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John-Paul McCarthy: Silent witness to West Cork's grim and bloody history

I thought TG4's programme on Tom Crean, Ciarraioch san Oighear, was going to be the most moving Irish language programme of the month. But RTE's profile of Corkman Canon George Salter, An Tost Fada, (The Long Silence) knocked me for six.

Listening to Salter explain the melancholy fate of his family in lyrical Irish, I thought of a couple of things.

Firstly, I thought about the way Irish-speaking patriotic Cork Protestants like Salter make far superior cultural role models for children than old racists like Sean O Riordain and Daniel Corkery.

Here's hoping George Salter's programme will be given to Leaving Cert students all over the country, and not just in Bandon Grammar where he was filmed.

Secondly, I was left asking myself again why on earth it has taken almost a hundred years for his story of intimidation and IRA-enforced exile to be told. That was probably the worst indignity of all inflicted on his family.

IRA men calling at 3am to force a terrified Protestant housewife to cook for them was squalid enough.

As was the fact that the local IRA believed that frequent trips to England could be a capital crime, especially if you were a Protestant farmer like George's father. Richard Draper's description of the day his father was 'advised' by a neighbour in Skibbereen that the Drapers better convert to Catholicism also shocked the conscience.

But the force of these threats and expulsions was made a million times worse by the fact that the Salters felt the need to keep quiet for so long.

This programme was really about the psychology of denial, a psychology I got an unpleasant taste of last year in Cork City Hall when speaking about Tomas MacCurtain and Traolach MacSuibhne.

Six hundred people came to listen, drawn no doubt by Pat Cox, Ruth Dudley Edwards, John A Murphy and Tim Pat Coogan rather than your humble correspondent. I tried to make room for voices like Salter's and spoke about the sectarian atrocities that have come to light over the last decade.

About three people out of the 600 seemed privately receptive to what I was saying, but not one single questioner from the large audience was interested in pursuing the murder of Protestant civilians in Dunmanway, Coolacrease or Cork city during 1919-23.

I had an unpleasant evening all things considered, but nothing that three swift pints didn't cure after chairman Cox called time, and nothing compared to what befell the Drapers and Salters.

An Tost Fada put a deep gash in the hide of that City Hall audience after the fact because it showed in the grimmest possible detail how working-class Protestants were targeted by certain IRA groups.

It's still a mystery to me why there's even an academic "debate" about the sectarian dimension of the violence during 1919-23 and about the deliberate focus on soft Protestant targets in Cork city and county.

Even Bishop Daniel Coholan of Cork city spoke about these sectarian attacks; and the killings at Dunmanway, Coolacrease and elsewhere had such a shattering cumulative effect that a delegation of Protestants asked Michael Collins to his face if they should just clear out altogether.

Confronted with a sizable drop in Protestant numbers in the 26 counties between 1911 and 1926, most normal people would give a fairly heavy accent to sectarian intimidation and murder when trying to explain the bulk of the drop.

Though it may be impolite to say this to people who have made a career crunching these numbers, you really don't need a PhD to explain the bulk of this large drop in Protestant numbers, a drop estimated by Professor Brian Walker to be 106,456.

Start with Ireland's long history of sectarianism from Raftery to Corkery, add a couple of hundred young men with guns, stir in some pre-prepared atrocities like the ones in Dunmanway and some of Bishop Coholan's sermons, leave to simmer for 100 years and you end up with many stories like George Salter's.

Now, Salter's testimony also asks the audience to consider the rationale of those who have denied him a hearing for so long. And here, we have to confront three distinct strands in the psychology of denial.

One strand in this tradition never met an historical corpse that couldn't be convicted of something. This strand is beyond help.

A second strand seems willing to stretch the definition of "legitimate target" so far beyond what seems reasonable that local sectarian hatreds are transmuted into IRA "retaliation" or "self-defence".

A third strand then just wishes this whole thing would go away because it casts a heavy pall, or so they think, over the entire independence project and the basic legitimacy of the new state.

Salter helps us see through this confusion as well because he showed us that we can recognise the profound sectarian dimension in Irish life without in any way cutting out our own hearts.

Americans know that their society came from the mass murder of the civil war, a war that saw pitiless and protracted attacks on civilians, especially in Georgia.

Recognising that doesn't mean their country ceases to have any moral worth at all. If anything, recognising human failure makes us more interesting. And here Salter helped again when he told the story of the deathbed confession by a local IRA man who admitted to sectarian killings in the presence of the once-exiled Salter senior.

Salter's father didn't crow or exult, merely accepted the man's remorse and encouraged him to think about a brighter future than the one the IRA gave his family.

Recognising moral deformity, in other words, need not terminate in internal exile.

There's lessons in this for every citizen, and it may even extend beyond the historical realm. An Tost Fada showed that denial is ultimately based on fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the uncontrollable.

The Fine Gael members of the Cabinet cannot quite figure out what happens next if they break with the Taoiseach over Denis O'Brien and if Mr O'Brien wins control over Independent News & Media.

Hence the silence and denial by the failed but promoted FG plotters about Justice Moriarty's findings, a denial that facilitates the Taoiseach's own tost fada on Esat.

FG's ministerial meekness does little even to guarantee future preferment because it is based on fear rather than insight.

Sunday Independent