Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'A Christmas trip to Cork - with Michael Collins for company'

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Four more years, thrummed the train to Cork last Monday as I headed south on my annual Christmas trip.

The refrain did not refer to Trump's electoral prospects. I am not one of those columnists who beats up on Trump or the Brits to no effect except to inflate the ego of the authors.

The reference was to the forthcoming four years of Bloody Sunday every bloody night as RTE and an agreement of academics conspire to work up the next generation into a green frenzy as they expand the sardine tin of our struggle for independence into a shipping container.

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RTE's recent Ar Son Na Poblachta was a foretaste of the cheerleading to come. Some historians I had never heard of, but all had the same green glint of eye and Pearsean pump of voice when dealing with Michael Collins and Bloody Sunday.

Gone are the days when historians like Theo Moody, Robin Dudley Edwards and FSL Lyons turned down the tribal temperature by focusing on facts that did not fit the green narrative.

But since Peter Hart's The IRA And Its Enemies, no academic historian has challenged the Old IRA's self-serving narrative, certainly none as ruthlessly as non-academic Gerard Murphy's The Year of Disappearances.

In Ireland, a plurality of voices has always been anathema to the political and media class. Both RTE and the academy favour a cagey policy of uno voce.

Admittedly I have an axe to grind with RTE for its Putin-style censorship in keeping my revisionist views on Irish nationalism - and the backstop - off the air.

But I will not lower myself to their level so I always put my axe away when RTE rises courageously to a challenge.

Election '18 was such an exquisite salmon's leap, a shining moment that made sense of that much-abused phrase, public service broadcasting.

Colm O'Callaghan, who commissioned it for RTE, showed bottle in backing Cormac Hargaden of Loosehorse in covering the 1918 General Election as if it were live, complete with filmed reports on all the major players - Sinn Feiners, Redmondites and Ulster Protestants.

Naturally, I was quite confident that RTE's superb technical crews would not be found wanting. But would we become bored by blurry black footage and hammy reconstructions?

But I relaxed when I realised Ruan Magan was the director. A genius at authentic reconstructions, he merged sometimes-colourised footage seamlessly with fictional scenes that stayed true to the facts, not least in its authentic portrayal of Ulster Protestants at work. The show was superbly served by writer Hugh Travers.

David McCullagh did a deft job in getting the best from a panel which had luckily put away the green flags peeping from so many breast pockets in Ar Son Na Poblachta.

As a bonus, Harry McGee, Diarmaid Ferriter, Mark Duncan, Gary Murphy and especially Theresa Reidy (who gave a tour de force performance) stayed in character from start to finish with a discipline some Irish actors could emulate.

There was rightly a strong feminist theme in the show. But for balance the relevant panel of women historians might have pointed out that the franchise for women was brought in by the British government of its own accord and not under pressure from Irish nationalists or suffragettes.

This progressive measure was a credit to British parliamentary democracy and applied to the UK as a whole. As did the equally progressive old age pension of 10 years earlier which was of great benefit to my grandfather and grandmother's generation.

The only downside of the main panel having to stay in character was that it could not freely talk about the future, especially the almost casual way we drifted into a violent campaign.

PS O'Hegarty, who saw it all first hand, was characteristically brisk in his classic account, The Victory of Sinn Fein, where he called the General Election "not a victory of conviction, but of emotion".

He went on to say: "It is questionable whether the Irish people, when they voted Sinn Fein, knew they were voting for war... the actual growth of war was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible."

He also categorically dismissed the apologists for armed struggle. "After 1916, there should not have been a shot fired... Without firing a shot we could have forced from England anything that we have forced from her by the gun policy and more."

By some serendipity, after Limerick Junction I fell into conversation with a former Presentation Brother who, referring to a range of problems from housing to Brexit, remarked: "I wonder how Michael Collins would have handled it all?"

Based on Collins's belief in deeds not words, as well as his habit of being "loyal to the facts", we can safely conclude he would have given short shrifts to blocks on housing, brought his Treaty pragmatism to Brexit, and by now would have wriggled off the backstop.

Arriving at Kent Station, the freezing rain meant that the racists who reject black taxi drivers had to put their pointy hoods in their pockets and be glad they had a guy from Ghana.

At the Imperial Hotel, Tim Herlihy tried to take the case, but I am from a generation that feels guilty about taking taxis and carries its own bags, so I was happy to let Tim help me catch up with local politics.

In the foyer, a painting of a boyish Michael Collins gazes across at a plaque erected by the Cork Anti-Slavery Society, recalling the visit to the Imperial of the famous anti-slavery black activist, William Douglass.

As I look up at the plaque with pride, Tim reminds me that December is the anniversary of the US Congress ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but alas, not racism.

Reluctantly I leave the snug sanctuary of the Imperial for a rainy walk along the South Mall starting with the 1916 memorial to the First Cork Brigade with the name of my grandfather Pat Harris. Across the road is Barry O'Meara Solicitors, who gave him back his job after he came home from Frongoch, just as the Cork Examiner did when his brother Tommy came out of jail.

Passing the plaque to Denny Lane, author of Carrigdhoun - Seamus Mallon's favourite song - I head for the Christmas blaze of Oliver Plunkett Street and Uneeda Books where my old friend John Coffey gifts me Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel on Roger Casement.

To Waterstones to check that Gerard Murphy's two books, The Year of Disappearances and The Great Cover-Up, are surviving on shelves stuffed with sardine can books.

To my chagrin I am mistaken for Tim Pat Coogan - which bears out what Nietzsche nearly said, that if you gaze into the abyss long enough Tim Pat Coogan will gaze back at you.

Next morning I take the train home laden with spiced beef from the English Market, reluctantly ready to return to reality.

My Irish Independent carries an incisive letter from Peter Cassells, former general secretary of the ICTU, an expert at negotiation, warning that the backstop is backing the Brits, and us, into a corner.

Time for comfort food. Time for my compact packet of Cork nostalgia. Happily I open the Holly Bough.

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