Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers
Samizdat Publishing in Ireland in the 21st Century

A brief account of the writing and publication of the novel The Kindness of Strangers

At the end of 2010, about a month after The Year of Disappearances was published I was being interviewed by historian Patrick Geoghegan for his Talking History programme. During the interview Geoghegan asked me what my next project might be. I explained to him the origin of The Year of Disappearances, how it came out of a novel I had written about Sing Sing and the killings at Knockraha, and that I was planning to bring that novel out sometime in the following year or two. Geoghegan signed off by saying that he looked forward to interviewing next year about the novel – even though this was a history programme, not a literary one.

The point is that the novel never came out – until now – but the story of its pre-publication travails is an interesting one and one that is instructive for anyone contemplating writing about subjects that some people would rather were not written about. The novel I wrote between 1999 and 2003 and which I called The Kindness of Strangers – the title came early which is unusual for me – deals with some of the more gruesome and tragic of the events that took place in Cork during the War of Independence. It is set largely in Knockraha and is based on the composite experiences of a number of Volunteers in the area, several of whom were relatives of mine. These were republicans; they were prepared, as one neighbor put it, to ‘do their bit’ for Ireland. They were prepared to die for Ireland, come to that. But they were not happy with a lot of what was going on in the area; they were not happy with the nightly killings and the grim task of regularly burying bodies in the locality. They felt they were being used, and they were.

Because the subject matter was so delicate – as well as being appallingly dark – I believed then that the only way to deal with it would be through the medium of fiction. Besides, I had little historical research done at that stage and I had never written non-fiction. Having said that, compared to writing fiction, writing non-fiction is a dawdle. You marshal your facts and away you go.

The writing of The Kindness of Strangers was a heartbreaking, eviscerating experience. The book went through countless drafts and was eventually whittled down to just over half its original size. I even called upon the help of an editor to go through the manuscript one last time, so sick was I of looking at it – and not for the usual reasons that writers become tired of their work-in-progress but because of the amount of suffering in the book. Yet in that suffering lies its unspeakable truth. When it was finished I showed it to my agent and a number of people whose judgment I valued. The word came back that they thought it was very good. I expected I’d have no problem in publishing it, having at that stage two novels published in Ireland, both of which, while they were not bestsellers, at least covered their publisher’s expenses. Ten years ago it was still possible for relatively unknown novelists to get their work published, assuming it was good enough.

The first question publishers asked on receiving the manuscript of The Kindness of Strangers was ‘is this true?’ In other words, was it based on fact? When I said, of course it was. I was told that I was effectively doing the story a disservice by publishing it as fiction. ‘People will want to know how much of this is literally true’, one publisher said. ‘You will not get away with publishing it like this, particularly in Ireland. People will want to know the factual details.’ So I was sent off to the stacks much against my own instincts and ended up almost a decade later with a ton of historical research done and The Year of Disappearances. This is not how I would have wanted it. A history book is provisional; it is dependent on the sources available at the time of writing. I could see that with the centenary of these events looming that a whole raft of new material would be released in the years up to and including 2023. This would almost certainly make parts of the book obsolete. To do a proper job on the subject you would probably have to wait perhaps another decade. But I might not be around by then; and if I was I might not have the energy for such a task. So against all my instincts, I researched and wrote it.

I’m glad I did it now though, not because I found answers to all the questions I posed at the beginning, but because I found the right questions to ask. It will not be possible now to avoid the awkward issues posed by The Year of Disappearances much as some people might like, or go down the road of wishy-washy ambivalence which has characterized much of Irish historical writing of the period. The Year of Disappearances asks hard questions. I make no apologies for that. But it is a history book and, as such, is provisional. Better books will be written on the subject, perhaps, with any luck, books that are even more probing. At least that’s what one hopes.

But if a novel is good – good as a piece of literature that is – it may last on its own right. So I was optimistic that, now that the essential history of Sing Sing and the Kockraha killings was firmly in the public domain that I would have no problem now in finding a publisher for The Kindness of Strangers. You would think that, with all the controversy that went along with the publication of The Year of Disappearances, which no doubt boosted sales, and the broadcasting of In the Name of the Republic, a TV documentary on the subject made in 2013, that I’d have no problem in having it published. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

There are a number of factors at work here and it is not possible to pinpoint the exact reasons why the book failed to see the light of day. But the bottom line is that Irish publishers would not touch it, despite my agent sending it out to anybody who one would expect might have been interested. The subject matter is of course grim. The book is not for the faint-hearted. We don’t like to look up close and personal on this kind of stuff. But that is the whole point. To be truthful you have to live in the place your character lives and see the world that he sees and see it through his eyes. Many of the men who were involved in the killings at Knockraha were damaged by what they had witnessed. I know this because I am related to some of them. (Others, of course, could casually boast of their deeds. But as secret British recordings of Wehrmacht officers held in captivity during the World War II show, it takes all kinds to run a death facility.)

It is also true that we are going through a massively disruptive phase in the history of publishing. It is now extremely difficult to get novels published in Ireland and the UK unless you are an established author – and even the latter are now finding it difficult. Also publishers like to categorize their writers. If you’re a historian, say, then you cannot possibly write fiction and if you’re a fiction writer you cannot possibly write history and so on. The market dictates and publishers are conservative. Most genre-jumping authors are considerably better in one genre than another. Philip Larkin for instance was an average fiction writer though he was an incomparably great poet. Who reads Arthur Conan Doyle’s historical work now? Others however benefited from mixing genres. Orwell is a case in point. His fiction and non-fiction fed off each other to the benefit of both. Any half-decent writer should be able to dabble in all genres, if only for the fun of it. (Which is why I once wrote a spoof crime novel, mainly because I wanted to take the mickey out of various elements of Irish society and literary pretension.) Eventually, of course, you realize you have only one life and that you’d better prioritize and get to work on what you really want to leave behind. And what I wanted was to produce one good book, just one.

The main problem in my case, however, was that the controversy caused by The Year of Disappearances was itself a barrier to publication. Publishers were running scared of what I call the Alias Smith & Jones brigade (‘and all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone’): republican polemicists and apologists who make life as miserable as possible for anyone who dares to tell certain truths about Irish history – particularly where Protestants is concerned. From Tom Dunne to Peter Hart to myself, if you say that Protestants were ever targeted (for any reason) in any of the Irish wars then, as old Redmondite propaganda used to put it, you’re sure to be ‘hung from a sour apple tree’. They even take this fight to publishers and in the case of Peter Hart to Trinity College when they tried to have his PhD degree posthumously rescinded on the basis of minor, even debatable, errors they found in his footnotes. This is not so much a case of the tail wagging the dog as a single hair wagging the tail that wags the dog. But no publisher wants these legions of wretched propagandists emailing and pestering and writing to papers and manipulating online commentary and trying to cause as much trouble as possible. Life is too short.

So for various reasons, political, historical and commercial realities conspired to ensuring that The Kindness of Strangers remained on the hard drive. Yet my belief – and I would say this, would'n’t I? – is that The Kindness of Strangers, if it manages to find a readership, will probably outlast The Year of Disappearances. Because fiction can tell the truth much more economically and effectively and without the caveats or the kind of footnotery that is necessary for historical writing. History tells us what happened. Fiction tells us – or at least should tell us – what it’s like to be there when it happened. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in all its volumes of appalling detail tells us what it was like for many people in Russia in the middle years of the 20th century. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells us what it was like to be there, and it tells us in 140-odd pages. Is it vastly inferior? I think not, though it depends on the former for its authority.

So, difficult and all as it is to believe in a liberal democracy in the 21st century, it is possible for a book like The Kindness of Strangers to remain unpublished because it offends certain people and does not suit the political agenda of others. This is not the state-sponsored barbarism that Solzhenitsyn had to put up with it, but it is heading that way. There are eerie parallels between the barracking he got from Russian Literary Gazette in the 1960s and the kind of abuse heaped on Hart and myself in Ireland for daring to say what cannot be said. Mikhail Bulgakov once complained to Stalin that there were 301 reviews of his work in the Soviet press; 298 of those were hostile or abusive. The internet is the modern equivalent of state-sponsored propaganda and censorship. If you were to go by the first page or two of a Google search for The Year of Disappearances a year ago you would be forgiven for thinking it had never received a positive review. But the internet is also a wonderful facility. I was able to compile this blog in order to tell the truth and maintain a foothold in the first page of Google – which is otherwise swamped by an army of semi-professional republican clickers – to combat the negative propaganda.

But there are other parallels. Writers critical of the old Soviet Union had to publish their work on samizdat presses, underground publication in which tracts were published, photocopied and disseminated secretly. Thanks to Amazon’s CreateSpace and other similar outlets, it is now possible to do something similar, even if Amazon’s moves to world domination in the book business is surely not in the interests of writers no more than it is in the interests of the book trade as a whole. Nonetheless, you can now publish The Kindness of Strangers online and get it to a potential readership and nobody can do anything about it. You can fly the limitations of a local publishing market, whether these are commercial or as a result of bowing to pressure and propaganda. Professional polemicists can’t plant negative reviews in the press because newspapers do not review online publications. Because there’s no forum other than sock-puppet ‘reviewing’ on Amazon they can’t use their influence with the Irish media to position second-raters to pick holes or find spurious ‘faults’ with the book. And of course you also avoid the nauseating process of interviews/reviews and self-promotion that normal publication entails, where, on this particular subject, every word you utter is liable to be distorted or picked upon.

There are three reasons why you should buy this book. One is that I like to think it’s a good book – of course I would say that – but a work of fiction is answerable only to itself and succeeds or fails only on the terms it sets out for itself. I would also hope it finds a readership beyond the relatively limited realm of those who are interested in Irish history. For the latter of course it only works if it genuinely depicts what it was like to be there, in East Cork, at the edge of the pit in 1921, putting people down on a nightly basis. But I would like to think it is more universal than that, that there are universal truths there, about the nature of war, of man’s inhumanity to man and about the vulnerability of individuals on all sides of any conflict and how no one side has a monopoly on victim-hood. (Dinny, the young IRA man in the novel, is as much a victim as those he is burying.)

But there is another reason for reading this and the truths that it contains, one which applies in particular to Irish readers. We must stand not aside and let political propagandists dictate what can or cannot constitute history. History is what happened; it is not what people might like to think happened. Nor is it something to be distorted for political ends. We must not brush these matters under the carpet, either willfully or otherwise. This is a new and very dangerous form of censorship. If we are to go down the road of accepting what people like the online ‘critics’ of The Year of Disappearances say, we are sailing very close to fascism. This is a scary place. It should never be forgotten that Hitler was voted into power.

So this is a form of samizdat publishing. All in all, I’m reasonably happy with it. The process avoids many the things I hate about being a writer. Whether or not it works and the book finds a readership remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: nobody would ever read it while was still buried on the hard drive.

Gerard Murphy 18/09/2013

Sources for The Kindness of Strangers:

James Fitzgerald, Cnoc Ratha, History and Folklore of Knockraha (Knockraha, 2005).
Tom O’Neill, The Battle of Clonmult: The IRA’s Worst Defeat (Dublin, 2006).
Gerard Murphy, The Year of Disappearances, Political Killings in Cork, 1921-1922, 2nd Ed, (Dublin 2011).
The statements of Martin Corry, Michael Leahy, Mick Murphy, Edmund Desmond and Sean Culhane in the Ernie O’Malley notebooks (P17b/-) Department of Archives UCD.

Monday, 17 June 2013

In the Name of the Republic?

In the Name of the Republic?

Correspondence and reactions to the TV documentary on ‘Sing Sing’ and the Knockraha killings broadcast on TV3 (Ireland) on 25 March 2013

When I was approached by the makers of the TV documentary In the Name of the Republic to make a contribution to the programme, I was initially very reluctant to do so.[1] I felt that anti-revisionist propagandists would not be able to resist the opportunity to use the programme as an excuse for a bit of character assassination.[2]However, the programme-makers were persistent and persuasive and eventually, after I had established that the documentary was not going to deal with the subject of dead Protestants – the ARPs seem to be obsessed with dead Protestants to the exclusion of almost everything else – I decided I would go ahead.

The programme dealing with the killings at Knockraha, I felt, was fair and balanced – or at least as balanced as you can make an item about secret executions and burials in which the starring role was an underground vault in a graveyard where prisoners were held prior to execution. Of course it was a war situation and appalling things happen in war but the programme did not shy away from that either. The background and context were well sketched in. The charge that the documentary was unbalanced does not really hold up. The only two people who have written about the events in Knockraha, Jim Fitzgerald and myself, both featured and we could hardly be said to sing from the same hymn sheet – although I don’t think our views are as divergent as some behind-the-scenes manipulators would have one believe. 

But the most striking aspect of the programme for the average viewer was the compassion and humanity the presenter Eunan O’Halpin brought to it. My contribution was insignificant and rather innocuous. I think I mentioned the killing of William Edward Parsons – which cannot be disputed. I also mentioned that one local IRA man – a cousin of my mother’s as it happens – released two prisoners. And I said that the total number of prisoners claimed to have been executed in the area varied from around 30, from the accounts given by Martin Corry, the local IRA captain, right up to 90 according to the East Cork commandant Michael Leahy. I was on the programme for no more than two or three minutes. The ‘S’ word (sectarianism) was not mentioned at all, for the very good reason that it was not relevant. As I stated elsewhere there is little or no evidence that Corry or any of the East Cork brigade were motivated by sectarianism.

It turns out that my initial reservations were well placed. For two days later John Borgonovo published an article in the Irish Examiner[3] in which he dismissed the programme on the basis that Corry was unreliable while ignoring the vast amount of other evidence available that says that a very significant number of people were secretly killed and buried at Knockraha.[4] But the most striking aspect of the article was its sarcastic, rather snide tone which I would associate more with ARP activists such as Niall Meehan than I would with historians such as Borgonovo.  For I always had found Borgonovo to be rather a pleasant guy; he was personable, enthusiastic about Irish history; he was always more than happy to share what evidence he had with me. In short, we got on very well; we had several long discussions over cups of coffee about matters pertaining to the Irish revolution in Cork. So I was surprised – astonished even – by some of the statements he made in his original review of The Year of Disappearances in History Ireland.While this is water under the bridge, I was now surprised, given my minimal contribution to the programme, that he would even bother to mention me in the context of In the Name of the Republic

Yet he even managed to drag in the subject of Protestant killings which was not dealt with at all. (Apart from the fact that Mrs. Lindsay and Parsons were both Protestants – but their religion was not alluded to in the documentary.) This was on a par with the experience of the film crew on the day I was being interviewed in East Cork last June when they were nearly run off the road by a very irate man in a large SUV who angrily berated them for accusing the IRA of having killed Protestants. Since this was never on the programme’s agenda you’d have to wonder where the man got his information. Besides, the largest group of prisoners executed at Knockraha appear to have been tramps and ex-soldiers and of course military prisoners. Why is there nobody jumping up and down attacking people for saying these were killed? Why is there nobody standing up for the tramps?

It is difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that this was just another excuse to hit the Protestant button in an effort to tar me and the programme in the process. It looks as if Borgonovo is in danger of being contaminated by too prolonged an exposure to Meehan and his ilk. He also seems to confine himself too much to archives available in Ireland and, to date at least, does not spend enough time on UK-based materials.[5]

Had this appeared on the internet or in some obscure historical journal I would have ignored it. Far worse had been said about me online by anonymous bloggers and our ARP friends – most of which I have always ignored on the basis that there is no point in drawing attention to a dog by examining its fleas. But this was the Examiner and all my family,friends, neighbours, relatives and everyone I was brought up with and went to college and school with took the Examiner as their daily newspaper. And here I was, in my own family newspaper, being portrayed as some sort of dubious charlatan, if not a downright liar. Because, to the uninitiated, both sides of the argument look like they might carry equal weight. To people who could not care less, Borgonovo might even look like he was right. When my brothers had to remove the offending page from the Examiner so that my mother would not see it, I knew I had to respond. I could choose to crawl under a stone and thus be complicit in the damage to my own reputation or I could reply.

So, rather reluctantly because I am at heart a man of peace and this is an unseemly business, I replied. It is necessary to put the correspondence up here because, while Borgonovo’s article pops up instantly on Google searches for the programme, my reply, as usual, is much more difficult to find. Also my final letter on the subject was not published at all – The Examiner presumably tiring of the game which had already added enough to the gaiety of the nation. My first letter went as follows:

In the name of … a selective rewriting of history?
Considering that I appeared only briefly in last Monday night’s documentary on the War of Independence in Cork, In the Name of the Republic, I was surprised to find that John Borgonovo had so much to say about me in his response to the programme (Examiner, 27/3/2013). Also it would seem a little strange that he would bring up the subject of the targeting of Protestants by the Old IRA seeing as it was not mentioned in the programme at all, or why he should bother relating the strange tale of a dog which was not mentioned either. I can only conclude that his article was aimed at me as much as at the programme itself.
Mr. Borgonovo’s argument is that we should ignore the accounts of IRA veterans such as Martin Corry when it comes to killings carried out during the revolutionary period. Yet he knows as well as I do that Corry’s is only one of many accounts that refer to the events carried out at Sing Sing. He also says there is no governmental archival evidence to support my claims for the disappearance of significant numbers of people during the year of the ‘Cork Republic’. But that is to ignore the evidence – and there is an awful lot of it – of the effective government of Cork during that year, the IRA men themselves. This would be like trying to write a history of the Soviet Union based on external perceptions of it while ignoring actual Soviet records. But he is even wrong to state that there are no governmental archival records to support such claims. There are over 80 missing persons’ files in the Department of Justice records, many of which have not been released. A good many of these refer to people who had lived in Cork. Similarly, the papers of the Irish Grants Commission make many references to the targeting of Freemasons in Cork city; some of these references are highly specific. He also implies that we should ignore the records of non-governmental agencies such as the Freemasons, the YMCA and various church records, even the newspapers. So if he says his ‘extensive’ research has found no evidence of any of this, all it means is that he has not looked hard enough or else that he is turning a blind eye to what does not suit him.
Much of the ‘overwhelmingly negative’ reception which, according to Mr. Borgonovo The Year of Disappearancesreceived, came from people who shared his view that the Irish revolution was a wholly noble exercise with all the nasty work being carried out by one side. Much of this commentary, as anybody who followed it knows, consisted of what I call ‘pseudo-pedantry’, highlighting minor, even typographical errors, while ignoring the main findings of the book. More recent comments have been little more than an exercise in name-calling. I’m afraid Mr. Borgonovo’s article falls into the latter category, consisting as it does of a combination of personalized attack (‘the sight of Murphy’), sly innuendo (‘an eminent zoologist’) and getting his facts wrong. (For the record, my book was published in 2010, not 2011, am I not a zoologist, eminent or otherwise, and he misrepresents what I claim about the Freemasons. Also I’m not sure that archaeologists would like to be referred to as ‘paranormal investigators’.)
You would have to ask how is he in a position to question any of my findings if he can’t get right even the simplest facts about me in such a short article. He even has the blatant audacity to claim that it was his research that found the identity of the Protestants known publicly to have been shot by the IRA in the city, when the majority of them were found by me. Similarly, who carried out all the footwork to establish the discrepancy between Martin Corry’s claims on ‘missing’ Cameron Highlanders and regimental records? Who found the unreleased ‘missing persons’ files? None other than your ‘eminent zoologist’. I would have thought that the first and most basic rule of academic work in any field is to give credit where credit is due. As for my evidence for the killing of Protestants in Cork city, everything that I have managed to uncover since the book came out suggests that it stands up. Of course I am not going to be forgiven in some circles for unearthing such uncomfortable truths. But such is life.
Yours etc

The heading on the letter was written by Examiner staff and it alluded, presumably, to the accusation by ARP activists that The Year of Disappearances represented a ‘selective rewriting of history’ on my part. It also alluded, or at least I like to think it did, to who was actually being selective in this debate. On this issue Borgonovo is caught between a rock and a hard place. This was why I was astonished at his original review of The Year of Disappearances. How could he say that my book was ‘not a work of serious scholarship’ when he must have known that I could come back on him with a list as long as your arm which showed that his own scholarship on the matter was infinitely inferior? Because there are elements to his book Spies and Informers, which is still being promoted by Niall Meehan which are far more selective than anything you will find in The Year of Disappearances. To give one example, Borgonovo writes of an incident early in 1921 when the British commander in Cork, General Strickland stormed into the office of Ernest Clarke, a Cork stockbroker and a Protestant. The original account, written by Clarke’s daughter, goes as follows:

Shortly after this scandal [the burning of Cork by British forces] General Strickland held an ‘eye wash’ enquiry from which the press was excluded. His report to the UK Government was also suppressed. One day he stamped into my father’s office and in his extremely rude brusque manner said ‘Look here, Clarke, you are trusted by both sides: it’s your duty to give me information.’ Father, looking him in the eye, calmly said ‘I will not inform against my own countrymen: it is your duty to control the rabble your Government has let loose in Ireland. Good Morning.’ Going purple in the face, the General stormed out, crossed the Mall to Grandfather’s office and received virtually the same reply.[6]

Borgonovo quoted this account in an effort to bolster his evidence that there was a conspiracy among senior loyalist business people in Cork city to supply information on IRA activities to the British. But he only quoted the first part, Strickland storming into Clarke’s office. He never mentions Clarke’s reply or that of his father, nor does he even bother to put it into his footnotes.  I would wager that there is not a single line in the entire 400-odd pages of The Year of Disappearances that is anywhere near as selective as this – in fact the reason the book is so long is that I tried to give every side of every argument, which structurally may not have been a good idea but evidence is more important than structure. Borgonovo refers to Clarke’s daughter as ‘Cork Unionist, Olga Pyne Clarke’.[7] I’m sure she was technically a unionist in the sense that she belonged to the Protestant minority but he was a pejorative term in the way Borgonovo used it. ‘I called out to Father that there was another aurora borealis’ Clarke wrote. ‘He replied ‘No, it’s the damn British burning Cork.’ Picking her up in his arms he took her to a nearby hill. ‘You will see history’, he said. [8] All in all, these are not exactly the views of an ardent ‘Unionist’ but they are the views of a great majority of Cork Protestants who feared and detested British forces even more than they did the IRA.

The real issue is that I was far too easy on Borgonovo when my own book came out three years after his. I made a conscious decision not to highlight its many shortcomings and only drew attention to them when there was no choice but to do so, such as his attempt to pass off the Anti-Sinn League campaign of undercover British forces of late 1920 as some sort of counter-revolutionary movement emanating from local loyalists. My only reference to the above piece of fancy footwork concerning Strickland was a single line in a footnote hidden away in 40 pages of footnotes at the back of the book.[9] Perhaps the relative merit of the two books is an issue to which I should return at some stage.

As I said, all this disputation is unseemly and should be unnecessary. One should not have to waste one’s time on his kind of trivia – though maybe that is the point of the exercise. Anyway, the story was not over yet because Borgonovo was back with another salvo, this time falling back on the oldest trick in the trade of the academic pedant attacking a rival: quoting from other people’s negative reviews.[10] (Not a good idea either, because anybody who has ever written a book on a contended area such as this one is bound to get adverse criticism. As for people in glass houses …well.) Needless to say, there were no quotations from the more positive reviews The Year of Disappearances received and even the ‘negative’ reviews, which Borgonovo quoted, were not that negative at all when seen in retrospect. For when I went back to look at them I was rather surprised – and slightly ashamed perhaps, considering how I reacted at the time, that they did have a lot of rather positive things to say. So the following letter went back to the Examiner. (When an interview with Aidan Higgins on the same paper on the same day mentioned Beckett’s famous quotation I could not resist including it.) This letter went unpublished, though I did not lose any sleep over that. It was time to draw a line under it. But here it is for the record.

In the Name of the Republic?

I am sure the readership of the Irish Examiner must have a wry smile at the sight of two grown men tearing strips off each other over events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. While not wanting to take from the entertainment value of this debate I should point out that the ‘overwhelmingly negative’ reviews which Mr. Borgonovo states my book received had other interesting things to say as well. Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, for instance, stated in the Irish Times that the book’s suggestion ‘that Cork IRA men violently targeted the life and property of Southern loyalists in response to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland also coincides with emerging work in the treatment of Irish Protestants in Connaught and Munster’. While Prof Fitzpatrick stated that my book ‘exposed the ubiquity of serious factual errors and self-justifying distortion in much republican testimony’. And he said other, rather more encouraging things which modesty prevents me from repeating. [What modesty prevented me from repeating was mainly Fitzpatrick’s statement that the book was ‘something more original, more probing, more scholarly and altogether more exciting’ than previous attempts.] Of course, self-praise is no praise, but if my ‘harshest critics’, can make statements like this then, for all my manifest faults – and Mr. Borgonovo assures us I have many – I must have got something right.
So let me propose a simple solution. Anybody interested should read both our books, The Year of Disappearances and Spies, Informers and the Anti-Sinn Fein Society, and decide for themselves on their relative merits. They would be supporting bookshops which, God knows, need support and we might both even make a few bob in the process.
What any of this has to do with In the Name of the Republic,of course, is still beyond me, though I can hazard a guess. However, rather than joining in the mud-slinging maybe I should raise the tone of the debate by quoting the well-known Beckett line that you carried on yesterday’s Examiner: ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.’
Yours sincerely

And that was that so far as the Borgonovo business was concerned. 

However, the ARP brigade also had to have their say. In a long, typically meandering piece, Borgonovo’s friend Niall Meehan attacked the programme in his inimitable way as ‘one of the weakest television history programmes recently conceived’.[11] He stated that ‘it is a criticism of revisionist Irish history, such as exemplified by this example, that it generalizes from exceptions’ (sorry, all this convoluted syntax is Meehan’s, not mine, but I think we get the message). Then he goes on in the next two paragraphs to do exactly that when he pulls in two examples of where British forces killed civilians (one of them a Protestant) and then tried to pass off the killings as having been carried out by the IRA. Yet I don’t think that even Niall Meehan himself believes that 99% of IRA killings were not actually carried out by the IRA themselves. Besides, these occurred in Tipperary and Navan, respectively. There were plenty British atrocities up and down the country. But the programme was about what happened in Knockraha. Besides, exceptions only prove the rule.

Like Borgonovo, he then manages to find an excuse to drag me into the fray by claiming that The Year of Disappearances has been ‘heavily criticized for entering the outer reaches of speculative history’. If that is the case, then why in the years since it came out has its alleged ‘speculative history’ not been proven to be false?[12] He says ‘Murphy accused the IRA of murdering and drowning Protestants’. But historians don’t accuse anybody of anything. They merely present evidence. What was I supposed to do, ignore the evidence, like John Borgonovo had done, despite having uncovered some of it himself? Meehan further states that ‘Murphy articulated his long held view that Corry may have executed or been party to executing up to 90 in [the] area.’ Yet this could hardly be my ‘long-held view’ since I only discovered this statement of Michael Leahy’s in Ernie O’Malley’s notebooks a few weeks before being interviewed for the programme. My ‘long held view’ was that between 27 and 35 are likely to have been buried in the area. All Leahy’s account suggests is that this may have to be adjusted upwards rather downwards as Meehan suggests.

He goes on to suggest that ‘counter argument is available locally in the form of UCC’s John Borgonovo’. Yet Borgonovo barely acknowledged the existence of Sing Sing in his work on the War of Independence in the south; I don’t think it is mentioned at all in his two main books on the period. As I said above, counter argument, if that is what is being proposed by Mr. Meehan, was amply represented by Jim Fitzgerald and myself, the only two people to have written on the topic. Yet Meehan can claim that ‘Borgonovo’s overall analysis, which O’Halpin and Murphy silently partially relied upon, did not fit and he was excluded’. This is an extraordinary claim in view of the fact that in Spies and Informers and in his book on Florrie O’Donoghue’s writings Sing Sing is studiously avoided. Besides, if we ‘silently’ or ‘partially’ relied on Borgonovo’s work then how could we be called ‘revisionists’ if the definition of ‘revisionist’ in Meehan’s lexicon is anybody who disagrees with the central tenet of ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ so beloved of nationalist martyrology. 

Meehan then goes on to state that other veterans interviewed by Jim Fitzgerald in order to corroborate Corry’s account were deliberately left out of the portions of the tapes broadcast on In the Name of the Republic. He is clearly trying to imply that if they had been included their testimony would contradict that of Corry. In fact, there are several hours of these tapes, the only correcting the others make of Corry are in minor details; most of the time they agree with him. Jim Fitzgerald only reported in his book what the others corroborated.[13] It just so happens that in the short excerpts of the tapes broadcast they were not speaking. In other words, this is not all some dastardly plot to tell mistruths.

Some of this of course results in a level of unintended comedy. Like when Meenan transmogrifies the Marian shrine at Corrin outside Fermoy into ‘this large monument to the fallen leader of republican forces, [Liam Lynch]’, a claim which I’m sure would have been somewhat at odds with the intentions of Dr T.P. Magnier of Fermoy who had it built in 1933 in memory of the year of the Eucharistic Congress. It is now complete with all fourteen Stations of the Cross. In another ‘review’ in The Phoenix magazine he writes– or at least someone with a very similar prose style writes – with a perfectly straight face that The Year of Disappearances is a novel. If it is, it must be the first novel ever written that has annotations on almost every sentence to some archival source or other. I suppose it’s a case of when all fruits fail, welcome the convenient lie. I predict though that the claim that this is all fiction is a pool in which over the coming years Meehan will have plenty scope for fishing for red herrings. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But whatever the topic, with Meehan, it always comes back to Protestants. And don’t be fooled by his recent advocacy on behalf of the Bethany House survivors. Meehan’s aim is not to defend Protestants. It is rather to claim, against all the evidence, that they were never targeted in 1919-23. All you have to do to know this is to browse through his copious writings on the subject, almost all of which are available online. He even manages to conjure up the ghost of Peter Hart into the argument by stating that the programme – I kid you not on this one – ‘did not delve into the theory first introduced into Irish historiography by Peter Hart in 1993, 1996 and 1998, that the IRA targeted Protestants for extermination’. If the programme did not mention Protestants or ‘delve into’ such a theory – which is of itself a rather extreme distortion of what Hart had to say – then why bring up the subject? Is this monomania or politically-motivated propaganda or perhaps a combination of both? Only Niall Meehan can tell us that. 

All in all, the reaction to the programme from this quarter was a reflection of the levels at which much historical discourse now operates in Ireland. Meehan is like the wind; he will continue to do his own thing and blow his own particular, often anonymous, breath over matters historical. Borgonovo is a relatively young man. He has the potential to be a good historian. He is a clear thinking and straightforward writer who does not get bogged down in the kind of arcane intellectualization that bedevils the thought processes of some historians in this area. As a full-time historian though, like John Regan before him, he is surely doing himself no favours by aligning himself with the purveyors of this kind of cheap propaganda.

[1]In the Name of the Republic, Tile Productions for TV3, broadcast on 25 March 2013.
[2] I was of course right. See the anonymous ‘review’ in The Phoenix magazine of April 5 2013 for what is a typical example of this kind of stuff.
[4]Michael Leahy, Martin Corry, Edmund Desmond, Sean Culhane in the Ernie O’Malley notebooks. Also see the accounts of half a dozen other Knockraha veterans as collected by Jim Fitzgerald in his book Foras FeasaNa Paroiste, in addition to those of Martin Corry. In fact, Fitzgerald used these men to authenticate Corry’s accounts. Ernie O’Malley in On Another Man’s Wound, pp 302-303 makes an explicit reference to these killings. There is even a reference to the use of Sing Sing ‘from which many’s the spy and criminal were executed ’ in the Irish Folklore Commission manuscript collection of 1936. Plus of course all the families living in the area are perfectly aware of what had gone on there and have many hair-raising stories from that time. Dismissing all of this as Corry’s ‘overstatement’ is nonsense, as anyone from East Cork will tell you.
[5]I have not see his new book though I’d imagine this is an issue which he may correct over time.
[6]Olga Pyne Clarke, She Came of Decent People, (London 1986) pp51-51.
[7]John Borgonovo, Spies, Informers and the Anti-Sinn Fein Society’.The Intelligence War in Cork City 1920-21 (Dublin 2007).
[8]Clarke, op.cit p51
[9]For the pedants amongst us it is in footnote 23 on page 361 of The Year of Disappearances.
[12]Bar a handful of pedantic, almost typographical errors of the kind that would be found in almost any book, pointed out by Padraig Og O’Ruairc and David Fitzpatrick which were addressed in the 2nd edition and which are now, as a consequence, redundant.
[13]James Fitzgerald, Foras Feasa na Paroiste, A History of Knockraha Parish 2nd Ed (2005). For anybody who doubts this, the copies of the tapes will soon be available in the Cork City and County Archives.