Christopher Owens 🔖 takes a literary flight.


Narratives are a funny old thing.

Some of the most outlandish, bizarre and more amusing tales from the conflict have been neglected space in modern day studies. Sometimes, this is down to space, other times relevance and, occasionally, ignorance.

This is a shame, as it can ignore genuinely spectacular feats. Like the helicopter escape from Mountjoy prison in 1972, which saw Seamus Twomey, J.B O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon stick two fingers up at the southern establishment. And masterminded by Brendan Hughes from Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, who has come forward after 50 odd years to give his account of the escape, as well as another from Portlaoise prison.

It’s an entertaining, fast paced read that is more akin to a thriller as opposed to a serious political examination (then again, Hughes makes it clear throughout that he was a military man first and foremost).) Those with little to no knowledge of the conflict might actually find enough little nuggets in here to start off an interest in Ireland’s recent past.

Why? Because of the writing.

The depiction of how the escapes were planned is rendered via dialogue. Although it can lean towards exposition at times, it keeps the pace going and allows us a glimpse at how the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Hughes operated. However, there are moments where the tension is broken with short but warm observations about fellow IRA members like Pete Ryan (a ladies’ man), Tommy McKearney (who took a lot of slegging about how he might look as a woman) and Peadar Mohan (who routinely played Philomena Begley and Big Tom in Portlaoise to annoy the Belfast men).

What comes through is that these were ordinary people operating under extraordinary conditions and, as such, the little anecdotes render them not as cold-hearted killers but as people doing things that, under normal circumstances, they would never consider doing. Coupled with the fast pace, it has the potential to ensnare the uninitiated.

Those looking for a detailed insight into the early years of the Provisionals might be disappointed as there are moments which could lead off into fascinating observations, but they are never elaborated upon. For example, Hughes had started off in the Officials before switching allegiance but merely notes that the animosity between the two was largely absent in East Tyrone in those days. That cries out for more elaboration, but it doesn’t arrive.

His dispute and resignation from the IRA is attributed to a few factors (the 1975 ceasefire, tiredness and declining a spot on the Army Council). Noting that he was against the ceasefire, he felt that GHQ used it as an opportunity to tighten their grip on his unit. Although not discussed here, it seems a prelude to the restructuring of the IRA, and the increased influence of Northern Command. Also mentioned, but not fully discussed, is a robbery he took part in for Dominic McGlinchey in 1993 where both Hughes and Paul McGlinchey were caught red handed. Considering the reports that McGlinchey wanted to settle a few old scores, one wonders if the money was to arm himself (McGlinchey was released a month before the robbery took place).

Little things like these hint at more tantalising tales, which is a shame.

Likewise, there is little mention of Hughes’ personal life, although it is made clear that he had to watch his children grow up without him and that constantly being on the run led to the collapse of his marriage. While I’m sure most men in his position carry such burdens in stoic fashion, it is a largely undocumented aspect of the recent conflict and one that deserves study in its own right. However, I suspect that some would not approve, as it might debunk aspects of the “supportive” republican community that is normally wheeled out for big events.

Like many recent tales from republicans (Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, Dolours Price, Sean Garland), the ending leaves the reader feeling empty, wondering was the war really worth it for what we have today. For me, it’s reminiscent of the trope involving the soldier who fought in World War II slowly see the world change into something unrecognisable while keeping the horrors of the past to themselves, unable to square the contradiction. His summation echoes many of his fellow IRA members:

I don’t regret what happened to me. I would do the same again. I was defending my community. I regret the innocent lives lost but there is nothing I can say to lessen the pain of those left behind. I have also lost many comrades over the years … It was a dirty war. When we set out, we thought we could finish it, but we were only skirmishing around the abyss before we fell in.

Maybe that’s a reason why Hughes has been left out of the official narrative.

Brendan Hughes, Douglas Dalby, 2021, Up Like a Bird - The Rise and Fall of an IRA Commander. Time Warp Books. ISBN-13: 978-1527295575



⏩ 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. 

Up Like A Bird

Christopher Owens 🔖 takes a literary flight.


Narratives are a funny old thing.

Some of the most outlandish, bizarre and more amusing tales from the conflict have been neglected space in modern day studies. Sometimes, this is down to space, other times relevance and, occasionally, ignorance.

This is a shame, as it can ignore genuinely spectacular feats. Like the helicopter escape from Mountjoy prison in 1972, which saw Seamus Twomey, J.B O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon stick two fingers up at the southern establishment. And masterminded by Brendan Hughes from Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, who has come forward after 50 odd years to give his account of the escape, as well as another from Portlaoise prison.

It’s an entertaining, fast paced read that is more akin to a thriller as opposed to a serious political examination (then again, Hughes makes it clear throughout that he was a military man first and foremost).) Those with little to no knowledge of the conflict might actually find enough little nuggets in here to start off an interest in Ireland’s recent past.

Why? Because of the writing.

The depiction of how the escapes were planned is rendered via dialogue. Although it can lean towards exposition at times, it keeps the pace going and allows us a glimpse at how the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Hughes operated. However, there are moments where the tension is broken with short but warm observations about fellow IRA members like Pete Ryan (a ladies’ man), Tommy McKearney (who took a lot of slegging about how he might look as a woman) and Peadar Mohan (who routinely played Philomena Begley and Big Tom in Portlaoise to annoy the Belfast men).

What comes through is that these were ordinary people operating under extraordinary conditions and, as such, the little anecdotes render them not as cold-hearted killers but as people doing things that, under normal circumstances, they would never consider doing. Coupled with the fast pace, it has the potential to ensnare the uninitiated.

Those looking for a detailed insight into the early years of the Provisionals might be disappointed as there are moments which could lead off into fascinating observations, but they are never elaborated upon. For example, Hughes had started off in the Officials before switching allegiance but merely notes that the animosity between the two was largely absent in East Tyrone in those days. That cries out for more elaboration, but it doesn’t arrive.

His dispute and resignation from the IRA is attributed to a few factors (the 1975 ceasefire, tiredness and declining a spot on the Army Council). Noting that he was against the ceasefire, he felt that GHQ used it as an opportunity to tighten their grip on his unit. Although not discussed here, it seems a prelude to the restructuring of the IRA, and the increased influence of Northern Command. Also mentioned, but not fully discussed, is a robbery he took part in for Dominic McGlinchey in 1993 where both Hughes and Paul McGlinchey were caught red handed. Considering the reports that McGlinchey wanted to settle a few old scores, one wonders if the money was to arm himself (McGlinchey was released a month before the robbery took place).

Little things like these hint at more tantalising tales, which is a shame.

Likewise, there is little mention of Hughes’ personal life, although it is made clear that he had to watch his children grow up without him and that constantly being on the run led to the collapse of his marriage. While I’m sure most men in his position carry such burdens in stoic fashion, it is a largely undocumented aspect of the recent conflict and one that deserves study in its own right. However, I suspect that some would not approve, as it might debunk aspects of the “supportive” republican community that is normally wheeled out for big events.

Like many recent tales from republicans (Brendan ‘The Dark’ Hughes, Dolours Price, Sean Garland), the ending leaves the reader feeling empty, wondering was the war really worth it for what we have today. For me, it’s reminiscent of the trope involving the soldier who fought in World War II slowly see the world change into something unrecognisable while keeping the horrors of the past to themselves, unable to square the contradiction. His summation echoes many of his fellow IRA members:

I don’t regret what happened to me. I would do the same again. I was defending my community. I regret the innocent lives lost but there is nothing I can say to lessen the pain of those left behind. I have also lost many comrades over the years … It was a dirty war. When we set out, we thought we could finish it, but we were only skirmishing around the abyss before we fell in.

Maybe that’s a reason why Hughes has been left out of the official narrative.

Brendan Hughes, Douglas Dalby, 2021, Up Like a Bird - The Rise and Fall of an IRA Commander. Time Warp Books. ISBN-13: 978-1527295575



⏩ 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. 

8 comments:

  1. The official narrative? As opposed to the revised one which refers to Brendan Hughes as 'The Dark'? We all know his nickname was a lot less politically correct, as were numerous others in the 70s and 80s, so why the constant attempts to alter or ignore the truth?

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  2. Great review Christopher. I think the author's great misfortune was to have the same name as the Dark! A close friend who knew The Dark asked me if the book was about him!

    Another one to be read when time permits.

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    Replies
    1. On the IREF, one known republican initially dismissed it as fantasy as he was under the impression it was about the Dark!

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  3. I also think Brandon is considering a review - I will be interested in what he makes of the book.

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  4. A great read and an excellent review.
    Being from East Tyrone and knowing off Brendan Hughes and knowing one or two of those he includes I couldn't put it down, I finished the 300 pages in two evenings.

    I agree with Chris, I had hoped for an insight into the formation of the Provos in East Tyrone, My father's brother Paddy was there at the beginning and escaped Monaghan Court House with Kevin Mallon before being killed in Action at Omagh in the summer of 73, a few months later the ould fella was in the Crum awaiting trial, he has elaborated on some memories of friction between the Officials and the Provos particularly an early 70s Easter commemoration in Carrickmore where fighting broke out and the Provos with limited support were spat at and called upstarts, their positions would soon switch as the Provos became the "Ra"!

    I assume Hughes was very quickly operating out of Monaghan on the run as was my uncle, they weren't on the ground in their respective areas of East Tyrone to see brigade structures laid down and meat put on the bones, before being forced to flee they had come together from across East Tyrone to strike where they chose and moved on, essentially one unit moving around East Tyrone building in strength and confidence as eventually the Sticks became irrelevant.

    What I like about the book is it gives a glimpse of a hidden history of the struggle in East Tyrone,which doesn't focus on the later years of the armed struggle where media and literature on East Tyrone tend to focus on Loughgall and the SAS ambushes of the 80s/90s.

    When Hughes began operating in East Tyrone under Kevin Mallon there seemed to be one Provo unit, when the IRA intercepted the secret British army document on future trends in 1979 that assessed the IRA it stated that East Tyrone had 10 active service units in the field.

    Brendans book has exposed a gap in the public history of the IRA in East Tyrone. The IRA in Belfast, Derry and South Armagh have had much ink dedicated to them, "Up Like a Bird" points to a gap in the literature where a definitive history of the East Tyrone Brigade remains to be written, with Republican omerta and former combatants in their twilight putting to paper such a history would be no easy task.

    In the meantime books like Brendans and Tommy McKearney's help fill in the gaps.



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    Replies
    1. Very interesting comments re. East Tyrone and Monaghan. That could partially explain why he was annoyed at the IRA seeking a firmer grip over his unit.

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