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Thursday 27 October 2016

Eoghan Harris: Canon George Salter's story breaks the long silence

Published 15/04/2012 | 05:00

RTE is rightly getting stick for its rough treatment of Fr Kevin Reynolds. But it balances the books a bit tomorrow night on behalf of another clergyman, Canon George Salter of Cork. An Tost Fada (The Long Silence) tells the redemptive story of Salter's journey home to the Dunmanway farm from which his father was driven 90 years ago, in April 1922.

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The controversy that followed the film Cork's Bloody Secret showed that any challenge to the received narrative of an incredibly noble Old IRA provokes strong reactions. But real republicans will be moved by Salter's tale, told in his fluent Irish, which the English subtitles strip down to a stark story.

George's father Bill farmed at Kilronan outside Dunmanway. He bought cattle at marts all over Cork and Kerry, fattened them on his land, and sold them on to England. But in the fevered Civil War climate of April 1922 this English connection aroused the suspicion of the local IRA.

In April 1922 Bill Salter was told to get out. He had to take the threat seriously in the bloody month that had seen the killing of 13 Protestants in the Bandon Valley. The threat was backed by shots fired near the farm at night. He fled with his family to England.

His six sisters and two brothers were frightened enough to leave too. They became part of the enforced exodus of thousands of Irish Protestants during and after the Civil War. Bill was the only one to come back to the land of his birth.

A true son of west Cork, Bill found he could not settle in England. In 1924 he and his wife slipped quietly back to Ireland and bought a farm at Castletownshend, where George Salter was born in 1925. But the family never forgot the old farm at Dunmanway.

Bill Salter had no bitterness. George Salter was brought up as a true Irish patriot. A fluent Irish speaker, he became Cork's best-known Church of Ireland clergyman, a beloved local figure in the religious and cultural life of the city. But he still never felt free to speak about the events of April 1922, nor to visit the old Salter farm.

In the past few years, however, a changed political climate prompted him to put his story on the record. Cork's Bloody Secret had prised open a dark corner of our past, and as he approached his 87th year he felt it was time to speak out.

Last year his daughter, Bridget Alymer, wrote to tell me her father was ready to talk. I felt his was the kind of testimony that should be put on film. So I asked my old friend Gerry Gregg for help in making a full archival record.

We could not afford to pay a professional cameraman. So we told the story to Shay Deasy, Ireland's leading cameraman. A man of strong pluralist politics, Shay said he would do it for free.

We went to Cork, recorded a lengthy interview with George about the experiences of the Protestant community during the Civil War, thanked Shay, and went home. Our plan was to put the film in the national film archive. We hoped it might help historians see the period through the eyes of an Irish Protestant patriot.

But then serendipity struck. George is a long-time member of the board of the Cork Institute of Technology. Dan Collins is a senior member of the staff. A year ago they discovered they had a few other things in common.

Both men are from West Cork. Both had connections to the old Salter farm at Dunmanway. It transpired

that Dan's cousins, the Crowley family, although not aware of its history, were now farming the old Salter farm at Kilronane.

Dan Collins told George that the Crowleys would gladly welcome him to his father's old home. They also agreed to allow us to film his return. We now had a story with a happy ending we could take to RTE.

Neither Gerry nor myself are flavour of the month in a few pockets of RTE current affairs. But we have always had good relations with Irish-language programmes, both in RTE and in TG4. Executive producer Kevin Cummins told us to finish the film.

I am not going to spoil the story by saying more. But look out for the testimony of my old friend Richard Draper of Skibbereen, 100 years old this April, a 10-year-old boy at the time, who recalls what was said to his father some 90 years ago, at the local creamery.

And look out for what George said when accosted by a bigot in a west Cork pub.

Kevin Cummins stipulated the story should speak for itself. A hands-on editor, he combed through our script with a sharp pencil. Pat Butler, who knows the period and the people, was a big help. The result is a restrained film about remorse and redemption.

* * *

Remorse is always redemptive. Especially the "true and abject remorse" of which Gusty Spence, the UVF leader, movingly spoke when announcing the Loyalist Ceasefire in 1994. Its healing power was manifest in Miriam O'Callaghan's conduct of a discussion on the Fr Reynold's affair last Wednesday.

Patsy McGarry and Ger Colleran rained down well-deserved blows on RTE. And Miriam O'Callaghan sat there sadly, and took it all. Although innocent of any wrong-doing herself, she was the symbol of RTE in that studio and had to accept its punishment by proxy.

As I watched her my admiration grew. Any sign of attitude on her side, any attempt at guff along the lines of "look at all the good work we are doing" and RTE would have been ripped apart by the same reaction of rage that engulfed the Roman Catholic Church when it tried to evade the early charges of child sex abuse.

Few RTE staff realise the dialectic of respect and rage which its institutional status inspires.

It is respected because of good presenters like O'Callaghan.

It is disliked for its right-on smugness and its contempt for those who do not share its PC canteen culture.

O'Callaghan had to walk across that minefield. The slightest sign of special pleading on her part and the phones would have been ringing off the hook in Montrose.

But she kept her steady and serious gaze on the two critics, showing her personal sorrow for what had been done to Fr Reynolds, and still managed to say what could be said for RTE.

It was a master-class in defusing public anger. It was all the more remarkable in that she did most of the work with body language and tone of voice.

Brian Farrell might have done it in his prime. But nobody else in RTE today has that kind of mix of professionalism, empathy and emotional intelligence.

Truly Miriam O'Callaghan is a national treasure. Her greatest gift is to listen with respect while people tell her things that are hard to hear.

We badly need the same listening skills when the minority traditions on this island tell us the tough truths that will finally set us free.

'An Tost Fada' airs on RTE One tomorrow at 7.30pm

Sunday Independent

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