Text by Chris Klatell
The longest essay in Annals of the North dives into the mysterious, cinematic story of Denis Donaldson, Gilles’ closest friend in the North during the 1980s.
Denis, a Republican stalwart, present at the rebirth of the IRA in the early 1970s, friend to Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams, was later revealed to have been in the pay of British intelligence since the mid-1980s. After twenty years of staying ahead of the bogeyman, his own handlers in the intelligence services were the ones who finally outed him, spitefully posting a notice to his front door indicating his status would be leaked to the press. Denis came clean to Sinn Féin, then raced to Dublin and confessed publicly at a surreal, televised press conference. Four months later he died a brutal, lonely and inevitable death at his cabin in Donegal.
The figure of the informer, the tout, looms over Ireland. In the North, during the Troubles, anyone, anywhere, could be an informer – in taxis, on the phone, in clubs and bars, at football matches, at home with friends. Anyone, anywhere. That’s why whatever you say, it’s better to say nothing.
Gilles was already inclined to doubt everything, even perception; that someone with whom he had spent so much time, with whom he had spoken so much, who had brought him into so many situations, was spying for the British added another layer of instability to memory and history.
Photography is also an informer, an agent of betrayal. A worthwhile photograph always contradicts the meaning it purports to convey, leaking truths while forcing one to question and re-question one’s understanding of reality. A photograph is Denis Donaldson. And Denis Donaldson is a photograph.
We don’t know why Denis turned. We may never know. It may not have been one thing. But we suspect at some point he decided that he could outsmart everyone, that he could cross and double cross and triple cross back and somehow escape the wheels of history. In that sense, he’s the anti-hero of our story. Perhaps, too, the anti-hero of our time.