Posted By: August 04, 2011

Mairtin O’Muilleoir

Irish Echo-August 4, 2011

They say no man is a prophet in his own land, and that’s certainly true of Fr. Sean McManus, a fiery crusader for Ireland who has rattled more cages than circus king Billy Smart.

Fortunately, of course, Fr. Sean, as is the case with all Irish Americans, is blessed with two lands.

So while the great and the good of official, abbreviated Ireland, led by the late Garret FitzGerald (Grásta ó Dhia air) lashed the clergyman for voicing fears over the treatment of abandoned Northern nationalists, he had always the warm, appreciative embrace of Irish America to fall back on. How mad is that? A Kinawly, Co. Fermanagh native washes up in New York in the 1970s, shines a light on horrendous human rights abuses by Britain against Irish citizens north of the border at a time when neither the New York, nor Irish Times would acknowledge their plight and, for his troubles, gets treated like public enemy number one by the Irish diplomatic corps.

For its insight into that disturbing period of our recent history alone, Fr. McManus’s no-punches-pulled memoir “My American Struggle for Justice in Ireland,” is a must-read.

But, in fact, there’s much more here to recommend to the discerning reader. For the first time, we have the inside story of a protagonist in the battle with the Four Horsemen of Irish America – led by the nose by the same Dublin authorities who branded the Birmingham Six terrorists. This protagonist, Fr. Sean, delivers a blow-by-blow account of his fight for Ireland on Capitol Hill.

When it came to the key campaigns for peace, fair employment and justice in the North of Ireland, Fr. McManus contends, in this unanswerable indictment, that the big names fell short in those crucial years when the descent into the darkest pits of violence could have been averted.

Instead, deluded by plámás from Dublin, and empty pledges from London, the greatest Irish American politicians of the late 20th Century called it wrong. If they had taken their lead from Fr. McManus and his struggle for justice and against violence, perhaps peace could have been won long before a new generation of American leaders, led by President Clinton, sealed the peace deal of 1998.

But, as this stirring autobiography attests, pitting a stubborn Fermanagh man against a couple of governments and the most powerful Irish American politicians of their time is unfair – on them.

For Fr. Mac went on to inspire a series of key hearings in Congress into human rights abuses in the Six Counties, and raised the standard for Irish civil rights in North Ireland through the MacBride Principles campaign, the single most powerful instrument for change ever deployed by Irish America.

In “My American Struggle,” the author gives us more detail than the average reader might care for on the background to the birth and meteoric ascent of the MacBride campaign across the United States. But the meaty detail of the hearings is truly revelatory stuff, never properly recorded in book-form by an Irish American leader. Until now.

In fact, if there’s one fault in this riveting and eminently readable book, it is that too much of Fr McManus’s story remains untold.

He reveals at one point that he was the first white Catholic priest to go to jail for picketing the apartheid-era South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. Now there’s a chapter on its own, yet it gets but a passing mention.

Similarly, his heroic work to expose the plastic bullet killings of children on the streets of Derry and Belfast barely features.

Then again, this may be just the first salvo. If we’re lucky, Fr. McManus may be saving some of those stories for part II, and, fingers crossed, part III, of his memoirs.

“My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland” is published in Ireland by The Collins Press and is available on from the Irish National Caucus–which is the only way to get a signed copy.

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