New non-fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

THE MONK. By Paul Williams. Allen & Unwin 2020. 340 pp. $29.99

Some books leave you sad, others have you laughing. Here is a book that may leave you with a different response: anger and fury. Fury that the fabled saints and scholars metonym that was used to describe your country has been taken over by thugs and murderers. Many of them are named in this book by crime writer Paul Williams, some still alive and able to organise their operations involving drugs and guns and standover. And apparently unfazed by the fact that they have been named!

In fairness, it should be said that the Irish government took the problem of crime seriously, though it took the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin to prod them into the necessary action. They set up the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) with powers to take money from criminals if there was enough evidence to convince a civil court that there was a likelihood their funds came from unlawful activity. The important thing was the lower standard of proof, and since the CAB was made up of Gardai, customs officers, tax people and even welfare officers, such proof could come from many sources.

The Williams book could be divided into two sections, pre- and post- the killing of brave Veronica Guerin in 1996. Up to that time, the Gardai were hogtied in what they could do about the many armed robberies of banks, Securicor vans and cash holding centres. The requirement that some member of the extended Hutch crime family could be charged ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ left an easy argument for well-paid lawyers, while the disposal of the ill-gotten funds was easy for the corrupt accountants, financiers and brokers that the criminals could call upon. Saints and scholars, my eye.

Mind you, when a CAB assessment was made against people like the Hutches, the State still faced the problem of collecting. In the late ‘90s The Monk was assessed as owing more than €3.5 million. The lawyers could have held up any payment for years, so the public was happy to accept about half this figure, a loss that did not seem to have much effect on the criminal.

Hutch and his extended family grew up in the north-inner suburbs of Dublin, a region that was once known as the Monto. The poor women who had to survive by selling their bodies were replaced by young hooligans from large families who quickly learned that thieving was the best way to overcome their problems. Gerry Hutch, though not the oldest in his family, was their leader and by his early twenties, he had progressed to armed robbery. At that time a non-drinker and known for his retiring lifestyle, he earned the nickname The Monk. He was, according to this book, a leader in two of the biggest robberies in the history of the Irish state.

The one area which the Monk tried to keep clear of was drugs, both in his personal life and in his professional endeavours. That rule did not, however, apply to his brothers and nephews and cousins and friends who were enthusiastic and often boisterously boastful addicts and dealers. There was cooperation in their endeavours with the Kinahan crowd, so successful across the whole of Europe that they earned the name cartel.

According to this book, The Monk was the kind of criminal who would keep his word in a deal or arrangement, but the Kinahans had no such integrity and were prepared to break agreements if it suited them. Gary Hutch, nephew of The Monk, was one of the top lieutenants in the Kinahan cartel when he was shot in Spain, almost certainly on the orders of Daniel Kinahan. The Monk refused – understandably – to make some arrangement with the Kinahans that would smooth over the killing.

Today, the Monk lives in hiding somewhere out of Ireland, amusing himself by posting nasty comments about the Kinahans on his twitter feed under the nom de plume Whistleblower, Meanwhile, the Kinahan cartel has been replaced by other players in the business of providing drugs to Europe.

It is one hundred years since Ireland achieved its independence. If the kind of country described here is what independence brought, then anger is a perfectly acceptable response. The Gardai come well out of the story, as do the journalists and the media, notably the once-ridiculed Sunday World, a paper on which Paul Williams worked for some years.

BURNING HERESIES. A Memoir of a Life in Conflict 1979-2020. By Kevin Myers. Merrion Press 2020. 304 pp. Sept 2020. €19.95

Over the past few months, I have been adding quotes from Kevin Myers’ book Burning Heresies to our book reviews. My intention was to point out the strong prose and even stronger views sustained by his abundant adjectives and adverbs. There were too many of these snippets to include in a book review, so that they effectively stood on their own.

Myers was a journalist with, among others, The Irish Times, The Irish Independent and in recent years, the Irish edition of The Times. One of the features of his writings for many years was his attempt to remind Ireland about the many young Irishmen who had lost their lives during the two world wars, in all cases as members of the British army. In this he had some success, as evident by the annual commemorations and other remembrance events in recent years.

The book describes the author’s experiences as a war correspondent in Lebanon and Yugoslavia and the dangers he faced in both places, including being captured in one of his visits to Beirut. His accounts of his experiences in Bosnia and the Middle East are as thrilling as a novel, except that he does not attempt to present himself as anything other than an earnest outsider blessed with more luck than courage. He is particularly strong on the horrors committed by the Serbs on the Croats and later on the Bosnian Muslims.

All of this is immensely readable, made all the more so by his strong opinions, eloquently presented. But it all changes in the final two chapters. Gone is the cheeky dismissal of his own experiences in war zones or newspaper offices, replaced by his account of what appear to be extraordinarily vicious, personal attacks on him in the Irish media, including RTE. At a time when, as he puts it, in Ireland, PC had replaced RC, while ‘liberal-feminism-egalitarianism was the coming force within western civilisation,’ he was accused of anti-Semitism and misogyny.  

He was pounced on with unseemly eagerness by fellow journalists like Fintan O’Toole, ‘a laureate of left-liberal sanctimony.’ RTE seems to have been particularly virulent in their attacks on him and in editing out any favourable explanations or words of support from others. Among those who particularly supported him were members of the Jewish community in Ireland, both the formal and informal groups, including the Israeli embassy.

Throughout the book, Myers is unremitting in his condemnation of the IRA, not just in its modern Provisional guise, but back to Dan Breen and Vinny Byrne, Collins and Emmet Dalton and those that followed. He explains that one of the most strident of his critics was Ray Greenslade, ‘Professor of Journalism at London City University and an unapologetic supporter of the Sinn Fein cause: for years, even while working for The Sunday Times, no less, he had been a pseudonymous columnist in the Sinn Fein IRA publication An Phoblacht.’

After an RTE listener complained to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about a Morning Ireland program which repeated the charges about Myers being a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite, that body found that he had indeed been misrepresented. RTE did not accept that ruling and Myers decided to sue them. He won that tricky case, though he does not say what the settlement was; he does point out however, that in that same week, the broadcaster had to mount a fire sale of its art collection.

It appears that Kevin Myers is a persona non grata in Ireland, but that does not take from what is a wonderful read, the kind that you have to discipline yourself if you want to read only a few chapters at a time. But those final two chapters paint a most depressing picture of the media and journalism in today’s Ireland.

I finish with two more quotes from the book, to add to those of the last few months. In one of his visits to Beirut, he was given a ride on an American military helicopter.

Even as we turned sharply over Bourj el-Barajneh, we got incoming fire, and the gunner unloosed half a belt into something down below. I knew enough about angles of attack and deflection-shooting to be aware that firing at anything from a helicopter rear door while moving rapidly in a rising vortex through three different axes serves no military purpose, other than to make everyone aboard feel a little happier. In my case, it succeeded hugely.

Final one from Beirut

Walking down Hamra later that morning, I came across a limbless boy, a torso, his arms and his legs gone, propped on the pavement. Carefully drawn on the pavement in front of him – by whom? – was a begging chalk circle. A great colour story? No. Anything I wrote about this unspeakable tragedy would merely be a voyeur’s charter, a licence to feel empty, egregious sympathy for a few meaningless minutes over the morning coffee in Dublin.

BALLYMACANDY. The Story of a Kerry Ambush. By Owen O’Shea. Merrion Press 2021. 230 pp. €14.95

Growing up and going to school in Kerry, we were taught Irish history. We were told about the attempt to land arms for the Irish Volunteers at Banna Strand in 1916 and the later ambush of British forces at Headford junction. We also learned about events at Ballyseedy outside Tralee and Countess Bridge in Killarney during the civil war. But we never heard about Ballymacandy – no doubt if we had, we would have made juvenile fun at the name.

On June 1, 1921, a group of RIC policemen returning on bicycles from Tralee to Milltown in mid-Kerry was ambushed by the IRA. Four of the police were killed and one more died later from his injuries. This was the kind of action that one would normally expect to have been noted approvingly by republicans and perhaps remembered with commemoration in the years ahead. Instead, even for one who lived some 50 km or so from where it occurred, this book was the first time that I had heard of the event.

In recent years, we learned that Michael Collins was unhappy with the efforts made by the IRA in Kerry during the War of Independence and indeed some of the leadership in the county had been replaced by outsiders on orders of headquarters in Dublin. The evidence in this book seems to suggest that in the months leading up to the Truce, there was quite a deal of activity. In an appendix, the author names 70 men as being involved in the ambush, a further 39 who acted as scouts or on outpost duty and 19 men from the Firies company who were ‘late for ambush.’ Add 36 named members of the Milltown Cumann na mBan and you have a fairly large number of people from a relatively small area.

The book fills a gap in knowledge about a significant incident in the War of Independence. It will have greatest relevance for the descendants of those named and for anyone in the mid-Kerry area. Unlike many books of its kind, it is written with objectivity; the ambushers are not treated as heroes nor are the victims described as villains. At least some of the RIC patrol were Black and Tans, a fact that is glossed over in the text – it is not widely known that a little under ten per cent of the Tans were Irish.

It took one hundred years for the story of Ballymacandy to be told. Owen O’Shea (no relation) is to be commended for this account.

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective