When the Australian TV personality Steve Irwin died, having been stung by a stingray, it was very sad. It was sad, but in some respects, it wasn’t overly surprising. Irwin had made a career out of antagonising dangerous animals – poking poisonous snakes, pulling the tails of crocodiles, messing around with venomous spiders. It was only a matter of time, surely, before one of these animals got annoyed with him. Sure enough.
Much the same could be said of Eamon Collins. He antagonised the IRA until finally they lost patience with him, savagely killing him in 1999, not even two years after the publication of Killing Rage. He just didn’t know when to shut up. Although the IRA had already said that he would be killed if he lived north of Drogheda in the Republic, it seemed that they turned a blind eye for some years as he insisted on living in Newry not far from where he grew up. But the last straw was probably when he testified that Thomas “Slab” Murphy was the head of the IRA in a civil court, which resulted in Murphy losing his libel case and ending up with thousands of pounds of costs. This was rather like going up to a sleeping tiger and sticking pins in it. Collins apparently had a death wish.
His memoir relates his career in the IRA, from his recruitment, through a sordid litany of murders and bombs, to his arrest by the authorities and his betrayal of his erstwhile associates. It makes compelling reading and is a truly fascinating insight into not only the workings of the IRA, but the terrorist mind-set in general. Over the course of the book, Collins gives a detailed description of the operations he was involved in and of his co-terrorists. If ever you wondered whether the supposedly noble political aspirations of the IRA were really an excuse for institutionalised thuggery, then this book will confirm your worst suspicions.
It’s hard, with a first-person narrative, to really get a sense of the narrator. How much is he telling the truth? Are you getting a full account or only a partial one? You can’t see the body language, or hear the tone of voice. According to the Guardian journalist who met him, “Collins was a difficult, unlovable man, opinionated, dogmatic. He was a small man with a big mouth, a big ego and an antagonistic personality. He fell out with nearly everyone, including his brother John, who did not speak to him for years before his death, his one-time comrades in the IRA, the RUC, the television journalists who told his story, and his co-writer on his book.” He was also 5 foot 1 – the typically aggressive small man.
You could say that Collins’ difficult personality is the reader’s gain. He showed no fear of presenting unpalatable truths about the IRA and the euphemistically termed “Armed Struggle” which actually consists, or consisted, in murdering unarmed people when they least expect it for such heinous crimes as serving their communities as part-time policemen or destroying anything useful or beautiful with bombs. At one time Collins became part of the “Nutting Squad”, the IRA’s internal disciplinary unit, responsible for extracting confessions of suspected informers, or “touts”, by whatever means necessary, including torture, and then passing judgement on them and executing them with a bullet in the head. We might suspect that Collins was not as reasonable and as rational as his account would have us believe. He must have developed a reputation for utter ruthlessness and a great capacity for violence despite his diminutive physical stature. This is the one thing that I found difficult to square with his account. YouTube interviews show him as a very angry person, and the title “Killing Rage” to his book seems particularly well chosen. But the book is reasonably laconic about his involvement with the Nutting Squad. Indeed, I suspect that the book is economical with the truth regarding countless IRA operations. The reader gets the feeling of receiving a full account, but Collins hinted in interviews that this was only a sample of what he got up to.
If ever you wanted an illustration of the maxim “to have your cake and eat it”, Collins was it. Having committed the most vile crimes – such as setting up innocent work colleagues for execution, he then confessed everything to the police and turned supergrass. Then, whilst on remand, he recanted, annoying the police. Not satisfied with this, he annoyed the IRA command structure in Crumlin Road gaol by refusing to kow-tow to them and constantly reminding them of the bankruptcy of their terrorist actions. Then he denied all his confessions in court, amazingly winning his freedom. But Killing Rage shows him admitting them all over again, before he ignored IRA death threats and spent his time denouncing the organisation on TV and in print. Repeatedly. Hardly surprising that “he got his”.
The book is brilliant - well-written, gripping, insightful. In some respects, it’s the only book you need to read about The Troubles. It says it all. This is what terrorism is all about and Eamon Collins was the archetypal terrorist. It’s sad that he’s dead. But not that surprising. And maybe, not even all that sad.
His interview, Confession, can be found on YouTube here.
A useful Guardian article about him can be found here.