Struck by the truth of Sean O'Callaghan's moral restitution


Eoghan Harris

Sean O'Callaghan inverted our idea of an IRA informer. Rejecting the role of despised tout, he finished as a flawed, tragic hero, at least in my eyes.

Luckily I am not alone. As Brian Hayes MEP remarked, the Provos hated Sean O'Callaghan as much as they hated Fr Denis Faul.

That's why the Provo propaganda machine is pumping out the Walter Mitty smear. If O'Callaghan had not hurt them so badly they would not bother.

The index of good and bad politics this weekend will be where you stand on Sean O'Callaghan. RTE has already failed the test.

But then the shallow end of the media have been challenging Sean O'Callaghan's credibility from the start, notably Vincent Browne in The Irish Times in 1996.

The problem for the Provos, Browne, and other media critics alike is this: why do they accept O'Callaghan's confession to his own crimes but not his accusations of crimes committed by the Provos?

Are the sceptics so shallow they cannot see why the killing of Greenfinch Eva Martin on May 2, 1974, might be a moral watershed for O'Callaghan?

But O'Callaghan's dark epiphany was hearing a top Provo remark he hoped Martin was pregnant because it would be "two prods for the price of one".

Sean O'Callaghan was no Walter Mitty. Garret FitzGerald confirmed his claim to have warned the security services of a plot to kill Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.

The real Walter Mittys are those in the media who swallow Provo fictions and fail to face the facts about the man himself.

O'Callaghan is a real historical figure, a Tralee republican who sat on the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle. He was a senior figure in the IRA's command staff.

O'Callaghan committed terrible crimes. But, unlike other republicans, he showed remorse and sought to make restitution by laying his life on the line.

His moral rigour forbade him to seek forgiveness either in counselling or in Christianity. He sought absolution by risking a dreadful death, as an unpaid agent inside the IRA.

To meet Sean, or even see him on TV, was to be struck by the simple truth of his testimony.

There was no self- justification, no self-pity, just a sardonic sense of not wanting to be soft on himself, as well as the wit of his native county Kerry.

O'Callaghan changed utterly. The force of that change was carved deeply into the contours of his face.

He cried wolf about the Provos' project because he had been a wolf, and could smell a wolf even when dressed in sheep's clothing.

Sean O'Callaghan was a warrior who did two states some service. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal.


Sean's death was the final stop in a week spent thinking about informers, in Cork and Leitrim.

The Leitrim link was after listening to Tim Desmond's riveting radio documentary, An Unholy Trinity.

It's 1923. A priest in Mohill with republican connections makes a girl pregnant. They abandon the child, and are charged.

A brave, young local doctor, Paddy Muldoon, is ready to testify but the priest calls in a republican favour. The IRA murders the doctor.

Desmond points out that this complex story remains a divisive issue for some people in the local area.

The difficulty of dealing with the past was underlined by the response of David Logan in the Leitrim Observer.

Logan said he believed the "Dublin media" were dragging up the story to embarrass the Catholic Church.

But why would they want to do that when they had a gripping story to tell that needed no ulterior motive?

Logan's reply was that any cloud over the clergy will damage the pro-life position he holds dear.

"This will feed into efforts by some media outlets to discredit the Church's pro-life witness in the run-up to a referendum on abortion that will probably take place in Ireland next year."

Perusing past issues of the Leitrim Observer, I also came across the story of the Selton Hill Ambush of March 11, 1921, in Co Leitrim, during the War of Independence.

Suddenly, I realised I had read a version of the story recently when preparing a talk on John McGahern and William Trevor for the Clifden Arts Festival.

McGahern refers to the Selton Hill story twice in his classic, That They May Face the Rising Sun.

At Selton Hill it was the IRA Flying column who were ambushed as they slept in a poorly guarded farmhouse, by a superior force of RIC and Auxiliaries.

Six IRA volunteers were killed. The IRA sought a scapegoat. They found him in the form of a Methodist farmer, William Latimer.To its credit, local folklore does not say Latimer was an informer in any real sense. He had innocently told a local doctor that his son had seen a lot of activity that morning. The doctor told the local District Inspector RIC.

Thomas Melia, writing in a Mohill parish magazine, says that not only was Latimer an innocent man but he had been active in preventing the eviction of a Catholic family years before.

The six IRA officers are memorialised as martyrs. What happened to Willie Latimer is glossed over.

An IRA squad took Willie from his house, from his wife Isabella and their six children and shot him dead.

Not so well remembered too is what followed, the details of which can be found in the files of the Irish Grants Committee.

Willie's widow, who had taken refuge in Belfast, claimed Thomas Carter, TD, an officer in Free State Army, later seized her two farms in the name of Dail Eireann.

McGahern makes his way past the monument to the IRA heroes to mark the forgotten grave of Willie Latimer, the Methodist farmer who left a wife and six children behind, with nobody to mourn him or atone to them.

He changes their name to Sinclair and sums up what I believe to be biggest cover-up of the 20th Century: IRA intimidation of Irish Protestants which caused thousands to leave this country under a cloud.

"Then they came for poor Sinclair, the Protestant, nine fields away. The Sinclairs were quiet and hard-working and they kept to themselves like all the Protestants. They knew as much about the ambush as we knew. They shot him because somebody had to be made to pay and poor Sinclair was a Protestant and the nearest to hand."

Finally, it is good to hear gardai are re-opening the murder of Tom Oliver.

Tom was taken from his home in Riverstown, Co Louth, on July 19, 1991, cruelly tortured and shot in the head by the IRA.

The IRA lyingly said Tom Oliver was shot because he was a Garda informer. In fact, anybody in the area who spoke to a garda was also at risk of being branded as a spy.

That's because gardai believe Tom Oliver was shot to stop people having any contact with security forces.

The object of such a boycott was so the IRA could safely use the Cooley area for arms dumps and terrorist training.

But the people of the Cooley Peninsula and Co Louth showed their contempt for the IRA by turning out in their thousands for his funeral.

Time RTE stopped living in the Walter Mitty fantasy that Sinn Fein is just another socialist party.