Tuesday, 6 May 2014

'A Few, But Not Many'

Barry Keane’s Massacre in West Cork

Barry Keane in his response to my review of his book Massacre in West Cork in the Dublin Review of Books of April 2014 claims that my review contains ‘many errors’.[1] However, he has ‘too much respect for the people living on our island’ to list them all, which is one way of suggesting something without producing any evidence to support it. He is implying however that I am guilty of multiple wrongs so it is important that I respond to the ‘errors’ he does present.

Central to his thesis is the claim that Major Percival, commander of the Essex Regiment in West Cork, stated that ‘local loyalists provided him with most of his information’. In the book he uses this as a starting point to build up a picture of large-scale collusion between West Cork Protestants and Crown forces during the War of Independence. He states that Percival had a map on his wall on which he pinned the names and locations of the homes of the loyalists who were helping him. This would of course, if it were correct, suggest that Percival’s area was indeed over-run with loyalist informants. So it is necessary to look at what Percival actually said before drawing conclusions from it.

In a section called ‘The Inhabitants of the Country’ Percival, who was ‘trying to establish the political sympathies of every civilian’ writes: ‘I found the best way to do this was to keep a large six-inch map on the wall of my office. On the map every farm and detached house is marked and, as we got information, I filled in the name of the occupier of each farm or house. I also kept in a book a note of the political sympathies of these occupiers. I was therefore able, before any officer went out on a raid, to give him all the available information as to whom he was likely to find in each house.’[2] Clearly, what this says is that all the houses in his area – many of which were hostile since they were liable to be raided – were marked on his map and this was his way of collating intelligence information. It is hard to see from this how anyone could turn it around to mean that this was a wall map consisting of loyalist informers’ homes.

As regards Protestants in his area, Percival divides them into the Ascendancy class whom he terms the ‘Old Landlords’, who ‘had English sympathy but avoided active participation’, and ‘the Protestant element’ namely ‘large farmers and shopkeepers . . . A few, but not many, were prepared to assist Crown Forces with information.’ The important words here are ‘a few, but not many’, a detail which Keane neglects to tell us. While it is true that Percival stated that he had to visit these at night, it is equally clear from his account that he was lamenting the paucity of information and help he was getting from Protestants, rather than the other way around. Even in the one clear-cut example of collusion that Keane presents, that of Tom Bradfield, he quotes Denis Lordan who in turn quotes Bradfield as saying ‘I’m not like the rest of them around here at all’ before going on to admit that he was passing on information.[3] Obviously ‘the rest of them’ were not doing this. As another informant in the city put it: 'I wasn't like the spineless so-called "loyalists" there.'

Nobody who knows anything about the War of Independence in West Cork will deny that there were Protestants in the area who gave information to British forces during the conflict, the ‘few, but not many’, mostly farmers, and that they paid dearly for it, just as I am sure there were ‘a few, but not many’ Catholics who gave similar information. But there is no evidence of a large-scale conspiracy nor is there real evidence to link these farmers with those murdered in April 1922.

In his letter Keane also claims that whether or not an actual Anti-Sinn Fein League existed (as a cover for some counter-revolutionary organization among Protestants) does not matter. He says that this point is irrelevant. If that’s the case then why did he spend a significant amount of his book claiming that it did exist while ignoring the reams of evidence that it was a name used by undercover RIC and military death squads? Funnily enough, he states in his letter that ‘in early 1921 the RIC Commissioner at Bandon stated that local loyalists were providing information and that some had been shot as a result. I don’t remember noticing that in his book. I’m sure he will be kind enough to fill us all in on that one since I seem to have missed it. Indeed I would be eager to get my hands on such a valuable piece of information.

Keane claims I engage in what he calls ‘bizarre speculation’ about his motives. Yet among the many extraordinary, some might say bizarre, statements Keane himself makes for a widespread loyalist conspiracy is that ‘many West Cork loyalists were English born and viewed a war against their fellow countrymen with disbelief and horror. To succeed, the IRA had to neutralize this group.’[4] His evidence for this comes from the 1911 census which states that, of the 641 Protestants living in Bandon in 1911, some 46 were English-born. (There were also 19 English-born military.) Forty-six persons (or 7%), at least some of whom were bound to have been children in West Cork’s most populous town is hardly enough to constitute ‘many’.  Nor is it bizarre speculation on my part to point out that an extrapolation from Percival’s ‘a few, but not many’ to a widespread loyalist conspiracy has little evidence to back it up. In fact, the opposite may be the case. As Major (later Field Marshall) B.L. Montgomery who was stationed in the city from late 1920 put it: ‘We were not brought into such close contact with loyalists as you were and the result was I think that we did not appreciate their suffering to the same extent … I think I regarded all civilians as ‘Shinners’ and I never had any dealings with any of them.’ So much for a cabal of loyalist spies helping out the military in the city.

His other point is that I ‘snidely suggest’ that he contributes to the partisan Wikipedia webpages devoted to the massacre. I never for a moment suggested that Barry Keane would even dream of contributing to these pages which are not just partisan but are so full of distortion that they amount to little more than a pack of lies. But the Anti-Sinn Fein League as a supposed cabal of loyal Protestant civilians and which Mr Keane trumpets has long played a starring role in these web pages and this may still be the case for all I know. (I gave up looking up these years ago since they consisted of little more than bigoted propaganda.) It is legitimate to be concerned that Keane’s work might be used to feed such distortion and I felt it was important to point this out. I also thinks that this frames the contemporary debate in its broader context, given that the internet is where most of these issues are discussed. Having said all that, I felt on balance that I gave enough praise to Keane’s book that the charges he levels at me seem a little over the top. I just think data should be presented as it is, rather than the way we would like it to be. So, 'many errors'?. I think not. This is  surely a case of the kettle calling the pot black.

[1] See my review, DRB, Issue 53, 7 April 2014, and Keane’s reply DRB Issue 55, 5 May 2014.
[2] This is reproduced in William Sheehan’s excellent British Voices from the Irish War of Independence, (Cork 2005), from which the subsequent quotations are also taken.
[3] Massacre in West Cork, p86.The second quotation is from James McDougall, CO762/112.
[4] Massacre in West Cork, p57.