February 25, 1996 in Nation/World

The Life And Death Of An Ira ‘Sleeper’ His Family Learned The Truth Only After Bomb Exploded

Shawn Pogatchnik Associated Press
 

He was a classic “sleeper,” recruited by the Irish Republican Army, positioned in workaday London, and suspected by no one until the bomb he was carrying exploded.

British and Irish anti-terrorist police knew little about him. His parents and younger sister and brother had no idea he worked for the IRA.

Edward O’Brien’s family learned the truth only after he died in the blast aboard a London double-decker bus last Sunday, and an IRA “welfare officer” came to the family home to reveal he was one of theirs.

The bomb apparently blew up before it was supposed to, part of some botched operation whose real target is known only to the IRA, which broke its 17-month-old cease-fire on Feb. 9.

On Friday, British police found bomb-making equipment buried in the garden of the two-story house where O’Brien lived in the south London suburb of Lewisham. Bomb-making equipment was also found Tuesday under the floorboards.

Shocked by the carnage, O’Brien’s family offered “their deep-felt sorrow” for the nine people injured by the bomb and bluntly condemned “all paramilitary organizations” in Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict.

They also told the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party, which normally presides over funerals for IRA men with republican pomp and anti-British rhetoric, to stay away.

The decision is widely supported in Gorey, where the story of the 21-year-old local boy left citizens stunned.

“Ed was used by the IRA. They sent him to his death,” said the Rev. Walter Forde, parish priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gorey. He will officiate at the funeral of his former altar boy once O’Brien’s remains are positively identified in London and returned home.

“People here are shocked at what he evidently was doing. We would remember him as a lad before he went away. He was a wholesome kid - open-faced, strong, very athletic, independentminded, fairly quiet,” Forde said.

“A lot of people, they’re absolutely revolted by the fact that these evil, depraved IRA godfathers can recruit impressionable young Irish people into (committing) appalling acts of violence.”

Gorey, population 3,500, lies midway on the Dublin-Wexford road on Ireland’s flat southeast County Wexford coast. Like all of southern Ireland it is predominantly Catholic but also has Church of Ireland and Methodist congregations.

Gorey was once a battleground between rebels and loyalists to British rule. It was a garrison town in 1798 when the Catholic peasantry rose under the direction of a priest and marched into Gorey with green flags marked “liberty or death.”

The rebels soon were slain by the hundreds in the hills and fields around Gorey, and the retreating survivors burned the town.

But the era of “Rebel Wexford” is a romanticized memory. Today, its port of Rosslare brings constant ferry tourist traffic from Britain and beyond.

More people in this corner of Ireland have been to England than to Northern Ireland. They watch English soccer and soap operas on satellite and cable TV and keep in touch with relatives who have settled across the water. Less than 2 percent vote for Sinn Fein.

People are sour that Gorey’s privacy has been violated and their town smeared in the British tabloid press as an IRA hotbed. The O’Briens are a respected part of the community. Miley O’Brien is unemployed; his wife collects clothes and food for a Bosnian relief charity and is housekeeper for a local police officer; daughter Lorraine is 20 and unemployed; Gary, 14, is still at school.

Questions from an outsider - in the hardware store, outside the police station, in pubs and shops on the Market Square - get mostly frowns and uncomprehending headshakes.

“People are naturally shocked. They grieve for the O’Brien family, and they’re disgusted at the circumstances,” said Kyran Brennan, owner of a popular pub. “People just wouldn’t want to say what they really think, and it’s no one’s business anyway.”

As a teenager O’Brien was an enthusiast for boxing and hurling, the rough Irish version of field hockey, at St. Enda’s Gaelic Athletic Association in Gorey. He dropped out of the local Christian Brothers boys school at 15 and went to work in the local bakery.

The Irish Times quoted an unidentified police source Friday as saying that young O’Brien was hot-headed and that he had lived with his grandmother for a time after falling out with his father.

The newspaper also said O’Brien had sold copies of An Phoblacht-Republican News, the Sinn FeinIRA weekly newspaper a starting point for some would-be IRA members.

About two years ago, like many young Irish people, he went across the Irish Sea looking for work. He had come home occasionally but brought no new friends with him.

“The Irish people have no time for the IRA,” said John Stafford, a local farmer. “What that boy was doing - it’s a terrible shame he died of course, but there was another totally innocent Irish fella wounded by that bomb.

“That’s the sad reality. Most Irish and English people just want to live and earn their crust together. They don’t want all these bombs dividing us.”

O’Brien’s neighbors for the past three months in London said they rarely saw him go in or out. The owner of the corner shop said O’Brien seemed too “baby-faced” to be a bomber.

“He used to come into the shop, buy his cigarettes, and go out immediately. He was very, very quiet and never said a word,” said shopkeeper Ramesh Patel, who thought O’Brien looked about 16. “Most customers say ‘Hello’ or ‘Have a nice day,’ but he seemed very unfriendly.”

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