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Eamon McGuire: The Life of an Undercover IRA Activist

by William Hughes Friday, Oct. 27, 2006 at 3:06 AM

What is it like to be on the run with the CIA looking for you? Well, Eamon McGuire, an Irishman, can tell you something about that, along with what it was like to be member of the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade. For over 20 years, McGuire led a double life: one as an aircraft engineer, the other as an IRA operative. His newly-released book, “Enemy of the Empire: Life as an International Undercover IRA Activist,” is compelling reading.

 Eamon McGuire: The ...
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“You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea.” - Sean O’Casey, Irish Playwright

Bahrain is an island nation located in the Persian Gulf. Like so many countries in the region, it was a former colony of Imperial Britain. (1) It’s the early 1970s, just outside its capital city of Manama, in the steaming hot desert. A young Irishman can be found testing what he labels “electronic counter measures,” to be used against British military forces in the Occupied Six Counties of northeastern Ireland (Northern Ireland). The man’s name is Eamon McGuire. He’s leading a double life. To his family, friends and fellow workers, he’s a highly respected engineer for Gulf Airlines, who originally learned his craft while serving in the Irish Army, along with earning an electrical engineering degree from a Dublin college. But, McGuire is also, secretly, a member of the South Armagh Brigade, one of the most feared elements within the Irish Republican Army (IRA). (2)

In his newly-released book, “Enemy of the Empire: Life as an International Undercover IRA Activist,” McGuire relates a compelling story about his more than two decades of guerrilla activities, including a few years of life on the run and six years of imprisonment after being first tracked down on Dec. 13, 1992, in Nelspruit, South Africa, by the CIA. The CIA considered him, the IRA’s “chief technical officer.” McGuire’s tome was written while in jail, a literary tradition with honored precedents, not only among the Irish, but other ethnic groups, as well. Russia’s brilliant Fyodor Dostoevsky comes to my mind. In fact, some of McGuire’s vivid descriptions of prison life and the character of some of inmates that he encountered in jails in South Africa, Ireland and America, reminded me of passages from Dostoevsky’s “The House of the Dead.”

Most of McGuire’s time behind bars was spent as an involuntary guest of the U.S. government. The book, however, is set against a global scene, where the once mighty Imperial Empire of John Bull is seen being rolled backed by a rising tide of nationalism. McGuire, as the result of his skills as an aircraft engineer, is an eyewitness to that history, not only in his ancient homeland, but in such places as Africa, the Middle East and Central America, as well. (3)

McGuire speaks of the secret part of his double life, but only in broad terms. He leaves the details, especially those pertaining to the military struggle, to the imagination. For example, he writes: “While this...everyday life was taking place, I was living another life in parallel with it. In order to produce some equipment for the war effort at home, I purchased components from around the world and built devices...With seven weeks’ leave per year, I was able to return to Ireland at intervals to check the devices in the battlefield and, if satisfactory, put them in service...In time, as skills were developed, they became more successful and helped to force the British off the ground and into the air...The research I carried out helped to restrict the movement of British forces on the ground. Their operations were now very dependent on their air superiority.” When he took a job with Aer Lingus in 1978, it gave McGuire a chance to work in both the Bahamas and Trinidad. He also took the opportunity to go to the U.S., where he “visited...companies that produced technical products to see if they had anything that could be... for use in the war at home.”

McGuire, a farmer’s son, born in 1936, in the Republic of Ireland’s County Monaghan, near the northern border, sensed something was up on the day of his arrest in South Africa. When his plane landed at a small airfield, after a short flight from Maputo airport in Mozambique, he noticed what look like an a “containment ring” of people. “When you are exposed to danger for a long time, it sharpens your mental faculties--some people call it ‘being jumpy’--and you develop an a way that people living under normal, civilized conditions can hardly imagine...A kind of sixth sense warns you...while at the same time it allows you to weigh up the chances of escape.” As he moved towards a car-hire stand at the airport, McGuire was quickly cornered and surrounded by four men, one of whom he observed had a gun strapped to his ankle. The lead man in the quartet spoke to him: “My name is Colonel Myburgh. I have a United States warrant for your arrest. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Put your bag down and step away.” McGuire weighed his options and, wisely, decided to obey the order of the policeman. Reflecting later on the circumstances concerning his arrest, he had concluded that “someone close to me who knew my intentions must have informed on me. This was a very bad feeling.”

The U.S. warrant against McGuire came out of a 1989 Federal Court criminal case in Boston, Massachusetts. He was charged with, inter alia, conspiring with others, to “produce a guided missile system,” to be used “to destroy helicopters located in Northern Ireland.” McGuire said that there were originally “five of us involved in that IRA cell...I was on the run and the fifth person had already left prison. It was always referred to as the ‘Boston Three’ case.” McGuire beat the extradition case in South Africa, in 1992, but it proved to be a “pyrrhic victory.” He made his way back to Ireland, via a flight to Paris, France, but was later arrested by the Irish police, in Dublin, in Feb., 1993. He was held first at Mountjoy prison and then at Portlaoise. In December of 1993, the Irish High Court decided the extradition case against him. He was on his way to the U.S. McGuire, at that time, had also considered cutting a deal with U.S. authorities and to plead guilty to the three charges, which he later did at a hearing in April, 1994, in Boston. On June 15, 1994, he received a six-year sentence.

Soon, McGuire was moved from his prison cell in Plymouth, MA, to one in New Hampshire. His prison bus then passed by the town of Concord, MA, which is steeped in the history of the American Republic. He thought to himself, “ the descendants of the people who fought that war of freedom were now dragging me in chains past that hallowed place at the bequest of their old enemy and prolonging our oppression.” McGuire also did time in the U.S., at Essex County Jail, northeast of Boston; Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in Manhattan; Otisville, PA; Allenwood, PA; Lewisburg, PA and Cumberland, MD federal facilities. Along the way, McGuire shared a cell with Mafia bosses, an Iran-Contra figure, bank robbers, drug dealers and even one of the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger’s ex-associates, Howard “Howie” Winter.

Around the time McGuire was in Cumberland’s FCI, I was doing a weekly commentary for the popular WBAI program, “Radio Free Eireann,” in NYC, co-hosted by John McDonagh and Sandy Boyer. Cumberland is about 150 miles northwest from Baltimore. I recall visiting with McGuire there on two occasions. I remember him telling me that he had also been held for a short time, in 1997, at Baltimore’s City Jail and what a horrible experience that had been for him. In the book, he described it this way: “Baltimore’s prison was the worst that I had ever been in, worse than any in Ireland or South Africa...We were put in a bullpen with standing-room only...I had the feeling that my time here would be a journey through the valley of darkness.” When McGuire had ten weeks left on his prison sentence, he was, mercifully, sent back to Ireland to complete it. He was released just “before Christmas in 1997.”

Background: Both of McGuire’s parents were born in the North of Ireland, near the town of Crossmaglen, in South Armagh. His father was a Catholic and his mother, a Protestant. From an early age, McGuire had a great love for the people of the area, and for the land, which he says was “made holy by the blood sacrifices of their Celtic ancestors.” When the Civil Rights Movement in the British Occupied Six Counties was repeatedly crushed by the police forces, McGuire’s attitude shifted about the need for using “violence as a weapon of change.” He also watched in horror “the sight of families fleeing south” from the pogroms against Catholics in the North. “It had a profound and lasting effect on me,” he wrote. During the early 70s, the British regime in the Six Counties decided to impose the practice of “Internment” as one of its oppressive measures. McGuire then learned that Nationalist prisoners were being “systematically tortured in Magilligan prison camp in Derry.” The “last straw” for him personally was on Jan. 30, 1972, when at a peaceful, anti-Internment rally in Derry, 13 marchers were slaughtered by British paratroopers, in what McGuire saw as a “calculated strike to prevent further protest.” That day of infamy is remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” McGuire added, “There would be no turning back after that.” (4)

Some more Irish history is required here. British crimes against the Irish people, over the centuries, are legion. It is beyond the scope of this essay to detail them, but they include just about every wrong that it’s possible for one people to inflict on another. (5) As I write, however, a “Peace Process” in Ireland, which was begun in 1994, is slowly beginning to take shape. (6) It was firmed up with the “Good Friday Agreement” (GFA) in 1998. A majority of the people of Ireland, North and South, have voted to support it. I’ve wondered aloud if the Irish should be totally trusting the British ruling clique. (7) Not long after I wrote about my concerns, it was disclosed that a high ranking member of Sinn Fein, Denis Donaldson, had actually been a British spy for 20 years! (8) Nevertheless, the guns have been silent and progress has been made.

The last word here belongs to McGuire. He dedicated his book, “To all my fallen comrades.” I am highly recommending it to readers for both its historical and memoir values. Recently, the IRA disbanded and placed all of its weapons beyond use. McGuire wrote: “Was it worth the price to get this far? I believe it was. One must think about how bad things were prior to 1969 before answering that question. It is hard for a person far removed from those conditions to imagine what it was like. But ask yourself why did almost half the population rise up against the government unless things were intolerable? At least one in ten was willing to sacrifice themselves for change. I believe that we would not be where we are now without the war. And, I hope that our politicians will see sense and govern justly so that our people will never have to endure twenty-five years of horror again.”


1. “The Way of the Aggressor,” by John Michael, (1941), chronicles the crimes of British Imperialists from genocide in Ireland, to slave trafficking in Africa, to exploiting the resources and peoples of Asia, India, the Middle East, Australia and Tasmania.


3. and



6. “Creating a New Ireland” by William Hughes.



© William Hughes 2006.

William Hughes is the author of “Saying ‘No’ to the War Party” (IUniverse, Inc.). He can be reached at

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