Wednesday 26 June 2019

Eoghan Harris: On the road from Beal na Blath to Lough Hyne


Charlie Bird, standing in for Marian Finucane, breaks an RTE radio taboo and calls me up for a comment on the 'Brian Lenihan at Beal na Blath' controversy.

Just as well too, as the train carrying my co-commentator, Nora Owen, goes into a tunnel, cutting her mobile connection and leaving me to carry the can.

Later on, I turn down the volume on the television, turn up the volume on Micheal O Muircheartaigh on radio, and bite my nails as Cork scrapes home against Dublin. As Micheal's sound is a few seconds ahead of the TV picture, this allows me to be predict when a point is coming. Pity that facility was not available to us before the banking crisis.


Set out for Skibbereen. Thanks to the bypass at Abbeyleix, the trip will take a lot less than the four hours it normally takes in my 1998 saloon. But as Gwen acutely observes, this merely allows for a detour to the deathless coffee-and-cake counter at the Horse and Jockey.

Sated, I study the reports of Brian Lenihan's speech. The Irish Times has a nice picture of my friend Helen Collins meeting Brian Lenihan, so I know he was well-hugged. But judging by the excerpts, the speech was just easy listening.

Arriving in Skibbereen in the late afternoon we stop for a quick swim in the natural wonder that is the sea-lake of Lough Hyne. So we are slightly damp but in good time for the main purpose of the trip: Terri Kearney's talk on the archaeology of the same lake -- I refuse to say 'eponymous' -- at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre

By and large, we Irish are loath to go to public lectures. Not so the French and Germans. A Tibetan Buddhist, who teaches all over Europe, remarked that if a Frenchman died and woke up to find himself travelling in a car towards a crossroads, and saw a signpost with two arms, one pointing to 'Heaven' and one to 'Lecture on Heaven', he would go to the lecture.

But the crowd for Terri's talk proved we are becoming more European. Tourists had to be turned away as Lough Hyne people packed the room. Pride of place went to local fisherman, singer and storyteller Neilly Bohane, an alert 92, and his equally alert wife, Annie.

Terri, who is also manager of the heritage centre, wore her huge learning lightly, but her talk still left me a bit miffed. Reluctantly, I had to relinquish many of the romantic tales with which I was wont to regale visiting German girls in the years before Gwen.

So it's goodbye to my story about how the Druids used to dissect maidens on the pier while crowds sat around the amphitheatre of the hills enjoying the perfect acoustics. But surely my continuing survival is proof that drinking tiny quantities of the pure sea- water of the lake cures most ailments?


The Fr Chesney story is a sickener. Alas, although there were not many Provo priests, Chesney was not alone. Some of the blame for bad priests belongs to the baneful influence of the lunatic 'liberation theology' imported from Latin America (where it had some justification) to Northern Ireland (where it had none) in the Seventies.

This led to left-wing clerics not merely hearing the confessions of IRA activists before they went on bombing missions but assuring them that their actions were morally acceptable. Sean O'Callaghan, the garda agent within the Provisional IRA, recalled in an interview with the National Review that one of the Provo safe houses was a parochial house, where recruits were sworn in.

"Imagine the effect on a young uneducated country lad brought to his parochial house under cover of darkness to be inducted into the IRA. Try telling him that the Church was not on his side. One of the local priests usually called on another house in that area where I and other IRA men often stayed. He took great delight in asking us to relate our latest escapades. He was also forever passing on information about local Protestants: usually members or ex-members of the UDR or RUC. At least one of these was later murdered by the Provisional IRA."

No wonder my mother used to say the road to hell was paved with the heads of bad priests. But let's not forget that most Roman Catholic clergy were a credit to their collar. And the corrupt actions of a Chesney were more than balanced by the good deeds of that moral giant, Fr Denis Faul of Dungannon.


Prime Time deals with problems of accountability in the Irish Red Cross. The same organisation played a small part in the Arms Trial of 1970. Back then, the Irish Republic also evaded the issue when faced with the same central moral problem that Chesney posed for the authorities -- would exposure create more evils than it cured?

At the time of the Arms Trial, the late Leslie Bean de Barra, wife of guerrilla leader Tom Barry, and a woman of strong IRA sympathies in her own right, was director of the Irish Red Cross. Justin O'Brien, in his authoritative work, The Arms Trial, says the money from the Department of Finance,

originally transferred to the Irish Red Cross Society to protect refugees from the North, was used "to finance the emergence of the Provisional IRA".

After the courts failed to convict Haughey & Co, Jack Lynch set up a Committee of Public Accounts to get to the bottom of the affair. But in O'Brien's book, Dr Garret FitzGerald comes to two conclusions, the first of which was that "the acquittals marked a miscarriage of justice".

FitzGerald's second conclusion has echoes of how Church and State handled the Chesney case for what they saw as the higher good. He believes the public accounts hearings were not meant to get at the truth, but to "buttress the State against the greatest threat to its security since partition".


Catherine Ketch's front page story in the Southern Star on Brian Lenihan's speech at Beal na Blath forces me to revise my early notion that it was simply easy listening. For one thing the headline holds my attention. "Anger alone is not a policy on its own, says Lenihan."

More importantly, Ketch caught the following crucial passage in Lenihan's speech which other papers passed over: "Acknowledging the work of modern historians, he said terrible deeds were done on all sides during both the war of Independence and the Civil War 'and many people with little or no connection to the struggle died or suffered by accident, or because of where they worked or where they worshipped'."

Lenihan's reference to the killing of civilians because of "where they worshiped" is a courageous first step in facing the fact that the IRA killed innocent Irish Protestants in that period. How many and why is still to be settled by historians.

But it happened, and we should stop pretending it did not happen simply to protect the good name of our gunmen grandfathers. The same law applies to the Old IRA as to Chesney. Let justice be done even if heaven falls.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss