Plato liked to insist to his students that we only read to remember what we always somehow knew. I never much cared for that insight -- Plato was not a priority for us North Mon boys in Nineties Cork -- but having read Dr Gerard Murphy's deeply moving new book about the experience of my home city during the War of Independence, I've changed my mind.
Murphy's book, The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork, 1921-22, published by Gill & Macmillan last week, brought me face to face with several old ghosts that first crossed my path in school. Murphy offers a painstaking and scrupulously restrained account of the Cork IRA's squalid campaign against the city's Protestant population as centred around the local YMCA, a campaign that involved, amongst other things, the abduction, torture and execution of helpless teenagers and Boy Scouts, as well as the secret burial of their remains.
Murphy reintroduced me to the Gray brothers in the course of his analysis -- two notoriously cruel IRA men from the city's trigger-happy south side battalion whose ample defects were still discussed at the drag-hunt meetings in Dripsey that gobbled up my childhood Sundays.
The gravest critics of the Grays were not in Victoria Barracks or Whitehall, but rather within the IRA itself.
Murphy recounts the dramatic scene during the winter of 1921 when the local IRA company in Glenville posted an armed guard around the local demesne so as to protect the well regarded Protestant Kinehan family against a nocturnal visit from the Grays intent on a rerun of the earlier sectarian massacre at Coolacreese, Co Offaly.
Having worked for a summer, as well as after school in Cork County Hall, I used to hear tall tales about Martin Corry, a founding member of Fianna Fail, and a long-serving TD, county councillor and beet tsar between the 1920s and 1970s. Murphy's book shows the bully behind the bluster.
Corry was the executioner-in-chief of the Cork IRA during this period, as well as being the Gauleiter of a hideous dungeon on his farmland between Knockraha and Watergrasshill, known locally as the Rea.
Murphy shows that Corry presided over the torture and execution of scores of victims in this area, often detaining his teenage quarry in a nearby cemetery vault dubbed 'Sing Sing' before dumping their bodies in adjacent bogs.
Though possessed of a winning humility before the vast historical unknown, Murphy makes a compelling case for the following:
The Cork IRA's vicious campaign against the local YMCA began in earnest after they tortured a 15-year-old named William Parsons, and used the boy's terrified last words to justify scores of other executions of various kinds of Low Church Protestants qua "spies". Corry's men even stole the shoes of one victim.
Along with a fearsome character named Mick Murphy, Corry was also an important player in the IRA's campaign against the city's Methodist minority, citing that denomination's historical connection with the army as grounds for surveillance, harassment and ultimate execution. (Methodists prized the sola fide ethical ideal and many felt a conscientious duty to report criminal acts to the local police, thereby triggering the attention of Corry and the Grays who treated Protestant scruple as a capital offence.)
Murphy also shows that Corry's men regarded local Quakers such as William Goff Beale as fair-game, even though pacifists had been protected by the laws of war since the hapless Dunkard sect found themselves marooned in the middle of the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War in 1863.
Corry was not Abraham Lincoln though, or even Jefferson Davis.
He seems to have presided over the murder of about 35 people between 1920 and 1922, using an evidential standard that shocked nominal superiors like Richard Mulcahy on occasion, the future Free State general whose officers would later find a corpse buried under the floorboards of Corry's house in 1923.
Murphy shows that Corry was an important component in an organisation that ignored glaring evidence of internal defections in order to focus on ex-soldiers -- a notoriously wretched, semi-indigent class even in Daniel Corkery's youth -- one of whom was abducted while unconscious from his hospital bed in the South Infirmary Hospital and shot in the face.
Several excruciating thoughts present themselves as we follow Gerard Murphy's historical detective trail. He tells the story of a contingent within the Cork IRA who preferred torture, execution and secret burials than the more prosaic tactics practiced by Liam Lynch and Sean Moylan, that is to say, simple deportation of their enemies for the course of the conflict.
He also reminds us of the fact that Corry's men were far more vicious in their pursuit of a phantasmagoric 'Anti-Sinn Fein League' based in the city's YMCA than they were in their dealings with real life British Tommies, some of whom actually sold the IRA weapons for hard cash in Ballincollig.
We are confronted here by a particular generation of Corkmen who interpreted Pearse's plaintive injunction against inhumanity, cowardice and rapine to mandate the execution of sleeping teenagers and cripples in the west Cork Protestant community.
They would proceed to interpret the results of the 1918 general election as authorisation to redraw the sectarian geography of Cork City's south eastern side by terrorising hundreds of Protestant families out of the Blackrock and Douglas Road areas.
Martin Corry's reputation should be interred with his victims in Sing Sing, along with Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, that celluloid titan who bears little or no relation to Murphy's jeering Mars who insists on something called 'vengince byjasus' in his two cameos in this book.
Professor John A Murphy fares little better. His claim that "there was no ethnic-cleansing on the South Mall" is treated with derision.
In demanding that Protestants negate their conscience, that teenagers as young as fourteen suffer the penalties normally reserved for malevolent adults and that Cork city disavow that rich Anglophile heritage that ran from James Barry's pictures to James Joyce's father, Martin Corry et al damned themselves as fanatics. Fanaticism was once defined as the tactic of demanding the impossible by gunpoint.
Gerard Murphy's classic book should be read by any Corkman who is still tempted to interpret our revolutionary era as a knightly joust between Cockneys and Gaels blessed by the good fairies of the 1918 general election.
In grappling with this squalid chapter in our city's history we must do justice to the observations of Matilda Blemens whose husband, father and brother were all disappeared as part of the YMCA hysteria in 1920. She wrote to Collins that year saying, "Our home is desolate and our hearts are breaking."
In failing to reply to her, the Big Fella never looked so small.
John-Paul McCarthy recently completed a doctorate in Irish history at Exeter College, Oxford.