Southside Provisional: How a Blackrock boy joined the IRA
Kieran Conway was a typical south Dubliner, in thrall to English popular culture, from Boby Moore to the Beatles, Graham Greene and George Orwell. So how did he come to join the IRA in 1970?
I began writing the book that would become Southside Provisional in 2009. I had left the IRA and Sinn Féin some 15 years earlier, having first joined up in 1970, and my 60th birthday was fast approaching. It was obvious I’d lived most of my life. Apart from the occasional communist rant and my shaking a fist at the television when Sinn Féin spokespersons were appearing, my son, who had much the same south Dublin upbringing as myself, knew nothing of my past. I felt I should produce something that would let him know where I had been; write something that would be evidence of my existence when I was gone.
Although I had two spells in the IRA, from 1970 to 1975 and again from 1981 to 1993, I took the decision to confine the book to the earlier one. The later period is a bleaker one, closer in time, and more difficult to write about without saying things I shouldn’t.
The writing itself was easy. I’d worked as a journalist for some years and, a one-fingered typist, had developed the habit of producing a first draft speedily. The early years came easily. I think all of us can vividly remember our formative years. I began at the beginning, with my upbringing, first in Malaya (as it then was), where my father was a civil engineer with the British Colonial Service, and then in south Dublin where as a Blackrock College boy I listened to English rock music and followed English football. I exulted as much as any Englishman when that country won the World Cup in 1966, utterly taken with the great liberal oasis across the water, so vibrant and exciting when held against our own grey and priest dismal land.
I described my coming of age, awakening to the injustice of the world through reading authors such as Graham Greene and George Orwell, writers who validated my feelings on, respectively, love and death, and the sharp unfairness of the ordered world. More taken with the personal than the political, I smoked such dope as it was possible to acquire in Dublin and, in 1967, longed most of all to be a flower child in San Francisco.
I wrote about going to UCD in 1968 and my coming of age politically against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the student revolts of 1968 and most dramatically, the North and how, returning to college in the autumn of 1970, it seemed only obvious that I join the Republican Club, the student branch of Sinn Féin.
Soon after, I felt it important to follow the logic of the convictions so recently acquired and began my nine-month quest to join the IRA. This proved much more difficult than people might imagine. The Officials, unkindly, told me that my ambition was evidence of an immature adventurism, that the IRA had plenty of members, and that what they wanted students like me to do was to get our degrees and be assisted into positions in the media, trade union movement, and public service, places where we would be of real value to the revolution.
Rebuffed, I dropped out of college that summer, still determined to become an IRA man, and having gone to Belfast and taken part in riots there in August 1970, I came close to being recruited by the Provisionals in the Lower Falls. If things had worked out as I wanted, I would have ended up as a volunteer in the 2nd Battalion’s famous D Company, the Dogs, led by Brendan Hughes and containing many whom I would later meet in prison in Belfast and in Long Kesh. But it didn’t happen. At the very last moment word came back from IRA headquarters in Dublin that I should return South and join the queue.
Fortunately the recruiting officer in Belfast, aware of my obvious disappointment, took pity and advised me of a back-door way into the IRA by joining up in London, where the unit had recently been decimated following a police raid on a training session. I made my way there the very next day and within a fortnight had achieved my objective. I was an IRA man – an unshareable knowledge which made me glow with a quasi-religious pride.
I wrote about my IRA training in the South and surprised myself with the detail I could remember. These were lessons unlike any I had ever learned and to this day are seared into my memory like the nursery rhymes I had learned off by heart as a young child, various snatches of poetry from Blackrock, and the music lyrics of the 1960s.
I describe how, back in England, we were asked to divert our efforts into raising finance, through armed robberies, and the subsequent arrest of members of my unit following one raid and at a time when I was briefly back in Ireland. Fortunately for me this meant the IRA was stuck with me, and following further training in the Mayo mountains, I was sent to the Border where I participated in a range of IRA activities before being sent into Derry.
There I encountered the young Martin McGuinness, a natural leader respected by both the volunteers and by adults twice and three times his age. I was arrested there in a raid on one of our call houses in November 71 and subsequently imprisoned in Belfast prison and then Long Kesh until September 1974 and describe the solid comradeship of those years. Released, I reported back and soon after was put in charge of IRA intelligence.
I left in late 1975 when the then Chief of Staff, Seamus Twomey, refused to back me in executing his orders, something that resulted in me and my men being threatened by the renegade group of IRA activists we had instructions from Twomey to arrest.
I rejoined in 1981, at the time of the hunger strikes in which 10 men died, and finally left for good at the time of the Downing Street declaration, when a clear enough restatement of British policy was being portrayed by Republican leaders as possibly meaning something else. I have observed from the sidelines since as the IRA declared a ceasefire, decommissioned, and finally disappeared into history, having taken a position on how to achieve Irish unity identical to that of the successive British governments it had fought against.
The bulk of my personal story was easily written, but it was only 60,000 words and when I did a word count on some comparable books, which I clearly got wrong, it seemed I needed something twice as long. This was followed by a lengthy bit of writing, much more difficult than what had come so easily before. At 136,000 words I decided it was time to stop writing, print it off, and look for an agent.
Enquiries with some who would know pointed to Jonathan Williams, the best known (and best) literary agent in Ireland. I spoke to him on the phone and he invited me to submit a few sample chapters which he would read. He came back to me fairly quickly to say he liked what he’d read and was interested. However, he first wanted me to shed at least 50,000 of the words I had written and told me that people would have no interest in reading stuff in my book that was readily available elsewhere.
I went back to the word processor in early 2012 and by February felt I had a serviceable product. Jonathan read it and agreed, though he tried hard to persuade me to say something about what happened after 1975. He sent the manuscript to one of his readers, the well-known journalist and author of The Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney.
*Moloney was persuasive and argued that the book simply did not work as it was. The first question any reader would ask would be ‘What happened after 1975?’. So I was persuaded to write an epilogue. Though it takes up some four and a half pages of a 218-page book, it is the part that has attracted most attention since Southside Provisional was published.
With the epilogue written the book went out to publishers in groups of four over the following two years, with a gap of a few months between groups as we waited hopefully for a positive response. And though 20 publishers read it, and three or four came close, the end verdict was always that it was insufficiently commercial and was unlikely to make money.
I found a couple of publishers on the internet myself and just when I was about to put the manuscript in a drawer, in January of this year, Orpen Press said it would publish it. I owe them a huge debt and hope that sales reward the trust of Ailbhe, Gerry and Eileen. I signed contracts in March, delivered the final manuscript at the end of April, and some six months later it is in the shops.
It feels terrific to pick up the finished product and read your own name on the cover; marvellous to walk into a bookshop and see copies of your book sitting on the shelves beside much that is truly great.
I will, after all, leave proof of my existence behind me, along with the son for whom I wrote it.
*This article was edited on 06/01/2015