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.