Son of a Gun

I was 13 years old the first time I met a gunrunner. Since he was also the first Jew that I had ever met, that was the identity that stuck - stories of gunrunners were then ten a penny among Father's cronies of the Old IRA.

Thomas O'Dwyer
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Thomas O'Dwyer

I was 13 years old the first time I met a gunrunner. Since he was also the first Jew that I had ever met, that was the identity that stuck - stories of gunrunners were then ten a penny among Father's cronies of the Old IRA. Bob Briscoe was an Irish and Jewish gunrunner, and a hero because of it, and the memory of meeting him came flooding back to illuminate the veil of indignant hypocrisy hovering over all the blustering and babbling about the capture of the "ship of terror" last week.

This greatest military operation since the rescue at Entebbe, and greatest national endeavor since the parting of the Red Sea, failed inexplicably to rouse the righteous indignation of a universe apparently unmoved by the imminent threat to galactic civilization. These deluded foreign fools (anti-Semites one and all) apparently find it unremarkable that a nation under siege and brutal occupation - for no apparent reason other than the bloody-mindedness and land greed of the occupying superpower - try to smuggle in arms from time to time.

In the history of occupations, it has been a singularly commonplace occupation of the occupied - as the Jewish state should well remember. Occupied countries like Algeria, Cyprus, and Mandate Palestine did it all the time. The Irish were the world's most incorrigible arms smugglers in the struggle for independence.

Maybe the story of the Karine A just wasn't startling news. After all, the Palestinians are in a fight for independence from Israel, just like Jews were in a fight for independence against Britain not too many years ago - as aging hypocrites like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir, and the other old gunrunning nationalists know only too well.

The contempt of the international diplomatic community in Israel for the cynical timing and inept presentation of the arms ship story was undisguised this week. "The usual circus performance for Zinni," one European envoy told me. "If they were tracking this ship for months, why didn't Sharon do something really clever and ask the U.S. Navy to intercept it in the Strait of Hormuz as it was about to leave the Gulf with the arms? The Americans could have done so in the context of the war on terror, and they would have handled the publicity much more skillfully, and maybe even have delivered Israel a free propaganda coup."

This envoy had politely declined the government's kind invitation to "freeze my butt off in Eilat while officials babbled at us in Hebrew," but his report home on the stage-managed fiasco was no less scathing than the rest.

The star of the whole show was probably the affable captain of the "ship of terror," Omar Akawi. His frank and relaxed interview with the television stations and Reuters from his unenviable position in Ashkelon jail reminded me once again of Bob Briscoe's accounts of his daring gunrunning for the IRA and later for the Irgun, before he settled down to a respectable job as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956. Make no mistake - the gunrunning of the Karine A and others like it will one day enter the folklore of how the State of Palestine struggled for its freedom.

"A nation in desperation will find its ways," Briscoe later wrote. He described the curfews and closures on the Irish people in 1919 and 1920 that drove him willingly into the fight for Irish freedom alongside Michael Collins - the man whose name Yitzhak Shamir later adopted as an underground nom de guerre. "Frightfulness was their official policy," Briscoe wrote of the British occupation, as it is of the Israeli one.

"As the citizens go to bed, the barracks spring to life," Briscoe recalled. "Tanks and searchlight cars muster in fleets, lists of `objectives' are distributed. Through the dark curfewed streets the weird cavalcades issue forth to attack. The `objectives' for the most part appear to be held by women and children. Thunder of knocks on their doors and in charge the soldiers in full war kit. No warrant shown on entering; no apology on leaving when, in nine cases out of ten, suspicions proved groundless."

In the midst of the brutality, Collins summoned Briscoe, "our blessed jewman," (unlike the wretched Zvi Hendel MK today, Collins could then use the term with affection for the only Jew of senior rank in the IRA.) He dispatched Briscoe to Germany, with the cover of a Galway wool merchant and the swashbuckling operational name of Captain Swift, to buy arms. "From a secret underground of German ex-naval officers called Orgesh, I bought large quantities of automatic pistols called Peter the Painters and Parabellums, and variants with detachable stocks that converted them to small rifles, as well as considerable quantities of ammunition," wrote Briscoe.

When the arms had piled up in a Hamburg warehouse, Briscoe bought an old tramp steamer, the Karl Marx, and a seagoing tugboat, the Frieda. He loaded the Karl Marx with cement and had the Frieda tow it out to sea where it sailed north and south and north again shadowed by the suspicious Royal Navy. Meanwhile the arms-laden little Frieda slipped away and made a daring and successful run to Waterford.

Briscoe also ran the City of Dortmund, to and from German ports, with an all-IRA crew. In one of his finest operations, just before a peace treaty was agreed with Britain, Briscoe landed a haul of machine guns and a million rounds of ammunition in Ireland from the gunrunning ship Hannah.

Briscoe was always more reticent about his work for the Irgun. He became an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism after meeting Vladimir Jabotinsky when he visited Ireland to study the tactics of the IRA against the British and was fully briefed by Briscoe: "I appointed myself to a full professorship with the Chair of Subversive Activity against England." During the war he went to South Africa and raise considerable funds from its Jewish community to help ferry Jewish immigrants past the British and into Palestine.

But he conceded laconically: "Most of the immigrant work was organized by the Haganah. I naturally was drawn to the Irgun."

But after the sinking of the Irgun's gun-running ship, the Altalena, in Tel Aviv, Briscoe became horrified at the prospect of a Jewish civil war, like he had witnessed in Ireland. At a meeting with Menachem Begin in Paris, he urged Begin to abandon the Irgun as a physical force movement and convert it to a constitutional party, as the IRA had done.

In 1950, this old son of a gun traveled to Israel with President Eamonn De Valera, who had become his close friend. De Valera was impressed with Israel's progress but disturbed by the plight of the Arab refugees. And so was Briscoe - IRA man, Irgun man, Collins man, Jabotinsky man, Zionist, Irish nationalist and gunrunner. "De Valera sympathized with the Arab people in their hopes for independence and prosperity," he wrote. "So do I. I want to see all people this way - a world where every human being is of equal dignity and equal importance."

Too bad. Fifty-two years later, Mr. I Have Defeated Terror is still too busy listening to his own stupid propaganda.