Portrait of a ‘terrorist’.
It may have gone unnoticed to some but An Post, the Irish State postal service recently issued a stamp to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of Brendan Behan. Behan was of course a famous writer of books and plays. His works included the autobiographies, ‘The Borstal Boy’ and ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’ and the plays, ‘The Quare Fellow’ and An Giall (The Hostage). He was also a ‘terrorist’, or so he would have been described by the Irish media and academia, had he lived today.
As an IRA member in 1940 he was caught in possession of explosives in England during the IRA’s bombing campaign there and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. Later back in Ireland, he was sentenced to death, by De Valera’s Military Tribunal, for opening fire on a Garda detective, in 1942, at a republican commemoration in Dublin. This sentence was later commuted to 14 years penal servitude, most of which he was to spend in the Curragh Internment Camp. It was there that my own father met him and read (intermittently through his roars of laughter) the first drafts of Brendan’s ‘Borstal Boy’. Both men were released in the Irish Government’s 1946 general amnesty although Brendan was later to be jailed a third time, in England, for trying to help a republican prisoner to escape.
Renowned for his wit, Behan once recalled how it wasn’t just the Gardaí who were after him for the 1942 shooting incident. Apparently the incident had been a breach of IRA orders and he was on the run from them too. While in a ‘safe house’ in Belfast he claimed that a messenger arrived to tell him that the IRA had Court-marshalled him in his absence and sentenced him to death in his absence. ‘Well let’s hope they carry out the sentence in my absence as well’, said Brendan. Behan is also credited with having said in response to a question about terrorism -“The terrorists, they’re the ones with the small bombs!”
Unlike today’s former republican prisoners, Behan on his release from jail, was free to travel to the USA where he was feted by the literary classes. When he died in 1964 an IRA Guard of Honour escorted his coffin.
The commemorative Brendan Behan stamp of course does not commemorate Brendan’s republicanism but his contribution to literature in Ireland. However, it illustrates once again the absurdity of talking in one dimensional terms about ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorists’ in the context of conflict in Ireland and probably anywhere else.
In the past, Irish rebels were termed ‘felons’ until the term ‘felon’ became a mark of esteem – ‘A felon’s cap is the noblest crown an Irish head can wear’ according to the old Irish ballad . During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the normal term of abuse for those who opposed British rule with arms, became ‘terrorist’. The term is still often used today in Britain and Ireland both by the media and by academia, to describe those who fought against British rule in the North during that period. However, such terms do little to promote understanding about conflict in Ireland or possible lasting ‘solutions’. Labelling one group in a conflict, ‘terrorist’, may simply suggest that the ‘terrorists’ are the ‘problem’ and their elimination will provide the ‘solution’. This may hide or obscure the complexity of conflict and divert attention from developing meaningful solutions. Since the label, ‘terrorist’, is primarily a term of abuse – describing those we oppose – it therefore should be avoided by academia if it is serious about attempting to analyse in a dispassionate fashion the causes of conflict.
It is often said that one person’s ‘terrorist’ is another person’s ‘freedom fighter’. Nothing illustrates that more than the history of Ireland – from Michael Collins to De Valera to Sean Lemass to Martin McGuinness – all former ‘terrorists’ and future political leaders in their country. Sean McBride, a former IRA Chief of Staff (about the time Brendan Behan joined the IRA) was later to become famous as the only man ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peac e Prize. He later lent his name to the U.S .McBride Principles campaign which was so important in forcing the British to pass meaningful anti-discrimination legislation in the North in 1989. Indeed the repeated topping of the poll in elections in Ireland of former republican prisoners in recent times – deemed ‘terrorists’ by one group and political leaders by another – is probably the best example.
The new stamp to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of Brendan Behan, the Irish writer and Irish rebel, shows once again the contradictions which continue to exist in Ireland, in trying to deal with and understand, the conflict which has affected this country. For that reason (never mind any other), it should be greatly welcomed.
Féílim Ó hAdhmaill, Lecturer in Conflict and Peace Studies (and former republican prisoner)