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Hearing Voices

First book produced through BC’s oral history project in Northern Ireland provides two controversial, behind-the-scenes views of the Troubles

03/03/11
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Center for Irish Programs Executive Director Thomas Hachey, right, and Burns Librarian Robert O’Neill. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Mar. 3, 2011

In Northern Ireland, notes John J. Burns Librarian Robert O’Neill, there is a saying: “A secret is something you tell one person at a time.” But a project organized by Boston College — and in which O’Neill is involved — is likely to change the calculus of that adage.  

Administered by the University’s Center for Irish Programs and the Burns Library, the Boston College Oral History Archive on the Troubles in Northern Ireland records the reminiscences of those who lived through the region’s three decades of sectarian conflict. The project has produced its first publication, Voices from the Grave, based on the recollections of Bernard Hughes and David Ervine, two Belfast men who were on opposite sides of the Troubles.   

Hughes’ and Ervine’s verbatim dialogue illuminates some of the signal events of the Troubles, from bombings to riots to political developments, as well as the machinations and inner workings of the conflict’s major players.  

The transcribed interviews — conducted by BC researchers and housed in Burns Library — were extrapolated and annotated by Ed Moloney, an author and journalist acclaimed for his coverage of Northern Ireland. Historian Paul Bew, a former Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at BC, was a consultant for the book.  

Center for Irish Programs Executive Director and University Professor Thomas Hachey and O’Neill — both of whom served as editors for Voices from the Grave — say the book and project represent a unique undertaking in many respects, especially for an academic institution. While the 1998 Good Friday Agreement paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland, say O’Neill and Hachey, the traumatic effects from years of social, political as well as physical violence are still palpable.   

The oral history project offers survivors, whatever their roles or affiliations, an opportunity to clear up mysteries, fill in missing details, and give first-hand perspectives of the Troubles, say Hachey and O’Neill — and in so doing, perhaps come to terms with what they experienced.  

“This is still a sharply divided society,” says Hachey. “Until the story of the Troubles is told, and discussed, only then can there be a better understanding of the emotions and motivations of those involved. And that will enable people to move forward.”  

Published last year in Ireland and the United Kingdom and recently issued in the United States, Voices from the Grave draws on interviews with Hughes, a major figure in the Irish Republican Army during the 1970s and ’80s, and Ervine, a Loyalist paramilitary who went on to serve in the new Northern Irish government. They, along with nearly three-dozen other former combatants interviewed for the project, were guaranteed that no interview material would be used without their consent or until after their death. Ervine died in 2007, Hughes in 2008.  

Hughes talks about the growing resentment in the 1960s among Northern Irish Catholics, who felt increasingly marginalized economically and socially, and vulnerable to attacks by Protestants.

The failure of the “old” IRA to protect Catholics, he says, led to an organizational split that produced what became known as the Provisional IRA, which Hughes joined.  

The presence of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams lends a continual tension to Hughes’ accounts. Hughes and Adams were close friends for most of the Troubles, but Hughes became disillusioned by Adams’ refusal to publicly acknowledge his long-assumed association with the IRA, and by the willingness of Adams and other IRA members to embrace the peace process.   

In a controversial rebuttal to Adams’ denial about his IRA ties, Hughes asserts Adams’ responsibility for some of the IRA’s more infamous acts, notably the death of Jean McConville, a widow and mother of 10 who was accused of being a British informant.   

“I never carried out a major operation without the OK or order from Gerry,” Hughes declares. “And for him to sit in his plush office in Westminster or Stormont or wherever and deny it, I mean, it’s like Hitler denying that there was ever a Holocaust...I don’t know where it ends, once you get onto [a] position where you...start denying that you ever were what you were...”  

Ervine’s life intersected indirectly, but significantly, with Hughes: The July 1972 bombings in Belfast that were masterminded by Hughes spurred Ervine to join the Ulster Volunteer Force, which Moloney calls “the most deadly Loyalist outfit in Northern Ireland." 

Although he does not offer specifics about his UVF duties, Ervine is believed to have worked in explosives, according to Moloney.  

Like Hughes — one of the IRA internees who went on hunger strikes to have their status as political prisoners reinstated — Ervine spent time at the notorious Long Kesh Prison. It was at Long Kesh that Ervine underwent his conversion from combatant to peace-making politician, under the tutelage of UVF leader Gusty Spence, and several years after his release won a local council election as a candidate with the Progressive Unionist Party. In 1998, he was elected to a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly that had been created through the Good Friday Agreement.  

Despite a myriad of setbacks and difficulties in implementing the agreement, Ervine remained upbeat about the prospects for peace, as he says in the BC interview, which took place in 2002: “Rather than get upset about it I think we have to recognize that all of us are in uncharted waters, we’ve never been here before, nobody has got ever this close to putting stability, peace and the sanctity of life as high on the agenda as we have them today. It’s not been easy but then nobody told us it was going to be easy.”  

Gerry Adams represented a final thread joining Hughes and Ervine, albeit after their deaths and with no small amount of irony. Once a sworn enemy of Ervine and his peers, Adams was welcomed at Ervine’s funeral, and consoled his widow. But Hughes, before his death, stipulated that Adams not speak or officiate at his funeral; Adams was permitted, belatedly, to help carry Hughes’ coffin at the ceremony, creating what family and friends said was a false impression of rapprochement between the two men.   

Hachey and O’Neill hope the publication of Voices from the Grave bodes well for the future of the oral history project, which they note started only a few years after the peace agreement. They say Boston College’s track record of supporting economic, social and political progress for both Ireland and Northern Ireland — through the professional programs of BC’s Irish Institute, the work of Irish Studies Program faculty in Northern Irish as well as Irish institutions, the Center for Irish Programs Dublin facility, and the scholarly resources at Burns Library — is widely known and appreciated throughout Ireland.  

Hachey, who met periodically in Belfast with the former IRA/UVF university-trained men who conducted the interviews with paramilitary veterans from opposing sides, says that Boston College “is a trusted broker in the peace and reconciliation process that is ongoing.”  

O’Neill notes that Ervine was part of a delegation of Unionists and Protestants that visited BC in 1994, a few months after the IRA had called a ceasefire. “I think that, to a man, they were impressed that a university with an Irish Catholic background — and in a city they felt was at the center of Irish Republicanism — could be so warm, welcoming and open to them.”  

It was during the 1994 BC visit that Ervine expressed his feelings on the need for Protestants and Catholics to forge a new relationship.   “You have to identify where in your heart you’ve got it wrong,” he told an audience in Robsham Theater, “and where the other guy in his heart has it wrong.”