Richard O’Rawe reviews ‘The Yank: The True Story of a Former US Marine in the Irish Republican Army’ by John Crawley
Sometimes a book comes along that stops you in its tracks. John Crawley’s The Yank is such a book. Why? Because it’s different and not just from anything we have had before relating to the IRA’s fight for Irish freedom. For a start, the central character in this fascinating book, John Crawley, is a real-life Yank, but not just any old Yank … he had been a proud member of the United States Marine Corps, and not just any old Marine, he had been a member of the Corps elite ‘Recon’ unit, and a sergeant who taught other Marines into the bargain.
Crawley was born in Long Island, New York, in 1957, the son of a Co. Roscommon father and a Co. Kerry mother. Two years later the family moved to Chicago and, in 1972, John moved to the town of Castlerea, Co Roscommon, to live with an aunt. He notes in his book, with what I suspect is a degree of pride, that his great-uncle, Tom Crawley, shot dead RIC Sergeant James King, in Castlerea on 11 July 1921, and that the King incident saw the last shots being fired in the Irish war of independence.
Eager to join the fight for Irish freedom, Crawley left the Marines after four years and flew to Ireland in May 1979, where he set about enlisting in the IRA.
On arrival in Ireland, Crawley brought with him, ‘Semper Fidelis’ (Always Faithful), the credo of the Marine Corps, which he adopted as a life motto. He had always been proud of, and faithful to the American Republic and, after becoming a member of the IRA, he remained equally faithful to the Irish Republic that had been declared on Easter Monday, 1916.
But what prompted this former special forces Marine to abandon a potentially glittering career in the U.S. military, to becoming a particularly active member of the IRA? What were the forces that led him to becoming an Irish revolutionary?
In his book, he brings us back to his school days as a kid in Chicago where, every morning, along with the rest of the class he would recite the Pledge of Allegiance … ‘Those words weren’t mindlessly recited. They would resonate with me my entire life.’ Crawley writes of how he would hear the words… ‘the Republic for which it stands … one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ and he kept comparing the American Revolution with the on-going Irish Revolution and he could not see much difference between the two.
He also takes us to Dublin, where he is living with his parents. He writes of becoming increasingly aware of the conflict that was raging throughout Ireland and particularly in the North, which was being militarily propped-up by the British army.
When he eventually did join the IRA, Crawley found himself, not in the professional army unit of his expectations, but in an army of largely well-intentioned patriots. His first operation was, ‘…what the Marine Corps would call a “complete clusterfuck” from start to finish’. Crawley was armed with an M60 machinegun and was accompanied by other volunteers.
They had positioned themselves in a thicket where they could attack the enemy, walking or driving along the road. Suddenly a Gazelle, a light helicopter hovered over their position and Crawley was urged to ‘Get down! Get down! Get down!’ He couldn’t understand why he could not open fire on the Gazelle, which was only thirty feet above them. He was later told by an IRA officer that a Gazelle was bulletproof. Crawley knew differently; he had often flown in helicopters and believed you could practically put your fist through the fuselage.
The former Marine had been trained to lie camouflaged and low in ambush position for days, if needs be, until a target presented itself. When, one volunteer alongside him excused himself and announced he had to leave the ambush location because he had to ‘milk his cows’, and a second volunteer soon followed because he had to ‘work the next day’, there must have been quite a frown on Crawley’s face as he watched his comrades go about their civilian business.
It did not take Crawley long to find out that there was a world of difference between Marine Corps training and that of the IRA. He writes of the IRA’s training regime, ‘They were poorly trained, badly trained and mis-trained in relation to their weapons and also seriously misinformed about enemy equipment and capabilities’. In training camps, south of the border, volunteers would be taught the basics about equipment i.e., where to insert a magazine and flick the safety switch on a rifle, etc, but they were given practically no live-firing experience and were not properly instructed on marksmanship techniques such as breathing and sighting targets.
Crawley brought up these points with Northern Commander, Martin McGuinness, and advocated the setting-up of dedicated, well-trained sniping units in every battalion area. He wanted all snipers to have their own rifles with telescopic sights that would be sighted-in to the shooter’s eye. To Crawley’s dismay, McGuinness dismissed his suggestions out-of-hand.
In 1984, Crawley’s IRA career took him to Boston, where the notorious gangster, ‘Whitey’ Bulger, helped him buy arms. The mission ended off the Irish coast, when Crawley and other IRA volunteers were arrested on board the arms ship, the Marita Ann. For that endeavour, Crawley would serve a full ten years in prison.
He would later be sentenced at the Old Bailey in May 1996 to thirty-five years for conspiring to blow up the electrical grid that fed south-east England and was released from a British prison on 22 May 2000, as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement. In all, Crawley would spend fourteen years in prison for his IRA beliefs.
This is a fantastic book, one that I read in a single sitting. What struck me most about it was that, had Crawley been given his head and allowed to bring about a more professionally trained IRA, the outcome of the war might have been different, certainly, the British casualty rate would have multiplied. But life is what it is, and Crawley pulls no punches about how unhappy he is with the outcome of the war and the reality of the Good Friday Agreement, which he regards as a betrayal of the Republic that was proclaimed in 1916. He puts up a cogent republican argument that, basically, the Gerry Adams/Martin McGuinness leadership sold out Irish republicanism, saying, ‘I did not learn until it was far too late that my goals as an Irish republican, and their electoral ambitions as political careerists, would increasingly lead our paths to diverge’.
John Crawley, elite Marine Corps soldier, IRA volunteer, takes no prisoners in this unputdownable book. My only fault line is that he did not reveal more of the many operations in which I suspect he was involved but, hopefully, that’s for another day.