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The Yank: A Review

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

27 November 2022

At first when I heard about this book, I thought it would be some spoof by a wannabe and wasn’t inclined to take it seriously.  That was a mistake.  The Yank is an entertaining and informative tale of the exploits of a Yank who joined the IRA.  That in itself would be a story worth telling, except John Crawley’s life in the IRA was no ordinary story.  He comes across as a committed and dedicated Irish republican and even a veritable James Bond, though he might not like the comparison with the fictional agent of British imperialism and murder at her majesty’s request.

Crawley was a young man raised in the US, who when his family moved back to Ireland eventually decided to go back to the US and joined the Marines, with just one purpose in mind, to become a fighting and killing machine and return to Ireland to join the IRA.  By fighting and killing machine, I don’t mean some mindless grunt as the Yankee military might put it.  He was determined and trained hard and excelled, to such a point that the US intelligence services wanted to recruit him and when he took the decision to come back to Ireland the US military were sorry to see him go.  He was one of their best, something they recognised and tried to take advantage of.  Sadly, his undisputable abilities were not recognised by the IRA and Martin McGuinness in particular.  They had apparently little use for his rather unique skill set, which would be considered to be invaluable in any armed organisation, except in the IRA under Adams and McGuinness.

Crawley tells his autobiographical story in a very readable fashion; at times you feel you are having a fireside chat with a rather likeable man.  It is an easy read and worth it.  The book has received some criticism from bourgeois critics who would rather that he just told his story of a Yank in the IRA, much like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  But his tale is not one of fiction and the politics of Ireland are intimately bound up with his decision to join the IRA and remain in it, even after a lengthy prison sentence following his capture on the Marita Anne, when he and former Sinn Féin T.D. Martin Ferris tried to import arms to Ireland.

His politics are important to the story.  He is at times quite blunt and even clumsy in how he states them, sounding very much like Ruari Ó Bradaigh at times, though in the last chapter his explanation of why he rejected the Good Friday Agreement is much better, sincere and at times hits the nail on the head.  He dedicated his life to an ideal and fought for it.  He had never suffered at the hands of the Brits, nor does he seem to be caught up some dewy-eyed nationalist dream but rather he made an ideological decision to commit to something and stuck with it.  This ideal was betrayed and part of how it was betrayed is shown in his story.  He doesn’t set out to besmirch McGuinness but I have to admit that I never took seriously any of the conspiracy tales around McGuinness and Adams, but there are many details in the book that call into question what McGuinness was about and with whom in later years and I am now more sympathetic to some of these stories.

Crawley had a military expertise that few if anyone else in the IRA had and yet McGuinness the head honcho in the IRA whose later reputation as a military man would help sway the IRA towards the GFA and disarmament did not value his expertise or indeed listen to him.  He describes him as military illiterate, something I am inclined to agree with.  But McGuinness could not only not be questioned politically, but militarily.  He remarks at one point about IRA operations and weaponry that

Martin went silent. I could see he was seething, but he said no more about it. I shut my mouth. The last thing I wanted to do was alienate him. I wanted to help the IRA beat the Brits. I wasn’t there to criticise him personally, although I believe that’s how he interpreted it. My heart fell into my boots. I had expected to be led by skilled professionals, men who were technically and tactically proficient. A true professional would value the correction and pass it on to the men on the ground but not this fellow. He took it as an insult.

Because of his status and prestige in the movement, I knew that if Martin McGuinness said the rocket didn’t explode then, as far as the IRA was concerned, it didn’t explode. Nobody was going to listen to what I had to say about it. It didn’t matter to me personally whether or not I was believed, but the real damage was to volunteers’ confidence in the weapon.

He deals with the politics of betrayal in the GFA, and though he laments and rails against the lack of professionalism from the IRA leadership and the consequences of the illiteracy of McGuinness & Co. he doesn’t deal with the politics of a movement where McGuinness and others who were undoubtedly careerists from the beginning were able to hold sway.  How could a movement get away with sending out men and women to fight, die and kill and not try to do their best for them?  This question goes beyond the individuals concerned, though they played a major role in it.  This question is not answered.  But he gives us a lot of information, some of which should raise questions about the IRA leadership in the minds of the reader and indeed Crawley who also deals with the issue.

Crawley made many suggestions to the IRA and McGuinness in particular about things they could do.  It ranged from simple stuff that every sniper have their own rifle adjusted for them, to other things.  His ideas were, and pardon the pun, shot down.  Most of them were basic common-sense things, others were based on his extensive and intense experience in the US military.  Perhaps McGuinness and Adams watched the wrong documentaries and war films, but some of his suggestions were not a million miles from common sense, but yet the military expert of the IRA, McGuinness rejected them.  Why? we do not know, though he does hint at it later in the book.

There is no doubt that the IRA was infiltrated from top to bottom.  That is beyond question and he refers to various activities that show that.  He also points out that many of the more successful IRA operations in Britain, were successful because the IRA leadership knew nothing about them.  The operation he himself was arrested for the second time was, he has said in interviews, probably due to informants.  The first time he was arrested aboard the Marita Anne was also due to an informer, Seán O’ Callaghan.  This is a matter of public record.  He notes about operations in Britain that he had some knowledge of, but could also be applied to other operations he had nothing to with such as the Brighton bombing that:

This policy of pulverising the heart of England’s financial district was not the result of the IRA Army Council sitting around a table, hammering out a grand strategy and ordering it to be implemented. Six of the seven men on the Council knew nothing of these attacks until they heard about them on the news. The Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate bombings took place because a handful of volunteers in the GHQ England Department, with significant input from South Armagh, put the operations together on their own initiative.
At some point the question arises as to what degree MI5 was both directing the IRA campaign and fighting against it.  This was never countenanced by the IRA leadership or indeed many, though not all, members.
Dark murmurings by some that the IRA might have been infiltrated at the highest level were dismissed as treacherous by most volunteers. Although we knew that the CIA had infiltrated the KGB and the KGB had, in turn, recruited top people within the CIA, FBI, MI5 and MI6, the notion that the Brits might have infiltrated the IRA in any meaningful way was laughed out of court. Even to hint that it might be possible was deemed to be letting the team down, if not bordering on disloyalty.
Again, Crawley does not ask why this was so.  It wasn’t just the failings of individuals but is more typical of armed organisations around the world that demand unquestioning loyalty.  The loyalty, a noble concept, of IRA members was their own undoing.  The movement was not based on politics but loyalty to a leadership, one which did a deal with the Brits and undermined its own armed campaign.

In Crawley’s account there are many, numerous examples of when the IRA could have done more and indeed had he been listened to, the war would have been very different, both in intensity and also in choice of targets.  The illiterates chose not to listen to him.  However, though he thinks the IRA could have waged a war to beat the Brits to a standstill, it couldn’t.  He does recognise the importance of politics which he correctly distinguishes from electoralism, which only served to further the careers of Adams and others.  However, he is insistent on the chances of the military campaign, mistakenly I believe.  Armed struggle can be an impetus to mass struggle or a support to it.  It can also frequently be a substitute for it.  By the time he joined the IRA, the armed struggle was a substitute for mass struggle and an impediment to their electoral strategy.  It was, as he notes wound down in the run up to the GFA, but not just in the name of electoralism but in the name of winding down any opposition to British rule.  Of some of his former comrades he says

It was stomach-churning to listen to those sanctimonious dupes within the Provisional movement who began boasting about their “journey,” as if the transition from resistance to collaboration was a measure of personal growth. Guided by the dark hand of British intelligence, they helped transform the Provos from the most dangerous opponent of British rule in Ireland into the gift that keeps on giving.
He is not wrong, the GFA keeps giving on the provos have travelled around the world lecturing insurgent organisations on the error of their ways, from Iraq to Mexico and even dropped into Colombia during the peace process to lend a hand to the defeat of the FARC, an organisation that was in any case bereft of strategy, morals and ultimately of any political ideas, something which became very clear after they signed their peace deal.  A bit like Adams and co.

The politics aside his book is a fascinating look at the life of an IRA volunteer, one who has not bowed down to the political correctness of the SF leadership.  His description of his time in England would be riveting, except we obviously know the outcome.  It is nevertheless interesting.  Crawley has a gift for writing, and he should not stop now.  In all conflicts Historic Memory, as it is termed is important and just another battlefield.  His is a voice that deserves to be heard and one which has to date been drowned out by Adams and McGuinness loyalists.  He should write more about his experiences.

There has been a slew of publications and memoirs by IRA volunteers, many of them by Adams loyalists.  This is not one of them.  Prior to this, our only insight on the inner workings and politics of individual volunteers was through the Boston College.  At the time Sinn Féin described it as a touts charter, due to the criticism levelled, by those who gave their testimony, at Adams and co.  Martin McGuinness is dead and there have been too many publications, sanctioned by the IRA, or at least not meeting with its disapproval for Crawley’s book to be placed in that category.  Instead, they have opted, unsuccessfully, to ignore it, hoping just like the IRA it will go away.  That hasn’t happened and the book is doing well and deserves to be read.

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