Sunday 22 September 2019

Exorcising the dark, bloody secrets of IRA in West Cork

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

THE Bandon Valley is vibrant with beauty and violence. As a boy my father would bring me to fish illegally at Inishannon. On the way home he told me heroic tales of Tom Barry's Flying Column.

But he never told me that in April 1922, an IRA gang had pulled 10 Protestants from their beds and shot them in cold blood.

Why? Partly because he did not know, partly because he did not want to know, and partly because he could not cope with the political problem such an event posed. As a republican he revered Tone's trinity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. So when republicans regressed to tribal roots and killed Protestants he could not cope, retreated from reality, and repressed the memory.

There were times during the past 30 years when I wished I could have done the same. My thirst for the truth about how we treated southern rural Protestants in the period 1919-22 has brought me nothing but trouble. Sometimes from both sides at the same time.

They told me to let sleeping dogs lie. A fine motto if you are the top dog telling lies. But the republicanism that required me to side with the underdog, also required me to side with the silent Protestant dead. Kevin Myers broke that silence with a series of articles in the Irish Times in the early Nineties.

In the past 10 years we have had three classics on the period. Peter Hart exhumed the full facts in The IRA and its Enemies (1998); Joseph O'Neill examined the moral issues in his family memoir, Blood-Dark Track (2000); and Jasper Ungoed Wolfe explored the complex community relations involved in Jasper Wolfe of Skibbereen (2008).

In previous columns I praised Hart and Wolfe. Now I want to say a few words about Joseph O'Neill's book, prompted by Perry Donovan's powerful essay in Star Life, the bi-monthly magazine of the Southern Star. O'Neill is now famous as a favourite novelist of Barack Obama. But I doubt he will write a better book than Blood-Dark Track, which confronts both the bright and dark sides of his republican relations.

In 1997, as the Irish Republic searched for the bodies of missing IRA victims like Jean McConville, O'Neill was pondering his compulsion to find out the truth about West Cork Protestants whose bodies had been missing since 1922: "The urge to uncover the past, when it is a component of the inextinguishable and tormenting urge for justice, is extremely powerful, and the search for skeletons continued."

Let us hope O'Neill gets a DVD of Cork's Bloody Secret, tomorrow night's CSI documentary on RTE One. The title signals the team is not going to push any skeletons out of sight. But it exhumes these grim ghosts only to exorcise them in a powerful piece of public service broadcasting that will help to heal many wounds in West Cork.

Pat Butler came up with the concept of Cork's Bloody Secret. Fachtna O'Drisceoil presented the film and Sean O Mealoid produced it. They needed nerves of steel. Although I agreed to take part I was pessimistic. Previous attempts to tell the truth had failed because relatives of the victims were reluctant to speak freely.

But the CSI team found three courageous Protestants -- Donal Woods, Hazel Baylor and Charles Duff -- and two courageous Roman Catholic historians, Tommy Collins and Colum Cronin. The result is a rare film in which personal testimony transcends the tribal and ideological agendas of all sides.

It begins on the night of April 25th, 1922, four months after the Treaty, when an IRA group broke into the home of Thomas Hornibrook, his son Samuel and son-in-law, Captain Herbert Woods. Faced by armed intruders at dead of night, Captain Woods fired at them and shot dead the IRA group's leader, Michael O'Neill.

The three Protestants surrendered. The IRA group took them away to the hills and killed them in dire circumstances. Their bodies have never been found. In Blood-Dark Track, Joseph O'Neill gives them the only epitaph they have ever received: "These three dead Protestants were multiply entombed. Their violent deaths were not reported in the Irish newspapers; their bodies were buried in secret somewhere in West Cork; and their remains, unlike those of Northern Catholics, shot dead as informers, were never officially missed."

But it did not stop there. Over the following nights, the IRA shot 10 ordinary Protestant shopkeepers, farmers and clergymen. Hundreds of terrified Cork Protestants packed the trains and sought refuge in England and Northern Ireland. Similar scenes were taking place all over Ireland. At least 40,000 southern Protestants left.

Donald Woods directly confronts his self-imposed silence on the subject when speaking to another local historian, Colm Cronin: "We have been writing together on historical matter for four or five years now and I wonder why we never discussed these events of 1922?" Colm replies that many Catholics did not know the facts, and the hurt was so deep "they brought down a wall of silence around it".

Hazel Baylor speaks fluent Irish. She stands in the farmyard of the traditional farmhouse and points out where her uncle, Bertie Chinnery was shot dead. She says her mother had no hatred for his killers, and neither does she. You will have to see the film to feel her healing power.

Charles Duff comes from London, where he lectures on Shakespeare. He stands at the grave of his grandfather, David Gray, a chemist, who was shot dead in the doorway of his shop in Dunmanway.

After the murder the Gray family fled to England. It is Charles Duff's first time seeing his grandfather's grave and he has this to say: "I suppose I've thought a lot about how that family was once very happy and very united and it was a family, how on the grave it says 'worthy of everlasting remembrance' and how there hasn't been everlasting remembrance.

"They have been forgotten. But not today. Today they are remembered and I find that moving."

Most Irish people will welcome those healing words. But not all. The Tribal Patrol about which I wrote recently has already corrupted the existing Wikipedia entry on the Dunmanway Massacre. I have italicised their weasel words to point up how, from the opening paragraph, they try to sow sectarian seeds and thwart the noble vision of Wolfe Tone.

"The Dunmanway Massacre was the killing of 10 Protestants mainly informers but also including two relatives of informers, and the disappearance and presumed death of another three in and around Dunmanway, Co Cork between 26 April and 28 April 1922."

Hopefully the healing power of programmes like Cork's Bloody Secret are likely to leave these lethal tribalists behind.

Nothing will calm the fears of Northern Protestants faster than a Republic whose national broadcaster RTE engraves RIP on the graves of all the missing: Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Let us hope RTE continues to resist the tribalists.

* * * * *

The late Helen Hanrahan would have hated to miss Cork's Bloody Secret. Like the rest of our generation at UCC, she was passionate in pursuit of a pluralist Irish history and politics.

She was beautiful, she was brave, she had high standards. Ar dheis De go raibh a h-anam croga.

Sunday Independent

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