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Irish Left Review >>
A Review of Harry Browne's Book "Hammered by the Irish"
Sunday October 19, 2008 08:05 by Gary MacLennan Brisbane, Australia
I began these writings on Catholicism in response to Ciaron O’Reilly’s request that I review Harry Browne’s Hammered by the Irish. I have never met Harry but I am a long time friend of Ciaron O’Reilly one of the defendants in the series of trials that followed the Catholic Worker /Ploughshare Activists’ attack on an American War plane that was stationed in a hangar at Shannon Airport in clear violation of Irish neutrality.
I chose to position my review within the context of my thinking on Catholicism, because the defendants themselves are defiantly and embarrassingly religious. As a long term Marxist, I find their insistence on placing their actions within the context of ritual and prayer, to be as Ciaron O’Reilly would put it, “challenging”. It is not that the symbols they evoke are meaningless, rather it is because for me a collapsed Catholic they so evocative of Catholicism. This is the source of my trouble with the Ploughshares movement.
But let us leave all my neurotic prejudices aside, and begin the task of entering the world of Harry Browne’s book. I have chosen that metaphor deliberately as a form of homage to Browne’s ability as a writer. I knew nothing of him or his work up to now, but I realized after reading his prologue that the loss was mine. The prologue sets the scene for the verdict. It is full of significant detail and is indeed creative writing of the first rank. We are there with Browne, more surely than if we were watching a film of the event. When he tells us he cried at the acquittal verdict. I cried too because it was the victory of the decent ordinary people of Ireland over the “experts”, the professionals, the sell out merchants, the cynics, the opportunists, and all those who peddle despair about humanity. It was to borrow Roy Bhaskar’s phrase the very ‘pulse of freedom’.
Perhaps here might be a good place to tackle the “objectivity” issue. Browne’s narrative as , Dan Berrigan points out in his introduction, is not that of the observer. If anything he tends towards the participant end of the continuum and lets it be very clearly known that he was and is on the side of those who hammered the war plane. I have no trouble with that because I interpret objectivity in the Bhaskarian rather than in the Kantian tradition or in the Neo-Nietzschean traditions. Neo- Kantians cannot make up their minds as to where to locate objectivity in the phenomenal or the noumenal realm. So objectivity becomes most often reduced to the impersonal. The neo-Nietzscheans deny the very possibility of objectivity and so everything is reduced to the perspective of the speaker and truth is equated with power. For the Critical Realist the objective manifold exists and indeed guarantees the very possibility of the subjective. Truth is possible and even at its highest level alethia or the reason for things is both the goal of science and all emancipatory movements. By the Critical Realist test, Browne’s books is indeed objective in that it so patiently and faithfully seeks the truth. It endeavors to both bear witness and to uncover the reason for things.
This is especially clear perhaps in Browne’s attempt to create a context for the actions of Ciaron O’ Reilly and the other Ploughshare activists. Thus we are given sympathetic pen portraits of all the five defendants and also an interesting account of contemporary Irish Catholicism. We are also given some account of the Irish Peace movement and why it imploded like all the peace movements that sprung up around the world. Browne as well touches upon why the Ploughshare Activists were and probably always will be on the margins of any peace movement.
From these preliminary chapters we move fairly swiftly to a superb account of the action – the attack on the plane itself. I got caught up in the detail. Again the quality of the writing transports the reader to the scene. We see and rejoice when the plane is smashed. We urge the activists on to more damage, but no these are the most difficult people. They actually stop hammering at the plane to pray and sing. I almost screamed out my frustration. How could they? And above all things they started up the rosary – something which always brings to my mind the phrase – “the whine of Irish Catholicism”. I shuddered in near horror.
From this, to my mind, low point the narrative takes us swiftly to the trials. I have to be honest here and confess that I was most reluctant to read these chapters. There were after all three trials. I have myself been in court too many times to have anything but the greatest contempt for the legal system. I also come from the reductionist tradition of “One solution – Revolution”. So I have no interest in or patience for the fine points of law. I also know from personal experience how deadening and alienating a place the court room can be.
However a strict sense of my duty as a reviewer more or less compelled me to tackle the trial chapters. I am genuinely glad I did so. Browne with a true master’s touch condenses all the boredom into a few paragraphs and instead takes us through a truly tense drama. Will the truth come out? Will justice survive the law? The actual details of the law are made clear even to the likes of me. And the drama is peopled with real flesh and blood characters. Moreover I am truly grateful for the splendid testimony given by Nuin Dunlop (p147). It is even from this distance deeply moving to read her account of the reason why she took part in the attack on the plane. She spoke of responsibility, solidarity, urgency and prayer and though I have often raged against the tradition she represents, I thank her for her words.
I am also grateful for Browne’s account of the great speech by the defense lawyer Brendan Nix (pp163-5). He spoke of our shared humanity. For me it is in the full and true implications of that phrase that the justification for the actions of the Ploughshare activists lie. To paraphrase Brecht –“What is the crime of damaging a warplane compared to the crime of owning one or letting one be stationed in one’s country?”
There is much then to praise in this fine book and it is my pleasure to offer my congratulations to the author and to urge everyone to read it.