Thursday 23 October 2014

Eoghan Harris: Peace means casting a cool eye on past atrocities

Published 29/04/2012 | 05:00

Reactions to An Tost Fada keep coming in from Roman Catholics. Apart from a minority of predictable "whatabouts", most emails are full of praise for Canon Salter. Many ask for advice about further reading that goes beyond what one calls "wrap the green flag round me" books.

Actually there's not a lot worth reading in that line. So far the field has been dominated by Peter Hart's 1998 classic: The IRA and it's Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-23. Most of what's been published consists of challenges to Hart's conclusions by academics and extreme nationalists -- whose views seem to increasingly converge.

The web is also full of weird green blogs bad-mouthing Hart himself. As he tragically died two years ago, in his prime, and is no longer around to defend himself, these polemics leave a sour taste. As did the absence of any public defence of Hart's work by academic historians.

Terror in Ireland 1916-23 (Lilliput Press) bravely and brilliantly fills this historical and moral gap. Edited by David Fitzpatrick, this collection of essays by participants in the TCD History Workshop is dedicated to Hart. And it is just the book for those who want a balanced account of the major controversies of the 1916-23 period. But this begs a question. Why are Irish people so obsessed by this period? And they are. Any column I write about the Old IRA gets more reaction than musings on current political events.

The old answer -- our colonial past -- is not convincing. Many of Britain's former colonies show no comparable interest in what Wordsworth called "old forgotten far off things and battles long ago". Auction rooms reveal the cult of Michael Collins rivals the Fifties veneration of Roman Catholic saints like Blessed Martin de Porres.

The rush for relics of Michael Collins is not too far from the necrophiliac interest in Nazi memorabilia. What Susan Sontag called fascinating Fascism has its counterpart in our almost obsessive interest in relics of the fairly modest military campaigns of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

But it's not just Collins. We simply cannot get enough of the Irish Revolution. Or Counter- Revolution, depending on your point of view. The centenaries of the Solemn League and Covenant, Home Rule and the 1916 Rising are adding fuel to a fire that seldom needs poking.

My own waning interest is firmly rooted in family history. My grandfather Pat and his brother Michael were out in 1916. My father

was a fanatical student of War of Independence battlefields like Crossbarry and ambush sites like Kilmichael. Not surprisingly I grew up a rabid republican.

In the Sixties, with my friend Jim Blake, I sought the company of two older men who had a revolutionary past: Tom Barry and Jim Hurley. Helped by the fact that Barry was buying, we drank with these two old soldiers pretty much every night in the Grocer's Club in Cork, where we seemed to be the only customers.

My admiration for Barry was absolute. So much so that, despite misgivings, I organised a massive student march in support of his call to boycott the harmless Earl of Rosse, who was opening the Cork Choral Festival. As Blake and myself led the march beneath the window of Barry's flat over Woodford Bournes, he lifted his hand in salute, and my republican cup ran over.

Barry held me in high esteem after that. He bade me a fond farewell when I left Cork to work in RTE in 1966. Indeed Pat Butler recalls him telling Aindreas O Gallchoir that RTE would not go far wrong as long as that Harris fellow was around to keep it on the straight and narrow.

The Arms Trial and the armed struggle forced me to let him down. Today I believe that all traditions must lance the boils of their tribal pasts and let out the poison so as to start the healing. Terror in Ireland makes a major contribution to this process.

Four of the essays are exceptional. Happily I don't have to single out one above another as they come in chronological order. The first to hold my absolute attention was Ann Dolan's 'Terror and Revolutionary Ireland', a poignant meditation on the human consequences of terror, where her historian's head is properly mediated by her heart.

Jane Leonard's essay '"English Dogs" or "Poor Devils"? The Dead of Bloody Sunday Morning' is also an historical and humanistic study of the 15 victims who were cut down by Michael Collins's men. One of them, Paddy McCormack, justifies her conclusion that the IRA had killed "a charming chancer".

She concludes: "Only a minority were natives of England, and less than half appear to have been undercover intelligence officers. The majority were in fact a medley of courtmartial officers, recent police recruits, uniformed staff officers and Irish civilians."

Professor Eunan O Halpin's 'Counting Terror: Bloody Sunday and the

Dead of the Irish Revolution' is a compellingly account of the three cycles of death on that day: Collins's Crown victims, the 16 civilians shot by British forces in Croke Park, and the murder of IRA officers McKeen, Clancy and Clune in Dublin Castle.

But this Bloody Sunday study is only a small part of of O Halpin's massive project, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, which sets out to document "all deaths arising from political violence in the period from April 1916 to December 1921".

TCD historians certainly earn their crust. Eve Morrison is another of that hard-working breed. Naturally I was particularly interested in 'Kilmichael Revisited: Tom Barry and the "False Surrender"', which will cause a small sensation among Corkonians brought up on Tom Barry's Guerilla Days in Ireland, which is pretty much the whole city.

Morrison methodically demolishes Tom Barry's story of a "false surrender" by the Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, a story whose veracity was challenged by Peter Hart -- a heresy for which he was roundly abused by keepers of Barry's holy flame. But Morrison reveals that Hart's reservation about the "false surrender" was shared by many of Barry's closest colleagues.

I can only recall Barry telling the "false surrender" story once. That was in the early days, when he did not know Blake and myself that well. He told it like a man speaking by rote.

Jim Hurley listened as if by rote. On Hurley's face was what I now call the "republican rictus": the glazed look on the faces of old IRA men listening to comrades gilding the lily about some atrocity called an ambush, or the sectarian shooting of a Protestant concealed by the term "an oul' West Brit".

Eve Morrison's final sentence comes like a healing balm on the wounds of history. "Rest in peace all the boys of Kilmichael -- Volunteers, Auxiliaries, and Peter Hart."

Amen to that.

Sunday Independent

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