This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
There were moments as I was reading my friend Máiría Cahill’s shocking and enthralling memoir of growing up in a Belfast enclave run by totalitarian republicans who protected child abusers, when I felt almost sorry for Gerry Adams. I’ve found him loathsome since the 1970s, when he achieved prominence as the IRA’s most gifted apologist.
She even had the temerity to ridicule Adams’ weak spots
Although he has spent decades preposterously claiming he was never in the IRA, of which he was a ruthless leader, he basks in his reputation as a peacemaker hailed by presidents and prime ministers. How was he to know that Máiría, whom he had known all her life, the favourite grandniece of Joe Cahill, one of the founders of the Provisional IRA and Adams’ eminence grise, would turn into one of his most formidably intelligent and dangerous enemies? She would even have the temerity to locate and ridicule his weak spots.
It’s not just the evil Adams has done that makes him so unbearable to his critics. Martin McGuinness was just as bad a man, but he wasn’t self-righteous, unctuous, creepy, pompous and vain. Nor did he write atrociously sentimental fiction and mendacious windy autobiographies. Máiría, brought up in the Sinn Féin cult in what she hates being described as “republican royalty”, knew Adams as a family friend.
Her trust in him and many of his colleagues was eroded by their callousness when they learned that from the age of 16, she had for more than a year been raped and disgustingly abused sexually by her aunt’s partner, Martin Morris. He was a member of the IRA’s “Civil Administration Unit”, a polite name for the “punishment squads” whose job was to torture and mutilate young people with iron bars, baseball bats and guns to bring them to heel. A gifted student, she dropped out.
When the IRA learned what Morris had done to her, they waited until she was 18 and then terrified her over five months of interrogations, in which male heavies demanded from her the most intimate, humiliating details (“How many fingers did he use?”). Despite her pleas, they staged a confrontation. Three IRA members watched as Morris ranted and swore at her that she was “a fucking sick lying bastard”. They ruled he hadn’t been proven guilty and let him continue to roam the neighbourhood as a Sinn Féin commentator on police reform and community restorative justice.
Máiría would have years of physical and mental illness. “It was similar to living in a cult,” she writes, “for one becomes so conditioned to living in a groupthink bubble that a person cannot see a life beyond it … I knew I needed to get out of it if I was to have any chance of survival. Now, the greatest danger to me was not the IRA or my abuser, but my own mind.”
Then she took control, defied the republican leadership by going to the police. When they botched the investigation, she told her story in a TV documentary. Despite orchestrated and vicious social media abuse, she became a columnist and public figure. Notably, though, she had little support from the feminist establishment or the human rights industry.
The book’s title, “Rough Beast”, comes from W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. This poem was written at a time of European upheaval, including the Russian Revolution and the start of the civil war known as the Irish War of Independence. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” it asks. This has a dual purpose, in being aimed at Morris, of course, but also at Sinn Féin, unapologetic deniers of IRA crimes. The party already claims the First Minister title in Northern Ireland and is tipped to lead the next government in the south. Irish voters, Máiría warns, “may well find that the grass isn’t greener in the hands of a republican party that tramples and devours everything in its wake”.
Here’s a tip for booksellers. Offer a package of Rough Beast and Milkman, Anna Burns’ superb Orwell and Man Booker Prize-winning novel about an 18-year-old living in a totalitarian enclave. There, in Máiría’s words, “brutality was as rife as the rumours which centred on her and ‘one quarter rape’ kangaroo courts took place”, as “forces dominated and wielded power over people simply trying to get on with life”.
Now would someone find out what possessed the publishers to commit the inexcusable sin of publishing one of the most important non-fiction books ever written on Northern Ireland — without an index?
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