Tuesday 25 June 2019

The lethal legacy of my brave 1916 grandfather

Paddy Harris Photo: Damien Eagers
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Easter Sunday 1916. One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Paddy Harris, Adjutant of B Company, Irish Volunteers, Cork, was getting ready to fight for an Irish Republic.

My father, then aged five, recalled Paddy kissing his wife Bree goodbye at the door of their little redbrick terraced house at 11, St Nessan Street.

Bree wanted Paddy to look his best going into battle. The night before she had dyed his faded slouch hat a fresh dark green.

Later, as he marched with 1,000 Irish Volunteers to Macroom, hoping to collect arms from the Aud, it rained so heavily the green dye ran down his face.

Easter Sunday 1916 was a watershed in Paddy's life. What followed was more terrible than beautiful.

For Paddy Harris in later life, all that went before 1916 was bathed in a benign glow. All that came after was steeped in blood and bitterness.

That 1916 divide can be traced in his witness statement to the Military History Bureau. He was a solicitor's clerk and it shows in his succinct prose.

A retired Irish army officer who read his statement remarked: "His memory is assured and precise and it's written in military declarative. Adjutants need to write well, it's part of their brief ."

The first part is a record of Paddy's long apprenticeship as a cultural nationalist, starting with the the Gaelic League in 1900.

But he singles out the Cork Celtic Literary Society as the principal political engine driving projects such as the Irish Industrial Development Association.

The Celtic Society was also manipulating politics. "When a branch of Sinn Fein was organised locally about 1905 its main strength came from the same men, and from the associated organisation, Inghinidhe na h-Eireann."

The same group set up the Cork National Theatre Society, which features in a cherished photograph taken after its production of The Land in the Imperial Hotel on April 27 and 30, 1906.

We see the clerks and secretaries of Edwardian Cork in their best clothes: the men in wing collars, flowers in their buttonholes; the women in brocaded blouses, hair piled high.

Paddy,, seen right, stands on the left, a dapper young man with a waxed moustache, who was at that time manipulating half a dozen committees in pursuit of an Irish Ireland.

Paddy flatly recounts the foundation of the Irish volunteers in 1913, and the 1914 split with Redmond's National Volunteers, which left him parading with a tiny remnant as the rest went off to war.

"It was very hard to get men to turn up regularly for parades. They were very conscious of the hostility everywhere evident against us at the time."

But Paddy did not care what the majority in Cork City thought. By Easter 1916 he was armed and anxious for action.

On Easter Sunday, 600 Cork Volunteers mobilised at Sheares Street Hall.

Paddy's witness statement is free of any Pearsean exaltation.

"My brother Tom had a box of 3,000 rounds of .303 ammunition at home which had come from Dublin some time before."

Paddy is proud of how well equipped B Coy is for the coming fight: "Everyone in 'B' Company was armed with a rifle. Every man had at least 50 rounds."

To no avail. Casement was captured, the Aud scuttled and the Cork Volunteers were persuaded to surrender their arms to the British Army in Victoria Barracks. But not Paddy.

"I did not surrender my rifle, but dumped it in a safe place. My brothers Tom and Michael were arrested on 8th May."

Apart from the Kents, I believe we were the only family in Cork to have three brothers under arms in Easter 1916.

Accordingly, my own life would be a lot easier if I simply basked in the retrospective glow of Paddy's proud 1916 record.

But I have inherited his indifference to public opinion. And in recent years I came to two cold conclusions.

First, I refuse to put 1916 in a gift-wrapped box and separate it out from other boxes - the coffins carrying the bodies of men, women and children from 1916 to the present day.

Second, noting that, unlike other IRA men, Paddy's witness statement stopped at 1916, I concluded that he was not particularly proud of his IRA record in the War of Independence.

Paddy had been a happy cultural nationalist before 1916. But on the far side of the Rising he began a dark journey as an officer of the First Cork Brigade IRA.

The iron began to enter his soul on March 20, 1920 when his friend Tomas McCurtain was murdered.

Five months later, on August 12 1920, he himself was arrested with Terence McSwiney and other Brigade officers at Cork City Hall. By the end of that year, like the rest of the First Cork Brigade, he had hardened his heart and could no longer see the man, only the uniform. Besides, at 40, he felt isolated by a new callous IRA breed.

On November 17, 1920, Sgt James O'Donoghue, RIC, who lived around the corner from Paddy in Tower Street, and who never carried a gun, was shot dead on his way home.

The IRA intimidated Cork undertakers, who refused to bury his body. O'Donoghue's distraught wife and children had to hire a private car to take his body back to Cahirciveen.

The pre-1916 Pat Harris had no fear of a pitched fight, but the kindly grandfather I knew as a boy could not have hurt the proverbial fly in cold blood.

So how could he stay silent as O'Donoghue's widow and small children were effectively driven from the city of Cork?

How could he stay silent during the even darker days of the Truce when a new breed of IRA tearaways murdered scores of Cork Protestants whom they falsely traduced as spies?

The answer is that Paddy, a morally and physically brave man, was in thrall to the lethal political ideology of Irish republicanism.

Like any ideology, whether it be fascism, communism or Islamism, it can convince its followers to condone any kind of cruelty.

Luckily, Paddy found he had limits.

To no avail he called for the courtmartial of what he called "the gang of cornerboys" who gunned down three British drummer boys out to buy sweets only a few hours before the Truce.

Paddy Harris spent the rest of his life in bitter recriminations, first against Michael Collins and later deValera. He was really in mourning for the lost Republic of pre-1916 Ireland.

But he and his fellow republican mourners were really shedding crocodile tears for a fantasy republic.

Neither before nor after 1916 did he, nor indeed the rest of Ireland, face the fact that one million Northern Protestants were never going to be bullied into a Roman Catholic Republic.

Likewise, the Republic has refused to face a fundamental fact that the Proclamation is a flawed title deed to our democracy.

Because if Pearse and Paddy Harris can declare themselves the provisional government of Ireland, then by virtue of what principle do we deny the same right to any group of what I call the Recurring IRA?

That is why today I salute my grandfather's courage but reject his right to speak for the Irish people.

Goodbye, my grandfather; goodbye, old ghost. What we have, we have because of you. But also in spite of you.

Sunday Independent

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