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 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:
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. Frank later became a champion of IRA prisoners in the English prisons during his Westminster years.
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. Thomas O’Neill
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.
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 82yrs 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’.
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 ended up.
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. The difference of opinion went on for some weeks and eventually – I know not how – it came to the attention of the Belfast Brigade.
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. I left and was driven home by the neutral family.
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.
Fr. James Chesney
Now we leave the realm of facts and enter that dimension beloved of lazy journalists, namely speculation. Fr. Chesney is quite unusual in that he has been tried in the press and in the public mind, largely after his death, has been found guilty on suspicion alone and in spite of his own fervent denials not least to Bishop Edward Daly of Derry who confronted him very robustly and who became convinced that he was innocent of the charges. Being a mouthy IRA supporter is very different from being an IRA bomber.
Fr. Chesney was never arrested, questioned, charged or convicted – unlike the some of the others mentioned here – but has been declared to be guilty nevertheless. The most extraordinary example of this was in the Ombudsman’s Report in 2010 into the Claudy bombings which concluded that Chesney was guilty and then asked members of the public to come forward with evidence to support the verdict! Hang first, convict later!
Another example of lynch-law journalism is to be found in Malachi O’Doherty’s blog and new book on Gerry Adams where – for no apparent reason – Fr. Chesney is declared to be guilty without any actual evidence other than a report of suspicion passed from a Secretary of State to a disconnected Cardinal who couldn’t have named or known a single Derry diocesan priest to save his life.
I never heard of Fr. Chesney until 2002 when I read news reports about him. I wrote the following email to the then Bishop of Derry, Bishop Hegarty on March 19th, 2003, seven years before the Ombudsman’s report – it is rather long-winded, but is worth reading if you are really interested in the Chesney case. A few shorter, sharper emails follow after this longer one. Skip bits you don’t feel you need to read and go directly to the Conclusion of this blog post.
Email to Bishop Hegarty – March 19th 2003
“—– Original Message —–
From: Shane O’Doherty
Sent: Wednesday, March 19, 2003 6:33 PM
Subject: Comments on the Fr. Chesney allegations
I wanted to offer you some comments on the allegations made against Fr. Chesney, may God have mercy on his soul.
My interest in cases of wrongful conviction dates back over twenty years.
Paddy Hill, wrongfully convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings, wrote on p.194 of his book “Forever Lost, Forever Gone”:
“Towards the end of 1982 I was at my lowest point in the eight years in which I had been locked up. I was considering another hunger strike. There seemed to be nothing left to live for, so this time I would go all the way and finally leave prison in a style that would stick two fingers up to the world.
Then I met a young guy in the jail from Derry called Shane Doherty. He had been jailed for life at the Old Bailey in 1976 for masterminding the IRA’s letter-bombing campaign in the early 1970s. By the time I met him he had left the IRA and renounced its violence with the words ‘I was a hypocrite. In injuring human beings I did not cure injustices, I created new ones.’
He had studied a great deal in prison and was a great one for writing. He knew the depression I was in, but ridiculed the hunger strike idea and said I had to pick up my pen and start writing again. Not just a few letters a week, but dozens. He drafted out a letter for me, explaining I was unlikely to get anywhere by simply scrawling that I was innocent and littering the note with obscenities about the police and the courts. It had to be clear and brief, but with enough detail to attract the attention of the person receiving it. I didn’t feel like starting up again, but he was insistent. I wrote out my first, to one of the papers, and showed it to him. He made a few corrections and suggested a few changes. I rewrote it and sent it off. It wasn’t published, but Shane’s enthusiasm for my cause was infectious. With his help I began firing off letters to all sorts of people and to papers, magazines, radio and television stations.
I started to feel I had something to keep me going once more. But I knew from the experience of the previous eight years I would need a person on the outside with more expertise than our little campaign group to champion the cause. Then Shane told me about his solicitor, a woman called Gareth Peirce. She had worked in the media, had dealt with unpopular cases, and had a lot of contacts.
‘And there’s another thing,’ said Shane. ‘She’s the best lawyer in the country.’
Gerry Conlon, wrongly convicted of the Guildford bombing, in his book, “Proved Innocent”, writes as follows on p.182:
There was a period on D Wing, when I first got there, of being treated with open hostility by the Irish. None of them would talk to me and there was no communication, no chance for me to account for myself. But soon there came two saving graces. The first was Shane Docherty. He had been convicted when still a teenager of sending a whole lot of parcel bombs to eminent English people, but though he was IRA he was really a law unto himself. Not long after all this he made a public statement renouncing violence and apologizing to his victims. At this time, though, Doc was a regular member of the republican group, but he could see I was in difficulties and he took it on himself to begin to acknowledge me.
The second saving grace was the arrival of my father, a month or so after me. I hadn’t seen him for six months and though I found him changed – more ill and older-looking than I could have imagined – it was a big boost to be back with him, and on the same wing.
Shane was on very good terms with my father – who wasn’t? and he came into my dad’s cell one day and referred to my problem with the other republicans.
‘I think it’s outrageous. These tapes weren’t that significant. I think Gerry should come down with me, speak to some of the boys and tell them what really happened.’
I was relieved. What I’d said to the police had been about some of them – Doc himself is mentioned somewhere, as a name I’d picked up while on remand – and I felt I owed them an explanation. So I saw three of them, and they listened to me. I explained it was a desperate gamble, that my father was ill and that I was at my lowest ebb immediately after my conviction. They listened in silence and then said they’d have a talk with everyone else.
A couple of days later Doc came back to me and said, ‘The situation is, we know now what was said on the tapes. We have access to a transcript.’
I couldn’t imagine how they got one, and he didn’t tell me. But he went on: ‘I’ve read it and 1 can see that nothing you said could have helped the police at all. That is the general view. So it’s been decided that anyone who wants to talk to you can talk to you.’
It was a great relief because, as I’ve already explained, the company of Irish prisoners was very important to me, particularly in a place like the Scrubs, which was such a clannish society. So gradually, over the next few months, the great majority of them started acknowledging me and then talking to me again.”
and on p.185:
Then two Labour MPs, Phillip Whitehead and Andrew Bennett, took an interest. They had been coming to see Shane Docherty, because Doc was thinking of making this gesture of publicly leaving the IRA, and was petitioning for a transfer to Ireland. But Doc could see how fast my father was going downhill, and he kept saying to these two, ‘You should be seeing Joe Conlon. The man’s innocent and he’s dying slowly on D Wing. If we could get him to Ireland we could maybe get him home to his wife on compassionate grounds.’
Bennett and Whitehead are both very good, honourable men. They began to see my father, and gradually the word got around about Joe Conlon and then, because I was his son, about the Guildford Four.”
Similar points were made also by Neil Latimer of the “UDR 4” case, in an interview in “The Sunday Tribune” in the early 1990s, that I helped and encouraged him in Long Kesh to write letters to parliamentarians about his wrongful conviction, and that I was the first Roman Catholic that he really got to know and like.
My interest in such cases was clearly not limited to those of a Republican or Catholic persuasion.
Regarding the case of Fr. Chesney, I was a little shocked that Archbishop Sean Brady uttered the following:
“Any possible involvement of a priest, either directly or indirectly, in the Claudy bombing or in any other act of terrorism, brings distress, shame and grief to me and to all Catholic priests, and indeed to the whole Catholic community,” he said. “My first reaction to the possibility of such an allegation being true is one of absolute horror.”
This kind of statement, while it served the weak Archbishop Brady well, ill-served Fr. Chesney’s good name amid unproven allegations based on hearsay and an anonymous letter. It also implied not Fr. Chesney’s possible innocence, but his possible guilt.
Fr Chesney deserved the same treatment as anyone else in society, namely that he remains entirely innocent until proven guilty.
Even in the cases of persons proven guilty in the realm of the Northern Ireland conflict, and with signed statements admitting their guilt, and with forensic evidence against them, it was later discovered that they were wrongly convicted. They include the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Guiseppe Conlon and the Maguire family – all proven guilty before the courts, some having signed statements of admission, many having forensic evidence against them, but later proven to have been entirely wrongly convicted. These innocent people had in common that they were mostly Irish, and Catholic. Although these wrongly convicted people were alive, it took them fifteen years to prove their innocence.
How should Fr. Chesney prove his innocence, since he is dead and unable to answer? Why should he have to prove anything, since he was never arrested, questioned, charged or convicted?
In the 1970s, the “security forces” were not above murdering and kidnapping Roman Catholic priests. In 1972, two priests were murdered by the British Army in Belfast, namely Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick and Fr. Hugh Mullan, and in 1978, serving RUC Sergeant and Special Branch member William McCaughey, along with UVF members, kidnapped Fr. Sean Murphy in County Antrim. Another RUC Sergeant, John Weir, was given life for colluding with Loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of a Catholic.
In prison, a leading UFF prisoner from Larne, who had been a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, and who was already serving a life sentence for murder of a Larne councillor, told me categorically that he had been at the home of Fr. Denis Faul a number of times attempting to shoot him – and that only Providence could have prevented the murder. The “security forces” were often composed of people harbouring an extreme bigotry to all things Roman Catholic, including Roman Catholic priests.
Just a few minutes ago, in the year 2003, I found on www.ulsterloyalist.co.uk the spurious “Sinn Fein Oath” (which was much more prevalent in extreme loyalist circles a quarter of a century ago, but is still on the go). It bears re-reading:
“I swear by Almighty God, by all Heaven, by the Holy and Blessed Prayer Book of the Roman Catholic Church, by the Holy Virgin Mary Mother of God, by her bitter tears and whailings, by St.Patrick, our blessed and adorable Host, the Rosary, to fight until we die wading in the Red Gore of Saxon tyrants and murderers of our glorious nationality, if spared to fight until not a single trace is left to tell that the Holy Soil of Ireland were trodden by these Heretics.
Also these Protestant robbers and brutes, these unbelievers of our faith, will be driven like the swine they are in to the sea, by fire, the knife or by poison until we of the Catholic Faith and avowed supporters of the Sinn Fein actions and principles, clear these Heretics from our land.
Age is not to be considered in our Blessed Deeds of Extermination. We must shed streams of blood of these tyrants to again claim our Holy Places.
At any cost we must work in secret, using any method of Deception to gain our ends, towards the destruction of all Protestants and the advance of Priesthood and the Catholic Faith until the Pope is complete ruler.
We must strike at every opportunity using all methods of causing ill-feeling within the Protestant ranks, and their Business. The employment of any means will be Blessed by our Fathers the Priests.
Scotland must also be swept clean of their accursed beliefs by the extermination of all Masonic and all such bodies.
So shall we of the Roman Catholic Church and faith destroy with smiles and thanks giving to our Holy Father the Pope all who reject our beliefs, So help me God.”
While this kind of nonsense seems just so to reasonable people, many loyalists believe this absurd fabrication, as I discovered to my astonishment when mixing with loyalist prisoners between 1985 and 1989 after my transfer from English prisons to Northern Ireland. Many loyalists begin from a perspective of extreme distrust not only of Roman Catholics, but above all of their perceived leaders in their faith, namely Roman Catholic priests.
Since any accusations against Fr. Chesney consist of nothing more than hearsay from a somewhat bigoted constituency, not admissible in a court of law – a thousand letters between a Cardinal and a Secretary of State carry no more weight – Fr. Chesney deserved a more robust defence of his good name than he got. Fr. Chesney was convicted of no crime, and remains innocent until proven guilty.
The PSNI officer who so casually pointed the finger at the dead Fr. Chesney needs reminding that the rule of law requires that a court should determine guilt or innocence, not a police officer manipulating the media. It is a form of lynch law to declare the guilt of anyone outside a court of law, but particularly serious and unjust in the case of someone who is dead and unable to answer.
Rosie Cowan, Ireland correspondent of The Guardian, wrote of Ivan Cooper on September 21, 2002, as follows:
“Within weeks, rumours started circulating about the identities of the bombers, and Father Chesney, a curate in the tiny south Derry parish of Cullion, near Desertmartin, was one of those whose names kept coming up. Ivan Cooper, the former local SDLP MP and civil rights activist, a moderate Protestant with no axe to grind against the Catholic church, remains convinced that the South Derry IRA brigade carried out the Claudy bombing led by Father Chesney.
‘Within a couple of days, a man lurked like a scared rabbit outside one of my constituency offices. He told me the IRA was behind the bomb and I had every reason to believe him. He gave no names and I asked no names. That is the way it was then. It was dangerous to know too much.
“But several months later, I became aware of the identities and I have absolutely no doubt that Father Jim Chesney was involved.'”
If a lurking “scared rabbit” and the hearsay belief of Ivan Cooper – based on inadmissible rumours – initiated the correspondence between Cardinal Conway and the Secretary of State William Whitelaw, it is no surprise that Fr. Chesney was never questioned, arrested, charged or convicted.
In the absence of damning evidence, and a conviction before a court of law, Ivan Cooper committed a grave calumny on the deceased Fr. Chesney, who remains unable to answer any such rumours of a largely bigoted constituency.
I hope that the principle of innocence until proven guilty, and the absence of any admissible evidence, will secure Fr. Chesney a more robust defence by the Church than he has received to date.”
Admittedly, this email to Bishop Hegarty had to introduce me, my background, my interest in cases other than IRA ones and then make my argument about Fr. Chesney.
Following the release of the Ombudsman’s report into the Claudy bombing in 2010, I wrote and sent the following short email to various newspapers in Northern Ireland:
I submit the article below, in case you might want to print it.
If you have any questions yourself, Darwin, you can get me on my mobile XXX XXXXXXX
Shane Paul O’Doherty
“I had joined the IRA in Derry in 1970 when I was 15 years old, but saw some action almost immediately planting incendiary devices in shops in Derry city centre and planting bombs also at shops and public buildings. In 1970 and 1971 I had occasion from time to time to be in Donegal picking up materials and sometimes at training camps. I knew the various sympathisers we could depend on there. My early interest in explosives was shared by almost no-one and so I got more action than I deserved at that age. I also got to know the very few people who were willing to work with explosives then – they were so dangerous to the IRA volunteers using them that few wanted to be associated with them. Once in1971, I was driven to South Derry to give a kind of class in explosives and/or incendiary devices to lads not much older than I was. I drifted away from the IRA in late 1971 for various reasons.
My 17th birthday fell on January 25th 1972. Following the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry, I and many others my age turned up at known IRA houses in the Bogside to try to get into action, but there were too many people there already and we teenagers were somewhat sidelined, even though many of us had seen action the previous year. I had been one of the main planters of bombs in Derry city the previous year, but my youthful service was quickly forgotten following Bloody Sunday.
I got out of Northern Ireland for the summer and went to find student work in London to earn money and to see the capital. I found work in Allied Carpets in Kilburn High Road and also got a street sweeping job with a Council for a few weeks earning very good money and having a great time in London.
After my return to Derry, a month after Operation Motorman, I found that most active IRA people were in hiding or across the border in Donegal. The IRA in Derry had certainly been dented.
After some time, I went to see the IRA person in charge of operations in Derry who was based near Fahan in Donegal, but who was actually a Belfastman. He had no interest in talking with me at that time.
Following Martin McGuinness’ arrest on the Donegal border in December, 1972, I visited him in a Garda station in Dublin by pretending to be his younger brother.
I returned to active service in Derry city shortly after that and was one of the few active IRA volunteers in Derry city cranking up operations in early 1973. We were very few in number at that time and information about potential supporters and potential safe houses was vital to us then. There were two mortal enemies of the IRA during those early years preaching against violence in St. Eugene’s Cathedral and elsewhere, names well-known to anyone in Derry, Fr. O’Neill and Fr. Mulvey.
I went to London to set off letter-bombs in the summer of 1973 when I was 18yrs old, not (as some news reports have recorded it) at the behest of Martin McGuinness, but at the request of a prominent Dublin GHQ person not often mentioned in books or reports. After I returned from London, I had a kind of mini-celebrity status for a while as a London bomber and I went back to London around Christmas 1973 to repeat the letter-bomb attacks. But in early 1974, I returned to Derry as Brigade Explosives’ Officer for the city and maintained that role until my arrest in May 1975 during the then IRA ceasefire.
I had had opportunities during those years to meet and converse with very senior IRA people who had various responsibilities for Derry City, Donegal and also the North West in its entirety. I had unusual opportunities to meet with GHQ people. I met many sympathisers around the entire North West and heard stories about others, prominent in society and less prominent. Some might have been in politics and others might have worn uniforms. I had occasion to be in North Donegal numerous times from 1973 to 1975 on IRA business.
Following my arrest in May 1975, I was for a few months the IO (Intelligence Officer) in Crumlin Road Gaol whose job it was to debrief newly arrested volunteers on what they had said during police interrogations and to send summaries of that information outside to IRA units. There were men in Crumlin Road Gaol then from South Derry. I was very much trusted to have that role, and men confided in me. By September 1975, I had been released, rearrested immediately and transferred to London to face trial.
Ten years later I was repatriated and spend four and a half years between the mixed wings in Long Kesh (where I met many prominent Loyalist prisoners who became my friends) and Maghaberry prisons. I heard many stories from persons who had been in Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries.
I can only place on public record that I never head the name of Fr. Chesney until 2002 following news reports.
As a volunteer in the IRA in Derry City between 1970 and 1975, and as Derry Brigade Explosives Officer between 1974 and 1975, and with many bits of business in North Donegal, neither I nor anyone known to me ever had the opportunity to make use of any of the alleged services or supports offered by Fr. Chesney at a time when such support would have been vital.
Furthermore, it was always a matter of some pride in the IRA when a member of a prominent business or professional family became a volunteer. News of such a member would be mentioned at meetings to boost morale and if such a person was arrested, the IRA took pride that such a prominent person had been in membership and in action. If a Catholic priest had been an active member, or even an inactive member, there would have been a tremendous morale boost to local IRA units upon hearing such a thing and a tremendous dent in the anti-IRA stance of the Catholic Church and its frequent denunciations of IRA violence from the pulpits.
As it was, I can only offer a fact against the recent reports of suspicions or intelligence information: in spite of my long period of service in the Derry Brigade of the IRA in the 1970s, I never heard of Fr. Chesney until 2002 and no-one I know ever heard of him either.
If he was well-known, what a loss to the Derry Brigade of the IRA of so many opportunities to use him or stories about him to encourage new young volunteers or more confidence in battle-weary older volunteers! If he was not known, what a missed opportunity to use his car or his house or his contacts in the North Donegal area.
How does this fact sit with the recent reports that he was so prominent 10 miles from Derry City and later in Donegal?
After some years in prison, I resigned from the IRA and later wrote letters of apology to my victims in England. It took quite a struggle with the Home Office to get permission to apologise to my victims in the late 1970s. Nobody really was too pleased that a former IRA bomber was interested in repenting and in making peace with the Lord. Many said my repentance would not last, and would certainly not last after my release from prison, but they were all wrong. It has now lasted some 30 years.
After 14 years in prison, I was released in 1989 to go to Trinity College, Dublin, and was then and thereafter tireless in my calls for an end to armed struggle.
If there is one thing missing from modern Catholic and Protestant society, North or South, it is the almost total absence of confidence that sinners can repent, that repentant sinners can be forgiven, that forgiveness is given to us all by the Lord in different measure, that God affirms the repentant sinner as in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Society is all about judging, condemning and casting out. Even the Churches are nervous about highlighting their mission to sinners and their duty to seek the repentance and forgiveness of sinners before God. None affirms the repentant sinner any more, preferring the easy cul-de-sac of cynicism. What a loss to us all!”
A few days before the above email, I had sent another one to the press also – here it is:
In the modern form of lynch law, television replaces the tree and hearsay replaces the rope.
It is extraordinary that the Ombudsman’s report into the Claudy bombing pours judgment upon the late Fr. Chesney and then asks for witnesses to come forward with evidence to support its case. Would this be putting the hanging before the trial?
Fr. Chesney is entitled to the very same presumption of innocence until proven guilty as every other citizen, and if it was not possible either to try or to convict him while he was alive, it is unacceptable that he is now to be lynched by hearsay and the mob in death.
Memories are short in Ireland. Police once upon a time produced a plethora of claimed scientific evidence and signed statements against the men convicted of the Birmingham Pub bombings, but they were later proven to be innocent – an appalling vista indeed. Similarly, evidence was produced by police against the Guildford Four and Giuseppe Conlon and the Maguire family that quickly convicted them before the courts, but they were later found to be innocent as well.
If Fr. Chesney was involved in the IRA unit that bombed Claudy, and if he was later still involved in the IRA while based in Malin Head, Donegal, it is extraordinary that IRA persons in the Derry Brigade never heard of him until 2002 and were never able to make use of any of his services in the early or mid 1970s in Derry City or in Donegal.
In the entire absence of any evidence that could be brought before the courts, judge not that ye be not judged.
Malachi O’Doherty’s lynch-law journalism actually makes the claim that moving Fr. Chesney to Malin Head in Donegal was to distance him from IRA persons in Derry – what a joke! Derry and North Donegal might as well be one large city – everybody in Derry can be in Donegal in a few minutes driving and in Malin Head in under an hour. Donegal at that time was host to many IRA volunteers resting from IRA activities in Derry and elsewhere; it contained many IRA dumps for arms and explosives; it had training camps and safe houses – the very last place to ‘isolate’ Fr. Chesney was Donegal!!! It put him at the very centre of the Derry Brigade’s Donegal operations!
I never heard of Fr. Chesney until 2002 and yet during his time in Malin Head when I was Derry Brigade Explosives’ Officer, I was made aware of members of Independent Fianna Fail (and even of An Garda Siochana) who might be able to offer weapons, money, cars, transport, safe houses or else to turn a blind eye to IRA activities, yet in this very small area, nobody ever mentioned Fr. Chesney to me or to anyone I know and we were never able to use any of his services or support.
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.