Sean O’Callaghan – RIP

It was about twenty years ago that I attended a meeting of the Crime Writers’ Association in a rather run-down little club in West London.

At the time I had published, I think, five novels. My main stories were the Templar series, based on a renegade Templar who escapes after the destruction of his Order, and I was gaining a certain audience. Even so, I always considered myself first and foremost a thriller writer rather than historian. It was just that my books happened to be set a few years in the past.

My very first novel was a thrilling story named “The Sniper”. It was a brilliant concept, with plenty of bombs, bullets, sex and drugs – so what’s not to like?

It was the first story I had accepted by a publisher, too. I won a marvelous agent, who corrected my more wild grammatical errors, told me where to tone things down, and pushed me into rewriting sections. It was a perfect case study in how to write (I hadn’t ever written anything before this, after all, and any help was gratefully received).

The result was an offer for the book from Bantam Press. I was cock-a-hoop for precisely two days, because that was how long the rejection letter took to arrive. My book was all about the IRA, and they had just agreed a cease-fire. My book was dropped like a ticking backpack.

I retained an interest in Ireland. It was always in my mind that I should return to the Troubles or other modern-day subjects – but my editors had already decided that I was to be an historian, and I was dissuaded from attempting another series away from my Templar crime novels.

When I was told that I could meet an IRA gentleman with teh CWA, I jumped at the chance, though. It would be fascinating, I felt sure, and I wanted to get my facts right.

That was how I met Sean O’Callaghan.

What was he like? He was not terribly tall, an amiable-looking man, slim, with a shock of greying hair, a smoker’s pallor and a twinkle in his eye. He spoke at length, standing leaning at the mantlepiece, speaking of his past, of Ireland’s history, and his part in the fight against the British, but most of all, about the men who ran the IRA. A short while afterwards I was mocked by a friend when we were talking about the IRA. My friend derided my comment that there were never more than a couple of hundred IRA actives. Sure, there were many more who were involved as teenagers, throwing stones at soldiers or police, occasionally flinging firebombs, but of actual, armed militants making bombs and conducting assassinations, according to Sean, they were very few indeed.

I mentioned the twinkle in his eye. He was a man with a  great propensity for humour. But after the meeting, there was more than one other crime writer who made a comment along the lines of, “He may have a twinkle in his eye, but he is a murderer.”

Yes, he was. And he did not try to hide the fact. As a teenager and youth he had been fired with a passion for Irish unification and hatred for the British. He saw the British as an imperialist nation that was determined to trample Irish ambitions for independence and keep the Irish a subject race.

However, as he grew older, he began to see a different side to things. He saw the cruelty and violence within the IRA: the punishment beatings, the knee-cappings; he saw the bank robberies, the drug-dealing, the gangster mentality. And he started to get appalled by the deaths. Once, he heard another IRA man make comment about getting “two with one”, when it was found that a murdered woman had been pregnant. Such callousness shocked him. He began to see that the fight was not a resistance movement, but a sectarian war, and one in which the leaders became very wealthy. It was an unnecessary conflict that hurt civilians more than anyone else, and he decided to try to stop the killings.

Sean spent four years in the IRA as a fighter against the British. But then he spent six more as an unpaid British agent inside the IRA, passing on essential intelligence that in the end helped stop the fighting. He was a murderer, and never tried to conceal his complicity in a number of killings. But he also tried to atone for those offences. In November 1988, he walked into the Police Station at Royal Tunbridge Wells and gave himself up, admitting to the murder of a police officer in the 1970s.

Years later, when I met him in the rather dingy club, he was living hand-to-mouth. He had spent several years in prison to pay for his murders, and was then in permanent hiding. He could not stay more than one night at a time at any address. He had lost his wife and contact with his family, but still he came to events to speak out against the IRA, and he published a book “The Informer”, which told the truth about his past, and about the men who remained.

Sean was an enormously brave man and, I felt, inspiring. I’m very sorry to hear that he has died.

I am grateful to Sean’s great friend and loyal supporter, Ruth Dudley-Edwards, for permission to quote the following:

“It’s beginning to hit the news that Sean O’Callaghan, the IRA killer who became an unpaid spy for the Gardai, has died. He drowned yesterday while swimming in a pool in Jamaica, where he was visiting his daughter. He was a man of exceptional ability and courage, and he spent most of his life finding ways of atoning for the crimes he had committed before at 20 he realised he was fighting in a squalid sectarian war rather than a resistance movement. He and I were very close friends for more than twenty years. And, like all his friends, I loved him very much and owe him a great deal for his insights, his wise advice, the depth of his knowledge of politics, history and the human condition.”

– Ruth Dudley-Edwards

2 Responses to “Sean O’Callaghan – RIP”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: