WHEN BEST-SELLING IRISH AUTHOR Richard O’Rawe penned Northern Heist, his fiction debut based on the second-largest robbery in modern European history, he knew authenticity wouldn’t be a problem — he’d pulled more than a few jobs for the Irish Republican Army. His experiences with the paramilitary struggle against the British occupation of Northern Ireland have fueled much of his work. His first nonfiction book, Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-Block Hunger Strike, contained controversial revelations that put him at odds with former IRA comrades, and his biography In the Name of the Son captured human rights activist Gerry Conlon’s turbulent journey to redemption after serving 15 years in prison for an IRA attack he never committed. Currently, O’Rawe is teamed with another playwright to turn Conlon’s story into a play with the promise of bringing it to New York.
Even though he left the IRA over 35 years ago and has since become one of Ireland’s most outspoken critics of armed resistance, he’s still banned from coming to the United States for a proper book launch. So, I circumvented the no-fly list and reached across the pond virtually to bring his unique story to America.
MATT ELLIS: How did you get involved with the Irish Republican movement?
RICHARD O’RAWE: My father was a very serious IRA man in the 1940s and one of the commanders with the Belfast movement. He was interned without trial during the IRA campaign in the 1950s. We had the Irish Proclamation on one wall and JFK on the other — Kennedy was revered like the Pope. I wasn’t even allowed to play soccer because my father viewed that as an English game. I was hoping to be a lawyer, but then the trouble started in 1969. I felt like I was fighting the Nazis, much in the same way as the French Resistance did during World War II. Every day I was doing IRA stuff. It may have been a lot of things, but it was never boring.
How did you get into writing?
I wasn’t particularly interested in writing. In the mid-1980s, I was working 12- to 14-hour shifts as the Republican movement’s public relations officer. In 1986, my wife said to me, “Here’s the choice, my friend. Either you keep with the Republican movement, or you keep with me and the kids. You can’t have it both ways.” I chose the wife and kids.
In 2001, Boston College was taking testimonies so academics would get a firsthand view of what went down on the ground. It would be used after we were dead. I had been the PR officer during the 1981 [Long Kesh] hunger strike, virtually number two in the prison. Four guys had died, and a fifth guy was at a critical point. I put out a very conciliatory statement to the Brits, just trying to get them away, as much as to get away from ourselves. It worked. The Brits made an offer. We accepted it, but Gerry Adams [former Sinn Fein leader] and a team of IRA people rejected it. Consequently, six more men died. For the first time in my life, I put down on tape what really happened. It was like someone turned on a waterfall. I never realized how upset I was. This was a secret that no more than five people in the world knew. It was all kept secret from the Army council, which was tantamount to treachery. In the early ’90s, had it come out that Adams was talking to the British government and not reporting it, he’d have been shot dead.
I wanted people to answer for what happened while I and they were still alive. I wrote Blanketmen to tear asunder the carefully crafted Republican narrative that had existed for a quarter of a century. It was published in February 2005, and the whole world came at me — ex-friends and ex-comrades. It was like everything you knew in your life falls apart. But I had my family, and I knew I was right. Unless you have an absolute conviction that the road you’re on is the right one, you’ll end up in the nuthouse.
How did you come to write Gerry Conlon’s biography, In the Name of the Son?
Me and Gerry grew up together. My father was a known IRA man, and every Easter, he was arrested to ensure he didn’t start any trouble. Gerry’s father, Guiseppe, had no politics at all. When I heard about Gerry and the Guildford pub bombing on the news, I was in Crumlin Road Prison on the charge of conspiracy to murder, which I beat. I said, “What does Gerry have to do with this?” He wasn’t the IRA type. He was smoking marijuana. He loved the women, drinking, and betting on the horses. I thought the IRA was going to shoot him for breaking into places. He was a bit of a tearaway as a teenager.
In the IRA, we were used to getting tortured. I used to get the shit kicked out of me all of the time. Keep your mouth closed, your balls stuck between your legs, cover your face, and hope for the best. A couple of slaps, and Gerry would have said he was involved in the bombing of Hiroshima. They gave him a hard interrogation, and he told them what they wanted him to say. He confessed and spent 15 years in jail. Then the guy was thrown out of jail by the British, handed a million pounds, and told to “fuck off.”
Years later, Gerry asked me to write his book. I said, “You already wrote Proved Innocent. Jim Sheridan made the Oscar-nominated film In the Name of the Father, based on your time in prison, and Daniel Day-Lewis played you. What more do you want?” Gerry said, “My life didn’t start until I got out of jail, and you’re gonna write it.” I gave it no more thought until a year later. He was in the hospital, riddled with cancer. I didn’t know what to say because my buddy had two weeks to live. He said, “I want the book you promised me. Won’t you keep your promise? I don’t want a book that’s going to eulogize me. When I got out of jail, I wasn’t a saint. I screwed hundreds of women. I was a druggie. I got up to a bunch of nefarious activities, but I never hurt anyone. The only person I ever hurt was me. I want you to write it as honestly as it is.” It was all a matter of trust. There was a context, a prism through which people had to see his life.
It must have been a very heavy process exploring a person you knew all your life but relearning at the same time.
I’m a very emotional guy at the best of times, but this was like revisiting a death again and again. It was an emotional odyssey. I was talking to the friends he’d met along the way: Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, Paddy Joe Hill of the Birmingham Six [another group falsely imprisoned for an IRA attack], and loads of others. Everyone loved him. In my book, I wrote, “He made friends like hillbillies made moonshine.” Johnny Depp wrote an incredible foreword about how they first met in a lift in New York. This guy made such an impression on people. The more I got into his life, the more I saw his struggles. And the beauty of it was, in the end, he had redemption. He beat his crack cocaine habit, came to grips with the overwhelming guilt of naming his father under interrogation. His father got 12 years and died in prison. He struggled for human rights, traveled the world to fight for the underdog.
You had great success with your nonfiction. What drew you to your first fiction project — Northern Heist?
The Belfast Northern Bank robbery in 2004 was extraordinary in its size and the brains behind it. They stole 26.5 million pounds. There was one moment when everything came together. They told an employee whose family had been tiger kidnapped [held hostage] to bring money out to them. He took a million pounds out in a bag, and the IRA man walked away with it. In that second, they knew they had complete access to everything. No cops were following them. No undercovers. They were absolutely clear. Who thought of that? They tested the water with a million-pound baby robbery. It was like a work of art. I was fascinated, but at the same time, it wasn’t a victimless crime. People weren’t hurt physically but mentally abused — their families abused. The local authorities all thought it was the IRA. It was executed with military precision. I thought, what if the IRA didn’t do it. Suppose it was a super gang guy who thought all of this out. That was the kernel of the idea. All books begin life with one solitary thought.
How did your nonfiction experience help you adapt the actual event?
All stories need a start, a middle, and an end. That hasn’t changed since we all went to school. Northern Heist begins with two families being held hostage in two different locations, about 20 miles apart. In the middle part, we go through the actual removal of the money from the bank. Then I had to develop our protagonist, James “Ructions” O’Hare. What type of man is he? What does he want out of life? Why is he revered by those in the criminal underworld?
Most people who are tied into big bank robberies are brilliant. The problem is that they never think, “What happens after?” They only think about the dough and splitting it up. Then they realize you can’t fit $7.5 million into a pillowcase. That’s when they all get caught. And then I brought the IRA into it. At the time, the IRA was taxing criminals 50 percent in payback. Ructions O’Hare wasn’t going to pay them anything. Then the hardest part of all: evading the police and the IRA, both hot on his tail and trying to nail him. He was hardly a stranger to me. I’ve come across a couple of Ructions in my life — all in the IRA.
Writing it all was such a treat. I’d have moments at 4:00 in the morning, laughing at myself, when I thought of something particularly funny. Like the scene where they pull up with a lorry full of money and an old Bible thumper says, “The wages of sin is death.” The driver turns to his mate, “Did you hear that preacher? I don’t know. The wages of sin are great.”