Lens of Empathy Reveals The Workings of the IRA


By Kevin Toolis

St. Martin's Press

384 pp., $25.95

'Rebel Hearts" is a powerful book, passionate and compelling, beautifully composed and written. Perhaps inevitably, it also is tendentious, romanticized, and deeply ambivalent.

Its author, Kevin Toolis, though Edinburgh-reared, has deep Irish roots, an intimate journalist's knowledge of the Irish Republican Army and Northern Irish nationalism, and an intense commitment to the unification of Ireland. He is superb at presenting the background and emotions of the IRA's bombers and gunmen, chieftains and martyrs, though less so in handling the relevant political complexities. Only at the end does he wrestle with the philosophical issues surrounding IRA terrorism, which he regards as sheer murder.

Behind the violence lay centuries of Anglo-Irish conflict, repression by London, and Irish subjugation. Toolis begins and ends with a beautifully crafted piece of personal history, relating childhood summers spent in the family village on Ireland's west coast; and the monument marking the execution of a Catholic priest after the failed rebellion of 1798.

It is hardly surprising that the Protestant Loyalists are presented simply as rampaging mobs, or the British security forces as murderous bloodhounds who persist in raiding homes and frisking pedestrians, while tracking the 600 or so "active service men" of the IRA.

It is on those men that Toolis focuses his emotions and his investigative talents, humanizing and personalizing them. In gaining remarkably uninhibited interviews, he goes far beneath the surface to make the IRA men come alive.

There is, for example, the Finucane family, whose five sons all served the IRA in one way or another. John died in a car crash, while "on active service"; Martin fled overseas for a time; Pat, a lawyer and political activist, was murdered, presumably by Protestant militants; and Seamus, after 10 years imprisonment, became romantically attached to a female IRA activist who was killed by British soldiers at Gibraltar in 1988.

There is Desmond, charming and articulate. His record is one of raids and ambushes, of frequent prison terms, and now of exile in Dublin: "the murders, the killing, the pain, the prisons and the loss had somehow not diminished him. This IRA soldier, this inflicter of harm, this gunman and brother, was quietly, confidently waiting for the next onslaught." The note of awe, of admiration even, is unmistakable.

The flip side of the coin, however, are the informers, the "touts," a recurrent theme in the grand tradition of Irish rebellion. Remember John Ford's "The Informer, with Gypo Nolan wandering the Dublin streets? Toolis presents us with Paddy Flood, an informer, who was killed by the IRA in 1990.

Counter-insurgency centers on intelligence-gathering, on identifying targets. Informers are central to this intelligence war, and the British invested heavily in them. Flood had been "turned" after being arrested - with his wife - on suspicion of hiding arms. She was emotionally fragile; the police threatened to "break her like a plate. She would go to prison for a long, long time. What was he going to do to save her?"

The answer was obvious, and so was the predictable train of circumstances by which suspicions arose within the IRA, interrogations took place, a confession was extracted, and Flood was executed.

Behind all this lies the elaborate normality of the IRA experience. Without jobs and higher education, with no opportunities but emigration, young Catholics can have few goals. Often arrested, harassed by British patrols, their homes constantly searched, their enemies were obvious.

Is it surprising that, in providing a historically-sanctified cause, as well as goals, glory, and significance, the IRA retains its appeal to the Irish consciousness?

It is Kevin Toolis's rare achievement that he analyzes that consciousness with both sympathy and insight.

*Leonard Bushkoff regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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