That may seem to be a bit of a sensationalist headline but according to the Irish government, Jack is, in fact, a recognized terrorist. He was also my host, historian and personal tour guide through Ireland for three weeks.
Note: Jack is not his real name. He agreed to let me write about his story only under an alias.
By his own admission, in a past life he was a political activist employed by the IRA to plant car bombs and break political prisoners out of jail. He has shown me buildings that were once blown to bits by IRA bombs, and captivated me with unbelievably true stories of police showdowns, daring escapes and years spent behind bars.
One of my favorite stories is of the first time he was apprehended and subsequently arrested. He was waiting for the call to go ahead with a prison break when the police showed up and took him in for questioning. After getting little out of him, he was booked…into the same prison he was planning to break into. He went quietly. Exactly two days later the raid went ahead as planned, and Jack walked right back out again, a free man.
It’s hard to reconcile the picture he paints with the man I have come to know. The Jack I know dotes on his old gray gelding and always has time for a cup of tea with his many friends. This is the man who took me to my first Irish pub (and then 3 more) and introduced me as his niece. The man who bought me ice cream and drove me up and down the west Irish coast so I could see all the beauty of the countryside. The man whose face lights up as we tramp through underbrush to find the hill that was once Tara, the high seat of the king. The hill that his ancestor lies buried under, sword in hand.
He lives a quiet, simple life these days, opening his home to travelers and sharing his vast wealth of historical knowledge. The stories he tells could be straight from an episode of Game of Thrones. They are the stories that made me fall in love with Ireland.
He speaks with such infectious passion about Ireland’s history it’s impossible not to get swept away. I tell him he should have been a history teacher, because I learned more from him in 2 weeks than I did in 4 years of high school.
“Mandie,” he laughs, “they’d never let someone like me be a teacher.”
While at first it was hard to imagine that this white-haired Irishman with a permanent twinkle in his eye used to be a political rebel, the more I learn about his family history it starts to fall into place.
After all, Jack is far from the first rebel in his family.
I was connected with him through Workaway.info. I agreed to spend 2 weeks on his farm helping him build a website and document the little-known stories and lore of clan Gallagher.
The very name Gallagher (originally Gol-Hair) means helper of strangers. It comes from the first Gallagher offering aid to the Vikings invading Ireland. Another famous Gallagher was a highwayman; an Irish Robin Hood (although perhaps slightly less noble and more profit driven).
The Gallaghers even claim responsibility for capturing and enslaving a certain young boy named Patrick who would go on to become…kind of a big deal.
With a lineage full of likable scoundrels, Jack’s allegiance with the IRA makes a lot more sense. However, was he really a terrorist? There were prison-breaks and bombs, to be sure, but the more time I spend talking to him, I see the heart of a man who fought to protect the country he loves the only way he knew how.
By definition, a terrorist has one purpose: to create terror.
The vastly outnumbered IRA used guerrilla tactics and the element of surprise to achieve their purposes, but it was aimed at specific targets, not the general public, and many soldiers did try to minimize the damage caused. When a bomb was planted, official protocol required them to call in and have the area evacuated of innocent bystanders. The point was to hold the British army responsible for their actions,many of which they never accounted for.
I asked the opinion of someone who was raised Protestant (and British loyalist) and, in his own words, “members of the IRA were brutal, yes, but they were pushed to the brink. Britain essentially walked in and kicked a hornets nest.”
Over time, the IRA evolved and eventually split. As it typically does, people who rise to a position of power become as corrupt as the people they’re fighting against. Violence attracts people who relish it, not just those who see it as a last resort means to an end.
Although perhaps misguided, I believe that Jack was indeed a man fighting for his country the only way he knew how. When the peace process began, he was only too happy to lay down his gun.
After 15 years in prison during which his first son was born and kept separated from him, Jack returned to the farm his grandfather built and settled into an uneventful life.
Now he is a jack-of-all-trades, buying and selling a bit of everything, running a hostel when he feels like it, and driving all over the country to keep in touch with old friends.
I asked him once how he retained his sanity in prison and kept from becoming institutionalized.
“Mandie,” he replied. “It’s simple: you never stop fighting for what you believe in.”
And he won’t. This is a man who will fight for his convictions until his dying day. Right or wrong, there is something honorable about that.
Terrorist or simply the best tour guide I’ve ever met, I wouldn’t trade one second of my time spent learning the fascinating and diverse history of Ireland through Jack.