Cork County Councillor Kieran McCarthy reveals that he was far from being the only soldier to quit the Irish Army and join the Provisional IRA, writes Sean O’Riordan
Kieran McCarthy has said he was far from being the only one who quit the Irish Army to join the Provisional IRA, and over the years has “come into contact” with other ex-soldiers who had made the same decision.
“Those former soldiers who I encountered (in the IRA) came from Cork, Limerick, and Kildare, and I know that many other counties were similarly represented in the republican ranks, as I’m sure the closer one got to the border counties, the more those numbers were represented,” Mr McCarthy said.
Indeed, he said he met with a former Irish Army soldier from Kildare while they were both on an IRA operation.
Mr McCarthy pointed out that there were people who came from north of the border to join the Irish Army and he wouldn’t be surprised “if some of them had been planted” by the IRA.
“It was different with me, it evolved” (into joining the Provisionals).
In an extensive interview with this newspaper, he spoke about how his military life started with the FCA as a 13-year-old; how he lied about his age to get into the Irish Army, was posted to the border in the hope of defending his country and then had a “mind change” about how ‘The Troubles’ were affecting the wider island.
He made headlines in 1990 when he and two other members of an IRA active service unit were arrested in Belgium.
They were fully armed but surrendered immediately without a shot being fired.
“When they stormed the apartment we immediately put our hands up as we weren’t at war with them.”
At the time, sections of the British media claimed the trio were planning to kill Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which he says is completely untrue as they didn’t even know the royals were due to arrive in that country a few weeks later.
“The description the Belgium police used for me in court was ‘logistics officer for the captured IRA unit’. I neither confirmed nor denied their findings,” he said.
Mr McCarthy maintained that he never heard anybody in the IRA speaking about killing the two royals and that doing so would probably have been counterproductive, especially considering the popularity of the woman who was later dubbed ‘The People’s Princess’.
“Our role in that active service unit in Belgium was to enhance the war effort back home,” he said, declining to comment further when asked if they were preparing at the time to attack British Army bases on the continent.
During his time in prison he said the Belgians were good to them and they would be given beer to celebrate the birthdays of the country’s king or queen. “The screws (prison officers) used to call me ‘The Beatle’ after Paul McCartney. They couldn’t pronounce McCarthy,” he joked.
Joining the IRA was a gradual process which involved a number of incidents during and after his Irish Army career.
Initially, he joined the Irish Army because, he said, he wanted to protect his country.
Mr McCarthy was very annoyed about the treatment meted out to himself and his Irish Army colleagues by a British Army patrol at a market in Jonesborough, South Armagh, in the summer of 1976.
After being humiliated at gunpoint in front of locals “they (the British) then expected us to carry on as normal collaborating and continuing to uphold their imposed border in our country”.
He said the British knew full well who they were.
“We stuck out like a sore thumb because we all had short haircuts. Nobody but soldiers had short haircuts back then.”
“Around 18 months later I read a report in the then- Cork Examiner about a British Army helicopter that was shot down over Jonesborough the day before. My mind instantly returned to that day when we were pulled over by the British and I thought of the big old man who came over to us afterwards and asked ‘what did those bastards say to ye?’ I thought about the downed helicopter and said to myself ‘well fucking done lads’. I found myself agreeing and sympathising with the IRA,” he said.
The Cobh-born county councillor joined the FCA at 13 and when five of his friends joined the regular Irish Army, he wanted to go along with them.
So he produced a fake baptismal certificate to show he was 17.
After training in Collins Barracks in Cork, he was posted to the border.
He was posted with the 4th Infantry Battalion, firstly to Cootehill, Co Cavan, and then to Monaghan town, where the Irish Army was at the time building a new barracks.
“I first began to suspect that all was not what it should be, and that this State’s role on the border was more than one of peace-keeping and preventing the northern conflict spreading southwards,” he said.
“I know I wasn’t alone as a soldier in feeling, by the experiences we witnessed and the actions we were at times forced to take, that we were in effect nothing more than a southern regiment of the British Army.
“The fact that British undercover snatch squads were coming across the border with the assistance of Loyalist paramilitaries and killing republicans made me further question what we in the Irish Army were doing on the border. We were a toothless tiger,” he said.
He said there was a lot of friction between the Irish Army and the locals.
Mr McCarthy also remembers hostility in Cobh between the locals and Dubliners who had joined the Naval Service. They’d have “encounters over women”.
“There were encounters too with locals living on the border, but it was nothing to do with women this time. They were hostile. I didn’t realise that they’d see us in the Irish Army as collaborators. On occasion it got into fisticuffs in the pubs. They couldn’t have all been in the IRA,” Mr McCarthy said.
He recounted how rocks were regularly thrown at their army patrols and how one middle-aged man tried to tear the tricolour off one of their jeeps as they were “disgracing the flag”.
“It was the ordinary community. A lot of farmers were angry with us. They had bridges blown up and their land cut off. The British couldn’t have done that without the co-operation of the Irish Army,” he said.
Mr McCarthy feels the “southern state” negated its responsibilities towards the North before the mid-70s and “probably had an unofficial policy of letting the British to get on with it as it was viewed as their mess to sort out.
“Had governments then shown the same commitment to establishing peace and avoiding a hard border, and enlisting international support for same, as they are doing today, then everything might have been different.”
He said he was prompted to go public for the first time about his move from the Irish Army to the Provisional IRA for two reasons.
One is because he believes people should now write down their involvement in The Troubles “warts and all” for later use by historians.
“I want to see my experiences recorded as historical fact, that is my motivation for this (interview), and why I’m planning to write a full set of memoirs covering my time in the republican movement.”
The other reason was a reaction to a recent review in this newspaper of a book, Soldiering Against Subversion by retired army Colonel Dan Harvey, which outlined the role of soldiers on border duty.
“It prompted me to respond and explain my own experiences on the border with the Irish Army in the 1970s. These experiences played no small part in me later questioning what this State’s role in the conflict really was, and to me eventually joining the IRA.”
In November 1975 Mr McCarthy joined the Permanent Defence Forces, “along with four other friends” but was still only aged 15 and a half. At the time, it still wasn’t uncommon for people to lie about their age.
He recalls one man from Fermoy, Co Cork, who went to the Congo with the United Nations and was just 15 when he celebrated his birthday there.
He, like Mr McCarthy, was a tall and bulky lad.
“I was the only one who wasn’t 17 at the time (the requisite age for joining up — now 18). I was just 15 and a half . But I was 5ft 10 and well built at the time,” he said.
Mr McCarthy recounts a perilous time just before he was recruited, when a sergeant came up to him and another applicant, saying there might be a problem with their ages.
Mr McCarthy joined the Irish Army and passed out as a fully-fledged soldier in the spring of 1976.
He and his fiends were divided up, with many of them going off to guard the maximum security prison at Portlaoise, which housed a number of Provisional IRA members.
He, on the other hand, went to the border, where his life changed forever.
Prior to that, he said his first inkling of his future path came when he heard Irish Army soldiers openly talking about the killing of an IRA prisoner who was tying to escape from Portlaoise, and how, in his opinion, they almost gloated about it.
He claimed that some of their officers also promoted the view that it was good to kill Republicans.
“When we were being lectured and indoctrinated before departing on our tour of the border, they (officers) were psyching us up to the business of killing.
“We were advised not to get side-tracked or fooled by those who would lead us astray with republican propaganda,” he said.
When Mr McCarthy eventually joined the Provisional IRA he said he was satisfied that its members would not shoot at his former Irish Army colleagues still patrolling the border, because this was strictly forbidden by the Provos’ Green Book (rules of engagement).
Mr McCarthy said that when the Hume-Adams talks emerged in the early 1990s, “the southern establishment were initially rocked and dragged kicking and screaming out of their comfort zone to step up and engage with the emerging peace process”.
Before then it had been seen as a British matter/problem.
“Right from the very first time I learned of and became aware of the peace process, I was fully behind the process both inside and outside of the IRA,” Mr McCarthy said.
He said he never changed his position in that regard and in fact believes the process and the additional uncertainty of Brexit has brought the prospect of a united Ireland closer now than at any time since partition.
“No one with an ounce of credibility can argue that the North is a worse place today than it had been before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998,” he said.
“The reasons and conditions for conflict are simply no longer there, and those of us who once struggled to bring about a united Ireland by the only means believed possible (armed force), now look forward with confidence to a future democratic border poll.
Mr McCarthy said his purpose in giving an interview with the Irish Examiner is not one of aiming to justify the past, or trying to adjudicate on who was right or wrong during the violent conflict that dominated most of the last three decades of the 20th century in the North.
“But it is rather one of placing some historical accuracy into the discussion of what transpired during the period,” he said.
“I particularly direct these words towards what I’m about to say regarding my own personal experiences and memories of when I served with the Irish Army on the border in the 1970s,” he said.
“At the outset, I feel I must put it on record that I fully support the peace and transition that’s happening in the North as we speak and would not like to see my words and descriptions outlined in the following interview to be interpreted and used as some form of justification for future conflict.”
Apart from being a public representative for the last 24 years, Mr McCarthy has written two books on the War of Independence.
He is the author of Cobh’s Contribution to the Fight for Irish Freedom, which was published in 1992, and Republican Cobh & the East Cork Volunteers since 1913, released in 2008.
The 58-year-old also runs ‘Cobh Rebel Walking Tours’ of his home town, which highlight the buildings and people who were involved in the War of Independence in Cobh, including the safe house from which Éamon de Valera was smuggled out of the country in 1919 before touring the US.
His walking tours are particularly popular with tourists who alight off cruise liners in the Cork port, and in order to make their experience as authentic as possible, Mr McCarthy dresses up in the type of uniform that Old IRA volunteers would have worn at the time.
Speaking about his historical research, Mr McCarthy said he had first-hand knowledge of the task involved at times in trying to decipher and read between the lines of some of the witness statements made to the Bureau of Military History by former Old IRA activists, regarding their roles in particular military operations.
“I noticed while carrying out these researches, that for a variety of reasons, some of those interviewed seemed to be reluctant in places to describe particular instances as fully as they might otherwise have.
“I noticed this where a line or a paragraph of text in a statement would have been crossed out, or erased by hand and replaced by a much shorter scribbled sentence,” he said.
He added that the conclusion one would often be left with in these situations, is that the witness didn’t wish to implicate someone else in a military operation that might have gone wrong or might have been viewed negatively, perhaps involving those who might have taken opposing sides during the later civil war.
He points out that people should remember that most of those statements were made to the Bureau of Military History 30 or 40 years after the events occurred.
“It’s for this reason that I would be concerned that the IRA volunteers in the more recent 30-year conflict may never have their stories recorded because in another 30 or 40 years, most will probably have passed from this life,” he said.
“In such a scenario, and where the history of the period will be told solely by others who neither experienced it or probably understood it and were giving only one particular view/slant of the conflict, the Irish people and the world will be left cheated of learning about a very critical period in Ireland’s history.
“For this reason, I have begun to start writing my own memoirs on my time in the Irish Army and later in the Irish Republican Army.
“When I am gone, and people are reading about my role in the past conflict in 20, 30, or 40 years’ time, I will leave it to them to pass judgment on what it was all about.
“But I would like to think they will be doing it with all the ready and factual information available to them,” Mr McCarthy said.