At the Pub With the IRA

Last October I found myself at the bar of the smallest pub in a sleepy fishing village in County Cork, Ireland. It was around four on a Saturday afternoon and the place was mostly empty. The barman drew me a pint of Smithwick’s and made a tally on a long chalkboard behind the taps. 

Two stools down sat a man of about 35, a thin growth of stubble on his chin. He drank lager and smiled a genial smile at the room. We got to talking. His accent was clipped and quick, distinct from the brogue of countryside Skibereen. 

 He told me how he was here on holiday. It was a backwater town, he said. A good place to get away from it all. I drank my beer and he asked me with his eyes to ask something more. 

“I had to get a hip replacement,” he told me, all but winking on the words.  He patted his hip, right where a handgun would have sat in a holster. “If you catch my drift.” He glanced around once more. An older couple was whispering to one another in the back corner. The barman took a surreptitious step down the bar, away from our conversation. Alan slid down one seat. I did the same. 

He told me that he’d joined the Irish Republic Army when he was 12. His voice was husky and quiet and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When the authorities found a cache of weapons on his family’s property, he took the fall for his father. How old the old man was, Alan wouldn’t say. “He wouldn’t have made it out again.”

Alan claimed he spent fourteen years in prison. “It was a hotel,” he bragged. “All the screws were republicans.” He got another pint, but the barman didn’t tally it. His drinks were taken care of. He greeted all the patrons as they came in, but told me in a conspiratorial whisper to keep the conversation to myself.

He could have talked about the IRA until the bar ran dry; he could have talked about the IRA until Ireland ran dry. He pulled me close at one point. I hadn’t asked why he did what he did, but perhaps I had asked by omitting it. “It’s my island,” he said. “It’s my island.”

The only thing that got him off the subject was the word cell phone. “Cell phone?” he said. He tapped his mobile. “Are you American?” I had thought I was wearing my accent around my neck like an albatross. But perhaps Alan just wasn’t listening. 

It turned out Alan loved Americans. “America has been wonderful to us.” Shortly after World War I, Eamon de Valera, perhaps the most important founding father of the Republic of Ireland, raised five and a half million dollars in America, money that contributed greatly to the Irish War of Independence. Through the hundreds of thousands of Americans who, to this day, enthusiastically and vocally identify as members of the Irish diaspora, America has been kind to the movement for Irish independence.   

But Alan didn’t just love Americans as a group. There was one he loved more than the rest. “President Obama,” he intoned gravely. “Now there’s a man.” He decried Obama’s reputation abroad, he decried the people protesting against American presence in in the Middle East. He seemed almost personally offended, as though he’d worked on the campaigns, as though he’d picked out Obama’s tie for the inauguration.  

“They’re getting upset about drones?” he was exasperated. “Little planes with no one in?” I didn’t know how to respond. I decided to silently stay out of his way. “People want to say that’s a war crime? War crime?” He stared at me, incredulous, as though it were the two of us in lock-step agreement against the unwashed, uneducated masses in Afghanistan. “What was it that happened on 9/11? Big fuck all planes with lots of innocent people in?” He paused and took a long pull on his pint. 

“We’ve got to do whatever it takes to stop the terrorists,” said the IRA man with no trace of irony. 

***

The IRA and the Taliban are not the same. It must be said, however that in their struggle to eliminate British rule and influence over Ireland, the Irish Republican Army has used terrorism as a tool and continues to do so. 

Part of me began to judge my drinking companion as soon as I comprehended his statement. Hypocritical barely scratches the surface. There is plenty to say about the moral complexities of the IRA and the Taliban both, but to denounce the terrorism of one group of people while actively engaging in it oneself strikes me as beyond the pale. 

But could I really admonish Alan for what amounted to a lack of self-examination? After all, truthfully considering our own actions and values can be exceedingly difficult. We don’t want to admit to our shortcomings. It happens in Washington, where officials refuse to admit responsibility for any mistakes. It happens to athletes, who often subconsciously choose to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses in their performances. 

It happens too at Dartmouth. We’re good at promoting ourselves and our organizations. We send blitzes and hold info sessions designed to entice new members. We are not nearly as good at admitting our shortcomings. 

The fact is we are particularly inept at collective self-reflection at Dartmouth. Dimensions is a particularly gaudy performance of averting our gaze from the mirror. How many prospective students ask about uncomfortable topics or weak areas of our educational life only to be diverted with an overflowing of enthusiasm and positive energy? Every fall it happens on Webster Avenue, when fraternities try to convince prospective members that theirs is the house to join.           

The sentiments here are similar. Presenting a rational, reasonable, calculated, and truthful appraisal of your group will result in possibly losing something valuable, a new member. If we talked about Dartmouth with accurate complexity at the Dimensions show, would the yield suffer? Or is it just too hard to set “Greek life has perhaps too strong a grip on our social scene, despite its many benefits!” to a Katy Perry song. Can you say, “Sometimes the drunken malaise of the basement leaves me restless and unfulfilled,” while shaking someone’s hand conspiratorially? 

There’s nothing wrong with presenting an optimistic outlook when selling ourselves, but we have to be careful not to buy our own hype. To wit, when I was going through the rush process I had friends in a few fraternities lobbying me to join. I had trouble, though, making a decision, in no small part because no one would present their house in any but the most glowingly positive terms. 

As the weekend of rush approached, a good friend took me aside on a Friday night. Outside his fraternity it was just beginning to get cold. Students in various states of revelry streamed past us in both directions, but our hushed voices and furrowed brows kept passersby at bay. He’d made clear he wanted to me join. I’d made clear I had reservations. 

“What are you thinking?” he asked me bluntly. “What are your concerns?” He looked slightly above my head, up at the lowest branches of the trees. I couldn’t quite look at him either. I told him why I was hesitating and he paused. 

He looked down and shifted his feet. “Yeah,” he said quietly. He turned his head to the left and to the right. I knew what to expect. He would brush past it, he wouldn’t dismiss what I’d said because he couldn’t, but he’d blow right past it. “Those are real concerns,” he said. He looked right at me. “If I had those concerns, maybe I wouldn’t join. “

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. 

I didn’t join his fraternity. He spoke honestly about something that must have been difficult to even think honestly about. It will always remain, to me, one of my touchstones of hope in our ability to self-reflect. The moment’s singularity, however, speaks in darker tones to that ability’s rarity. 

Because self-reflection is, after all, a skill like any other. We must practice it, hone it, so that we are comfortable with it. We need to be able to admit that we are not perfect, that we’ve missed tackles at the try line, that we’ve treated people with disrespect, that too have room for improvement. 

Dartmouth is at a crossroads, caught in a struggle to decide what the college’s future ought to be. There are as many opinions as blades of grass on the Green in June. Here’s one of mine: we need to find the strength within to truthfully examine ourselves as an institution. We need to take a long look in the mirror, or else we’re going to find ourselves in the pub in Cork, six pints deep, unable to understand why the world is staring at us with such a puzzled, pitiful expression.