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An Irish Journalist Looks Inside the IRA

`THE IRA: A History'' will tell many readers more than they wanted to know about the illegal Irish Republican Army. But those who stick with Tim Pat Coogan, a Dublin journalist and author of a well-regarded biography of Michael Collins, hero of Irish independence, will be rewarded with great insights into an organization that has waged one of the longest-running guerrilla (or terrorist) campaigns.

For all the smallness of the Emerald Isle, its two ``communities,'' Roman Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist, have managed to find all kinds of room in which to talk past each other, and thus Coogan's book, the first American edition of a work published in the United Kingdom in 1969, is welcome.

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Coogan's point of view might be described as intelligently sympathetic. He is too well informed to be an apologist for the IRA, but he understands the motivations and the frustrations that entice young men into its ranks. He also conveys the moral ambiguities of a situation where many Catholics under British rule in the North feel pushed into complicity with ``Republican activities.''

He clearly sees Britain as part of the problem, not part of the solution - and also not a neutral party. His proposed answer to the troubles will be anathema to many, especially given the tough going UN-engineered peace programs have had lately: He calls for a United Nations solution, supported by the United States and the European Union, to the troubles in Northern Ireland.

For all Ireland's ``ancientness'' the modern state of Ireland, and its predecessor, the Irish Free State, go back to a period still within living memory: The Easter Rising occurred in 1916, at the General Post Office on O'Connell Street (still very much in use as Dublin's main post office). The first part of the book is based on Coogan's extensive interviews with IRA members - oral history, as it were - and the second, covering from 1969 onward, draws on his own reporting experience.

As a research project, it is impressive. Yet one might say that he shows the mosaic tile by tile when he might have done better to step back and give the larger picture. The struggles in Ireland have been not major engagements as in a conventional war, but a bombing here, an attack on a police barracks there, and Coogan seems to detail every one of them since 1916.

Some of this detail would be amusing if it weren't so close to tragedy; the IRA in its early days had a touch of the Keystone Kops about it. Coogan tells of IRA volunteers traveling (by public bus) supposedly under cover, to a ``top-secret'' training session and having no better sense than to burst into an old IRA marching song that immediately gave them away to the police.

More useful, though, are the broader themes outlined, generally at the start of each chapter: the effects, for instance, of the parochial (in both senses) educational system in the early days of the Irish Republic, which, by teaching contemporary Irish history not at all, and European history before 1916 only selectively, left young Catholics without a clue as to the religious component in unionists' desire to remain within the United Kingdom.

Coogan shows how essentially reactive an organization the IRA is, how it has never offered real alternatives, whether to British rule or to the Dublin government, which it has also historically opposed for accepting Ireland's partition.

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Perhaps because the book was rushed into print in order to capitalize on interest generated by the recent developments in the Irish story, ``The IRA'' is riddled with typographical errors and copy-editing faults.

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