To begin with, he was only a name and a question mark – “Ryan?” – written in the corner of a notebook.
A “throwaway” remark by a source – “if you want a story about the IRA that’s never been told by the main player himself, there’s a Ryan you need to speak to” – set BBC Spotlight reporter Jennifer O’Leary on his trail.
Two years later, she knocked on a stranger’s door; the cold call led her, eventually, to The Padre.
Based on extensive interviews with Patrick Ryan, this is the previously untold story of the “Provo Priest” who, as the subtitle says, “armed the IRA with Gaddafi’s money”.
O’Leary outlines in detail the career of a man who started out giving money from collection boxes in Co Tipperary – meant for the missions – to the IRA and whose republican convictions, single-mindedness and sheer ruthlessness turned him into their “man” in Libya.
Hiding in plain sight, he criss-crossed Europe in a camper van, finding ways to not only fund IRA violence, but make it more effective.
Ryan explains with disturbing pride how he adapted Memo Park timers – devices he saw Swiss drivers use to remind them their time on a parking meter was about to expire – to make the IRA’s bombs more reliable.
The IRA went on to use them in “scores” of attacks, including at Warrenpoint, Canary Wharf and in Brighton, when the IRA failed to assassinate Margaret Thatcher but killed four others.
He also obtained essential microswitches – without which the IRA would have been unable to continue its bombing campaign – which were used in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London, leading to a death toll of four soldiers, seven military bandsmen and seven horses.
Ryan is a priest with blood on his hands and, rightly, O’Leary emphasises the human cost; the chapter opens with the four-year-old daughter of one of the Hyde Park victims waving her father off. “I remember they looked so smart in their uniforms and when they got to the gates, Dad turned to look up and smile at me before he left.”
Though Ryan’s is a remarkable story, it is also a chilling one: “The only regret I have was that I wasn’t more effective; that the bombs made with components I supplied, didn’t kill more.”