With the death of Sean Garland in December 2018, nearly 50 years on from the split in the Republican Movement, commentators took the opportunity to examine a fascinating life. One that began in poverty before taking in the IRA, the Soviet Union, North Korea and the CIA. A story that would rival any political biography.
However, as Brian Hanley discussed in his obituary for Garland:
His biography highlights not just a life committed to the struggle, but the dangers of the conspiratorial approach to politics which he never wholly abandoned.
And one of the many problems with such an approach is that that the people who indulge in them are often less forthcoming with the truth, often preferring a cover story.
Unsurprisingly, this permeates throughout The Man with the Hat.
A seemingly straightforward look at the life of Garland, it has the potential to be a fascinating watch. And while it is in places, it frustrates more than it fascinates.
Firstly, let's discuss the film on a technical basis.
With 75% of the film taking the form of Garland addressing the camera, it has a surprisingly intimate and confessional feel, with Garland being an engaging narrator, in particular when discussing the attack on Brookeborough barracks (remarkable for a man nicknamed 'The Growler'). The use of stock footage is kept to a minimum (which is a shame) and the fast pace (although a curse for viewers unfamiliar with the tale) keeps the story moving without ever lingering on unnecessary detail.
The music (particularly the unsurprising use of 'The Patriot Game') adds a droney, melancholic ambience to the film. Tapping into the soul-searching psyche of the Irish, as well as subtly underscoring the sadness that links Garland with Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price (not that any would appreciate the comparison with each other). All three understood that you may not get what you are struggling for, but that doesn't mean you give up on your beliefs, the very struggle that built you. As I have mentioned before on here, it brings to mind Jaz Coleman's view that the meaning of struggle is "Giving your whole life to a single passion/Which other may or may not/Consider obsolete."
All of which helps make the film an engaging view. However, let's get to the biggest problem of the film: Garland himself.
Because the vast majority of the film has Garland talking to the camera, the filmmakers never challenge him, even when the evidence doesn't match his accounts.
One such case is August 1969. Garland (who was out of the country at the time) recounts the standard tale that the Belfast IRA did their best given the situation spiralling out of control, and that the notion of 'IRA = I Ran Away' was created by the men who later became the Provisionals.
While there is truth in those statements, it leaves out some crucial details.
John Ó Néill has written about how, on the 15th August:
... the Battalion consisted of eighty volunteers and an auxiliary of around two hundred. In reality ... it could only mobilise around thirty volunteers who ... managed to scrape together twenty-three handguns and some grenade castings ... In the absence of most of the Battalion staff, ad hoc defensive units had formed including IRA volunteers ... former volunteers and some Catholic ex-servicemen ... A handful of weapons were dug out from half-forgotten caches ...
That, I'm sure you'll agree, is a lot more telling than Garland's "the Belfast IRA did their best" claim.
He also neglects to mention that, at the infamous meeting with Billy McMillen on 22nd August, one of the proposals put forward by Billy McKee, John Kelly and Joe Cahill was that Garland replace Cathal Goulding as IRA Chief of Staff. Presumably, this is ignored as it doesn't fit the "Provisionals = rosary bead brigade" claim, as Garland was well known for his Marxist views (such as the famous "fight for freedom is a class struggle" speech).
Another example is how Garland conflates the 1975 feuds with the INLA and the Provos, clearly designed to ostentatiously portray the Officials as put-upon victims. While that is the case in regards to the October 75 feud, it doesn't hold water with the INLA battles.
In December 1974, the Officials made a point of pistol whipping IRSP members in the New Lodge area, while others were kneecapped the next month, escalating in the death of Hugh Ferguson. In the same period, one OIRA member boasted to Jack Holland that his organisation "...would not make the mistake they had made with the Provisionals...", and quite a few INLA members believed that Garland was the one behind this mindset, hence why he was targeted for assassination.
So here we have examples of the Officials acting as aggressors, even claiming the first kill of the feud. With all that in mind, how can anyone consider the Officials as the victims in all of this?
There's also an argument to be made that, had the INLA feud not happened, the Provos would not have made the decision to try and wipe them out. Certainly, one Official has posited the theory that Billy McKee had assumed the death of Billy McMillen had taken the fight out of the Officials, so moving against them would be a simple task. Indeed, the Provos had a similar line of thought regarding the IPLO after Jimmy Brown was killed.
While this does not excuse or justify the October 75 pogrom, it does demonstrate (at the very least) that Garland had a very myopic view of events from that time, causing him to overlook his own organisation's role in proceedings.
On a similar line, his revisionism regarding Seamus Costello is utterly infuriating to those who know that the two of them authored a document entitled A Brief Examination of the Republican Position, which argued that armed struggle must continue, but hand in hand with a socialist ideology. Years later, Cathal Goulding admitted talking Garland out of supporting this approach, which culminated in Garland forbidding anyone speaking in favour of Costello at his OIRA court martial, and using the military structure, discipline and conspiratorial nature of the OIRA to force Costello out of Official Sinn Fein.
Why Garland did a 180 is never put to him, nor does he seem willing to acknowledge that he ever did. Similarly, his curt dismissal of Costello's murder (by OIRA member Jim Flynn, later killed by the INLA) is not only indicative of a certain mindset, but is also reminiscent of Gerry Adams' statement that Eamon Collins had made many enemies before his murder.
As a film, it's an oddly pitched one: it neither has enough context and differing perspectives to enthral an unknown, nor does it have any new revelations for those who have studied Hanley and Millar's book. But, for what it is, it should be a starting point for those looking to do further research into the Officials and the Worker's Party. Just be prepared to get annoyed at Garland's lack of reflection and open revisionism.
Ironically, despite being lambasted in the film by Garland, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh delivered the most fitting description for the Officials.
I'm always inclined to say look, if you're tired, Jesus, just opt out. And if you want to start something else, start it. Even a constitutional party. Start it and at least there won't be any bitterness and there'll be a certain amount of good will until you get to power. But don't start trying to convert the Republican Movement into what it's not. Something which is contrary to its nature because you will - you'll end up with an upheaval. And a dirty one.
The Man With The Hat: The Revolutionary Life And Times Of Seán Garland can be viewed below:
The Man with the Hat // The Revolutionary life and times of Seán Garland from Kevin Brannigan on Vimeo.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.