Mark Lenaghan was a teen-age gunman in an IRA assassination squad. Today, he teaches religion.
“You had only one job--to execute,” he says of his role in the Irish Republican Army’s campaign to force Britain out of Northern Ireland.
He graduated from leading an IRA “punishment squad” that shot its victims in the kneecaps to being a highly trained member of an “active service unit” that went out to kill policemen and British soldiers on the streets of Belfast.
“There was exaltation as well as fear when you held the gun. A buzz. A hype,” Lenaghan confessed.
There was no self-doubt then.
“All I thought was: Get the job done. Do it right. Make sure it is done well,” he said.
“There was no remorse. You couldn’t have done it if you had emotional hang-ups,” he said.
“The gunman is a victim of his time. You have to be warped or distorted.”
Lenaghan says his family was forced out of its Belfast home by Protestant gangs and that one of his schoolteachers was accidentally shot dead by British soldiers.
Steeped in the sectarian hatred that divides this island, he never wavered during his 15 years fighting for the IRA, which seeks to oust the British from the north and reunify Ireland.
“Then on Feb. 15, 1982, we went to shoot two soldiers in the Falls Road (in Republican West Belfast),” he recalls. “Instead we hit a civilian in the street by mistake. I was arrested with a rifle.”
He was given a 12-year sentence and sent to the top security Maze Prison, home to 400 Republican and Protestant prisoners.
There he met a Roman Catholic priest, Father Patrick Kelly, who came to speak to the inmates about the Marian shrine at Medjugorje, Yugoslavia.
“After 15 years rooted in violence, tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye, I began to be aware of the mask of self-deception I was wearing,” Lenaghan said. “Faith gave me the way to life.”
Interviewed in a Dublin restaurant, he lowers his voice when he realizes that others are listening to his vivid tale of those bloody IRA days and his decision to turn his back on violence.
Reflecting on his conversion in prison, he said: “I had no peace of mind. Aggression had been my constant stimulus. I began to question my motives and what I was doing in the IRA. I was a closet Christian terrified of losing my image.”
Turning his back on the IRA was not easy.
“It is rarely done. They don’t stop you but the barriers are huge. It is like a marriage contract. My decision brought me a lot of flak, anger, resentment and abuse.”
Lenaghan was released after serving six years of his sentence.
“I decided to find a role. I knew I could harness the desert of my experience for other people. It was like a flower growing in that desert.”
He worked with youth groups in West Belfast, then did two years with a Catholic missionary order in Dublin.
Now 30, he is studying at Maynooth Religious College and teaching religion at a Dublin high school.
Asked whether he wants to be a priest, he said: “My niche is out and about in the world. You have to grow where you are planted.”
His life came full circle when he visited the Medjugorje shrine and met a British soldier who had patrolled the Belfast streets Lenaghan once roamed as an IRA gunman.
“There was no sense of animosity. We were both touched by a sense of peace,” he said.