And another thing! Coolacrease and Harris… we should have guessed…it’s not the past, it’s the present.
I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. And now, due to Eoghan Harris, we see the Coolacrease situation become elevated to a semi-political issue, hence my posting this to Irish Election as well as the Cedar Lounge Revolution.
Eoghan Harris in today’s Sunday independent writes about Coolacrease (Tom McGurk also writes about it sensibly in the SBH). Have to say, this is a perfect storm for Harris, isn’t it? He’s in the Senate, in the Sunday Independent and handed an issue which he can run and run with.
But for those who can’t be pushed to read his column here are some choice highlights from it. As with David Adams in the Irish Times on Friday there is no engagement with the piffling ‘facts’. Why should there be? The end is rather different from an academic debate on the events of 1921.
And that end? Well, Harris is much much more unrestrained than either Sammon, Adams or Hourihane. He just comes right out and says it…
Let’s hope RTE — and the rest of the Irish media — is robust enough to reject any attempts to stifle challenges to the tribal take on Irish history. After all, if we can’t face the truth about the IRA atrocity against Richard and Abraham Pearson from Coolacrease, 86 years ago, how can we face the truth about the IRA atrocity against Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna a few weeks ago?
But wait a second. The police forces of this island have said that they do not have any evidence that this was an ‘IRA atrocity’ against Paul Quinn. And let me be very clear, in the North this week we saw the threat by dissident Republicanism to serving members of the PSNI – a force which has undergone enormous changes for the better in the past five years and is now fully (if not uncritically) supported by the political representatives of the people of the North. Still no mention of that when yesterday’s battles are so much more attractive and so much less difficult to deal with than an intransigient and undemocratic rump (indeed, in light of that and on the weekend where the UDA finally, finally, after years announces a stand down of theirs and the UFF units perhaps it seems almost perverse to be attempting to construct this narrative). No charges have been brought. No evidence submitted. No sentences passed. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness continue their improbable love-in, and does the good Senator believe that that love-in would survive one nano-second longer than the announcement of evidence that the IRA had indeed committed an atrocity?
As with Adams he says:
May I also draw Fr Murphy’s attention to the dangers of doing business with amateur historians as outlined by the sub-heading on Davy Adams’s cogent column on Coolacrease in today’s Irish Times.
Which is interesting as a charge from a man with no obvious track record as an historian whatsoever (although his wiki entry states that he had degree in History – still we’ll see in a moment how he is as quick to dismiss those with historical qualifications as those without).
Yet again we have an attack on the Aubane Historical Society – for being the Aubane Historical Society, rather than the actual facts.
Davy Adams demolishes any attempt to present the Pearson killings as an IRA execution, as well as Aubane’s attacks on the Coolacrease programme. “Their campaign seems designed merely to sow doubt, create confusion and muddy the waters around the Coolacrease murders. If they are lucky, it might also have the effect of ensuring that no other such programmes are made.”
Firstly Adams didn’t do any such thing. He attacked the AHS and merely alleged with no substantiation that what they were saying was incorrect (incidentally – I’m still unsure is Muldowney a member of the AHS – does anyone know?). But the irony here is that Harris is using the same tactics as the AHS because, and that is unsurprising both have a common political lineage, through the influence of the British and Irish Communist Organisation (and if you are interested in BICO then perhaps you’ll be interested in this and this), even if they’ve ended up in different places (well, not so different seeing as both idolise Fianna Fáil and Bertie Ahern – ah, these ‘elite’ conflicts…).
It’s been a busy week for Harris.
Senator David Norris kindly lets me look at a letter to him from a Pearson critic, historian Philip McConway, which accuses me — and not the IRA murder gang — of deciding to “fan the flames of hatred”. How? By saying I believed the IRA gang were aiming at the boys’ genitals.
McConway goes on to complain about David Norris’s passionate defence of the Pearson boys in the Senate: “As a contributor and researcher for the RTE Hidden History documentary, The Killings at Coolacrease, I take grave exception to your remarks. I was awarded the M.Phil in Modern Irish History in Trinity College Dublin in 2007. My dissertation, entitled The IRA in Offaly 1920-21, was awarded a 1:1 which is a first class honours grade. The Pearson episode featured in this dissertation.”
To which David Norris replied: “I have received your letter. I am not in the slightest bit intimidated by your M.Phil nor did I specify you or your research. I do not withdraw a single atom of what I said.” No keeping the head down for Norris.
This latter reference is as regards the line that Harris has taken as regards ‘speaking up’ for Protestants in this state. How good of him to do so. How strange that he never asked those of us – like myself – with a background in that community before taking this weight upon himself. But then, it seems that Protestants are to be no more than bit players in this war of the words waged for his own political ends. And nice to note that ‘academic historians’ are given no greater shrift than ‘amateurs’ when they dissent from the Harris line…
….in my extensive experience, any attempt to challenge the tribal taboo on this subject produces a five-part protocol which goes as follows:
First, some brave soul challenges the nationalist consensus about some atrocity against Protestants in some part of rural Ireland, in the period 1919-1923. Second, just as decent local people are pondering some public atonement, a few local historians start to split hairs and decent people desist. Third, local Protestants are persuaded to say there was no sectarian agenda in the affair. Fourth, anyone who publicises the affair is accused of “fanning the flames of sectarian hatred” or “damaging the peace process”, or not “moving on.”
Problem is this is all rhetoric. Harris can’t point to a ‘tribal taboo’ about atrocity (or ‘countless numbers’ of atrocities against Protestants – as David Adams put it in Fridays Irish Times) because there isn’t such a taboo. There is no such taboo because there is no evidence of more than a very very limited number of actions with a clearly sectarian face during the War of Independence. And this, I think, is to the credit of those who fought in that war, arguably on both sides, that it didn’t descend into that particular pit and that it remained very much a conflict where nationalism took centre stage rather than religion (although it would be wrong not to accept that the latter dimension was very important in the North).
Note the use of the word ‘atonement’. Just what manner of atonement is possible or even relevant at this remove? And to who is it directed at?
Then we have the idea that ‘local historians’ (a breed almost as low in his personal hierarchy of the historical as the ‘amateur historians’ he refers to earlier) ‘split hairs’. Well. No.
The point of a serious historical analysis is to present all the facts and then to construct a narrative which can be held up for critique. You will note that there are two key parts of that process. ‘All the facts’ and ‘held up for critique’. But if we are to take the Harris line neither is as important as the narrative.
Note too the way in which ‘Protestants’ are wheeled on once more as passive bystanders, there to be ‘persuaded’. The idea that citizens of this state who happen to be Protestant might eschew ‘tribalism’ or worrying about a past which is apparently being reconstructed before our very eyes seems not to have occurred to Harris.
And there is a central oddity to this, which actually links into his point about ‘fanning the flames of sectarian hatred’. The entire thesis he presents is built upon constructing a narrative of sectarianism where one does not exist. So, in a sense, that is certainly generating a sectarian discourse, although hatred might be putting it too strongly.
Fifth, and most formidably, as can be seen from its websites, the Aubane Historical Society, and its allies, bombard the media with a massive mailbag of tendentious and tediously argued letters. These create so much fog around the facts, that Roman Catholics and real republicans retreat from any act of atonement — and local Protestants learn once again the lesson of keeping the head down.
I keep saying it. I have little or no time for the AHS. But… many of those linked to it appear to have a least some credentials as ‘academic’ historians. Their conclusions may well be tendentious, but… so what? It is the factual data which is of relevance.
Or that was how it worked until Canadian historian Peter Hart published The IRA and its Enemies. Although Hart was subjected to a series of violent verbal polemics by the Aubane Society (assisted more temperately by priest historian Fr Brian Murphy OSB, who often launches Aubane’s books), he touched a deep chord among decent Roman Catholics and real republicans.
Listening to Liveline, I have a hunch that the 86-year taboo is being broken and that the the Pearson boys will be hard to bury.
Hart was critiqued by many many more than the AHS. Any examination of History Ireland will demonstrate that his thesis was considered to be overblown – although much of his research was interesting. But again we tip into a near sectarian discourse of ‘decent Catholics’. Quite apart from sounding as if this missal was delivered by a time tunnel from the latter part of the 19th century it seems strange to place it within a framework of ‘real’ Republicanism which surely would eschew all such categorisation.
And finally, he reiterates a point which is at the heart of all this contention…
At first sight it would seem hard to deny the facts of the murders at Coolacrease. A gang of 30 IRA men, in broad daylight, dragged out Richard and Abraham Pearson, two members of the pacifist Cooneyite sect, and shot them in the groin and abdomen — as the family later testified — in full sight of their mother and sisters.
In defiance of the Pearson family’s testimony, Pat Muldowney, in a letter to Village magazine, denies the Pearson boys were shot in front of their family. In defiance of common sense, he describe as “salacious” my inference that because the Pearsons were shot in the groin and lower abdomen, the IRA gang were aiming at their genitals.
The problem is – from any viewpoint beyond Harris and those he cheer leads, that none of this is uncontentious. The facts are not as he proposes – or at least there is sufficient other evidence to suggest a much more complex situation both in the time leading up to, and on the day of, these events. The shooting of the Pearson’s did not occur in a vacuum (both the Irish and British authorities then extant said that the Pearsons had shot at an IRA unit prior to the murders). The events of the shooting appear not to be as he presents them (medical reports indicated numerous gunshots not limited to the groin (not genitals) area) and the situation after the shooting is not as he proposes. What happened that day in 1921 was awful. Whatever the motivations on either side it reflected poorly on both. Two young men lost their lives in what was a murder. But the nature of that murder remains as difficult to draw clear conclusions about today as it did two weeks ago, or indeed at the time. In that context to propose this as a seamless narrative impermeable to criticism is a folly.
To then, as has been done, criticise those who would – entirely rightly (whatever their own ideological proclivities) – provide a criticism of the narrative he presents is entirely ahistorical. That this is being touched on tangentially in the Senate is a serious indictment of the understanding of historical processes and methodologies and an inability to see that history does not offer up neat little narratives with which to attack opponents but is, by contrast, complex and open to multiple interpretations, none of which should be seen as comforting to any partisan opinion.