Book Review: Charlie One: The True Story of an Irishman in the British Army and His Role in Covert Counter-Terrorism Operations in Northern Ireland, by Seán Hartnett (2016)

charlie-one-web1Special ops memoirs can be a crapshoot in terms of which ones to take seriously. For every genuine case like Andy McNab on the shelves, there are fakers and fantasists like Philip Anthony Sessarego taking up space. That the UK Ministry of Defence asked the publishers Merrion Press to halt the distribution of this book over the sensitive material inside would suggest its author, Seán Hartnett, is the real deal.

Certainly there is enough here to argue that the term ‘Peace Process’, while not a misnomer, does not entirely cover the whole picture. With the danger of terrorism in Northern Ireland subdued but ever present, the British Government invested, and clearly continues to do so, a considerable amount of resources, both technological and human, such as the covert Joint Communications Unit Northern Ireland (JCU-NI), also known as ‘the Det.’

The unit’s emblem is Argus, the hundred-eyed monster of classical myth, and in case we ever doubt the appropriateness of that choice of symbol, Hartnett gives us a sample of his working day that would not be out of place in a Jason Bourne movie:

Sitting in front of a vast wall of TV monitors in the operations room, fed by signals from this powerful network, the operations officer (Opso) could track a vehicle or individual in real time from any point in the city to any other point, or manoeuvre his operators like chess pieces around the city, and indeed all the way down to the so-called ‘bandit country’ of South Armagh and Tyrone. As they dropped out on one camera they would be picked up by another, or by an operator, all the whole oblivious to the level of surveillance they were under.

After a stint in the regular British Army, Hartnett was retrained as an electronics expert and assigned to ‘North Det’, responsible for covering the Republican hotbed of Derry. Given responsibility for the myriad of hidden cameras keeping watch over suspects and designated areas, his was unusual work compared to what he had done before as a common squaddie.

But then, Hartnett was an unusual agent for Queen and Country in the first place, being a Cork native with republican connections of his own. An uncomfortable moment for him was seeing on the HQ walls framed photographs and newspaper clippings of the SAS ambush on a PIRA squad at Loughgall in 1987 in which a cousin of an aunt of his had been killed.

Hartnett later learned some of the inside details of Loughgall from an older colleague over the course of a few drinks. Ruminations on past events are interspaced with counter-terrorism work in the present day, suggesting that while much has changed over the years, many of the underlying causes have not.

‘Dissident’ republican march on O’Connell Street, Dublin, 23rd April 2016

For all the technological sophistication JCU-NI had at its disposal, Hartnett makes it clear that Murphy’s Law of ‘what can go wrong will go wrong’ was never far away. That North Det did not officially exist on paper could be a problem as well as a necessity, such as when JCU-NI assisted in the PSNI arrest of four men on their way to attack a police patrol with a rocket launcher. The detainees were to be acquitted of the charges of Real IRA membership and conspiracy to murder partly due to the unexplained references in the course of the trial to military personnel that had not been included in the PSNI arrest notes.

JCU-NI could at least claim a win in that instance in the saving of lives. But, in August 2002, the team operatives were faced with the dilemma of whether to continue pursuing their latest ‘Charlie One’ (the codename for whoever was their current quarry, with ‘Charlie Two’ and onwards added as appropriate) or the second car that some of the other ‘dissident’ Republicans he had been travelling with had switched to and were driving in a different direction.

David Caldwell

The officer-in-charge went with his gut feeling and made the call to continue focusing on their ‘Charlie One.’ After a seemingly uneventful day of yet more surveillance, the team learned that a civilian construction worker, David Caldwell, had been killed by a booby-trapped lunchbox. The explosives had originated from the second car that JCU-NI had opted not to follow.

“Until now, no one had any knowledge of North Det’s involvement in the incident,” Hartnett concludes sombrely. “David Caldwell’s daughter, Gillian McFaul, has been looking for answers ever since that day. I hope this provides some.”

However, the book offers more questions than answers. In keeping with the clandestine nature of espionage, where little can be said, only exposed (the efforts of the Ministry of Defence towards this book being a case in point), the work of North Det often appears more defined by its failures rather than successes.

Or maybe Hartnett is simply jaded. Upon discharge from the British Army, Hartnett was diagnosed with PTSD, and wrote this book as a form of therapy. It is an easy read, although, given the subject matter, not always easy to read. It is also, unfortunately, a very relevant read.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published on The Irish Story (06/12/2016)

Book Review: One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916, edited by Angus Mitchell (2016)

Mitchell-Cover-300x450In February 1916, Roger Casement was recovering near Munich from an unpleasant combination of tropical fever and nervous exhaustion when he replied to a letter from the Countess Blücher, asking for help with writing tips for her diary. Eager to help, Casement expounded at length on the delights – and dangers – of keeping a journal:

You know the charm of a diary is its simplicity. Its reality and the sense of daily life it conveys to the reader depends not on style, but on truth and sincerity. It should tell things but still more of the writer and his (or her) outlook on those things.

Sometimes a diary could tell too much. Casement confessed to the Countess that he had given up on the one he had been writing while in Germany as he found himself recording things that were best left in the dark.

As indicated, keeping a diary was no simple matter but then, there was little in Casement’s life, not least his time in Germany, that was simple. As he confessed at the start of another diary of his, recently reprinted here: “It is not every day that even an Irishman commits High Treason especially one who has been in the service of the Sovereign he discards.”


Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man already famous – for his exposé of human rights abuses, first in the Congo and later Peru – Casement was conscious of his role in history, taking meticulous care that his personal papers be suitably prepared and leaving behind detailed instructions for their dispersal and eventual publication. With an eye to posterity – and a trace of grandiosity – he explained the value of his documents to his friends: “they are historic & I leave them to Ireland.”

This forward thinking and the wealth of information it ensured are in no small part the reason why Casement has been one of the better remembered figures of 1916, despite his role being a sideshow to the Rising and not a terribly successful one by anyone’s yardstick: his mission to raise a regiment amongst Irish prisoners in German POW camps resulted in only a handful of recruits and the withdrawal of interest on the part of the German authorities.


The disillusionment was mutual. “My last day in Berlin!” he wrote in this diary’s last entry for the 11th April 1916 as he departed for Ireland and the fate he was at least half-expecting to find: “Thank God – tomorrow my last day in Germany – again thank God, an English jail, or scaffold, would be better than to dwell with these people longer. All deception – all self-interest.”

This book is well served by its editor. Historian Angus Mitchell adroitly guides the reader through the literary and historical context in which Casement composed this diary, and his introduction should be highly informative to those who know only of Casement’s diaries of the Black sort (Mitchell leaves his thoughts on the authenticity of that divisive matter unstated).

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Casement, always an engaging writer keen to leave an impression on his reader as evidenced by the artful descriptions – the Irish-American liftboys in New York had “the brogue still lingering round the shores of that broad estuary of smiles that takes the place of a mouth in the true Milesian face” – or his crisp accounts of his increasingly acrimonious relationships with various German officials.

Roger Casement at leisure

Much of the later book makes for painful reading as Casement slowly realises the lack of concern his allies truly had for Ireland except as a convenient second front against Britain. Which should have been obvious from the start – after all, nations have no friends, only interests, and Casement was too experienced a diplomat not to know this – but the picture that emerges from these pages is of a rather fey individual, intelligent enough to recognise the scale of his plight but not self-aware enough to see how he got there in the first place. But at least he had the comfort of knowing that it was all someone else’s fault anyway.

Still, regardless of one’s thoughts about Casement – and he will continue to be debated – those wanting to learn more about one of the most iconic and controversial figures in 20th century Irish history would be well advised to start here with the subject’s own thoughts and feelings.


Publisher’s Website: Merrion Press

Originally posted on The Irish Story (08/06/2016)



Book Review: After the Rising: Soldiers, Lawyers and Trials of the Irish Revolution, by Seán Enright (2016)


bookcoverThomas Traynor was charged with murder on the 6th April 1921 in Dublin City Hall by a military court. A small, wiry man of about forty with a long, black moustache that gave him a mournful appearance, Traynor had been apprehended at 144 Brunswick Street, the scene of an ambush on a British Army patrol that resulted in the death of two cadets. The fleeing Traynor had been rugby-tackled to the ground by a lieutenant who reported that Traynor had shouted: “God’s sake, shoot me now.” Later he had told another of his captors: “I am only a soldier like yourself.”

Under the rules of the court, Traynor was not entitled to give any evidence or be cross-examined. Not that he had much to say, only that he had been caught up in the fighting while carrying a gun – the same automatic found on him at the scene – to give to someone else. He made no attempt to explain the incriminating remarks attributed to him. All this, and his prior involvement in the Easter Rising of five years ago, ensured his conviction for murder and hanging.

British Army and police patrol

If there was little doubt that Traynor had indeed been involved in the ambush on Brunswick Street, then the case of Patrick Maher could only be described as tragic. He was among those arrested and brought to trial for the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station that saw two policemen killed in the resulting shootout.

Due to an unfortunate resemblance to Dan Breen, one of the participants in the rescue, Maher was picked out of a police line-up. His name had earlier been passed to the authorities by ‘private information’ – in other words, an informant, unusual in itself when such sources of information were fast drying up.

Maher had worked at Cleeves Creamery throughout a strike, the only employee who had done so, and it is probable that his name had been supplied to the police out of spite (he had already been boycotted and threatened). Along with another man convicted of the shootout (probably accurately), Maher was the last man executed during the War of Independence, on the 7th June 1921, four days before the Truce which would have saved him.

These are but two of the cases that illuminate Seán Enright’s study of the revolutionary period in Ireland, with a focus on the War of Independence. Enright flips the usual Hibernian-centric narrative on its head by focusing on the British perspective, making it one of the few works to do so.

Earlier studies such as William Sheehan’s Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 and W.H. Kautt’s Ambushes and Armour: The Irish Rebellion, 1919-1921 had also followed such a line, though these focused on the military side of things, the obvious area of study for this turbulent period with its ambushes and assassinations.

British Army checkpoint, Dublin

Enright eschews this approach by focusing on the use of the legal system by Dublin Castle to try and contain the growing rebellion on its watch. This leads to a quieter, more analytical read than most works, though – as the author demonstrates throughout – not one that is any less dramatic. Enright understands that stories are the building blocks of history, and here we get plenty of them.

This may not appear obvious at first, given a subject material that seems on the surface to be a dry one. Whatever its interest, Enright leaves us in no doubt as to its importance in understanding the conflict. “A unique feature of this revolution,” he writes, “was the extent to which the conflict centred on law and legal institutions which kept the status quo in place.”

The Crown Courts were intended to be instruments of keeping rebellion in check, yet their juries could not be guaranteed to deliver the verdicts that the British Government needed. Partly this was due to Irish Republican Army (IRA) intimidation, and the few witnesses who did come forward risked boycotts and social alienation.

A more direct approach by the IRA was the burning of court houses, with a total of forty-seven destroyed by the spring of 1920. The presiding judge of one ruined court at Borrisokane in County Tipperary, however, proved to be not so easily vanquished, as Enright describes with a fine eye for tragicomedy:

Major Dease, a hefty, old R.M. convened court in the blackened ruins. Major Dease continued to sit session, his white hair plastered to his face by falling rain. The court staff exchanged glances occasionally but no one was brave enough to say anything to the old Major.

In other cases, no coercion was needed, as local authorities switched allegiances to the Dáil Éireann and quickly made their newfound loyalties known. The Roscommon County Council served notice to landlords of court buildings that no rent would be paid for them as their services were no longer required. In Newbridge, County Kildare, the end of the old system came even more abruptly when the resident magistrate arrived one morning to find the front door to his courthouse locked.

Burnt-out building from the War of Independence

Even the few Crown courts that continued to function did so only barely. The last politically-motivated murder trial heard by a jury was in the spring of 1920. What looked like an iron-clad case against the accused for the shooting of a policeman in Tipperary was thrown on its head when it was revealed mid-trial that the main witness for the prosecution had made an original statement that differed considerably from what he had just given.

It was in the wake of such administrative impotence that Winston Churchill urged the rest of the Cabinet to adopt harsher measures. When it emerged during the Cabinet discussion that the Irish Judiciary, still loyal to the principles of open justice, had refused to take on non-jury trials, Churchill quipped: “Get three generals if you cannot get three judges.”

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers in Dublin

That set the tone for the British response in the latter half of the War, namely the establishment of the military courts and the assigning of the British Army to do what the civilian administration could not.

The first person to be tried for murder under the new system was an 18-year old student, Kevin Barry, for an ambush in Dublin that resulted in three dead soldiers. Despite appeals for clemency, Barry was hanged.

This marked a turning point. Before, IRA defendants could have safely declined to recognise the legitimacy of the toothless courts before them. The possibility of lengthy sentences or even execution made subsequent trials a literal matter of life and death.

Sir Nevil Macready, circa 1915

Even the Truce of 1921 and the cessation of hostilities did not stop the legal battles, particularly with forty-two men still on death row and over a hundred awaiting trial. Sir Nevil Macready, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Ireland, intended to proceed with the executions of the former and the start processing the latter, but the case of J.J. Egan, convicted by a military court for the possession of ammunition, threatened to throw a spanner in the whole works.

As briskly summarised by Enright:

The primary argument advanced for the prisoner, Egan, can be distilled in a few lines: the Crown had released the prerogative power to wage war in Ireland to Parliament by passing the ROIA [Restoration of Order in Ireland Act] to deal with the Rebellion and therefore only Parliament could embark on new measures. It followed that the whole edifice of martial law was unlawful.

Matters went badly for Macready when the Master of the Rolls ruled that the military courts were indeed unlawful, with a writ for habeas corpus issued for Egan and the prisoner to be produced in court. Macready held his ground and informed his subordinates to ignore the writ, prompting the issuing of a further writ by the Master of the Rolls for the arrests of Macready and two other generals.

Both sides backed down with their writs the following day, with Egan released and Macready out of danger – but with the military courts, the headstone of British strategy, severely compromised in the event of further warfare in Ireland.

As the above story shows, Enright is adept at bringing out some of the more obscure details of the period into the light, leading to a fuller understanding. But research is not the writer’s only talent, displaying at times the ability to capture taunt, at times gripping depictions of otherwise quiet scenes inside a courtroom.

This book appeals to a number of interests: the challenges a liberal democracy faces in confronting a war, one of the least liberal occurrences, in its midst. The weapons that a military regime, as the British state in Ireland essentially was by its end, can use – and have used against it. Brief but evocative pen portraits of the various senior figures in authority. A study of how things fall apart with the centre slowly but surely failing to hold, no matter how much legal chicanery or brute force is applied. It is for this ability to show many things at once that After the Rising deserves to be on the shelf of any serious student of the period.


Publisher’s Website: Merrion Press

Originally posted on The Irish Story (16/12/2016)