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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 13. IRA Gun Runners


A pleasant crew member of a boat I skippered once, was a red-hot IRA supporter. I will refer to him as Eamon Deacy, as I have no wish to cause him or his family any embarrassment, but that was not his real name, so readers will excuse the non-disclosure of his true identity. He was a pleasant and hard-working man, and a great conversationalist to have in the cabin. But he made no attempt to hide his detest of the British occupation of Northern Ireland, or his deep hostility to British soldiers for the murder of Irish nationalists over the major part of the 20th century. Yet Eamonn changed his attitude radically, and publicly decried the leadership of the IRA, and did so in the pages of English newspapers. What brought about the change?

His brother, an active IRA member, had been interred in the notorious HM Prison Maze at Lisburn near Belfast, (otherwise known as the H blocks, Long Kesh, or the Maze). This was some ten tears before the hunger strikes of IRA prisoners during 1980 and 1981 when Bobby Sands died after 66 days without food. Another nine of the prisoners died similarly by August of that year. But it was ten years earlier that the IRA, looking for a martyr to stir support for the cause, asked Eamon’s brother to go on hunger strike to the death. In Eamonn’s view, knowing many of the men who wanted his brother to give his life in this way, - they were cowards who would not skip a single meal themselves. So his anger burst out in a public denunciation of those IRA leaders. As it happened, his brother did not go on hunger strike, and did not die.

Was Eamon very different from other Irishmen of the Republic in those days ? Not really. Perhaps only in degree. Having visited and worked in Ireland over many years, from 1949 onwards, I would say almost all Irish Catholics (and many southern Ireland Protestants) support the union of north and south in one free democratic state outside of the United Kingdom. That is the natural position of the vast majority. How many would support armed uprising or violence to achieve the end, is open to debate, and much more difficult to assess. But the history of treachery, and broken promises by British Governments, and the brutal actions of English troops since the days of Cromwell, is vividly embedded in the national consciousness, and reflected in the many colourful republican and patriotic songs. In consequence, ordinary Irish people would view IRA bloodshed from that perspective, and, if not condoning it, would at least understand the passions and sense of grievance that fostered the armed movement.

During the years my father and his brothers fished around Ireland for the Dublin firm of H J Nolan & Co. (formerly a Belfast firm), they encountered no hostility or unfriendliness. From the Donegal hills to the Aran Isles, and to Bantry Bay, and all the small harbours of the Free State in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Scots fishers were accepted as fellow Celts. Their fundamentalist Presbyterian or non-conformist faith was no obstacle to the formation of lifelong friendships. It helped that Scotland was viewed as being under an English yoke as much as Northern Ireland. I suspect the Scots fishers made no attempt to question that perception. The Northern Irish problem was a political problem, - not a religious one.

This was also my own experience during the 15 years or more I worked with Moslem peoples in over ten countries which had a majority of, or a sizeable number of, Moslem citizens. Those countries included Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Turkmenistan. In each place I was treated with respect and courtesy, and much kindness. I made no secret of my Christian faith, but that was never an issue. The resentment towards the West (and chiefly the United States), was due to political factors. The major problems were Western control of Arab or Moslem resources of petroleum, and America’s reckless readiness to bomb and invade any Moslem land on the pretence of defending its own security.

But, back to Ireland, and the tensions of the post-war period up to the formation of a coalition government in the north, with representatives of political parties that stood for the extreme positions of Republicans and Loyalists. Ireland and its troubles, as has often been said, is a result of the “sins of our fathers”. My own experience of more recent troubles and conflicts, in places like South Africa and Cambodia, is that we have ultimately to bury the hatchet, to turn away from perpetual hostility and revenge, and to work for peace, justice and reconciliation. Why Ireland should be different, or why the so-called Loyalists should perpetuate wars and battles that took place 300 years ago, - I simply do not understand. Worse still, why that should be done in the name of Christ is an abomination, in my view. Martin Luther King wisely proclaimed that the philosophy of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” ultimately leaves everyone blind and toothless.

We need a new beginning and people with the vision to see that. I thank God for the brave peacemakers on both sides of the Irish conflict who have worked to achieve a lasting peace. And I refer here, not to politicians, but to ordinary women and men, many of whom lost loved ones during the troubles.

Most Irish persons supported the movements to rid all of Ireland from the UK, though only a few would agree with the violent means of the IRA. So it was hardly possible to have a Catholic Irish friend who did not harbour national sympathies. Rather, I suppose as it would be difficult to find ordinary Arabs in the Middle East who did not want their lands to be free of American or Israeli domination. However, and despite all of the violent background, and the historical injustices that have beset Ireland, rather wonderfully, even avowed Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists can be great friends cooperating effectively and in harmony. I knew some who were in that category. Two who come to mind, Paddy Smyth and Bobby McCullough, a fish merchant and a skipper of a large vessel, worked marvelously together, though constantly teasing, and playing practical jokes on one another. I also knew many Protestant skippers who lived and worked all their lives in fishing ports like Killybegs in Donegal, and were respected and valued members of that community. The core problem of Ireland is political, not religious, and it relates to basic justice.

However, IRA gun-running was to affect my family’s legacy of peaceful fishing in Ireland, some years after we had returned to Scotland. The family, through Nolan’s operated four fine fishing boats. They were the Kincora, the Casamara, the Moravia and the Kittiwake. The first two were Irish built, - constructed at the fine yard of John Tyrrell and Sons in Arklow. The second two were Scots-built, from the boatyards of Buckie in Banffshire. Three of the vessels were taken to Scotland in the later 1950’s and re-registered under INS (Inverness) numbers. The fourth vessel, the Casamara, remained in the Republic. She was a fine 65 foot boat, very seaworthy, and built of pitch pine, with a mahogany cabin said to be from wood washed up after a shipwreck. The wood had originally been a gift to the King of England from an African state. No Irishman would have had a conscience about using that salvaged timber for his own purposes.

After the Scots fishers left, the Casamara was sold initially to the O’Driscoll family in Castletown Berehaven. That family had a long tradition of fishing there from the remote County Cork port, and they used the Casamara successfully for some years. The boat then changed hands again, and after 1980 was acquired by Dun Laoghaire owners. Then in 1985 it made at least three arms shipment voyages from Libya to the IRA in the Republic.

Commanded by an Adrian Hopkins of Dun Laoghaire from where we often fished, Casamara was reported to have carried consignments of from 10 to 16 tons of weapons and ammunition, including AK 47 rifles, pistols, anti-aircraft machine guns and rocket launchers. Also in the cargo were a million rounds of bullets and thousands of mortar shells. General John de Chastelain who inspected arms that the IRA had put out of use, identified some as coming from the Casamara shipment. I find it hard to believe that that lovely 65 foot seiner built by Tyrrell’s of Arklow in the late 1940’s, which was manned by such fine crews of fishermen and which had harvested fish all round the emerald isle for 30 years, was to be used for the murderous weapons trade in the 1980’s.

Hopkins was reported to have used three vessels over a 2 to 3 year period, - the Casamara, the Villa, and the Eksund. At one time he changed the Casamara’s name to avoid detection. He and his Eksund crew, including IRA member Gabriel Cleary, were arrested by French authorities in the Bay of Biscay in 1987, and spent the next 3 years in French jails. Released on bail, Hopkins made his way to Ireland where he was picked up by Gardai police in Limerick. Numerous reports, including Ed Moloney’s 2003 book, The Secret History of the IRA, claim that the arms shipments were financed and organized by one Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, a wealthy pig farmer whose property adjoined the Irish Republic border.

Books and reports describe Murphy as a veteran IRA commander, and its most lucrative smuggler. It was also suspected that he was behind the brutal murder of Eamon Collins near Murphy’s farm. Collins had been a witness against Murphy in a British court case. Thomas Murphy was said to be on the beach at Clogga Strand in County Wicklow when the Casamara discharged her cargo of weapons and ammunition. In 2006, Northern Irish and Republican police raided Murphy’s farms after British police had searched over 240 properties in England, valued at £ 55 million, that were believed to be part of an IRA money-laundering operation. What happened to the Casamara afterwards, I have not been able to ascertain.

In contrast to the IRA crewman mentioned at the start of the chapter, there was a regular visitor to my father’s boat who was to make a significant contribution to peace and reconciliation in the north, some years later. I refer to Dr John Robb who as a surgeon at Lismore Hospital Ballymena, had often to repair the horrendous damage done to human bodies by the indiscriminate bombs. His father Dr John Charles Robb, a pioneer in medical and hospital work, served in Downpatrick Hospital for many years. My father was placed under his care in 1953 when he was landed unconscious from a brain hemorrhage due to excessive hours at sea without sleep. Thankfully, my father recovered, and in the process he got to know the Robb boys, Johnny and Jimmy, both of whom were to spend some time at sea with us later when on vacation. They were great fun, keen rugby players, and real gentlemen. Both graduated as medical doctors, though Jimmy had intended a different line of work, but changed to medicine after a life-changing visit to Calcutta where he observed human misery and suffering to an extreme degree.

Johnny became a renowned surgeon, often operating on bomb victims with horrific injuries, at the Lismore Hospital as mentioned above. He was made an honorary Senator by the Dublin Government in appreciation of his efforts to promote peace in the north. I mentioned his name to the Rev Iain Paisley during the conversation we had on a flight from Rome to London many years ago. The leader of the Democratic Unionists said, “ahh, ... - he’s all mixed up. But, … he is a very good surgeon”.


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