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Dublin Opinion >>
Hidden History or hidden agenda – the real story
history and heritage |
Monday October 08, 2007 10:13 by Pat Muldowney
Ethnic cleansing in Offaly or execution of Black & Tan collaborators
RTÉ has announced a programme in its Hidden History series making controversial claims about IRA sectarianism during the War of independence. This is how RTE is currently publicising it:
Guns and Neighbours: The Killings at Coolacrease
“The bloody tale of a bitter land dispute, involving a family of Protestant farmers in County Offaly, which comes to a deadly conclusion during the War of Independence. Featuring interviews with descendants of the men who carried out the killings, this portrait of a forgotten atrocity features substantial newspaper archive research, IRA witness statements and military documents from the period.”
The original title of this programme was: “Atonement: ethnic cleansing in the midlands” - see reproduction below of pages 1 and 13 from RTE presentation in Clontarf Castle on 30 May 2007. The original title reveals the real intent of the programme. After protests in the past two months, the title changed from explicit to implied ethnic hatred: the story of a supposed sectarian land-grab by grasping catholic peasants killing inoffensive Protestant neighbours.
This documentary is about an execution by the IRA, on June 30 1921, of the brothers Richard and Abraham Pearson of Coolacrease, near Cadamstown, Co. Offaly. In 2002 local historian Paddy Heaney gave the first published history of these events in his book At the Foot of Slieve Bloom, describing the Pearsons’ active involvement on the side of the Black and Tans. In 2005 Alan Stanley of Carlow published I Met Murder on the Way. In it the executions are portrayed as sectarian murder in furtherance of a land-grab during a bigoted anti-British rebellion. This was picked up by Eoghan Harris who published two Sunday Independent articles in October 2005 highlighting the religious aspect – the Pearsons, he says, were other-worldly, pacifist Amish types brutally murdered by savage, sectarian monsters intent on ethnic cleansing.
Paddy Heaney’s original account was ignored, as if it did not exist. This is significant.
Hidden History and Eoghan Haris
RTÉ’s proposed Hidden History programme was inspired by Harris’s articles and by the Stanley book. The Hidden History series has an eclectic approach. Rival TV production companies bid to fill slots with their proposals for one-off programmes in the series. The Production Company for this programme is Reel Story Productions, whose director is Niamh Sammon. In the past she produced RTÉ’s Charles Haughey documentary, and the Fine Gael TV history Family at War, while working for Steve Carson’s Mint Productions. Now with her own production company Sammon made initial contact with local people in Co. Offaly who had family and other connections to the 1921 events. She did not reveal to them her commitment to the Eoghan Harris view of the events as an ‘atrocity’, or her use of Harris’s language, “To attack a family like that calls to high heaven for atonement” (Sunday Independent, 9 Oct 2005). The phrase, “Ethnic Cleansing in the Midlands”, was announced originally by RTE in May (see reproduction of RTE presentation at Clontarf Castle). RTE presumably picked up the “ethnic cleansing” message from Sammon, when she originally pitched the programme content to RTE. Where else could it have come from?
Many people were initially supportive of the project, but became disenchanted as Sammon’s real purpose became increasingly evident. Their initially separate connections with this programme have gradually become joined in opposition to it. Now it is out in the open in The Offaly Independent and in The Phoenix.
The academic advisers for the documentary are a further clue to the programme’s intent. The first is unionist historian and 2007 Ewart-Biggs-Prize-winner Richard English of Queen’s University Belfast. Brendan O’Leary remarked recently that English, “like others who imagine themselves to be radical, swims with the present tide of imperial historiography, which cleanses, and even celebrates, the British Empire, or at least accentuates its positive dimensions”. (Cuttlefish, Cholesterol and Saoirse, Field Day Review 3, 2007)
The second advisor is revisionist historian Terence Dooley of NUI Maynooth. Dooley is an adherent of Canadian academic Peter Hart’s discredited sectarianism/ethnic cleansing account of the War of Independence. Dooley‘s book, The Land Question in Independent Ireland (UCD Press 2004), seeks to prove that the independence movement was fundamentally driven by land hunger and land-grabbing. His previous effort, The Decline of the Big House in Ireland (Wolfhound Press 2001), is a hymn of praise to the lifestyle of the landlord class, and a paean of regret for the sufferings of that class and its hangers-on as their power was swept aside by the Land League and the independence movement.
British reinforcements arrive
In addition, a feature film about the Pearsons by British film maker Philip Ogden has received development funding from the Irish Film Board. Ogden is a self-admitted associate of pre-eminent revisionist historian Roy Foster. Foster used the Pearson executions to attack Ken Loach’s film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, allegedly for failing to depict the imaginary anti-Protestant violence of Foster’s considerable imagination. Foster’s overall approach and his line on the Pearsons is discussed by Dublin academic Niall Meehan in the course of a Counterpunch article at: www.counterpunch.org/meehan11112006.html. Ogden published a letter in The Tullamore Tribune of April 4 2007 requesting local information about the Pearsons. His film is proposed for release in 2008, though it is unlikely to appear on schedule. Ogden and Sammon appear to be collaborating on the project with help from two funding agencies: an RTE commission and Irish Film Board development grant. Presumably, this collaboration has been reported to the respective funding agencies.
The Pearson executions were previously discussed in Indymedia posts, after my initially reaction to the tendentious Eoghan Harris Sunday Independent line. See:
The course of the War of Independence and Civil War in Offaly has also been investigated in depth by Tullamore historian Philip McConway. McConway’s definitive book on the subject includes his findings on the Pearson case, and is due to be published this year. His January 2007 lecture on the subject is summarised at the Offaly History website:
Here is an outline (in my words) of the Stanley/Harris/Sammon/Hidden History line on the Pearsons:
The two Pearson brothers were gentle, good-natured farming boys belonging to an Amish or Quaker-type denomination called Cooneyite, innocent of any political involvement. On that glorious, sunny afternoon of June 30 1921 they were out in a hayfield saving hay where they were suddenly set upon by a large group of armed men. They were put up against a barn wall. Their mother, three sisters, younger brother and two female cousins were forced to line up in the yard to watch. The firing squad took aim at the men’s genitals and pumped dum-dum bullets into them. All this was so that they would accomplish five particularly brutal and heinous purposes. Firstly, by blasting away the men’s genitals they would make some barbaric point about ethnic cleansing. Secondly, the victims would take a very long time to die. Thirdly, they would suffer the most horrific pain while they were dying. Fourthly, the family members who were forced to watch this atrocity would themselves suffer the torments of hell. Fifthly, the shock waves of this sectarian atrocity would send tremors of fear, terror and panic through the local Protestant landowning community, and get wholesale ethnic cleansing and land-grabbing under way. It was as if in 1921 the Irish engaged in the same practice as the Israelis’ Deir Yassin massacre in 1948 that cleansed a large part of Palestine of its Arab population. The Pearsons are transformed into innocent and emblematic victims of ethnic violence.
The language of ethnic hostility is not unique to Ireland. It is part of the 'new black' that justifies in retrospect colonial management of foreign peoples. It also justifies today's ‘new-imperialism’ that intervenes within borders, literally lines on a map of the Middle East, created by imperial powers after World War One.
In reality and in fact the overall context is perfectly clear. The 'ethnic' spin on events does not follow the actual narrative. It twists it.
In a series of elections, starting in 1918 in which Sinn Fein won 75 of 103 Irish seats, the Irish independence movement had secured and held an overwhelming democratic mandate to form an independent Irish government. The Imperial government had just won a Great War, supposedly fought for democracy and the rights of small nations. But the Imperial power determinedly ignored successive Irish election results. Britain imposed military rule to suppress the democratic government in the manner of the various revolutionary fascist movements which were then taking off around the world, and in the manner of the USA in Latin American and other countries. It waged a ferocious terror campaign of assassination and imprisonment of elected representatives, random shooting of civilians, summary execution of prisoners, burning of houses, villages, towns, cities; hostage taking, torture, imprisonment – the whole dreadful story of Black-and-Tan Terror. The volunteer Irish Army, the IRA, resisted the terror, and retaliated by executing collaborators and informers, just like the French Resistance against the Nazis.
Wars are cruel and in them very bad things happen.
We know the French Resistance sometimes executed innocent people by mistake, and popular vengeance when the Nazis were driven out was often cruel and excessive, even if understandable. Some private vendettas were conducted under cover of the resistance. Likewise some unsavoury necklacing episodes were attributed to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in Apartheid South Africa. So could something similar have happened in Ireland? Eoghan Harris’s article indicates that this was such a case. On initial quick reading, and taking everything he said at face value, Alan Stanley’s book seems to provide Eoghan Harris’s story with the necessary evidence.
But on a more careful reading, many problems come to light.
First, Stanley’s overall view of the Troubles was that it was an outbreak of rebel sectarian criminality, that the British government was itself criminally negligent in using merely policing methods to stop it (this is the Black-and-Tans, mind), that they should have used military methods. Think what this means. The British Army was used in war mode to smash the 1916 Rising. That meant flattening the centre of Dublin with artillery involving wholesale slaughter of civilians over several days. So Stanley wanted the same methods to be used all over Ireland, no doubt also using the RAF, carpet-bombing, gassing, concentration camps for disaffected population, and so on. This is what the British Empire did in Iraq after its war in Ireland, when the Black and Tans moved straight from Ireland to Iraq.
So one must wonder what planet does Stanley belong to, what century does his mind inhabit, that he should think that a touch of the bayonet, bomb and bullet would bring the revolting natives to heel.
His story is that the Pearsons were innocent farmers, inoffensive religious people like Amish or Quakers, and that they were ruthlessly murdered for their land. But he also describes them as engaging in a senseless sectarian quarrel over a mass path. Local memory has the Pearsons threatening terrified women and children with firearms and spreading human excrement (presumably their own) on stiles that the people would have to climb over on the way to Sunday religious service, and felling a tree to block the path. Stanley says the Pearsons sheltered his father William Stanley (Stanley was ordered out of Co. Laois for organising an armed loyalist sectarian gang that was collaborating there with the Black and Tans). He says the Pearsons fired a shotgun over the heads of some trespassers who were cutting down one of their trees – in reality a roadside tree adjoining their property.
Alan Stanley describes the IRA party that the Pearsons fired on as Rebels and criminal sectarian gangsters, when they were in fact members of an army operating under the authority of the elected government. These men were the direct lineal antecedents and predecessors of the present Republic of Ireland – its President, government, opposition, diplomats, courts, officials, police force, armed forces. In the teeth of a vicious revolutionary fascist campaign to smash democracy in Ireland, this IRA unit was part and parcel of the huge democratic effort that originated the present Irish state.
Pearsons – just like Amish?
From their own testimony, their very own words, the Pearsons, with William Stanley, were sectarian squabblers, they were trigger-happy gun-toting loyalists, they were friends and shelterers of on-the-run paramilitaries. These were Amish with attitude, Amish with form, Amish with guns. If this whole grotesque comparison concocted by Stanley and Harris were not so offensive to the Amish or Quakers, you could say that the Pearsons were the Amish from Hell.
Now, I have worked with Quaker colleagues most of my life. I live beside the Amish colony in Co. Waterford, which was featured in a recent RTÉ documentary. The Quakers and the Amish do not threaten people with guns. They do not engage in ridiculous sectarian squabbling and excrement smearing over trivialities such as mass-paths. They do not pull guns on little family groups in their Sunday best wending their way down the hillside to church service. Nor do they fell trees to stop them. They have no truck with violence of any kind. Absolutely the last thing they would ever do would be to make common cause with somebody like Alan Stanley’s father who was a ringleader in an armed loyalist gang, a swaggering Johnny Adair type. It is an absolute insult to compare the Pearsons with non-violent, non-belligerent pacifists such as the Quakers and the Amish.
RIC report on the executions
The Pearsons were not sentenced to death because of a ludicrous sectarian squabble over a mass path, or for felling trees across the path, or for pulling guns on churchgoers, or for spreading human excrement on the stiles. They were not even sentenced because they were informers. They were sentenced to death because they fired on a unit of volunteers, wounding two of them. That is what all the IRA reports declare.
And that is what the official RIC report also declares:
“C.I. [Chief Inspector RIC] Queens County [reported] that the two Pearson boys a few days previously had seen two men felling a tree on their land adjoining the road. Had told the men concerned to go away, and when they refused had fetched two guns and fired and wounded two Sinn Feiners, one of whom it is believed died.”
From British Military Court of Enquiry in lieu of inquests on Richard and Abraham Pearson, Crinkle Barracks, Birr, July 2 1921.
The Hidden History Director, Niamh Sammon, argued, on record, that it is impossible to know what happened at the roadblock in the darkness and confusion. But Alan Stanley’s book says that the Pearsons first engaged in verbal abuse of the soldiers manning the roadblock (so they knew who they were dealing with), and that they then returned with guns and opened fire, just as the RIC report confirms. Sammon, it appears is attempting to twist, evade and misrepresent this official, clear and unequivocal RIC report on the executions. She claimed, in interview with me, contrary to the clear RIC statement, that this was not the RIC position. Sammon has argued, on record, that the RIC were reporting – to the British military authorities! – the IRA version of the executions. So, were the RIC secretly in league with the IRA, or what?
Stanley, Harris and Sammon, supported by Dooley and English, have put the elected Irish government of the time on trial, along with its armed forces, its justice system and its councils; so that the Irish version of events is not entitled to any credence. But the official report on the British side does not back up their prejudices and pre-conceptions. So it too must be denied! Sammon gives credence to ill-founded speculation concocted nearly a century later, but denies the official reports, compiled in full and immediate knowledge of the facts, by the responsible authorities of the time, both Irish and British.
Facts do not appear to matter in Sammon’s curious version of history, as indicated in her tendentious interview questions and statements. She came across as someone determined to push a pre-conceived line, more of a propagandist for imperial rule than an impartial documentary filmmaker – see my experience of being interviewed by Sammon below. In one sense, if she is committed to the imperial version of history, I don’t mind. But she should declare her opinion. We should all play our cards openly. But Hidden History appears to want to display a ‘higher truth’, one in which facts must be shaped to suit this apparently pre-selected approach. The purpose is to propagandise the unfounded dogma that the Irish independence movement was driven by sectarian land hunger and that the War of Independence provided cover for illegal land-grabbing, sectarian atrocity and ethnic cleansing. In effect it was a peasant revolt in which imperial efficiency was confronted by the forces of irrationality and hatred. It is a re-statement of the need for imperial management of inferior people. Ultimately, it is part of a racist account of colonial resistance.
The fact is the Pearsons were sentenced to death by Court Martial because they attacked a detachment of the Irish Army which was blocking the road at Cadamstown as part of county-wide manoeuvres to carry out an ambush on British forces in Birr. The Pearsons observed the action, made verbal threats, returned with guns, and they shot two men, one of them in the stomach. That is what happened. It was a deliberate act of violence in support of the occupation forces, which were trying to destroy the democratically elected government, in one of the first post-war attempts at fascist reaction in any part of the world.
The IRA’s Commanding Officer for that part of Offaly investigated and ordered that the three brothers be executed and their house burned. The OC was not a local with land grabbing on his mind; some poverty stricken cabin dweller or landless labourer with a hungry family, looking down from the mountainside at the Pearsons’ fat cattle, glossy horses and lush crops in rolling acres of the fertile plain. Thomas Burke could not have been further removed from such an agenda. He was a medical student sent down from Dublin to Offaly by the Army Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy (subsequently Free State Army Chief, Minister for Defence, Minister for Education and Leader of Fine Gael). Under the authority of the Irish government Burke assumed command in order to raise the level of military resistance to the Black-and-Tan presence in South Offaly, and to deal with rampant informing and collaboration, which were decimating Irish Army ranks. He was sent down precisely because the Offaly “peasants” – the poverty-stricken smallholders and hungry landless labourers – were not, according to Mulcahy, forceful nor determined enough in their resistance to the Black and Tan terrorists and their collaborators, both Catholic and Protestant.
The local Offaly IRA had several years in which they had ample opportunity to carry out sectarian murder and land grabbing, if that was what they were about. They did nothing of the kind. Hidden History Director Niamh Sammon was confronted with the sheer absurdity of the proposition that, after the less vigorous local leadership of the IRA was stood down, the Dublin appointee Thomas Burke ordered the sectarian murder of the Pearsons in furtherance of a land-grab. Her response, on record to me, was to feebly suggest that Burke might have come under local influence and bowed to local pressure!
The Shooting of the Pearsons
The propaganda version of the attempted execution of the Pearson brothers has the firing squad deliberately taking aim at the condemned men’s genitals and firing dum-dum bullets into them while their mother and sisters were forced to watch.
But the eye-witness accounts and the medical evidence tell a very different story. Matilda Pearson’s account in the following week’s local newspapers says that her two brothers were taken away from the other family members. Dave Pearson’s 1981 letter to Hilary Stanley, also quoted in Alan Stanley’s book, says that he and his mother and sisters were taken away separately. Michael Cordial was in command of the execution party, and his Witness Statement on the events (Bureau of Military History) says that the condemned men were separated from the rest of the family.
In the British Military Court of Inquiry (in lieu of inquest) held at Crinkle Barracks, Birr on Saturday July 2 1921, Ethel Pearson (sister) said that she and her sisters, mother, cousins and 14-year-old brother David were moved into a grove of trees at the back of the house before it was set on fire, while her brothers Richard and Abraham Pearson were taken away to an enclosed yard among the farm buildings where they were shot.
So the executions took place at a separate location, not visible from the sheltered place where the rest of the family were moved.
Alan Stanley’s book has a photograph of the location of the shooting of the Pearsons. It was in an enclosed yard near an arched gateway. The brothers were placed against the left hand wall to be shot. The grove of trees, to which the rest of the family was moved, was located fifty to a hundred metres away in the hillside field visible outside the courtyard. You can see a tiny part of the field through the arched gateway in Stanley’s photograph. A small arched opening into an enclosed yard gives little visibility in either direction, from the yard to the field outside, or from the field into the yard. The Grove to which the family was taken has since been grubbed out, but remained in place up to fairly recent times, as can be verified from the Ordnance Survey maps at various dates. If the wall enclosing the courtyard were transparent, the location of the grove of trees to which the Pearson women and children were taken would be visible in the upper left hand corner of Stanley’s picture.
The Grove was set in a depression in the hillside, and was surrounded by high hedging. Nothing outside the grove was visible from inside the grove. Even if there were no grove, an observer from the field outside, even if he took a vantage point on the height rather than the hollow of the hillside, and even if he stood directly opposite the arched gateway, could see very little inside the enclosed yard. Even if there were no surrounding grove of trees and hedging to block off all view, a person located in the depression in the hillside where the grove was located would not be able to see into the courtyard. Looking at Stanley’s photograph of the execution scene, an observer in the yard looking out towards the field can see only the small section of the field framed by the archway. Likewise for an observer in the field looking into the courtyard through the archway. And the further away from the archway, the less an observer can see on the opposite side of the archway. To see anything happening in the enclosed yard, a person outside in the field would have to deliberately seek out a vantage point, and even then only very little would be visible.
Here is the relevant extract from the Court of Enquiry testimony:
"ETHEL MAY PEARSON having been duly sworn states:-
… My mother who was in a fainting condition was carried by my two brothers into a little wood we call the Grove and we all went with her by the order of the raiders. Six of the raiders, two or three of whom were masked, ordered my brothers down into the yard. I saw the raiders search my brothers and place them against the wall of the barn and shoot them."
British Military Court of Enquiry in lieu of Inquests on Richard and Abraham Pearson, Crinkle Barracks, Birr, July 2 1921.
True or false
This is a far cry from forcing the mother and sisters to watch the executions. Did Ethel Pearson or any of her sisters actually disobey the orders of their guards and leave their mother in a fainting condition in the Grove to follow their brothers back into the yard, or to some vantage point on the hillside where they could observe what was going on inside the courtyard? Were the sisters left unguarded in the Grove after they were moved into it? Unlikely, as there was a definite risk that one of them would run to seek help, jeopardising the Irish force. Mrs Pearson did not see the shootings, she was in a fainted state surrounded by trees at a considerable distance from the yard which was out of view. The Pearson family must have heard the gunshots, even if they were muffled by the trees and fencing that surrounded them. But so must everyone else in the area, including the inhabitants of Cadamstown village. Does that make all of them witnesses?
The IRA did everything that could reasonably be expected to remove the women and children from the scene. Did Ethel Pearson actually leave the shelter of the Grove and come to the arched gateway where she would have been able to observe the shootings within the enclosed yard, as her statement implies? The Pearsons’ and William Stanley’s contributions to the atrocity propaganda machine followed hard and fast after the executions. No credence can be given to their atrocity tales. In his submission to the British government’s Irish Distress Committee, William Pearson (father of the executed men) said he went to Crinkle Military Barracks in Birr that day to get help (FALSE); that 500 IRA raiders attacked his family (FALSE); that one of his daughters was shot (FALSE); that he returned that day (FALSE) to find his two sons lying dead in the yard (FALSE). The reason we know Pearson was lying is because these statements are contradicted by EVERY other account, including all the other accounts from his own side. He lied in order to put a better appearance on his conduct that day and improve his chances of compensation from the Loyalist Distress Committee some years later. His lies were successful.
Dum de dum – IRA ragtime band
William Stanley, who had fled before the executions, told his son Alan that dum-dum bullets were used by the IRA. If this was true the highly practised Dublin Castle propaganda machine, in its statement dated 9 July 1921, would have made a great noise about it. But here is what the Castle propaganda report actually said:
“The house was then fired and the family allowed out. They were placed on a little hill just outside the back of the house. The two eldest sons were then taken, and in full view of the rest of the family were put up against a wall and shot, meanwhile the Sinn Feiners played ragtime music, on the piano and one of the sons’ violins.”
Think about it: the house is in flames and the Sinn Feiners are inside playing music, according to Dublin Castle! Note that Dublin Castle places the family on the hillside, a small part of which can be glimpsed through the arched gateway in the photograph above. Ethel Pearson’s statement says they were moved to the Grove in a depression in the hillside, well out of view of the yard where the actual shooting took place. Michael Cordial’s Witness Statement (Bureau of Military History; see http://www.indymedia.ie/article/76350) says the family were separated from the two brothers, as does David Pearson’s 1983 letter. So the allegation of Alan Stanley, Eoghan Harris and Hidden History’s Niamh Sammon that the family were forced to watch the executions appears wide of the mark.
The fact is, executions are a horrible business. But killing human beings is part and parcel of warfare, and everyone knows that ‘War Is Hell’. The war in Ireland was precipitated by the revolutionary fascist military response of the Imperial government to the election of a democratic government in Ireland. The Black & Tan agents of fascism, along with their fascist collaborators, such as William Joyce (the later Lord Haw-Haw) in Galway, and such as the Pearsons in Offaly, were responsible for many assassinations, executions, torture and burnings. The democrat Mick Heaney was shot in the stomach with a shotgun blast by one of the Pearsons, and eventually died of his injuries. His stomach wound caused him great pain over a very long time indeed, before he eventually succumbed to its effects.
After an enquiry, which established their guilt in attacking a unit of the Irish army, the Pearson brothers had been sentenced to death by the Offaly commander who had been sent down under orders from Dublin to step up local resistance and deal with collaborators and informers. Executions are done by a squad of soldiers rather than an individual executioner, so no single person has to bear the whole responsibility. And they retain anonymity. For instance, nobody asks the names of the soldiers who executed Pearse or Connolly – a convention which has not been adhered to by Niamh Sammon, who resolutely sought to get the Offaly names, doubtless in order to begin to make Atonement for the alleged crime against the Pearsons, as demanded by Eoghan Harris in his Sunday Independent article of 9/10/2005.
Health Warning - Hidden History Alert!
TV viewers should watch out for Niamh Sammon’s dramatised “re-construction” of the mass-path dispute, the attack on the IRA’s, the Irish Army’s, road-block (which she calls the tree-felling incident!), and the executions. This was filmed, not on location in Co. Offaly where it could be accurately re-created in accordance with the historical evidence, but far away in Co. Kildare, where these events were unknown. This is the means by which part of thebogus atrocity propaganda may be presented – truly a hidden history, hidden from the people who know about it, in effect an imagined history.
The Medical Evidence
The official medical report of the 1921 British Military Enquiry says Richard Pearson received wounds in the left shoulder, right groin, right buttock, the back, and left lower leg – all of them superficial. Anatomically, the groin is the hollow or recess where the thigh meets the torso. We have two groins, for the left and right thighs. Contrary to the modern euphemism, the actual genital area is between the two groins, whereas each of the groins actually lies between a thigh and the stomach. The Pearsons might easily have received wounds to the genital area. But what Richard Pearson actually received was a wound to the right groin, which, according to the medical evidence, did not damage any important blood vessels. The left shoulder is where the left arm joins the torso, and it is no more or no less interesting nor special than the right groin.
Now, Mick Heaney received a stomach wound from the Pearsons whilst on army duty resisting the fascist terror. But Mick Heaney was quickly brought to a secret ward in Tullamore hospital, and his life was saved, at least for the time being. The execution of the Pearson brothers was botched. The soldiers involved were not experienced, battle-hardened fighting men like those in Dublin and Cork. Their war up to summer 1921 had consisted mostly of sabotage work. Their new OC, Thomas Burke, had been sent to Offaly by General Richard Mulcahy, under the authority of the government, in order to step up the resistance effort in the county.
If I was sentenced to be executed I would definitely prefer a botched execution in which I was left alive suffering only superficial wounds.
Unlike Mick Heaney’s treatment, what was also botched was the medical treatment given to the Pearson brothers. They were execurd between 4.30 and 5 p.m., and Richard Pearson died about 10 p.m. on a mattress in the field at Coolacrease, from shock and blood loss. Abraham Pearson died apparently from the same cause about 6 a.m. the following morning in the hospital in Crinkle Military Barracks near Birr. The doctor from Kinnitty only arrived to tend to what he calls superficially wounded men at about 7.30 p.m., nearly three hours after the shooting. He administered antiseptic treatment to Richard Pearson, according to the King’s County Chronicle and according to his own statement to the Military Enquiry two days later. In other words he cleaned up the wounds, but performed no surgery. It seems he did nothing to stop the bleeding, and Richard Pearson was dead when this doctor was summoned back to Coolacrease about 10 p.m. The military from Birr had arrived about 9.30 p.m., and presumably got the brother who was still alive (Abraham) into the military hospital in Crinkle Barracks, Birr, by about 10.30 or 11 p.m. The military physician in Crinkle was not summoned to attend to him until 2 p.m. He dressed his wounds and, it seems, went back to bed. Abraham Pearson died at 6 a.m. the following morning.
Rejected by Protestant neighbours
Why all the delays? Why were the two men not brought directly to hospital to get treatment for their superficial wounds? What were the sisters doing? Running to neighbours who refused to help? Ethel Pearson (sister) says she rode a horse to Cadamstown (about a mile away) to get help. We know from local accounts that 14-year-old Dave Pearson called in to the Jacksons of Kilnaparson (Protestant neighbours) to get help and was told to clear off, that they had brought this trouble on themselves by the way they had conducted themselves. That has been the general reaction on all sides to the Pearson question ever since, until Alan Stanley’s fanciful revision.
The brothers received superficial wounds, according to medical evidence to the British Military Inquiry; none of them to the genitals, but wounds which caused shock and bleeding from which they eventually died, after quite a long time, for lack of medical attention. What would their condition have been that afternoon as they lay on a mattress in the field in Stanley’s photograph, perhaps without covers to keep them warm? We were told they went into shock, the reaction by which the body protects itself from trauma by restricting the blood flow to all but essential organs. So they would have trembled, become cold and pale, but perhaps recovering their senses sufficiently to talk. So their sisters may have thought they were OK after all, and did not rush to summon the Kinnitty dispensary doctor about four miles away. Then the men would have started drifting in and out of consciousness as they lost more and more blood. Were they screaming in agony? Probably not, from the superficial nature of the wounds; and from the physiological process of shock which they entered, described in the medical report, as opposed to the propaganda statements of Dublin Castle and Alan Stanley; and from the lack of urgency in the medical response. But we can only surmise.
Castle dumb on dum-dum
What about the execution party? These inexperienced soldiers fired at the condemned men, whom they hit with several shots. The inaccurate shots could easily have struck the genitals, but, according to the medical evidence, did not. Immediately afterwards the fire which had been prepared in the house was lit, and the house went up in flames. Michael Cordial in his report, now available in the Bureau of Military History records (see also http://www.indymedia.ie/article/76350), says explosions blew the roof off the house, so explosives may have been stored there. The fire, smoke and explosions could be seen and heard for miles in every direction. These soldiers were on foot. They had every incentive to get away as quickly as possible, and that is what they did. Did they know the condemned men were still alive as they left? Again we can only surmise.
There is no mention of dum-dum bullets in any contemporary account. Not even in the Dublin Castle propaganda statement which would have made great fuss of this if there had even been a hint of a suspicion that dum-dum bullets were used. If a dum-dum bullet struck the right groin or left shoulder, the right leg and left arm would have been practically torn off, and death would have been very quick. Similarly for the back and buttock wounds.
[Note: Dum-dum bullets are named after the district of Dum-Dum in Bengal where the British had a factory for making these bullets. Calcutta airport is now located there. Formerly called Dum-Dum Airport, it is now named Subhas Chandra Bose Airport after the legendary Indian resistance hero who organised an Indian Army in 1943, and who precipitated the termination of Britain’s Indian Empire as part of a political movement which was heavily influenced by the Irish independence movement. On the Burmese border not too far from Dum-Dum, Bose’s Indian National Army scored notable military successes in the face of the British colonial and mercenary forces in Burma which included a previous RTÉ Hidden History presenter – none other than Cathal O’Shannon, of ‘Ireland’s Nazis’ fame. In the course of the 1943 British-induced famine or genocide in Bengal, in which up to 3 million starved to death, the British refused Bose’s offers of famine relief from Burma.]
The Real Land Grab
Alan Stanley says that after the shootings, the locals took advantage of the situation and moved in to take occupation of the Pearsons’ farm (he talks coyly of “uti possidetis”, which is opaque legal jargon for “possession is 9/10 of the law”, or squatters’ rights) and the Land Commission in 1923 accepted this as fait accompli and awarded the squatters full title, providing the Pearsons with only meagre and inadequate compensation for the theft of their farm. This story is completely contradicted by the documents that the Pearsons themselves submitted to the British Government’s compensation agency for loyalists who suffered loss or injury, the Irish Grants Committee.
William Pearson obtained (from the Land Commission) 341 acres, dwelling-house plus farm buildings in Coolacrease about ten years earlier for a price of £2000, according to information he gave to the unionist King’s County Chronicle of October 13 1921. He paid annuities (annual payments similar to mortgage) to the Land Commission, so the £2000 was, in effect, a loan. But this enables us to crudely estimate the value of the farm at approximately a quarter of a million modern euros. (At rough equivalence £1 in 1920 = Euro 100 in 2007, a crude working estimate of the present value of the 1920 £).
After the executions and house-burning he received favourable treatment in the form of due process from the Republican Courts, the Free State Courts, and the British government’s Irish Grants Committee. An initial application by a surviving son Sidney Pearson to the Grants Committee was scathingly dismissed as “not unamusing”. But William Pearson employed professional assistance in a further application, and by means of blatant fraud and lies, secured compensation amounting to many times the actual value of the farm, which he had initially obtained with a Land Commission loan. How did he manage to pull this stroke?
William Pearson did not claim his land was squatted. He said that his land was trespassed – which is no surprise, since the place remained practically unworked and derelict after he refused a Free State offer of finance to rebuild. Evidently he would not rent his land to locals, or employ local labour to bring it back into production.
He refused even to sell it on the open market. Crucially for his compensation claim, he alleged to the Grants Committee that he was persecuted and boycotted to the extent that he was prevented from holding an auction of his 341 acres, or selling it by any other means. But the local Unionist paper, The King’s County Chronicle, has a report of an auction in October 1922, in which the highest bid for the Pearson farm (by Mr Finnamore of Knockhill, Kilcormac) did not meet the reserve price demanded by Wm. Pearson. A letter by a Mr Percy claimed that he wanted to purchase the Pearson farm for £10,000. Very crudely, that is a million or so modern euro for the farm without dwelling house – and in the middle of the agricultural slump and civil war – that Pearson had obtained, with large dwelling house, from the Land Commission about ten years earlier. The terms of acquisition were annual payments (of annuity or mortgage type) equivalent to an up-front payment of £2000 (two hundred thousand or so Euro). Percy says he was prepared to pay even more than £10,000, but he was prevented by “the people” from closing the deal. Pearson submitted this transparent, price-boosting fraud to the Irish Grants Committee, saying that “the Priest” prevented the deal.
In consequence of the Pearsons’ fraud they were able, after re-paying the balance of their initial loan from the Land Commission, to buy farms in Suffolk and various farms and businesses in Australia, according to Alan Stanley’s book.
Other consequences were that the land- and money-crazed Pearsons extorted an inordinate price from the Land Commission simply by refusing to make any reasonable arrangement – sale, rental or use – of an economic resource for which the Land Commission was ultimately responsible, especially as it placed the Pearsons in the farm in the first place. So the Land Commission may have had to contemplate compulsory purchase in order to resolve the impasse. The extravagant price paid by the Land Commission to the Pearsons had to be recovered from the new occupants in stiff annuity payments. So several of the new occupants quickly went to the wall.
It was the Pearsons who perpetrated the real land grab, or rather a money grab.
And what of the alleged land-grab, the fanciful one beloved of modern day apologists for imperial rule? Which of the IRA killers actually pocketed the loot when the Pearsons finally departed the scene? Well, none of them, actually. The land was distributed by Land Commissioner William Blackham in consultation with the virulently anti-national parish priest of Kinnitty, Fr. Holohan, under the Free State government. The first three people to be awarded small-holdings were ex-British soldiers. So much for that land-grab theory.
There were and are many large Protestant landholders in the area. None were troubled by land grabbing. The land-grab propaganda is the direct opposite of the truth.
The Cooneyite Pearsons were sentenced to death for firing on members of the Irish Army in the course of military action. Land or religion had nothing to do with it. Both Alan Stanley and Eoghan Harris have compared them to Amish or Quakers. The comparison is bizarre in the extreme. Compared to the Cooneyites the Free Presbyterians are liberal ecumenical New-Age Buddhists. Originating in Co. Fermanagh about 1900, the Cooneyite movement spread to Scotland, England, France, Germany, USA, Canada and Australia. Their main enemies were the other Protestant churches, whom they regarded as corrupt and unbiblical, as bad as or worse than papists. There are newspaper reports of their activities instigating riots and street-fighting in Fermanagh, Newtownards, Suffolk (where the Pearsons bought farms with the compensation money) and various other places.
The Cooneyites believed that salvation is earned by militant missionary zeal, and is not a reward of simple faith in the Blood of the Lamb. They were scathing of what they called the Calvary farce. Their founding text is Matthew 10 (Chapter 10 of the Gospel according to Matthew). Here is a sample of Matthew 10:
… go, preach, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses. Go not into the way of the gentiles, but rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to their councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace but a sword. I am come to set a man at variance against his father and the daughter against her mother and the daughter in law against her mother in law. The brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child. And the children shall rise up against their parents and cause them to be put to death. Ye shall be hated by all men for my name’s sake, but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”
Hidden History or Hidden Agenda
The documented evidence shows that there was no sectarian murder, no atrocity, no land-grab. Given the availability of clearly documented information, why has RTÉ involved itself in such a grotesque travesty of the truth? What is the reason for the near-Cooneyite fervour of Niamh Sammon and her associates in their blinkered, irrational zeal for unfounded dogma? What is the agenda driving the Hidden History programme?
The historical revisionists describe the Irish independence movement as “revolution”; in the sense of reversal or overthrow of the constitutional, established and legitimate order of things. The revisionists have the objective of disabusing people of their inherited prejudice that the independence movement brought about liberation from an illegitimate power whose authority in Ireland was based on force, just as in many other countries around the world. This violent interference in other people’s countries is now being renewed on a global scale, and historical whitewashing of past crimes is now called for. Hence, revisionism in Irish history in particular and in colonial history generally.
So people like Mick Heaney and his companions whom the Pearsons opened fire on at the Cadamstown roadblock must be portrayed, not as democratic freedom fighters or resisters of Britain’s Black and Tan fascism, but as sectarian-murdering, ethnic-cleansing land-grabbers. It is possible that this revisionist agenda will succeed.
What other consequences follow from RTÉ’s falsification of history? Memory of the Pearsons had faded. The people of the area had suffered much from the Pearsons’ sectarian bigotry and their collaboration with the Black and Tans. But when the war was over they and their descendants were content to let bygones be bygones, and were reluctant to comment on the sordid conduct of the Pearsons. Paddy Heaney’s 2002 book, At the Foot of Slieve Bloom, describes the Pearson brothers as meeting their death bravely. This is a charitable way of describing the contempt and arrogance that they displayed to the end, even as, to their surprise, the deadly consequences of their actions finally engulfed them.
The Pearsons were commonplace collaborators with the Black and Tan terror. Apart from their grasping and bigoted qualities they were unremarkable people, best forgotten about. There is a note of shame, embarrassment and half-baked self-justification in Dave Pearson’s 1983 letter to Hilary Stanley (quoted in Alan Stanley’s book): “After 62 years I would like to forget this sordid affair”. Regrettably for all of us, the revisionist propaganda drive of Stanley, Harris and RTÉ’s Hidden History means that the Pearsons’ unsavoury character and sordid conduct can no longer remain quietly and discreetly buried with the two brothers in Killermogh graveyard.
Their 1921 fate was something the Pearsons brought upon themselves. But they did not bring this fresh, new disgrace upon themselves. That is entirely the handiwork of Stanley, Harris, Sammon and their academic allies.
[The above is expanded from on article originally published in Irish Political Review in August 2007]
[Pat and Niamh – the ‘Reel Story’
I should perhaps say something about my own relationship to this project. I had written on the subject, publishing the original Indymedia debate in hard copy as an Aubane Historical Society booklet. I found out about the Hidden History project in June 2007 from Paddy Heaney. I was intrigued by the approach that was described. The interview technique appeared to be hostile, aggressive and intimidating. In filmed interviews Offaly locals had demands sprung on them as to the identity of the members of the execution party. I thought this an odd approach, more designed for visual effect (a 'shifty' or 'guilty' refusal) than for getting at the information, which would have required the prior establishment of seriousness of purpose on all sides. The employment of silly interviewing trickery indicated some devious intent. After some difficulty I was able to make contact with Niamh Sammon. She was aware of my contribution to the discussion about the Pearsons, but implied that any contribution by me was unnecessary. I followed this up by letter and, when I mentioned RTÉ's "ethnic cleansing" version of the programme title, eventually received a reply.
I had taken the precaution of circulating my correspondence to RTÉ and to politicians.
Lo and behold, I was asked to make a case for why I should be interviewed. I had published an account that Sammon had admitted was known to her, but which she had chosen to ignore, so I declined to act the supplicant. Then, out of the blue, I was asked to appear for interview on August 28 on Kinnity Castle Hotel Co Offaly at 10 am. I drove there the evening before, as I live some distance away. Sammon did not appear until after 4 pm. that day and strung out what she said would be a 30 to 45-minute interview for over two hours. Two hours in which she appeared frustrated with my responses, and punctured by breaks for frequent trips by her out of the room to make what appeared to be telephone calls to her unseen advisors. I was suffering from a severe head cold, exacerbated by having had to wait around all day for apparently very busy people. I was not impressed, and it reinforced my impression of how the original Offaly people had been treated. They were not impressed either. As the attached Offaly Independent article demonstrates, they have withdrawn their support for the programme. They have done so in writing.]
RTE uses "ethnic cleansing" tag to describe programme - where did they get it? No one will own up. - click for detail
Where the executions took place - see section on 'Local geography' above - click for detail
The Phoenix picks up the story Oct 5 - "the mother of all revisionist polemics" - click to read
That Offaly Independent article in full - click to read