Everyone knows the story about Eamon de Valera supposedly being spared execution in 1916 because of his American birth. But de Valera was not the only 1916 figure who was second-generation Irish. His superiors during the Easter Rising, James Connolly and Tom Clarke, had been born in Scotland and England respectively.
In fact, according to those at the heart of the Rising in Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO), dozens — perhaps most — of the men who stormed the building that Easter Monday were not Irish-born.
As a teenager, Ernie Nunan from Brixton in south London fought with his brother Sean in the GPO. As an old man more than 50 years later he recalled how boys and men of Irish descent in Britain had spent years drilling in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and other cities in preparation for the Rising.
In the weeks before Easter 1916 the Liverpool unit of the Volunteers arrived in Dublin and set up camp in Kimmage to prepare for others coming from England, and, said Nunan, “thus became the first standing Army of the Irish Republic.”
The contribution of the Nunan brothers and the other second-generation Irish to the Rising and the War for Independence is routinely ignored in accounts of the period. In one of the most breathtakingly daring incidents of the war with Britain, IRA leader Michael Collins and Ernie Nunan’s brother Sean were smuggled into police headquarters in Dublin’s Brunswick Street one night in April 1919 where they risked their lives poring through the secret intelligence files the police had on the IRA.
Yet in several biographies of Collins, Nunan is airbrushed out of the escapade — the clandestine raid on Brunswick Street is described at some length, but with Collins as the lone hero. Similarly, when the episode is portrayed as a key incident in the 1996 Neil Jordan film Michael Collins, there is no sign of Sean Nunan as the solitary Collins spends the night among the files unaided by the boy from Brixton.
When those early Troubles ended in the first quarter of the last century, and the Manhattan-born de Valera put down his gun and led his followers into mainstream politics, the leadership of what was left of the IRA eventually fell to Sean MacBride. MacBride had been born and brought up in France, and despite his thick French accent was Chief of Staff of the IRA in the late 1930s. MacBride in turn went the way of de Valera, forming his own political party in an attempt to achieve the Republic through orthodox politics.
When the modern Troubles broke out in 1969, it was Londoner Sean MacStiofáin who led the Provisional IRA away from the Official IRA in the split of 1969/1970, and became the first Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA. MacStiofáin had been born John Stephenson, and had joined the IRA in London in the early 1950s before he had ever set foot in Ireland.
MacStiofáin followed MacBride, de Valera and Clarke as second-generation leaders of the Irish Republican movement. In the summer of 1972, after MacStiofáin’s IRA had inflicted serious casualties on both the British Army and the civilian population in the north of Ireland, the British offered to talk to the IRA leadership.
MacStiofáin led the delegation, which included Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, to meet British Northern Ireland Secretary of State William Whitelaw.
Before the meeting MacStiofáin sought advice from MacBride. “He advised us not to interrupt when the British spoke and to sit together, not be separated in the seating arrangements. When we got in the room, Whitelaw gestured for us to sit here and there but I said no, we’ll stay together,” said MacStiofáin.
The talks produced nothing, and an agreed truce lasted only 48 hours after the meeting. Within weeks, on Friday, July 21, 1972, the IRA planted and exploded 22 bombs in Belfast which, in just over an hour, killed nine people and seriously injured about 130 others. `Bloody Friday’ did serious damage to the IRA’s credibility, and to MacStiofáin’s claims to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible.
In late November 1972, MacStiofáin was arrested and promptly went on hunger strike. After 57 days he was ordered off the strike by the IRA leadership.
But his star faded quickly, and he never regained his position at the top of the Republican movement. Rumors were spread that he had asked to come off the hunger strike. Others quickly moved to fill the gap in leadership left by his imprisonment. Sidelined by the IRA, MacStiofáin remained publicly uncritical of his successors, but his influence had gone. For decades he remained in the shadows, an anonymous figure without too many close friends in the movement, and died in 2001.
Although MacStiofáin was leader of the Provisional IRA during some of the worst years of the Troubles, he had always — like MacBride 30 years before him — opposed bombing English cities. Once removed from the leadership of the IRA, attacks on London, Birmingham and elsewhere began.
The most famous IRA unit of those years, based in London, included Glasgow-born Hugh Doherty and Liam Quinn from San Francisco. The team were among the most prolific IRA operators of the Troubles. The Daily Telegraph described them as “the best team the Provos ever had.” They began attacking targets in and around London in the autumn of 1974 and in the year before they were captured averaged about one attack every week. Ross McWhirter, a right-wing activist and TV personality, was shot dead on his doorstep after offering a reward for the unit’s capture.
Liam Quinn’s father was Irish and his mother Mexican. Quinn grew up in the turbulent radical atmosphere of the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s, but instead of protesting against the Vietnam War, like many of his contemporaries, Quinn became involved in Irish Republicanism.
In 1971 he was in his early twenties and was working for the U.S. mail service, but quit to go to Ireland and join the Republican movement. “I saw it as the struggle that had lasted for 100 years before being resumed again,” he said.
According to local San Francisco sources, Quinn was introduced to the IRA by Chuck Malone, a Republican active in America for several decades who was known in the US media as the “Golden Gate Gunrunner” after being charged with smuggling arms to the IRA in the 1970s. Quinn was reportedly recruited into the IRA by Malone, who personally escorted him to Derry in September 1971 where introductions were made.
Quinn, a U.S. citizen, was eventually convicted of murdering PC Stephen Tibbett, a 21 year-old unarmed police officer who was shot dead after confronting Quinn in London in February 1975. After the killing, Quinn fled London and was arrested later the same year in Dublin and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment for IRA membership. Quinn returned to San Francisco on his release from prison in Ireland, but was rearrested in California in 1981 by the FBI and in 1986 lost a protracted legal battle against extradition to the UK.
Quinn claimed unsuccessfully that his actions in England for the IRA were political, and so he ought not to be extradited. He was returned to England and in 1988 sentenced to life in prison for murdering PC Tibbett.
“I wanted to help out if I could. I’d do it all over again. I’m afraid I would,’ he said. `I guess that nice American boy wasn’t happy with the television culture and the Disneyland world. I guess he was looking for a new identity and better sense of values and just happened to find a worthy cause to be devoted to.” Ten years later, Quinn was transferred to Portlaoise Prison in Ireland before being released as part of the Peace Process in April 1999. He had been, with Doherty, a key IRA Volunteer in London in the early 1970s.
Doherty stole the cars used on several operations. One Saturday in December 1975 he stole a dark blue Ford Cortina to use in the evening’s planned operation — a return to a previous target, Scott’s Bar in Mayfair. That night, with three others, Doherty drove through London and as the car passed Scott’s the gunmen leaned out of the window and fired into the restaurant. Police spotted the incident and gave chase, cornering them in Balcombe Sreet.
The unit held out for almost a week in an apartment before, surrounded, they surrendered to police. In 1977, aged 26, Doherty stood trial. He refused to recognize the court. He was given eleven life sentences, one term of 21 years, five terms of twenty years, and one of eighteen years.
While Hugh Doherty was serving his prison sentence, his brother Pat rose to become a senior Republican. He is currently Sinn Féin MP for West Tyrone and Vice President of Sinn Féin, although he too was born and brought up in Glasgow.
“What made Glasgow very different from any other British city was the huge number of people from Donegal, and particularly the Gaeltacht area,” said Pat Doherty. “It would not have been unusual in the Gorbals areas where I was born and grew up to hear Irish spoken on the street. My parents spoke it. I’d have seen kids growing up whose parents were from Gaeltacht area speaking Irish with a Glasgow accent.”
Growing up, the Doherty boys spent every spare minute they could in Ireland. “I went to Ireland every summer holiday and any opportunity in between for as long as I could remember,” said Pat.
Doherty married in 1967 and moved to Ireland early the following year, aged 23. He said he was influenced by a series of political realizations in those first years in Ireland. “The most defining one was one day the director asked me to pay out the wages because he wanted to go off early and I was really shocked by the wages — I just didn’t know. These were married men with families and they were getting less than what I would have got as a bonus back in Glasgow. It really hit me between the eyes. So I started to read — I started to read ferociously. The civil rights movement was just starting. I wasn’t involved but I was observing everything that was happening and was reading, reading,” he said.
Doherty joined Sinn Féin in April 1970, despite a certain self-consciousness about his accent. “In early Sinn Féin meetings I’d be wary [of speaking] — they’ll think I’m a Brit or something,” he recalled. But at British Army checkpoints “my accent was of immense use because they took the wrong assumption and I didn’t, as they say in Donegal, `put them past their notion.'”
Doherty has proved an essential supporter of the Adam-McGuinness leadership during the years of the Peace Process. Others born outside Ireland to Irish parents or grandparents have been no less vital.
The latest attempt at peace has been made possible, in a very real sense, by American-born Bill Flynn and Chuck Feeney. Second-generation Irish Flynn and fellow businessman Feeney, whose family come from Fermanagh, undertook a series of exploratory initiatives aimed at breaking new ground in the debate on the conflict in the early 1990s.
It was Flynn who, in January 1994, in his capacity as chairman of the National Committee on Foreign Policy, invited Gerry Adams and other politicians to a one-day conference in New York to discuss the conflict. The invite triggered a long wrangle involving the British Government and the White House over granting Adams a visa. The Adams trip became a key event in securing an eventual IRA cease-fire and unlocking the forces that would eventually generate a peace process.
The survival of that Peace Process now largely depends on the actions of another second-generation Irishman — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose mother is from Donegal. If Blair can deliver what Tom Clarke, Sean MacBride, Eamon de Valera and the rest failed to achieve — an end to the historic conflict — he could become the modern hero of the Irish Diaspora.