Rough Beast: One woman’s ordeal at the coarse hands of Provisionalism in the shadow of the peace process

Máiría Cahill begins and ends with an apt choice of words from Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming, both for the title but also a deft epilogue that references “the drowning of innocence” and closes the final chapter of her book Rough Beast.

In the original the “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem” is the shadow that threatens the foundation of western civilisation. But the personal connotations lies in the violation of her young body at the rough hands of an IRA Volunteer.

So incriminating were these actions that both the IRA and its successor organisation (ie, the modern day Sinn Féin) went to lengths to try to shut this remarkable young women down, turning her incontestable story into an endless battleground.

PIRA was run mostly by men who after nearly thirty years of a ruthless paramilitary campaign had few taboo areas into which they would not go to retain control over on the men, women, boys and girls who lived in the places that once sustained them.

It affords us a look behind the mask of a project that set out upon its journey as a political quest for justice in the context of a united Ireland but whose resort to violence, coercion and criminality now leaves it vulnerable to even a modicum of light.

It’s a measure of Ms Cahill’s maturity as both a writer and a human being that the book is profoundly unsentimental. There are no appeals to the gallery, no attempts to tell the readers what they should think in what is, in many parts, a disturbing story.

She’s aided in this by an amazingly detailed memory, details from conversations twenty plus years recalled as if you were sitting there in the room with her and her grim IRA interrogators.  Research shows this is a feature of a genuine sufferer of trauma.

This is as much political assay as an account of lived experience. Her repeated rape as a west Belfast teen and the freedom her attacker subsequently enjoyed was a direct affordance of the paramilitarism in which the whole area had become steeped.

As such the IRA were able to put her through the wringer for months on end. There was no attempt on their part to discipline their volunteer. Rather it was five months of cruelty and mental torture meted out to his victim to keep her mouth firmly shut.

In addition almost every human choice was taken firmly out of her hands, including the timing and the nature of how her family (some of whom where committed Provisionals in the highest of standing within that movement) was to be informed.

West Belfast for many has been a haven safe from a hostile city which at the start of the Troubles saw them withdraw for the safety of living amongst much great numbers of ‘their own’. But for a minority who transgressed it could become a living hell.

After the Falls Curfew, the PIRA insinuated themselves into every regulatory aspect of community life. With few exceptions (eg insurance claims) their Long War doctrine excluded civil policing and moved paramilitarism into everyone’s private life.

It became a shadowland, in which eventually, over time, the state came to understand, by and large, that it would mind its own business in the wider Northern Ireland and let the Provisionals mind theirs (and everyone else’s) within their tribal fiefdoms.

Such was the case when it came to the months long interrogation: nowhere was out of bounds, including the Falls Women’s Centre, a registered charity who’s mission today is to a provide “a safe, welcoming, comfortable, women-only environment”.

That the IRA was allowed to carry their ill-treatment of Ms Cahill in such a place (and perhaps the most shocking single aspect of the book) cemented the idea there was no way out. At least one IRA woman claimed to work there with similar cases.

In the end Máiría began to pick up the thread of her life by finding someone who operated safely beyond the labyrinth of paramilitary lies, intrigue and deceit. Someone who could be trusted not to report every word, action and gesture up the line.

When she had recovered sufficiently she fought back in a manner and on a scale few victims of such coordinated and collective cruelty and isolation could hope to emulate. And she was canny enough to know the importance of fighting back politically.

On RTÉ radio the late Noel Whelan pointed out to, Mary Lou McDonald, who had admitted that she both believed Cahill’s account, and somehow those she accused in the IRA even though they completely contradicted each other:

…there was no conviction in respect of the abuse upon her, yet you are accepting her credibility on that and here on national radio are prepared to effectively call him an abuser. You accept her credibility on that that but you change your mind when she makes allegations which touch upon your current responsibilities. [Emphasis added]

Sadly, this book cannot replace an actual criminal indictment and/or conviction in the courts. The IRA made that almost impossible for Cahill. By insinuating its way into her life it then assiduously sought a hook upon which to hang her out to dry.

This book in many ways reaffirms her determination to deny them such grim satisfaction. The great German thinker Hannah Arendt defined totalitarianism not as an all powerful state but the erasure of the difference between public and private life.

This is precisely what gives the politics of this book its sustaining power. As a writer, rather than as a victim, Cahill has come to know she was far from alone. In the way local paramilitarism robbed a women’s centre of its core meaning, it robbed others too.

That sense of responsibility is what guides the narrative and gives this ‘news from nowhere’ its control and shape. It hints at rather than lectures an idea of how we might live better lives, starting with fair and universal access to justice.

In the face of the enormity of the violent legacy from Loyalist, Republican and albeit to a much lesser extent the state, it is  easy to dismiss all this, as the person she quotes in the book, ‘what’s a little child abuse, if they can turn a blind eye to murder?’

But that, surely, is to set too low a standard for the peace we hope to see ushered in for the future of already very different generations to the ones that preceded and endured a thirty years war driven largely by mindless, tribal centric hatred.

In his essay On Repentance the 16th Century thinker Michel de Montaigne (who loathed fanaticism) notes, “God must touch our hearts. Our conscience must amend itself by the strengthening of our reason, not by the weakening of our appetites”. 

In a world where totalitarianists are becoming so ubiquitous (from the so-called libertarian tech gods who know more about us than we do, to traditional, common or garden dictators) that we no longer notice the appetite for control they bring with them.

Cahill’s modest story is an important record. It hints at an adjacently possible world that doesn’t have to repeat the poisonous cycles of the past. In her fully six pages of acknowledgements you read how wide a friendship group her story has brought her.

Kindness and tenacity (both her own and that of others) brought her through a perilous gap. The book momentary clears the pall of forgetfulness on less regarded acts that fall outside the shiny allure of grand narratives. As such, it’s worth its weight in gold.

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