An Irishman's Diary


A recent photograph in this newspaper showed a young boy kicking a ball beside an IRA mural on a gable-end in Belfast. The mural is classically within the iconographic mythology of republican street art: an honour party of volunteers in dark glasses, berets, black uniforms, firing Kalashnikovs over the Tricolour-draped coffin of a comrade, as an officer stares bleakly away from the dead towards the next stage of the struggle. Almost incidentally, part of the name of a local IRA man, killed in the Troubles, is visible on the far edge of the mural.

That man was Joseph Downey, age 23. I was present for the start of Joseph Downey's journey to immortalisation on a gable-end - just about the only place where he is remembered still - when huge numbers of drunken Orangemen gathered outside a nationalist area in the centre of Belfast and began to bawl: "F--- the Virgin Mary", rhythmically and repetitively. Between them and the local nationalist residents, cowering in their flats and terraces, stood a line of policemen and behind them, a line of British soldiers.

The senior British army officer went over and spoke to the senior RUC officer to protest at this obscenity, inexcusable anywhere, and quite atrocious in these circumstances. He demanded that the RUC officer deploy his men to move the loyalist crowds on, and to make arrests if they refused.

The RUC officer declined, as the baying increased. Very well, said the British officer, I will get my men to move these bastards myself. You will not, replied the RUC man. I have operational command here, and this crowd is not to be interfered with. As I witnessed the confrontation, I actually thought the officer, a young major, was close to hitting the RUC man or even unholstering his sidearm.

White with anger

"This is a f---ing disgrace," he said finally. "I didn't join this f---ing army to see bigoted mobs rule our streets. This is a disgrace and you are a f---ing disgrace, and by God if things were just a bit different I would shoot you for what you're doing here today." With that he returned to his men, chalk-white with anger; and almost as if the mob had sensed what was going on, the chanting got worse and more obscene, while the besieged nationalists huddled in their houses.

And then a door burst open within the flats, and an antic, drunken figure appeared, shouting: "Up the IRA." That figure was Joseph Downey, and for his single act of verbal defiance to the Orange mob, he was promptly arrested and taken away by the RUC, despite the strong protests of the army officer, who now seemed close to murder.

Joseph Downey later appeared in Belfast Magistrates Court, where medical evidence was given that he had the mental age of a seven-year-old. He was, nonetheless, sentenced to six months' imprisonment; and if you sometimes wonder where the energy and the ferocity for the 30 years of war came from, what happened to poor young Downey might in part explain it.

Post-internment days

He did his six months, came out, and then joined the IRA. No organisation with any sense would have touched this unfortunate simpleton; but the IRA at that time had no sense at all. Under the governance of the psychopath Seamus Twomey, it was simply kill-crazy. All it wanted was volunteers and guns, and it was awash with both in those mad post-internment days.

And just as nobody was aware of Joseph Downey in life, nor was anyone really aware of his death in 1972 amid a mad orgy of midsummer killing by all sides. He was - predictably - drunk in the middle of a gun battle, and no wiser than he had ever been. He is reported to have emerged from cover, waving a pistol and shouting, and was shot dead - but nobody seems to have actually seen what happened or known who shot him. Nor did anyone really care. Another dead body; next unfortunate, please.

You can call this poor sad creature Volunteer Joseph Downey, but he was not a volunteer for anything. Throughout his wretched life, not a single door opened if it could have closed: no rescuing hand guided him towards better days or kinder prospects, if far worse alternatives were available.

Most of us are carried by a rush of history which is so broad that we never feel its power upon our keel. But we all know that, in different circumstances, Martin McGuinness might well have been a successful and affluent butcher, Gerry Adams a pompous, self-educated schoolteacher and local councillor and Brian Keenan a multi-millionaire whose ranting enthusiasms for pool, poit∅n and complex computer games would have caused his friends to dread an invitation to his vast and tasteless bungalow in the Sperrins.

No possibilities

And who knows - I might have been an impoverished and gibbering republican fundamentalist keening beside the hearth for the lost republic, chinking my few pennies while in the hearth, my last coals cooled and died.

These are possibilities. No such possibilities existed for Joseph Downey. In no sense was he master of his own life, and only those ignorant of that life could call him either terrorist or volunteer. Yet he thrives now in a mural, as children gambol beneath his name and as the real truth of his tragic life is replaced by the myth of garbled memory - thus Helen of Troy, thus Caesar, thus Napoleon, thus us all: thus Joseph Downey, human being, IRA, RIP.