Eoghan Harris: How Haughey hinterland was rebuffed by O'Reilly regime
Published 22/04/2012 | 05:00
Last Monday RTE showed An Tost Fada, the testimony of Canon George Salter, about the enforced exodus of his father and thousands of Cork Protestants from their shops and farms in April 1922. It was the most important programme in which I have ever been involved.
The reason is the reaction from Roman Catholics. It was exactly as I had expected. The courage of the Crowley and Collins families in welcoming Salter back to his ancestral home was matched by the warm response from the wider Roman Catholic community.
George Salter and Richard Draper, the two Protestants who testified, were engulfed in a wave of empathy from the people of Cork and Skibbereen. This reaction was a robust rebuff both to bigots and to rhetorical republicans. The latter, faking concern for Protestant sensibilities, frequently claim such truth-telling causes trouble between Protestant and Catholic.
But I had more trust in the people of Ireland. For nearly 40 years I have been talking to west Cork Catholics and Protestants about the suppressed sectarian side of the War of Independence. All feared to go public. But I became convinced that both sides desperately craved the truth: the Protestants to tell it, the Roman Catholics to hear it.
But there were three obstacles. First, fear of reprisals -- not without foundation until fairly recently. Second, the deep divide between the comparatively benign community memory of Dublin Protestants and the much rawer and rougher historical memories of provincial Protestants. Finally, the majority found it hard to accept the sheer size of the historical wound.
Between the Ne Temere decree of 1911 and the aftermath of the Civil War we lost a third of our Protestant population. That is, 107,000 southern Protestants, including 10,000 working-class Dublin Protestants. And some of that exodus was enforced by threats and murder.
This traumatic experience was excised from the Irish State's public memory. Remaining rural Protestants nursed their grief in silence. Privately, however, many rural Roman Catholics felt a sense of shame. That shame formed a saving grace that touched me through my father and mother.
My mother came from the cottier class of rural Roscommon. She liked the local Protestants. So the impoverished Protestant Moroneys, who let the young John McGahern loose in their library, recalled in Memoir, were already familiar to me as archetypes from my mother's anecdotes.
McGahern wrote: "That library and these two gentlemen were, to me, a pure blessing." He never forgot his debt. "I was given the run of a library. I believed it changed my life, and without it I would never have become a writer."
My father also aroused my interest in the minority community. Politically a Wolfe Tone republican, he had no time for tribal nationalism. But in speaking about Protestants he went beyond republican rhetoric in ways that left a more indelible mark than ideology.
For a start he saw Protestants as real people, not as republican abstractions. He had worked with Protestant clerks in the Cork milling business. Later, as manager of the Bride Valley stores in Waterford, and in the Local Defence Force during the Emergency, he widened his contacts.
As a result he came to have a real regard for the minority community. And not just the abstract Wolfe Tone type of regard that never reaches real empathy. My father had a personal, wish-you-well affection for rural Irish Protestants.
He also respected their financial rectitude. That was why in my Kilcrumper speech I pointed out that it was not Irish Protestants who destroyed our economy. The damage was mostly done by the Catholic business bourgeoise, who had come out of the Haughey hinterland with a chip on their shoulder, waving the green flag, but actually anxious to ape the Anglo-Irish gentry.
I knew nothing of that Haughey hinterland when I arrived in RTE in 1966. I was delighted to find myself working with two talented Cork Protestants: Dick Hill and Jack White. Given their talents, I assumed White would become Controller of Programmes and Dick Hill Director-General. But it was not to be.
It was widely believed that White and Hill's religion prevented their promotion to the top jobs. But nobody could prove that. Only a few years before, after Todd Andrews had closed the Harcourt Street line, a speaker in the Dail observed it was not CIE's business to bring Protestants to Dundrum.
But what bothered me more than the covert tribalism was the lie-down-and-die attitude of many Dublin Protestants. Instead of challenging the tribalists in their society some sought instant integration by becoming rabid rhetorical republicans -- causing their tribal critics to secretly despise them even more.
This development led to a growing gap between the buffered historical memory of Dublin Protestants and much rawer memory of provincial Protestants. That gap was brought home when I took leave of absence from RTE in 1979 and went to live in west Cork to research and write Souper Sullivan, a play about religion and the Great Famine.
But it was the sectarian side of the War of Independence that kept cropping up in conversations with local Protestants and Catholics. It must be 20 years since Richard Draper first told me about the "conversion" conversation at the local creamery in April 1922. But he only felt free to talk about it in An Tost Fada in advanced old age.
Richard has always wanted to put his memories on the record. But he feared reprisals, feared making trouble, feared the sheer silence itself. Until recently his fears were well founded.
George Salter's story about sectarian jibes of a few pub bigots happened only a few years ago. Salter got the best of the exchange because he had good Irish and the courage to confront the bully boys. But many a Protestant had to walk away from similar jibes with the head down.
Even today there are fragments of the Haughey hinterland festering in Dublin business circles. We have only to recall what Sean FitzPatrick said to David McWilliams at UCD in November 2008, when it looked as if the allegedly 'Protestant' BoI or AIB would take over Anglo Irish Bank. "No f***ing Protestant is coming near us . . . None of them are ever going to look down on us again."
Under the O'Reilly regime, INM kept a warm fire for the Protestant minority tradition on the island, both north and south. Conversely it remained a cold house for the Haughey hinterland. The Sunday Independent, as the recent presidential election revealed, remains the main critic of tribal nationalism.
If Gavin O'Reilly's exit was to mean the end of that ethos, it would be a bad day for Irish democracy. Because Enda Kenny and Fine Gael will soon find themselves alone, facing the tribal forces which -- as the polls show -- are massing in the Haughey hinterland, making ready to ride the back of the recession to State power.