In the 1970s, the Provisional IRA was in the early days of its armed campaign to end British rule on the island of Ireland. In the United States, a small group of activists began organising on their behalf. They called themselves the Irish Northern Aid Committee, or Noraid—and they were looking for a fight.
Hosted by documentary filmmaker Nate Lavey, Foreign Agent is a podcast series about the connection between ordinary Irish Americans and a revolutionary socialist guerrilla group. In six episodes, travelling back and forth across the Atlantic over three decades of conflict, Foreign Agent explores how regular Americans became militant advocates for the cause of Irish freedom.
It’s a story of guns smuggled in furniture and wild plots to build homemade missiles. But it’s also about the political and material power that the Irish American community wielded, and how the intoxicating spell of nationalism created a movement out of seemingly irreconcilable social and political positions. And at every step of the way, the US government tried to shut them down. This is the story of the Troubles—as seen through American eyes.
When six suitcases full of guns are discovered on an Irish dock in 1971, suspicion falls on a newly founded organisation of Irish Americans known as Noraid. For nearly 30 years, the US, British and Irish governments accused the group of being a front for the Provisional IRA and of funnelling weapons and cash from the pockets of Irish America to the coffers of the socialist guerillas. But could they prove it?
In episode one of Foreign Agent, host Nate Lavey explains how militant Irish nationalism took hold in the bars and social clubs of the Irish American diaspora, and recounts how the appearance of an iconic American rifle on the streets of Belfast led to a courtroom drama in Texas, ending in embarrassment for the American and British governments.
The New World and the Old Country
In 1927, the Irish republican Michael Flannery emigrated from the quiet backroads of Tipperary to the crowded streets of New York City, swapping a life of rebellion for a humdrum career in life insurance. But the Irish American community hadn’t forgotten about the old country, and as the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, Flannery found himself at the heart of the campaign to end British rule.
In episode two of Foreign Agent, Flannery’s life story unravels the roots of anti-colonial struggle in Ireland and how the Irish became white in America. We trace the history of Noraid, the organisation he helped to found, and the political tensions threatening to rupture the republican movement.
Agents of the State
After Bloody Sunday in 1972, Irish Northern Aid saw its power, influence and donations increase dramatically – but a higher profile brought new enemies. Secretly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned its sights on Noraid: auditing their books, cultivating informers and staking out meetings. On the public stage, Irish American politicians like Ted Kennedy, who had once wooed voters with their militant rhetoric against the British, began working to turn the community away from the IRA. An array of powerful actors had finally taken notice and were ready to clamp down. But Noraid had some moves of its own to make.
The IRA’s Technical Support
For over 100 years, Irish revolutionaries hoping to drive the British out of Ireland looked to the United States for money and support. They also looked across the Atlantic for new technology that might give them an advantage, including homemade surface-to-air missiles and even the world’s first modern submarine. In this bonus episode, we explore two cases — a century apart — which show just how far Irish republicans would go to take the war into the air and below the waves.
Lawyers, Guns and Money
For decades, a quiet armored truck driver living in Brooklyn ran thousands of guns to the IRA. He was born in Ireland and dedicated to the Republican cause. He was also a committed socialist, who believed the anti-imperial struggle in Ireland was connected to the struggle of African-Americans, Cubans and Vietnamese. When he wasn’t handing out flyers or walking the picket lines, he was running an international arms network which took weapons pilfered from US military bases and smuggled them to IRA volunteers.
But at the height of his success, a federal investigation forced him into the limelight. In the ensuing trial, Irish Republicans made him into a hero, but a question always lingered about his gun running: was the CIA in on it?
Our Day Will Come
As the Troubles dragged on, IRA volunteers at the Maze Prison decided to go on hunger strike in 1980 and 1981. Their decision would change everything for the IRA — and for Noraid. The protest garnered sympathy from around the world and sparked outrage in the Irish American community. Noraid rallied outside the British embassy, burned Margaret Thatcher in effigy, and made new in-roads with the American media.
After a decade of losing momentum, they were back on the streets and squaring off against the American, British and Irish governments. But a split was emerging between the armed campaign and the political wing of the movement. Should the future be decided by Armalite or the ballot box?
Hollywood and the IRA’s American Connection
Noraid has been portrayed on screen many times, usually in the background of stories about terrorism and gunrunning. While TV shows and movies like Columbo, Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own aren’t exactly high art, they do reveal how the class politics of Irish America were understood and misrepresented by Hollywood. In this bonus episode, Nate Lavey looks at on-screen IRA gunrunners and their federal agency enemies, as portrayed by the likes of Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt and Sean Bean.
One Last Job
By the 1990s, a faction of Irish republicans were turning away from militancy and setting their sights on peace. A political future for the campaign would require more money, more lobbying, and a deeper engagement with the United States – though not with Irish Northern Aid, now tainted by its long association with the IRA. Instead, Noraid was wound down, causing splits and divisions that linger to this day. Yet the IRA’s American support group has had a strange afterlife, as Nate Lavey investigates in the final episode of Foreign Agent. With the Good Friday Agreement in the rear view mirror, did Noraid help the IRA on one last job?
Nate Lavey is a documentary filmmaker and video journalist based in New York. He has covered social struggle in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, student uprisings in Quebec, and depleted nuclear production facilities in New York City. His first feature film, Those Who Heard and Those Who Saw, is about a network of internment camps that were built in Canada in the 1940s to imprison Jewish refugees.
Michael McCanne is a writer based in New York. His work has been published by Art in America, Jacobin, The New Inquiry, Boston Review, Jewish Currents, and Dissent. His first film A Minor Figure, a collaboration with Jamie Weiss, was selected to premiere as part of the 2021 edition of Documenta Madrid.
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