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The Yank review: Memoir of US army volunteer who joined IRA

John Crawley’s account of guerrilla warfare is written in military style without romanticism

The Yank: My Life as a former US Marine in the IRA
Author: John Crawley
ISBN-13: 978-1785374234
Publisher: Merrion Press
Guideline Price: €16.95

It’s unlikely we will uncover many instances in our recent history of volunteering to join the US army and later the IRA, so that bifurcation of military experience alone gives this memoir value.

Anyone likely offended by the politics of The Yank will probably not pick it up to begin with and therefore be spared terminology like “sniping operations with real-world value” while pondering the morality of such. But then Crawley writes like a military man – he makes no apologies for it, there’s lots of “operational details” – and whatever your political outlook on Ireland’s past, sometimes we have to at least step towards the “light under a door I shall never open”, to use Eudora Welty’s phrase.

Circumstantial details

New York-born Crawley describes his life with a lean style and at a clip. The reader can’t help being carried along. Crawley leaves Ireland in the 1970s to enlist in the Marine Corps with the idea of returning to join the IRA, the story finding its flow with him signing up in 1979. The Yank gives us an inside account of the realities of guerrilla warfare, with none of the romanticism attached. The small, circumstantial details of such a life stay with you: a transient existence, yet often made up of waiting and frustrations, whereas “the action” comes fast, fleeting.

Crawley never asks for our sympathy or tries to make himself a revolutionary hero. He has his political convictions, yes, and outlines them throughout, often sparking against his associates. He provides insight into the IRA hierarchy and its leadership during The Troubles, and paints an ambiguous portrait of Martin McGuinness.

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The gun-running section gives another shading to Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and the bubble of Irish America that sympathised with the IRA. Subsequently we have Crawley’s arrest on the Marita Ann with weapons off the Kerry coast; 10 years in prison and release; his part in an operation in London in 1996 to knock out the power supply in the city and southeast England, and a sentence of 35 years before being released under the Belfast Agreement; a restless life. What remains fixed at the end is Crawley feeling that his dream of a 32-county Republic seems no closer. He finishes on a restive, frustrated note, but without any apparent regrets.