A Stern recollection of Troubled times and the I.R.A. informer who got away

It was while browsing through the archive of documentation that occupies several locations in his Port Road dwelling that Letterkenny man, Pat Dawson, came upon the article from August 1971 that featured in the German publication, Stern magazine.

It was while browsing through the archive of documentation that occupies several locations in his Port Road dwelling that Letterkenny man, Pat Dawson, came upon the article from August 1971 that featured in the German publication, Stern magazine.

Written by staff reporter Peter-Hannes Lehmann, it reflected events in Northern Ireland and the border regions when the Irish Republican Army was initiating a campaign of war with the intention of, as one interviewee put it, ending English occupation of the Province once and for all.

Later in the article, there are references to I.R.A. training camps and while Donegal isn’t mentioned by name, it was here that the reporter met with a number of the volunteers.

“I remember it well,” says Pat Dawson. “Remember it because the spokesmen interviewed were myself and Billy Kelly from Belfast and with Seamus McCann from Letterkenny looking on as an observer.”

The training camp was taking place in Letterkenny and was made up of volunteers from the town and from Derry city.

Prompted by the article in Stern, Pat recalls incidents from the time and specifically the arrest of volunteer Seamus McCann.

“Seamus collected gelignite from a dump to deliver to the O/C of Derry city at the time. He was to collect them at Killea, Newtowncunningham. Seamus was to turn off the main road and go to Killea on a side road beside Killea. Unfortunately he missed the turn and drove straight into the checkpoint. The Gardai said, ‘we didn’t expect you but we expected the gelignite.’.”

Another volunteer, Packie McLaughlin, who lived in Burtonport but was a native of Letterkenny’s Lower Main Street, witnessed his colleague’s arrest and made off to inform Pat Dawson.

“True to form, Gardai raided my home - I was living in the Market Square back then - that evening. On searching my home they, the Gardai, emptied out the coal bucket to check for anything illegal, checked the ash pan and searched the stair carpet. This gave me a clue as to who the informer was - it was the O/C in Derry.

“When he called to my house a week before Seamus was caught, he collected a revolver and ammunition that I had brought into the house in a coal bucket for him.”

A communication from G.H.Q. that had been hidden in the stair carpet and was destined for the Derry O/C offered another clue to Dawson. “He was the only person that saw me passing me on these things from where I had hidden them.”

Subsequently, Dawson arranged to meet the O/C in Newtowncunningham on an evening when two volunteers from H.Q. were scheduled to come to interrogate him.

“As we were talking in the car he got nervous, got out of the car and took off across the fields. I chased him but he got away. I have never seen him since.”

The two volunteers from headquarters who had been due to interrogate the O/C were late in arrival. Too late as it happened though not for the alleged informer. “Needless to say myself and them had a tough argument,” Pat remembers.

The Stern article, which was translated for him by Monica Cullen, highlights the early years of the Troubles and quoted the area commander of the I.R.A. in Belfast as stating that it was not a Civil Rights revolution anymore. “This is real war.”

It goes on: “Whenever Joe hears the word ‘British’, he spits out: ‘We will kill one soldier after another. We have enough munitions for a whole year. And more supplies are assured.’ Supplies are delivered secretly across the 500 km long border with the Irish Republic, where the I.R.A. is officially banned but has attracted quite a lot of support. This is where most of the training camps are situated. Here I.R.A. volunteers are trained in shooting, bomb making and mining operations during six-week training sessions. Protection and safe houses are provided by devout Catholic citizens for I.R.A. volunteers who require a place to rest and hide after assignments which usually last four days.”

Reporter Lehmann adds: “We meet in one of these safe houses, crucifix, open fire, kidney shaped table and oil paintings, with battalion-commander Patrick (Paddy), insurance rep in real life. He has just dismissed a group of ten I.R.A. volunteers who are going on a new engagment across the border. Paddy’s 23 year old wife, three months pregnant, is one of them. She taps on a German pistol, a Walter PKK, and swears: ‘This time I’m going to get one of these damned bastards’, meaning a British soldier. It is her fourth engagement.”

The article concludes on a statement of intent from one unnamed I.R.A. officer: “We will chase the English out of Ireland by any means possible.”