Current Affairs Politics

Paul Theroux And The Boston Bombing

Pat Finucane Irish human rights lawyer assassinated by British state-sponsored terrorists
A memorial to Pat Finucane, the Irish human rights lawyer assassinated by British state-sponsored terrorists in the Occupied North of Ireland, 1989

On the 16th of May 2013 the Daily Beast published an article by the Massachusetts-born travel writer and author Paul Theroux where he expressed his views on the terrorist attack in the city of Boston on April 15th.

“For several decades, starting in the early 1970s, I traveled regularly from London, where I lived as a resident alien, to Boston, where I grew up, and each time it was like a tumble through the Looking Glass.

Arriving in Boston was like landing upon the bosom of serenity from the derangement of a war zone. Britain at that time was in the grip of a bombing campaign by well-funded and feuding nationalists in Ulster, who were driven by spite, folklorism, and religious bigotry and were tribalistic in their antique grudges, absurd in their speechifying.

London was weary and anxious, and by the mid-1970s there had been a number of bomb outrages…

The astonishing fact is that these unspeakable events in England were not as hideous as the everyday horrors in Ulster. Belfast was full of no-go areas and bomb craters throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and the mildest country town was not spared.

Boston seemed innocent of the terror, or else conniving in it, making a conscious political statement, to the extent that one of the notable features on Boston roads were the bumper stickers supporting the IRA. It is well documented that a portion of the money collected in the U.S. by Noraid (the Irish Northern Aid Committee) was used to support the IRA bombing campaigns, and in another grotesque irony, some of the money used to buy weapons from the U.S. came from Libyan bagmen sent by Muammar Gaddafi, as one of the colonel’s many hobbies was the propagation of mayhem.


Boston did not deserve this—no city does—and it is lamentable that Boston has come to resemble the wider world of wreckage and bereavement.”

Several points immediately spring out from this opinion piece. Firstly Theroux very deliberately ignores the actions of the British Forces, military and paramilitary, during the four decades of the conflict in the north-east of Ireland. He presents the war as entirely originating with the Irish Republican Army and driven by that guerilla force without any explanation of its origins and how it rose as a response to Britain’s colonial presence in Ireland. The shrunken British colony on the island of Ireland that was the brutal Apartheid-state of “Northern Ireland” is completely glossed over.

Joint footpatrol of British UDA terrorists and British Army soldiers
Joint footpatrol of British UDA terrorists and British Army soldiers, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1970s

Indeed the existence of the separatist British Unionist minority in the country is barely hinted at nor are the terrorist factions that existed within that community, violent groupings that sparked the conflict in the mid-1960s. One wonders if Theroux makes little reference to these British terrorist organisations because he and we now know (thanks to the efforts of numerous journalists and several official enquiries) that those terror gangs were integral to Britain’s counter-insurgency war in Ireland? Would he prefer that American readers were unaware of the existence of British terrorist groups on the island of Ireland that were organised, financed, armed and fed intelligence information by the British government or that such groupings contained significant numbers of serving or former British soldiers and paramilitary police officers, not to mention agents of Military Intelligence and MI5?

What about the largest and most notorious British terror faction, the Ulster Defence Association or UDA? Remarkably under Britain’s jurisdiction this was a legal terrorist organisation. Yes, you did read that right. The UDA, a terror faction responsible for the murder and maiming of hundreds of Irish men, women and children, was a legal terrorist organisation in the North of Ireland and in Britain for over twenty years. This of course was not at all unrelated to the fact that in the mid-1980s a quarter of the UDA’s membership was made up of serving or ex-soldiers and police officers and that two-thirds of the leadership were agents of various British Intelligence services, including the notorious Force Research Unit.

Another obvious point is Paul Theroux’s apparent comparison between the conflict in the north-east of Ireland, and Irish-America’s support for a just and lasting peace in the country, and the unwarranted attack on the Boston marathon that was carried out with the purposeful intent of inflicting civilian casualties. Is he in effect stating that what goes around comes around? That this is some sort of circuitous – and frankly grotesque – way of saying to the people of Boston: well, back in the 1970s to 1990s some of you supported the Irish Republican Army and the slowly evolving Peace Process in Ireland therefore this is what it feels like to be involved in a guerilla conflict. And deservedly so?

James Cromie murdered by British state-controlled terrorists in the McGurk Bar Bombing
13 year-old Irish child James Cromie murdered by British state-controlled terrorists in the McGurk Bar Bombing, Belfast, Ireland, 1971

I didn’t comment or draw attention to Paul Theroux’s original article when I first read it as I thought it to be something of an aberration. However not content with that obvious case of adding insult to injury he has now expressed similar views again, this time in a question-and-answer session with the National Geographic magazine:

You’ve spent your career traveling to some troubled places—Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, and others—and you’re also a native of Boston. How have your travels influenced the way you view those terror attacks in your hometown?

We need to remember the past. There were communities in Boston that supported the IRA in Northern Ireland. They were very sentimental about the Irish. They thought the Irish were fighting for their freedom, that’s the way it was put: The IRA were freedom fighters. They were fighting against the Protestants and the British soldiers. And the method that the IRA used in Northern Ireland and in England was the nail bomb.

I lived in England for 18 years. What happened in Boston on that horrible marathon day was a very common occurrence in Belfast, even in London.

And no one in Boston condemned it. And when Gerry Adams [the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA] came to Boston, he was marched around like a conquering hero.

The idea that our people are chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” because a punk has been cornered and another one killed isn’t really reason for rejoicing. Go see what’s happened in the past, how other people have suffered. What the Tsarnaev brothers did was grotesque and appalling. But I lived in England when this was a common occurrence, and there was no sympathy from Boston.”

Good lord. Here is a man, a respected American author and commentator, who seems to be taking something akin to satisfaction in viewing the suffering of the people of Boston as the result of a terrorist outrage. Who seems to believe that it was some sort of retributive justice visited upon the many citizens in Boston who in times past opposed Britain’s war in Ireland. A dirty and squalid war that one presumes Theroux believes was quite justified and apparently not open to question or criticism.

One is prompted to ask: how is Paul Theroux in his stereotyping and misrepresentation of the Irish-American communities of Boston any different from the Islamic fundamentalists and their stereotyping and misrepresentation of the American people as a whole?

British troops pose with British Unionist terrorist symbols, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1990s
British troops pose with British Unionist terrorist symbols, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1990s

Finally, some facts for the causal American reader should they stumble across this article. Perhaps someone might be kind enough to forward them on to Mr. Theroux so that we can liberate him from his mental prison of Anglophile apologisms (or if one were being more uncharitable in thought, simple Hibernophobia).

The majority of causalities inflicted by the Irish Republican Army during the Northern War were members of the British military and paramilitary forces. Fact.

The majority of casualties inflicted by the British military and paramilitary forces during the Northern War were members of the Irish civilian population. Fact.

So if the killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism who were the terrorists during the war in the North of Ireland?

Please follow the link for more on Ireland’s British Troubles.

15 comments on “Paul Theroux And The Boston Bombing

  1. hoboroad

    Noraid never raised more than 800,000 dollars a year. Sure it raised a lot of money during the early troubles and peaked during the Hunger Strikes. 5 million Dollars over 30 years is not much considering the IRA according to British Security sources cost 15-20 million pounds a year to run. They say large parts of the IRA were self financing especially the South Armagh Brigade.


    • Indeed. The US Dept. of Justice released documents in the early 2000s that placed the total donations raised by NORAID in the United States between 1970 and 1999 as $4 million dollars. Roughly a quarter (or less) of the Irish Republican Army’s annual military budget during that same period. And as we know almost every single cent was followed from source to destination by US officials during that period. In total the US government was unable to account for a total $60,000 dollars out of the $4 million collected over thirty years. A margin they judged at the level of accountancy errors.


  2. Bostonian

    A superb and challenging article by Theroux, raising a number of points that do not require him to provide an entire history or balancing account of the troubles in Ireland – although it does seem he is (correctly) using the term “nationalists” to apply to both sides.
    By contrast you sound like an angry lunatic, massively over-reacting to a piece that has not met your absolutist’s standards. You even say “What about.”


    • I’m sorry but I must disagree with the points you make. Theroux’s piece was gratuitously partisan, clearly motivated by his political views, completely devoid of any context or history, and grossly misrepresenting the people of the city of Boston and its Irish-American communities in particular. The truth is that Theroux engages in the same stereotyping and vilification of Boston’s Irish-American population that Islamic fundamentalists engage with in relation to the American population as a whole. His claims are palpably untrue and simply repeat the same propagandistic nonsense issued by the right-wing media in Britain over the last four decades (or indeed from the mid-1800s).

      Since I ignored Theroux’s original spouting of these spurious comparisons in the Daily Beast I can hardly be accused of overreacting. It was the repetition of the falsehoods that drew my disgust and led me to write the above response.

      “What about” has a purpose when someone completely misrepresents history to suit their own slanted view. Especially when the facts presented after the “What about” places that misrepresentation in its true light. When such opinions stem from a person generally held in high regard and of some influence then the falsehoods need to be questioned all the more. I make no apologies for that.

      When people die, when lives are taken and others are damaged through violence, then absolutist standards are the least one can expect from those who chose to comment.


      • I Wonder why did the IRA bomb civilian targets when it wasn’t in their interests to do so a la birmingham, canary wharf, warrington, la mon, teebane, claudy and enniskillen when it shows up any belief it was only military targets doesn’t add up. Iv’e no sympathy one iota for the british but it doesn’t mean everything the IRA did was correct.If you wrote about this before then point me to it and can I get your take on the Jean McConville story. Was she informing for the british?


        • I’m certainly not arguing that the Irish Republican Army targeted British military and paramilitary personnel or installations only, or their allied terrorist organisations. I readily admit that civilian infrastructures in the north-east of Ireland and in Britain were targeted too, sometimes with “collateral damage” (to use that dreadful phrase popularised by the British and American militaries during the bombing of Iraq and elsewhere) i.e. civilian deaths and injuries incurred while attacking military or other targets. The Irish Republican Army was occasionally reckless in the targeting of commercial enterprises, communication links, energy links, etc. as well as the British Occupation Forces and that was where the majority of civilian casualties occurred. The reason why people can ream off specific attacks that resulted in mass civilian deaths was because such atrocities were, over the course of 30 years, relatively few and far between.

          That said, it does not lessen the effect of such attacks nor detract from their terrible nature. There were times when Volunteers or Active Service Units of the Irish Republican Army engaged in “war crimes” and I have no hesitation in stating so. The people behind such mass murders as the Kingsmill Massacre were war criminals. Whether they were members of the IRA or INLA or unaligned it does not matter. Likewise the use of “human proxy bombs” could in no way be justified. It was simply barbaric.

          I would point out that such things must be measured against the deliberate (and acknowledged) use of “human shields” by the British Forces through the construction of military bases and posts (sangers/bunkers/silos) in the middle of densely populated civilian housing estates. Not to mention the greater percentage of civilian deaths caused by the British Forces in the casualty lists for deaths inflicted by the British.

          However two wrongs do not make a right.

          The death of Jean McConville is another matter which I can address later if you wish.


          • yeah that would be good to address McConvilles death later


  3. I find it extraordinary that Seamas accuses someone else of being propagandistic, when his entire blog, particularly in relation to events in Northern Ireland during the “conflict”, is entirely composed of propaganda in favour of P.I.R.A..
    Seamas asks the perfectly valid question “if the killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, who were the terrorists during the war in the North of Ireland?” During this “war” P.I.R.A. killed a total of 1,768 people, of whom 639 were civilians. The British Army killed a total of 301 people, of whom 158 were civilians (138 Catholics, 20 Protestants). Now, I’m not excusing the killing of civilians by the British army, it was completely reprehensible and there should have been prosecutions, but using Seamas’s own criteria, perhaps he can answer his own question.
    As someone who lived right through “the troubles” I find it particularly offensive that the killing of 639 people should be described as almost incidental, or as “few and far between,” it was a very large proportion of the Provos total and a significant proportion of the just over 3,700 total deaths during “the troubles.” And no, I don’t expect photos, or sympathetic articles about any of these people to appear on this blog. If you support a Paramilitary group and share their dogma, then you will always make excuses for them, just as others will always support state forces no matter what they do.
    The overall statistics of the “troubles” are also revealing ; Republicans killed 57.8% of those who died, Loyalists 29.9% and the combined State forces (including those of the Irish State) 9.9%. A few deaths were unattributed. As a peaceful veteran of the troubles, their legacy has left me with nothing but contempt for paramilitary organisations from both sides of our community. They made no positive contribution to our society : they left us with a community, particularly a working class, which is more segregated and ghettoised than at any time in our history. The real heroes of the Northern Ireland “conflict” were the ordinary people, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, who had this “conflict” imposed on them against their will and yet managed to preserve common decency and morality in the face of so much savagery.
    The statistics are taken from : ” Lost Lives : The men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles,” by McKittrick, Kelters, Feeney, Thornton and McVea. Anyone who thinks there was anything romantic about “The troubles” should get a copy and be appalled at the squalor, cruelty and pointlessness of it all.


    • As regular readers of the blog will know I have written a number of articles critical of the military and other actions of the Irish Republican Army during the Northern War. In particular I have publicly stated my belief not just here but elsewhere that Volunteers and Units of the Republican Army engaged in acts that amounted to war crimes and that both the individuals responsible and the Army as a whole must be held answerable for those crimes.

      I have examined the broad military campaign of the Irish Republican Army, its operations and actions, and presented the sternest criticism. I am in no doubt of the reality of the “armed struggle”, nor of the organisational culture of the IRA when at its most base and frankly barbaric. Many active Irish Republicans had no hesitation in expressing their revulsion at certain actions by the Army or the inhumanity, corruption and ill-discipline of some in positions of responsibility. I may have been too young to remember Claudy or Kingsmill but I was there for Teebane and Enniskillen. The names of Patsy Gillespie and several others stay with me as does the shame their deaths brought.

      I don’t want to get into a frankly callous debate over percentages but using the casualty lists from CAIN’s Index of Deaths one arrives at these figures:

      Deaths caused by the Republican Forces (PIRA, OIRA, INLA, etc.):
      52% British Forces
      35% Civilians
      11.7% Paramilitaries/Insurgents
      0.4% the Irish security forces

      In contrast the allied forces of the British counter-insurgency campaign, military, paramilitary and terrorist, show a marked preponderance for killing civilians:

      Deaths caused by the British Forces (BA, UDR, RIR, RUC, etc.):
      51.5% Civilians
      44.8% Paramilitaries/Insurgents
      3.5% British Forces

      Deaths caused by allied British Terrorists (UDA, UFF, UVF, LVF, RHC, etc.):
      85.4% Civilians
      9% British Terrorists
      4% Republican Forces
      1.3% British Forces

      If my words gave rise to the misapprehension that I regarded civilian fatalities as “incidental” then I apologise. They most certainly were not. However an annual average of 20 civilian deaths a year for 30 years caused deliberately or accidentally by the Irish Republican Army in the middle of a sustained insurgent and counter-insurgent war shows the conflict in its true light.

      Do you wish to compare that to the number of civilians Britain has killed in Afghanistan in 13 years of warfare? Out of 20,000 civilian fatalities how many died deliberately or accidentally through British operations? Or to take 10 years of war in Iraq what number of the 120,000 civilian fatalities was caused by the British Forces?

      However trading statistics is somewhat unseemly given the human cost involved on all sides and you’ll excuse me if I stop now.

      I too lived through the “Troubles” or do you believe they were confined solely to the north-east of Ireland? That they did not effect other parts of the country or that there were citizens from other parts of Ireland that did not have a stake in their outcome?

      There is no romance in war. On that I agree with you. Nor is there any romance in vilifying or misrepresenting communities whose political views you disagree with. As Theroux did with the people of Boston.


  4. Tom Breen

    It’s telling that Theroux, who masquerades as an enlightened observer of diverse cultures, uses loaded terms like “folklorism” (not actually a word, but never mind) and “tribalistic” to describe a conflict better explained in terms of modern political ideology. But the notion that the IRA were motivated by “antique grudges” rather than coherent political objectives would disrupt his narrative of the Irish as primitive and bloodthirsty and deserving of a karmic retribution, years after the end of the war in Ireland, in the form of a bomb that killed not a single Irish-American. Travel writing is often a sort of soft colonialism, and no one embodies that more than Theroux.


    • Mekonged

      Just a quick appraisal of his background on Wikipedia had me considering his ‘lickspittel’ to the London Establishment view, on the IRishAmerican bloc and ‘primitivism’ of Gaels in general, was maybe a result of an inferiority complex. Marginalised French-Canadian and Italian. His hero VS Naipaul maybe had similiar complexes when in the presence of WASPs and English Toffs…..Anyway could expand greatly, but he’s married now to a lady, nee Donnelly. It’s a Tyrone name, and their ancestral home is that castle in Caufield village just outside of Dungannon. After being dispossessed many of the Donnelly clan moved to Galbally/Cappagh. Now unlike Theroux, I’d suggest these Gaels, that were forced from their land along with the majority of the 40% Irish that make up Boston, always disdained the tendency to ‘doff the cap’. And the narrative that the Irish ‘freedom fighters’ were cowardly sectarian murderers of civilians in the cause of ‘folklorism’. Well maybe Paul Theroux should search his life-time of experience and ask if this is true Why would the British military/political establishment deny the fact that two SAS soldiers died in action as they set up an operation to kill local Gaels in Cappagh 1991….. Yea Theroux, I know its easier to paint the ethnicity that are ‘the spine’ of Boston as cowards than intellectually and bravely digress from deceitful English propaganda at a Kennsington dinner party.


    • I think that “karmic retribution” is an excellent phrase and sums up the twisted logic driving Theroux’s schadenfreude. Unfortunately his over-zealous anglophilia has got the better of him. Again.


  5. If it is okay for the USA WAR MACHINE TO MURDER CIVILIANS, THEN IT IS RIGHT AND PROPER FOR al Qaeda to repay the favour in the USA.


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