falls, undermines any claim that those who were there have to being innocents caught unawares.
A lot of men on the Falls that night were up for a rattle and it seems
likely that Brendan was one of them.
And if there are questions about the integrity of Hughes’s incomplete
account and of Moloney’s grasp of the events of that month there is
also a weakness in the main thesis that Hughes develops.
Gerry Adams is a smart man, no doubt and an extremely devious one too, but is it really plausible that he singled handedly dismantled the
IRA? If it is true, then he is a genius, both tactically and
charismatically. Maybe he is. We should be all the more wary of him
But there never was a prospect of Brendan Hughes’ dream being
fulfilled, of the IRA forcing the reunification of Ireland.
How would Brendan have preferred that that reality be incorporated
into the political evolution of the IRA?
There would have been integrity in the IRA saying that the cause was lost and urging others not to pursue further armed struggle to achieve what could not be achieved by those means. That would have been a surrender. It’s what defeated armies usually do.
The Adams way was to dress up the surrender as a victory. That he has got away with that, largely, is appalling, but it’s not hard to see
how many a republican would enjoy the joke.
Yet, for all these criticisms, this is the most important history of
the IRA yet written.
It gives us a flavour of life in the prisons and how IRA OCs at times
abused and brutalised their own men.
It gives us the appalling account of the murder of Paddy Joe Crawford, hanged by men who were effectively made to collude in their own intimidation – for why else was Paddy Joe killed but to warn others not to break under questioning.
But more than anything, this book and the promise of others to follow, as other interviewees die and their accounts are released, puts a bomb under the paramilitary projects to write the history of the Troubles on their own terms.
The simple, widely endorsed account, of how the IRA had to do what it did and made Ireland a better place, has been refuted and will be refuted over and over again down the decades to come.
As will other versions too.
The creation of such an archive by Boston College was an act of
courage and brilliance which leaves no liar safely proofed against
disclosure in the future.