SUNDAY Today's Sunday Times recycles attacks by amateur historian Pat Muldowney (who is actually a lecturer in mathematics), and local historian Philip McConway on producer Niamh Sammon's widely praised RTE programme on the killing of the Pearson brothers at Coolacrease, Co Offaly, in June 1921.
Back when Alan Ruddock was Ireland editor, that paper would have pointed up the common link between Coolacrease and Cullyhanna, between the murders of the Pearsons and the murder of Paul Quinn -- a criminal gang using the IRA as a cloak for their criminality.
At first sight it would seem hard to deny the facts of the murders at Coolacrease. A gang of 30 IRA men, in broad daylight, dragged out Richard and Abraham Pearson, two members of the pacifist Cooneyite sect, and shot them in the groin and abdomen -- as the family later testified -- in full sight of their mother and sisters.
In defiance of the Pearson family's testimony, Pat Muldowney, in a letter to Village magazine, denies the Pearson boys were shot in front of their family. In defiance of common sense, he describe as "salacious" my inference that because the Pearsons were shot in the groin and lower abdomen, the IRA gang were aiming at their genitals.
To which I reply that the north Offaly gang -- who had to be nagged into taking on the Auxies and Tans -- were certainly not aiming at the poor lads' head or hearts as would be normal in an "execution" by the Cork IRA Brigades.
Muldowney's polemics on the Pearsons are published and promoted by the cranky and cult-like Aubane Historical Society (Google the phrase, "From Peking to Aubane" to follow Aubane's strange evolution from super-revisionism to super-nationalism), and many of the letter-writers attacking the RTE programme can be found on linked websites, Athol Books and the Irish Political Review.
But in spite of Aubane's campaign against the Pearson programme, most television critics agreed with the academic historians who took part -- that the Pearsons were murdered for a mixture of motives, which could best be summed up in Daniel Corkery's definition of Irish nationalism: Land, Religion and Nationality.
Liveline deals with Coolacrease. Although there is no love lost between myself and Joe Duffy, I must admit that he handles the subject sensitively from every side. That's not easy, since in my extensive experience, any attempt to challenge the tribal taboo on this subject produces a five-part protocol which goes as follows:
First, some brave soul challenges the nationalist consensus about some atrocity against Protestants in some part of rural Ireland, in the period 1919-1923. Second, just as decent local people are pondering some public atonement, a few local historians start to split hairs and decent people desist. Third, local Protestants are persuaded to say there was no sectarian agenda in the affair. Fourth, anyone who publicises the affair is accused of "fanning the flames of sectarian hatred" or "damaging the peace process", or not "moving on."
Fifth, and most formidably, as can be seen from its websites, the Aubane Historical Society, and its allies, bombard the media with a massive mailbag of tendentious and tediously argued letters. These create so much fog around the facts, that Roman Catholics and real republicans retreat from any act of atonement -- and local Protestants learn once again the lesson of keeping the head down.
Or that was how it worked until Canadian historian Peter Hart published The IRA and its Enemies. Although Hart was subjected to a series of violent verbal polemics by the Aubane Society (assisted more temperately by priest historian Fr Brian Murphy OSB, who often launches Aubane's books), he touched a deep chord among decent Roman Catholics and real republicans.
Listening to Liveline, I have a hunch that the 86-year taboo is being broken and that the the Pearson boys will be hard to bury.
Senator David Norris kindly lets me look at a letter to him from a Pearson critic, historian Philip McConway, which accuses me -- and not the IRA murder gang -- of deciding to "fan the flames of hatred". How? By saying I believed the IRA gang were aiming at the boys' genitals.
McConway goes on to complain about David Norris's passionate defence of the Pearson boys in the Senate: "As a contributor and researcher for the RTE Hidden History documentary, The Killings at Coolacrease, I take grave exception to your remarks. I was awarded the M.Phil in Modern Irish History in Trinity College Dublin in 2007. My dissertation, entitled The IRA in Offaly 1920-21, was awarded a 1:1 which is a first class honours grade. The Pearson episode featured in this dissertation."
To which David Norris replied: "I have received your letter. I am not in the slightest bit intimidated by your M.Phil nor did I specify you or your research. I do not withdraw a single atom of what I said." No keeping the head down for Norris. FRIDAY
Today is the 85th anniversary of the pogrom against Protestants in the Bandon Valley in November 1922, when 14 innocent Protestants were pulled from their beds and shot dead in brutal circumstances. Peter Hart's publicising of this foul deed in The IRA and its Enemies, aroused the particular ire of the Aubane Historical Society, which held public meetings in Cork where priest-historian Fr Brian Murphy, OSB, made more cogent arguments against Hart's general thesis than the Aubane had previously managed. According to Fr Murphy, Hart didn't take sufficient account of the existence of Protestant resistance to the IRA.
So why am I not surprised to see in today's Irish Examiner a letter signed "Brian Murphy OSB" which supports Pat Muldowney's take on the Pearsons as follows: "Dr Muldowney provided clear contemporary evidence that the two young members of the Pearson family, killed by the IRA at Coolacrease, Co Offaly, on June 30, 1921, had been killed for military rather than sectarian reasons."
May I advise Fr Murphy that Doctor Muldowney does no such thing? May I, although admittedly a mere agnostic, also advise Fr Murphy that it might be a good thing, in the moral sense, if just once, a Roman Catholic priest-historian like himself turned up in the letters page of the Irish Examiner looking at events like the Bandon pogroms and the Pearson killings from a Protestant perspective.
May I also draw Fr Murphy's attention to the dangers of doing business with amateur historians as outlined by the sub-heading on Davy Adams's cogent column on Coolacrease in today's Irish Times.
Davy Adams demolishes any attempt to present the Pearson killings as an IRA execution, as well as Aubane's attacks on the Coolacrease programme. "Their campaign seems designed merely to sow doubt, create confusion and muddy the waters around the Coolacrease murders. If they are lucky, it might also have the effect of ensuring that no other such programmes are made."
Let's hope RTE -- and the rest of the Irish media -- is robust enough to reject any attempts to stifle challenges to the tribal take on Irish history. After all, if we can't face the truth about the IRA atrocity against Richard and Abraham Pearson from Coolacrease, 86 years ago, how can we face the truth about the IRA atrocity against Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna a few weeks ago?