Red Cliffs book cover

“The only thing I ever got from my father was the back of his hand.” I gave Maguire a short recounting of my father’s disappointment at my enlisting in the Marines instead of going to college after high school as expected. This was post–9/11, when the country was caught up in a wave of patriotism. I glossed over my time in the Corps and skipped ahead to my more humorous single semester at the University of Oregon, and my sudden need to be far away from that state after an altercation with a gay liberal professor who hated me for being ex-military. My forced relocation came at the same time my sixty-something Uncle Jeff was running out of energy and motivation in his ongoing effort to rehabilitate an old steel schooner clear across the country in Florida.

The sandblasted and primer-painted sixty-foot hull had been propped up on its keel for so long that nobody even knew its original name. My arrival breathed new life into the boat’s rehab program. Not long before Rebel Yell’s relaunching, my uncle fell off a high scaffold plank, cracked his skull, and broke his neck. Uncle Jeff left the boat to me, free and clear, much to the chagrin of his ex-wife and adult children. But owning a sixty-foot schooner and paying for its upkeep were two very different propositions, as I soon came to understand.

“So, your uncle’s bad luck became your good fortune.” Pat leaned back and grinned at me again, then took another drag on his little hand-rolled cigarette.

I was no stranger to fatal chance. I’d seen Marines get on or off a helicopter by random chance; one crashed, one didn’t. I’d seen guys shot where I’d been standing just before. I kept these thoughts to myself. Life-or-death coin tosses had happened so often in my life that I didn’t question them. Thinking too deeply about twists of fate could only make you crazy. My uncle fell and he died, and I got his boat. So what? Was there some cosmic plan behind it all? Who knows? Enjoy life while you can. It can be over in a blink.

I just said, “I guess that’s one way of looking at it: my good fortune. So, Mr. Maguire, now that you know my story, what about yours? My guess is that the M-16s came from the IRA. And since you know how to sail, I’m guessing the guns and the sailing are connected. IRA guns and sailboats, and a Mick who used to live in Boston—something tells me there must be a good yarn in there somewhere.”

He smiled coyly. “If it was anything like that, now why would I tell you?”

“Why not? It’s been a few decades since the end of The Troubles. Wars have come, and wars have gone. Who better to tell than me, another professional smuggler?”

He took another hit of smoke, studying me. “Now, if I had been an IRA man—not sayin’ I was—I’d have been sworn to secrecy for life, now wouldn’t I?”

“I have no idea. But who would I tell? Sergeant Major Tolbert? Doesn’t he know already? And who cares anymore? Dozens of books have already been written about the dirty war between the IRA and the SAS. Right now, it’s just an old war story to pass the time. One smuggler to another.”

Pat took another drag on his stubby cigarette. I could see that he wanted to talk. “All right, then. Why not? It was back in the 1990s. I’d come across to Florida on an American sloop, a Hunter 33. It’d been damaged on the crossing to Ireland, and it was sold for cheap in Cork. It was a busted boat, a bad-luck boat, and it sold for pennies. Some of my mates and me, we bought her cheap and fixed her up. She was a fine sailin’ boat once we put her right. The next summer we took off for the Canaries, and then the Caribbean. Five of us were packed into that little plastic sloop, eating rubbish from tins and catching the occasional fish. We had the best time of our lives, let me tell you. Still in our twenties, and free as the wind.

“A few months later, we were in Miami. Miami in the 1990s—can you imagine? Do you know what that was like for a crew of poor Irish lads? Let me tell you: it was like Shangri-La, only much, much better. We all got work, we all made friends, we all had girlfriends. Tried my first cocaine there, didn’t care for it much. Americans, Cubans, Haitians, and a few Irish lads on expired tourist visas. Some of the lads went home, some didn’t.

“It was a wonderful time, magical. I worked in the South Florida boatyards while I learned how to get along in the States. I even wangled a driver’s license. Everybody loved our accents, especially your American girls. When we worked, we were paid in cash under the table, or sometimes with a check. I knew the yachting scene backwards and forwards, from Key West to Palm Beach.

“Florida was loads of fun, but I had contacts for better-paying work up in Massachusetts, so Boston it was. No papers needed, not in Miami, not in Boston, not ever. Then up there in New England I did a bit of crewin’ on big ocean racing boats. The maxis, they called them. Far out of my league, really. I mean, I was just a poor Irish lad, but I had a reputation as a sailor. It was me for the spinnaker pole or going up the mast to pull down a lost halyard. And I was always popular, with lots of American girlfriends—but none close. I had a shady past I couldn’t really go into, so my relationships had to be kept light and superficial. If I’d had a proper background, I could have married an American girl from a fine family, but my reputation as a wild Irish rover only carried me so far. And then let’s just say that certain non-racing opportunities happened to arise at about the time I was ready to come home.

“You see, around the middle of the nineties, your old M-16s were being phased out and replaced by newer models. Some of the old rifles were sent off to be updated with the heavier barrels and so forth. There was a bit of shuffling about between the arsenals and the home units, and there might have been some clerical errors about just who owned which guns and where they were going. If they had been struck off the books or sent off to be warehoused for World War Three. I heard that some of the refurbished guns went to Colombia to fight the war on drugs. With millions of M-16s being replaced, well, I suppose fifty here or fifty there could fall through the cracks—especially with a little help in the clerical department. I only know that I was contacted by some Irish friends who put me in touch with an Irish-American businessman. He owned a forty-foot sloop and he was getting ready to sail over to the Emerald Isle. I was going along as the second hand for the Atlantic crossing. Just the two of us. It was a very low-profile operation.”

“A forty-footer is not how I picture an arms smuggler.”

“Then what you picture is wrong, Danny Boy. You see, back in the eighties when The Troubles were raging hot, the IRA tried moving guns with fishing trawlers. It didn’t work. Too many people were involved, and there were informers. Uncle Sam tracked them right across the ocean with satellites. Live and learn, and so a forty-foot sailboat with a two-man crew was perfect. The boat was docked on a side creek. A van rolled up—just a driver—and we loaded the cargo. The guns were already stuffed into duffel bags, a half dozen in each. More bags full of ammunition and magazines. It was an extra-dark night. Overcast, and no moon. We slipped out of the Charles on the tide. Forgot to tip our hats to your Coast Guard. The American skipper thought it was a grand adventure. I thought he was an old man then, but he was younger than I am sittin’ here today. If he’s not dead, he’s in his eighties now. And cheers to him!

“A month later, we sailed into a little place like Crowhaven. We could have come in from a day sail up the coast, but we’d just crossed the Atlantic in one jump. Nobody the wiser. But by the time the guns arrived, there had been some big changes at home. The peace accords and all that. New guns coming in from America was a problem nobody wanted to deal with. My orders had been to bring in the guns and cache them for later. I was told to make them disappear, and I did. I knew a farmer, and he dug a hole with a little backhoe. We put them in big plastic farm barrels, the rifles and the ammunition, and we buried the lot. Then I helped the farmer build a wee barn right over them all. So they were kept under a dry roof and a plank floor for thirty years.”

“Nobody came to collect them in all that time?”

“Who would come? I was just told to bring the rifles from America and cache them in the Republic, and I followed my orders. Remember, The Troubles were almost over when I came home after Boston. The Troubles, the Provisional IRA, it was all windin’ down to nothing. My contacts fell away. We went on with our lives. I found a girl, and we were married a while. But all those years, I kept a keen eye on that shed. The farmer died, the land was sold to another Irishman, and then to a retired English gent for a holiday retreat and a hobby farm.”

“Until the girls were kidnapped.”

“Right, until the girls were kidnapped. That’s when I met Colonel Rainborow, in Cork. That’s another fascinating story in itself, how we met, but it doesn’t really matter, because it was all Providence. The girls were taken, Rainy needed guns, and some people thought I might know something about the subject. And I did.”

“Nobody else knew where they were all those years?”

“As far as I know, only the dead farmer, me, and the Good Lord above. It was only a small load of guns, not much in the scheme of things. The English gent who owns the farm today, he was gobsmacked when we rang his bell. Five minutes alone with Rainy and he was on our side for life. IRA guns and an SAS colonel, all for a rescue mission in Morocco—who could resist a tale like that? You should have seen his face when we pried up the floor of his shed and he saw the tops of those blue barrels under a foot of earth.”

“So the SAS didn’t have the guns, but the Provisional IRA did.”

Former SAS and former PIRA. And like I told you before, we Irish can’t afford to lose track of our guns between wars. We don’t have enough for that.”

“But you were the only one who knew where they were buried. If you had died—”

“Then they’d have stayed buried and caused no harm to anyone, ever.”

“So if it wasn’t for your guns, would you even be on this operation?”

“If it wasn’t for my guns, there’d be no operation.”

“My boat, IRA guns, and the SAS. What a story.”

“It’s no story—it’s fookin’ real, Danny Boy. As real as it gets.” He took a final drag of his cigarette roach, nearly scorching his fingertips, and flicked it overboard downwind.

“Too bad nobody used your guns to protect the girls.”

That one gave him pause. After he exhaled a blue stream, he said, “Yeah, too bad, all right. Then there’d be no need of this mission at all. What good are guns buried under a barn? When you need them, you need them in a hurry. Like you Yanks say, we were all a day late and a dollar short.”