Some years ago I had reached the point where I felt republicans would die if not in their beds at home, then at least not in captivity. That expectation was upended with the death of Seamus McGrane in Portlaoise prison in May. On the two occasions that I have visited the prison since his death, the fact that he never emerged from its dismal grey confines alive caused a dark cloud to flicker across my mind.
He was not a man I ever got to know particularly well. Nor was it through republicanism that I met him. He ran a glazing business in Dundalk and occasionally I would call there to get glass. He had recognised me from one of the TV interviews I had given and it was on my first time of calling that he told me who he was.
I had of course known him by reputation. It was impossible not to, given his centrality to the IRA and his leading role as chairman of the IRA's Army Executive in mounting serious opposition to the attempts by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to jettison the organisation he had once been chief of staff of. Adams was eager to siphon as much capital as possible from the IRA which he could then inject as fuel into the engine of his political career. Seamus McGrane's prominence in the republican wing of the Provos opposed to the Adams project led to him becoming an ideological and strategic rival to the IRA chief of staff Kevin McKenna, an ally of Adams, who also died this year. Seamus McGrane and others were determined to prevent the IRA being hijacked by a careerist coterie and ultimately forced a split out of which emerged the Real IRA. The story after that is pretty much one of disaster and failure.
During the small number of conversations I had with him we chatted amiably about the state of republicanism. He did assist the media on at least one occasion after I had spoken to him about Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein trying to cover up the role of Liam Adams as a leading party figure in Louth despite his paedophilia being known to senior party leaders. They were eager to take a leaf out of the bishops' bible for dealing with child rapists, and many former comrades found this anathema.
When he died Seamus McGrane was in his third spell of imprisonment for IRA activity, having earlier served time in the 70s and again a short time after the Real IRA had exploded onto the political landscape. At the time of his second spell of imprisonment he was reported to have been Director of Training with the Real IRA.
At the time of his death he had been serving time after a conviction for being involved in a plot to detonate a bomb during the British Royal state visit by Prince Charles in 2015. In his view he would merely have been carrying on in the tradition of the late Martin McGuinness, IRA chief of staff at the time of the death of Charles's uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten.
At his trial the judge ruled that there was "the clearest evidence of directing an illegal organisation". The no jury Special Criminal Court heard that: "McGrane was leader of a splinter dissident group formed in 2008, known as Óglaigh na hÉireann" which was a distinct entity and operated “in a different capacity” from the Real IRA of which he had had been a key leader at the time of his 1999 arrest.
Which in some ways underscores the wholly fragmented composition of modern republicanism.
The state was determined that there would be no repeat of the Alan Ryan funeral. The two men had been comrades, having been arrested together in 1999, and Ryan had received a full on IRA funeral in Donaghmeade in 2012. The security arrangements put in place by the state for his funeral were described by Dromiskin and surrounding areas Neighbourhood Watch as 'an absolute disgrace'.
Why he kept going, long after most others had gone home or were snorting the gravy train, I will never understand, seeing it as a waste of talent and energy. At his age, most grandfathers would have their feet up, considering it a younger man's game. But there is no doubt he was totally committed to the cause of the IRA, never benefitted materially from it and paid a huge price for his continued involvement.
No reservations in New York's Waldorf Astoria under the name "Mr McGrane."