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Portrait of an Irish Republican

by Michael Steinberg Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015 at 5:02 PM
blackrainpress@hotmail.com

The author's visit to Occupied Ireland is recounted on the 30th anniversary of the event.

Irish Portrait

michael steinberg

michael steinberg blackrainpress@hotmail.com>; Thu 12/17/2015 9:56 AM

The following article originally appeared in the Fall 1985 issue of "the whole damn pie shop." : San Diego's quarterly of Alternative Opinion.

The publication explained that "Our name comes from a quote of a Brixton, England demonstrator who when asked in 1981 if he wanted a larger piece of the pie replied. "No, we want the whole damn pie shop!"

Portrait of an Irish Republican

Life, Love And Death In Occupied Ireland

By Michael Steinberg

"Life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations--Padraic Pearce, one of the leader's of the 1916 Easter Rising executed by the British.

Ireland, August, 1985--Julie Doherty has just turned 23. She lives in Derry, a city of 50,000 in the British occupied north of Ireland. She is blessed with a bright face and jaunty personality that few would call less that beautiful. But she is cursed with a harsh existence and lives constantly in the shadow of death.

This is because Julie is a staunch Republican. In Ireland Republicans do not stand for bleeding the poor to produce new generations of nuclear weapons, but for the immediate withdrawal of Britain from their land and the reunification of the Irish people into a socialistic republic.

Irish Republicans also believe that armed struggle is the cutting edge that will force the British to withdraw. Only after the successful armed insurrection of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) did England give up total control of Ireland in the early 1920s. Today's IRA carries on fight to free the 6 county garrison state the British invented called Northern Ireland.

Last December 6, Julie's husband, Danny, was murdered along with IRA comrade Willie Fleming in an ambush by SAS, the British army's counter-insurgency assassination squad. Both were shot in the back as they rode on a motorcycle, Danny 30 times and Willie 38, in keeping with the crown forces shoot to kill policy against suspected IRA activists.

Julie was left with their 8 month old son, Kevin Barry Doherty. Derry loyalist (loyal to British rule) politician Gregory Campbell, upon hearing of the 2 men's deaths, gloated that "Christmas came early for me this year."

This August I am one of 130 Americans taking part in Irish Northern Aid's (Noraid) 3rd annual fact finding tour of the occupied north. Our host for the tour is the Sinn Fein party, the political wing of the Republican movement. The party's increasing strength in local elections has Britain, its loyalists and the Dublin government increasingly nervous.

On Wednesday, August 7, the Noraid delegation is on its 4th day of the tour and on its way to Derry. The newspapers are carrying reports about the death of 21 year old Charles English in what is termed a "mystery explosion."

It turns out that a grenade went off prematurely as an IRA unit including English was about to attack an enemy patrol. At a nearby hospital the police refused to let hospital workers remove his body from a car for 3 hours, forcing his father to identify him in the vehicle.

Upon arriving in Derry in late afternoon, we are assigned by Sinn Fein to various Republican households that are putting us Yanks up. I am given a card telling me I will be staying at Julie Doherty's.

After being dropped off the bus and meeting her, there is a tense silence in the car as Julie's father drives us to her house. Is it my breath, my accent, or maybe the odor of the socks I've worn these past 4 days?

I follow Julie into her living room where she introduces me to a friend and disappears into the kitchen. Her friend quickly explains about the pictures of Danny Doherty on the wall. She then tells me that Julie and Charley English had been going together for about a month.

There isn't much to say when Julie emerges from the kitchen. Julie can't stay to chat anyways. She's off to sit at Charles' wake.

Sometime later that evening I am entering the English's house on Cable Street. In a small room at the top of a narrow staircase Charles English lies in his coffin, his pale face still handsome. The eerie peace of death is in grim contrast with the profound grief pervading the air.

At the end of the room 2 hooded IRA men form an honor guard standing over the coffin. To the side sits Julie with her mother. I can hardly bear this scene for the brief moments I am here to pay my respects. It will go on late into the night.

On Thursday I awaken in Kevin's room in a more than mild state of shock to the clanking of the mail slot. It's Julie's mother, there to get us up and moving.

In a while Julie comes downstairs and a bit later we have time to get acquainted. In spite (or because of) the extraordinary circumstances, Julie is able to talk freely of her life and loves. and encourages me to do the same.

She tells me of the 2 men she has lost, Danny willful and swift, Charley calm and deliberate. She talks of the love for Danny still rooted in her heart, and that for Charley that was just beginning to flower.

Julie wrote to Danny for a number of years while he was serving a sentence for the crime of belonging to the IRA. She makes me laugh with the "what-me-married?" story of their wedding day.

More recently, as Danny's widow, she was to remain martyred and alone as Republican tradition would have it. But then Charley came along with more progressive ideas, though at first she put him off by telling him he was too young for her. They had just celebrated each other's birthdays, 2 days apart.

Now she jokes that she can't wait to get to heaven to see the 2 men fight over her.

Having lived and loved and lost so much so early seems to have left Julie Doherty with a tough dignity and absolute determination that I am deeply struck by. She later scoffs at what she calls my Yankee romanticism, reminding me that she is just one of many here who grew up expecting to die any day.

It's Friday, August 9. I'm wakened this morning by the obnoxious clatter of a Brit helicopter swooping low. I go downstairs to find it's not yet 7 and a land rover (armored police car) is rolling ever so slowly past Julie's house.

Julie soon shows up, having spent the night at her mother's. She tells me of the insults the brave men in the land rover have just spat at her. Should I walk with her on her way back to her mother's? No need, she says, and is soon off.

Thousands fall in behind Charles English's coffin at 9 as it is carried from Cable Street to the church where his funeral mass is be conducted. The procession is menaced on all sides by land rovers and army jeeps swarming with heavily armed men, and above by 3 cacophonous choppers.

After mass the procession begins its slow march to the graveyard. As we begin to mount the hill leading to it, the heavens unleash a cold hard rain.

Behind us a line of mostly gray haired women link hands to keep off a phalanx of land rovers lurking there. A few minutes later one land rover breaches security and is threatening to lead a flying wedge to the coffin. It is draped in the illegal Irish tricolor flag and carries Charley's likewise illegal black gloves and beret. A uniformed and hooded IRA honor guard is marching one either side of it.

The crown forces usually attack such funeral forces with their vehicles, and wade into the crowd with clubs and firing plastic bullets to remove these symbols of resistance.

On Easter Day, 1981, 2 such land rovers struck and repeatedly ran over Charley's 19 year old brother and a friend as they standing innocently on a corner. Two British soldiers charged with the murders were set free by a British court in spite of incriminating testimony by numerous eyewitnesses.

But today Noraid is here, including banned publicity director Martin Galvin. And so are American TV cameras are, somewhat restraining the British military. And now a youth of 14 or so has leaped onto the hood of the assaulting land rover and is pounding her fist furiously on its windshield. Cheers ring out from the crowd, spectators sprint down from a hillside to create a buffer, and the attack is blunted.

At Charley's grave it begins to pour again. The 3 helicopters hovering above make it impossible to hear the last words said over him. But words are hardly necessary.

I walk by joking British soldiers outside the graveyard on my way to the buses waiting to take us away. Someone calls my name and I turn to see Julie, dressed in denim and somehow looking a whole lot better than I must appear. We say goodbye and I put my arms around her, trying to express the inexpressible.

From my seat on the bus I watch her holding Kevin in the doorway of her mother's house, and as the buses roll away we wave until we disappear from each other's lives. I am thinking of Che's saying that true revolutionaries are guided by feelings of love, and I am thinking that today no one knows that better than Julie Doherty.

Update--I went on the Noraid tour in 1988 and 1990 also, visited with Julie both times, met her new son and partner, and kept in touch as best I could.

Some years after Danny's death, Julie Doherty took legal action in an attempt to bring some justice to hold those who killed him responsible. But the court ruled that too much time had passed for it to take any such action.

Sinn Fein entered into a peace process. the IRA disarmed, and some significant reforms have been achieved. But the British United Kingdom still officially consists of "England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland." And the British Home Secretary still has to power to impose direct rule o er the latter entity and undo all the reforms.

On November 18, the Associated Press reported a new British document, "A Fresh Start," that will continue the peace process. Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, which the AP identified as "a former commander of the outlawed Republican Army," said he would continue to work for peace and justice with loyalist politicians who want to remain under British rule.

But McGuinness "said the agreement failed to deliver Sinn Fein's key demand for investigators to unearth the truth about bitterly disputed killings in Northern Ireland's four-decade conflict. He blamed Ireland for refusing to lift the veil of secrecy on files documenting the role of British soldiers and spies in killings," the AP reported.

2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of 1916's Ireland Easter Rising.

Michael Donahue Steinberg lives in San Francisco

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