Crossing the Line

Christopher Owens reviews the latest work from the pen of Martin Dillon. Influenced by post punk and industrial music, Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

The terms 'memoir' and 'autobiography' are often used interchangeably. So much so that they can potentially mis-sell the book to a reader. How many times have you been disappointed by certain "autobiographies" because they haven't focused on a particular era of a person's life?

Regardless of terms, these books are always in high demand and for obvious reasons: we as readers are curious beings. Be it Katie Price, Keith Richards or Ken Maginnis,  we want to know what was going through someone's mind during a particular incident in their life.

In many ways, it also panders to human egotism and the scourge of celebrity cult that we have found ourselves in for a number of years. We give these individuals an elevated platform because, in the words of Father Ted, "...what's great about being famous? People listen to you. They listen to what you say, and I have a lot to say."

Martin Dillon is possibly the most widely read author on the Troubles. However, he has taken a critical pasting over the last twenty years as new facts emerge about cases he's openly speculated on, although there's no denying that Dillon has done an awful lot to shed some light on the likes of secret burials, murderous British Army units and infiltrated loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, he's cut a forlorn figure. His last book before this, 2003's The Trigger Men, was effectively a compendium of his previous books but with new additions like Johnny Adair and Dominic McGlinchey. After that, nothing. He appeared to be in retirement in New York, writing plays and poetry and occasionally being wheeled out on Stephen Nolan's human bear baiting radio show to talk about the events of August 1969.

He's re-entered the arena slowly, by contributing a foreword to Aaron Edwards' disappointing book on the UVF, and praising Malachi O'Doherty's insipid biography of Gerry Adams. And now this.

First off, the title doesn't inspire much confidence (making the book seem like a third rate potboiler), nor does the cover (a compilation of his most famous books). It smacks of cheapness, laziness and a smug, self serving attitude.

Overall, it's safe to say that the book is a mixed bag. The early years are involving and the descriptions laced with humour and affection for his relatives and teachers, although the combination of abusive priests, closeted high society artists and lobotomised IRA uncles does threaten to turn it into a parody of a Patrick McCabe novel.

What these chapters do is reinforce the fact that the North (pre conflict) was a divided place certainly, but also one where both communities worked and shopped in areas that would eventually be polarised. It was certainly a different time and, when you consider comments by the likes of John Hume who felt that the emerging Catholic middle class saw the North as their country as much as Unionists and were ready to protest for equality, it's hard not to envisage a fantasy scenario where Protestants saw themselves as equally oppressed as their Catholic counterparts, united and began a process which would led to an equal state for both communities.

Of course, that's wish fulfilment thinking (especially considering the political setup of this country) but it does make you think. Imagine what could have been achieved if both sides had realised they suffered from injustice and inequality. Tales of the pre Troubles North are one of the many tragic facets of Irish history.

When the story graduates to our intrepid journalist taking up a job in the BBC, we move into two of the biggest problems with autobiographies/memoirs: tedious point scoring and name dropping. Thankfully, there's no "needless to say, I had the last laugh" moments (a la Alan Partridge), but he comes close at times, especially discussing the issues surrounding the creation and first year of Talkback for BBC Radio Ulster.

The publicity surrounding Dillon's claim that BBC NI were happy to follow government thinking overlooks the fact that he's discussed this before in quite a few of his books. If true, his tale of the BBC kowtowing to the Ulster Worker's Council strike is a chilling indictment of managerial incompetence. Other tales provoke yawning: I must confess I had never heard of his "satirical" TV programme 'The Show' and his depiction of it makes it seem so self consciously "wacky" (like a third rate student amateur drama society attempting to do Monty Python), that I never want to see it. 

In terms of his claims that he's made about various people/incidents in his writing over the years, he still sticks to his assertion that Lenny Murphy was an undiagnosed psychopath, despite Steve Bruce (in the eyes of some) demolishing that theory in his book The Red Hand.  

He claims that Brendan Hughes was one of his regular sources (and that it was him who provided Dillon with a copy of the IRA Green Book which was published in 1990's The Dirty War. This, of course, is perfectly feasible. However, he also claims that Hughes had attempted (unsuccessfully) to gain access to documents related to the murder of Joe Fenton for Dillon.

This would suggest that Hughes was the senior member of the IRA in The Dirty War who claimed that Fenton was providing the IRA with information on informers, naming people like Gerard and Catherine Mahon. If that was the case, why doesn't Dillon elaborate on this in Crossing the Line, using it as an example of how compromised the IRA were by the end of the 80's?

More intriguingly, he devotes a chapter to the case of Brendan Davison (referred to as 'Davidson' in the book) and regurgitates the claim that he was an informer. This time, he adds allegations that he was also a paedophile and speculates that this is what made him vulnerable to blackmail.

Curiously, it seems he's gleamed this information from an Irish Independent article by Jim Cusack (who also misspells Davison's surname). Surely, if Davison was the compromised 'loose cannon' openly antagonistic to the Adams leadership as depicted in this book, Dillon would have written about this in The Dirty War instead of devoting two pages to him and passing him off as a mere police informer?

While it's possible that he could probably explain some of these inconsistencies by claiming new information has become available over the years, it would be nice if he'd tied them up in this book by using phrases like "in this book, I wrote this but I was unaware of...", which comes across as less dishonest.

Finally, he seems to really, really think highly of his creative writing as he liberally quotes from it throughout the book. Which goes back to what I said about the cover: self serving and smug.

Give it a go. Enjoy the early chapters. And take the rest with a huge pinch of salt.

Martin Dillon, 2017, Crossing the Line: My Life on the Edge. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: 978-1785371301

Share This:

Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

11 comments to ''Crossing the Line"

  1. Christopher,

    another fine review.

    Thanks for putting them the way of TPQ.

  2. Ive enjoyed the Dillon books (Dirty War, Shankill Butchers) I have read. Critcising Troubles writers of that era for innacuracies seems strange given the subterfuge of the times. The rousing end to tim pat coogans 3rd editions "the IRA" about how they are never going to surrender should perhaps merit the same contempt.Not sure im interested enough in the author to read about him, but good review and Alan Partridge quotes always welcome in any context too.

  3. PS this reminds me I should read over old books as frequently as new ones, I would of sworn beforehand that the Davidson/peado reference was in the Dirty War, pg 376-378 confirm it wasnt. Not knowing who put this into my head feels like a violation of sorts.

  4. Anthony,

    thank you for the compliments. It's a great honour to contribute to this blog.


    there's a big difference in making assertions (like the Tim Pat Coogan one you cited) and making stuff up (which Dillon has a bad tendency to do when he wants to fill in gaps).

  5. Good review but I think I'll give it a miss. The first "Troubles" book I read was Martin Dillon's Political Murder and it started an addiction that ran for years. Shankill Butchers was brilliant even if not knowing who Mr A was bugged me for years, and Dirty War was unputdownable. Since those books he has lost his way in my opinion.

  6. Peter,

    I read Political Murder in 1974 in Crumlin Road Prison. Even then I could tell both authors had got some things badly wrong. The Marines then stole it during a cell search. I think I went back to reading the Mack Bolan series!!

  7. AM
    Yes I'm sure there were many things wrong with Political Murder, one reason I'd like to reread it, but I was a toddler in the early 70s so had no idea at the time how accurate it all was.
    I read Dirty War when I was in the Crumlin Road Prison, though I was in the sangers not the cells!!!!

  8. Peter,

    so you never crossed the line from the sanger to the cell!!

  9. AM
    No, not me. Though no doubt you believe that the real criminals were in the sangers!!!!!

  10. thats unfair Peter, there was the Loyalist wing too dont forget.

  11. Still always surprises me when I read that occasionally Republicans and Loyalists got along in prison, even becoming friends.


  • To add an Emoticons Show Icons
  • To add code Use [pre]code here[/pre]
  • To add an Image Use [img]IMAGE-URL-HERE[/img]
  • To add Youtube video just paste a video link like