The killing at Coolacrease…A secret history of anti-Protestant Republicanism? Maybe, maybe not… but certainly an instructive example of how some people want us to read ‘history’. November 9, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in History, Irish History, Religion, Republicanism, Terrorism, Unionism.
There’s something very odd about the Coolacrease controversy. Something very odd indeed. And it’s not the actual case itself.
That can be boiled down to a contested (although not by either an IRA or British military investigation) incident in which two young men belonging to a fringe Protestant denomination were shot dead by the IRA in 1921. The accounts presented in an article by producer Niamh Sammon (working with Eoghan Harris on the program) and Anne Marie Hourihane in the Irish Times suggest that the shooting was unprovoked and while there is a larger debate beyond the pages of the IT it is there that we see some of the most interesting aspects of the ‘controversy’.
Sammon posits that:
No doubt June 30th, 1921, began like any other for the Pearson family of Coolacrease, Co Offaly. Life on that day would have revolved around the usual farm chores, but today, there was an extra task at hand. With the sun in the sky, two sons of the family, Richard (24) and Abraham (19), and a friend of theirs, William Stanley, were saving the hay, determined to make the most of the good weather…
Late in the afternoon, Stanley looked up from his work to see a gang of armed IRA men converging on the hayfield from all sides. He knew something terrible was coming, and yelled to Richard and Abraham to run for their lives….
Within the hour, the Pearson women were driven from their home, which in turn was burned to the ground. As the house blazed, they saw Richard and Abraham lined up and shot – their father William and another brother Sidney, would have met with the same fate, had they not been away that day. Mrs Pearson and her daughters nursed Richard and Abraham for many hours as they slowly bled to death.
Anne Marie Hourihane argued some days later that:
…the truth is that most Irish people would much rather not get in touch with the past, thanks very much all the same. In Ireland the past – the truth about the past – is a bit of an unnecessary complication.
This reluctance to look at what has happened in Irish history comes not just from the descendants and friends of those who perpetrated dreadful crimes but, much more remarkably, from the descendants and friends of the innocent victims.
the Pearsons were a farming family who lived in Co Offaly. After a spate of slanderous rumours, and an outburst of land envy – the Pearsons owned and worked a 340-acre farm – two of the Pearsons’ four sons, Richard (24) and Abraham (19), were shot by about 30 IRA men on June 30th, 1921. They were initially approached while out saving hay… Both Richard and Abraham were shot in the genital area, and then in the buttocks, in front of their siblings and mother, and the house was burned. It took Richard six hours to die and Abraham 14.
The manner of this shooting is shocking enough, reminiscent to modern eyes of the mutilation of the bodies of black men who were lynched in the southern states of America. Even more shocking was that the television programme managed to find people, in this day and age, prepared to defend and justify the murders. It is perhaps not so surprising that old men, steeped in the dangerous myths of other times, should be prepared to talk about how “the Pearson girls were aggressive – more aggressive than their brothers”, and how the Pearson brothers, who died in agony, “were executed and that was that”. But to see a young man blithely talking about how the Pearsons had shown profound disdain for local republicans “and in particular for Irish Volunteers” sent a chill through the blood. It was like someone saying: “the Jews had too much money.” Terrifying.
what had this family done to deserve such a dreadful retribution? The Pearsons were members of a peaceable, non-political, dissenting Protestant sect known as the Cooneyites, and their attackers were drawn from the local Catholic community. These were their friends and neighbours; people they must have greeted on the roads around Cadamstown, lads who’d sat with them at school. What forces had changed these friends into the enemies who came to their home, burned it to the ground, and shot them in a brutal manner as their helpless mother and sisters looked on?
These are the questions that leaped out at me just over a year ago when a friend gave me a book by Alan Stanley, the son of William Stanley who’d escaped with his life that day. Alan had written a powerful account of the single most defining event in his family’s history. He told how, after the killings at Coolacrease House, the Pearsons fled to Australia, and of his own search to trace their descendants. In this slim volume, Stanley published his correspondence with the Australian Pearsons, who were desperate to try and understand how the country of their forebears had turned so violently against them.
The story he had unravelled was the starting point of the journey toward making a television documentary about the truly hidden history of what happened at Coolacrease. It seemed that this was the kind of history you don’t learn about in school and, notwithstanding Ken Loach’s film dramatisation of the period in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, here was proof of a much darker side to the republican fight for independence. They say that the victor writes the history, but was that as true in Ireland as elsewhere?
Of which other group of crime victims would commentators be allowed to speak in this way in modern times? Certainly not of the victims of rape. These statements made the viewer realise that the murder of the Pearsons could happen again tomorrow.
That, notably in the Border counties, similar murders – miserable, vicious, laden with local gossip – happened yesterday. There was never a shred of evidence to justify the Pearson murders, and there still isn’t. Here was an otherwise excellent – a groundbreaking – programme that was far too balanced in its efforts to give both sides of a lamentable story.
Pat Muldowney writing in the Village has argued that the case is not quite as presented. He argues that:
..it is not surprising that the programme challenged the validity of the Irish Court Martial ruling, held in June 1921, which found the Pearsons guilty of staging an armed attack on an IRA unit engaged in road block activity in resistance to the Black and Tan terror aimed at suppressing the democratically elected Irish government; for which the Court passed the death sentence.
But this was not the only Court that met to adjudicate on the fate of the Pearsons. This Hidden History programme supposedly set out to examine forensically what happened on 30 June 1921, the day of the executions. So how did it happen that the programme never mentioned – not once – the other Court, which met on 2 July 1921 to do exactly the same thing?
It is not that Hidden History did not know about the British Military Court of Enquiry, which met on that day in Crinkle Military Barracks, Birr.
The problem for the Hidden History/Eoghan Harris line was that the British Military Court of Enquiry, operating completely independently, found exactly the same as the Irish Court Martial. The Chief Inspector of the Queen’s County RIC testified to the Court that “the two Pearson boys a few days previously had seen two men felling a tree on their land adjoining the road, had told the men concerned to go away, and when they refused, had fetched two guns and fired and wounded two Sinn Feiners, one of whom it is believed died”.
Muldowney also contradicts Hourihanes and Sammons accounts of shootings to the genitalia by saying that:
…what the medical evidence given to the Court describes is a range of injuries from the legs to the shoulders, all of them superficial, and none to the genitals. According to the evidence, none of the wounds were fatal, and the men died from shock and blood loss. If they had received timely and adequate medical attention it seems their lives could have been saved.
Apparently the shootings were to the groin area, not the actual genitalia. Awful. Revolting, but again not quite as presented in the program.
Now, to me as a neutral bystander, that presents us with a serious problem in our assessment of the propositions made by Sammon and Hourihane. Firing upon IRA members during the War of Independence is a far from neutral act. That the men suffered grieviously for their actions is clear. But without a context – and neither Sammon nor Hourihane present us with that context we are given a misleading picture of the events.
A bit more context. Muldowney had an account of the killings published by the Aubane Historical Society – which as we should know after months of careful analysis of the ICO and BICO material is a post-BICO grouping. Still, axe to grind or no, he does appear to have certain aspects of the historical record correctly researched.
The response in the Irish Times was instructive. A quick look at the IT website indicates that in the week following the original article by Niamh Sammon and the screening of the programme (on October 23rd) there was precisely no letters on the subject. Indeed the first letter to appear was on October 31 praising the programme and the article by Anne Marie Hourihane.
Subsequently two letters appeared on November 2nd, one agreeing, one not with the former letter. On November 5th there were a further three letters. So, to date, six letters in all. Granted it has featured on Liveline and there it has been fairly heated. But not a huge outpouring of controversy in the pages of the IT.
Which is interesting because under the heading Sensitive strands of our history Hourihane yesterday once more wrote that:
The two brothers were approached while out saving hay on their farm by a party of up to 30 IRA men. They were taken back to the farmhouse where they were shot and died much later, in front of their mother and sisters and one younger brother. Their father and a fourth brother were away from the farm on that day.
Now in contrast to her statements some weeks back where she said that “…the truth is that most Irish people would much rather not get in touch with the past, thanks very much all the same. In Ireland the past – the truth about the past – is a bit of an unnecessary complication.” she argues that…
The reaction of normal people to this sorry story will naturally be one of regret – that the shootings of the Pearsons was a terrible thing, even by the standards of that terrible time, and should never have happened.
But most would also agree that it happened a long time ago and now the best thing to do is to acknowledge the tragedy and let them rest in peace.
In fact, this does seem to be the reaction of most people who have heard about the Pearson killings, which have now become the subject of a book, a television programme, of debate in the letters column of this newspaper and now on Liveline.
Now that’s odd on a heap of different levels (not least the term ‘normal’). There had been no letters since the 5th of November on the issue. Okay, that’s only three days. But a desultory six hardly a controversy makes. So what is the function of her current article? Simply to keep the pot boiling?
…Irish history is so fragile to some, and so sacred, that they confidently assert that the Pearson brothers must have been British spies, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, not pacifists at all but given to taking pot shots at IRA men, arrogant towards their Catholic neighbours – in other words, asking for it.
It appears impossible for these people, standing guard over Irish history, even to countenance the possibility that the Pearsons were innocent men.
This seems to me to be a bizarre reading of the situation. In effect she appears to demand that people take as read the account she and Sammon serves up, that this was an unprovoked attack by the IRA on a family, something between a land grab and sociopathic ethnic cleansing. Then when people question that, or provide evidence that the situation is more complex than she presents she resiles from her original position that ‘this is a history that shouldn’t be forgotten’ by suggesting that this is a history which really should be forgotten once an appropriate response is forthcoming. In other words she is demanding that history and the response to that history must conform to her precepts. Worse again she clearly must be aware of the critique Muldowney presented. Yet in an act of remarkable intellectual sleight of hand (for want of a better term) she chooses not to address it.
This is problematic because it is wildly ahistorical. In order to understand why two young men were murdered it is necessary to consider the motivations of those who murdered them. If one narrative is presented as ‘fact’, when it is difficult to assess the actuality, it is entirely reasonable that others might present a counter-narrative as ‘fact’. This is part of a process of engagement with historical events. And it is curious that Hourihane is blind to or that she ignores this and presumes that the version she champions is somehow uncontestable [incidentally, although Hourihane hasn't mentioned the British report it has been dismissed as based on hearsay by others involved in this - a curious charge, and one which I doubt would be leveled in any other circumstance].
But consider again the questions that Sammon raises.
It seemed that this was the kind of history you don’t learn about in school and, notwithstanding Ken Loach’s film dramatisation of the period in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, here was proof of a much darker side to the republican fight for independence. They say that the victor writes the history, but was that as true in Ireland as elsewhere?
My problem with all of this is that no-one with even the most glancing knowledge of Irish history during the period from 1912 onwards to the mid-1920s could possibly be unaware of the fact that there was indeed a ‘much darker’ side to the Republican fight for independence. There were a list of atrocities committed by all sides, British, Republican, pro-Treaty forces, anti-Treaty forces. From the sacking of towns by the Black and Tans, to Ballyseedy, to the later assassination of Kevin O’Higgins [a flawed man, but far from the caricature some would paint of him] this is a period stained in blood.
Thankfully though we have people known as ‘historians’ whose function is to research historical events in a reasonably dispassionate manner and to whom we can turn to offer answers to the sort of questions Sammon raises.
Let’s refer to Joseph Lee (some, but perhaps not those who have contributed to the IT on this debate, will be aware that he one of Ireland’s historians). He has written that:
‘if the contemporary historian is not himself to become an agent of yet further fragmentation, he must strive towards total history, not in the futile sense of trying to write everything about everything, but in the sense of seeking to reveal the range of relevant linkages between the varieties of activity with which he is concerned’
The problem is that we’re not being presented with a total history, not even close. We’re served up a partial history by people who are not historians, who seemingly consciously eschew historical methodologies. Lee has some sharp points to make about the period.
Foul deeds were done during the civil war. It was natural that memories should be bitter. But it is necessary to keept the scale of the conflict and even its viciousness, in perspective. The most apposite analogy appears to be witht he Finnish civil war of 1918. His took place in a newly independent country with the same population as the free State. But it claiemd far more victims. Even if the probably exaggerated estimate of 4000 Irish casualties be accepted this still falls far below the 25,000 Finnish fatalities. It may be, however, that the manner of death leaves a more searing psychological scar. Did not the notorious 77 executions turn the heart to stone? But the 77 falls short of the 8300 executions in Finalnd, to say nothing of the 1500 private enterprise murders, or the 9000 who died in prison camps.
As an aside, Dennis Kennedy, also of the Irish Times and the Cadogan Group, once wrote an illuminating if somewhat partisan book that covers some of this matter in The Widening Gulf: Northern Attitudes to the Independent Irish State, 1919-49 It is a while since it was last published but its available on Amazon. Well worth a read.
But of course there is a larger agenda. And Hourihane touches upon it when she says:
The invaluable service that they are providing is that they are so annoying, so patronising and so irrational that they are succeeding where 86 long years of silence have failed: they are making modern Protestants so furious that they are ready – almost, almost ready – to come out and talk about their families’ experiences in the War of Independence and the Civil War.
These are not the stories of the Big House burning, with the paintings and the piano on the lawn. These are the stories of quite ordinary people – I imagine mostly rural people, but this might not be correct – who were pushed out of the new State.
What evidence does she present of this? Why none. No evidence at all. If she ‘imagines…but this might not be correct’ then we have no basis for judging the accuracy of her statement. This is John Waters territory, is it not, where things are right because we ‘feel’ they are right. And it is ‘feelings’ that are at the heart of this approach because in a most interesting statement, that one both hopes and fears is a Freudian slip she writes:
Thousands of us enjoyed the Hidden History television documentary about the Pearson killings simply because we had never heard about them before.
‘Enjoyed’ is a strange word to use. It appears a rather shallow and vicarious way to treat of actual events of horrible dimension. Even were the IRA entirely legitimate in their actions, and at this remove how on earth could there be any definitive reckoning of that, the idea that one ‘enjoy’s an account of the shooting of two (or let’s be honest, three including the IRA volunteer) young men is… well, I’ll say it again, strange.
But there is no limit to her intuitions…
It aroused the suspicion in us that there are other stories like it – and we have no way of knowing how many, or how few, there might be – burning underground, stories that live on in the families of those who suffered, passed on in the deep privacy of family life so that, as one man told me last week: “It’s as if it would be disloyal to talk about it.”
Which again is simply a way of saying, “I have no evidence that any such actions took place and therefore I’m simply stirring the pot”.
He meant that it was as if it would be disloyal to talk about it in public. Within his family such matters were not discussed routinely, but only when he and his father were feeling particularly close to each other.
They became a family secret, in a country too full of family secrets. And so these stories, these whispers, are lost to the larger, Catholic population – perhaps forever.
It might be time now for the larger, Catholic population to ask itself: are we happy about this? Would we like to look at this small slice of our history, not in order to condemn men and women long dead, but because it is interesting and true?
Well, let me declare an interest. I am fortunate in coming from a background where both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland (and indeed also atheism) played a prominent role in my immediate family. Being brought to two different religious ceremonies worshipping the same God tends to lend one a certain… shall we say… critical detachment (and attachment) on such issues – and others. Certainly it was an example in pluralism which I’ve never forgotten.
Now, perhaps Protestantism in the South is a cowed tradition. But having been on the inside, to some degree, I rarely found it so. Nor did I find that there was any sense of a fear of sectarian animosity dating from the Independence period. Indeed if anything, quite the opposite. To some degree I found that there was a strong identification with this state – an identification not entirely dissimilar to that expressed by Michael McDowell whose avowed and I suspect entirely genuine Republicanism and identification with the institutions of this state was of a sort I could identify from previous expressions and would broadly share (one of the most entertaining aspects of the view of Protestants held by non-Protestants is that they are per definition closet monarchists and unionists – I often wonder why that is. Does it give a little frisson, some sense of the ‘other’? That the Protestant is truly ‘different’. Let me be the first to disabuse all who harbour such thoughts….). Perhaps that is simply my experience. Perhaps there is a vast and silent history of murder and mayhem out there beyond my knowledge. But if so it simply isn’t reflected in the statistics from the period.
And to offer up a counter-narrative (and in a sense a touch of ‘whataboutery’ which in the context of the shallowness of the arguments put forth in the IT I make no apology for), I also have a very very close relative whose father fought on the Republican side during the Civil War and after imprisonment was effectively barred from working and living in the Free State. Eventually, and ironically, he had to move to England. He wasn’t the only one. Many thousands left. Many many never returned. That is what happens during these sort of spasms of violence. But we weren’t Finland. There wasn’t a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Protestants, and if something close to ethnic cleansing was taking place on the island it was hundreds of miles to the North in Belfast in a polity supposedly untouched by the WoI or the Civil War.
I have no special insight into the events at Coolacrease. Who does? Who can tell with absolute accuracy what happened on that day? Who can easily judge the motivations and self-justifications of those involved? I knew a man, this time a distant relative, who went ashore on D-Day with US forces. I thought of him – and still do to a great extent – as something approaching a hero. He, by contrast, saw the journey he made across the sands of Normandy as something that had to be done. And everything thereafter too, whatever it involved. That’s a basic dynamic in wars and conflict, the grim pragmatism that is forced upon people by these events. But we are asked to put all that aside in favour of a different and arguably entirely unrealistic narrative.
What I am certain of is that it is of dubious merit to attempt to draw any general lesson from such a specific event as Coolacrease. I’m hugely suspicious of the idea that people are unaware of “a much darker side to the republican fight for independence”. That seems to me to be part of a typically patronising and faux-naive narrative constructed by certain people for their own ends. One that engages with history only as a means to re-represent the present. One that ignores factual evidence because it doesn’t fit with the overall thesis. That we have certain leading lights with a history in particular organisations that consciously sought to reconstruct an Irish historical narrative more to their liking on both sides of this debate is unsurprising. They always want to teach us, the people(s) of this island their particular lessons de jour, however those lessons may change to suit themselves. And what lesson is it that is sought today? To suggest that Protestants in Ireland were subject to a vicious campaign of repression and murder? That Republicans were (or should that be ‘are’?) beasts. Neither is true. Neither is useful. And to implicitly suggest that there is something ‘abnormal’ about a critique of a program about an historical event – or about Irish people in their general response to this period, is neither useful nor true.