Former Belfast IRA man says Kerry’s Republican history ‘inspired’ him during 1970s conflict

Belfast native Paddy McMenamin recently visited Kerry to launch her new book, ‘From Armed Struggle to Academia’.

Like many people from the period between 1969 and 1998, life took an unknown course because of the troubles.

In the days before everything irreversibly changed, Paddy and his friends enjoyed attending football matches in Protestant East Belfast, despite being raised at Turf Lodge in West Belfast’s Republican heartland.

“Although we were known as ‘Wee Fenians,’ there was never a problem at the time,” Paddy said.

“Although there was always this background to the split. We knew there were differences, but the kind of trouble that eventually happened seemed too distant.”

When Terrence O’Neill, the former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, said that if Catholics were employed and given homes they would act like Protestants, it left Paddy and his generation no doubt about the future where they lived.

There will be many who categorically disagree with Paddy’s claim regarding armed conflict, and whether it actually produces positive results, many suggest.

Innocent people have died on both sides to reach where we are today.

When it comes to troubles there are established ‘norms’ in terms of attitude.

Accepting and compromising our views and beliefs is one such requirement of the peace process. It is in this context that the story of Paddy finds its true context.

As sectarian strife clouded over the 1960s, Paddy joined the Republican youth movement and later the Provisional IRA.

Prison life was inevitable. He was arrested in 1971 and spent several months in prison.

He was interrogated at Hollywood Barracks and released after the IRA armistice in 1972 due to lack of sleep.

While the trials and tribulations of Paddy’s life played out several miles to the southwest, Republican history and the influence of counties such as Cork and Kerry did not affect him.

“I had read a lot on the republican conflict in Kerry, and in particular the civil war and the Ballycidi massacre,” he said.

“If anything, the kind of resistance in Kerry’s tumultuous struggle really propelled us north to what we were going through.”

After moving back to Donegal to recover, Paddy’s active IRA service soon resumed. Within months he was in the long hairstyle with the likes of Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty.

In the book, Paddy recounts the forty people he knows who were killed over a 30-year period, including his brother-in-law who was shot and killed in 1988.

Paddy was involved in countless skirmishes with the British Army during the dark days when street fighting, disability and death were a regular occurrence.

“We were fully committed at the time. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled our streets every day. We were involved in carrying weapons and looking for targets.

“Things happened, and all I can say is that we hurt the people who were inflicted on ourselves as well. It was all part of the struggle,” he said.

“The internment turned all our attention to what was happening. We were young and being in sensory deprivation for 12 hours was horrifying. Then they will ask you who was involved and where the weapons were thrown.”

Paddy spent time in the prison ship ‘Maidstone’ in Belfast Lock with Gerry Adams and 300 hundred other prisoners.

This was followed by Milligan Camp in the days following Bloody Sunday. Even though Paddy’s time in Long Kesh predates the more oppressive H-block days of the 1980s, its impact on him was no less enlightening.

“The interesting thing about Long Hair in my time is when we all became republicans. Until that time, in places like Belfast, republicanism was associated with certain families,” he said.

“We gave political and historical lectures in Kesh; We learned why we were there. After that time, republicanism became a community movement,” he said.

Paddy told me that he and Bobby Sands were arrested over the same weekend in August 1972 and had spent the first few days around the same prison.

Paddy said, “He was an ordinary man like us, even though he now has worldwide status like “Che” Guevara.

“Bobby later became the leader of the H-blox. He was a great storyteller who kept the morale up. He famously told a story that lasted two days. It was wonderful to boost morale. He was a determined young man. Those What all the men did was out of the ordinary,” Paddy said.

After his release, Paddy continued his IRA activity. In 1977 he says he was “within inches” of being caught again.

As prison sentences for criminals were being increased to essentially 20 years, Paddy began to see life beyond struggle.

His old mother also begged him, saying that if he ‘went in again’ he might not see her alive until he got out. Instead Paddy left for Donegal.

“Your luck was about to run out at some stage, and I had the Donegal connection. I still believed in what we were doing but I swore to myself that I would never go back to the long hairstyle,” They said.

“When I Saw the Boys” [hunger strikers] Coming out in coffins I volunteered to join an Active Service Unit (ASU) in England. But in the end, I couldn’t do it because I was married with little kids.”

Life eventually settled in Donegal where Paddy worked at a German car factory for more than 20 years.

After being redundant, he returned to education at NUI Galway, where he completed his BA and MA before graduating as a secondary school teacher in his late 50s.

Paddy believes that what he did as an IRA volunteer was necessary, and he is optimistic about a bright new future in the North.

“We grew up in an illegal statelet where something had to happen. If I was younger or older, when things happened, I probably wouldn’t have been involved. It’s only young people who fight wars,” he said.

“People will tell you there was no need” [conflict], I would disagree. No more than in Vietnam or Algeria, it had to happen. It was unfortunate but things needed to change.

“We’ve moved to a better place now. In Belfast, there are ex-IRAs and UVFs holding things together on the peace line. It’s never going to go back to how it was. We’re headed for unity And when we live together a stage has to come.

‘From armed struggle to education world’ Available at Kerry Bookstores.