Faith Matters

Terrorist, spy, prisoner, truth-teller

When Sean O'Callaghan joined the IRA, nationalism was his religion. Later he saw how it poisoned his soul.

I did something new not long ago. In my prayers at a memorial service, I remembered not just the deceased, his children, and friends but also the two people he murdered.

Here was a man who bore in his own body the sins of his country, what had been done and left undone. Here was a ser­vice that constituted a prayer that the country of his birth find a future bigger than its past. Here were leaders of that country, past and present, gathered to respect a man who had the courage, dignity, and humility to change his mind.

Seán O’Callaghan was born in Ireland and grew up understanding nationalism as a religion and terrorism as an act of devotion. He joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army as a teenager and soon had two conquests to his name, a police officer and a reservist soldier. After learning of a policewoman’s death, Seán heard a top IRA officer say, “I hope she’s pregnant and we get two for the price of one.” That was the decisive moment—the telling judgment. Seán recognized this was no noble contest, but a squalid sectarian war.