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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, 2007

Posted 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.

and that…

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.

Sammon enquires:

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?

Hourihane asks:

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?

She continues:

…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.


1. Garibaldy - November 9, 2007

Great post.


2. Ed Hayes - November 9, 2007



3. franklittle - November 9, 2007

Outstanding stuff. Hand on heart one of the best posts I think we’ve had on the Cedar Lounge.

In terms of the programme itself to be honest I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion at this stage that Sammon was not merely incorrect, but deliberately dishonest. As was pointed out by Pat Muldowney people who were approached for interview were given false information as to the subject matter and the tone that was going to be taken and chose to ignore the verdict of the British Court of Inquiry. Sammon & Co set out to tell a story and facts that were inconvenient to the story were set aside or corrupted. I thought it was appalling.

What we have here is a story where, curiously, the IRA and the British pretty much agree what happened. Some local unionist Protestant civilians took up arms against the IRA inflicting casualties and the IRA responded by killing them. Brutal certainly, but hardly sectarian. The IRA killed Catholics who took up arms against them. The family has a different version of events not backed up by any documentary evidence, but some of which such as the injuries inflicted, is directly contradicted by it. I have no doubt it was a traumatising experience for them but I think they have airbrushed their own history a little bit.

I would slightly disagree with the point WBS makes in one regard and that is the general perception of the actions of the IRA during the Tan War. I think the last 30 years, and before, saw a deliberate attempt by the state to draw a distinction between the IRA (1916-1923) and the IRA (1969-Present). One was a band of heroic freedom fighters and the other a band of thuggish criminals addicted to violence.

The notion of the IRA of the Tan War as being freedom-fighters sits uneasily with some of the actions that they carried out. Above all, any similarities between the IRA of then and the IRA of today were to be rejected for fear of lending support to the present day IRA or even undermining the state. Whether this fear was justified is not as important as the fact that it existed.

I can remember doing History for the Leaving Cert and the IRA being very positively portrayed by both the text (Ireland Since 1870) and the teacher who came from a Fine Gael background. When, as I suppose it was inevitable, a question was asked about whether the IRA we saw on television was the same as the IRA of the 20s, we were told that the modern IRA had nothing to do with the old IRA and were simply criminals using the name. The chief difference was that the IRA today attacked civilians and hated Protestants and the IRA of the 20s did not. Here endeth the lesson.


4. franklittle - November 9, 2007

Indymedia have a transcript of the Joe Duffy show on this up:



5. Niall - November 9, 2007

Excellent post. I notice that David Adams has a piece in the IT today claiming that there was no inquiry, only a report of some rumours. Any thoughts on this?

Aside – I tried to click on the indymedia link, but my work filters regard it as an advocacy group. It also classifies a comic-book site as porn and a Christian blog as occult.


6. ejh - November 9, 2007

We’re served up a partial history by people who are not historians, who seemingly consciously eschew historical methodologies.

I think this is true of a lot of current popular history in the UK, by which I mean that it is written by people who are not professional historians are published not in professional journals but by major publishing houses. In principle and indeed in practice, this is a good thing. But there is an odd tendency for the works (I’m thinking for instance of Chung/Halliday, or Sebag Montefiore) to take an attitude to historial judgement which a professional historian possibly would not. By which I mean that though they are often superbly researched, there is a tendency to eschew balanced appraisal, to say that, e,g, Mao always did the most ruthless thing and the most stupid thing for the most unworthy and self-serving motive.

It’s a sort of bogeyman history rather than real history, which would seek to discuss even monstruous crimes on the basis that they were ordered and carried out by actual human beings possessing a variety of motivations.


7. franklittle - November 9, 2007

‘Aside – I tried to click on the indymedia link, but my work filters regard it as an advocacy group. It also classifies a comic-book site as porn and a Christian blog as occult.’

Two out of three ain’t bad…….


8. Ed Hayes - November 9, 2007

Yes I see Davy Adams, former advisor to the well known inter-faith pacifists of the UDA is lecturing us on sectarianism. Mind you I still have grave doubts about anything that Aubane are into. And I’m not naive enough to think that the IRA wouldn’t have killed people over land or religion, they just didn’t do it all that much. But the programme was a fit up, even if some of the Offaly ‘experts’ were a bit frightening.


9. Donagh - November 9, 2007

Nice post. It is interesting that there is an airbrushing out of facts in this case to suit a specific agenda, and one that is initiated once the IRA, as the latest decommissioning report shows, is the furthest away from armed conflict than it has ever been in its history.

I was introduced to Irish Protestantism through my wife’s family who are Church of Ireland. I had very little exposure before that. Is it a cowed tradition? Absolutely not. In fact, I would argue that it has no real memory of the division in Irish society between Catholic and Protestant that made up some of the conflicts in Ireland. Where there is a marked difference in terms of culture is between those who are part of a mainstream congregation in the south and those North of the border.

Wasn’t it Paul Tibbets, the recently deceased atom bomber who said that there is no morality in war? I would dispute that personally, but at the same time one should be critically aware of the motivation of certain commentators to cherry-pick events like this and give them a specific moral gloss. And also to point out that they are not presenting their arguments in a history book or academic journal, where there is a process of review and where the accuracy of their account can be challenged, but in a television documentary, backed up by Op-ed columns in national newspapers.


10. ejh - November 9, 2007

We can’t be far off declaring that the potato famine was just one of those things…


11. Conor McCabe - November 9, 2007

with regard the famine, we’re already there. you’ve touched on the heart of this whole matter, ejh. This is about the north and Irish historical revisionism. The Coolacrease case is being used as a metaphor for the north. That’s why the facts don’t matter to the documentary makers. They’ve set out with a political agenda and if that means shooting the balls off someone who didn’t have their balls shot off, if that means calling Coolacrease a land-grab when the farm ended up in the hands of ex-British soldiers, if that means saying there was no official inquiry into the shooting, when in fact there were two – one by the British and one by the Irish, and both concluding that the brothers had fired on an active IRA unit – then so be it.

What matters is that Irish historical revisionism is the winner.

This documentary is a bit of complex one for myself, as I happen to know a couple of the historians who worked on it. The point I’ll make is that they gave their opinion in good faith, and in the end the documentary makers cut the evidence to suit the conclusions they (the documentary makers) wanted to portray – rudely, that it’s possible to speak of the Coolacrease case in the same breath as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eoghan Harris said as much on Joe Duffy when he called Pat Mulhoney a holocaust-denier.

So. The famine wasn’t a famine, and the horrors of Coolacrease would not be witnessed again in Europe until Auschwitz. That’s the level of historical interpretation you’re dealing with here.


12. ejh - November 9, 2007

with regard the famine, we’re already there

Are there works you can point to that take that view? Not doubting it, I just didn’t think the point had been reached yet.

I’m not aware of any example of mass starvation in England for several centuries prior to the Irish disaster.

When I was studying for my librarianship qualification I briefly did some work experience in the library at Newcastle University, where there is a Trevelyan Archive. I can recall the person who curated that archive telling me that he had to be understood in the context of his time and place, etc etc etc. Well, for sure, that’s what history has to do, as I said above. Yet it is odd how many figures like Trevelyan will have biographers who insist how educated and enlightened and clever they were, at one moment, and at another apparently they are simply the prisoners of the prejudices of their age.

Meanwhile, rebels with guns are the product of nothing but an apparent urge to evil.


13. Conor McCabe - November 9, 2007

R.F. Foster. for example, reminds us that more people died in China in its post WWII famine than ever died during the Irish famine. I think, from memory, he says it in “Modern Ireland, 1600-1972”, which was written in 1988. That’s pretty much saying, “the famine was just one of those things.”


14. Conor McCabe - November 9, 2007

Dr. Mary Daly’s 1986 book, The Famine In Ireland, has a similiar approach.


15. WorldbyStorm - November 9, 2007

I read David Adams piece today and have some thoughts on it that I’ll post up tomorrow probably. I’m very very suspicious of what is going on as regards this. If you read the Duffy transcript and the Adams piece you’ll see much the same ‘talking’ points. That it is two wings of what were formerly revisionism slugging it out together only increases my suspicion. That these people have the temerity to speak for all of us sticks in my craw.


16. ejh - November 9, 2007

R.F. Foster. for example, reminds us that more people died in China in its post WWII famine than ever died during the Irish famine. I think, from memory, he says it in “Modern Ireland, 1600-1972″, which was written in 1988. That’s pretty much saying, “the famine was just one of those things.”

I wouldn’t have said so, not simply on that information anyway.


17. Ed Hayes - November 9, 2007

Anything that Senator Harris has emotionally invested in will get saturation media coverage. He threw a fit on the Duffy show and as you say, called someone a Holocaust denier. The man is a charlatan. Watch the Sindo this week for more.


18. sonofstan - November 9, 2007

….. to which I guess the obvious answer is that there’s a lot more of China…..

Famine was a recurrent hazard in most of Europe up to the 18th century, although the last English famine was pre- Cromwellian (I think?) so over two centuries before the 1840s. There were famines in France, Germany, Sweden and Norway not that long before the Irish famine (within living memory). This is not me saying the famine was just one of those things BTW

I didn’t see the Hidden History programme, so all I know about it is what i’ve read here and elsewhere on the net; what seems clear is the agenda set by recent history – and also the insult to the discrimination of the audience by using anachronistic terms like ‘ethnic cleansing’ and so on in the publicity before and around it. What’s depressing about this – and other popular television history – is the apparent refusal to credit people with any historical perspective at all and a narrative predeliction for black and white moral distinctions applied to complex stories. Recently i watched Kubrick’s masterpiece, Barry Lyndon (late on RTE – odd how rarely it shows up) and was struck by the careful refusal of Kubrick – and Thackaray – to divide the world into good guys and bad guys; to present morally complex characters capable of great and awful things in the course of a lifetime and without easy judgment, or a satisfactory division of rewards at the end. It seems sometimes that nothing on television or in popular cinema is able, anymore, to tell stories in a grown- up way, to cope with ambiguity or difficulty, to respect the complexity of life and history.


19. sonofstan - November 9, 2007

The first line is obviously in response to Conor’s comment 13


20. Conor McCabe - November 9, 2007

There’s a hell of a lot more to it but I don’t have the books here with me. I’ll do up a post on dublin opinion that deals with it, but basically you’d find it hard to get a full-time, i mean, working in the academy, Irish historian, who’d say out loud that Ireland after 1800 was still a colony. and as for the famine a la Cecil woodword-smith (the first book that really lays into Trevelyn), you’d be hard-pressed to find it on a course reading list. I can’t give you the information you need in a comment post. So I’ll have to just write a weblog post myself.


21. ejh - November 9, 2007

Kubrick’s masterpiece



22. sonofstan - November 9, 2007



23. ejh - November 9, 2007

Really boring and the narration gets on my nerves. I thought it was a bit like Tom Jones, but at a tenth the speed.

It often looks like it’s going to pick up but it never really does and even the set-pieces aren’t remotely as memorable as Kubrick’s normally are. Of course it’s brilliantly realised, Kubrick understood period and udnerstood that it was about rather more than just getting the dresses and the uniforms right.

He’s a notoriously cold director, Kubrick, which might be why he does outer space so well, and it might have enabled him to do the second half even better, with them in this big house a long way from anywhere (think how he handles isolation in The Shining, for instance). But I never found it engaging enough, with the voiceover always telling you how you should be feeling.

I got the clear impression that he was trying to recreate the picaresque novel form as closely as he could onscreen, but it just seemed to me to be slow and disjointed.

Far from his best.


24. sonofstan - November 9, 2007

Didn’t mean ‘Kubrick’s masterpiece’ as in his best movie – more a masterpiece made by Kubrick, if you see what i mean…
Anyway this is going off topic, so just briefly; i like the glaciality; keeps identification at arms length, which is risky, but oddly allows a considered pity for humanity in general rather than sentimental attachment to characters…

And I think the narrator is meant to be unreliable and annoying; it keeps trying to force what you’re seeing into comforting narratives that are belied by the evidence of our eyes.


25. Grendel - November 9, 2007

Anyone who read Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” or
Sean O’Casey’s Abbey plays-(as I did in school ,one of
the few highlights of a miserable adolescence) would have seen that Darker side of the National struggle depicted in fiction.

O’Casey disagreed with Connolly over the national stuggle,
claiming feeding the poor was more important. I wonder
if he’d lived longer, would he have joined the Stickies?


26. WorldbyStorm - November 9, 2007

Oddly enough I was watching 2001 last night for a while, and it struck me watching it that it was a perfect ghost movie, particularly the parts after Bowman is alone on the ship after HAL has killed his comrade. Which is kind of what you’re saying ejh. Still, I’ve never seen Barry Lydon. Remember the Sunday Times Magazine doing huge spreads on it in the very early 1970s!

sonofstan, that’s it exactly. We’re not allowed to have autonomy in all this. The AHS or Harris have to mediate every effing thing to the proles. It’s so unbelievably elitist…


27. Idris of Dungiven - November 10, 2007

With regard to the famine and Roy Foster’s account thereof . . . the last couple of paragraphs in the chapter on the famine in his Modern Ireland book definitely appear to be an attempt to muddy the waters and spread confusion.

He spends quite a bit of time talking about a traveller’s diary from the 1845 – 1850 period, which recounts being served trout poached in milk in a peasant cottage in Cork. I strongly suspect from the way this is presented that the intended implication is ‘see? It wasn’t that bad really’. I’d be of the opinion that it was that bad really.

Revision is the normal practice of history. Every country you care to name is a country with an unpredictable past. It’s when we find ourselves being offered new lies for old that we should make our excuses and leave. And I think that’s what’s happening here.

Anyone got more detail on David Adams’ UDA links, btw?

(WBS, those TC issues will be winging their way to you in the very near future).


28. WorldbyStorm - November 10, 2007

Thanks for that Idris.

Completely agree about revisionism. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but sometimes not…

Incidentally I too am interested in the Adams/UDA thing. Is it the same Adams?


29. Garibaldy - November 10, 2007

It is Davy Adams, formerly of the UDP. When the current UDA leadership decided to wind the UDP up, both Adams and Davy Mc Michael experienced intimidation from their former comrades, as did others. Sometimes (and I think this was related to Davy Adams but am not sure) due to critcism of the drugs trade.

On Roy Foster and the Famine. I don’t have Modern Ireland to hand
and can’t check exactly what it says. But it is important I think to state that many of the wilder allegations against him on the Famine made over the years (and not necessarily here) are grossly exaggerated. As for the points made here specifically by Conor and Idris. I imagine that mentioning famine elsewhere is to take away from the sense of unique suffering (MOPEry as it’s sometimes called), and place Ireland in a comparative and wider interational context, as the whole book does. The specific comparison may be open to question, but the fact of comparison does not automatically mean refusing to acknowledge the horrors of the famine, or saying it’s not that bad really. On Idris’ point, that could be about the regional effects of the famine, or the class effects. Or it might not. I’d have to go back and check, but my memory of the chapter on the famine is not that it’s outrageous.

It’s interesting that the most revisionist person on the famine, Cormac Ó Gráda (who argues that it was the result first and foremost of an unforeseeable biological entity, the blight) comes in for none of the abuse Foster does. This could be because he seeks less controversy, or it could be for other reaons, e.g. his last name makes it difficult to accuse him of being a west Brit or whatever. Or if I were Eoghan Harris (and I praise the Lord daily that I am not) I would say it’s because of religion.


30. Conor McCabe - November 10, 2007

Revisionism in Ireland is completely fucked-up. In effect, it is a bunch of nationalist and military historians, fighting with other nationalist and military historians, about nationalism and military history. There is no revisionism in Irish Historical Revisionism, the sense of broadening the research field into social, cultural, economic and class areas. Even the ground-breaking work of David Fitzpatrick has lost its appeal recently. The last fifteen years in Irish historiography has seen a return to the terrorist or freedom-fighter “debate”, with military campaigns and strategies taking centre-stage as somehow encapsulating the social, political, cultural, religious, and economic world of Ireland from 1913-1923.The Coolacrease documentary is just another example of the use of Ireland’s history to score contemporary political points. and it’s an Irish thing. I mean, when’s the last time the conservatives in England used the general strike to score points over Labour, in the way that Coolacrease is being used to undermine Sinn Féin? That’s how daft, or fucked-up, this whole thing really is. and now we have Eoghan Harris calling on the people of Offaly to apologise? He must be off the happy-pills again.


31. Conor McCabe - November 10, 2007

Garibaldy, first of all I mentioned Roy Foster AND Mary Daly, not just Roy Foster. Secondly, this discussion came about through ejh saying that, soon enough, we’ll reach the stage where the famine will be seen as just “one of those things.” I said that that is roughly what Roy Foster and Mary Daly have said. I did not say that what Foster and Daly argue is outrageous, simply that they would see the famine as, well, just one of those things, and have set out with a dispassionate account of the famine, in the case of Mary Daly as seen through the eyes of statistics – which is what Ó Gráda does as well.


32. Garibaldy - November 10, 2007


As I said, I was addressing more than your points. I didn’t intend to misrepresent you. I read all the posts in one go, and Mary Daly slipped out of my head. I don’t think that the famine is seen as one of those things. It’s taken by revisionists as the key dividing line in modern Irish history. Work by people like Bew helped elucidate the class structure and tensions of C19th, but unfortunately, many people are now replacing the old metanarrative with a sectarian one. Which is equally wrong.

On your point about broadening things out, I agree to an extent that this has stopped. But much is still being done (perhaps too much) in the cultural field. Reading Foster’s new book at the minute, on 1970-2000, Economic, religious/social, political, northern and cultural chapters.


33. Wednesday - November 10, 2007

It’s interesting that the most revisionist person on the famine, Cormac Ó Gráda (who argues that it was the result first and foremost of an unforeseeable biological entity, the blight) comes in for none of the abuse Foster does. This could be because he seeks less controversy, or it could be for other reaons, e.g. his last name makes it difficult to accuse him of being a west Brit or whatever.

That’s funny. I read the book last year and here is an excerpt from the mini-review I wrote about it for another forum:

“Unlike most books on the Irish famine, this doesn’t cover the story on a chronological/narrative basis but instead seeks to determine the hows, whys and whats of the disaster through a detailed examination of contemporary reports, statistical information and folklore…While this approach inevitably winds up shattering some well-known famine myths, the book is not revisionist and taken overall, it largely confirms rather than contradicts the standard historiography of the famine period.”

I had a discussion about it around the same time with a well-known Shinner who is known in republican circles for being a keen amateur historian himself and he pretty much shared my view. The reason neither of us thought it was “revisionist” had nothing to do with Ó Gráda’s name or anything, it was mainly because I guess we would both see famine revisionism as being an attempt to play down the seriousness of it and/or to present the British government as having dealt with it in good faith, neither of which he does.


34. WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2007

On that point Wednesday I think it’s also important to note that there is an argument as regards the Famine which is that it was in the main a biological event, but one which in political and social consequences and responses indicated that the British were simply incapable of dealing honestly and with any significant degree of understanding and compassion on this island. That stops short of the ‘genocide’ argument, that it was a deliberate extermination of the Irish, but I think it has resonant echoes of the term ‘politicide’ coined by Baruch Kimmerling (in relation to Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians – a great great book) whereby it was seen as an expedient means of making the Irish quiescent and reshaping them to some degree politically and socially. Is that the sort of line Ó Gráda takes or is it more muted?

On another point, poor old Fergus Campbell who I knew somewhat in the past, as did other contributors here, gets a lash on indymedia for being a ‘revisionist’. From talking to him at length about these issues I never had that sense of his research taking that line at all…


35. Garibaldy - November 11, 2007

Ó Gráda points out that the scale of the initial relief effort was immense and unprecedented for a state in the middle of the C19th. He does however condemn what he calls the callous act to withdraw relief in 1847, and leave it to the local authorities, which were never going to be able to cope. I don’t think that he thinks it was politicide as such.

As for Fergus Campbell. This gets to the thrust of what a revisionist is, and thus relates to Wednesday’s point. In the sense that his work does not buy into the old nationalist myths, then clearly he is a revisionist. But, in that he seeks to tell a different story than that offered by people like Fitzpatrick (who incidentally Conor I thought was the inspiration behind many of these local studies of the conflict in certain areas), he is not a revisionist of the traditional type. Fewer and fewer people are. The term I think is no longer really of any real relevance. Leave it to the Ruth Dudley Edwards’, Myers’, Harris’ of the world, who seem to think that rather than being the establishment they are fighting it.


36. WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2007

Campbell strikes me as being much more interested in class than nation. But I had no sense he was hostile to the latter. But I agree entirely with your point. It’s a different form of revisionism to that that came before and one that is not – as far as I can see – in sympathy with the previous version….


37. And another thing! Coolacrease and Harris… we should have guessed…it’s not the past, it’s the present! « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 11, 2007

[…] November 11, 2007 Posted by WorldbyStorm in History. trackback I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. And now, due to Eoghan Harris, we see the Coolacrease situation become elevated to a […]


38. And another thing! Coolacrease and Harris… we should have guessed…it’s not the past, it’s the present! | Irish Election - November 11, 2007

[…] thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. And now, due to Eoghan Harris, we see the Coolacrease situation become elevated to a […]


39. Conor McCabe - November 11, 2007

Garabaldy, Fitzpatrick’s book is more than just a study of the IRA in one county, which is what a lot of those local studies have become.

Fergus Cambell is not a revisionist – he’s a left-wing/materialist historian. you cannot talk of revisionism in Irish history without conjuring up the meaning that word has gained over the past 30 years. It is impossible to speak of revisionism in Irish history in anything other than that hermetically sealed world that is Irish nationalist history. you cannot talk of revisionism in Irish history as somehow comparable to revisionism in English or European or American or Asian or African history. It does not mean, “to revise.” In the words of Christine Kinealy, Irish revisionism is “a self-imposed censorship for fear of providing ideological bullets to the Irish Republican Army.” And as for Fergus Campbell, this is what he has to say about the current state of play in Irish historiography. It comes from his 2004 article for Past and Present:

“The recent historiography of the Irish revolution has tended to underestimate the importance of social conflict in Ireland between 1916 and 1921. In a recent essay, John Regand and Mike Cronin have argued that “there is little evidence of a social component within the Irish revolution and less again in its settlement. Such potential as there was forsocial upheaval had to a great extent been defused by the transfer of land back to native ownership under a series of reforming land acts at the end of the nineteenth, and the beginning of the new century.”

similarly, Michael Laffan suggests in The Resurrection of Ireland that ‘the Irish revolution took nationalist, political and miltary forms, but it did not seriously attempt – let alone achieve – a change in the social balance of power.’ Most surprisingly, a collection of essays [Joost Augusteijn (ed) The Irish Revolution, 1913-1933] aiming to define and explore the nature of the Irish revolution contained no systematic study of either the extraordinary wave of strike activity in Ireland between 1917 and 1923 or the dramatic outbreak of agrarian agitation in the west of Ireland in 1920. This is in stark contrast to the pioneering work of Fitzpatrick (and others) published in the 1970s and 1980s which did examine both labour and agrarian conflicts during the revolutionary period, and the recent tendency to return to the old preoccupations of ‘high’ politics and ‘military struggle is to be regretted.”

Campbell’s research builds on the class analysis of the revolutionary period as put forward by Dr. Emmet O’Connor, Dr. Tom Crean, and even Professor Fitzpatrick. That analysis is completely out of step with what is called Irish revisionism.


40. WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2007

I think though that the renewed emphasis on class pushes us forward away from the arid nostrums of the revisionist/anti-revisionist debate. I think one of the reasons Fergus Campbell was ‘accused’ was because he’d co-organised a conference some years back with some more prominent ‘revisionists’ – a sort of guilt by association, if you will. That charge really irks me if only because it is valid (actually it’s essential, isn’t it) in historical research for there to be a plurality of views and some on indymedia felt that it’s either one thing or another…


41. Conor McCabe - November 11, 2007

I know the conference you are talking about. I was at it. I suppose that makes me a revisionist in the eyes of indymedia as well.

Fergus Campbell is one of a handful of Irish left-wing/materialist historians of that period who are working full-time in academia. The others I can think of are Dr. Emmet O’Connor and Henry Patterson in the University of Ulster, Francis Devine at the SIPTU college, Dr. Martin Maguire in Dundalk IT, and Dr. Donal Ó Drisceoil in UCC. As far as I know, Dr. Fintan Lane is not working full-time in academia, although he is still producing work. Dr. Tom Crean is teaching in the projects in New York.

Now, it is fair to say that when it comes to the period 1913-1923, none of these guys are on any of the media’s contact list. and when was the last time, if any, you saw them on a Hidden History programme? In Ireland we are still light-years away from accepting that a materialist analysis of our history may, just may, throw a little bit of light on the proceedings. In the meantime, what passes for historical debate is who shot who in the balls.


42. Garibaldy - November 11, 2007


Great article by Cambpell. As I’m sure you know, Fitzpatrick supervised a great deal of those county histories, and they tend to try and follow the method of his Politics and Irish Life. Which is what I meant by saying he inspired them.

Campbell is a revisionist in the sense that he does not trot out the old myths. This is what Foster meant when he said we are all revisionists now. Left-wing or materialist historians, especially Patterson and Bew, set about challenging the old myths from their own perspective (the introduction to Bew’s new book consciously identifies himself as a revisionist). And let’s not forget that one of the strengths of the leading revisionist, Foster, has been precisely the sensitivity he displays to class and culture.

I think there is definitely a gap between revisionist historical writing written mainly for an academic audience, and the revisionism of someone like Harris. The conflation of the two is not helpful, although some of the historians are guilty of it. A political agenda has been present in the revisionism of many countries, and is partly why revisionists often feel solidarity with each other. Ireland and Israel being good examples.

The work of Campbell and others is most welcome because it shows how we are moving beyond the old terms, which is why I said above we should leave the term revisionist to the Harris’ of the world who want to use it for political reasons.


43. Conor McCabe - November 11, 2007

It’s true about Foster and class. Indeed, Foster was Campbell’s supervisor and mentor. Foster is by no means a materialist historian, but it’s to the quality of the man that he can encourage someone like Campbell and broaden the discipline. Fitzpatrick, by the way, is no fan of Campbell’s work. Having said that, Fitzpatrick supervised Tom Crean’s (as of yet) unpublished study of labour in Kerry. Harris, on the other hand, is an obnoxious bully. And it’s true, we need to just leave revisionist to Harris and his ilk.

At the same time, Irish historiography is an intensely conservative and elitist discipline. I mean, how did we ever arrive at a situation where journalists and media graduates are the only ones making history programmes? Where are the historians? how many people read IHS, IESH, or Saothar? And how many people saw Coolacrease? Joe Duffy can get away with saying that the 1st Dáil had no mandate – which is complete toss – and Eoghan Harris gets to talk balls on the airwaves.

I mean, take the vicious sectarian murders that were occurring on a daily, sometime hourly, basis in the north of the Ireland during 1920-22. It is a true reflection of our modern-day mindset that we can dismiss those murders as, well, “that’s the north”, when, at the time, no such mental division existed down south, at least, not as we now perceive the north. In fact, as late as 1922, it was still believed that the council of Ireland would help sort out the (temporary) partition. Bonar Law’s election as leader of the conservatives, and by extension Prime Minister, soon put paid to that.

what I’m saying is that it is a modern, southern, mindset to see events in the north of the island as separate to the south. We’re now into our fifth generation that was born post-independence, and post-partition. And that modern mindset is reflected perfectly in the “discussion” around Coolacrease.

For example, on 24 March 1922, Owen McMahon, a Roman Catholic publican in Belfast, was woken by a gang of armed and masked men. Mr McMahon was shot dead, along with his three of his five sons and the manager of the pub, Edward McKinney. Nobody today is going to arouse indignation in anyone for the death of Owen McMahon, his three sons, and the manager of his pub, because, well, we’re used to hearing about such things when it comes to “the north”. And that is a modern, southern, “free-stater” mindset.

It’s a different point to the historical accuracy, or lack thereof, contained in the Coolacrease documentary. nonetheless, it has a bearing on the media reaction.


44. Ed Hayes - November 12, 2007

Conor, I’ve certainly heard of the McMahon murders, as has anyone who has read Tim Pat Coogan on Collins, someone who sells a lot more books than Roy Foster. As an interested amatuer, who would you recommend to me as good? I enjoyed N. Puirseil’s book on Labour recently. I found henry Pattersons’ Ireland Since 1939 hard to get into and my old prejiduces prevented me from perhaps appreciating it more.


45. Garibaldy - November 12, 2007


I agree on the problems of Irish historiography. As for the media programmes, I suspect that Ireland could have its equivalent of Schama or Starkey, but that none of the professional historians want that profile or the hassle that comes with it.

You’re right too about the partitionist mindset (and Foster’s new book is to a large extent an examination of how that mindset has accelerated over the period of the Troubles), and the extremely annoying habits of reading it backwards in Irish history. I’m from the north, so the McMahon story is familiar to me, as is the shameful subsequent history of Nixon.

The whole obsession with portraying the 1919-23 period as filled with repulsive and heinous acts by the traditional heroes is partly due to the touchy feely culture that has emerged. One of its more repulsive aspects is the glamorisation of the first world war. We all to recognise each other’s pain, etc etc. It makes me want to puke.

Ed, Coogan does indeed sell more books than Foster. But is a less perceptive chronicler of the changes in Irish society over the last few centuries. For what it’s worth, if you’re interested in the early twentieth century you could do a whole lot worse than Fearghal McGarry’s biography of Eoin O’Duffy, which has a lot of important things to say about Irish political culture at the time.


46. Conor McCabe - November 12, 2007

Cheers for that Garibaldy. I haven’t had a chance to read Fearghal McGarry’s book yet. I must get around to it. Nor did I know about Foster’s latest work on the partitionist mindset. I must check that out as well. For me, one of the things about Coolacrease is that attitude in the south, the “Well I can understand those murdering Nordies shooting each other and not playing by the rules, but this the THE SOUTH!” They remind me of General Melchett in Blackadder, talking about the Bosch. and that’s before we get into the sheer inaccuracies that are doing the rounds with regard to Coolacrease anyway, all in the name of modern political objectives.

Ed, the best book on Irish labour remains Emmet O’Connor’s “A Labour History of Ireland.” Actually, if you can get your hands on it, his “A Labour history of Waterford” is a better introduction to the history of Labour in Ireland, but it’s a lot harder to track down. Outside of Irish labour history, I’m afraid I’m not up to speed on what’s cutting the mustard or not these days.


47. Garibaldy - November 12, 2007

In case anyone hasn’t seen this, there’s been some discussions of these issues on slugger


I suspect Davy Adams read it before he wrote his piece for the Irish Times.

Foster’s new book is called Luck and the Irish.


48. Grendel - November 17, 2007

WBS, you might be interested to know this blog got an approving
mention in the current issue of “An Phoblacht” for your
debate on the the Coolacrease affair.(I’m not a Shinner-I
only read it out of curiosity, because I was in the public
library today).


49. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

Cheers Grendel. Actually I heard about that on Thursday and purchased a copy today. I’ll scan the piece and put it up tomorrow.


50. JohnD - November 18, 2007

Interesting discussion here. I just want to lob in my two cents.

I think that if we step back from current politics a bit we should see the Pearson killings against the background of political violence in Ireland in the 1919-1923 period, not just about whether the killings were sectarian or otherwise.

The point is that the IRA gave themselves a mandate to mount a campaign of political violence, as they saw it, in defence of the Irish Republic, declared in 1919. People who actively opposed the Sinn Fein movement were killed and this included Catholic RIC men, informers, and even rival nationalists (in Ulster the IRA killed a number of Ancient Order of Hibernians). The programme stated that a number of Catholic informers were shot dead in Offally before the Pearsons. Also, it seems as if the Pearsons were killed mainly because they took some shots at IRA men. I am in no way supporting the killings when I say that Catholics would have got exactly the same treatment. So my point is that if we’re going to have a debate about the morality of IRA killings in the 1920s, why were killings of the Pearsons qualitively worse than others? Shouldn’t we really be talking about the morality of political violence in general as a tactic in this period?

On the other hand, I think we should also acknowledge that sectarian or, if you like, ethnic, conflict is part of the story of 1919-23. Not that this was only on the Republican side. In the north up to 350 Catholic civilians were killed by loyalists/and or state forces in the 1920-22 period. There were also cases such as that of Catholic priest Michael Griffin, who was abducted by the Black and Tans in Galway and murdered. But there were many sectarian attacks by republicans too. the statistics tell us that about 200 Protestant civilians were killed by the IRA in Belfast, and these included actions like bombing trams and blowing up a Protestant school. There is also the Dunmanway incident in Cork, where 13 Protestant civilians were killed in revenge for the shooting of an IRA man.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is that we need to look not just at specific actions of the IRA and whether they were sectarian but at the nature of political violence in this period in general. I would argue that IRB influenced Volunteers launched an armed campaign in order to impose their political goals – ie an Irish Republic. They were ruthless in this campaign against anyone who opposed them. And while they did not ethnicly cleanse Protestants in any kind of concerted way, the IRA were clearly capable of taking out collective reprisals on what some would have seen as the ‘enemy’ community. But it should also be acknowledged that the state forces and, even more so, the loyalists of this era, were just as guilty of collective and indiscriminate violence against the ‘disloyal’ Catholic community.


51. Garibaldy - November 18, 2007

John D,

I’d agree with a lot of what you say. And here comes the but. The Dunmanaway incident is also not as straightforward as it first seems, with credible evidence (ignored or misrepresented by Peter Hart it seems) that the people targeted there had helped crown forces.

And your post seems to ignore the 1918 election. Which the British government had ignored, thus leaving violence as the only way.

And the Hibs used violence against the IRA. So all in all I agree it was a very messy period, that there was a great deal of sectarian violence and disgraceful behaviour on all sides. But each incident should be looked at carefully.


52. JohnD - November 20, 2007

Garibaldy, sure the 1918 election gave the Sinn Fein movement a mandate, but i think that if you look at the fighters on the ground, and I’m talking about the Michael Collins, Liam Lynches, Ernie O’Malleys Dan Breens, etc, they were determined to fight anyway, election or no election. 1916 had no political mandate and the civil war was fought against the elected government in defence of the The Republic. I’m not arguing here about morality or otherwise, rather about the nature of Republican political violence in this period. I think Ernie O’Malley summed up this mindset best when he said something like, ‘if we asked the people in the first place we would never had fired a shot, if we give them a strong lead, they will follow’.

As far as Dunmanway and other incidents go, I agree that they should be looked at on their own merits. In my opinion, it was a revenge attack on civilians, and informers or no, it took place months after the end of the WOI in early 1922. However, this doesn’t mean that I think the IRA of this era were a sectarian murder gang. They were as capable of reprisals, sectrian and otherwise as their enemies. I would argue that, when looked at closely, the 1919-23 period is full of vicious and squalid brutality on all sides.


53. Ed Hayes - November 20, 2007

Pat Muldowney had a piece in Saturday’s Irish Times on this. Also WBS were you going to put up a link to something from An Phoblacht?


54. Garibaldy - November 20, 2007

People say that they were determined to fight anyway, and as you point out there is evidence for that. But it’s often the same people who are quoted, and we don’t know how the majority of Volunteers or public opinion would have reacted had SF not won the election. But it did. It had a mandate, it was totally ignored, and thus the following campaign had a democratic mandate. As for 1916. 40 years of Home Rule majorities had produced only an empty promise. I’d have thought an armed rebellion was justified democratically at any stage during that period, even given the restricted electorate at the time. The Civil War again, both sides had a claim to democratic legitimacy. One had won the vote in the Dáil and the election. The other could point out that the elections were far from free and fair given Lloyd George’s threats, never mind the partition issue. None of which justifies any violence 50 years later.

So you and I can agree on brutality, and on the presence of sectarianism among some Volunteers. But we will disagree on the characterisation of republican violence of the period as anti-democratic. For some, yes, but the successful establishment of the Free State and more particularly the transfer of power to FF seems to me to prove the commitment to democracy of most of those supportive of violence in the 1912-23 period.


55. JohnD - November 20, 2007

Ah, hold on now, I didn’t say anti-democratic. My point is that the hardcore fighters amongth Republicans of that era saw themselves as vanguard type group, who were were going to push the passive majority towards the goal that most of them wanted but couldn’t stomache fighting for. Republican violence should be seen in this light in my opinion.

The broader question of Irish nationalism and the British government is a part but only a part of this story in my opinion. The British might or might not have conceded Home Rule of some sort without violence, we’ll never know. So we can and do justify republican violence retrospectively because of what it achivied, but in my opinion, seeing the Volunteers/IRA as reluctant fighters in 1919-21 or 23 doesn’t make sense. Their actions were proactive and designed to overthrow the existing system with The Republic and to push the uncommitted in this direction. Whether they were right or not we have to make our own minds up on. Personally, these days I’m inclined to say no, if only becuase I can’t stomache the bitter little details of the period, of which I’ve recently been reading.


56. Garibaldy - November 20, 2007

Sorry John, my mistake. I agree that in Ireland, like the rest of Europe, there were angry young men seeking to express their politics with a gun. But what transformed it from a vanguard, that probably would have had no more success or numbers than the Fenians, was that they were expressing the popular will for independence. Even if they had not succeeded, they would still have been justified. 1916 was justified by the denial of democratic will; so was 1919-21; and, I’ll even say so was 1922-3. Success or failure isn’t how I judge legitimacy. I won’t say they were reluctant fighters. But they were just ones.

I’m inclined to say that we do know whether there could have been home rule with or without violence – the answer is no, not least because of promises made to unionism, and the opposition among powerful sections of the British government and its supporters even to home rule. We shouldn’t forget the serious flirtations with armed insurrection of the Tories over the Parliament Act and Home Rule just before the war.

It was a violent time. People should be judged by their own standards. Which is one of the major problems of Harris et al. They judge them by non-contemporary standards.


57. WorldbyStorm - November 20, 2007

Ed, I’ll post up AP article tomorrow morning. Need sleep, long day!


58. WorldbyStorm - November 20, 2007

I should add, that I’d tend towards Garibaldy’s view on HR/Independence. It is very very difficult looking at the historical record not to get the impression that the British were utterly unwilling to concede Home Rule. All their actions across decades effectively stymied it, and beyond that they were absolutely bewildered by the very concept of independence. Indeed for many the Free State, truncated as it was, was a step too far. As G says, the British state itself can be seen to have dipped towards political schism on this issue, and that was a state that was already finding it difficult to cope with modernisation, was if anything trying to prevent same as with the struggle for female suffrage, etc, etc.

Worth also noting that in the first decade of the FS there was serious concern that the British might march straight back in to impose their rule. Whether that was likely is a different matter, but… had things moved more quickly, had there been a concerted push to a ‘Republic’ who knows? I’m not trying to make the British out to be monsters, but nor were they naifs. They wanted to retain the integrity of the UK at no little cost, and the power relationship was that without some sort of prodding that wouldn’t change.


59. John D - November 20, 2007

I’m not a home ruler, but I don’t think its true that the British would never have enacted some form of Home Rule. After all it was actually on the statute books since 1913/14 and was enacted, in partitioned form, Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, in September 1920.

Now I wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the idea of British dictated settlement with only limited autonomy – a good bit less than the FS – I would much prefer an independent, and preferably all Ireland republic. But the question I ‘m posing is whether it’s justified to kill in pursuit of this ideal, when other options are on the table. Many republicans felt that it was, because they couldn’t live with the idea of an anglicised and imperial dominion. I completely identify with these feelings, but I find it hard to live what they actually did i pursuit of these ideals – because it led to incidents like what happened to the Pearsons.

I suppose this makes me a pacifist or something, I dunno. Anyway, picking up on somethig you said, I think its more important to understad the past than to judge it on our terms.


60. Garibaldy - November 20, 2007

Exactly John. In partitioned form. They lied even about that, telling nationalists it would happen, and unionists they would be spared from it to get them both to the western front. The sad fact is it was always going to take an armed campaign to get some recognition of the indepence the Irish sought. I don’t feel there were any other options on the table – the refusal to admit the delegates to the Versailles conference proves that. I agree totally bad things happened, but I think it was worth it.


61. jazzmin - April 2, 2008

Muldowney and Co. – Undermined.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

On 25 February 2008, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC), an independent statutory body, with the responsibility to deal with all broadcasting complaints concerning radio and television broadcasters licensed within the Republic of Ireland, considered seven formal complaints regarding RTE’s Hidden History programme, The Killings of Coolacrease. Claims that the documentary was “unbalanced and misleading”, that important evidence was omitted, that there were “inaccurate facts amounting to an attack on a person’s reputation or honour” and that there was “unacceptable suppression of pertinent source material” were rejected by the BCC.



62. Dimeshislibre - February 28, 2010

All the frustration and rage boiling within her poured into the choking bodies around her. Given that theyd once been lovers, he would be more in tune to her feelings. Brevin gave thought to seeing his own mother but decided to visit his brother instead. He raised one eyebrow. His control rushed up around hers, holding her in, holding her back. So handsome, she thought, relatively sure that he wasnt listening. Her truemate startled, his wide red eyes blinking as he slowly came to her meaning. He only shrugged when she glanced down at the wet spot on his trousers. She needed to do this. I…didnt realize until recently thats what Id done, but its true. You havent said please in ages. She stepped back again. He grinned when she licked her lips. Both Brevin and Tykir burst out laughing. His fingers laced with hers where she clutched the mattress. she asked, voice hoarse. Even from a distance, the man was striking. I cant say that I regret my choice, even given this consequence. I fell in love with you when I was only a shadow in the darkness. His strange eyes shone but didnt swirl.


smiffy - February 28, 2010

If this is about Gormley and De Burca, it’s probably more appropriate for a different post.


Tomboktu - February 28, 2010

It is a most peculiar comment. It isn’t an advertisement, and it doesn’t seem to be linked to the topic at hand.


63. WorldbyStorm - February 28, 2010

That’s true. And no comma’s… ‘didnt’… etc…


64. Brandon James Lay - February 16, 2012

I am a direct descendant of the pearsons Abraham and Richard (my great uncles) who were inoccently murdered and inhumainly bled to death! I have to say some of the things that people have claimed about the My Family i find truely offensive! I am only 14 but i have read up about this argument and asked my grandfather about it and i representing the pearsons here today can tell you all we WERE! innocent and Abraham and Richard were inoccently and inhumainly exacuted!

If you have any issues please my email is in the info bar.


65. mccann1916 - November 4, 2013

What do you find offensive and who are the unnamed people you mention? The Pearson family descendants are rightly aggrieved over the politicisation and cynical manipulation of a tragedy by RTÉ and unscrupulous ideologues such as Eoghan Harris et al. The Pearson family were ill-served by RTÉ’s shameful misinformation and the ideologically driven propagandistic feeding frenzy.


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The killing at Coolacrease


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