Former IRA volunteer Paddy McMenamin talks about his new book that charts his political life story in Belfast during the Troubles, to qualifying as a secondary school teacher in his 50s.
Belfast native Paddy McMenamin visited Kerry recently to launch his new book, ‘From Armed Struggle to Academia’.
Like many from the period between 1969 to the 1998, life took an uncharted course due to the Troubles.
In the days before everything changed irrevocably, Paddy and his friends enjoyed attending soccer matches in Protestant East Belfast, despite his upbringing in Turf Lodge in the Republican heartland of West Belfast,
“Even though we were known as the ‘wee Fenians’, there was never any bother at that time,” Paddy said.
"There was always this background of division though. We knew there were differences, but the kind of trouble that eventually happened seemed a long way away.”
When the former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terrence O’Neill, said if Catholics were employed and given houses they will act like Protestants, it left Paddy and his generation in no doubt about the future of where they lived.
There will be many who flatly disagree with Paddy’s assertion regarding the armed struggle, and whether it produced the truly positive outcome many suggest.
Innocent people died indiscriminately on both sides in order for us to get to where we are today.
There are established ‘norms’ in terms of perspectives when it comes to the Troubles.
Having to accept and compromise our views and beliefs is one such requirement of the peace process. It’s in this space that Paddy’s story finds its true context.
As the storm clouds of sectarian conflict rolled in during the 1960s, Paddy joined the Republican youth movement and subsequently the Provisional IRA.
Prison life was inevitable. In 1971 he was arrested and spent several months in jail.
Interrogated and put through sleep deprivation in Holywood Barracks, he was released following the IRA ceasefire in 1972.
While the trials and tribulations of Paddy’s life were played out many miles from the southwest, the republican history and influence of counties like Cork and Kerry was not lost on him.
“I had done a lot of reading on the republican struggle in Kerry, and, in particular, the Civil War and the Ballyseedy massacre," he said.
"If anything, the kind of resistance in Kerry’s storied struggle actually inspired us up north in what we were doing.”
Having retreated to Donegal to recuperate, Paddy’s active IRA service soon resumed. Within months he was in Long Kesh with the likes of Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty.
In the book, Paddy recalls up to forty people he knows who were killed over that 30-year period, including his brother-in-law who was shot dead in 1988.
Paddy was involved in countless skirmishes with the British Army in those dark days when street battles, maiming, and death were a regular occurrence.
“We were fully committed at the time. Every day we had hundreds of troops patrolling our streets. We were involved in moving weapons and looking for targets.
"Things happened, and all I can say is we inflicted injuries on people that were also inflicted on ourselves. It was all part of the conflict,” he said.
“Internment changed all our focus on what was happening. We were young and it was frightening to be put through sensory deprivation for up to 12 hours. Then they would batter you about asking who was involved and where were the arms were dumped.”
Paddy spent time in the prison ship ‘Maidstone’ in Belfast Lough with Gerry Adams and 300 hundred other prisoners.
Next up was Magilligan Camp in the days after Bloody Sunday. Even though Paddy’s time in Long Kesh was before the more oppressive H-Block days of the 1980s, its influence on him was no less enlightening.
“The interesting thing about Long Kesh in my time there is that it’s when we all became republicans. Up to that point, republicanism was associated with just certain families in places like Belfast,” he said.
“We held political and historical lectures in the Kesh; we learned why we were in there. After that time, republicanism became a community movement,” he said.
Paddy tells me he and Bobby Sands were arrested on the same weekend in August 1972 and spent the first few days in the same prison vicinity.
“He was just an ordinary guy like us, even though he now has a worldwide status like "Che" Guevara,” said Paddy.
“Bobby later became the leader in the H-Blocks. He was a great storyteller that kept morale up. He famously told a story that lasted for two days. It was amazing for lifting morale. He was a determined young guy. What all those men did was out of the ordinary,” Paddy said.
After his release, Paddy continued his IRA activity. In 1977 he says he came ‘within inches’ of being caught again.
As prison sentences for re-offenders were being upped to a mandatory 20 years, Paddy started to see life beyond the conflict.
His elderly mother also pleaded with him, saying if he ‘went in again’ he probably wouldn’t see her alive by the time he got out. Paddy left for Donegal instead.
“Your luck was going to run out at some stage, and I had the Donegal connection. I still completely believed in everything we were doing but I’d swore to myself that I’d never go back to Long Kesh,” he 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 just couldn’t do it as I was married with small kids.”
Life eventually settled in Donegal where Paddy worked for over 20 years in a German car factory.
After he was made 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 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. Had I been 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 for it [conflict]. I would disagree. No more than Vietnam or Algeria, it had to happened. It was unfortunate but things were going to need to change.
“We’ve moved to a better place now. In Belfast, those keeping things together on the peace lines are ex-IRA and UVF. It’s never going to go back to how it was. We are going to have unity and there has to come a stage when we live together.”
‘From Armed Struggle to Academia’ is available in bookstores.