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It’s not an Irish thing, it’s not a Catholic thing, it’s a religion thing
Clerical abuse, the tribunal bandwagon and the extraordinary life and times of Charlie McGuinness
Eamonn McCann, 12 Nov 2002
I think it can fairly be said that I have never been feted for my contribution to ecumenism.
But on October 24, no more a figure than a Free Presbyterian minister arrived at the doors of Broadcasting House in Belfast to demand that the BBC give him right to reply to remarks I’d made on air the previous day about the Catholic Church and clerical child sex abuse. The criticisms I’d made of the Vatican, he averred, had been couched in such a way as to apply also to other religions, including “Bible Protestantism.” He rejected my observations “totally”.
Something of a first, here, I dare say. A pastor of Paisley’s passionately protesting against anti-pope polemics.
The reverend had grasped the key point missed by almost all current commentary on the failure of Catholic bishops to call in the civil authorities when alerted to sex abuse allegations. Do the bishops consider themselves above the civil law? Outraged liberals demand to know.
The answer is what it’s always been. Of course they do. Obviously, they do. If they believe their church to be the embodiment of God’s law on earth, then they must put their interests above the interests of any and all secular institutions. They cannot make themselves answerable for their stewardship of god’s church to codes of practice drawn up for the material world. Nothing emanating from this transient existence can call eternity to account. It is this fundamental tenet of every religious tendency, rather than the minutiae of Roman Catholic canon law, which has underpinned the failure of bishops to inform police of criminal allegations against church officials.
The same consideration applies to other bodies claiming to speak for the almighty. The future of the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, is by no means secure as revelations tumble out of his inadquate handing of statements indicting priests under his supervision. A number of Mosques in Britain are in turmoil over sex abuse claims. Scores of Buddist monks in Thailand are under investigation. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the US are battling unsuccessfully to contain abuse scandals. Protestant fundamentalist groups in the US and Latin America are likewise besieged.
It’s not an Irish thing, or a Catholic thing. It’s a religious thing. And it is a reluctance to trace the issue to its roots in religion which continues to befuddle commentators and entangle debate in arcane considerations of canon law.
Equal treatment of all religions was the call which brought the chagrined Free P. riding to the rescue of his Catholic colleagues. As I say, a first, surely.
It was Michael Collins’ opinion that, “There is no more impressive sight in Ireland than Charlie McGuinness with a revolver in his fist.”
In his diaries, future Dublin Lord Mayor Ben Briscoe recounts an incident from his period as IRA representative in Berlin where McGuinness was instructed to have a giveaway tattoo removed from his arm. No anaesthetic being available, Briscoe felt himself swoon as the surgeon began peeling a sheet off the Derryman’s skin. Then he noticed McGuinness winking at him, and an instant later noticed McGuinness’s other hand up the nurse’s dress.
McGuinness, born in the Bogside in 1894, ran away to sea at 15, rounded Cape Horn on his first voyage, then travelled to Chile and Australia before being shipwrecked off an island near Tahiti where he spent a year pearl fishing and making love to the chief’s beautiful daughter, Lola. Rescued, as it were, he sailed to Java and Easter Island before a stint gold-mining back in Australia. Thence to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, south and west Africa, Mexico, the West Indies, Brazil, China, Japan and South Africa, followed by a spot of hoboing in Canada and brief service in the Canadian militia before a return to Europe and incarceration in a Venice dungeon, from which he escaped.
Back in Derry, aged 20, he joined the British Navy and served in the Cameroons in World War One, from which he deserted upon hearing of the 1916 Rising. Fought with the Germans against the British in the east African “Jungle Campaign”. Home again in 1919, became leader of the IRA in Derry/Donegal before being spotted by Collins and appointed to arms procurement.
Later, travelled with Admiral Byrd to the South Pole (1928-’29), bootlegger and booze runner for the Mob (1929-’31), three years in Russia (1933-’36) where he was successively harbour master of Murmansk and Leningrad. In Barcelona in 1936 with Republican civil war forces, he went bad. Deserted, returned to Dublin, wrote series in the Independent denouncing Red atrocities against Spanish priests. Irish link-man with Nazi spies (1939), jailed in Arbor Hill, released 1945, captain of a smuggling ship which went down off Wexford in 1947, presumed drowned, aged 53. A fairly crowded life, then. No space to mention his adventures with Chiang Kai-Shek in the war against the Japanese.
McGuinness was a fine writer. His books, Nomad (1933) and Behind The Red Curtain (1937) are compelling narratives full of evocative description, vivid imagery and dizzy imagination.
He is almost unknown because by the end of his life he’d become an embarrassment to almost every cause he’d been associated with. An Antartic explorer who turned to crime, a left-wing revolutionary who dallied with fascists, a sensible fellow who reverted to Catholicism. But now, just in time for early Xmas shopping, comes a balanced account which rescues McGuinness once more, this time from obscurity. Nomad, by John McGuffin and Joe Mulheron, (Irish Resistance Books, 248 pp, E15.50 /stg.£11), incorporates first-hand accounts, archival material (his Derry family had retained correspondence from all corners of the world) and McGuinness’s own semi-reliable published and unpublished memoirs, as well as interviews with relatives (the Russian wife he married in Murmansk lived on in Manhattan until the 1990s) and spiffing yarns from here and there.
“The most amazing thing about McGuinness is that when you check out his spoofing, a high proportion turns out to be true,” said McGuffin, who died just a few weeks before publication.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book which manages to separate flat fact from wild fantasy without losing the larger-than-life character of its wandering (anti-)hero.
If your bookstore doesn’t carry it, try Resistance Books, 4, The Craft Village, Derry, or via firstname.lastname@example.org.