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history and heritage |
Thursday May 02, 2013 11:41 by Pádraig Ó Ruairc.
Hello All - Here is my review of the controversial TV3 Irish War of Independence documentary "In the Name of the Republic" which was presented by Prof. Eunan O'Halpin of Trinity College which has just been published in the May/June issue of History Ireland Magazine. Enjoy:
IRA leader, Tom Barry, once likened the more unsavory aspects of the War of Independence to being dragged “down into the mire”. The two-part documentary, 'In The Name of The Republic', presented by Professor Eunan O'Halpin, explored that mire by examining the uglier aspects of the period. These included the assassination of RIC men, the killings of unarmed British soldiers and the execution and secret burial of alleged British spies.
The first episode focused on Ashbrook Farm, Laois. The owner of the farm related how a predecessor, Jack Walpole, told him that three bodies were dumped there in the 1920's. Walpole, who was described as “a bit eccentric”, claimed to have buried one of the bodies himself. The supernatural was a strong feature of Walpole's tale and he stated his horse could sense the location of the graves, refusing to draw a plough over them.
There were obvious problems this information. Firstly, there was an automatic assumption that Walpole's stories were a factual account of real events rather than tall tales invented by an eccentric farmer to frighten local youngsters. Secondly, all three alleged victims were unidentified and it was taken for granted that they were victims of the IRA rather than the British forces, agrarian violence or criminality.
Whilst admitting that there was no evidence other than “local rumors”, the programme's investigation continued and a team of archaeologists began excavating. Despite using geophysics and modern scientific methods the archaeologists failed to unearth anything more sinister than a lime kiln - presumably they would have had more success with Jack Walpole's psychic horse? Next O'Halpin attempted to identify those rumored to be buried on the farm using documentary sources. He identified three possible victims, however it soon transpired that none of these were killed by the IRA. The first episode concluded with O'Halpin admitting that these revelations were “farcical rather than shocking.”
A worrying aspect of the first hour of the documentary was the reproduction of anti-republican propaganda as fact. O'Halpin stated that RIC Constable Alfred Needham was shot in front of his new bride as they left their wedding ceremony. This colourful story, which has also featured in Kevin Myers' writings, has no basis in fact. The local Civil Registration Office has no record of an Alfred Needham being married on that date. Contemporary press and police reports state that Needham was shot as he stood by a stable gate - not whilst exiting a church. Nor do these accounts mention a wedding or a wife. Surely the veracity the fantastic tales about Needham's shooting and the bodies supposedly buried in Laois should have been fully checked before being broadcast?
The second episode focused on Cork, and in particular, on suspected spies and British troops captured and killed by the IRA at Knockraha, a few miles east of Cork city. There is no question that a significant number of IRA executions were carried out in this district, but there is considerable debate about the total number killed. The programme made extensive use of recorded interviews with IRA veteran Martin Corry who claimed that about 37 people had been executed by the IRA and buried in the area.
However Corry was prone to exaggeration and is not a very credible witness. In an audio clip included in the programme Corry stated that 17 Cameron Highlanders were executed by the IRA. However British records indicate that only 3 soldiers from the regiment went missing in Cork, the programme could only identify 2 disappeared Camerons. How then are we to account for the dozen or more unidentified members of the regiment that Corry states were killed? This was the recurring problem that plagued the programme - The fate of named individuals whose deaths are confirmed historical fact were explored in grim detail, but accompanying these were sweeping statements, rumors and folklore about dozens of unidentified IRA victims for whose existence there is no reliable evidence.
O'Halpin stated that between 1920 and 1921 at least 200 of the IRA's opponents “were abducted, executed, and their bodies secretly disposed of”, and that this figure included “over 180civilians”. This figure seems far too high to be accurate. Whilst it is certain that between one and two hundred alleged British spies were killed by the IRA (a phenomenon common to guerilla conflicts internationally) the vast majority of their bodies were left in public places to serve as a warning to others, and were recovered and afforded formal Christian burials.
British documents offer far more conservative estimates of the number of 'disappeared'. The British Government's official “Missing List” names just 59 missing persons assumed to have been killed by the IRA. At least 8 of those listed later turned up alive and well, including one RIC Constable who went 'missing' to join an IRA flying column! In 1922 the British authorities issued a list of 85 missing British soldiers (Military Archives, A/07304). If we assume that all of those named on these two lists were killed and secretly buried by the IRA (which we know is not the case) this would give a grand total of 134 'disappeared'- far short of O'Halpin's figure.
The documentary concluded with a “List of The Known Disappeared”. This contained just 57 names. It was emphasized that the true figure was likely to be far higher, but that those identified were “known with certainty” to have been disappeared by the IRA. Amongst those named was William Shields, a British spy from Boherbee, Cork. For the record, Shields was never captured by the IRA and fled Ireland in 1921. During the Civil War both the IRA and the Free State Army attempted without success to locate and assassinate Shields. It is clear that when Shields disappeared it was with the assistance of the British Crown, and not into a shallow grave dug by the IRA.
Historians of the Irish Revolution are fortunate to have an abundance of documentary evidence, including veteran testimony, official records and other material from both British and Republican sources. Using these it should be possible to identify the full name, date and circumstances of each of the disappeared. Speculative estimates of the numbers killed, based on anonymous fatalities, are hugely problematic. It is simply not good enough to say that the IRA killed 200 people but we don't know who the majority of them were because “…their names [are] lost in a maze of records.” Those who want to know the truth regarding the disappeared need to navigate that maze and identify those killed instead of taking shortcuts.
Pádraig Ó Ruairc.
(Posted by Turing)