Gerry Adams and A View from Ballymurphy


Appears in Chicago’s Irish American News, March, 2018



Heaven knows that I’m not exactly the greatest Sinn Fein supporter in the world.  Or supporter of any of the other power-based political systems, dress them up how you will.  In fact I’d trust that lot about as far as I could throw any political party.  With my weaker arm.

And a broken arm at that.

But much to my disgust I’ve found myself…oh, kind of warming to them in recent years.

And a lot of that is down to Mary Lou McDonald.  She is certainly one of the more astute and constructively combative politicians this island has produced.

I’ve been watching with something less than amazement the attacks on her this week by the mainstream media as she replaces Gerry Adams as leader of SF.  She hasn’t even been in the job for more than a couple of days and you would think that she was the Devil Incarnate.  Well, taking over from the previous Devil Incarnate, maybe!

I could go on at length as to why I like her, but in fact I now need look no farther than this comment:

“Leo is kind of smarmy.” 

What? Leo Varadkar is kind of smarmy? The only disagreement I’d have with Mary Lou there is the use of ‘kind of’.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I was knocked out last week by an article from my neighbour Paddy McMenamin, who has a regular column in the Donegal weekly paper, the Tirconaill Tribune.  Paddy is a Belfast man, although before settling in County Galway he had spent thirty years in Donegal.  He’s one of those guys who is always upbeat when you meet him; a great conversationalist (unlike my more morose self); and a man of rare dry wit.  I think it’s safe to say that I liked him right off the bat, despite our surface political differences.

Reading him is like listening to the man himself talking, which you’ll get the merest flavour from in these excerpts. He has his own unique take on Gerry Adams’ retirement, one that is a long way from what you’ll read in most mainstream newspapers.  And for that alone he is worth quoting.

He writes that:

“…the political career pursued by Adams is totally different from that which a career politico embarks on.  Some are born into that lifestyle, especially in Ireland. Despite independence we inherited the British political system lock, stock and barrel; cronyism, clientelism, cute hoor politics, a nod and a wink, family dynasties, the absolute worst of politics to keep a class in power and create power and wealth for those elected.”

Talking about the background that Adams grew up in, he points out that:

“…there was community and spirit that never extinguished throughout everything — poverty, deprivation, discrimination, foreign troops on their streets throughout 30 years of conflict.  If anywhere personified refusal to keep the head down it was Ballymurphy!

“Gerry is from that community; it keeps him grounded. No champagne socialist here or Galway tent merchant, if he was ever tempted he would soon know about it the next time he walked up the Whiterock or to Mass in Corpus  Christie: ‘catch yourself on big man’ would be a mild local interpretation of anyone embracing newfound airs and graces”.

Both Paddy and Gerry Adams went to St. Mary’s grammar school at the bottom of the Falls Road, with a few years’ difference between them:

“In fact we are probably St. Mary’s Alumni, as well as ‘Belfast Bartenders Alumni’ and in later years ‘Alumni’ from the University of Long Kesh.

“I first met him at a ceili in the old Felons Club his dad had been instrumental with other ‘ex Felons’ in founding, after their ‘extra curricular’ activities in the failed 1950s campaign….

“We met again the night of the Falls Curfew, just escaping the encroaching web of British ‘democracy’ as a whole community was imprisoned for three days.  The wisdom and foresight of the future TD was valuable as always: ‘there would be more prudent days in the future.’  Unfortunately the next few times our paths crossed the choice of location wasn’t intended.

“The Prison ship HMS Maidstone was docked in Belfast Lough in 1971…we shared our nautical location, 300 of us, all non sailors, with 700 marines who probably thought they were in the Falklands/Malvinas…

“In early January seven of our crew tore up PM Brian Faulkner’s personal letter of welcome: ‘You are considered a threat to the State and as such interned under Her Majesty’s pleasure’, or words to that effect, signed ‘Brian Faulkner MP’, a future failed equestrian exponent.

“‘Threat to the State’ – we were seventeen FFS, more a threat to family tranquility as teenage rage kicked in.  The seven who escaped, slid down ropes naked and covered in boot polish to keep warm in the January frost, swam across Belfast Lough and hijacked a bus to freedom, the poor bus driver in puritan Belfast shocked by seven naked men on his bus rather than ‘escaped terrorists’!”

Later, it was on to a new location:

“…we swiftly swapped accomodation from a ‘floating paradise’ to a hastily revamped WW2 RAF camp outside Lisburn, a place which would soon personify the conflict…Long Kesh.”

I suppose that people of my generation will still recall those two words – Long Kesh — with chills down the spine.  Known as The Cages and later as H Blocks, they imprisoned 15,000 Republicans and 10,000 Loyalists over a quarter century, what Paddy calls “a generation of lost youth.”  But, he adds:

“The Cages were also a place of great creative activity: the Larry Marley’s of this world exercised the mind by figuring out how to get out of the place — under, over, through the wire but definitely not by the front gate.

“Gerry Adams, while a firm advocate of the value of education, also embraced the Larry Marley school of thought and with ‘Blue’ Kelly decided a blanket fog one night would facilitate early release, but while Blue’s ‘Sat Nav’ was set for Carrick Hill and provided positive results, Gerry was destined for Cage 17, just across from our domicile in Cage 18.

“The rest is history; the Cage 17 ‘think tank’ provided the foundations for the ‘long war’…

“The crux of this is that those who continually attack the the outgoing SF President would maybe need to walk a mile in his shoes.  Life can be nature or nurture, environment creates the person…

“Ballymurphy created the man Gerry Adams became, his politics community based and not careerist; his little idiosyncracies late in life with his ducks, tree hugging and recently embracing Snapshot show a gentler image than the Dublin 4 caricature.”

My thanks to Paddy McMenamin and the Tirconaill Tribune for letting me reprint all that I have space for.  Believe me, Paddy is well worth reading in full. It appears in the February 1 edition of the paper under the headline of  Gerry Adams… A Ballymurphy man of our times; and it will provide an antidote to what you might otherwise be reading about his departure.