28 August 2003 Edition
John Bowyer Bell, an appreciation
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
There were certain givens about an encounter with John Bowyer Bell, the writer, political scientist and artist who died in New York this week. It was a given that Bowyer Bell, or 'Bo' as his friends called him, would do most of the talking. It was a given that he would dismiss your opinions, no matter how strongly held, or reject your analysis several times in the course of the meeting, always in favour of his own unique worldview.
It was also a given that you would learn something new, that he would be the most excellent company and that the time would fly. It was guaranteed that the content of your discussions would be wide ranging, covering not just the minutiae of Irish or British politics but stretching to a far wider canvas, covering the United States, any developing state you dared to mention and any conspiracy theory, no matter how tenuous.
Apart from his skills at holding court, often in the bar and lobby of Dublin's Central Hotel, Bowyer Bell found time to be a prolific author and artist. In Ireland he is known for his six books on the conflict here, but few republicans knew that he was internationally acclaimed for his books on other conflicts such as Terror out of Zion, On Revolt, and the Myth of the Guerrilla. Last December, Bo's final book was published and is titled Murders on the Nile, The World Trade Center and Global Terror.
Bowyer Bell's work on Ireland is head and shoulders above other writers on the conflict here. His scholarly work stands out, especially when compared to the shelves of Irish bookstores filled with the tawdry ramblings of informers, disgruntled British agents and journalistic rush jobs.
Bell's first work on Ireland, published in 1972, was titled The Secret Army. It was a history of the IRA from 1916 to 1970. Later editions updated the work, culminating in 2001 with the publication of The IRA, 1968-2000: Analysis of a Secret Army. Along the way, Bowyer Bell also wrote The Gun in Irish Politics, An analysis of Irish Political conflict 1916 to 1986, Back to the Future, the Protestants and a United Ireland, IRA Tactics and Targets as well as a book on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings titled In Dubious Battle. Perhaps his best work was The Irish Troubles.
The Troubles book is a seminal tome and shows the Bowyer Bell analysis at its best. As a political scientist he was constantly refining his investigations. The Republican Movement he encountered in the late 1960s was a rapidly changing one over the next 30 years and Bo's work captures this transgenerational conflict better than any other writer.
His work shows up particularly the failure of Irish academia to produce any writer who matches the depth and quality of his work on the conflict in Ireland. The other prolific writers such as Tim Pat Coogan, Paul Bew and the emerging Richard English have much to do to match the scale achieved by Bowyer Bell.
One of the most overlooked of Bo's many talents was his skill as a writer. All of his work was immediately accessible, driven by clear crisp narrative that sped the reader to understanding.
It came as a surprise that Bowyer Bell's artwork was steeped in the abstract tradition. It was not obvious, though it did command your attention and was always compelling.
Bowyer Bell never planed to write one book about Ireland, not to mention six. He never planned that Ireland, its landscape and people would cast a spell with such long shadows on his work. He travelled here nearly every summer and in the 1980s married an Irish Kerry woman, Nora Browne. He made and maintained many friendships here.
One of Bo's repeated quips was that he had attended more meetings, functions, and marches than most republican activists and he had been studying the IRA for more years than most Volunteers had been members. This was probably true, but what it did show was how much he had immersed himself in his work.
Another 'Boism' - "If you want an open society, you have to put up with the chaos" - was a reflection of the intellectual engine that pulled him not just to Ireland but also to Africa and the Middle East in his work, and drove him back to a never ending attempt to write and in later years paint the chaos as he saw it.
The end result is that Bowyer Bell has set a benchmark for conflict studies and particularly conflict study in Ireland. He will be missed, and this week our thoughts are with his wife Norah and his many friends in Ireland and abroad.