Big Read: How an elite American soldier made his way to Ireland to join the IRA

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John Crawley’s insider account of almost a quarter of a century in the republican movement is one which will make many who held top positions in Sinn Fein and the IRA squirm.

or while he doesn’t regret his decision to join the Provisionals, and heaps praise on fellow foot-soldiers in their ranks, he is scathing of most of its leadership.

This is an IRA man’s story about life in the IRA, warts and all. The Yank — he hated being called that name, but it stuck — is unflinchingly candid about those he worked with from 1985 to his disillusioned departure from both Sinn Fein and the IRA in 2008.

Unlike many born in Ireland, life did not lead Crawley to fall into IRA ranks — he went out and actively chose it. His Co Roscommon Fianna Fail-supporting father and his Co Kerry Fine Gael mother emigrated to the US and he was born in New York.

Aged 18, he enlisted in the Marines with the sole purpose of receiving training that would help him when he joined the IRA: “No one sent me or encouraged me in this endeavour. I thought that one up all by myself.”

History lessons at school by American nuns shaped his politics. He learnt that the US had won “its independence from England in a pure and noble fight against the hated redcoats” and that 12,000 rebels had died on British prison ships.

“I grew up being told the best form of government is a democratic republic and it had been a brave and honourable decision by the (US) founding fathers to fight the British to achieve it.”

He was accepted into a elite unit of the Marines where “you carry your balls in a wheelbarrow”. There was gruelling training after only two hours sleep. Anyone looking sympathy could “find it in the dictionary somewhere been s*** and syphilis”.

Promoted to sergeant, the US military recognised his potential and tried to keep him on after four years of training. He was offered jobs with the FBI and CIA. Discharged in May 1979, he was on a plane to Ireland hours later: “I had done my bit for the American Republic. Now I would do what I could for the Irish Republic.”

He had never set foot in Northern Ireland, never laid eyes on a British soldier, never suffered discrimination. Yet he felt compelled to risk his own life and potentially take those of others “to engage in a struggle far more Irish people stood against than ever stood for”.

Given that the IRA was a “secret army”, it took him until 1980 to find someone to let him join. He spent the next four years on “active service” .

He recalls shooting a British soldier in his early days but the casualty was never admitted by the Army so doubt remained. He writes that in other later incidents “the results were rarely as ambiguous as (that) sniping operation”.

It was a life of poverty where full-time IRA members rarely got their £10 weekly allowance. That didn’t bother him, but his Marines training meant he was shocked by the Provisionals’ poor training, operational effectiveness, and military misconceptions.

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Private John Crawley in dress blues, taken at Marine Boot Camp, San Diego, California, August 1975

Private John Crawley in dress blues, taken at Marine Boot Camp, San Diego, California, August 1975

Out with an M60, he wanted to open fire on an Army Gazelle helicopter but was told not to as it was impenetrable when he knew “you could neatly put your fist through the light aluminium skin” and the rounds “would have shredded it”.

When he asked why soldiers with their heads sticking out of the top of armoured jeeps in Belfast weren’t shot, he was told by IRA figures “up to Army Council level” that the helmets were bullet proof which was completely untrue.

When he was told that training camps must be held before dawn because the noise from shooting would waken people, he suggested they use silencers but was told “they f*** up the weapon”. So “every special forces unit in the world uses sound suppressors but the IRA knows better,” he writes.

Crawley was stunned that IRA members were not taught how to properly clean and lubricate their weapons, trained in first aid, or told to bring medical kits on operations. He suggested a “professional and standardised training regime” to avoid the “skill and resource” of a “talented sniper” disappearing “with the death or capture of the individual volunteer”.

Crawley found grassroots IRA members eager for change, but claims it was blocked by some leadership figures. The view of the IRA as a “highly sophisticated guerrilla army” was “hard to reconcile with the reality I experienced on a daily basis”.

He was impressed with the South Armagh brigade for what he saw as their meticulous planning, discipline “exceptional daring and courage”. Elsewhere, he blamed the Army Council whose members —  bar two from East Tyrone and South Armagh — seemed uninterested in improving “organisational, logistical and training skills”.

Crawley writes: “As Napoleon observed, there are no bad regiments. Only bad colonels.” He comes to suspect “subtle sabotage” from within.

“A large part of (British) counter-insurgency would be devoted to shaping an IRA leadership fit for purpose — their purpose, not ours, but few of us could see that at the time.”

Sent to the US by Martin McGuinness with $9,000, he came back across the Atlantic in a shrimping trawler in hurricane season with seven tons of weapons. But they were captured off the Kerry coast on the Marita Ann after intelligence from British agent Sean O’Callaghan and, Crawley believes, another high-placed informer.

With the Irish Navy and Garda now onboard, the IRA men — led by future TD Martin Ferris — started singing ‘Take It Down From The Mast’. Crawley served 10 years in Portlaoise Prison, where he completed a politics degree, and rejoined the IRA on release.

He was arrested in his underpants with five others in a dramatic night raid in London two years later after British intelligence learnt of their bomb plot to disable the city’s electricity grid. He served four years in jail before being freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

He was unimpressed by the peace deal. He says the IRA had pledged not to call a ceasefire until there was a British declaration of intent to withdraw.

Crawley refers to a “clientele class of political careerists” and claims an Adams-McGuinness personality cult undermined republicanism and produced a culture where “groupthink” and “yes-men” flourished.

He alleges certain figures became “more focussed on surviving than winning the struggle”. They converted the republican movement “from a resistance organisation into a vehicle that would service their private political ambitions — ambitions that didn’t include a prison cell or the republican plot in Milltown”. 

Now married with two children, Crawley lives in Co Monaghan. He writes: “I didn’t risk my life and sacrifice my liberty to put Sinn Fein into any office at any price, but to play my part in helping to end British rule and reinstate the Republic. Like most volunteers, I wanted to free Ireland, not run it.”

The Yank, Merrion Press, available now