Eoghan Harris: Choosing my company in Kilcrumper Cemetery

Published 11/09/2011 | 05:00

LAST Sunday I found myself staring at a tough fortnight. Today I am giving a speech at the grave of General Liam Lynch in Fermoy. The following Friday, I am taking part in a celebration of Frank O'Connor at UCC in the company of the evergreen Edna O'Brien and looking forward to meeting his daughter, Liadain O'Donovan.

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So what's my problem? Well as a harbinger of the hard winter to come, I woke up last Sunday with a bug bedded down in my chest and throat. So I crankily turned on Marian Finucane's media show with no great hope that I would hear anything to alleviate my symptoms.

But I was wrong. Celia Larkin showed courage. She refused to run for cover or stab Bertie Ahern in the back. She said he was not corrupt -- but that he should shut up.

I was cheered by Celia's courage because I have no time for people who desert friends or former lovers. But it was not just Larkin's loyalty that cheered me up. It was Tom McGurk -- who is no admirer of Ahern -- paying tribute to her for speaking up.

It takes a real man to appreciate a real woman. Admittedly McGurk has had plenty of practice. But I still took off my hat to the old trouper.

* * *

This old trouper is in trouble. A week later, the bug is still in business. So I have a dying voice on the day I have to deliver what the poster proclaims as an "oration" (not just a speech) at Kilcrumper Cemetery, one that is not likely to please many of my listeners.

Like most people, I am loath to leave my comfort zone. Given my sceptical views on republicanism, speaking at the grave of General Liam Lynch, leader of the anti-Treaty IRA, falls into that category. But I had no choice for two reasons.

Councillor Frank Flynn, chairman of the commemoration committee, asked me to deliver the oration last year. Although tempted, I had to refuse because I was receiving treatment for cancer. Frank made me promise to do it this year if I was still around. Which I am.

Frank said I could speak my mind. That's more than Liam Lynch would have let me do in his later days. Driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown, he threatened to shoot members of the Senate and Dail Eireann -- although with almost-Edwardian good manners, he gave them fair warning.

I believe that Lynch was breaking down because such brutal threats were completely out of character. Gerard Murphy, in his book The Year of Disappearances, says that Lynch and Sean Moylan (who led the North Cork Brigade) had a humane code of honour. This contrasted with Florrie O'Donoghue of the First Cork Brigade and Tom Barry of the Third Cork, who sometimes behaved like sectarian terrorists.

Here is Murphy on Lynch: "Liam Lynch and Sean Moylan, who succeeded him, endeavoured wherever possible to fight within the rules of war. Captured prisoners had their wounds bandaged and British soldiers, and indeed RIC men rounded up in ambushes, were often allowed to walk back to their barracks after attacks."

This later saved Moylan's life. In May 1921 he was captured by British forces. He might have been summarily shot but for one of his captors recalling his previous good treatment of British prisoners.

* * *

Mary Raftery is a national treasure. If she were British, she would be a Dame. Her States Of Fear was the single greatest factor forcing Irish society to face up to child abuse.

What makes Raftery a really great producer is that she is normally both passionate and balanced. But her two-part documentary on mental hospitals, Behind The Walls, was too much in thrall to the special pleading of Mad Pride Ireland, which claimed in the Irish Examiner: "Mad Pride is not only featured in the documentary, it helped put it together."

Let me hasten to say I had no trouble with the historical side of the film. Dr Oonagh Walsh of the Department of History in UCC was a convincing interpreter of lost lives. But there was far too much bias from others against mental hospitals and far too little about the crucial importance of sanctuary for those whose minds cannot cope with the world.

Here I should declare an interest. Back in 1987 I made three films on mental illness. I wanted to challenge the theories of RD Laing and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and others bitterly opposed to the medical model of mental illness.

Between them, Laing and Jack Nicholson sold a simple message. Capitalist society caused madness. Doctors drugged rebels to keep them docile. Patients were prisoners. The solution was to shut the mental hospitals. Care should be in the community. Since this would save a lot of money, governments rushed to shut the asylums. And lost souls wandered the streets.

The problem is that not all madness is caused by society. Some people need sanctuary. Ask an expert like Oliver Sacks about the notion of asylum.

* * *

My mills sometimes grind slowly. So I am only now getting around to the economist Dr Karl Whelan. A few weeks ago on Tonight With Vincent Browne, he singled out this newspaper for "demonising" public sector workers.

Fine if he stuck to that position. But a few minutes later -- possibly feeling that as a public sector professor he could be accused of special pleading -- he said there should be cuts in public sector wages. Shortly afterwards, he again shifted his position.

I sat there rewinding Dr Whelan's revisions and trying to follow his reasoning. Why did he attack the Sunday Independent for allegedly demonising the public sector by demanding pay cuts -- and then propose something of the same himself?

Happily, my wife Gwen was on hand to supply an answer. "Look, he's like a lot of professors. He suffers from status anxiety twitch. He agrees with what the Sunday Independent says -- but he wishes the Irish Times had said it."

She hit the spot. Her riff about "status anxiety twitch" reminded me of another prominent Irish academic who was done a favour by the Daily Telegraph, which took an opponent firmly to task. When I showed him the article, he said he wished it had appeared in the Guardian!

Dr Whelan must know that the Sunday Independent calling for cuts in massive payoffs -- like that of Dermot McCarthy -- is not demonising the public sector. He agreed that some salaries are too high. And by distancing himself from a popular paper saying the same, he loses all logic and simply shows status anxiety.

Conor Cruise O'Brien never cared for the status of someone who stood up to the Provos. He would praise a tabloid to high heavens if it took a hard line. He judged a man, woman or newspaper by their beliefs, not by whether they had Priggish Ireland's approval.

If I was worried about Priggish Ireland, I would be on panels at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, giving out about Kevin Myers, not on a platform at Kilcrumper Cemetery giving out about Kevin Barry. But I'm choosy about the company I keep.

Sunday Independent

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