A response to Getting Them Out, Southern Loyalists in the War of Independence (drb, Issue 9 Spring 2009) http://www.drb.ie/essays/getting-them-out
In “Getting them Out”, Tom Wall reviews two recent Aubane Historical Society publications: Coolacrease: the true story of the Pearson executions –an incident in the Irish War of Independence and Troubled History: Ten years of Controversy in Irish History -a 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies.1 The review is flawed and indeed misleading for readers depending on it for an understanding of the issues covered. In this response, we point out the deficiencies of fact and interpretation in Wall’s article.
The book Coolacrease describes what was essentially a relatively uncomplicated episode in the War of Independence, involving the execution of suspected informers who had launched an armed attack on a republican army roadblock. The events were well known locally but little known nationally until 2007 when RTÉ, the national broadcasting organisation, screened a sensational and inaccurate documentary version of the events of June 1921 at Coolacrease, in Co Offaly.
The first published account of the Pearson brothers’ execution was included by Paddy Heaney in his comprehensive book on the history and folklore of the area published in 2000. In 2005 another book appeared, by Alan Stanley, the son of a close companion of the Pearson brothers who had played a central part in the events. Stanley’s book portrayed the executions as a sectarian murder committed in pursuance of a land grab and his book immediately became a cause célèbre of Eoghan Harris, a member of the Senate and Sunday Independent commentator. Although some voices were raised in the public domain challenging the Stanley account, the RTÉ documentary screened in its RTÉ Factual – Hidden History series was largely built on Stanley’s version of the events and included Senator Harris as its star witness. The programme portrayed the execution as a murder committed by local Republicans in a deliberately barbaric manner in pursuance of a sectarian land grab. The makers of the documentary claimed the alleged land grab occurred with the complicity of Land Commission officials and portrayed the events at Coolacrease as occurring in the context of a War of Independence characterised by acts of ethnic cleansing.2
The book Coolacrease reviewed by Tom Wall contains a detailed reconstruction by Paddy Heaney and Pat Muldowney of the events that took place in June 1921 and a comprehensive refutation of the case presented by RTÉ. It includes several additional articles by other authors on related subjects as well as a large volume of documentary record, much of which only recently became available and which confirms and substantiates Paddy Heaney’s original account.
The book was launched on November 6th, 2008 by the Cathaoirleach (chairman) of Seanad Éireann, Senator Pat Moylan, to a large gathering of people – including many relatives and descendants of those involved – at the premises of the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society in Tullamore. It was received warmly at the launch and in reports and reviews in the midlands press. But, apart from a hostile treatment by Steven King, former adviser to Unionist Party leader David Trimble, in the Sunday Business Post – which consisted of a polemic against the publishers, Aubane Historical Society, rather than any examination of the book itself, a more factual review in The Daily Star, and a report on the launch in The Irish Times, the appearance of the book was met with total silence by the writers who had provided voluminous articles in extravagant praise of the now discredited documentary, notably in the Sunday Independent and The Irish Times.
Publication of Coolacrease was, however, seriously considered in the specialist press. It was featured as The Big Book in History Ireland where Joost Augusteijn, an academic historian who specialises in this period, reviewed it at length and criticised various aspects of it. Nevertheless on the central issue – what actually occurred at Coolacrease in 1921-23 – he accepts the case made:
this book shows conclusively that the [RTÉ] documentary gave a false portrayal of events, and that its makers were not as well informed as they should have been. The documentary evidence, much of it reproduced here, shows clearly that the Pearson family were actively opposed to the IRA and that they did attack one of their roadblocking parties.
He also observed that the evidence in the book: “indicates that this was not a sectarian murder or land grab”. Writing in Books Ireland, John Kirkaldy came to pretty similar conclusions. The only error of fact he identifies is the incorrect description of Surrey as one of the Home Counties!3
Senator Harris has acclaimed Tom Wall’s review in Dublin Review of Books, writing that Wall “takes a rounded view of the Coolacrease affair … far from favourable to Aubane”.4 This is despite the fact that buried away amongst the many sweeping generalisations in his article, Wall also concedes the essential contentions of Coolacrease with regard to the executions and the land grab theory.
Tom Wall acknowledges that the book presents comprehensive contemporary documentation to “add to the total sum of knowledge about the tragic event” and goes on to make further observations which are entirely inconsistent with the Senator’s story of a terrible sectarian murder committed in pursuance of a land grab: “The case against land being a direct cause of the incident is persuasive. It seems that the Pearsons were executed for reasons that had no direct bearing on land ownership.” While quibbling with the evidence that the Pearson brothers attacked an IRA roadblock party, injuring several of them, one of them seriously, Wall does finally concede that this was most likely “the immediate cause of the execution”. How Senator Harris can find comfort in these conclusions is something of a mystery.
The RTÉ film The Killings at Coolacrease, screened in October 2007 and again in May 2008 as part of the Hidden History series, was made on behalf of RTÉ by Reel Story Productions, and produced by Niamh Sammon. RTÉ’s original working title for the documentary in promotional material presented in May 2008 by Kevin Dawson, RTÉ Head of Factual Programmes, in May 2008 was Atonement: Ethnic Cleansing in the Midlands. In correspondence at the time and later before the Broadcasting Complaints Tribunal, RTÉ defended the programme as its own.5
The RTÉ programme ignored most of the relevant documentary sources. It later claimed that its argument – that the Coolacrease incident was sectarian murder in pursuance of a land grab in a context of widespread sectarian ethnic cleansing by the Irish independence movement – was proven by Land Commission documents which it had in its possession. The authors of Coolacrease examined the Land Commission records and there are no such documents in existence. The programme’s thesis is wholly unsupported by the available evidence.
It is worth noting that the authors of Coolacrease originally had no intention of publishing the book, and that Pat Muldowney had engaged with the filmmakers, making copious documentary evidence available to them from both British and Irish sources to assist them in reaching truthful conclusions about the events. They chose to ignore all evidence that clashed with their pre-conceived views on what had happened.6
Tom Wall’s failure to comment at all on the RTÉ documentary’s account of the events or the media coverage accompanying and supportive of it is extraordinary. He also avoids dealing with the revelations in Coolacrease concerning the distortion of evidence by RTÉ or the fabrications which Senator Eoghan Harris introduced into the programme. Surely the presentation of events in the programme, which is the main reason Aubane Historical Society felt compelled to publish the book, deserve some comment in any review of it? Indeed, how many drb readers would ever have heard of Coolacrease had it not been for the Senator’s wildly sensational accusations screened by RTÉ? Wall’s failure to consider the RTÉ documentary renders his review lop-sided, not to say bizarre.
The Coolacrease book exposed RTÉ’s thesis as false and, regarding the land grab theory, proved that RTÉ had never actually seen the relevant Land Commission documents. It published these documents in full (along with much other relevant documentation) and demonstrated that they prove the opposite case, that there was no sectarian land grab.
While acknowledging the historical documentation provided in Coolacrease, Wall criticises it for including oral sources. In the RTÉ programme, in reaction to Paddy Heaney’s account of wounds received by Mick Heaney during the roadblock attack, Eoghan Harris declared: “When Paddy Heaney tells me things like that I want documentary corroboration in evidence!” Tom Wall repeats the same accusation in less aggressive language: “Perhaps it is believed these claims are adequately supported by the statement of Paddy Heaney that ‘my information on the fight of the Cadamstown IRA was gleaned from the men and women who took part in it’. If there is any documentary evidence in the form of interview notes it is not recorded.”
But, by testing and cross-referencing its oral sources against each other and against the surviving documentation, the authors of Coolacrease demonstrated which of the oral sources were reliable and which were not. Paddy Heaney’s history, reconstructed from local knowledge, is fully vindicated by the documentary record. The same cannot be said for RTÉ which extensively used unreliable oral sources, as did the book on which RTÉ based its documentary – Alan Stanley’s I Met Murder on the Way. Interestingly, the latest edition of Stanley’s book omits one of his earlier bogus atrocity allegations, the use of dum-dum bullets by the IRA in the Pearson executions. Indeed, Stanley’s book is strewn with colourful and ludicrous allegations, such as that the IRA had a “quota” of Protestants to shoot in every district in Ireland! The RTÉ programme was based on this type of unsupported slapdash speculation.
It is a pity that Wall’s review did not examine the way in which RTÉ and Stanley treated sources, oral and otherwise. Indeed he not only refrains from commenting on the merits of the exposé in Coolacrease of the RTÉ programme, but applies questionable standards to the use of such oral evidence himself. While he accepts as evidence of a deliberate atrocity a snippet from an interview in the documentary in which JJ Dillon, the son of a local 1921 IRA leader, expresses revulsion at the execution, he doesn’t mention the British army medical reports reproduced in Coolacrease which shed new light on what actually happened.
Later in his article he dismisses some points in Meda Ryan’s work on Dunmanway, Co. Cork, for being based in part on interviews with Dan Cahalane. So, while the quote from JJ Dillon is to be taken as proof of an atrocity and the documentary evidence (medical reports) to the contrary ignored, Dan Cahalane’s word is dismissed as proving nothing although in that case the oral evidence is complementary to the essential case made on the basis of the documentary evidence!7
Tom Wall levels various accusations at the publishers, some very serious:
Somewhat disturbing … is the character assault on the long-deceased Pearson family – the innocent or otherwise victims – who are portrayed as aggressively anti-Catholic bigots, treacherous spies, liars and fraudsters. Whatever about the core issue – the justification or otherwise for the executions – the casting of such a cold and malicious eye on the victims would appear to be designed to deny them even a modicum of human sympathy.
In fact the book nowhere uses the terms “anti-Catholic bigots”, “treacherous spies”, “liars and fraudsters”. It does raise the Pearsons’ later and demonstrably fraudulent claim to a British government compensation body regarding the value of their farm. This was included because the price achieved on its sale was presented in the programme as key evidence of a forced sale and subsequent land grab. Coolacrease presents evidence which conclusively demonstrates the fraudulent character of the compensation claim made by the Pearson family. It was unfortunately necessary to do this in Coolacrease because in the RTE programme two influential academics, Dr. Terence Dooley and Prof Richard English, specifically quote in sombre tones from the fraudulent “evidence” produced in support of these claims. This nonsense was broadcast without critical challenge, despite being made aware, by the authors of the book, that they were building their case on a bed of sand. Surely it is odd to characterise the presentation of the truth in the face of radical misrepresentation as a denial of human sympathy.8
Before publishing Coolacrease the authors contacted Dr Dooley but he would not confirm that he had Land Commission evidence to back up what he said on the programme, as Niamh Sammon, producer of the RTÉ film had claimed. Neither Dooley nor English have since either clarified their positions or come to the defence of the documentary, despite the coverage the controversy has received in journals such as History Ireland.
On the question of human sympathy, there is a striking imbalance in Tom Wall’s application of the concept. While he expresses great concern for the unmaligned Pearsons, nowhere does he express any feeling for those who were the victims of their actions. Quite apart from the displays of sectarian sentiment exhibited by the Pearsons towards local people, four men were wounded at the roadblock attack, one very seriously in the stomach who died a few years later of his wounds. The roundups of local Republicans following the mass path incident (a confrontation between local people and the Pearsons in June 1921 a fortnight before the attack on the roadblock) and following the roadblock attack were accompanied by brutality and by the terrorising of the people of the area by the British army and RIC/Auxiliaries. As Coolacrease also documents, some of the prisoners were subsequently subjected to severe beatings by British military personnel and starved for three days in Tullamore Jail. The Cadamstown IRA unit was smashed and its leading members suffered long periods of imprisonment and internment. This resulted in much added misery as farms became run down and semi-derelict due to the absence of the men who had been interned. Surely these matters should stimulate some human sympathy in the reviewer?
We took no pleasure in recounting less creditable characteristics and activities of the Pearsons. Indeed Coolacrease discloses only some of the deplorable conduct into which they lapsed under pressure of the war once they had opted to become active in it. However, the book does recount that the Pearson brothers met their fate bravely and also brings to light some positive features of the Pearsons’ pre-war life in Offaly, missed by their would-be defenders, such as the election of William Pearson to a representative position by the largely Republican electorate of the area in 1919. This can only be because, loyalist or not, he was well thought of, and must have earned such respect by his actual conduct in the community up to that time, and before the passions of war took hold of him and his family.
Before they sided – unlike any of their Protestant neighbours – in a paramilitary capacity with the Imperial forces, the Pearsons were integrated and well thought of members of the community. But according to the fairy tale account advanced by Eoghan Harris and RTÉ, the Pearsons were not like normal people, they:
were very quiet, very, very gentle, decent people. They were pretty much withdrawn from the world. I would say they found the whole world outside confusing. They were really a husbandry people – the land – quiet evenings spent in meditation and reflection.
There is plenty more in similar vein in the documentary. Since this myth is an important part of RTÉ’s version, it was unfortunately necessary to tell a few home truths which showed that the Pearsons were human beings not angels; that they were no better or worse than anybody else; that they were capable of violence, prejudice and fraud just like other people.
Tom Wall states that in Coolacrease “much is made of the extremism of Cooneyism”, the faith to which the Pearsons belonged. It was necessary to describe the religious character of Cooneyism because Harris, in both the documentary film and in his article in the Sunday Independent in 2005, made the Cooneyism of the Pearsons a central issue and completely misdescribed it. The book dispenses in a short chapter with this. It points out that local people were unaware of the specific type of religious community to which the Pearsons belonged, regarding them simply as “Protestant” (they had been members of the Church of Ireland before becoming Cooneyites around 1912)9. It notes that the Pearsons were well integrated locally, were modern, ambitious and industrious farmers, and took part in local sports and dances, activities frowned upon by strict Cooneyites. Harris raised their faith to a central issue, and RTÉ, in its promotion of the programme, followed suit, referring to the Pearsons as “members of a small Amish-type sect”. Coolacrease reveals the differences between the Amish and the Cooneyites, showing that the Cooneyites were a religiously militant grouping – far more akin to Anabaptists than to the genuinely pacifist Amish – who condemned members of the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches alike as doomed to eternal damnation. Cooney himself called Anglicanism “that dirty poison” and denounced the Bible, which plays such a central role in mainstream Protestantism, as “the paper pope”. Harris’s description of Cooneyism is meant to portray a pacifist other-worldly culture that would make any activity such as the Pearsons engaged in impossible and their execution all the more horrendous. In fact, the authors of Coolacrease regard the Cooneyism of the Pearsons as having played little role in events, except perhaps to go some way to explaining the depth of their alienation from their Protestant neighbours.
The people of Offaly, on the other hand, were portrayed on RTÉ as deeply sectarian, prepared to murder complete innocents out of hatred and greed, and still prepared to condone such killing. Film producer Niamh Sammon declared dramatically on RTÉ radio: “More than one person said that they wouldn’t be able to live in the area if it was known that they had co-operated with the documentary.” There were weeks and months of this kind of allegation in the press – much of it documented in the book – both before and after the screening of the documentary on RTÉ. If Tom Wall wishes to seek out vilification of people living or dead, perhaps he could look into this scandalous public vilification of the people of Co Offaly.
When we pointed out repeatedly that the actual documentary record indicated that the Pearsons were not pacifist, that they had initiated armed action themselves, and that there was no evidence of a land grab, we were denounced by Harris on RTÉ radio as “liars, like Holocaust deniers”. Since Wall himself says he now accepts the validity of much of the documentary evidence provided in the book regarding the Coolacrease case, he must also be, in Harris’s terms, “a liar, like a Holocaust denier”.10
In his drb review of Coolacrease, Wall proposes some theories of his own in relation to the execution. He introduces a variant of Stanley’s and RTÉ’s allegations of deliberate genital mutilation: “The [IRA] firing squad directed its fire to the midriff area.” Harris and RTÉ seem to have got the “deliberate genital mutilation” idea from Stanley’s book. It is not clear where Stanley got it from as his father was not a witness to the executions and had no contact with the Pearson family thereafter. There is no reliable evidence – documentary, oral or physical – for either Stanley’s or Wall’s variant. What we do have, however, is the detailed expert testimony of a senior British military doctor to the official British Military Court of Inquiry into the events. This shows that the Pearson brothers had received bullet wounds throughout their bodies, none of them to the genitals. Harris ignored this evidence and persisted with his perverse theory, declaring on RTÉ that the Pearson brothers had been shot “very deliberately in the genitals, in their sexual parts, in their sexual organs; what it really says is you are The Other, you are an outsider, we hate you, go away and die.” The medical reports – reproduced in full in the Coolacrease book – show that the Pearsons received mostly light injuries from leg to head and, out of ten or so rounds that hit them, one each in the torso area. But in coming up with this latest and entirely original “midriff area” allegation, Wall appears to be making himself an apologist or saviour for the lurid, discredited RTÉ account, although the RTÉ version of events is curiously downplayed in his article.
The most that can be said is that the firing squad “directed its fire” in the general direction of the Pearsons, possibly missing their targets for the most part. Wall says: “The firing squad … left the two boys to die a prolonged and agonising death [for which] no explanation is offered” by the Coolacrease book. This is again the Stanley/Harris version.
The IRA party had been ordered to execute the three older Pearson brothers, having read to them the order of the IRA command giving the reasons, and then to burn their house. One brother was absent from Coolacrease on the day the IRA party arrived, meaning that just two were taken prisoner. Wall is wrong when he states that Coolacrease offers no explanation for the firing party leaving the two Pearson brothers wounded, but not killed outright as they were ordered. The circumstances of the executions are reconstructed in detail in the book as far as is possible from the surviving evidence, and illustrated with detailed maps. This was necessary because of claims by Stanley and Harris that the family had been forced to witness the shooting, claims which Coolacrease exposes as bogus. Anyone who has been inside the yard adjoining the dwelling house where the executions took place will understand that this is and was a small, constricted, closed-in area, which would have been further cluttered at the time with machinery and other farm materials. When the burning dwelling house exploded after being set on fire, the possibility of further munitions explosions capable of burying everyone in rubble, along with the noise and flames observable for miles around, were a powerful incentive for the ten men of the IRA party to get out of there fast (they were on foot), which is what the evidence indicates is precisely what they did.
Firing squads were notoriously inaccurate, and firing squad duty distasteful and repulsive to soldiers who would mostly have preferred to be anywhere else. This is why we reproduce an extract from The Gadfly, a nineteenth century novel by EL Voynich, in which a condemned man displays an admirable and defiant courage in the face of his executioners, a terrified and reluctant firing squad. The result was often “botched” executions in which a coup de grace had to be delivered by the officer in charge. The failure of the officer in charge at Coolacrease to do this is essentially the complaint which is often made against the Coolacrease executions. Offaly historian Philip McConway was pilloried for saying in the RTÉ documentary that “the IRA botched the execution in that they didn’t finish them off with head shots”. But critics such as Wall make exactly the same point in different words. What a pity Philip McConway didn’t say coup de grace. Such a genteel and delicate way of describing something so ugly!
Tom Wall also criticises the Coolacrease book for describing JJ Dillon’s comments as pacifist (“It was crazy, it was brutal, it was wrong”). Apparently Wall regards the term pacifist as derogatory when applied to JJ Dillon, but positive when applied to the Cooneyite Pearsons – who were, in reality, no more pacifist than the Quaker Richard Nixon.
Local people, including JJ Dillon himself, were present in great numbers to welcome Coolacrease when it was launched in Tullamore, almost exactly a year after RTÉ first broadcast its misrepresentation of them. It is notable that none of those who were deceived by the RTÉ production team during the making of the propaganda film subsequently made themselves available to those seeking to defend the RTÉ case once its true purpose was exposed.
We wonder whether those who now complain, like Tom Wall, that the IRA did not finish off the Pearson brothers properly ever consider what the two brothers themselves might have thought of such a suggestion? As the Coolacrease book explains, the two never lost their nerve and were defiant – or, as Paddy Heaney puts it, courageous – throughout. But they must have been relieved at their success in deceiving the execution party and coming out alive.
As the medical reports confirm, they did not, after all, receive fatal wounds. They were attended to over the following hours by at least three doctors. While dressing their wounds, none of the doctors saw fit to take any more urgent medical action. Although no major blood vessels were damaged, the Pearsons died of blood loss, over a longish period, from a number of wounds not in themselves fatal. It is not likely that the IRA execution party deliberately sought to cause “a prolonged and agonising death” and there is no indication that they did so.
The behaviour of the brothers in facing their execution is just one of many points where Tom Wall misreads the Pearsons. The previous week, following the arrest of most of the Cadamstown IRA the morning after the Pearsons had shot several of them at the roadblock, they had as a gesture of triumph erected white flags in Cadamstown village. “A curious choice of flag” is Wall’s comment on this.
The white flags were symbols of a surrender which the Pearsons were declaring on behalf of the people of the area, following the shooting and arrest of most of the Cadamstown IRA, and of all its senior members, subsequent to the Pearson attack on the roadblock, and subsequent to the mass path arrests a week or so earlier; all of which amounted to what seemed to be an overwhelming victory attributable solely to the formidable Pearson brothers. It was not at all unreasonable to believe in June 1921 that the might of the British state – which had one of the largest military forces in the world, fresh from victory in its “Great War” which had seen the deaths of millions of people and a massive expansion of its Empire – would triumph in Ireland over the largely poorly trained and poorly armed resistance forces organised by an underground and beleaguered Dáil.
In his review Wall also casts doubt on Pearson involvement in loyalist paramilitarism, saying that “if the Ulster Volunteer Force was active in South Offaly at the time some trace of it would surely have emerged by now”. But, while positing some alternative explanations of the armed attack on the IRA roadblock, Wall acknowledges on balance that the Pearsons were probably responsible for that attack. As to broader loyalist paramilitary networks, evidence for this is provided by Alan Stanley’s book, which describes loyalist paramilitary activity and collusion with Auxiliaries by Pearson relatives and friends in nearby Luggacurran, Co Laois, including their associate and companion William Stanley, who came to live with them in Coolacrease as a fugitive under the alias “Jimmy Bradley”. Further confirmation is provided by evidence in the Bureau of Military History. In fact, the information on William Stanley’s paramilitary collaboration with the Auxiliaries first came to light with the publication by Stanley’s son, Alan Stanley, of his book, I met murder on the Way, in 2005. It is interesting that Alan Stanley recounts that his father had kept this aspect of his past – among others – secret from him and that he had only learned the details from a close relative after his father’s death. While there can be no realistic doubt about the charge of loyalist paramilitarism, perhaps there is some quibble about its formal designation? Should it be described as “UVF”? There were direct Pearson family connections with loyalist Ulster, including the Orange Order; and William Stanley took refuge with relatives there after the Coolacrease executions. The official report of the incident on the Irish side states that the Pearsons “had been active in promoting the Ulster Volunteers movement in their district”. If Wall has some evidence to justify second guessing the official Irish report of that time, he should present it.11
In his recent book The Politics of Enmity, Paul Bew describes the British Cabinet meeting of July 21st, 1920 at which Lloyd George and Churchill debated using the UVF throughout Ireland as a counter-insurgency militia to suppress the elected government. In the end they opted instead for setting up paramilitary Freikorps-type militias, the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans. But having learned from the failure of the Black and Tans in Ireland, Churchill’s last colonial act, in 1950s Kenya, was to use indigenous Kenyan tribal mercenary forces, instead of British mercenary colonial forces, to successfully and brutally smash the Mau Mau anti-colonial movement there.12
In another valiant piece of reinterpretation, Wall dates the mass path confrontation between the Pearsons and the IRA men John Dillon and JJ Horan as occurring up to a year before the two of them were arrested, and says it is more likely that their arrest in June 1921 was a consequence of the IRA ambush of RIC and Auxiliaries at Kinnitty on Tuesday May 17th. In fact the Pearsons’ armed confrontation with mass-goers took place in early June 1921, and Dillon and Horan were arrested the following morning after they had intervened to keep the peace on the mass path. The misreading of the date of this event by a year obviously undermines Tom Wall’s questioning the cause of these arrests advanced in Coolacrease.
As Paddy Heaney relates in his book, At the Foot of Slieve Bloom, the armed confrontation at the mass path was the culmination of a sustained campaign of sectarian harassment by the Pearsons, who seemed to consider all those who acknowledged and accepted the elected government to be “IRA people”, in the words of JJ Dillon quoted by Wall.
Matters came to a head at Coolacrease in June 1921 when the Pearsons confronted local people using a traditional Mass Path which ran along their farm boundary. They had previously taunted users of the path by dumping human excrement on it. Wall incredibly questions that this might have had any sectarian significance. JJ Horan and John Dillon intervened one Sunday in early June when the Pearsons blocked the path with a large tree trunk and, armed and mounted on horseback, intimidated the mass goers. The two men confronted the Pearsons and defused the situation. When the Pearsons left the scene, Dillon and Horan organised the clearance of the path. Both men were leaders of the local IRA company which had emerged in response to the call by Dáil Éireann (the autonomous Irish Parliament established by those who won overwhelming support in the 1918 general election) in January 1919 for the people to rally to its defence. Horan was also an elected Sinn Féin District Councillor and both Horan and Dillon worked relatively large farms as neighbours of the Pearsons. The morning following the confrontation with the Pearsons both men were arrested and interned, from which they were not released until November 1921.
There are many other misinterpretations of facts in the review. Tom Wall ultimately admits that the key event that triggered the execution order was the attack by the Pearsons on the IRA roadblock, which occurred a fortnight after the Mass Path incident. The facts of that attack are simple. The official history of the Royal Scots Fusiliers – the main British military force brought into the area in January 1921 – relates that the Offaly IRA was effective in greatly restricting British military mobility in the county: “The initiative was always with the rebels and the defence inevitably a step behind in its measures.” It also states that as a consequence of IRA effectiveness the military were reduced to moving about in heavily armed convoys.13 As part of its activities, in the third week of June 1921 the IRA mounted a county-wide operation in preparation for an attack on British forces in Birr. This operation included the erection of a roadblock on the Birr-Tullamore road at Coolacrease at night time, cutting down a large tree at the boundary ditch between the Pearson and Horan farms to do so.
The Pearson brothers attacked the IRA squad of about nine men carrying this out, and in the shoot out that followed wounded four men, including three Volunteers (one – Mick Heaney – very seriously) as well as a retired RIC man and friend of the Pearsons, Bert Hogg, who had been detained by the roadblock party while on his way to visit the Pearson house. In Tom Wall’s speculation on this event – which, mirroring the terminology of Stanley and Harris, he calls the “tree-felling incident” – he states that “the incident wasn’t mentioned in either of the sisters’ statements to the RIC or, some years afterwards … in claims made to the Irish Grants Committee, where specific evidence of assistance to the crown forces would have added substance to their claims for compensation as victimised loyalists.” He also says that “Mr Pearson snr and one of the sons were absent from home during this time”. In fact Sydney Pearson – the son in question – was at Coolacrease that night, although he and his father were away the following week when the IRA responded to the attack with the execution of the two brothers they did capture.
Wall is also wrong on the sisters’ evidence, which was given not to the RIC but to the British Army Court of Enquiry. In fact, contrary to Wall’s (and indeed Sammon’s) view, there is a very senior RIC source corroborating the roadblock attack. Besides the evidence from contemporary IRA records, later witness statements and the concession by Alan Stanley in his book regarding the attack on the roadblock, Coolacrease reproduces a report on the incident by the senior British Army commander for South Offaly, Col. Skinner, commander of 14th Brigade. This evidence had been brought to the attention of the documentary makers by Pat Muldowney but was ignored.
The night following the executions, William and Sydney Pearson, who were absent at a religious meeting in Laois (Queen’s County), were held and questioned by the RIC at Mountmellick, Co Laois. Skinner reported to British Army HQ in Dublin (which was then passed on by them to the British Under-Secretary at Dublin Castle) that RIC County Inspector for Queen’s County had stated to him that:
..the two [executed] Pearson boys a few days previously had seen two men felling a tree on their land adjoining the road. Had told the men concerned to go away, and when they refused had fetched two guns and fired and wounded two Sinn Feiners, one of whom it is believed died.
Both in their interrogation by the Mountmellick RIC and later before the Irish Grants Committee the Pearsons were well advised not to boast of unilateral paramilitary action on their part and for the RIC to construe instead a case of trespassing by “Sinn Feiners”. Such unilateral paramilitary action was outside the formal framework of the British war in Ireland and hence technically illegal. Indeed if Mick Heaney – as the Pearsons believed – had in fact died of the wounds they inflicted on him (for “felling a tree”!), they could theoretically have been charged with his murder. Paying out compensation for paramilitary activity was not the business of the Irish Grants Committee, which was meant to compensate innocent people who had been victimised for their loyalty to the Crown. And there was the embarrassing fact that in shooting up the IRA roadblock they had also inadvertently shot and wounded Bert Hogg, a retired RIC man on his way to visit their house.
As Alan Stanley himself acknowledges, the British war in Ireland was conducted on the legal fiction of a “police war”. Indeed the restraint this imposed on its forces was often a cause of complaint for the military. The official history of the Royal Scots Fusiliers – the major British unit in South Offaly – recounts the British campaign of retaliations, house burnings and destruction of property carried out under the pretence of fighting criminality: “Fortunately the Scots Fusiliers were not involved in this repugnant role.” Nevertheless it recounts its role in armoured convoys, “police” actions such as raids and arrests, and undercover counter-intelligence in Offaly in close collaboration with informers and with the RIC, whose barracks at Tullamore Jail it shared. But, it laments, “No attempt could be made to clear an area, since that would have been impossible without evacuating the civilian population and so admitting a state of war.” Contemporary accounts by British officers are even more revealing in expressing their frustrations. Thus the late Field Marshall Lord Montgomery, at that time a Major on active service with 17th Infantry Brigade in Cork, wrote to Major Percival of the Essex Regiment in 1923:
Personally, my whole attention was given to defeating the rebels but it never bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt. I think I regarded all civilians as “Shinners” and I never had any dealings with any of them. My own view is that to win a war of this sort, you must be ruthless … Oliver Cromwell, or the Germans, would have settled it in a very short time. Nowadays public opinion precludes such methods, the nation would never allow it, and the politicians would lose their jobs if they sanctioned it.14
Whatever about their known connections with the Auxiliaries and the British military, the Pearsons were well advised in remaining circumspect about their unilateral paramilitary action in shooting on an IRA unit.
The day following the Pearson roadblock attack, the British Army and RIC carried out a large scale military swoop on Cadamstown, arresting and interning most of the local IRA, including all its leaders. About two days later, on June 26th, these events were reported to Offaly IRA Brigade command. The IRA Officers Council convened a Court of Enquiry and following its deliberations the officer commanding Offaly No. 2 Brigade ordered the execution of the three Pearson brothers and the burning of their house in retaliation for the attack on the road block and for suspicion of passing information to the British military. Such a response was necessarily severe and occurred only in extreme situations. It took place on foot of general orders from IRA HQ (General Mulcahy) issued on June 22nd, 1921 in response to the stepped up retaliations policy of the British forces. In the event, on June 30th, two brothers were apprehended and executed, and the house burnt. The third brother – Sydney – was absent with the father. William Stanley (aka “Jimmy Bradley”), though not sought by the IRA, made good his escape.
Wall acknowledges that, in the case of the Pearsons, there is little if any actual evidence of a Republican land grab, a central claim in the RTÉ film: “The case against land being a direct cause of the incident is persuasive. It seems that the Pearsons were executed for reasons that had no direct bearing on land ownership.” But he immediately goes on to qualify his own conclusion from the evidence presented, by saying: but “to deny that land played any part in events there, or more widely, runs counter to much historical evidence.” Roaming far and wide to locate incidents of land disturbance around Ireland he concludes: “It may be that South Offaly was immune from all of this, but it seems unlikely.” In other words “the evidence shows that there was no sectarian land grab at Coolacrease, but from my reading of general disturbances elsewhere, such motivations must have played a role there too!” The matter at issue and the subject of Wall’s review is the issue of Coolcrease. It is bizarre that Tom Wall cannot accept the implications of his own observations. It is as if he is saying: “There wasn’t a land grab but there ought to have been one.” Such it seems is the power of his pre-existing views to overcome the hard evidence.
Indeed Wall is most at home when discussing the period in general terms. He quotes various authors on land conflicts of the period. One of his more questionable quotations (from a 2005 book) is that: “During the civil war, the anti-treaty side [sought] to drive the landowning class (principally Protestant) from the country”. Since Wall presents this without comment, we must assume he endorses it as supporting his argument. And since the landowning class had been predominantly Catholic for at least a generation, it’s hard to give much credence to anything else he has to say on this subject.
Wall offers highly selective quotes from Frank Gallagher’s book The Four Glorious Years. Gallagher, the publicity officer of the First Dáil, explains the social breakdown which resulted from the British assault on the nascent organs of democracy, how the Republican state system restored social order, and how even the supporters of British power came to acknowledge and benefit from the Republican systems of justice, law and order.
Gallagher commented on land disturbances in this phase:
Farm after farm, ranch after ranch, was taken over. Soon it was not only the huge farms or the vast grazing grounds that were occupied. The uneconomic holders helped themselves to the nearest land whose-ever it was. (p. 71).
… almost a class war was sweeping through half of Ireland in the first six months of 1920 … (p. 72).
This is a description of social conflict, not sectarian land grabbing, and Gallagher’s account carries no connotation of the latter.
Wall also seriously misquotes Frank Gallagher, referring to “farm hungry men” (Gallagher actually says “land hungry men”) who did not believe in “gentle methods”, and who, when “taking over of estates did not hesitate to shoot owners who stood in their way.” But the two statements are separated in Gallagher’s book by 130 pages and do not relate to each other at all! Wall’s defence here may be that he is quoting Gallagher from a secondary source responsible for the false quote, but this does not change the fact that the author does not say what Wall says he said. He goes on to further paraphrase Gallagher: “More often than not, as Gallagher admitted, Protestant owned land was the target.” But this is a paraphrase too far, as Gallagher says no such thing. What Gallagher actually says is “most of the land owners were pro-British.” Wall may well argue that Gallagher’s phrase “Pro-British” can reasonably be interpreted as loyalist/Protestant. In fact it is unreasonable and wrong. Gallagher throughout is invariably discussing land disturbances as such without reference to the religion or otherwise of the owners. As Coolacrease shows, there were Protestant farmers and land owners who were Unionist, Redmondite, pro-Republican or neutral throughout the conflict just as there were many Catholic land owners who were pro-British. Gallagher is describing social conflict over land, in a situation where most land owners were Catholic. He is not describing sectarian conflict.15
On an RTÉ radio show after the screening of the film, Elizabeth Pearson, whose father was a cousin of the Coolacrease Pearsons, said that large property owners felt under threat because of their land holding, but that this applied equally to Catholic as well as Protestant land holders: “Everybody was afraid. It wasn’t just Protestants. Roman Catholics were killed over land.” Her knowledge of the Coolacrease incident came primarily from Alan Stanley’s book which she largely accepted, but nevertheless she was adamant that their religion had nothing to do with the killing of the Pearsons: “My feeling is [that they were killed] not because they were Protestants.” Indeed Stanley himself quotes one of the Pearson sisters from her account to the Kings County Chronicle days after the execution that a member of the IRA party told her: “Don’t think we are doing this because you are Protestants. It is not being done on that account”.16
Wall also tells us about the “Ranch War” that occurred a decade earlier, between 1904 and 1911, with Kings County (Offaly) and Meath the counties in Leinster most affected. It therefore must have affected Coolacrease, he concludes. And of course it did. The transfer of land from landlord to tenant had been underway for over twenty years on foot of the Land Acts which followed the land war. The disaffection which caused the disturbances after 1904 was brought to an end with the passing of the 1909 Land Act which introduced the principle of compulsory sale where tenants so demanded. People like the Pearsons benefited from this process, and moved from being tenants to being freehold farmers in this period. The book recounts the land unrest in the district at this time which came to an end with the 1909 Act and which, while working itself out over the subsequent decade, was history by the 1920s.
Wall shows no awareness of the Pearson’s social status or economic history. They were not, as a reader of his review might assume, large land owners let alone landlords. The Pearsons were actually closer to their Catholic neighbours than to the landed gentry and at one with them in benefiting from the sale of land through the state. They bought the farm in 1911 through the Land Commission under the Land Acts, after the previous holders, the Benwell family, sold it on becoming freeholders under the 1909 Act. The Pearsons, like most of their neighbours, were freeholders, most of whom had been raised from the status of tenant by the Land Acts. That the Pearsons were regarded as sharing the economic interests of the farmers of the area is reflected in William Pearson’s election by his mostly Catholic neighbours to represent them on the Kings County Committee of the Farmers Association in 1919. Wall’s attempt to imply a sectarian element to the Ranch War in South Offaly in relation to Coolacrease falls apart with this most basic misreading of it.
Wall moves on to the Civil War and again attempts to advance his pre-existing thesis on the flimsiest of bases, quoting a generalised and unsubstantiated statement from Diarmuid Ferriter that many “locals” used the occasion of the vacuum in state authority during the Civil War “to evict Protestant neighbours without recourse to arbitration.” . Describing a “state of near anarchy” during the truce and early Civil War period, Wall later speculates: “it would be surprising in that context if, as O’Connor claims, no squatting on the Pearson farm occurred.” He also refers to “threats and outrages against Protestants in the area between Birr to Roscrea” reported in the Freeman’s Journal. “This is the area of the 2nd Offaly IRA Brigade,” he continues ominously, “which includes Coolacrease.”
In fact Coolacrease deals with this precise issue also. It records the spread of “agrarian disturbances” at this time, affecting particularly untenanted land, most notably in the so-called congested districts of the West, but also, to a far lesser extent, in Offaly. It states that such incidents were recorded meticulously in the RIC County Inspectors’ Monthly Reports up to December 1921 and throughout the period in the county press – both the nationalist Midland Tribune and the unionist Kings County Chronicle. As Philip McConway established from a study of these sources, none of them mentions a single case of squatting in the Coolacrease area. All of this is set out in the book, as is the fact that not one of the several other large Protestant farms near the Pearsons (or indeed large Catholic ones) was targeted in any way during this period. But this is not good enough for Tom Wall, such is his disregard for evidence in favour of wild speculation.
The claims of land squatting on the Pearson farm were rejected both by the District Court in Tullamore (then operating under the British system) and later by the British Government compensation body, the Irish Grants Committee. Indeed, the initial highly colourful Pearson claim of boycott and land squatting to that otherwise sympathetic body was rejected with incredulity as “not unamusing”. When a final compensation sum was agreed on a subsequent claim, the itemised listing of the settlement includes a rejection of the claim that the land had been squatted (compensation was granted for unspecified “severe hardship suffered” following an oral hearing of which no record was kept). The further assertion of having been forced to sell the farm to the Land Commission at considerably below its true value (repeated ad nauseum in the RTÉ documentary) is also proven to be incorrect and glaringly fraudulent. As regards the stock and machinery the Pearsons claimed they had been forced to sell for a fraction of their value, the British compensation committee found that they had been put up for auction locally and “fair prices achieved”. As regards the value of the farm itself, Coolacrease shows that in fact the Irish Land Commission paid considerably above the market price for it in 1923 and over twice what the Pearsons had paid for it a decade before.
Besides the generalised unsupported statements and questionable quotations which undermine the credibility of his review, there is also the question of Tom Wall’s uncritical and enthusiastic use of sources which appear to support his argument. Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies is presented as a leading authority for his information and also for his firm belief that land hunger, land grabbing and ethnic cleansing were important motivations of the Republican movement’s actions at local level during the War of Independence.
Despite the fact that even Hart has since distanced himself from claims that ethnic cleansing occurred in Ireland, Wall remains ambivalent on this point. While conceding that the various cases he lists are “not evidence either for a policy of ethnic cleansing or sectarian killing”, he describes the number of Protestants who died in the South during the War of Independence as “modest … measured against the scale of other ethnic conflicts then and since”. So for Wall it remains an ethnic conflict after all!
In addition, for all his nit-picking over the essays on Hart’s book by Murphy and Meehan in Troubled History, he never once comments on the devastating exposure by those writers – and earlier by Meda Ryan – of Hart’s interviews with people who – as it turns out – were long dead or, in the case of one survivor, mentally incapacitated at the time of the supposed interviews. Hart went on to use the non-interviews as central building blocks in his “interpretation” of the sectarian/ethnic nature of the War of Independence in Cork. This would not generally be considered a minor demeanour by a historian.
Augusteijn, in his History Ireland review, is upfront about this: “The serious questions over Hart’s use of source material, which he has unfortunately too lightly dismissed, are raised again here. It would indeed be helpful if Hart gave a systematic answer to these questions, most recently posed in the pamphlet ‘Troubled History’.” Indeed, in a previous issue of the drb itself, Brendan O’Leary wrote on the same subject: “Ryan and Meehan have established that Hart needs to explain these anomalies or correct the record”. While extensively quoting Hart as an authority, Wall at no point refers to these serious matters of falsification of evidence.17
On Protestantism and loyalism Wall makes the extraordinary statement: “Some would say that the distinction is so fine as to be invisible to many”. Wall’s statement comes in an attack on Dr. Brian Murphy (one of the authors of Coolacrease and Troubled History) who, he says, “quotes approvingly an eccentric British civil servant who, commenting on attacks on Protestants, said: ‘If Protestant farmers are murdered, it is not by reason of their religion, but rather because they are under suspicion as loyalists. The distinction is a fine, but a real one.’”
The man Wall refers to in this breathtaking aside as an “eccentric British civil servant” is in fact Lionel Curtis, a leading and highly influential British imperialist of the time who favoured a negotiated settlement with the Irish leadership, aimed at maintaining Ireland within an empire re-ordered as a Commonwealth. He was the key figure in founding the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a British negotiator at the Versailles Conference and the constitutional advisor to the British Imperial side at the Irish Treaty negotiations. The quotation above is from the conclusions to his thoughtful analysis of conditions in Ireland (where he travelled widely in 1921). By “loyalists” – as is clear from the report – Curtis meant not political conviction but political-military activity. Interestingly, the sentences in his report preceding the ones Wall gives us are: “To conceive the struggle as religious in character is in any case misleading. Protestants in the south do not complain of persecution on sectarian grounds. If Protestant farmers … etc.”. Brian Murphy’s case is simply and clearly that the evidence “confirms… that the IRA killings in the Bandon area were motivated by military rather than sectarian considerations.”18
Neither Protestantism nor loyalist political “convictions” were ever put forward by the IRA at the time as a justification for shooting anybody. Coolacrease reprints an order from Richard Mulcahy (IRA GHQ) of 22nd June 1921 –i.e. before the events at Coolacrease and most of the other incidents Wall refers to. This order set out IRA policy on reprisals in response to the massive British campaign of reprisals which had been underway unofficially since late 1920 and officially from the start of 1921. It states inter alia: “For the purposes of such reprisals no persons shall be regarded as enemies of Ireland, whether they may be described locally as Unionists, Orangemen, etc. unless they are actively anti-Irish in their actions.” People’s political convictions or religion were of no account. The only basis for action against individuals was where such individuals, regardless of religion or party, had become active, that is had joined the actual war effort of the British forces.19
As the IRA order for the execution of the Pearsons makes clear, it was because of their armed actions on behalf of the British military campaign and for passing information to the enemy which could – and did – have lethal consequences for the IRA, that they were condemned to death. Secondly, it was a time of war, a war launched in Ireland by the British state. The results of passing information to the armed forces of the enemy could and did result in death, capture and the destruction of one’s own forces. These were the same principles on which the French Resistance later operated, though arguably lacking the democratic mandate enjoyed by the resistance movement of Dáil Éireann. Does Wall disagree with the actions taken by the French Resistance against Frenchmen it learned were passing lethal information to, or operating as paramilitary Miliciens on behalf of the Gestapo?
After finally and partly conceding that there is “some substance” to the “argument” that “Dáil Éireann and, though it, the IRA” had legitimate political authority arising from the mandate of the 1918 elections, Wall goes on to raise the usual revisionist chestnut that the election did not include “a mandate to wage war.” Sinn Féin stood for election on a Manifesto stating clearly that if it secured a mandate it would establish a Republic on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation by whatever means necessary. Following its landslide victory, it set about immediately doing so peacefully. The British response was an immediate military and terrorist one – elected representatives were arrested or driven underground and a counter-insurgency force of regular soldiers and terrorist militias flooded into the country to crush the Dáil government in a manner the commander of the paramilitary Auxiliary Division later described as “fascist”. Wall’s thesis seems to be that the Dáil government should have simply surrendered in the face of this as it had no mandate to defend itself. But the elected government decided to defend itself precisely on the basis of its mandate.20
Wall also raises the old bogey of the alleged targeting of “ex-soldiers and retired RIC men” (he means ex-British Army soldiers presumably) who, he says, “formed a large proportion of those accused of ‘informing’.” Why is informing put in quotation marks, as if it were a ridiculous term? The British fought the IRA in the way they fight their counter-insurgency wars – by a very dirty rule book indeed. With hundreds of years of experience at it – and still at it –they had a far more refined approach than, for example, the Germans. Central to British counter insurgency strategy at the time was the creation of networks of spies and informers, of using selective terror and torture, of attempting to split the ranks of the “insurgency” through agent provocateurs and compromised spies. I presume Tom Wall is aware of this. How does a democratic resistance movement –the IRA war had an electoral mandate behind it, something which even the French Resistance could not call upon– respond to this? The answer is pretty obvious, and Wall’s obfuscation around terms such as “protestant” and “loyalist” is deeply disingenuous. The IRA “targeted” people who were doing it potential or real lethal damage by operating as agents of the armed forces of its imperial enemy, or, as it described it, people who were “actively anti-Irish in their actions”, where the term “actions” is clearly meant in military terms. In fact the majority of those shot for informing or as spies or as otherwise engaged as “active loyalists” were not Protestants but Catholics.21
On the issue of “ex-soldiers and RIC men” itself, as the conflict and the “counter-insurgency” reached a peak, the RIC was transformed into an armed gendarmerie at the centre of the counter-insurgency force -much like the Miliciens of the Vichy Regime- and the Republican leadership called on RIC members not to become involved as active agents of the British war effort. Recruitment to the force almost dried up entirely, necessitating the establishment of Freikorops-style militias of British ex-servicemen -the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans -to stiffen what remained, in a relationship much like that of the German counter insurgency (the SS/SD) to the French Milice. Many also left the RIC, or became “quietist”, insisting on continuing on as village bobbies, though the force in which they were involved had morphed into anything but that. And so, distasteful as it may be to modern sensitivities, RIC men, regarded as active collaborators, became targets for the Irish resistance much as French policemen regarded as actively collaborating with the Germans in the Second World War became targets of the French Resistance.
The picture with former British soldiers was entirely different. Something like 150,000 Irishmen were demobilised from the British army back to Ireland in 1921-22. Those that chose to remain with the British Army (about 15,000) were sent off to other British wars –and for the next twenty years were involved in the bloody suppression of “nationalist insurgencies” in India, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and elsewhere. Of those that were demobilised and returned home, not an inconsiderable number joined the IRA, and in nearly every district in Ireland it was returned British Army men who often provided the military expertise of the “rebel” forces. Several such individuals in the case of the Offaly IRA are described in Coolacrease. Most returning British soldiers –like the majority of the population in general– avoided becoming involved in the lethal end of the conflict. And there is no reason to believe that their political sympathies diverged from those of the population generally– divided between republican, unionist, neutral, etc. As John Borgonovo has recorded, in July 1920 there were two days of bloody riots in Cork between ex-servicemen and British troops which ended when the British troops fired into the crowd, killing two and injuring many more. The Cork ex-servicemen were considered so thoroughly unreliable that their association headquarters were raided and looted by Crown Forces. The riots had been precipitated by the killing by the troops of the ex-serviceman James Burke. Over 5,000 ex-servicemen marched in formation at Burke’s funeral, and again in the republican funeral corteges of Cork Sinn Féin Lord Mayors and IRA leaders, Thomas McCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, in March and August 1920. A small number of returned soldiers did become active on the British side in the war. And some of their number were executed by the IRA after being found guilty of active military engagement against the resistance.22
In the same vein, as he begins to wind up his essay, Wall states “The vast majority of Protestants considered themselves Irish but loyal to Crown and Empire. Could the Southern Protestant minority be expected to readily adjourn their traditional loyalties in the aftermath of the 1918 elections?” The answer to the question is “Yes” if what is being said is that they should have abjured their right to wage armed warfare against the democratic electoral decision of the majority. And this in fact is what the majority did. But Wall’s statement makes no differentiation between maintaining a political identity in a political manner where one has become a political minority on the one hand, and seeking by force to destroy the state established by a legitimate democratic majority on the other. If he is arguing that members of a political minority who do not accept the outcome of an election are entitled to join actively in a military sense in an imperial counter-insurgency waged against the outcome of that election, then he must also accept that those becoming active in this way had left the ground of democracy and must be prepared to take the military consequences of their undemocratic military action.
Wall follows up with this question: “In remaining ‘loyal’ could they be deemed to forfeit their civil rights under the new order?” He quotes Ernie O’Malley as implying that this is what they had to do. In fact the quote says nothing of the kind: “the people of this country would have to give allegiance to it [the Republic] or if they wanted to support the Empire they would have to support the Empire elsewhere.” What state in the world, democratically constituted, accepts a “right” of its citizens not to give allegiance to it and to give active allegiance to another, hostile, state instead? This issue is not one of “civil rights”. Civil rights are rights within the framework of a state. Perhaps there should be no states, but here we are entering a world of fantasy. To date humanity has not found its way to evolve socially beyond the framework of states – it is the only structure which binds or organises people in workable societies and stands between the individual and global chaos or colonial domination. Experimental quasi-supra-state structures like the EU and UN have yet to seek to claim real sovereignty superior to states or to claim for themselves the loyalty of the citizens of the states of which they are composed.
This position of Wall’s also contains what could be construed as a deeply sectarian assumption, that Southern Protestants formed a political-religious block opposed to Irish independence. In reality some continued to maintain a Unionist position, some sided with Sinn Féin and many others adopted a neutral party political stance, as they had during the years of Irish Parliamentary Party dominance. The situation was similar, though in different proportions, within the Catholic population. Following the 1918 election –whose mandate was repeated in national and local elections in 1920, 1921 and 1922- the majority of southern Protestants accepted the outcome. In the War of Independence they remained largely neutral.
Prior to 1918, the Unionist Party did not contenst elections in the south apart from enclaves around Dublin. Unionists in the south either supported the Irish Parliamentary Party or remained aloof from electoral affairs (except for local politics, where purely economic interest continued to play an important role), and this situation changed little with the rise of Sinn Féin from 1916. Indeed it was the least clerical or Hibernian-Catholic elements of the IPP –notably the All-for-Ireland League, which had won 9 out of 10 seats in Cork in the general election of 1910– as well as non-religious groupings, trade union forces and other political strands that flowed into the making of Sinn Féin and that made for the electoral landslide of 1918.23
In the party structure that gradually emerged after the Civil War, Protestants, Jews and others were to be found in all parties across the spectrum and in none. Unionists, whether Protestant, Catholic or other, maintained a unionist pressure within different parties, and within some parties more than others. There are today in the Irish Republic people with a unionist or commonwealth allegiance, mostly un-associated with religious identity, and this too makes itself felt in the politics and media of the Republic. And all of this is democratic and legitimate, and nowhere disputed by the authors of Coolacrease. Even William Stanley, the “UVF” hero of Luggacurran, eventually made his peace with the state, and joined Fine Gael and remained in it when, ironically, it was led by former General Mulcahy under whose authority the executions at Coolacrease had occurred. Stanley later resigned from Fine Gael in protest at Costello’s declaration of a Republic in 1949. R.B. McDowell is frequently quoted by Wall. He is also quoted in Coolacrease, in the article on the Irish Grants Committee. McDowell, now well into his nineties, to this day continues to refer to himself as a “unionist”. He sees this as an entirely legitimate political position to maintain in the Irish Republic and the authors of Coolacrease agree with him.
McDowell was a signatory recently to a letter in The Irish Times (signed also by Eoghan Harris and others) calling for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth. This is legitimate politics but firmly on the other side of the rubicon to a right to wage warfare against a legitimate elected government. For in his book McDowell – without any of Wall’s quibbling – accepts the outcome of the 1918 election. He relates with some disgust the shenanigans that were allowed to go on at the Irish Grants Committee in London and gives us some insight into the workings of the Southern Irish Loyalist Relief Association. He also relates how the Unionist Alliance in Dublin, following the Treaty and the establishment of the Free State under it, dissolved itself and southern unionists reflected on a proper role for themselves in the political structures of the new state. McDowell’s position is that of a democrat.24
Wall on several occasions has a go at the publishers of Coolacrease, the Aubane Historical Society. He criticises the alleged “vitriolic” style of the book, without giving any actual examples of it, while having nothing to say of the inflammatory language which characterised the original RTÉ film and the many press articles that appeared in support of it. He says that “the raison d’etre of the Aubane Historical Society is to defend the received history of the national struggle against revisionism … [the two publications] endeavour to establish that the conduct of the IRA during the War of Independence was legitimate, just and untainted by sectarianism.” Well, if you set up a straw man it is not too hard to knock it down. It would be very difficult to prove that the conduct of the IRA was untainted by prejudice, greed, fornication, homophobia, drunkenness or any other human failing. In another generalisation typical of the review, Wall tells us that the book “contains background narrative on the War of Independence written from a staunchly nationalist perspective.” The perspective of the book, beyond establishing the facts surrounding the particular incident at Coolacrease, is that Sinn Féin in implementing its overwhelming electoral mandate proceeded to establish a state, that this was immediately subjected to an unlawful armed onslaught by the Imperial power, and that the Parliament established in Dublin called on Volunteers to defend its institutions, which they did in great numbers in the War of Independence. A better description of the perspective of the book would be “a staunchly democratic one”.25
For revisionists who have attempted to portray the War of Independence as a sectarian ethnic conflict driven by greed for land, the cases constructed by Hart in relation to Cork and Harris and RTÉ in relation to Coolacrease, were paraded as the ultimate proof, the crowning examples, of their theories.26 And they were lionised precisely as such by commentators in the Dublin media. But the two AHS publications discussed by Wall succeed in their task –demonstrating that, in these two particular instances (Offaly and Cork), revisionists concocted evidence to support their theories of massacre, ethnic cleansing and sectarian land grabbing by the independence movement. Those two cases now lie in tatters.
It is ironic that Tom Wall’s drb essay has been lauded as the effective riposte to the book Coolacrease, with Senator Harris stating: “Tom Wall, a self-trained historian whose scholarship would put most academic historians to shame, takes a rounded view of the Coolacrease affair. To me it seems far from favourable to Aubane.” And this despite the fact that Wall, despite his ill-based judgements and generalisations, accepts the essential evidence presented in Coolacrease that what happened there did not involve sectarian murder or a land grab, but retaliation for a paramilitary armed attack.27
Thus do houses built on sand begin to crumble!
As to the legitimacy of the 1918 Dáil and the Irish war of resistance, it is not hard to establish that the independence movement had a democratic mandate. And, notwithstanding Wall’s quibbles on this subject, that is the essence of the matter.
1. Paddy Heaney, Pat Muldowney, Philip O’Connor (ed.), Coolacrease: the True Story of the Pearson Executions, an Incident in the Irish War of Independence, Aubane Historical Society, Millstreet, 2008; Niall Meehan and Dr Brian P. Murphy osb, Troubled History: Ten years of Controversy in Irish History – a 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies, with an introduction by Dr Ruan O’Donnell, AHS, Millstreet, 2007.
2. Paddy Heaney, At the foot of Slieve Bloom. History and Folklore of Cadamstown, Kilcormac Historical Society 2000; Paddy Heaney, ‘Coolacrease: A Place with a Tragic History’, Offaly Heritage Journal, Vol. 4 (2006), pp. 220-225; Alan Stanley, I met Murder on the way. The story of the Pearsons of Coolacrease, Quinagh, 2005; Eoghan Harris, ‘The tree has rotten roots and bitter fruit’, Sunday Independent, 9th October 2005; The RTÉ film was entitled The Killings at Coolacrease – A Reel Story Production for RTÉ Hidden History Series. Produced and directed by Niamh Sammon. Script consultant Pat Sammon. Screened 23rd October 2007 and 13th May 2008. A full annotated transcript of the film is provided in Coolacrease pp. 407 ff. Publications challenging the RTÉ version which appeared at the time of the film’s screening include Pat Muldowney, The Pearson Executions in Co. Offaly: a debate on alleged sectarianism during the War of Independence, Aubane Historical Society, 2007, and Philip McConway, ‘The Pearsons of Coolacrease’, Tullamore Tribune, 7th and 14th November 2007.
3. On reception of the book at the launch and by the midlands press see e.g. ‘New Book On Coolacrease Incident’, Tullamore Tribune, 5th November 2008; ‘Coolacrease executions were a war time tragedy’, Offaly Express, 12th November 2008; ‘RTE Coolacrease documentary claims dismissed in new publication’, Tullamore Tribune, 12th November 2008. It was also the subject of radio interviews (e.g. Midlands Radio 3, 7th November 2008) and blogsites, notably Indymedia. The national press reports referred to are: ‘New book slams RTÉ “cover-up” of killings’, The Star, 5th November 2008; Ronan McCreevy, ‘Pearson killings not sectarian, book claims’, The Irish Times, 7th November 2008; Steven King, ‘Coolacrease book has numerous axes to grind’, Sunday Business Post, 30th November 2008. For the Augusteijn and Kirkaldy reviews see: Joost Augusteijn, ‘The Big Book’, History Ireland, vol. 17, no. 2, March-April 2009; John Kirkaldy, ‘Not Proven’, Books Ireland, May 2009. The barrage of articles that appeared in support of the documentary at the time of its screening are listed (and some reprinted) in Coolacrease pp. 388 ff. These included articles by David Adams, Anne Marie Hourihane and Niamh Sammon in The Irish Time and by Eoghan Harris, Sarah Cadden and Alan Stanley in The Sunday Independent. Letters – and very occasionally articles – in response were published from Paddy Heaney, Pat Muldowney, Philip McConway, Brian P. Murphy, John Martin, Jack Lane, Nick Folley and others. History Ireland to its credit was critical of the “documentary” from an early stage, with a review by Dr Brian Hanley, as was – uniquely in the Dublin press – Emmanuel Kehoe in Sunday Business Post.
4. Eoghan Harris, Sunday Independent, 16th August 2009.
5. The RTÉ film was made by an independent company, Reel Story Productions. But RTÉ is responsible for it in that it commissioned it for its ‘Hidden History’ series (under the original ‘working title’ “Atonement: Ethnic Cleansing in the Midlands”) and senior RTÉ personnel (including the Director General, Head of Factual Programmes and the “PRO” of RTÉ) went on to defend it both in correspondence and before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission as objective, fair and balanced. RTÉ’s pre-broadcast publicity for the documentary broadly repeated the Harris interpretation of the events. In deciding to go ahead and broadcast, despite being informed in advance of the plethora of documentary evidence which contradicted the programme, RTÉ assumed full responsibility for the programme and its message.
6. Pat Muldowney’s interview by Niamh Sammon for the film (not broadcast), correspondence with her, and documentation from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission have been published on Indymedia. A synopsis of these is provided in Coolacrease.
7. The work by Meda Ryan referred to is: Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter, Mercier (Cork), 2005, especially the chapter ‘The Dunmanway Find of Informers Dossier’, pp. 209 ff.
8. This “evidence” for the alleged forced sale in the RTÉ programme consisted of a letter from Telfords Auctioneers of Birr valuing the farm at £17,000 and an undated note from William Percy of Frankford (i.e. Kilcormac) stating that he had offered £10,000 for the farm and “would have gone higher” only that “the people would not let any outsiders purchase the land”. The book proves these documents – which feature prominently in the film – to be unsound. The Pearsons bought the farm in 1912 for £2,000 and the Land Commission purchased it from them in 1923 for £4,817 after protracted negotiations on the price. As the book shows, even this was a very high price for the farm at that time. Coolacrease provides the original documentation, much contemporary evidence regarding local land prices and details of the sale and purchase process between the Pearsons and the Land Commission. The sources for the programme’s land grab allegations were primarily the later Pearson compensation applications (1926-7) to the British Government’s “Irish Grants Committee”. But in pre-broadcast correspondence and in the recorded but unbroadcast interview with Pat Muldowney, producer Niamh Sammon claimed to have Land Commission documents which had been examined by Dr. Terrence Dooley proving their assertions of a land grab. The book, which secured access to the relevant Land Commission records, shows these claims to be bogus. The available land documentation is analysed in depth by Philip O’Connor in Coolacrease, chapter 4: ‘Land Grab? What the documents say’, pp. 97-143.
9. Thus the family census return of 1911. The book lists various academic sources on the history of Cooneyism.
10. Niamh Sammon, ‘A true history of violence’, The Irish Times, 20th October 2007; Harris on RTÉ Radio One, Liveline programme, 5th November 2007.
11. Thomas Burke, o/c Offaly No. 2 Brigade IRA, report on the Officers’ Battalion Council to General Headquarters, Dublin, Déaslaí Papers, NLI, reprinted in Coolacrease, pp. 298 ff. The Burke report also cites the reasons ordered for the execution.
12. Paul Bew, The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 201. On the British “counter-insurgency” in Kenya, see Caroline Elkins, Britain’s GULAG. The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, London, 2005.
13. Colonel J.C. Kemp, The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers 1919-1959, University Press Glasgow, 1963, Ch. 1.
14. Montgomery’s statement is published in: William Sheehan (ed.), British voices: from the Irish War of Independence 1918-1921, HarperCollins, London, 2007.
15. David Hogan [i.e. Frank Gallagher], The Four Glorious Years 1918-21, Dublin (Irish Press), 1953. A full analysis of what Gallagher actually said about land disturbances is the subject of another article in this issue of drb by Niall Meehan.
16. Elizabeth Pearson on Liveline (RTÉ Radio One, 6 November 2007). Stanley is quoting Mathilda Pearson, who was interviewed by a journalist of the Kings County Chronicle present at the invitation of the British Army at Crinkle Barracks when the British Court of Enquiry was held. See Kings County Chronicle, 7th July 1921.
17. Peter Hart, The I.R.A. and its enemies: violence and community in Cork, 1916-1923, Oxford University Press, 1999. Despite earlier statements that “similar campaigns of what might be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’ were waged in [various counties]”, in a letter to The Irish Times (28th June 2006) following critiques of his book, Hart pulled back from this position: “I have never argued that ‘ethnic cleansing’ took place in Cork or elsewhere in the 1920s – in fact, quite the opposite” (see Niall Meehan, Troubled History).
18. See Brian P. Murphy osb, ‘Poisoning the Well or Publishing the Truth?’, Coolacrease, p. 173; ibid., ‘Peter Hart: the issue of Sources’ in Troubled History.
19. The full text of the Mulcahy order (reprinted in Coolacrease) is from Dorothy McArdle, The Irish Republic, Dublin,1951, pp. 935-6.
20. Augusteijn states (‘The Big Book’, History Ireland, March/April 2009): ‘The [1918 election] victory was not a mandate for the use of force, nor can it retrospectively justify the 1916 Rising’. But the Sinn Féin Manifesto stated: “Sinn Féin … stands by the Proclamation of the Provisional Government” of 1916; “Sinn Féin aims at securing the establishment of that Republic… by withdrawing the Irish Representation from the British Parliament and … by making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjugation by military force or otherwise” – ‘Manifesto of Sinn Féin as prepared for circulation for the General Election of 1918’ (full text in McCardle, Irish Republic, pp. 919-920). The version published in the press was cut by the British censor by 25% and this censored version is often falsely quoted (the censored text is given in McCardle, pp. 921-2). Following the British response to the creation of the Dáil of armed suppression, the Irish Government issued its famous ‘Declaration of Independence’ and ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ on 21st January 1919, in which it reiterated its basis in the 1916 Proclamation and its mandate in the 1918 elections, and stated that “the existing state of war, between Ireland and England, can never be ended until Ireland is evacuated by the armed forces of England.” (Full texts in Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, vol. 1, Dublin, RIA, 1998, pp. 1-2). On Crozier’s judgement of British strategy towards the young Irish democracy as ‘fascist’, see The Men I Killed. A Selection of the Writings of General F.P. Crozier, ed. Brendan Clifford, Athol Books, 2002.
21. See John Borgonovo, Spies, informers and the “Anti-Sinn Féin Society”: the intelligence war in Cork city, 1920-1921, Irish Academic Press, 2007.
22. Ibid., pp. 79 ff. On these issues, much useful information is provided by Niall Meehan in his excellent essay ‘Troubles in Irish History’, Troubled History.
23. This aspect of the evolution of Sinn Féin before 1918 is discussed by Brendan Clifford in Coolacrease. On the development of the All-for-Ireland League towards Sinn Féin see, Brendan Clifford, Jack Lane, The Cork Free Press – The Restructuring of Ireland 1890-1910, AHS, Millstreet, 1997 and, recently, Manus O’Riordan, ‘Did Redmond conquer West Cork in 1916?’, Irish Political Review, July 2009.
24. R.B. McDowell, Crisis and Decline: The Fate of Southern Unionists, Dublin, 1997; ‘Time to rejoin the Commonwealth?’, Letters, The Irish Times, 23rd March 2009.
25. Wall, in a further aside directed against the publishers, reveals in a footnote for the “uninitiated” that some people connected with Aubane Historical Society were formerly communists (members of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, or BICO) who “developed what is known as the two nations theory: the proposition being that Ulster Protestants constituted a separate nation.” While this has little to do with the book being reviewed (most of the authors of which were never communists), Wall contends that defending the validity of the democratic electoral mandate of the 1918 Dáil somehow contradicts the “two nations theory”. But where are the contradictions between it and holding that the Sinn Féin election victory of 1918 was a legitimate democratic one? The two nations theory applies to the democratic national rights not only of northern Protestants but also of the nation of the south, which was far from ever solely Catholic. The theory has become common political currency North and South, and a type of understanding of it formed the basis for the Good Friday Agreement and for the policy of the Republic over the last two decades in relation to Northern Ireland and Britain. Nowhere in the book Coolacrease is a case made for negating the democratic rights of any people – including the Northern unionist community – indeed quite the contrary.
26. For the chorus of approval in the Dublin press for the RTÉ film on Coolacrease, see for example Niamh Sammon, ‘A true history of violence’, The Irish Times, 20th October 2007; Sarah Caden, ‘Speak it in a whisper: Irish ethnic cleansing’, Sunday Independent, 21st October 2007; Ann Marie Hourihane, ‘We are still hiding from our history’, The Irish Times, 25th October 2007 and ‘Sensitive strands of our history’, ibid., 8th November 2007; David Adams, ‘Diehards reveal true colours’, The Irish Times, 9th November 2007; Eoghan Harris, ‘Why bodies buried deep in the green bog must be raised’, Sunday Independent, 11th November 2007 and ‘Denials do more damage than the original crime’, ibid., 18th November 2007.
27. Eoghan Harris, Sunday Independent, 16th August 2009.
Philip O’Connor and Pat Muldowney are authors of Coolacrease:the true story of the Pearson executions –an incident in the Irish War of Independence.