Coolacrease: the true story of the Pearson executions – an incident in the Irish War of Independence, by Paddy Heaney et al Aubane Historical Society, 470 pp, €20.00, ISBN: 978-1903497487
Since the publication in 1998 of Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923, the experience of the Protestant community in Southern Ireland between 1919 and 1923 has become an issue of occasional study and debate. In 2005 I Met Murder on the Way1 by Alan Stanley was published; it told the story of the execution by an IRA firing squad of two Protestant brothers in South Offaly in June 1921. The brothers had previously been involved in an altercation with the IRA, a number of whom were wounded. The story provoked little attention until an RTÉ television documentary, partly based on Stanley’s book, brought the episode to wider public attention. Suggestions were made by some contributors to the programme that the killings might have been provoked or influenced by a desire to acquire the family’s land. There were also suggestions of a sectarian aspect to the incident, linking it to Hart’s earlier study of the IRA in Cork. These suggestions are strongly opposed by some commentators. To the fore is the Aubane Historical Society which, during 2008, published a booklet containing a hostile critique of Hart’s work2 and, later, Coolacrease – The True Story of the Executions3. The latter sets out to refute suggestions that the religion of the victims, or land-grabbing motives, influenced the killings.
Coolacrease contains much detail concerning the events leading up to and following the Pearson killings. Some of the information is new, although some is of marginal relevance to the main story. It also contains background narrative on the War of Independence written from a staunchly nationalist perspective. The partisan, acerbic, sometimes vitriolic, tone of the writing may surprise those not familiar with the Aubane Society and its publications. The raison d’être of the society is to defend the received history of the national struggle against revisionism.4 All of us have beliefs, political orientations and experiences that influence our thinking, consciously or unconsciously. It is in this context that historians make choices about what events to focus on and what sources to use. When, as in this instance, there is no pretence at impartiality, the reader can at least apply the appropriate mental filters depending on their own predilections. While facts can be interpreted differently, Coolacrease does add to the total sum of knowledge about the tragic event. Also valuable is the inclusion of copies of original documents and published materials on the controversy, not all of which are supportive of the authors’ case. The difficulty for the reader is in distinguishing facts from polemic, in abstracting substance from extraneous detail.
Coolacrease sets out to expose the version of events portrayed by Alan Stanley in I Met Murder on the Way and RTÉ’s Secret History programme. The targets are, however, more numerous; they include the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and various academics and journalists, especially Senator Eoghan Harris – in terms of mentions he is the principal dragon to be slayed. All of these are well able to defend themselves if they feel inclined. Somewhat disturbing though, 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. This reviewer will perhaps be accused of “not being able to handle the truth” but, as will be demonstrated later, some of what is written in this vein about the Pearsons is unsupported by hard evidence.
On the crucial question of why the Pearsons were shot, there seems little doubt that the immediate cause was the tree-felling incident when an IRA party was fired upon. Alan Stanley heard from his father – who was deeply involved and narrowly escaped being shot himself – that heated words were exchanged between Richard Pearson and IRA men at the site of the intended road block. Richard, who was described as “somewhat hotheaded” fetched a shotgun and “discharged it over the heads of the rebels”. Paddy Heaney, one of the main contributors to Coolacrease, says on the other hand that a volley of shots was fired without warning and at short range at the tree-felling party, resulting in his uncle, Mick Heaney, being seriously wounded and others also being hit. Fire was returned and there was a belief that at least one of the attackers was wounded. One must assume, on the basis of the evidence presented by Heaney and Dillon, both related to members of the IRA in the area, that IRA men were indeed wounded and that the attackers were believed by them to be members of the Pearson family. Stanley says he was told by a relative that the attackers were RIC and Auxiliaries. Heaney, along with fellow author Pat Muldowney, dismisses this, arguing that it is not believable that “with roadblocks across the country, British forces would have fought their way through to Cadamstown at night for such a minor objective”.5
Involvement of the police in the incident is certainly not the most likely scenario but the possibility cannot be so easily dismissed. Roadblocks were only being put in place around that time. What if there were police already in the area? Four RIC men had been shot, two fatally, by the IRA in Kinnity a number of weeks previously; this is likely to have led to a lot of police activity. It was midnight and recognition could have been difficult in a surprise attack. If Alan Stanley is correct about the preceding altercation this would, understandably, have led the IRA party to assume they had come back. The IRA believed that they shot at least one of the attackers but it seems clear that none of the Pearson brothers was wounded. The failure of the Pearson brothers to run, as William Stanley did, days later when they saw an armed party of IRA men approach them in the fields, might indicate that they believed they had nothing to fear.
On the other hand, the version of events relayed to Alan Stanley may be pure speculation and his relatives may not have told him the whole truth. It may also be that the Pearson brothers either didn’t realise that they had shot anyone or, if they did, they didn’t tell their family, knowing the trouble it was likely to cause. It is certainly possible that the other members of the family didn’t know of the shootings or, more especially, the wounding of members of the IRA and the possible role of two or three brothers in it. Mr Pearson snr and one of his sons were absent from home during this time.6 The incident wasn’t mentioned in either of the sisters’ statements to the RIC or, some years afterwards, when the family was out of the country, 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.
Be that as it may, the IRA undoubtedly believed them guilty and that, from their perspective, was sufficient to warrant their execution. But it is the manner of the execution that makes this incident somewhat different from numerous similar ones during that time. The firing squad directed its fire to the midriff area and left the two boys to die a prolonged and agonising death. Other than a suggestion of inexperience and inaccuracy (the firing squad is described as being made up of members of a “flying squad”, that is an active service unit) no explanation is offered by those defending the execution. Although one contributor to Coolacrease, Father Brian Murphy, describes the manner of the killings as “unforgivable”, the local historians seem reluctant to criticise. Philip McConway, who was interviewed on the TV programme, stated that “the IRA botched the execution in that they didn’t finish them off with head shots”. Paddy Heaney states: “People resented, I suppose, the way they were shot, but they were executed and that was it.” Even if one considers the executions as entirely legitimate, and allowing for the horrors suffered by republicans at the hands of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, such remarks – not exactly made in the heat of the moment – seem devoid of compassion. JJ Dillon, son of a local IRA man, described it during the TV programme as “… crazy, it was brutal, it was wrong. Even in death a person is entitled to their dignity.” For these and similar conciliatory statements he is dismissed as a pacifist and anti-war. Perhaps fair-minded and compassionate might better describe him.
Part of the explanation for the lack of compassion may lie with the fact that contributors to Coolacrease regard the Pearsons of being guilty of more than shooting at the IRA. In essence, they are portrayed as anti-Catholic bigots, being at the centre of a loyalist organisation and acting as police informants. Incidents are described which portray them in a very poor light such as the spreading of “latrine waste” on the Mass path, the raising of “white flags as a triumphalist gesture” after the tree-felling shootings (a curious choice of flag) – without sources being identified. 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.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Pearsons, although originally on excellent terms with their Catholic neighbours, and displaying no sectarian traits, had fallen out with at least some by 1921. It is likely that tensions arising from events during the War of Independence at the very least contributed to this. Coolacrease puts it down to the family’s hostility to the newly constituted republic and its army. As is usually the case, the reasons are likely to have been more complex. The increasingly bloody war polarised opinion throughout Ireland, and religious background was the main demarcation between nationalist and loyalist. The policy of assassinating members of the RIC began not too far away from Coolacrease in Soloheadbeg in Tipperary in 1919. These and similar killings were unpopular even among Catholics, at least until the arrival of the Black and Tans and RIC Auxiliaries, who employed a strategy of vicious and indiscriminate reprisals, part approved of, part acquiesced in by the British government. Sectarian outrages in Ulster added to the animosity. Against this background it is hardly surprising that tensions and suspicions arose between formerly friendly neighbours. The assassination of two RIC men in Kinnity in the month preceding the Coolacrease events would have further heightened local tensions.
The assassinations may well have had other consequences. In June a number of IRA men were arrested, including John Dillon and JJ Horan. Heaney and Muldowney attribute this to the “Mass path” confrontation, when both were involved in confrontations with Richard Pearson and some of his siblings. It is implied that the Pearsons subsequently reported the IRA members involved to the RIC.7 But it seems that this incident happened in the previous year (1920). In a local newspaper report after the killings one of the Pearson girls is reported as saying that “there was some trouble about a pathway last year but this was settled long ago, the path having been given to those who claimed a passage through it”. Is it not much more likely that the Auxiliaries were searching for those who were involved in the much more recent RIC killings? The apparent gap between the “Mass path” incident and the arrests in June 1921 doesn’t indicate a strong connection. Also, as will be seen below, the use of the term “Mass path” may itself be misleading.
The Pearsons are described as aggressively sectarian and as holding supremacist attitudes. The only basis for this appears to be their attempt to stop people using the “Mass path” and practising their religion. However JJ Dillon, whose father was directly involved in the incident, mentions political rather than religious differences being at issue. On the RTÉ programme he said: “The Pearsons didn’t want people who they thought were IRA using the pathway.” This indicates that the dispute was between the IRA and the Pearsons rather than the IRA intervening in a row between Mass-goers and the Pearsons as indicated in Coolacrease. The fact that the Pearson children attended the local Catholic school and that the family had previously good relations with their Catholic neighbours doesn’t tend to support a sectarian motive on their part. However, Heaney and Muldowney attribute the change to sectarianism “entering the Pearsons’ souls after opting for the UVF side”. Evidence about souls might be hard to come by, but if the Ulster Volunteer Force was active in South Offaly at the time some trace of it would surely have emerged by now.
Much is made of the extremism of Cooneyism, the religious sect to which the family belonged, the main point being to suggest militant intolerance and to counter the case made by Harris and others that the Pearsons were, by conviction, pacifists. Religious conviction can never vouch for behaviour but, for what it’s worth, the group considered itself pacifist and was recognised as such by the Conscientious Objectors Board, which in 1914 exempted their “workers”, that is preachers from active military service. Pat Muldowney points out that as priests of all persuasions were exempted, and as “workers” were equivalent to priests, this proves nothing.8 This is true up to a point, but it seems, according to their own history, that some “saints” (ordinary members) refused to enlist and served prison sentences because of their pacifist convictions.9
A particular bone of contention in Coolacrease is the issue of land and the suggestions made by some that “land-grabbing” motives may have influenced or caused the executions. The case against land being a direct cause of the incident is persuasive. It seems clear that the Pearsons were executed for reasons that had no direct bearing on land ownership. However, to deny that land played any part in events there, or more widely, runs counter to much historical evidence. This issue is worthy of some detailed reflection.
In the years preceding the Pearsons’ purchase of Coolacrease in 1911, land ownership and land distribution were sources of considerable rural conflict. What became known as the Ranch War occurred between 1904 and 1910, beginning in Connacht and later spreading elsewhere. Offaly (King’s County) and Meath were the two counties in Leinster most affected. 10 The Ranch War differed from the earlier land wars in that distribution of grazing lands, and not just tenant rights and ownership were in dispute. It is therefore likely that some small farmers and landless labourers in the locality would, at the very least, have been disappointed with the failure of the Land Commission to purchase the Coolacrease farm for distribution. Land again became a major issue with the rise of Sinn Féin, during the early part of the War of Independence and during the truce and Civil War period.
From 1918 to 1920 a major part of the unrest in rural Ireland, as so often in the past, related to land. The purchase and division of estates under the Land Acts had largely ceased during the Great War and emigration was curtailed. Sinn Féin’s victory in the 1918 election is likely to have raised expectations; the party agitated on the land question during the 1918 election, with de Valera and Cosgrave in particular campaigning against landlords and large graziers.11 Thousands of farm labourers joined the ITGWU, which launched a land campaign in 1919 aimed at securing better wages and conditions. Strikes were accompanied by cattle running, arson and land occupations. Smallholders, labourers and eleven-month conacre tenants began forcibly to lay claim to land. As Frank Gallagher, at the time publicity officer for the first Dáil, described the situation in his Four Glorious Years (1957):
Farm hungry men do not believe in gentle methods … When the farmer objected his crops were sometimes burned, his family set upon … Those who led the taking over of estates did not hesitate to shoot owners who stood in their way.
More often than not, as Gallagher admitted, Protestant-owned land was the target, with ancestral grievances justifying occupations. A Land Settlement Commission established by the Dáil reported that “claims are being based on the assertion that the claimants or their ancestors were formerly in occupation of the property” and that some claims were being “put forward in the hope of intimidating the present occupiers”. As one person sent by the Dáil to investigate the situation described it: “…the fever [of agrarian agitation] swept with the fury of a prairie fire over Connacht and portions of the other provinces, sparing neither great ranch nor medium farm and inflicting in its headlong course, sad havoc on man, beast, and property”.12
Based on his reading of the Dáil Commission’s reports, Diarmaid Ferriter describes many rural areas as on the verge of social anarchy:
Obduracy could be fuelled by long-term sectarian hatred or in many cases abject poverty, while those seeking land frequently organised themselves into ad-hoc committees to orchestrate agitation, or simply to plead for a fair hearing. Many locals deprived of land took it upon themselves to evict Protestant neighbours without recourse to arbitration.13
It may be that South Offaly was immune from all of this, but it seems unlikely.
Suggestions made by Stanley and other contributors to the RTÉ programme that land influenced events in Coolacrease are based partly on the fact that some IRA men did subsequently acquire part of the Pearson holding from the Land Commission. However, as Philip O’Connor demonstrates, this represents only part of the property and the remainder was awarded to persons with no association with the IRA, including three former British solders.14 There may have been different expectations in 1921, however. There were demands made in the Dáil in 1922 that preference be given to IRA activists when land was being distributed but the outbreak of the Civil War complicated matters and later, under the Land Act of 1923, relieving congestion and ensuring productive use of the land became the priority for the Free State government. In any event, by then anti-treaty “irregulars” were unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing. However, the future was unclear during the truce and early Civil War period, when a state of near anarchy existed in many rural parts of the country. It would be surprising in that context, if, as O’Connor claims, no squatting on the Pearson farm occurred. At that time, as we shall see, land seizures were commonplace, particularly in republican-controlled areas.
The first Dáil established a system of Sinn Féin or National Arbitrations Courts in 1919 as part of a strategy of creating a rival justice apparatus and these courts quickly began to deal with land claims. Local volunteers acted as court agents and republican police had responsibility for enforcing the orders of the courts. The Sinn Féin courts are generally seen as a highly successful aspect of the War of Independence and, bearing out the case made by Philip O’Connor in Coolacrease, there is considerable evidence that they generally acted fairly, frequently ruling in favour of the property owner, at least in 1920 when they were responding to a direction of the Dáil that its courts reject claims by those claiming to be nineteenth century “evicted tenants”.
Protestants might not be expected to welcome the alternative legal system. The judges of the parish courts were selected by, and almost invariably members of, local Sinn Féin clubs and Sinn Féin had been active in land agitation in earlier years. Clergymen were the exception: they had the right to be ex-officio members of these courts and some exercised this right, at least until the courts were outlawed by the British authorities. This aspect provides an interesting link with the nineteenth century land war when the clergy were prominent in adjudicating on local land disputes. The ex officio role of the clergy was provided for in the Act passed by the Dáil. In theory, it could be said to be non-sectarian in that denomination was not mentioned but this was no more than the type of obfuscation adopted when it came to matters of religion. An amendment was put by Joseph Doherty15 and seconded by Ernest Blythe to delete the relevant section but was heavily defeated. Interestingly, both deputies were from Ulster and may have been concerned about the issue being used by Unionists as an example of Home Rule meaning Rome rule. However, no reasons are recorded that justify either the deletion or the retention of the section concerning the role for clergy. It is likely that the Ulster Protestant Blythe was the prime mover, but he would not have wanted to explicitly raise the hare of religion. In any event, the Dáil was just providing republican legitimacy to events on the ground: parish land courts had already been established in many areas. Some of the earliest of these, in Limerick, Clare and Galway were presided over by local priests.
There is ample evidence, nevertheless, that Protestants did plead before the republican courts. No doubt some did so out of desperation. Black and Tan outrages made them vulnerable to reprisals by the IRA. The violence stirred up old enmities against “English” or “Cromwellian settlers”. Outside cities and garrisoned towns there was little protection available from the RIC in unsettled parts of the country. The choice for Protestants in situations where they were the victims of land occupation, accompanied by threats, was to flee – and some did so, abandoning their properties – or to reconcile themselves to the new order and seek justice or recompense from the republican courts. Some may have felt they had little choice: invoking the established legal system could prove fatal. Even ignoring republican courts was fraught with danger; there is one report of two farmers being shot dead after refusing to attend.16 Many who applied to the courts were pleasantly surprised when it ruled in their favour. Others weren’t so fortunate. Some courts were more influenced by local concerns than Dáil decrees. The Dáil’s writ didn’t always run, and there were occasional tensions between Sinn Féin politicians and volunteers.
Nevertheless, the Dáil, through the republican courts, seems to have successfully curtailed land-grabbing, although it was to revive during the truce and Civil War period. The truce led to a large influx of new IRA recruits, disdainfully referred to as “trucealeers”, whose motives may not always have been wholly patriotic. The withdrawal to barracks of all RIC and British army units in July 1921 left the expanded IRA in total control of the countryside, including in areas where it had not up to then been particularly active. This placed a great deal of power in young men’s hands with little to restrain local leaders. While IRA HQ attempted to maintain some control over units during the early truce period, following what in retrospect could be termed the “cold civil war” – the period between the signing of the treaty on December 6, 1921 and the outbreak of Civil War fighting on June 28, 1922 – all central authority was weakened as treaty and anti-treaty individuals and units jockeyed for advantage. It was in that climate that land, loyalties and religion again became the focus of much local strife. One Protestant farmer reported being forced out of his home by armed men and told: “as there is no law in the country now I will have to get back what belonged to my forefathers”. His family had been farming the land for hundreds of years.17 During the civil war the anti-treaty side’s response to the Free State government’s execution policy was “a destructive campaign of intimidation, arson, and assassination on the part of the IRA, which was designed to prevent the government from functioning, to drive the landowning class (principally Protestant) from the country, and to reduce the economic life of the country to ruin”.18
Much land agitation can be attributed to organised groups other than the IRA, although probably overlapping in membership with them.19 What is certain is that they would have had difficulty acting without the sanction, or at least acquiescence, of the local IRA. From the truce to the Civil War numerous tenant, landless associations and town tenants’ leagues revived or sprung up throughout the country and engaged in rent strikes, cattle-running and hamstringing, ploughing of pasture lands and land occupations, which continued in many areas until the new Free State administration was in a position to assert its authority. Against this background, the Pearsons’ claims of cattle drives, threats and intimidation have some credibility. Similarly, claims that their attempt to auction the land was boycotted cannot easily be dismissed. Tom Barry, the Cork IRA leader, placed a ban on all sales of land owned by unionists “because we’re not going to have them leave Ireland with money in their pockets from land they had stolen from the people”.20
In Coolacrease and in its earlier booklet, Troubled History, the Aubane Society endeavours to establish that the conduct of the IRA during the War of Independence was legitimate, just and untainted by sectarianism. In this it sets out to rebut “revisionist” historians, notably Peter Hart, who published his most controversial work, The IRA and its Enemies, in 1998. One episode chronicled by Hart in that volume relates to the shooting dead of thirteen Protestants by the IRA in the Dunmanway area of Co Cork during the truce in April 1922. In Hart’s account, an IRA raid on a Protestant home resulted in one of the raiding party being shot dead. Three members of the household were later captured and shot; their bodies have never been found. He describes the IRA as subsequently going on a killing spree shooting male Protestants, including two sixteen-year-olds, a clergyman and a “feeble-minded” farm servant. Another victim was James Buttimer of Dunmanway, an eighty-two-year-old draper and Home Rule supporter. As word spread, others escaped death by moving out or taking to the fields. Hundreds fled to England.
Aubane responds to this aspect of Hart’s history by referring to Meda Ryan’s critique of his work contained in her biography of Tom Barry.21 There she argues that the IRA had good reason to believe that those targeted were informers. She states that of those shot all the surnames were listed as “helpful citizens” in what she refers to as “the Dunmanway find”. This refers to a diary – apparently written by an intelligence officer – and other documents left behind by the Auxiliaries when they evacuated Dunmanway workhouse in 1922. However, there is no documented evidence to support this. The diary was first brought to light in a series of articles in the Southern Star newspaper in 1971 written by Flor Crowley under the non de plume “Raymond”. He had apparently been lent the diary by a former IRA activist in the area. It is largely made up of notes and descriptions of IRA men but also appears to contain the names of just four informants, one of whom was a young IRA volunteer. Just one is identified as a “loyalist”. Crowley expressed surprise that no “known” informers were listed and comments that “nobody, as far as I have ever heard, suspected in 1920 and 1921, or ever since” that any of the four listed were informants. This would rule out any use of the diary as a basis for a death list of informers at that time. However, Ryan alludes to “separate documents” allegedly containing the names of others. But it seems from the source notes that she did not have possession of these documents and relied on an interview with Dan Cahalane, a local IRA veteran and likely custodian of the diary, for information as to their contents. As, at the very least, he was a comrade of those involved in the Dunmanway killings, he cannot be regarded as disinterested. It is not clear if these documents still exist22 or if any request was made to examine them. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that the Auxiliaries accidentally left behind a file of documents, as well as a diary, containing the names of informers. But if they did, and if the contents tend to exonerate or explain, at least in republican terms, the killings, why were they not given to a sympathetic historian like Meda Ryan or to the equally supportive Flor Crowley for his Southern Star articles? Ryan is a nationalist historian, noted for detailed research, but her apparent reluctance to ask these questions, and her defence of the killings – described by Dorothy McArdle as “… murders, violently in conflict with the traditions and principles of the Republican Army”23 – raise major question marks.
The Dunmanway killings, which occurred around the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, were the only example of Protestants being targeted in significant numbers in the south.24 But individual executions, attempted killings and death threats occurred throughout the country, in cases where the culprits and their motives can usually only be speculated upon. The effect was to create panic and fear among many rural Protestants, some of whom fled in terror. Whether this was mainly due to the activities of the IRA, or the work of others who coveted land or took advantage of troubled conditions to settle ancestral scores, remains moot. What is certain is that Protestants departed from what became the Free State in unprecedented numbers. Between the 1911 and 1926 censuses the non-Catholic population of what is now the Republic declined by over a third. The Catholic population also declined but by only seven per cent in the same period. Only about a quarter of the reduction in Protestant numbers could be attributed to the withdrawal of army personnel, along with some police and civil servants. The authors of one study conclude:
There can be little doubt that the main causation underlying this exodus was a sense of apprehension in certain of these communities associated with the transition to national independence in 1922 and the upheavals which attended that event.25
There is some evidence26 that the exodus was concentrated in the years 1922 to 1924. Hart refers to reports of unusually high levels of emigration and property sales in Leitrim, Sligo, Tipperary, Cork and King’s County (Offaly), first noticed in 1921 and rising dramatically the following year. In some areas around half of the Protestant population departed. It is likely that some left simply because they found the new regime uncongenial. But the highest levels of migration were from rural areas where property ownership would normally inhibit movement. Migration was most pronounced in Munster, where the IRA was most active both during the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Some point to sectarianism as playing a role in events. Diarmaid Ferriter – a historian not normally classified as “revisionist” – is one.
Sectarianism too played its part and there was no shortage of abusive political language to identify Protestant enemies (‘landgrabber’, ‘loyalist’, ‘imperialist’, ‘Orangeman’, ‘Freemason’) and assert the need for their killing. In the same manner, labelling one an informer could in fact cover a multitude of sins, agrarian and domestic included.27
Many were shot as “spies and traitors”. Some no doubt were brave or foolish and collaborated with the crown forces; others were almost certainly innocent of the charge.
But informing could cover a multiplicity of things, as the following examples demonstrate. One tragic example of a “guilty informer” was Mary Lindsay, a loyalist living in Broadstreet in Co Cork. In January 1921 she accidentally learned from conversation with a shopkeeper that the IRA were planning an ambush in Dripsey. Hoping that lives could be saved she entered into an arrangement with a local Catholic priest, Fr Shinnick, whereby both sides would be informed; the RIC of the ambush plans and the IRA that the crown forces had been alerted to it. For whatever reason, the IRA went ahead with the planned ambush and one of their number was shot. Others were captured and sent for trial by military court. The IRA learned of Mrs Lindsay’s involvement from Fr Shinnick and she and her butler (the only other Protestant in her household) were captured and held in ransom against the lives of the volunteers who were sentenced to death. Her house was later set alight. When most of the executions went ahead both captives were shot in retaliation. Their bodies have never been discovered, the local IRA commander going to great lengths to ensure this.28
At the other end of the country and of the social scale, a few months later, an impoverished poitín-maker was shot as an informer. Kitty Carroll, a middle-aged Monaghan Protestant and the sole provider for her senile parents and weak-minded brother, had been fined for her poitín-making by both the RIC and the IRA, and she refused to pay either. Feeling she was being discriminated against, she wrote to the RIC naming others involved in the illicit trade. The letter was intercepted by the IRA, who shot her and attached to her body a “spies and informers beware” sign.29 In the same county, an event with striking similarities to that in Coolacrease had occurred shortly before. A raid for arms had been made on a Protestant farmstead some time in 1920 during which one of the raiding party may have been fatally wounded. When an armed party arrived again in March 1921 they threatened to burn the house if the man of the house (William Fleming) did not surrender. He surrendered and he and his son were shot in the presence of another son and young daughter.30 Also in Monaghan, two middle-aged Protestant spinsters were shot dead with the claim that they were informers. The killing of women was against an IRA HQ directive. Dooley, noting this, suggests that such executions were unlikely to have been sanctioned and comments: “it would seem that the volunteer officers in Monaghan may have been unable to contain the vengeance of the rank and file in such rural districts who were obsessed with inherited grievances”.
William Connell and Matt Sweetnam, were also “guilty”. They were Protestant farmers in the Skibbereen area who were shot dead for reporting and giving evidence relating to the theft of cattle from their farms. The IRA at the time was levying a tax on farmers and both had refused to pay. In lieu, cattle were taken from their herd. While others declined to report the matter Connell and Sweetnam did notify the RIC and, as a consequence, were shot dead as spies and informers.31
Such killings were widespread enough to cause panic during the truce, when many threats were delivered. In early 1922 leaflets distributed to Protestant homes in the west of Ireland informed residents that:
I am authorised to take over your house and all property contained therein, and you are hereby given notice to hand over to me within one hour from the receipt of this notice the above land and property.32
The stated reason was murders of Catholics in Belfast by loyalists and an assumption that the householder was also a loyalist. Protestants in Leitrim were, according to a contemporary report, subject to continuous persecution and many left for the North. There are reports of similar threats being made in Kerry, South Tipperary, Leitrim, Limerick, Mayo, Westmeath, Wicklow and Offaly (King’s County). For example, the (nationalist) Freeman’s Journal of June 3rd, 1922 reported threats and outrages against Protestants in the area between Birr to Roscrea, resulting in the sale of many properties. This is the area of the 2nd Offaly IRA Brigade, which includes Coolacrease. There is no evidence of the IRA being responsible but they were the only effective force for law and order in the area at that time. In any event, it indicates a state of affairs in South Offaly just prior to the Civil War, at a time when the Pearsons were endeavouring to sell their property, which is somewhat different to that described in Coolacrease.
There is also evidence of increasing harassment of Protestants in troubled areas during the Civil War. RB McDowell gives an example of one unionist farmer in Tipperary who was raided eighty-three times and like many others was forced to accept billeted IRA volunteers. The stress from constant raids, boycotting, forced payments, hostility and threats is said to have pushed many to breaking point. For those who held on, “the psychological pressure was terrible”.33 Children from Protestant orphanages near Clifden, Co Galway had to be rescued by the British navy when their orphanage was burned by the IRA in July 1922. The attack was ostensibly because of the past use of the Union Jack and other pro-British displays by the resident boy scouts troop.34 However, a history of proselytising by the Irish Church Missions, who operated the orphanages, is likely to have been a factor.
Measured against the scale of other ethnic conflicts then and since, including that in Northern Ireland, the toll – not much more than a hundred shot, some thousands fleeing – can be viewed as modest. But it was from within a small population base and probably only a minority of the minority were terrorised. Remoteness, and Daniel Corkery’s trinity of “nationality, religion and land” were the lethal ingredients. Although the threat was widespread it was neither universal nor uniform. There is little evidence of Protestants in Dublin or in other large urban centres, with the possible exception of Cork, being troubled to any significant degree. Most urban middle class Protestants continued to prosper, although Dublin working class unionism, which a decade earlier could organise impressive demonstrations, disappeared as a political force.
Even in rural parts the situation differed. There is evidence that some IRA leaders played a role in restraining attacks. Although there were sectarian incidents in Clare, including arson attacks on Protestant churches, no Protestant civilian appears to have been murdered. David Fitzpatrick puts this down to the moderating influence of local IRA leaders. He refers to police records that show local Sinn Féiners helping to douse flames after one church-burning. Eoin O’Duffy is also said to have at times played a restraining role in Monaghan.35 When the IRA shot dead two local Protestants in Longford – one was suspected of having disclosed to the police the identity of the members of a republican court which he had recently appeared before as a litigant – Sean MacEoin visited Protestant homes to reassure them they were not in danger. As a consequence, it is said that many who were preparing to flee northwards stayed.36 Tom Hales, along with Tom Barry, performed a similar role after the Dunmanway killings. Both arranged protection for Protestants deemed to be in continuing danger.
What does all this suggest? It is not evidence either for a policy of ethnic cleansing or sectarian killing. Some killings, like Dunmanway, can be ascribed to sectarian passions but, deplorable as they were, they were invariably the result of local revenge where loyalists were seen to be in the enemy camp. Brian Murphy 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.”37 Some would say the distinction is so fine as to be invisible to many. However, the point that seems lost on him, and does not seem to be grasped by Murphy either, is the implication here that killing on the basis of suspicion arising from one type of personal conviction, political, is justifiable as compared to another type of personal conviction, religious, where it is not.
It is true that Mary Lindsey in Cork and Kitty Carroll in Monaghan were not shot just because they were Protestants. Both were condemned for giving information to the RIC, just as many Catholics were. But they were more vulnerable because they were outsiders. Fr Shinnick, who collaborated with Mrs Lindsey, and the Kinnity priest Fr Houlahan were both described as virulently anti-republican, but neither was at any risk from the IRA. Freud once observed that it “is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness”. Protestants weren’t the only outsiders to experience aggression. Ex-soldiers and retired RIC men formed a large proportion of those accused of “informing”. O’Connor’s statement that “there was no antagonism whatsoever to men who had joined up [the British army]” is not accurate. Over eighty were killed before the truce. Some employers were ordered to dismiss ex-servicemen and the Clonmel Board of Guardians directed that they be denied treatment in the local hospital.38 Tramps and vagrants were also vulnerable, as were Redmondites and Hibernians who remained politically active. But none of this was policy. It was the result of the brutalising effect of war combined with suspicion of outsiders, anger at crown force atrocities and a degree of civil anarchy. In these circumstances it is regrettable, but not entirely surprising, that tribal instincts took hold of some volunteers despite the best efforts of some of their leaders.
A cornerstone of the Aubane case, articulated in detail by Brendan Clifford,39 is the tendency of the RTÉ programme-makers in particular, and various academics in general, to evade the issue of the political authority exercised by Dáil Eireann, and through it the IRA, following the 1918 elections. There is some substance in his argument. Sinn Féin did have a mandate to establish an independent Irish parliament. Its establishment was the culmination of more than half a century of nationalist demands for independence from the imperial parliament and we have the right to have that recognised and to commemorate and celebrate that achievement. Most people willingly gave allegiance to the Dáil. For these reasons, and for reasons of retrospective validation, the argument about legitimacy has validity. But there were arguable limits to the concept of sovereignty in the Irish historical context. To begin with, there are the century-old questions: who constituted the nation and what were the appropriate boundaries of the independent state? If the December 1918 Westminster election legitimised the Dáil in Dublin, did the 1922 election do the same for the parliament of Northern Ireland? Clifford reminds us in Coolacrease of his past campaigning to have “the Ulster Unionist community recognised as a distinct national community”.40 The Clifford of that era would certainly have answered in the affirmative in respect of the recognition of Northern Ireland. The problem is that this creates a conflict of sovereignty because the second Dáil, like the first, claimed jurisdiction over the whole island.
There are also issues of debate concerning the role, authority and allegiance of the IRA. It is debatable as to whether the people in 1918 gave Sinn Féin and the IRA a mandate to wage war. The Sinn Féin manifesto was ambiguous on this point. The policy of shooting RIC men, begun in 1919, initially had no sanction from the Dáil. The IRA only pledged allegiance to the Dáil in August 1920, seven months after the first Dáil was convened, and units began to withdraw allegiance in early 1922. Most of the killings described above occurred later. Even during that year and a half there were conflicting claims on the volunteer’s allegiance. Many of the leaders were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which still maintained that its Supreme Council was the sole government of the Republic. For others the Army HQ and Council remained the paramount authority. Then there were the organs of the Sinn Féin party as distinct from the Dáil administration. Add to this the difficulties of communication, especially when the Dáil administration had to go underground. It was inevitable that the issue of authority was often a confused and occasionally conflicted one for volunteers, in which often the only clear allegiance was to the local commander.
Loyalty was also the kernel of difference between Catholics and Protestants at local and national level. 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? In remaining “loyal” could they be deemed to forfeit their civil rights under the new order? That seemed the implication of Ernie O’Malley’s declaration that “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”.41 Sean O’Faoláin, writer and ex-IRA volunteer, writing about his father, a former member of the RIC, said “men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot as traitors to their country. Shot for cruel necessity – so be it. Shot to inspire terror – so be it. But they were not traitors. They had their loyalties and stuck to them.”42 Could the same epitaph be due to the southern Irish loyalists?
Clifford is also concerned by the loyalty of current academics. He writes:
Academic authority is usually subject to the political authority of the State and does not set itself the task of subverting it. There is usually a kind of sympathy – an organic relationship – between the political life of the state and its academic reflection. That is how it was for half a century after Republican government was established in 1919.43
There is a whiff of a past even earlier than 1969 in this statement. Academics subject to political authority – now where have we heard that before? Clifford suggests that the change occurred when he was in Belfast “making out a case for Ulster Protestant resistance to nationalist Ireland – and being denounced for it as an Orange/Imperialist apologist by, amongst others, Eoghan Harris”. Well, long live the denounced, say I. Better infuriating iconoclasts in our halls of learning than tame retailers of the official line.
As in all countries, there is an uncomfortable side to national history and the time is right for honest and balanced telling. It is a story that was, for most, “a forgotten history”: nationalists for long ignored or denied it (some still do) and southern Protestants kept quiet for fear of re-igniting the awful passions of the past. In the telling, some may have lost perspective and balance. It is a mistake to exaggerate the extent of the injustice or to romanticise the southern Protestant story – they had their share of sectarians and diehards – or to use the excesses of a few to denigrate the courage and idealism of the many involved in the struggle for independence. We all, descendants of victors and victims, Protestant, Catholic and freethinkers alike, deserve the truth about our history, warts and all. But the issues needs to be researched and debated calmly and not as a continuation of the, now hopefully redundant, conflict.
Aubane Historical Society publications will appeal to those who wish to remain steadfast to the story of the heroic national struggle, rejecting anything that might be seen to besmirch it. Recently, President McAleese spoke of the “very long shelf life of toxic seeds generated by oppression, conflict, sectarianism, plantation, colonisation and famine” in this country. She went on to say: “we are trying to nurture a much healthier and better harvest, an island comfortable with its uncomfortable past, no longer held back by the divisions it caused but energised by the partnerships that flourish among its richly diverse people”. In that spirit, is it not time to understand and appreciate all past heroism, tragedies and injustices, and not just those of “our own side”?
[Tom Wall is a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He was born in inner city Dublin, the son of a farmer’s son from Co Meath. He is an avid reader of modern Irish history.]
1. Alan Stanley, I met Murder on the Way – The story of the Pearsons of Coolacrease (2005)
2. Brian P Murphy osb and Niall Meehan, Troubled History – A 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies
3. Coolacrease – the true story of the Pearson executions – an incident in the Irish War of Independence, ed Philip O’Connor (2008)
4. It may surprise the uninitiated to know that the Aubane Historical Society is the creation of a group of individuals, centred around Brendan Clifford, who created the British and Irish Communist Organisation (B&ICO) and developed what is known as the two nations theory: the proposition being that Ulster Protestants constituted a separate nation. During the 1970s and 1980s the group’s vitriol was directed against nationalists and Provisional Sinn Féin/IRA in particular.
5. Coolacrease, p 28
6. I met Murder on the Way, p 36
7. Coolacrease, p 23
8. Coolacrease, p 149
9. Life and Ministry of Edward Cooney, by Patricia Roberts, p 119 www.tellingthetruth.info/founder_book/index.php
10. Fergus Campbell, Land and Revolution, 2005
11. Dooley, “IRA Veterans and Land Division in Independent Ireland” in Republicanism in Modern Ireland (2003), p 87. See also RF Foster, Modern Ireland, (1989, p 491) and Leigh-Ann Coffey, The Planters of Luggacurran, County Laois, p 48.
12. Quoted in Fergus Campbell, Land and Revolution (2005), pp 246-7
13. The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (2005) p 229, p 211
14. Coolacrease: “Land Grab? What the Land Documents Say”
15. Doherty, after taking the Republican side on the treaty, and later to become a Fianna Fáil TD, came to public notice in 1936 when he successfully sued Ernie O’Malley for libel.
16. RB McDowell, Crisis and Decline – The Fate of Southern Loyalists (1997)
17. Testimony contained in The Anglo-Irish War – the Troubles of 1913-1922, ed Peter Cottrell (2006)
18. Bill Kissane, The Politics of the Civil War (2005)
19. David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life 1913-1921 (1977)
20. Quoted by Joost Augusteijn in The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (2002)
21. Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter (2003)
22. No such “find” appears to have been deposited in any public archive or examined by historians.
23. The Irish Republic (1951), p 705
24. The only comparable incident happened about the same time in Altnaveigh in South Armagh, where an IRA unit led by Frank Aiken killed seven Protestant civilians in revenge for the killing of two Catholics.
25. JJ Sexton and Richard O’Leary “Factors affecting population decline in religious communities in the Republic of Ireland” in Building Trust in Ireland – Studies commissioned by the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1996)
26. Hart, The IRA at War 1916-1923 (2003)
27. The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (2005), p 229
28. Tim Sheehan, Lady Hostage (Mrs Lindsay) (1990)
29. Fergal McGarry, Eoin O’Duffy a self-made hero (2005), p 65
30. Terence Dooley, The Plight of Monaghan Protestants (2000) p.44
31. Jasper Ungoed-Thomas, Jasper Wolfe of Skibbereen (2008) pp 175-6.
32. Quoted in Hart’s The IRA at War
33. David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life 1913-1921. See also RB McDowell, The Fate of Southern Protestants
34. Miriam Moffitt, Jumpers and Soupers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937, (2008)
35. McGarry (2005), p 56
36. Marie Coleman, County Longford and the Irish Revolution 1910-1923, (2002)
37. Coolacrease, p 178
38. Jane Leonard, “Getting them at last: the IRA and ex-servicemen” in Revolution? Ireland 1917-1923, ed David Fitzgerald (1990)
39. Coolacrease, Ch 8: “Academic Evasions: Revisionism and the War of Independence”
40. Coolacrease, p 198. He goes on to suggest that this was “with a view to negotiating a compromise settlement”. He may be indulging in a little revisionism here himself. Rather than being a harbinger of the Good Friday agreement, the B&ICO campaign at the time was for recognition of two nations on the island, the defeat of the IRA, and for the territorial claim on the North in the Irish Constitution to be deleted.
41. On Another Man’s Wound (1936)
42. Vive Moi! An Autobiography (1965)
43. Coolacrease, p 203.