When 8-year-old Ruari O Bradaigh was getting ready for school, February 7, 1940, his father pulled out his pocket watch. He commanded Rory and his sister, when the big hand hit nine: `Kneel down and say your prayers. Two Irishmen now lie into quicklime graves in Birmingham.' (27) Peter Barnes and James McCormick had been hanged for the 1939 Coventry bombings-neither IRA man had been directly responsible for the premature detonation that killed innocents, but victims had to be found. Such drama often entered Rory Peter Casement Brady's days, told in Professor White's biography. Matt Brady, Rory's father, had been wounded in 1919; his life was saved by Sean Mac Eoin-no friend of the Irregulars in later years, but a loyal friend to one particular Volunteer, no matter his side in the Civil War. Matt died in 1942 from these slowly lethal wounds. This symbolizes the world into which Ballinamuck, Longford's Rory grew: one in which republican ideals were lived, even if and certainly until death-even if they killed you.
White, who has written an exorbitantly priced, curiously difficult to find (at least in my experience; having long sought the book in vain, I finally was able to photocopy it after it finally had been retrieved after being `on the run' long from a university library) `oral and interpretative history' of the Provos (Westport CT: Greenwood P, 1993), here has the clout of Indiana UP and its British distributor to publicize a much more affordable and handsomely designed study that I hope will find its place on many shelves, public or private: as his subtitle claims, this is a comprehensive examination of `the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary.' In 436 packed pages, White scours every scrap of information. He has excavated primary material, challenged previous claims in print with new evidence, and verified the claims documented from lengthy interviews with ROB and many other Republicans-although Gerry Adams "and others" refused, Danny Morrison consented once--by secondary accounts and other witnesses whenever feasible. His extensive notes record his careful scholarship. His text flows without the impediments of many academics. His insights unfold easily, without bravado, sentiment, or editorializing. When White differs with ROB, he lets his findings make the counter-argument rather than himself directly. Subtly and meticulously, what emerges is the clash of principles with pragmatism within the Republican movement over the past half-century and more.
While we have had lately solid biographies of Adams (Sharrock & Davenport), Martin McGuinness (Clarke & Johnston), and Brendan Anderson's of Joe Cahill (also reviewed by me), we until now have lacked a substantial presentation of this supposedly more traditional Republican thinker and activist who, since 1986, has found himself and Republican Sinn Fein on the fringes of the Movement after having been shunted aside in maneouvres that began at least a decade before. Those familiar with Irish Republicanism will recall how the Northern contingent, eager to carry on a more sectarian campaign that targeted Loyalists and therefore gained a tit-for-tat revenge against their enemies, undermined the power of Daithi O Conaill (deserving of his own biography certainly!) and ROB. Belfast and Derry's activists by 1986 defeated Dublin and the 26 County base that had sustained the Movement for most of the past century. White analyses how these tactics evolved, and fair-mindedly provides his account of how ROB--in his advocacy of the Eire Nua programme that advocates co-operatives, small-scale and localised control of resources, and federalism allowing provincial autonomy and grassroots representation as much as possible within a united island under democratic socialism-proves himself contrary to stereotype the truly "revolutionary" socialist. Alongside future Official IRAers and IRSP and Workers' Party founders, ROB laboured in the early 60s, after the collapse of the Border Campaign, to provide a political foundation for the military response to imperialism. He argued against the allure of a consumer-driven, EU-directed, market economy all too willing to weaken the Irish language and native culture to advance a specious Ameropean (to adapt a later term from his one-time advisor Desmond Fennell) hegemony.
His interests in anti-colonial and national liberation campaigns displayed his eagerness to learn from like-minded radicals all over the world. His ecumenical approach also inspired more local ties: the mid-60s Wolfe Tone Society, White reminds us, had Belfast's Protestants as its target audience. Despite the damage it ultimately caused to his career by more narrow-minded activists intent on revenge and not only community defense, ROB refused to pigeonhole himself any more with Catholics than with Communists. While his open-minded willingness to listen to Loyalists and to invite them into his model of a Dail Uladh met with antagonism from both sides of the sectarian divide in the 1970s, ROB had long preached against, as he had discussed in 1959 with Sean Cronin, the dangers of the IRA turning into a `self-perpetuating religious sect' rather than an `instrument of freedom in Ireland.' (88) While since 1986 for his idealism finding himself relegated to the sidelines of a Provo team he once led, O Bradaigh refuses to give up his purer vision of an idealistic Republic. You may not agree with his refusal to compromise for political gain, or his defiant support of "physical-force nationalism," but you will finish this book understanding better how and why such men (and women) still insist on such fidelity to a cause centuries old by now.
(Condensed from a much longer review for the Blanket, a Belfast-based on-line journal.)
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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
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