Sectarian narrative about the Irish War of Independence

To:       Anne Harris, Editor, Sunday Independent

Subject: Eoghan Harris, columnist, Sunday Independent

From: Tom Cooper, Citizen of a Republic

Date:   25 April 2012

 

The decision on whether to print this article will be a measure of your claim on 22 April 2012 to represent a ‘free’ press, capable of publishing ideas you disagree with and criticism of columnists whose thoughts you appear to share.

 

Opponents of the views of Eoghan Harris can’t demand a right of reply under Press Council rules. Since they came in he has become adept at avoiding the obligation by failing to name promoters of ideas he caricatures and ridicules. He avoids a critical response by means of nameless sleight of hand.

Eoghan Harris (and columnist co-thinker, John Paul McCarthy) promote a false sectarian narrative about the Irish War of Independence. Harris ignores Ulster Unionism’s sectarian barbarity. This travesty is as far from the truth as it is possible to get without seeming to lie.

Eoghan Harris’s column achieved new depths on 22 April. It concerned a programme broadcast on RTE on 15 April, narrated by Harris, directed by Gerry Gregg, and (something not stated) made by their company, Praxis Productions. An Tost Fada (the Long Silence) told a compelling story of Rev’d George Salter’s father, William, being forced to abandon his farm in 1922.

George Salter was in the hands of filmmakers who don’t allow accurately presented facts to get in the way of storytelling.

The story was personally moving but historically incompetent and that is the fault of the programme makers. Even though it concerns a matter of public debate, the treatment of the protestant minority, the programme makers did not verify any of the misstatements they broadcast. There is no evidence that the programme makers availed of the services of a historical adviser, which might have prevented a string of foolish and also self-serving errors.

Let me give some examples.

Two men presented as shot in late April 1922 after the War of Independence, named Connell and Sweetman, were actually shot dead during the War of Independence in 1921 for giving evidence in court against the IRA. There is no dispute about this verifiable fact. Eoghan Harris’s narration that ‘as dawn approached’ after these particular killings (in 1921), William Salter decided to leave Cork immediately (in 1922) makes no sense. George Salter’s father did not receive, as alleged, £1,700 ‘compensation’ from the British government in 1924 ‘to help them get settled in England’. In fact, he received £1,200 in 1928.

William Salter left Ireland in June (not April) 1922 with £1,900, proceeds from the sale of his farm to Auctioneer Henry Smith (William Salter claimed the farm was worth £3,200). The programme failed to state any of this. William Salter made no claim, contrary to what was asserted, that all personal possessions were abandoned. Henry Smith, auctioneer, resold the farm at public auction at a £300 loss in September 1926, for £1,605. Salter later claimed that the difference was because stock and implements were not part of 1926 sale, whereas they were in 1924. However, as was stated in a letter supporting William Salter’s compensation claim, ‘the state of the country in 1922 temporarily affected the value of all land’. This was all ignored. After the subsequent Civil War, William Salter returned and bought a farm in Castle-townshend in 1924, where George was born in 1925.

This detail is in William Salter’s 1928 compensation claim, as a loyalist, to the British Government’s Irish Grants Committee. The programme makers ignored it. By using the word ‘compensation’, they were aware the claim existed in Kew, London. It is the sheerest incompetence or entirely disingenuous if they assert otherwise.

In his 1928 compensation claim presented by the Southern Loyalists Relief Organisation, William Salter claimed £2,195 and was awarded £1,200. In a supportive letter, the former Crown Solicitor and 1927-33 TD for West Cork, Jasper Wolfe, stated that it was ‘owing to [William Salter’s] loyalty’, about which there was ‘no question’, that ‘he suffered the persecution which he went through’. Wolfe stated on numerous occasions that there was little or no nationalist sectarianism, (see, by his grandson, Jasper Wolfe of Skibbereen, 2008).

William Salter claimed in his file that he refused at one time to pay into the IRA arms fund during the War of Independence, a tax enforced on substantial property holders during the conflict. This began a cycle of fines and confiscation of animals. He claimed that he received letters from the IRA prior to the Civil War demanding that he leave and claimed that the IRA forced him to sell to the Auctioneer. No copies of such letters are in the file and, as is usual in most Grants Committee files, no detail on the loyalty claimed by William Salter as a Crown Subject exists either.

Why did the programme makers avoid all of these facts many of which contradict those broadcast? It can only be because it did not suit their purpose. Eoghan Harris gives ethical advice to broadcasters regularly. He sometimes calls for them to be sacked.

What happened in late April 1922 in West Cork, four months after the Anglo-Irish Treaty split and two months before the onset of civil war?

Thirteen Protestant civilians were killed or disappeared, while three leading British intelligence officers and their driver disappeared from Macroom.

Apart from the first three victims being held responsible for shooting dead an IRA officer, the precise reason for the following ten civilian deaths is unknown. So also is whether these killings were connected with the nearby disappearance of the British Army personnel. The possibility that civilian informer intelligence information was divulged has also been speculated upon. In the immediate aftermath, the 13 killings were thought to be revenge for unrelenting attacks on Catholics in the new state of Northern Ireland. Was it a one-off sectarian response to unionist sectarianism?

Dorothy Macardle in The Irish Republic (1937) thought this might have been the reason and listed the extent of republican condemnation. Both sides of the Treaty divide, including Griffith and De Valera, and local republicans, condemned the killings. The Cork IRA leadership, who were away at army unity talks in Dublin, returned and organised guards on loyalists thought to be vulnerable. One so guarded was the Rector of Macroom who told a British officer looking for the missing officers he had no complaints about IRA treatment. That is what his son, AJS (Stephen) Brady, reported in his memoir, The Briar of Life (2010). The IRA guard in this case was the father of distinguished UCC Historian, Professor John A Murphy.

Subsequent research has undermined the sectarianism explanation and has exposed ethical failures in historian Peter Hart’s commentary in The IRA and its Enemies (1998). Eoghan Harris promotes Hart’s history. We can have an open mind on the cause of those events. While some are more open to one or other theory, Eoghan Harris and John Paul McCarthy’s is not only closed, the hatches in their heads are well and truly battened down. They say it was a conspiracy to drive out Protestants. That theory is nonsense. In the words of Professor John A Murphy in 2004, it is ‘Paisleyite myth mongering’.

Eoghan Harris has been to the fore promoting a narrow-minded agenda. Trading on and promoting his readers’ capacity for self-doubt and introspection, Harris generates a propaganda diet reminiscent of that promoted by Carson and Craig in Northern Ireland. They drove thousands of Roman Catholics out of jobs and houses in 1920-22. Brave Protestant socialists who opposed this unionist drive to divide the working class in Northern Ireland also lost their jobs. Harris, Gregg and McCarthy are not interested.

Carson and Craig did not get away with it then. Harris, Gregg and McCarthy might get away with it now.

Luckily, testimony from southern Protestants who refused to play the Ulster Unionist sectarian game is available. These are the people Harris referred to contemptuously on 22 April 2012 as ‘lie down and die’ Protestants. They are further derided as ‘rabid rhetorical republicans’ seeking ‘instant integration’. Harris has in the past used this sectarian language to describe the historian and Fianna Fail politician Martin Mansergh. It is bullyboy language.

Harris’s understanding of the role of Erskine Childers, Robert Barton, Dorothy Stopford, Alice Stopford Green, Kathleen Lynn, Dorothy Macardle, Ernest Blythe, Sam Maguire and others is risible. It is how an apartheid defender in South Africa might have described white supporters of Nelson Mandela, when Mandela was incarcerated as a ‘terrorist’ in Robben Island.

But it was not Protestant nationalists who opposed Carson and Craig.

Southern unionists and Protestant clergy protested against Ulster Unionist propaganda. Some were attacked, by the Black and Tans. That is what happened to Unionist businessman GW Biggs of Bantry in July 1920 after protesting about Carson in the Irish Times. His substantial business was burned down and his family driven out when the family home was taken over by the military. Biggs’s case was taken up in September 1920 in the Times (Lon) by J Annan Bryce of Glengarriff, brother of a former Irish Secretary. He told how,

‘The July burning [of Biggs’s business] was part of a general pogrom, in which a cripple, named Crowley, was deliberately shot by the police while in bed and several houses were set on fire while the people were asleep.’

Annan Bryce reported later that his wife was arrested and deported from Wales for attempting to speak on British reprisals there.

Southern unionists were outraged by British military policy. They feared Crown Forces who rampaged through towns and villages throughout southern Ireland. How do we know? They said so.

These were stand up and speak Protestants. They don’t interest Harris, McCarthy and Gregg.

How also do we know? The British Army also said so. 17th Infantry Brigade Major (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery said, ‘I regarded all civilians as Shinners’ and ‘It didn’t bother me how many houses were burned’.

‘All civilians’, including Protestants, their houses and their businesses. Harris, McCarthy and Gregg are not interested.

After the April 1922 killings a Protestant Convention, fully representative of southern Protestantism, met in the Mansion House. On 11 May they resolved,

‘that until the recent tragedies in the County Cork, hostility to Protestants by reason of their religion, has been almost if not wholly, unknown in the twenty six counties in which Protestants are in a minority.’

In other words, Protestants regarded the April killings as exceptional. Harris, Gregg and McCarthy ignore uncomfortable (to them) facts such as these.

Protestants who speak out today are not subject to the depredations of the Black & Tans. They are subject to Eoghan Harris’s attempt to intimidate those who question him.

This happened to a Church of Ireland clergyman who criticised Eoghan Harris for resuscitating his 1985 Souper Sullivan play in 1995 as The Apostasy of Mathew Sullivan. Harris responded by accusing the Protestant clergyman of writing ‘against his own real wishes’ and moaned again that Protestants should ‘[stand] up for themselves’. The Rev’d N. M. Cummins did and derided the suggestion that he did not know and express his own mind. He especially stood up for himself by concluding,

‘This correspondence raises an even deeper issue. In Eoghan Harris’s brave new Ireland there seems to be a place for everyone who agrees with him, but none for divergent opinions, constructive criticism or even rational debate. This falls very short of the noble republican ideal to cherish all the people of the nation equally’.

The Rev’d Cummins ministered in Altar Rectory, Tooormore, Goleen, Cork, the church built in 1847 that was the centrepiece to Harris’s farcical and sectarian Souper Sullivan famine play.

Gerry Colgan wrote about the 1995 production in the Irish Times that it ‘does not and probably could not transcend the limitations of the script’. The same is true of Harris propaganda today. It is the sound of one hand clapping itself on the back. Readers should go elsewhere for an alternative and objective view.

ENDS

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