Following an RTE documentary entitled ‘Atonement’ in April 2016 which covered my writing a play about the repentance of the IRA War of Independence hero Kevin Barry, a number of victims of IRA bombings contacted me asking for my help and/or advice about how to get truth from the IRA re the bombings that killed their family members.
I was not prepared for how terribly hurt and tearful and upset they still were after so many years remembering, in one case, [the Claudy bombings] their mother murdered by these IRA bombs.
I tried to offer what advice I could and I naively and wrongly assumed that my old friend IRA Commander Martin McGuinness would do the right thing and give the reparation of truth to these victims before he died. He most certainly did not.
Anyway, in the course of emails and phone calls, we discussed the alleged bombers – the family members had names and so on of the alleged bombers, one of whom they had actually spoken to by phone in the United States. He was living a sad life, his marriage had broken up and he was alone in an apartment. When the McGuinness option failed, the IRA was closing ranks on ever delivering truth to victims.
We discussed alleged IRA priests. A discussion of Catholic priests and the IRA inevitably settles on the most recent name bandied about in the often errant media, so I thought I might look back at the facts about some IRA or pro-IRA priests, before we enter the lower level of speculation. To begin at the beginning, 1971:
The Redemptorists of Clonard Monastery, Belfast
In 1971, there was a stand-off or virtual split for a very short time in the Derry Brigade of the IRA. Creggan and other units wanted a particular IRA man to be the new O.C. – Roddy – while the Bogside and Brandywell units wanted a different IRA man – Robby – to be the O.C.
It wasn’t a stand-off that was likely to be violent or even hot-tempered. It was a cool, calm and quite friendly difference of opinion as to who was best-suited to command the local operations (which continued in spite of the debate over who should rise to the post of Officer Commanding).
The difference of opinion went on for some weeks and eventually – I know not how – it came to the attention of the Belfast Brigade. I have my suspicions that a Derry family with highly-placed IRA relatives in Belfast must have mentioned the matter to their Belfast RA-relative.
Representatives of both camps were summoned to the Belfast Brigade of the IRA to make their respective cases, and I – young as I was – was chosen to represent Creggan. A prominent non-republican family (still alive) provided neutral transport to Belfast and, after a stop at Crocus Street, it was off to meet the IRA leadership in its secret HQ.
Of all places – and to my enduring surprise – the IRA HQ was located in Clonard Monastery.
There in a smoke-filled room I made the Creggan case to a number of senior IRA persons who asked some questions and said the matter would be considered.
These senior IRA persons were on-the-run and ‘wanted’ by the police and army. One of them was rumoured to be Chief of Staff of the IRA and a member of the IRA’s governing Army Council. [He was arrested some time later in Belfast in a blaze of publicity.]
The Clonard Monastery locus was a fully-functioning, operational HQ and was not in any way, shape or form a ‘conflict resolution’ centre – it was the very opposite, a conflict provocation centre.
I have no idea how long Clonard Monastery offered HQ facilities to the Belfast Brigade of the IRA.
The truth of such matters will probably never be told – northern nationalism and catholicism are in the throes of Big Secrets and Lies these days – not forgetting ‘mental reservations’ – and there they want to remain.
How many people were murdered by the IRA while it was ensconced in Clonard Monastery? Does anybody really care?
Fr. Seán Gabriel McManus
Fr. Seán McManus was born in Kinawley, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, but was a priest of the Redemptorist order [such as in Clonard] based in Perth, Scotland, in the early 1970s.
His IRA volunteer brother Patrick had been killed in a premature bomb explosion in 1958 during the ill-fated IRA ‘Border Campaign’. His other brother, Frank, later became a ‘Unity’ candidate Westminster MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone meaning that he could count on covert Sinn Féin support.
Fr. Seán was arrested by the RUC in August 1971 – the month of the introduction of Internment – in Enniskillen at a demonstration where he helped a stone-thrower to escape from police. Charged and brought before a judge, he famously refused to recognise the court, refused to pay the £20 fine imposed and uttered the following incendiary speech from the dock:
“I do not, I never have and I never will recognise the colonial State of British-occupied Ireland … I want to state publicly and unequivocally that I am in sympathy with the IRA – indeed sympathy is too weak a word … I cannot join them in the fight for freedom of my country, but the very least I can do is speak up for them when they are being slandered and vilified by unscrupulously vicious propaganda. The oppressors of Irish freedom call the IRA terrorists and murderers, but I call them by their proper titles; I call them freedom fighters, I call them heroes; and I venerate their dead as martyrs for Ireland” – this last reference included venerating his own brother Patrick.
Following instant national news coverage of this turbulent priest, he was transferred across the Atlantic to the United States and, unusually, accepted this discipline whereas other priests refused such orders. Instead of throwing himself into the quiet service of a parish, he went on to found the most influential Irish National Caucus to lobby Congress on behalf of the minority Catholic/Nationalist community.
He said in 1975 when asked by a British television reporter if he supported the Provisional I.R.A.: “I do, yes. I’m on record for quite a long time now for supporting the Provisional I.R.A.”
Fr. Piaras O’Duill, OFM Cap.
Fr. Piaras O’Duill [Pearse Doyle] is rarely mentioned nowadays, but in the 1970s/1980s there was no more regular priestly presence at IRA funerals and commemorations than the bold Fr. Piaras, who was a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin – in other words, a fairly independent Franciscan order priest not subject to the immediate dictates of diocesan Bishops or Cardinals who may have had [and did have] extreme views about his behaviour in associating so blatantly with senior IRA and republican figures. If they could have had him confined to barracks, they would have.
Son of parents who were both former members of the Old IRA, Dubliner Pearse Doyle – as he was as a younger man – spent five years in Belfast prison between 1957 and 1961 for his participation in the failed IRA ‘Border Campaign’ which was called off in 1962. His prison experience must have affected him greatly since he entered the Franciscan monastery at Ards in Donegal in 1963 on a path to ordination as a priest in 1971, after which he became chaplain in St. Brendan’s psychiatric hospital for 40 years.
However, with the advent of the PIRA campaign and the incarceration of many prisoners, Fr. Piaras was elected Chairperson of the National H-Block/Armagh Committee and had no hesitation in offering 100% of his support to the cause of imprisoned republicans. He said he saw no difference between the Old IRA campaign (of 1918-21) and the modern PIRA campaign. He was extremely dedicated to the Irish language.
As the diocesan church throughout Ireland, but particularly in Northern Ireland, sought to absolutely distance itself from armed force republicanism, Fr. Piaras O’Duill’s regular appearances on IRA/SF platforms in his Franciscan habit, at commemorations and funerals gave many Catholics the green light they sought to both practise their Catholicism while still supporting the IRA – a support the diocesan church was desperate to negate. In this way, he undoubtedly had the effect of encouraging the notion that Catholicism could be reconciled with IRA activities. He died in September of this year aged 86 and still a republican.
Fr. Piaras was subject to one restriction, though, which he obeyed. He was ordered not to wear ‘clericals’ at political gatherings. In other words, he was ordered not to dress as a Catholic priest while exhibiting support for any matters relating to the IRA.
Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone
Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, County Antrim is a well-known Cistercian monastic community founded in 1948. Two members of its community, Fr. Thomas O’Neill and Brother Patrick Joseph Skeehan, appeared before Belfast’s Magistrates Court on January 22nd, 1972, charged with aiding IRA escapees from Belfast Prison.
They were jointly charged with five others, one of whom was also charged with possessing explosives. Supporters outside the court, The Guardian reported, later gave them a ‘heroes’ welcome’ and they were driven off in a car.
The Cistercian monks had been arrested driving the two prison escapees toward the border with the Republic of Ireland.
Then there was the old fake news yarn about the priest visiting his brother in Long Kesh and being held against his will and tied up while his IRA brother took his clerical garb and escaped posing as him – wait a minute – it actually happened to Fr. Gerard Green whose brother, Francis, overpowered him, dragged off his priestly clothing and had him tied up by other IRA prisoners while he escaped dressed as him in September 1973 – geddit?
Fr. Patrick Fell
Among the least publicised Catholic priest IRA members was Fr. Patrick Fell who was sentenced to twelve years in prison in Birmingham, England, in 1973 alongside IRA volunteers Frank Stagg, Thomas Rush and Anthony Lynch for conspiracy to cause explosions in Coventry. [Frank Stagg later died on hungerstrike in Wakefield prison in February 1976.] Fell was the leader of the IRA unit while Stagg, who was sentenced to ten years, was his deputy. Fell’s conviction and imprisonment did not cause any particular shock or horror to the Catholic church or to the State at the time – he was viewed as an errant priest who got caught.
Patrick Fell had been a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism who then became a Catholic priest in Coventry. It was after some years of ministry that he joined the IRA. During his time in prison, mostly on the Isle of Wight, he began an application to the ECHR but his politics changed dramatically when his fellow prisoners beat him severely believing that he had had a homosexual relationship with another prisoner which was thought at that time to be unthinkably unRepublican.
He never again showed interest in Sinn Féin or the IRA and upon his release travelled to Donegal where he was, rather surprisingly, incardinated into the Raphoe diocese and allowed to serve until he died in 2011.
Fell effectively repented his earlier involvement with the IRA and lived a quiet and fairly blameless life after serving his time. His dalliance with the IRA didn’t work out well for him either in political or in personal terms.
Mr. Patrick Ryan
Also in 1973, another so-called IRA priest, Patrick Ryan of Tipperary, actually left the Pallottine religious order when he refused to accept an appointment to a parish in England. His former superior, Fr. William Hanley also of Tipperary, explained to The New York Times that Ryan should no longer be referred to as either ‘Fr.’ or as a priest.
Cardinal Basil Hume similarly explained that Ryan was no longer a priest but was a plain ‘Mr’, but this did not stop the press from using ‘Priest’ headlines [‘The Devil in the Dog Collar’] for many years concerning Mr. Ryan’s reported IRA activities in the Quartermaster section of the IRA – supposedly arranging the supply of weapons and explosives and large amounts of cash from willing donors around the world, primarily from Libyan Dictator and Brit-hater Muammar Gadaffy.
Ryan admitted in a newspaper interview his fundraising activities [which were supposedly of the order of many millions of petrodollars], but denied everything else.
Far from the supply activities alleged against him, however, former priest Mr. Ryan was arrested in Belgium on the 30th of June, 1988 a month after three off-duty British soldiers were murdered by gunfire in the neighbouring Netherlands.
In his house, Belgian police found bomb-making equipment and manuals and ‘a large amount of cash’.
The British government immediately sought his extradition to answer charges related to London bombings, but he went on hunger strike and a nervous Belgian government flew him to Dublin on a military aircraft to be rid of him. Following remarks by Conservative MPs and Margaret Thatcher publicly branding Mr. Ryan a ‘terrorist’, the equally nervous Irish government refused to extradite him on the grounds that he could not get a fair trial.
Ryan revelled in his priestly past but it was clear that he rejected his priesthood back in 1973. He is still alive in Tipperary at the time of writing this at the ripe age of 87 and still receiving republican admirers from time to time who still refer to him warmly as ‘The Padre’.
Fr. Bartholomew Burns
Again in 1973 – a bloom year for priests and the IRA – an Irish-born priest. Fr. Bartholomew Burns from Sneem in County Kerry, escaped from his parochial house in St. Teresa’s, Possilpark, Glasgow within 30 minutes of police arresting two young men and one young woman outside it. Uncertainty about the possession of a warrant caused police to delay entering and arresting him.
A short time earlier, the three young persons had been seen entering the parochial house with boxes which were later found to contain 630 sticks of gelignite, 150 electric detonators and various IRA intelligence documents and pamphlets.
The two young men from Donegal, James and John Sweeney, and a Scots girl, Caroline Renehan – daughter of Sinn Féin’s secretary in Scotland – were later tried. James got 7 years, Caroline got 5 years while John got a ‘not proven’ verdict. James and Caroline had lodged a defence blaming Fr. Burns.
Fr. Burns, who had meanwhile been driven away from his house by a fellow priest, Fr. Martin, was suspended by the Scottish Archdiocese but had disappeared back to Ireland where he was later arrested to face extradition. His alleged offences were deemed political by the Supreme Court and he was released.
He initially tried to get a letter from the Scottish church recommending him as fit for a parish in Ireland, but this was denied, but only after some debate. He then disappeared from public view and has never been heard of since. If he is still alive, he is 82 years old now. His involvement with the IRA did not work out well for him either.
Fr. Patrick Moloney
No piece about Catholic priests and the IRA would be accurate without mention of New York’s Fr. Patrick Moloney [actually a semi-independent Eastern rite Melkite priest] who was arrested in June 1982 in the Republic of Ireland along with his brother John for shipping arms to the IRA.
The Limerick-born priest was held in Portlaoise prison for a few months after which he was released when the charges against him were dropped. His brother was later jailed for the offence. At this time, Irish police wrongly suspected that they had captured another former priest who was nicknamed ‘The Padre’[see above, Fr. Ryan] .
Fr. Moloney was arrested once more in November 1993 in New York in connection with a $7.4 million robbery of the Brinks armored car facility in Rochester, the fifth largest such robbery in American history.
Arrested along with him were a former Rochester police officer who was a security guard in Brinks and a former IRA prisoner, Sam Millar, who had previously served 8 years in Long Kesh.
Millar was staying in one of Fr. Moloney’s apartments where police found $2 million. $168,000 was found in Fr. Moloney’s famous ‘Bonitas House’ which was a kind of half-way house for people entering the United States legally or illegally. Fr. Moloney was served four years in Federal prison.
After his release from prison and his return to Bonitas House, Fr. Moloney told his story to many newspapers.
He had kept ‘on the run’ IRA fugitives at Bonitas House, he claimed, including Nessan Quinlivan who had shot his way out of Brixton prison in 1991. He had kept Gerry Adam’s brother, Liam, for a few months – but nobody had told him about Liam Adams’ paedophile past.
Over $5.2 million was never recovered and authorities suspect it was destined for the coffers of the IRA.
In spite of these colourful moments in Fr. Moloney’s past, he is actually most famous for his work for the poor, especially drug addicts, in the East Village where he has been known as a street priest for over 40 years.
Sam Millar wrote a book in 2003 entitled ‘On the Brinks’ which has been optioned by Hollywood but does not tell where the other $5.2 million dollars ended up.
Fr. James Chesney
For an updated post about Fr. James Chesney, see here.
Given the momentous events of the early 1970s – the introduction of internment without trial in August 1971, Bloody Sunday in January 1972, and later the Hunger Strikes in the 1980s – the number of Catholic priests who got themselves involved with the IRA is in fact miniscule, given the large number of ordained Irish priests serving throughout Ireland, Britain and across the world on missions.
The Catholic church’s leaders were resolutely opposed to the IRA moreso than they are today, in the wake of a very imperfect peace process.
Nowadays, accommodating themselves to morally dubious political realities in Northern Ireland – former mass murderers and bombers are in suits and in government – they are silent about the very keywords of their prophetic ministry.
There was no mention during the funeral of Martin McGuinness in front of a gathered posse of paramilitary leaders of the keywords of Sin, Guilt, Repentance, Salvation of souls, Reparation to victims (reparation of Truth to start) and Humility – all of this prophetic ministry has been silenced to allow for accommodation to Sinn Féin in power.
This deliberate silence of the Catholic church’s prophetic ministry to paramilitaries is more damaging to Northern Ireland – and more useful to the IRA – than all of the previous priestly cases of IRA involvement described here.
For a related discussion of why the IRA has not repented, see here.