The Bleeding Hills

The Bleeding Hills – To Praise Them While I Can – Part I

The Bleeding Hills - A Novel by Wilfried Voss
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The chime of the grandfather clock in the living room reminded us of the time. It was six o’clock in the morning. We agreed that we were both exhausted and had reached the low-point of our attention span. A walk outside might help us to hurdle that dreary phase and bring us a second wind before Finn had to leave.

“Let’s stay away from the horses,” Finn requested. “Don’t get me wrong. I love horses, but that is also the problem, and we’re running out of time.”

We took our coats, left the house through the front door, and walked down the driveway toward the road. The cold air was refreshing, and a half moon under a cloudless sky lighted the path.

When we had reached the end of the driveway, I used the moment to breathe new life into our conversation.

“I meant to ask you,” I said. “Do you support the view that violence against British troops and the RUC was the answer to the Irish problem?”

As I had expected, he took his time to think about the answer.

“Oppression can only live in silence,” he finally responded. “And the only language the English understood was violence, and violence was the best we could do.”

He grinned at me, “Sorry, we didn’t have our Gandhi.”

I directed him down the road by pointing to the right.

“You see,” he continued. “The Stormont government had asked the British in 1969 to deploy troops onto the streets of Northern Ireland because they were unable, or may I say grossly unwilling, to deal with the troubles appropriately. All they had to do was to establish equal rights for the Catholic population.”

He sighed. “Instead they seeded violence. It was disturbing to witness the British government’s limited abilities to deal with a crisis. Operation Demetrius, which allowed the RUC and the British Army to arrest suspects without justification, was not only a slap in the face of human rights. It also revealed a great level of incompetence.”

“But,” I asked, “how, do you think, they should have handled the situation? After all, ending an outright civil war is not an easy task.”

“As a matter of fact, I don’t need to answer that question,” he responded. “Just look at recent history. Just look at how Tony Blair handled the task in front of him. Besides some unjustified attacks by desolate splinter groups, there is now virtually peace in Northern Ireland.”

He smiled, knowing he had made an indisputable point, and then he continued, “But we’re running out of time. The sun will come up soon, and I will have to leave.”

He summoned his thoughts and a short time later resumed with his account of a past life in Northern Ireland.

“To answer one of your earlier questions, yes, I was involved with gathering intelligence information during the troubles.

“Shauna and I moved to Belfast shortly after our wedding, and, while she took a job at a local bakery, I went on missions all over Northern Ireland and even England for a few months. There were times where we did not see each other for months, and we treasured the time we spent together, and a terrific time it was.

“There is not enough time to tell you about all my missions, but I can say those times were intense and violent. I lost a good number of comrades. Some of them killed in action, and some of them spent a great deal of time in English prisons. A dear friend of mine, Frank Stagg, died in Wakefield Prison in England after a sixty-two day hunger strike. He was only thirty-three years old.”

He paused for a moment, and, with a sigh, he continued, “I gave this a great deal of thought, and I have decided to tell you about my last assignment. This assignment was about one Captain Robert Nairac, a young British officer who was assigned to the 14 Intelligence Company.

“He is probably the strangest person I have ever met. He was a brilliant military mind, but there was something terribly wrong with him, and to this day, I cannot put my finger on it. In the end, he took one too many chances and that got him killed.

“Strangely enough, I believe he intentionally sought punishment for something he did in the past. As one source put it, Nairac would not be satisfied by just sticking his head into the lion’s mouth, he had to stick it right into the creature’s ass.”

He looked at me. “My assignment began immediately after the Miami Showband killing in 1975.”

The Miami Showband, one of Ireland’s most popular bands of the 1970s, comprising both Catholic and Protestant members, was traveling home to Dublin after a gig in Northern Ireland. They were stopped at a roadblock and flagged down by men in British Army uniforms, a common occurrence during the troubles.

One of the soldiers, also a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, attempted to plant a bomb in the minibus. If all went according to plan, the bomb was expected to explode some time later, on the way to Dublin.

The assumption would be that the members of the band were supporters of the Republican movement and had been carrying a bomb in their van, apparently with the intent to commit an act of violence.

However, the bomb exploded prematurely and killed two soldiers immediately. After the explosion, the remaining UVF members opened fire on the band members, killing three of the musicians. There are persisting rumors that Captain Robert Nairac organized the attack in collaboration with the UVF, and other rumors allege that Nairac was also present at the killings.

“For a long time, even before the killings, we had suspicions that the SAS had initiated a hidden agenda with the ultimate goal to discredit the IRA,” Finn said. “Nairac was officially a member of the 14 Intelligence Company, but they hardly ever engaged in direct military combat. Their task was to gather intelligence while the SAS made the final arrests.

“Some of the most troubling circumstances involving Nairac were the liberties he took. They would have never been approved or tolerated by his superiors at the 14 Company or the SAS. The only plausible conclusion was that Nairac received direct orders from someone in London, possibly with the MI5 or another branch of British Intelligence, who held enough power to control the SAS forces in Northern Ireland.”

“Do you think the connection went right up to the government?” I asked.

He shook his head. “There is no evidence supporting that theory, but at the same time I am not saying it was not possible. It is also quite possible that some elements inside the British intelligence services deliberately violated government rulings and fought their own war. After all, there was a considerable competition between the various intelligence services, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if one of them broke the rules to gain an unfair advantage.”

“So what exactly was your assignment?”

“Well, the definition was not as clear-cut at the time. As I said, there was a suspicion of a greater plan to discredit the IRA. The Miami Showband killing, as it turned out, was only another link in a chain of peculiar events. At a first look, it seemed to be nothing else but another act of violence during the Irish troubles, yet these acts had a precision unknown to any Republican or Loyalist paramilitary force.

“My first task was to investigate the incidents, and I found that Captain Robert Nairac, in one way or another, was the link they had all in common. Consequently, I concentrated my activities on following Nairac, which was an almost impossible undertaking, in the hope of finding the connection to London. There were times when I had no clue where he was, and I used those times to do research on Nairac’s background.”

Robert Nairac was born in 1948 to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. He spent his early years in Catholic boarding schools and went on to study in Oxford where he showed the first public signs of eccentric behavior by keeping a hawk in his bedroom and attending exams in full Grenadier’s uniform. In 1972, after attending the Sandhurst military academy, he, unlike his fellow graduates who preferred to stay away from the troubles if possible, volunteered for service in the Northern provinces.

“At first, Nairac was just a common soldier,” Finn went on. “But that changed with his assignment to the 14 Company in 1974. He took on intelligence gathering operations in South Armagh, the most hostile area for British troops, especially for undercover agents, and he did it without a backup, who, in the end, could have saved his life.

“He had also assumed an acceptable Irish accent, which he used during his visits at IRA as well as Loyalist bars, where he tried to infiltrate groups of both sides. Strangely enough, he found pleasure in betraying both sides and called it ‘running the enemy.’ ”

Finn’s investigation revealed that Nairac was most probably involved in other terrorist activities.

“I firmly believe he was also the mastermind behind the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan that killed thirty-three people. The Garda, the Irish police, quickly identified the prime suspects, and they all were Northern Ireland Loyalists. Although the Garda passed the information to Belfast, there were no arrests.

“I found it impossible to believe that any Loyalist movement had the expertise or skills to detonate three car bombs within ninety seconds and with such impact. Only trained military forces could have achieved that. During my investigation, I discovered that the British army maintained a special-duty team which controlled a group known as the Protestant Task Force, and Nairac was a member of that team.”

He paused for a moment. “Just take a second to think about the impact of these findings. The British army had, in fact, maintained and supported a terrorist act on foreign soil, namely Dublin, the capitol city of the Republic of Ireland. It may sound strange nowadays, but this was nothing unusual at the time. Other incidents had the Garda responding by politely escorting British soldiers back across the border. Unfortunately, the Irish government was, in more than one instance, a compliant partner-in-crime.”

We were about a half-mile down the road, and I showed him the entrance to a hidden path that would lead us eventually toward the backside of our property. We walked silently for a few minutes, enjoying the eerie, but beautiful scenery before Finn continued.

“There are also indications that Nairac was involved in the assassination of John Francis Green in January of 1975.”

He noted my questioning look.

“John Francis Green was a prominent IRA Leader,” he explained. “John had escaped from the Long Kesh detention center near Belfast three years earlier. He hid on a farm south of the border, on the slopes of Mullyash Mountain in County Monaghan, and Nairac, yet again, crossed the border for a killing.”

“How did they learn of Green’s hiding on the farm?” I asked.

“In fact, they did not. His killing was merely coincidental. Originally, they had targeted the farmer himself, one Gerry Carville. They believed the IRA previously held and executed another Loyalist at the farm. They didn’t know Carville had left the farm earlier that morning to milk a neighbor’s cow.”

“Quite a busy chap, this Nairac,” I couldn’t help to comment.

“Yes, and he wasn’t the only one,” Finn added. “Nairac had teamed up with another ruthless psychotic, an SAS man by the name of Tony Ball. Ball, a nervous wreck who bit his fingernails down to the white half-moons, was as mysterious as his buddy Nairac.

“They went out at nights, just the two of them, using an unmarked car, carrying sub-machine guns and pistols, and shooting people for fun, Catholics and Protestants alike.”

I nodded. “In a sick kind of way it does make sense. The killings would trigger another reaction. A Catholic death for a Protestant killing and vice versa.”

“You got it, but I always had a feeling that their motives were much more sinister, if they had a motive at all. They were out of control. They acted like criminals who already knew they would burn in hell. A man already convicted of murder does not care if he kills more people. The punishment remains the same. Yet, I cannot help thinking that their initial crime was not as simple as murder, but something much more heinous.”

I stopped and looked at him. “What can be more heinous than murdering a human being just for thrills?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have the answer, my friend. You would have to ask them. Maybe it was just in their minds.”

He walked a few more steps ahead of me and turned around. “They both did receive their ultimate punishment very soon, however. Ball was killed in a car accident. He was only thirty-eight at the time of his dither. A member of the Provisional IRA murdered Nairac in 1977, when he was just twenty-nine years old. Ironically, I tried to save his life, but I failed.”

“You were present when he was killed?”

I couldn’t believe what he just said. The murder of Robert Nairac still stirs attention to this day, and I had read a few articles about it.

He hesitated for a moment. “Yes, I was, and, believe me, I am not proud of it. Even so, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. As I said, I had looked into his affairs, but then, suddenly, he temporarily disappeared from the face of the earth.”

It appears that, despite the support from his London-based mentor, Nairac’s killing spree, including the Miami Showband killings, had pushed the envelope too far and orders called him back to London.

After coming to the conclusion that Nairac was a key figure in a sinister scheme to discredit the IRA, Finn anxiously waited for Nairac’s return to Northern Ireland. His chance came a year later, in 1976, when Nairac became a liaison officer with an SAS task force.

“In the meantime I had learned a great deal about him,” Finn said. “But he was not the same man anymore. True, his behavior had been eccentric at times, but that was nothing in comparison to the year before his death. Something must have snapped in his head. There is no other explanation.”

Our path took another right turn along a line of towering pine trees, hiding the light of the moon and making our walk slightly more difficult.

“As I said before, it was not easy keeping track of his whereabouts, and I failed to prevent the arrest of Sean McKenna and the killing of Peter Cleary, both IRA men. That was all Nairac’s doing.”

I felt that he had left something out.

“You mentioned that his behavior became even more eccentric.” I reminded him.

He nodded, and then shook his head. “Yes. You see…”

Obviously looking for the right words, he sighed and looked up into the night sky.

“How do I explain this?”

He collected his thoughts.

“Nairac would go undercover at night and visit local bars,” he finally continued. “The very next day he would parade on his own through the very same streets wearing a patrol uniform. At times, he would even wear a cowboy hat or other strange, non-military items. Some have speculated that he thought he was different and normal rules did not apply to him. I say he told everybody, ‘Here I am. Punish me!’ ”

“Talk about a death wish!”

“Yes, you are right, but his careless conduct also allowed me to follow him once I had found him. He was an easy target, which was reason enough for me to report to my superiors and recommend apprehending him as soon as possible. I didn’t expect he would spill any secrets – he was just crazy enough to enjoy that scenario – but at least it would help prevent further damage to our cause.”

“What happened?”

“I was told to stay put, follow him, and report his whereabouts. That is what I did.”

On the evening of May 14, 1977, Nairac left the base at the Bessbrook Mill barracks in an unmarked military car and headed for the Three Steps Inn in Drumintee. When he arrived, he used the two-way radio, hidden in the vehicle’s dashboard, to report his position to headquarters.

“That night, Nairac acted in a way that was contrary to everything he had ever learned,” Finn said. “The South Armagh region still is the most hostile environment for British soldiers, but he felt confident that he would fit in with the locals as he had so many times before. He usually carried a 9mm Browning in a shoulder holster, but he left it in the car.”

“Maybe he was trying to step up the risk factor a notch or two.” I added.

“Maybe.”

Then he continued. “He had taken on the name of Danny McAlevey and from the moment he entered the crowded inn, instead of taking a place in a corner quietly, he would be leaning at the bar and chatting up the locals. He even hit on a girl and told her he was an IRA man from Belfast and asked her for the safest route across the border.”

He took another deep breath before he continued. “That man loved to be in the limelight. He was cocky, and all women’s eyes were on that tall and handsome stranger with his neatly trimmed mustache, the dark, curly hair, black jacket, white shirt and beige trousers.”

Nairac had spent some of his childhood in Ireland, in the county of Galway, and during that time he fell in love with the Irish culture. That love, despite his violent behavior toward the Irish population, had never ceased, and he enjoyed the atmosphere in the packed and smoke-filled pub.

“He enjoyed drinking Guinness,” Finn remembered. “And the longer the night went on, the more drunk he got.

“The John Murphy band from nearby Creggan was playing some good music, and, around midnight, they called out to ‘Danny from Belfast’ who wanted to sing a song.

“He would not disappoint them. Drunk as he was, he still managed to sing ‘The Broad Black Brimmer.’ He really got the crowd going. He knew exactly how to please them.”

Finn assumed that I was unfamiliar with the song he had mentioned, and he was right.

“The Broad Black Brimmer,” he explained, “is an Irish Republican folk song, and it deals with the unfinished business of the Civil War in the 1920s. It still is very popular in Republican gatherings.”

“Later that night something went awry,” he continued. “There were a lot of speculations about what happened and the true details have probably been lost in time. The only thing I saw was him arguing with two men who seemed very aggravated. After he got away from them, I approached him and tried to warn him, but he would not listen.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Well, I couldn’t possibly tell him that I was following him,” he grinned. “I said something like, ‘Hey, lad. You better get your ass out of here. Those guys are really pissed at you, and they won’t let go.’ ”

He shrugged his shoulders. “As I said, he didn’t listen. He said he would not leave until he had finished talking to the young man he had just met.”

A brawl near closing time was not unusual, and when this one began, hardly anybody but Finn took notice that one man was deliberately pushed outside – Nairac. Finn followed the men, and, once he was outside, found a crowd of nearly ten people fiercely beating Nairac at the other side of the parking space.

“At first, I thought his identity had been compromised,” he explained. “But then I realized these men were not associated with the IRA, and their feud must have been about something else.”

Anticipating my question he added quickly, “Don’t ask. To this day nobody really knows what the feud was about. I have listened to a lot of speculations but none of them made sense.”

Nairac could have very well prevented further beatings had he not fought back as the men took turns of punching and kicking him.

“He fought fiercely for his life, and he hit hard,” Finn continued. “At one time he even managed to dash for his car in an attempt to reach his pistol, but was pulled back by his attackers.”

The punching took such intensity that Finn felt he had to intervene in some way.

“There was no way I could pull them all away from him,” he said. “So I yelled to them, ‘Hey, this guy is an SAS man, and we need to interrogate him!’ By the time they finally let go, Nairac had already passed out.”

Finn’s action did save Nairac’s life temporarily, and he frantically tried to use the short time he had gained before the mob went amok again. Some of the pack tied Nairac and threw him, still unconscious, into a waiting car. Within ten minutes they had crossed the border, out of the reach of any help for Nairac.

“I managed to contact the local IRA commander,” Finn said. “I hoped that I could convince him to keep Nairac alive to have him interrogated by IRA people with the proper skills. I had no way of knowing that the man was completely incompetent. When Nairac came to, he put up quite a fight. He even managed to grab the commander’s gun and fire at him, but the gun jammed.

“Those amateurs got nothing out of him, and when the commander lost his patience, he put his gun on Nairac’s head and pulled the trigger. Yet, again, it jammed, clicking twice again before, in fact, it fired and Nairac was dead.”

We walked a few more steps in silence before Finn continued.

“I knew he was a Catholic, and I heard his last words, ‘Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.’ ”

Yet again, he shook his head, disgust written on his face.

“This was not an execution. This was butchery in the worst sense. The saying is ‘Live by the sword, die by the sword’, and Nairac deserved to die, but there was no honor in what those people did.”

I nodded and asked, “Do you know where they buried him? I have read he is the only army officer killed during the troubles whose whereabouts is still unknown.”

Finn shook his head.

“I am not sure if your assessment is correct,” he said. “Officially, Nairac is one of nine British victims known as ‘The Disappeared’.”

“And no, there is no grave,” he added. Resignation and a bit of disgust still laced through the sound of his voice.

“It is true that they put him in a meat grinder and fed his remains to the pigs.”

We stopped as a coyote with a dead squirrel in his mouth crossed our path not even twenty feet away. The animal, in turn, stopped as soon as it saw us and watched us suspiciously. After a moment it went on, nonchalantly, apparently without any fear of human presence.

“Nature has its own way of dealing with an abundance of squirrels in our neighborhood,” I explained to Finn, and we resumed our walk.

“I went back to Belfast that same night,” Finn continued after the momentary interruption. “It was not easy crossing the border into Northern Ireland. I had to be extremely cautious, and I had no way of knowing if the British troops had already learned of the killing and increased border patrols.

“As it turns out, for several days they had no clue what had happened. They were puzzled by his disappearance and there were even rumors he had defected to the IRA. Let me assure you, he didn’t, and, needless to say, the Brits were furious when they learned the truth.”

The incident also outraged senior IRA officials because the local commander had not heeded Finn’s warning of Nairac’s importance, and he and his men had not been able to extract any useful information from him. The mob-like killing also posed an embarrassment for the IRA, who would have preferred a military-style execution. In fact, after an internal interrogation, the IRA turned the suspects over to the Garda and the RUC, who investigated the murder.

“Fortunately, I was spared,” Finn said. “I could argue my case to their satisfaction. I had also managed to grab Nairac’s notebook out of his car. He kept a written record of his agents and operations. Needless to say, the information was invaluable.”

Finn’s superiors recommended that he’d leave the country since he might become a prime target for British Intelligence services.

“I was given the choice between Libya and the United Sates,” he said. “We had contacts in both countries who were instrumental in providing weapons for the IRA, and I was supposed to assume the role of liaison of some kind.”

“Needless to say,” he grinned, “I chose the United States.”

We had reached the paddocks on our property and walked around the fence toward the barn. A slight, golden glow on the horizon announced the arrival of another beautiful day of Indian summer.

Finn inhaled the crisp morning air and he stretched.

“Oh, that lovely smell that surrounds a horse barn,” he said passionately. “It brings back a lot of memories of my life on the farm.”

Not being a real horse person, I didn’t share the enthusiasm.

“What happened after you came back to Belfast?” I asked somewhat impatiently, dying to hear more and get him to focus on his story.

“I left the country, and, for the next few years, I lived in Boston,” he answered in a sober fashion.

Then he grinned again and winked, “And, of course, I was an illegal alien, as you Americans call them.

“Ironically, my intimate knowledge of the workings of British Intelligence helped to make contact with American officials and the CIA assigned me a job. They also provided me an official US citizenship.

“I have already told you too much about my engagements during the troubles, and I cannot tell you anything about what I did for the CIA. Let’s just say that my specific knowledge was extremely valuable to them, and in turn I learned a lot from them.”

That was not exactly the answer I expected.

“Finn,” I asked with growing anxiety, hoping he wouldn’t take any offense. “What happened to Shauna?”

He didn’t answer immediately. He just stood there and watched the horses as they mingled at the other side of the paddock, releasing their steamy breaths into the cold autumn air.

“I had hoped we could avoid that topic,” he muttered after a few moments, and pain was clearly visible in his eyes.