Portrait of an Irish Revolutionary

Fran Quigley

Robert W. White, author of the new book on an Irish revolutionary leader

Ruairí Ò Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary

Robert W. White

Indiana University Press, 2006

In his biography of die-hard Irish revolutionary Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Robert White would have written an entertaining book even if he had simply pieced together the tale of a complicated man living in a complicated time and place.

Ó Brádaigh led the Irish independence movement Sinn Féin during the 1970's and early 1980's era of armed resistance and prisoner hunger strikes, and still heads the dissident organization Republican Sinn Féin. As a former chief of staff for the guerilla resistance of the Irish Republican Army, Ó Brádaigh has been labeled by some as a hero and by others a terrorist.

That extreme profile does not mesh easily with the image of the now 73-year old Ó Brádaigh who is a grandfather of 13 and a long-time vocational school teacher. Ó Brádaigh is a devout Catholic and believer in just war theory who found himself bitterly disappointed when Pope John Paul II condemned the Irish violent resistance to British rule. In all these contrasts and historical complexities, White, the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, has chosen a subject who would make a compelling character for a novel.

But Ó Brádaigh and his tableau are both quite real, which is what makes this biography transcend entertainment to become a valuable tool for understanding not only the Irish resistance, but the stubbornness of popular resistance in Palestine, Iraq, and a half-dozen other locations around the globe. Ó Brádaigh, a second-generation revolutionary, represents uncompromising rebels everywhere.

Like most leaders who refuse to compromise, Ó Brádaigh has paid a price for his principles. In 1983, he lost his leadership in Sinn Féin to the craftier and more media-savvy Gerry Adams when Ó Brádaigh opposed Sinn Féin's participation in the Dublin parliament. Now the leader of the much less powerful Republican Sinn Féin, Ó Brádaigh rejects both the IRA cease-fire and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which allows the constitutional future of Northern Ireland to be determined by the majority vote of its citizens.

White uses his generous access to Ó Brádaigh, his family and his papers to provide a thorough portrayal of the man and his movement. White also provides the sociologist's view of the struggle within the struggle of the Irish resistance. History has shown that revolutionary social movements fizzle into mere reform efforts when the revolutionary leaders decide to participate in the government they wish to overthrow. When Ó Brádaigh says, "If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and one leg in Parliament, you've a bloody awful mistake," scholars of social movements nod their heads in agreement.

White is one of those scholars, and he sympathetically outlines Ó Brádaigh's view that the Gerry Adams-led Sinn Féin is doomed to follow the lead of tragic Irish revolutionary leaders like Mick Collins, Eamon de Valera and Cathal Goulding, who failed to reunite Ireland because they were weakened by their participation in the government they initially swore to replace.

White notes that the recent peace process has been good for Ireland, and does not dismiss the possibility that Sinn Féin's choice of reform over revolution will lead to a just ending to "the troubles." But when Ó Brádaigh walked out of Sinn Féin for good in 1986, he first gave a farewell speech that made clear his intentions on accepting the "degradation and shame of collaborating with the British."

"Never, that's what I say to you - never," he said. The Good Friday Agreement may have brought some measure of peace to Ireland, but White's compelling biography makes it clear that, unless and until the British withdraw completely, Ó Brádaigh and his fellow die-hards won't give up the fight.

Fran Quigley is the executive director of the ACLU of Indiana.