Ideas

Avenging Empire: My time in the IRA

Bank robberies, building explosives and prison hunger strikes. These were just part of Kieran Conway's life in the Irish Republican Army. Decades later, he's a well-known criminal lawyer in Dublin. This episode from IDEAS, producer Mary O’Connell looks at Conway’s political transformation from British admirer to IRA fighter.

Kieran Conway looks back on his political transformation from British admirer to IRA fighter

Kieran Conway was the Director of Intelligence of the IRA for a period in the 1970s and 1980s. He is currently a lawyer and barrister in Dublin. This episode is based on his memoir Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts. (Paul McErlane/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Bank robberies, building explosives and prison hunger strikes. These were just part of Kieran Conway's life in the Irish Republican Army. Decades later, he's a well-known criminal lawyer in Dublin. This episode from IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell looks at Conway's political transformation from British admirer to IRA fighter.

**This episode originally aired October 22, 2018.

I met some of the finest men and women of my generation — people who would've, and did, die for the cause. However, the war wasn't worth a single drop of anybody's blood.- Kieran Conway

"There was nothing in my past to suggest that I might one day ... join the IRA." So begins Conway's memoir of his life in the Irish Republican Army. He was an unlikely prospect.

Born in a middle-class household in Dublin, his father worked for the British empire as an auxiliary police officer in Malaya, before it gained independence. He even attended English-style boarding schools.

He was 11 years old when his family returned to Ireland. He realized he loved everything about England including its music and culture. England was that "great liberal oasis across the water; Ireland was hopelessly backward." 

During university, Conway discovered politics. Like many students in the 1960s, he protested the war in Vietnam, and the apartheid system in South Africa. He became an atheist. He knew virtually nothing about the struggle in his native Ireland. But, in 1968, Kieran says, "things started heating up in the north."

(Read by actor Malachy Byrne) 1:06

A burgeoning Catholic civil rights movement, borrowing from African-American protests in America, began to make its presence felt. Catholics in the north decided that they would no longer remain silent over their treatment as second-class citizens. The political system denied them votes. Good jobs and adequate housing weren't available to most Catholics.

Daniel Geary believes this environment was fostered by a systemic environment of privilege, led by Protestant minister Ian Paisley.

"Paisley believed the Northern Ireland Catholic civil rights movement was analogous to the radical African-American movement," said Geary, an associate professor of U.S. history at Trinity College Dublin.

"Both represented not social justice, but social disorder."  

Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts by Kieran Conway is published by Orpen Press, 2014.
This anti-Catholic sentiment has deep roots. According to journalist Sean O'Hagan, "one of the co-founders of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, had promised 'a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.' Four decades later, the state was unapologetically biased in favour of its majority Protestant population."

All of this began to affect Conway's world view.

In 1970, he joined the IRA and began training. Eventually he rose to the position of chief of intelligence. He robbed banks, built explosives and served time in prison. He fired guns, but says he isn't sure if one of his bullets ever killed anyone. Conway was on the front-lines of "The Troubles" for 17 years.

He ultimately earned his law degree and today is a well-known solicitor in Dublin. He authored a 2014 memoir titled Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts.

To this day, Conway maintains that he "likes the British people, their culture and music. But, I hate their government and army."

Would he join the IRA again? Yes, he says. "I met some of the finest men and women of my generation — people who would've, and did, die for the cause. However, the war wasn't worth a single drop of anybody's blood."

Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts by Kieran Conway is published by Orpen Press.

Further reading:

  • The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan, published by Palgrave Macmillan Press, Ireland,  2002.
  • Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA by Richard English, published by Oxford University Press, London, 2004.  
     


**Readings in this episode are by Malachy Byrne, Susan McReynolds and Padraig Bailey. The program was produced by Mary O'Connell.

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