Martin McGartland,
Fifty Dead Men Walking
(Hastings House, 1998; Blake, 2001)

His narrative is a bit simplistic and his statements are sometimes contradictory. But Martin McGartland's account of his role in the struggle between Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland is a fascinating peek into tumultuous events that, for some Northern Irish people, are just a matter of their daily existence.

McGartland wrote Fifty Dead Men Walking after his own part in the story came to a brutal, nearly fatal end.

Beginning his tale during his Belfast childhood, before acronyms like IRA and RUC meant anything to him, McGartland describes his growing awareness of and involvement in the struggle between Republicans and Loyalists, Catholics and Protestants. He recounts his own youthful hooliganism -- although he never seems to consider his own crimes, or those of his friends, to be anything worse than misguided high spirits.

A Catholic, McGartland's sympathies lay with the IRA, but the organization's casual approach towards violence -- often directed at its own people as well as the supposed enemy -- taught him that sides aren't always easy to choose and ideals aren't always black and white.

Almost before he knows it, McGartland is a trusted member of the IRA and an informant for the Special Branch of the British police. Through the course of the next few years, he foils numerous IRA plots and saves many lives in the process.

While he touts the nobility of his convictions a little heavy-handedly and a few too many times for my taste, there's no doubt McGartland put his life at serious risk through his efforts. And while he is blunt and honest in his indictment of the IRA, he also derides the British for mishandling certain events and, ultimately, costing him a great deal personally.

In the end, there is no doubt that McGartland's life has been forever shattered. Anyone interested in events in Northern Ireland and the clashing ideologies there will be absorbed by his story.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 19 April 2003

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