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Considering the Coolacrease debate: Brian Hanley writes in History Ireland January 16, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History.

Very briefly, simply to note that in History Ireland this month Brian Hanley has an excellent and very balanced overview of the RTÉ Hidden History documentary, The Killings at Coolacrease. Suffice to note before you go and read it yourselves that he makes the reasonable point that:

‘the subsequent comment in the press, radio and on the web generated more heat than light and highlighted the extent to which comment about the War of Independence period is still driven by present-day ideological concerns’.

He also suggests that ‘many people seem to be shocked by the notion of the ‘old’ IRA targeting civilians. But the War of Independence involved a great deal of killing….’.

And he goes on to tackle the issues of the legitimacy of the independence struggle and the nature of that struggle.

Editor Tommy Graham makes the point in the editorial that:

‘On the face of it this was an excellent topic, a truly ‘hidden history’. What we got instead was a teextbook (and brilliant) exercise in media spin, where the ‘line’ of the programme – that this was an incidence of ethnic cleansing carried out for sectarian and/or land-grabbing motives in a deliberately sadistic manner involving sexual mulitation – was taken up by other branches of the media and a predictably ill-informed and emotive ‘debate’ ensued… the programme makers can congratulate themselves on conjuring up a media will-o’-the-wisp but it is doubtful whether they have made any long-term contribution to scholarship on this sensitive issue’.

So, as ever with HI in recent years it’s well worth a read, (including an interesting article by Geoffrey Roberts on “Stalin’s victory? The Soviet Union and World War II” which takes a positive view of the Soviet leader’s military prowess and in the context of HI is – er – thought provoking, but in truth in a good way).

Coolacrease: Much heat, little light and the war of the words continues… November 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History.

Niamh Sammon, producer of The Killings at Coolacrease had a letter in the Irish Times yesterday. In it she argued that:

Over the past few weeks a small group of people have kept up a sustained attack on the recent RTÉ documentary.

Perhaps so. But, the critiques of the programme are broader than the people she is presumably referring to. This site – for example – is one unaligned with the Aubane Historical Society, if anything we’d be rather hostile to their interpretations. Nor are we partisans for any partial or simplistic reading of Irish history. Quite the opposite. Nor, despite being quoted favourably in An Phoblacht are we partisans for any contemporary political party or grouping. Again, quite the opposite. We’re broad left and you’ll find strong criticism of the various left formations on these pages.

Anyhow, that said, it’s interesting that Sammon then focusses in on Pat Muldowney ‘a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Ulster [who] alleges that an RIC investigation concluded that the Pearson brothers were targeted by the IRA because they shot at two members of Sinn Féin (actually that’s not what he says, he says they shot at IRA members – an interesting albeit subtle distinction – wbs).’

She takes him to task because ‘…he is quite wrong; in fact there was no investigation. The document Muldowney cites as evidence is actually British Army correspondance speculating on the reasons for the Pearson killings. It was filed after the Court of Inquiry had deliberated on July 2nd in Birr’.

She notes that at the Court of Inquiry Ethel Pearson in a sworn statement said “I saw the raiders search my brothers, and place them against the wall of the barn and shoot them”.

However, Muldowney has also noted that:

…the eye-witness accounts and the medical evidence tell a very different story. Matilda Pearson’s account in the following week’s local newspapers says that her two brothers were taken away from the other family members. Dave Pearson’s 1981 letter to Hilary Stanley, also quoted in Alan Stanley’s book, says that he and his mother and sisters were taken away separately. Michael Cordial was in command of the execution party, and his Witness Statement on the events (Bureau of Military History) says that the condemned men were separated from the rest of the family.

Who are we to believe? Muldowney has also supplied further geographic evidence that it would have been impossible from the Grove (where Ethel Pearson said at the Inquiry herself and her family were taken – her verbatim quote being “ … My mother who was in a fainting condition was carried by my two brothers into a little wood we call the Grove and we all went with her by the order of the raiders. Six of the raiders, two or three of whom were masked, ordered my brothers down into the yard. I saw the raiders search my brothers and place them against the wall of the barn and shoot them.” ) to see the place where the brothers were shot.

She argues that in the document there is speculation on the reasons for the murder and that ‘crucially’… ‘the very next sentence reads “It is further rumoured when the farm house was burning two guns feel out of the roof”. In other words, the army was simply collating the rumours surrounding the deaths of the Pearsons. Not only were those rumours never investigated; the “Possible Motives” document did not even form part of the Court of Inquiry”.

She’s right. This is crucial. But not quite in the way she suggests.
As with the conflicting statements of Ethel and Matilda Pearson as regards the location of the family it is impossible to weigh up at this remove the competing ‘rumours’. We could believe those presented by the British Army correspondance, or the IRA inquiry, or alternatively the written testimony of one or other of the sisters. Or we could believe Muldowney, or we can believe Sammon or Harris. But that’s all we can do. We can have no degree of certainty. We cannot know. And the only ‘certainty’ being offered is from the various protagonists in this debate.

But that certainty is a chimera. It is intellectually dishonest.

Sammon concludes her letter by saying that…

Dr Muldowney seems to have arrived at his conclusions in spite of, rather than because of, the evidence at hand.

No. He hasn’t. He has simply made a competing interpretation. There is in my opinion, on balance, slightly more evidence for his conclusions. But only slightly. In the end we can really draw no definitive lesson from all this. We cannot know.

Perhaps that’s the most tragic aspect of the whole sorry affair. But that is a demonstration of the limitations of history and dangers of partial or partisan interpretation.

An Phoblacht, The Cedar Lounge Revolution, Coolacrease and Blogging… November 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Blogging, Irish History, Media and Journalism, Sinn Féin.

Nice to see the CLR mentioned in the most recent issue of An Phoblacht. Here is the relevant column (I’ve excised the bits that don’t refer to the CLR so that you can go buy your own copy)…


Frankly it’s a glowing tribute, and much appreciated, although whether we’re anywhere near that good (or even adequate) is a different matter.

Personally I don’t think blogs can achieve the sort of critical mass that they do in the US. The US has – to my mind – a very mature and engaged political system at certain levels. There is remarkable interaction and engagement by those who are politicised. And this, I think, is perhaps partially because elections are much more a part of US general life, in terms of electoral contests for municipal and other organisations than they are in this society, or indeed the one next door. That can lead to oddities, as we’ve seen on numerous occasions, and the system does become slanted towards those with money, as distinct from those without. But, the principle is a good one, and one that could be adopted more widely.

Anyhow, I’m continually reminded of this when I listen to the various NPR shows on the internet (incidentally, talking as Conor was about dumbing down the media… people can keep (most) of the BBC, although not all). We complain here about a tilt towards the right in our society but listen to ‘Left, Right and Centre’ or ‘To the point’ and the range of ideological positions is quite remarkable and makes our own media seem very tame.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that what is true of NPR is true of the entirety of U.S. society, but it is reflective of a serious strain of political thinking that crosses partisan lines and I like that – a lot. And to return to my central point, this leads to a politically engaged spectrum which consumes a range of information from various sources, some of remarkable quality. And that means that bloggers have a much greater penetration into that system (it’s very noticeable to me how many people on the NPR shows have their own blogs – mind you they probably have their own myspace pages as well…natch!).

At the Irish Election Bloggers Conference last Autumn Guido Fawkes was the main speaker (incidentally, good to see the IE redesign which is clean, crisp and logical. Fair dues to Simon and Cian and designer/coder John Blackbourne). He seemed to be pushing a very proactive line, a sort of Private Eye on internet steroids. That’s fine as far as it goes, but in a smaller, more personal polity like the one(s) on this island it is more difficult. To ‘break’ news, or even to cross a certain line and ‘create’ news is near impossible, and almost certainly impossible to do on a daily or weekly basis.
But reflecting on a discourse, now that’s a different matter. And I think that’s pretty good in itself.

Still, that leads me to another thought. We’ve already sent out a call for further material to the Left Archive. More would be appreciated, particularly material from the smaller groups that haven’t been represented yet (yes! I want that SWM leaflet I handed good money over in ’88 and promptly lost). But it would also be interesting to hear if you have any ideas for the Cedar Lounge Revolution. What do you like or dislike? Any thoughts on improvements? Stuff you want to see?

Comment here or drop us a line at cedarlounge@yahoo.ie

And so it continues… Coolacrease… amateur historians and denial November 18, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History, Media and Journalism.

Another weekend, another column by the indefatigable Eoghan Harris. And consequently another post by the frankly fairly fatiguable me…
This Sunday he is writing once more about Coolacrease and the Paul Quinn murder. He suggests that:

Last week I argued that the link between the killing of Paul Quinn of Cullyhanna in October 2007, and the killing of the two Pearson brothers at Coolacrease, Co Offaly in June 1921, was that both were carried out by people using the cloak of the IRA to cover what, in any normal society, would be seen as a cruel and criminal act.

I think that’s a telling admission. The term ‘normal society’ is replete with significations. Ireland in 1921 was not a ‘normal society’. The North in 2007 is moving towards ‘normality’, but still has a way to go. And it is this essentially – and I use the term advisedly – bourgeois sensibility that to me explains much much more of his political meanderings than any other factor. Because it is as one with the effectively vicarious and voyeuristic finger wagging of someone looking into a situation unable to contextualise that situation either in a socio-political or cultural milieu. I’ve spoken before of the condescending and patronising words about Protestants, thankfully missing in this piece.

Yet there are other patronising and condescending words for finally we are told what the response should be…

Likewise, decent local people were not wise in accepting the dubious assistance of the Aubane Historical Society in casting a cloud over the Pearsons. Instead of an ecumenical service of atonement — there was no clergyman at the Pearsons’s burial — we get increasingly incoherent attempts to explain away the murders. The latest lunacy on Indymedia is that the Pearsons were shot in the groin because IRA executioners were “inexperienced”!

‘An ecumenical service of atonement’. Well, there’s something to conjure with. A disputed historical event. Insufficient evidence to come to a clear determination as to guilt or otherwise and Ireland in 2007 is told that ‘atonement’ must be made. I disagree fundamentally. Incidentally it seems to me quite possible that an IRA unit might well be ‘inexperienced’ in such matters, it wasn’t quite a Maoist peasant uprising, but nor was it a well drilled standing army, and his point sits oddly with a later paragraph where he says:

Let me predict that the more decent locals let Aubane dictate how they handle this atrocity, the more the story will refuse to die. Because many Irish people simply do not believe that a pacifist Cooneyite family like the Pearsons would shoot and wound a member of the North Offaly IRA — who, by all accounts, were a maladroit bunch that most likely shot one of their own members in the dark.

Well come on now, we’re told they’re bloody executioners in one passage and that they’re a maladroit bunch in another. I can live with ambiguity and gray areas, but on all other issues the good Senator can’t.

But returning to atonement. This proposition seems to me to misunderstand the point of atonement and to enter into a process by which guilt is ascribed collectively. To my mind those who were guilty of murdering the Pearsons, those who know what happened definitively on that and the preceding days, were the ones who had to make atonement or come to terms with their acts. Not a community or polity, either local or general, some 90 odd years later. To do so would be to ascribe a certainty to the situation which we cannot determine. It would be an utter falsehood. A lie.

A lie shaped politically to cast a shadow across what was by any reckoning an already sufficiently bloody history which needs no further exaggeration or hyperbole.

And it would also be as gestural in its own way as the pointless and revanchist attacks on the PSNI policemen these last two weeks.

You’ll have gathered I loathe gestural politics from whatever direction.

Meanwhile, talking about Tom McGurk’s article in the Sunday Business Post last week he suggests:

Finally, I can see why naff Irish nationalists need to believe the fiction that no sectarian act was ever committed by the Old IRA in the Irish Republic. But I can’t see why Northern nationalists would want to deny that our Southern grandfathers could be as gruesomely sectarian as any of the gangs that roam South Armagh — a point brilliantly made in a polemic by Danny Morrison a few years ago.

So I was bit baffled when Tom McGurk, a Northerner who makes no secret of his nationalism, came out so strongly in last week’s Sunday Business Post against RTE’s Coolacrease programme. In doing so, he leaned far too heavily on a long article by Pat Muldowney published in Indymedia, home of hardline nationalists.

He then sallies forth with his boilerplate accusation about Muldowney.

More seriously, McGurk misleads us in the following two sentences. “University of Ulster academic Pat Muldowney — whose new book on the period will be published soon — is also said to be angry. As a historian, Muldowney is astonished that the programme ignored the only surviving documentary evidence of the incident — the officially recorded inquest into the killings.”

The close conjunction of these two sentences might lead the casual reader to form the impression that Muldowney is a University of Ulster academic historian. In fact Muldowney is a lecturer in mathematics at the university, and thus an amateur historian when it comes to weighing evidence. This causes him — and thus McGurk — to make elementary errors when evaluating evidence.

I’ve said it before. What historical track record does Harris have that he considers himself in a position to throw brick bats at Muldowney? No more or no less than Muldowney, I would suggest. McGurk rather wryly noted that:

[the documentary makers were] Assisted by Senator Eoghan Harris, who apparently is an expert on the matter…

But it’s also worth pointing out that far from the pollyanish view of the WoI that Harris suggests Nationalists have McGurk also wrote:

Only the naive or those with a dinner party view of history could imagine that there were no sectarian incidents or acts of land grabbing as an empire was taken on.

The War of Independence was a vicious and largely localised war, with local IRA units – dominated by local families – enjoying little centralised organisation or direction. At the end, the winners wrote the story.

Local scores were settled – as the Republican courts, after they were set up, were to discover. But were militant Republican roots not embedded in the land war and its secret societies?

Equally, in the rural campaigns, wasn’t the land always going to be the perpetual subtext to everything else? After all, was this not a dispute engendered by an historic act of dispossession?

Note the phrase ‘dinner party view’…

Harris, though, continues to argue that all the evidence that Muldowney presents is suspect.

But Muldowney’s (and McGurk’s) interpretation is merely a terse summary by the Court of a one-page RIC Inspector’s report which simply summarises all the rumours rife in a local community which is clearly shocked by the Pearson shootings and anxious to find some acceptable motives for the atrocity. The RIC Inspector’s report on the rumours runs as follows

“Possible motives: 1. The acquisition of Pearsons land (para on this). 2. Revenge by Sinn Fein. It is said by the County Inspector Queen’s County 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. It is further rumoured when the farm house was burning, two guns fell out of the roof.”

Firstly, Muldowney is as entitled to ‘interpret’ this as Harris is. The historical record remains contested (note too that Harris entirely ignores the IRA’s own investigation).

And to anchor this in the present political context consider what Harris writes about a more contemporary resonance…

On reflection I realise that there is a further link. In both cases a shocked society took refuge in denials which protect associates or descendants of the perpetrators. Official Ireland sacrificed Paul Quinn to the peace process in order to protect Adams & Co. The Pearsons were sacrificed to national and local pieties — the claim that they were subjected to a “proper” IRA execution.

Again, a complete overestimation of what happened in Coolacrease. But worse an overestimation of what happened in South Armagh.

The Government and the Opposition were wrong to accept Sinn Fein assurances that the South Armagh IRA were not the perpetrators — a fiction that Lord Laird blew apart in his detailed description of how eight of the attackers wore surgical gowns and gloves, the grim garb of the IRA butchers of South Armagh.

Have the Goverment and the Opposition done any such thing? The IMC is fairly clear on the matter suggesting that associates or former or current members of the IRA may have been involved. I’m no apologist for the South Armagh IRA, quite the opposite, but I’m fairly certain that the murder of Paul Quinn reflected no larger political agenda (and having seen other paramilitaries fade away in inglorious circumstances why are we expected to believe that such events could not take place). And oddly enough so is Lord Laird who says that the IRA Army Council did not authorise any such happening. Which makes one wonder why there is this wish to play fast and loose with the facts, such as they are…

Harris argues that…

Denials do more damage than the original atrocity. When those in authority avoid naming names, decent people despair and fall dumb, the community closes in around the dirty secret, and civil society is clouded until the original offence against the moral order is brought out in the open and atoned for.

Actually, again I disagree. The original murders of the Pearsons, dispute or not, were the appalling acts, not a rather paltry dispute in the Irish media in 2007. That they happened in the context of a conflict provides scant exculpation. But that is the very point Harris time and again refuses to face up to. There was no clear ‘moral order’ in 1921. The British had seen to it that the democratic rights of the Irish were time and again stymied as they delayed any measure of Home Rule let alone independence. The response from this society to that delay, a delay set within an history that stretched centuries back and which included periods of ferocious repression, means that talk of ‘moral order’ seems willfully self-serving. Conflict is the absence, or near absence, of moral order and always will be. There are few enough ‘clean’ transitions from one national structure to another (perhaps the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc came close, but even there innocents were caught up in those events, and even today, as we have seen in Poland a long shadow has been cast). And to pretend that the shift from conflict to peace does not engender the most egregious and sometimes murderous contradictions, and that that is as true of 2007 as it was in 1921, is to be more than self-serving… that is also to be in denial.

And another thing! Coolacrease and Harris… we should have guessed…it’s not the past, it’s the present! November 11, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History.

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 semi-political issue, hence my posting this to Irish Election as well as the Cedar Lounge Revolution.

Eoghan Harris in today’s Sunday independent writes about Coolacrease (Tom McGurk also writes about it sensibly in the SBH). Have to say, this is a perfect storm for Harris, isn’t it? He’s in the Senate, in the Sunday Independent and handed an issue which he can run and run with.

But for those who can’t be pushed to read his column here are some choice highlights from it. As with David Adams there is no engagement with the piffling ‘facts’. Why should there be? The end is rather different from an academic debate on the events of 1921.

And that end? Well, Harris is much much more unrestrained than either Sammon, Adams or Hourihane. He just comes right out and says it…

Let’s hope RTE — and the rest of the Irish media — is robust enough to reject any attempts to stifle challenges to the tribal take on Irish history. After all, if we can’t face the truth about the IRA atrocity against Richard and Abraham Pearson from Coolacrease, 86 years ago, how can we face the truth about the IRA atrocity against Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna a few weeks ago?

But wait a second. The police forces of this island have said that they do not have any evidence that this was an ‘IRA atrocity’ against Paul Quinn. And let me be very clear, in the North this week we saw the threat by dissident Republicanism to serving members of the PSNI – a force which has undergone enormous changes for the better in the past five years and is now fully (if not uncritically) supported by the political representatives of the people of the North. Still no mention of that when yesterday’s battles are so much more attractive and so much less difficult to deal with than an intransigient and undemocratic rump (indeed, in light of that and on the weekend where the UDA finally, finally, after years announces a stand down of theirs and the UFF units perhaps it seems almost perverse to be attempting to construct this narrative). No charges have been brought. No evidence submitted. No sentences passed. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness continue their improbable love-in, and does the good Senator believe that that love-in would survive one nano-second longer than the announcement of evidence that the IRA had indeed committed an atrocity?

As with Adams he says:

May I also draw Fr Murphy’s attention to the dangers of doing business with amateur historians as outlined by the sub-heading on Davy Adams’s cogent column on Coolacrease in today’s Irish Times.

Which is interesting as a charge from a man with no track record as an historian whatsoever (although his wiki entry states that he had degree in History – still we’ll see in a moment how he is as quick to dismiss those with historical qualifications as those without).

Yet again we have an attack on the Aubane Historical Society – for being the Aubane Historical Society, rather than the actual facts.

Davy Adams demolishes any attempt to present the Pearson killings as an IRA execution, as well as Aubane’s attacks on the Coolacrease programme. “Their campaign seems designed merely to sow doubt, create confusion and muddy the waters around the Coolacrease murders. If they are lucky, it might also have the effect of ensuring that no other such programmes are made.”

Firstly Adams didn’t do any such thing. He attacked the AHS and merely alleged with no substantiation that what they were saying was incorrect (incidentally – I’m still unsure is Muldowney a member of the AHS – does anyone know?). But the irony here is that Harris is using the same tactics as the AHS because, and that is unsurprising both have a common political lineage, through the influence of the British and Irish Communist Organisation (for more see here), even if they’ve ended up in different places (well, not so different seeing as both idolise Fianna Fáil and Bertie Ahern – ah, these ‘elite’ conflicts…).

It’s been a busy week for Harris.

Senator David Norris kindly lets me look at a letter to him from a Pearson critic, historian Philip McConway, which accuses me — and not the IRA murder gang — of deciding to “fan the flames of hatred”. How? By saying I believed the IRA gang were aiming at the boys’ genitals.

McConway goes on to complain about David Norris’s passionate defence of the Pearson boys in the Senate: “As a contributor and researcher for the RTE Hidden History documentary, The Killings at Coolacrease, I take grave exception to your remarks. I was awarded the M.Phil in Modern Irish History in Trinity College Dublin in 2007. My dissertation, entitled The IRA in Offaly 1920-21, was awarded a 1:1 which is a first class honours grade. The Pearson episode featured in this dissertation.”

To which David Norris replied: “I have received your letter. I am not in the slightest bit intimidated by your M.Phil nor did I specify you or your research. I do not withdraw a single atom of what I said.” No keeping the head down for Norris.

This latter reference is as regards the condescending line that Harris has taken as regards ‘speaking up’ for Protestants in this state. How good of him to do so. How strange that he never asked those of us – like myself – with a background in that community before taking this weight upon himself. But then, it seems that Protestants are to be no more than bit players in this war of the words waged for his own political ends. And nice to note that ‘academic historians’ are given no greater shrift than ‘amateurs’ when they dissent from the Harris line…

….in my extensive experience, any attempt to challenge the tribal taboo on this subject produces a five-part protocol which goes as follows:

First, some brave soul challenges the nationalist consensus about some atrocity against Protestants in some part of rural Ireland, in the period 1919-1923. Second, just as decent local people are pondering some public atonement, a few local historians start to split hairs and decent people desist. Third, local Protestants are persuaded to say there was no sectarian agenda in the affair. Fourth, anyone who publicises the affair is accused of “fanning the flames of sectarian hatred” or “damaging the peace process”, or not “moving on.”

Problem is this is all rhetoric. Harris can’t point to a ‘tribal taboo’ about atrocity (or ‘countless numbers’ of atrocities against Protestants – as David Adams put it in Fridays Irish Times) because there isn’t such a taboo. There is no such taboo because there is no evidence of more than a very very limited number of actions with a clearly sectarian face during the War of Independence. And this, I think, is to the credit of those who fought in that war, arguably on both sides, that it didn’t descend into that particular pit and that it remained very much a conflict where nationalism took centre stage rather than religion (although it would be wrong not to accept that the latter dimension was very important in the North).

Note the use of the word ‘atonement’. Just what manner of atonement is possible or even relevant at this remove? And to who is it directed at?

Then we have the idea that ‘local historians’ (a breed almost as low in his personal hierarchy of the historical as the ‘amateur historians’ he refers to earlier) ‘split hairs’. Well. No.

The point of a serious historical analysis is to present all the facts and then to construct a narrative which can be held up for critique. You will note that there are two key parts of that process. ‘All the facts’ and ‘held up for critique’. But if we are to take the Harris line neither is as important as the narrative.

Note too the way in which ‘Protestants’ are wheeled on once more as passive bystanders, there to be ‘persuaded’. The idea that citizens of this state who happen to be Protestant might eschew ‘tribalism’ or worrying about a past which is apparently being reconstructed before our very eyes seems not to have occurred to Harris.

And there is a central oddity to this, which actually links into his point about ‘fanning the flames of sectarian hatred’. The entire thesis he presents is built upon constructing a narrative of sectarianism where one does not exist. So, in a sense, that is certainly generating a sectarian discourse, although hatred might be putting it too strongly.

Fifth, and most formidably, as can be seen from its websites, the Aubane Historical Society, and its allies, bombard the media with a massive mailbag of tendentious and tediously argued letters. These create so much fog around the facts, that Roman Catholics and real republicans retreat from any act of atonement — and local Protestants learn once again the lesson of keeping the head down.

I keep saying it. I have little or no time for the AHS. But… many of those linked to it appear to have a least some credentials as ‘academic’ historians. Their conclusions may well be tendentious, but… so what? It is the factual data which is of relevance.

Or that was how it worked until Canadian historian Peter Hart published The IRA and its Enemies. Although Hart was subjected to a series of violent verbal polemics by the Aubane Society (assisted more temperately by priest historian Fr Brian Murphy OSB, who often launches Aubane’s books), he touched a deep chord among decent Roman Catholics and real republicans.

Listening to Liveline, I have a hunch that the 86-year taboo is being broken and that the the Pearson boys will be hard to bury.

Hart was critiqued by many many more than the AHS. Any examination of History Ireland will demonstrate that his thesis was considered to be overblown – although much of his research was interesting. But again we tip into a near sectarian discourse of ‘decent Catholics’. Quite apart from sounding as if this missal was delivered by a time tunnel from the latter part of the 19th century it seems strange to place it within a framework of ‘real’ Republicanism which surely would eschew all such categorisation.

And finally, he reiterates a point which is at the heart of all this contention…

At first sight it would seem hard to deny the facts of the murders at Coolacrease. A gang of 30 IRA men, in broad daylight, dragged out Richard and Abraham Pearson, two members of the pacifist Cooneyite sect, and shot them in the groin and abdomen — as the family later testified — in full sight of their mother and sisters.

In defiance of the Pearson family’s testimony, Pat Muldowney, in a letter to Village magazine, denies the Pearson boys were shot in front of their family. In defiance of common sense, he describe as “salacious” my inference that because the Pearsons were shot in the groin and lower abdomen, the IRA gang were aiming at their genitals.

The problem is – from any viewpoint beyond Harris and those he cheer leads, that none of this is uncontentious. The facts are not as he proposes – or at least there is sufficient other evidence to suggest a much more complex situation both in the time leading up to, and on the day of, these events. The shooting of the Pearson’s did not occur in a vacuum (both the Irish and British authorities then extant said that the Pearsons had shot at an IRA unit prior to the murders). The events of the shooting appear not to be as he presents them (medical reports indicated numerous gunshots not limited to the groin (not genitals) area) and the situation after the shooting is not as he proposes. What happened that day in 1921 was awful. Whatever the motivations on either side it reflected poorly on both. Two young men lost their lives in what was a murder. But the nature of that murder remains as difficult to draw clear conclusions about today as it did two weeks ago, or indeed at the time. In that context to propose this as a seamless narrative impermeable to criticism is a folly.

To then, as has been done, criticise those who would – entirely rightly (whatever their own ideological proclivities) – provide a criticism of the narrative he presents is entirely ahistorical. That this is being touched on tangentially in the Senate is a serious indictment of the understanding of historical processes and methodologies and an inability to see that history does not offer up neat little narratives with which to attack opponents but is, by contrast, complex and open to multiple interpretations, none of which should be seen as comforting to any partisan opinion.

Coolacrease Redux… November 10, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Republicanism.


David Adams is a good guy who often writes sensible stuff in the Irish Times. But yesterday he added to the pot about the Coolacrease story with an article that makes quite remarkable assertions of opinion presented as fact.

The amateur historian in Ireland is often little more than a propagandist masquerading as an expert,

A statement of opinion offered as fact with no supporting evidence. The point is not the merits or otherwise of the amateur historian. The issue is whether these amateur historians found information that was then not presented in the program or informed the program makers that that information existed? It’s the information, not the conduit that is of significance.

Ludicrous claims delivered in blank-faced fashion, complete with pseudo-military jargon, juxtaposed perfectly with dignified contributions by descendants of the deceased to give a vivid illustration of fanaticism and people’s ability to fool themselves into believing almost anything. In a magnificent display of the power of wishful thinking, one of the apologists claimed it was “impossible” for any member of the Offaly IRA to have been an informer.

The other has reportedly complained that his research was deliberately played down by the programme makers. Perhaps, for reasons obvious to everyone but himself, RTÉ thought it best to rely upon professional historians and their own impartial research team. The only thing worse in the historical field than an enthusiastic amateur with an axe to grind, is a collection of them pursuing a common agenda.

Two thoughts strike me. Firstly this was a military conflict and to use the term ‘pseudo-military’ is merely to denigrate and undermine the legitimacy of that conflict from one side. Secondly those professional historians and impartial research team can be seen on a purely factual level to have been incorrect and therefore to rely upon them would be a mistake. The enthusiastic amateur may be mistaken, fanatical or even plain wrong, but in this instance it is clear that they have proffered information that was not used or referred to in the program, information that cast considerable doubt as to the credibility of the central thesis of that program.

There is a lash at the Aubane Historical Society. I’m no fan of the AHS. Their politics are not my politics. Their project, or rather the broader post BICO project, is one I dislike intensely. It is unclear as to Muldowneys relationship to same, but the rhetorical flourishes of Brendan Clifford et al are present and correct in an indymedia piece he wrote. I find those flourishes irritating – take for instance the use of the term ‘fascism’ in relation to the Black and Tans. There are many forms of reaction, and the Tans were reaction writ large, but ‘fascist’? Nor is his use of the term ‘money-crazed’ in relation to the surviving Pearsons to his credit.

However, that aside, it is intellectually dishonest to attack the argument made by Muldowney simply because of his links to the AHS. Either the argument is wrong or it is not. The AHS is entirely irrelevant (although almost gloriously ironic considering that E Harris ran ideologically with the BICO argument for so long – and incidentally, what an age we live in that we see our past rearing up into the present in this way. Great stuff, if it weren’t so tragic).

And here it gets worse because Adams slips into reiterating points that are quite simply incorrect.

Were the Pearson brothers shot in the groin or the genitals? What does it matter? The real question is, if it wasn’t deliberate, how did so many gunmen (about 30) manage to shoot the men only in their lower abdomens? This can only be interpreted as a brutal comment on Protestant procreation, and a deliberate attempt to cause an agonising death. They succeeded in the latter; Richard Pearson took six hours to die and his brother Abraham 14.

Whether deliberate or not Adams appears to suggest that the men were ‘only’ shot in their lower abdomen. In fact the medical evidence at the Court of Enquiry indicates that they were shot across their torso.

Muldowney states that:

The official medical report of the 1921 British Military Enquiry says Richard Pearson received wounds in the left shoulder, right groin, right buttock, the back, and left lower leg – all of them superficial.

Adams continues…

Did an RIC investigation conclude that the double murder was revenge for the shooting of two IRA men who had previously been found felling a tree on Pearson land? Most emphatically, it did not. There was no RIC investigation, merely a written report from the police to a Court of Inquiry, which outlined rumours circulating after the murders.

This simply doesn’t square with what we are told by Muldowney about the British Military Court of Inquiry (in lieu of inquest) held at Crinkle Barracks, Birr on Saturday July 2 1921. At that Court there was no dissenting from the general line on what had happened.

Were the Pearsons ever proven to be British agents? No, in fact the evidence points in the opposite direction. A surviving brother, Sidney Pearson, was turned down for compensation for the loss of the family farm precisely because he could not prove his allegiance to the Crown. Later, on advice from the Southern Irish Relief Association, and with nothing left to lose as his family was fleeing Ireland anyway, William Pearson (the father) grossly exaggerated his loyalty in order to receive a paltry £7,500 compensation for his 340-acre farm.

Well, the word ‘agent’ covers a multitude. Perhaps better to suggest that their relationship with the British was one of closeness, which is also an essential aspect of the tragedy.

Perhaps most annoying in the article is the final sentence:

Journalists might well decide that forensic examination of countless similar atrocities isn’t worth the trouble. Such capitulation would be a huge mistake. History deniers should never be pandered to.

What countless similar atrocities? What capitulation? What deniers? These are assertions of considerable significance. Yet there is simply no evidence to support them.

What Adams is doing is exactly the same as what we read from Hourihane the previous day. But in this instance the argument, such as it is, is nuanced to incorporate an attack on ‘amateur historians’ for being amateur historians, the Aubane Historical Society and to rubbish the Military Enquiry. From there we then are brought to a reprise of Hourihanes concerns about a concealed history with the reference to ‘countless similar atrocities’. Frankly, this is poor and unsubstantiated.

It’s also weirdly reminiscent of certain things that have been said before in this debate, and perhaps this is paranoia on my part, but it almost looks as if there have been ‘talking points’ circulated on the issue. For example on Joe Duffy’s Liveline Eoghan Harris said (you’ll find the transcript on Indymedia):

Look, the facts are very simple, two lads were taken out in broad daylight in front of their sisters and their mother and they were shot in the groin or genitals as I recall it because I thought there was a deliberately sexual kind of, form of contempt to shoot them like that.

Then there is the accusation made by Harris against the AHS that:

and there’s a lot of this rubbish being pushed out by Muldowney and his friends like Niall Meehan, and the Aubane group that were mentioned in the programme, they’re like a professional crowd of holocaust deniers.

Perhaps it’s nothing, simple coincidence, or perhaps people have been simply been studying the transcripts. If so they do us all a disservice.

And once again, the point of this? Harris says:

Everyone in Offaly, basically – I believe – most people in Offaly are ashamed of what happened and would like to apologise. And its doing the people of Offaly no service to drag this out like that mystifying and mudraking and trying to pretend it was IRA Court Martials. It would be far better if the people of Offaly just accepted that a bad thing happened and just allowed the ordinary people of Offaly to deal with it by apologising.

The ordinary people of Offaly have to ‘apologise’? How? In what form?

And to return to my points yesterday about patronising and condescending self-serving cant about Protestants… Here is Eoghan Harris from the same program.

He’s just got a bit of slagging but there’s different ways of keeping social control, like that. I think that sometimes Paddy Heaney’s voice, when you heard the sort of patronising sounds he made to Patricia Howard – you see the way a certain kind of person with Sinn Féin sympathies can keep a grip on, on quite a timid Protestant community, there’s no-one talking for them, they’re not represented by Church of Ireland rectors, who would talk out for them? And if people like RTE and Niamh Sammon, yourself and others don’t publicise that, who would talk out?

Got to love the submerged classism of the ‘Church of Ireland’ rector. Got to love the condescension of the ‘timid Protestant community’. Got to love the idea that people can’t ‘talk out’ for themselves and require Eoghan or Niamh or indeed Joe to be their interlocuters.
But to return to the central point. It is impossible, on the evidence we have, to make a clear cut conclusion as to the events of Coolacrease. For it then be paraded as evidence of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or indicative of widespread similar events when there is no substantiating material presented to support those assertions is dishonest on a range of levels.

The world is going mad. But it’s a madness that is directed and this discussion sinks yet further into the mire.

[small note… the transcript of Joe Duffy’s show on the matter which is available on Indymedia shows – as someone else noted – that Joe’s grasp of the actual politics of the period is very very scant indeed. He says:

PM: Responsible to the Irish Government, yes.

Joe Duffy: Insofar as we had an Irish government

For Joe Duffy’s information this point in the WoI the Irish government organised 900 parish and 70 District Courts (staffed by the – as FSL Lyons notes – conservative legal profession), SF controlled 72 out of 127 corporations and town councils and in 26 others shared their control with other nationalists. 28 out of 33 County Councils were in their hands. 182 out of 206 Rural District Councils and almost all Poor Law Boards. This is hegemonic stuff really, and this was only the civil side of Dáil Éireann’s writ.

So actually we did have an Irish government Joe… and given the context of the situation that government operated with the democratic mandate of the people of the island and rather more efficiently than one might have expected.

But the intent here (as with the point about pseudo-military language) is to reduce a complex political, cultural, social and military conflict to the idea that the island was tyrannised by marauding bands of IRA men acting as little better than gangsters with no relation to that conflict – and thereby to delegitimise it. The vacuum in the historical record is not as Niamh Sammon would have us believe a lack of knowledge about a ‘darker side’ of the Republican struggle, but a complete lack of knowledge willful or otherwise about the nature of that struggle itself…]

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.

Sunday Independent Stupid Statement of the Week July 17, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in Sunday Independent Stupid Statement of the Week.

Bang on the front page comes Brendan O’Connor, standing up – like his editor – for the little man in the face of the arrogant, overbearing and hostile liberal elite.

And then we saw this old man, jostled and harangued by the very media we are told he had an unhealthy grip over and maybe, just maybe, we realised that he is a human being.

Aengus Fanning predicted on Friday that Rupert could yet become the flawed father of the world and that ordinary people will cop on to this much faster than the media do. So maybe I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already.

Rupert Murdoch. Innocent victim of a media witchunt. Not only that, but we are offered elsewhere Bertie Ahern, constitutional genius.

While we are in the realms of this fantasy world, step forward Eoghan Harris, pushing his passion for objective history that deals with all the facts about Irish history, and doesn’t provide a politically-inspured morality tale.

Clearly O’Callaghan can hardly wait to say sorry to the victims before rushing on to defend the bishop. As a former academic, he reminds me of the tenured species who barely register their regrets to Protestant victims in the period 1920-22 before rushing on to challenge the credentials of critics who put the Old IRA on the spot.

Just as O’Callaghan’s first duty was to protect the children of the diocese who could not speak for themselves, so the first duty of academic historians is to protect past victims of the IRA who no longer have a voice. Like O’Callaghan, however, many of them look first to their tribal loyalties.

Accordingly, many academics keep collegial silence in support of colleagues who should have been called on to clarify their position on IRA atrocities such as the Bandon Valley massacre, the murders at Coolacrease, and the burning of Clifden Orphanage — not to mention their failure to challenge the disgraceful forgery called the Dunmanway dossier, still used by ultra-nationalists to blacken innocent Protestants as spies.

These collegial collusions will be familiar to readers of Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness: 1933-1941, A Diary of the Nazi Years. One of his most heartfelt entries, for August 16, 1936, is aimed at a fellow academic who lent support to the Nazi party. “I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the intellectuals three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts as long as was compatible with hygiene.

To conclude, not a stupid statement but something that bears some relation to reality. Shane Ross must be having palpitations at seeing evil beard in chief, Jack O’Connor sullying the pages of his beloved rag newspaper.

In A characteristically vitriolic attack on the trade union movement, laced with sarcasm and personalised abuse as usual, your columnist Shane Ross TD grossly misrepresented my address to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in last Sunday’s edition of the Sunday Independent. Character assassination is no substitute for democratic debate, and it says more about the perpetrator than those against whom it is directed.

Sunday Independent? Character assassination? Who’d have thunk it?

The Death of Peter Hart July 24, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in History.

Today’s Irish Times reports the sad news of the early death of the historian Peter Hart at the age of just 46. Peter Hart’s first book, The IRA and its Enemies, about the IRA in county Cork in the years 1916 to 1923 has largely shaped the countours of historical writing on the period ever since. His other works include British Intelligence in Ireland: The Final Reports, The IRA at War 1916-1923 and Mick, a biography of Michael Collins. His webpage at Memorial University also refers to a forthcoming book called Guerilla Days in the UK: Revolution in Ireland and Britain.

Peter Hart’s work made him one of the finest historians working on Irish history. It is also, as is well known to readers here at CLR, highly controversial, with detailed arguments emerging over his account of the Kilmichael ambush as well as the Dunmanaway killings, and the general argument about the importance of sectarianism in the IRA campaign in county Cork. The title of the forthcoming book – and let’s hope that it appears posthumously – looks very much like a reference to Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days in Ireland, and one likely to rile up those who see themselves as the guardians of Barry’s legacy. It is possible to be sceptical of many of Peter Hart’s arguments and still recognise the quality of his work, and I think that that is how many of us on CLR would feel. He outlined his thoughts on the writing of Irish history in a response to a review of one of his books. It is well worth reading.

Peter Hart was himself part of the community at CLR. He may have been attracted here by WBS’ outstanding series of posts on Coolacrease but who knows? He commented here, on issues ranging from history to Christmas presents to his support for keeping open the swimming pools under threat in Dublin.

His death represents a great loss then to the writing of history in Ireland, and a human tragedy for his family and friends. All our sympathies are with them.

Left Archive: The Communist, Number 88, July 1975 from The British and Irish Communist Organisation in Britain April 19, 2010

Posted by irishonlineleftarchive in British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO), Irish Left Online Document Archive.


Many thanks to an anonymous contributor for forwarding this and penning the following:

About the Communist Magazine:

The Linen Hall Library Catalogue states “the Communist” magazine ran from 1967-1986. Some of the magazine’s contributors included Brendan Clifford, (several characteristically inimical pieces on Louis Althusser and Roy Medvedev) Angela Clifford, Jack Lane, Owen Evans (Sep.74, article very hostile to Welsh Nationalism), Nina Stead (pseudonym of Nina Fishman?),Rick Stead, Rosamund Mitchell, Dick Spicer, Davey Young, Niall Cusack,Martin Tyrrell, Mark Cowling, Edmond Riordan, C.K. Maisels (who is listed as a member of the Communist Organisation in the British Isles in G.A. Williams’ book “Proletarian Order”, so he must have left in the B&ICO/COBI split),
M.J. Montgomery (Oct. 1985, one of several “Communist” articles supporting the anti-apartheid movement inSouth Africa) Philip O’Connor,(who later worked on the Aubane Historical Society book “Coolacrease” ) Gwydion Madawc Williams (the son of Raymond Williams) and Peter Brooke (the Irish historian, not the UK Politician).

Brooke was the author of several controversial publications under the Athol Books aegis, including “How Right Are the Racists?” (1978) and the second edition of his “Ulster Presbyterianism : the Historical Perspective, 1610-1970” (1987, Gill and MacMillan, 2nd ed. 1994, Athol Books). He also wrote a chapbook of poetry “Those Two Boys” for Reprisal Press in 1980.

“The Communist” rarely shied away from controversy, and the infamous July 1979 “Special Stalin Centenary Issue” and 1982 editorials defending the Falklands War, seem to have entered UK Left folklore. The Athol Books publication Labour and Trade Union Review, begun in 1987, seems to be “the Communist’s” successor. ]

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