O'Connell spoke up. “I think it's important to make a point here. The real divide in Northern Ireland is more economic than religious. One reason unionists are adamant about remaining part of the United Kingdom is because their financial wellbeing depends on it. When the British controlled this entire island they located all the heavy industry in the northeastern corner of the country to benefit the Protestant majority there. The rest of Ireland, âCatholic Ireland,' was left with a largely rural and impoverished economy.
“After World War Two a lot of formerly profitable industries in the north began to have to tighten their belts as well. But Britain is subsidising the Six Counties, so the unionists still have jobs. They don't want to find themselves thrust into a united Ireland because the south has nothing comparable to offer them.”
“Even if it did,” said SÃ©amus McCoy, “it wouldn't make any difference. As far as the unionists are concerned the Republic is a foreign country like darkest Africa. Some of the younger ones are unaware that this island was partitioned less than forty years ago. They assume there's always been a Northern Ireland, a place where the best land and the best jobs are theirs practically by divine right.”
A man sitting near Barry muttered, “Damn the Prods.”
Dave O'Connell silenced him with a frown. “In fairness,” O'Connell said, “the vast majority of Protestants are decent people who have no desire to persecute anyone. The problem is with the sectarian bigots like the Orange Order. Unfortunately,
they control just about everything in the Six Counties, including the parliament at Stormont.”
Before Barry fell asleep that night he thought about what he had heard.
The face of the enemy was becoming more specific.
In the morning the column lined up to bid farewell to SÃ©amus McCoy. McCoy and the other training officers were being recalled to Dublin to brief GHQ. A Morris Minor driven by a middle-aged woman who looked like a schoolteacher was waiting to take him across the border. McCoy tossed his pack inside the car, returned the salute of the column, and settled himself in the passenger seat. The door slammed with the sound of finality.
“There goes a good man,” said Feargal O'Hanlon. “We're going to miss him.”
As the car began to pull away Barry shouted,
McCoy thrust his arm out the window and waved his hand.
he called. But he never looked back.
Half an hour later a creamery wagon drove up. While O'Connell and the driver were tying the motorbike to the bumper, the other Volunteers clambered onto the flat-bed wagon and tried to find space for themselves among the metal milk cans. A jolting ride along rural byways terminated at an abandoned flour mill. The old red brick walls were slimy with moss; the wooden millwheel was gently rotting.
Standing outside the mill were two men in shabby overcoats. Garland introduced one as Charlie Murphy, a member of headquarters staff with extensive experience in the north. Murphy, a short man with blunt features and no interest in small talk, brought further instructions from Dublin. He stared off into space while Garland read them. The other man went into the mill and brought out a cardboard box filled with sandwiches.
Garland looked up. “Get that food inside you in a hurry, men. We're pulling out soon.”
“Where are we going, sir?”
“To set up a base camp for the first phase of the campaign. It's better if you don't know exactly where until we get there. That way if you're lifted, you can't tell them anything.”
I wouldn't tell them
Not even if they tortured me like they did Kevin Barry in 1920!
December 10, 1956
HUNGARY PUT UNDER SOVIET MARTIAL LAW
Soviet Army once again threatens to turn its guns on the people.
HE second week of December found SeÃ¡n Garland and his men encamped in a secluded valley just south of the Armagh border. The area was strongly republican. Instead of dugouts the column had the use of an old barn, and the village at the head of the valley kept them supplied with food and cigarettes. The men took turns cooking meals with the ingredients provided. When Barry solicited comments on his contribution, Paddy O'Regan said, “It's marginally better than being poked in the eye with a sharp stick.”
“I inherited my cooking skills from my mother.”
“God have mercy on your family, then,” O'Regan replied in sepulchral tones.
The village women thought having the IRA camped nearby was incredibly romantic. “We could stroll over there and give the girls a thrill,” Feargal suggested to Barry. “What d'ye say?”
“Sounds good to me. Do you have a comb? I've lost mine someplace.”
SeÃ¡n Garland overheard the exchange. “You two Romeos leave the local girls alone. We're here to be a plague to the British, not to decent Irish women.”
Target practice was held in an empty field amidst wintergrey
stubble. The Bren was assigned to SeÃ¡n South while the officers kept the Thompsons for themselves. “I don't mind about the Bren,” Barry lied to Feargal. “My chance will come.”
It will, I know it will. It must.
Waiting for the call to action was the hardest part. Being Irish, they filled the time with talk. Still, and always, talk of politics. The addition of Garland and O'Connell added depth to the conversation.
“England's been our enemy from the beginning, taking the best we had and leaving the dregs for us. The English never paid a blind bit of mind to how we felt.”
“You can't blame the ordinary punter in the streets for that. It's their bloody government that's responsible.”
“I've often wondered how a people as essentially decent as the English can tolerate a succession of governments which habitually practice deceit in domestic policy and use genocide as a tool of foreign policy.”
“That's pretty harsh.”
“You think so? Ask the Boers in South Africa. For that matter, ask the Irish. Doesn't Britain realise those sins might come home to roost someday?”
“Ah, you forgetâevery government has a finite life and acts in its own self-interest. Which isn't necessarily the national self-interest.”
“Please God the sins of the Free State government will come home to roost someday too, and we'll have a true republic on this island.”
“Up the Republic!”
“Can anyone spare a pair of dry socks?”
On the afternoon of the tenth, SeÃ¡n Garland announced, “There's a major attack scheduled for tomorrow night. The flying columns will hit enemy installations all across the north. SeÃ¡n Daly's men are going to join us in an attack on Gough Barracks. The Royal Irish is my old regiment, so I know the place.”
The next morning Garland and O'Connell went to the nearby village and returned laden with bulky parcels wrapped in butcher's paper. They were unwrapped to reveal a number of military uniforms. Barry recognised both British and American, but there were also a couple stolen from the Irish Army.
The Free State Army
, Barry mentally corrected.
“We're going to wear these as disguises,” Garland said. “They won't fool anyone for long, but they may add to the confusion and that's what we need.”
Dave O'Connell and Barry Halloran were the tallest men in the column; only the American uniforms would fit them. Everyone shied away from the British outfits until Barry picked up one of the jackets. “I dare you to wear this,” he said, tossing the garment to Feargal. “Surely to God a bold lad like you isn't afraid of a bit of cloth.”
The British uniforms were quickly claimed.
SeÃ¡n Garland passed out black berets for the Volunteers to wear. He explained, “It's Army policy to conform with the Geneva Convention, which demands active-service headgear to make combatants identifiable.
As members of an organised army fighting a legitimate war to regain stolen territory we must obey international law. Even if the other side doesn't,” he added sourly.
“We commence operations at Gough Barracks sharply at midnight. The time's been coordinated with the other columns because GHQ wants simultaneous attacks on British Army installations and the RUC. If this thing runs like clockwork we'll knock'em off their pins.
“Two covered lorries will be here to collect us by ten tonight. Bring your packs with you, you never know where we may finish up. We'll rendezvous with Daly and his men at the barracks. Some of the locals will meet us with a mine so we can blow open the front gate. Once we're inside, break down the doors, rip out the electrical wiring, destroy the telephones, set fire to files and mattressesâin short, do everything you can to make the damned place unusable. Then seize all the weapons you can carry and get out.”
“The soldiers aren't going to stand idly by while we destroy their barracks,” Paddy O'Regan said.
“Threaten and intimidate'em all you like,” Garland retorted. “But don't shoot anyone unless you have to.”
Feargal whispered to Barry, “The O/C just doesn't want to kill any of his old pals.”
SeÃ¡n Garland glared in his direction. “I heard that, O'Hanlon. I never
to kill anyone, and neither should you. Disable and demoralise, remember?”
HE day was heavily overcast. As the light died a bitter wind blew in from the Irish Sea. In the barn where they waited the temperature dropped steadily, forcing them to put their coats over the borrowed uniforms. By eight o'clock they were blowing on their hands and stamping their feet.
Barry, who thought smoking made him look more mature, lit a cigarette as much for the warmth as the comfort, and puffed ostentatiously to conceal his excitement.
Now it begins. Now it
Ten o'clock came and passed. The men grew restless. Several went outside to urinate. The Limerick contingent broke out a pack of cards and enjoyed a furious argument over which game to play.
Dragging its feet, another hour crept by.
Garland was consulting his watch every ten minutes.
“Where d'you think our transport is, Seventeen?” Feargal wondered.
“How should I know? If it doesn't come I suppose we can always walk.”
Feargal took him seriously. “Anything's better than waiting.”
“My granda said a lot of being in the Army was just waiting.”
SeÃ¡n Garland's temper neared the boiling point. “Isn't this bloody typical!” he snarled to his second in command. “Another Army cock-up.” He glanced toward the waiting men to be sure they did not overhear him. “Dave, run to the village and scare up some sort of transportation for us. We're going to be late as it is.”
O'Connell looked dubious. “The locals may feel they've done enough by getting those uniforms. They were certainly taking a riâ”
“Nobody's done enough until the war's won!” Garland exploded.
O'Connell hastily left the shed.
Garland's watch ticked on.
After another half hour a dilapidated cattle truck appeared, lurching along uncertainly, backfiring and belching fumes. The exhaust pipe was only an ancient memory. Dave O'Connell
leaned out the window. “Borrowed this from a farmyard,” he called to SeÃ¡n Garland.
“Did you have the farmer's permission?”
“Not exactly.” O'Connell climbed gingerly from the cab, then turned and glared at the rusty springs protruding from the dung-smeared seat. “I'm not familiar with this class of vehicle, SeÃ¡n. You'd best ask someone else to do the driving.”
Vince Conlon was duly appointed as driver. The other Volunteers scrambled into the back of the lorry. The stench was appalling. “Pigs was in here last,” a farm boy commented. “We'll smell just like'em before we get out of here.” The floor was slippery with pig manure. The Volunteers kept their packs on their backs rather than set them down.
With an appalling screech of metal Conlon engaged the gears and they were off. “Should the engine sound like it's full of gravel?” Feargal asked Barry.
“I don't think so. My mam won't let me touch her Ford, but I've tinkered with it a bit when she's not around, so I know a thing or two. An engine should purr, not cough.”
“Will this one get us there anyway, d'ye think?”
“I'm sure,” replied Barry. Who was not at all sure. But he did not really care. The here and now was wonderful. A huge adventure!
As the lorry clattered across the border into Armagh, sleet spattered against the windscreen with a sound like shotgun pellets. The bald tyres skidded on the icy road. The Volunteers clutched at anything they could hold on to.
“Faster,” Garland urged. “Faster!”
When they were within a mile of Gough Barracks the truck's misaligned headlamps picked out two figures in overcoats standing by the side of the road. One of them waved twice, briskly, then once more.
Garland ordered Conlon to stop. He slammed on the brakes and the lorry slewed sideways on ice.
“Fuckin' Jaysus!” someone gasped.
The men on the roadside were carrying a mine wrapped in a flowered quilt. Garland spoke with them from the back of the lorry. “Haven't seen the other crowd at all,” one man said in response to his query about Daly. “They're probably waiting for
you up ahead somewhere. Here, would you take this? We have to make a move, we've been here too long already.”
Garland reached down and lifted the mine into the truck. The other Volunteers quickly edged away from him.
A hundred yards farther on, Garland directed Conlon to a dirt track that branched off from the main road. “This will take us to a hill behind the barracks. There's no guard post there. We can park without being seen, then sneak around on foot and blow the gate. If Daly's anywhere in the area he'll hear the explosion and come at the double.”
As they started up the hill, Conlon throttled down to the lowest gear.
The headlamps promptly failed.
In the darkness they did not realise they were parking below a watchtower that had been erected since Garland's days at the barracks. The sentry in the tower peeped over the edge. After one glimpse of the invaders, he fired his rifle into the air and ducked back down out of sight.
A Klaxon blared. Lights shone from every window. Officers could be heard shouting orders and a five-man patrol came running along the wall, weapons at the ready.
SeÃ¡n Garland tossed the mine out the back of the lorry. “Let's get the hell out of here!”
His men sprayed the barracks wall with bullets as the truck lurched away. When it built up enough speed the headlamps came on again.
SeÃ¡n Garland was cursing under his breath. “They're too well prepared, damn them. Didn't used to be that way.”
Halfway to the main road they met another truck coming toward them. The access road was too narrow to allow the two vehicles to pass each other. Brakes squealed.
The driver of the second lorry stuck his head out the window and called, “Garland, is that you?”
E didn't even get out of the lorry,” Feargal complained.
“Don't worry,” Barry consoled his friend. “I'm sure we'll see plenty of action soon.”
Privately his disappointment was intense. The high excitement
of anticipation, the sudden burst of adrenaline when things began to happen, the racing blood, the pounding heart, and then â¦ and then nothing.
Damn, damn, damn it!
HE attack on Gough Barracks had to be abandoned, but at midnight ten other targets, in a ring from Antrim to Derry, were hit. In spite of a substantial network of paid informers, the RUC did not have adequate warning. Operation Harvest began with the chatter of machine guns and the roar of explosives.
A raiding party destroyed a BBC transmitting station. After moving the caretaker and his family to safety outside, another group set fire to a courthouse full of government documents. A post used by B-Specials was burned to the ground. Originally recruited under orders from Winston Churchill, the B-Specials were a fanatically pro-British militia with a taste for violence. Although they were called “police reservists,” this was only a flag of convenience. In reality the B-Specials dispensed punishment as they saw fit and had a well-earned reputation for savagery to Catholics.