Tuesday 15 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'In memory of a good deed by Sergeant Mike Murphy RIC'

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

For months now, swimming against the stream, I have been calling here for a "soft backstop", a tweak that would help Theresa May get the Withdrawal Agreement.

Last Thursday, Pat Leahy of The Irish Times told us that government sources accepted some tweaking could unlock approval for the agreement.

Leahy added there was a problem: "There are fears that it would look like a retreat by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney."

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So their stance has to do with public relations as much as patriotism.

Looking ahead, I believe Leo Varadkar will tweak the backstop without suffering any backlash and call a general election in May.

If so, what will his hard stand on the backstop be worth electorally?

Answer: not as much as his strategists might believe. Just as Leo will not get a backlash if he tweaks the backstop, neither will he get a big bounce from it.

Because while Middle Ireland went briefly a bit green in the golf clubs at the sight of Leo and Simon, all macho, standing up to the Brits, enough was enough.

Deep down, Middle Ireland sensibly believes the British will eventually leave the EU with a whimper and are fine about a few fig leaves from us to help sell the Withdrawal Agreement.

Far from getting a backstop bounce, Leo Varadkar will face into a headwind on housing, health, employment and his perceived lack of empathy.

The public has not forgotten Vicky Phelan's summation: "To us he was all talk but no action."

Given that Fine Gael will get nothing for waving the green flag, it baffles me why some of its cheerleaders in The Irish Times (and I don't mean Pat Leahy) are mad for a general election.

Like the Foolish Faction in Fianna Fail they want to end the current deal - although the most recent poll revealed that 75pc of the public want it to carry on!

Flag-waving Fine Gael and the Foolish Faction in Fianna Fail should be careful what they wish for, especially when electorally it will end with either more of the same or a squalid deal with Sinn Fein.

What matters more is the long-term lethal legacy of the green fever which Leo Varadkar did nothing to vaccinate us against.

This fever has caused some commentators to bang on about border polls and talk as if a United Ireland was around the corner.

The 1918 generation thought a Republic was around the corner, too - but found nothing but death and destruction and a deeply divided Ireland.

The final film of The Irish Revolution did nothing to reveal the delusions of the revolutionary generation on the eve of war and civil war.

In spite of some wise reflections from Paul Bew, Michael Laffan and David McCullagh, the biggest weakness of the series was the parade of callow academics relying far too much on the often self-serving testimonies to the Bureau of Military History.

Let me pause here to say the following common cliche should be followed by a health warning: "My grandfather (insert other relative) never spoke about it to his dying day."

This always makes me want to bark at the screen or radio: "The reason they said nothing was because they did nothing!"

Because those who did something seldom shut up. Tom Barry, Ernie O'Malley, Dan Breen and scores more like them, left us copious memoirs, interviews and embellished statements to the BMH.

Among the exceptions was my grandfather Pat Harris, whose peerless revolutionary record stretched unbroken for 20 years - 1902, founder member of the Cork Celtic Literary Society, the nucleus of Sinn Fein in the city; adjutant in the Irish Volunteers in 1916; internment in Frongoch; arrest with Terence MacSwiney and other First Cork Brigade officers at Cork City Hall in August 1920; taking the republican side in the civil war.

Yet his brief five-page BMH statement stops dead at 1916. Unlike his two IRA brothers, I can find no record of a pension claim.

Since I spent some time as a boy with this spare, sinewy man with a fanatic heart I think I know why.

For him, revolution was a game of two halves. In the pre-1916 first half were golden years of cultural work and idealistic Irish Volunteer marches.

The second half, 1919-21, included the dark years when his Brigade ran amok in search of mythical spies.

The relative innocence of the pre-1916 Irish Volunteer days were revealed by his relations with his friend, Sergeant Mike Murphy of the RIC, who lived near him in red-brick Nessan Street.

Murphy had bad feet and in the prelapsarian days before 1916, Pat would take pity and tell him the Sunday march routes so Murphy could spare his corns and file his weekly report.

But Pat did not tell him where they were going on Easter Sunday 1916 when the Volunteers set out for Macroom to pick up Casement's arms.

Pat Harris's flat and factual report on 1916 in Cork is such a model of reporting that my old BMH brochure has a quote from him on the cover.

So why did he stop his statement in 1916? Why no mention of his friend Tomas Mac Curtain, or Terence MacSwiney with whom he began a hunger strike until ordered off it?

Perhaps he was not proud of the orgy of 'spy' killings that took place under the sinister Brigade IO, Florence O'Donoghue, a frequent if disliked visitor at Nessan Street to check facts for his biography of Tomas Mac Curtain.

From Pat Harris, from his diaries, and from my father who was 10 in 1921, I got a history training which no academic could match.

From the age of 15 I was reading, in sequence, Pat Harris's full files of The Workers' Republic, The Spark and An t-Oglach.

Later I studied the period at UCC while being a groupie for Tom Barry at the Grocers Club.

So I know whereof I speak when I reject what the Cork Spy Files authors said about "spies" shot in Cork. Conceding "a substantial minority were probably innocent" they imply a majority were guilty.

There is not a shred of evidence for this. British military reports for the last 12 months of the conflict in Cork repeatedly register their amazement at the IRA's capacity to shoot the wrong people as spies.

Compare Cork with Dublin. After almost 100 years it is relatively easy to establish that most of Collins's victims in Dublin were actual spies. Nobody has ever been able to do the equivalent for Cork.

A final word. One spring evening before the Truce, Pat Harris, on the run, received Brigade permission to risk a visit home. He was soon woken by British soldiers - who could only have been tipped off by a real spy in the IRA - who marched him to the lorry.

My father, Tom, aged 10, stood at the door with his mother Brid, watching fearfully. But as the lorry was about to pull off my father said Sergeant Murphy emerged with upraised hand from two doors up, "in the full canonicals of the RIC".

Sergeant Murphy braced the British officer and said: "Pat Harris is my friend and I will be calling to Victoria Barracks tomorrow to inquire about him."

Sergeant Murphy of the Royal Irish Constabulary saved my grandfather from a bad beating or worse. I am forever grateful to his ghost.

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