Saturday, 1 October 2011

Response to James Fitzgerald’s letter on the Irish Political Review

Sing Sing - Official Brigade Prison of the Cork No 1 Brigade

In his letter published in the most recent edition of the Irish Political Review, James Fitzgerald makes some very important points which have been overlooked in the melee of controversy which followed the publication of my book The Year of Disappearances. He is quite correct to state that Martin Corry was merely the captain of the Knockraha company of the IRA. As such, he was a minor figure in the conflict in Cork. He is also correct to state that the Company had a special status in the Brigade as it operated two bomb factories and rang Sing Sing, the ‘official Brigade prison’, as Martin Corry called it in his IRA pension application form. And he is correct to say that Ned Moloney, the ‘Governor of Sing Sing’ was directly answerable to Sean O’Hegarty on the operation of the prison. Indeed, it is clear from Connie Neenan’s accounts that Mike Canavan, the local company lieutenant was probably the most important liaison between the Knockraha Company and the battalions in Cork city. Sing Sing was run by the Brigade and the fate of prisoners was decided by Brigade officers, not by Martin Corry. None of this is contradicted in my work. Many of those involved in the running of Sing Sing, ordinary everyday Volunteers, were traumatized by their experiences of executions at night in the Rea and lived with their nightmares for the rest of their lives. Unlike them, Corry does not appear to have been so affected.
Yet James Fitzgerald claims that I tried to demonize Martin Corry in my book. Corry, however, is as minor figure in the book as he was in the conflict itself. In fact, I was extremely restrained in my portrayal of Corry, considering the archival material I had at my disposal. It is true that no survivor of the Company left an account with the Bureau of Military History so you could say that no account in the BMH said that Martin Corry shot anyone. However, it is not true to say that Knockraha is not mentioned in the BMH submissions. Sean Healy in his submission referred to Knockraha as the ‘unknown destination’ from which people did not return. If I had wanted to demonize Martin Corry, I would have reported how Corry himself gloated to Ernie O’Malley about the patriotic activities of ‘Corry’s Mauser’, or how Mick Leahy described the treatment of prisoners by the men who operated Sing Sing. If I referred to Corry as the Chief Executioner of the Brigade then that was what Mick Leahy, his own commanding officer, called him. If I wanted to demonize Corry I would have reported what Sean Culhane thought of him and I could have quoted any number of outrageous comments he made himself in the Dail and County Council chambers. Far from demonizing Corry, I downplayed the more lurid of the material relating to him because he was well down in the chain of command and because decisions as to who to execute were taken elsewhere.
The other reason for not dwelling on Corry’s role and that of the Knockraha Company is that James Fitzgerald himself had already written in detail about it. His book is one of the best pieces of local history written about the War of Independence – largely because he went to the trouble of interviewing survivors from both sides of the political divide to produce a book which is a true account of what took place. The daring and the bravery of these men is not in question nor is the ingenuity of those who ran the bomb factories. I think the book should be required reading for anyone interested in the period.
Jim Fitzgerald further claims that I say in my book that Corry was involved in ethnic cleansing. I said no such thing. The only reference to ethnic cleansing in my book is my belief that the departure of Protestants from parts of Cork city could not be regarded as ethnic cleansing if only because they were largely replaced by other Protestants.  And I would agree with James Fitzgerald’s assessment of Corry as being non-sectarian. There is no evidence that Corry was sectarian, nor do I claim that he was in my book. The only instance of Corry being involved in the execution of Protestants was the killing of Edward Parsons when he stated that other YMCA members were executed on foot of information extracted from Parsons. It is clear from that that account – Jim Fitzgerald’s own – that Corry had very little idea what the YMCA was, let alone that he had any personal animosity against Protestants. In fact, years later, he was in the best of terms with Brooke Brazier, his Protestant Fine Gael TD electoral rival. And Corry got on perfectly well with his Protestant neighbours. But then, I never said that he did not.
James Fitzgerald also states that ‘we had no prayer session’ at the unveiling of the plaque to Sing Sing for those who were buried in the bogs. This is a matter of semantics. The priest who officiated at the unveiling asked us to remember in our prayers all the participants in the conflict locally, including the victims. My memory is that a decade of the Rosary was said for the souls of all those involved. I have checked with several others who were there that evening and they agree with this version of events. It may not have been a prayer session as such, but prayers were said and the victims were included in the prayers. Indeed, to do otherwise would have been profoundly unchristian.
James Fitzgerald seems to be under the impression that he is the only one to have left an account of the operation of Sing Sing. He is not. The accounts of Mick Leahy, Sean Culhane, Edmond Desmond and others are all in the Ernie O’Malley notebooks in UCD, if Mr. Fitzgerald is interested in looking them up. I also spoke to many others in the Knockraha area – several of my own relatives were members of the Company, so I’m not exactly an outsider in this regard – though I was not aware of Sing Sing myself until 1994. As James Fitzgerald stated, a Mrs. Prendergast raised questions about the human remains found by Tim Driscoll on his land in the early 1960s. When she inquired about the matter she found that there was no record of the find in Watergrasshill Garda station. James Fitzgerald states that she did this in 2001 but I was told about the original episode in 1994. Her inquiries had nothing to do with the cover-up, which took place in the early 1960s. Whether Corry quashed it or not is largely beside the point. Since my book came out I have been told about several other instances of skeletons turning up in fields in the area – and in one instance in a quarry. In each case, the bones were quietly reburied.
It is inevitable that the media will focus on the more lurid details of an underground cavern in a graveyard from which prisoners were taken at night for execution. As far as I am concerned Sing Sing was merely the starting point for the process of inquiry that resulted in The Year of Disappearances. I cannot be held responsible for what others write on the subject. I was reluctant to get into this as Jim Fitzgerald is a decent upright man and is portrayed as such in my book. However, for the record, it is important to distinguish between what I wrote and what he thinks I wrote.