We should learn to separate the historical facts from the fiction

WHILE attending university in Texas in 1964 I was about to play golf one day when somebody asked if he could join me. I was going to agree, until I saw the man was black.

I had never seen a black person play with a white person there before, and I said to myself that I had not come to Texas to change things.

But if I refused, it would mean that I had become racist, so I welcomed him. He introduced himself as Zack Johnson.

While playing the second hole, two white golfers playing another hole sneered at me, “Nigger lover!” Zack asked if bothered me. “No,” I replied. “What narrow-minded people think never bothers me.” Yet only minutes earlier I had momentarily considered what narrow-minded people might think. I would be ashamed ever after, had I refused his request.

We played together many times thereafter but never without somebody trying to insult one of us. From that day I never again gave a second thought to what narrow-minded people might think about anything, especially in the 16 years I wrote this column. Sometimes in life we are faced with instant choices that we may later regret. On January 20, 1921 Con Brosnan — who is famous for leading Kerry to its first three all-Ireland football championships in a row in 1931 — had a horrific decision to make. He was laying in wait in a pub to ambush Tobias O’Sullivan, the head constable of the RIC in Listowel.

A colleague on the footpath on the other side of the road would walk parallel with the head constable as he walked home for dinner. When his colleague reached a certain point, Brosnan raced out of the pub with his pistol at the ready. To his horror he saw that O’Sullivan had his five-year-old son, John, by the hand.

Brosnan had to decide instantly, and he shot O’Sullivan dead. He regretted it for the remainder of his life, and probably all the more so when he had young children of his own. Many of those involved in the War of Independence had memories they wished to forget. Having studied the period I came to the conclusion that those who did most of the fighting generally talked least, with the exceptions of Dan Breen and Tom Barry. Some of the others who talked a lot did very little else.

All real heroes were human and made mistakes. Those mistakes should be recognised as well as their achievements. Indeed, people usually learn more from their mistakes. Éamon de Valera was rightly accused of helping to rouse passions that led to the Civil War, but so did Michael Collins in orchestrating the kidnapping of 42 unionists in February 1922, and the murder of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson in London that June.

Once the fighting began de Valera did try hard to stop it but his Fine Gael opponents were never prepared to admit the truth, and our politics suffered as a result.

“We have arrested the man who called up anarchy and crime, and who did more damage than anyone could have conceived, or than was ever done by the British,” Kevin O’Higgins declared after de Valera’s arrest in August 1923. “Through him, and at his instigation, a number of young blackguards had robbed banks, blown up bridges, and wrecked railways.”

The government instructed the Attorney General to prosecute de Valera “with the least possible delay”. A considerable amount of the Long Fellow’s correspondence had been captured during the Civil War, but much of it demonstrated that he was trying to end the fight.

The attorney general reported that the only “real evidence” to substantiate any charge of misconduct during the Civil War was an inflammatory letter that de Valera wrote to the secretary of Cumman na mBan on January 5, 1923. In view of the enormity of the government’s accusations, it would have been utterly ludicrous if de Valera were only charged with inciting Cumman na mBan, of all organisations. Yet he was held without trial for almost a year as a supposed danger to “public safety.”

One day I was horrified to hear an eminent Irish historian intimate that our heroes should be above criticism. “We need our heroes,” he said. But surely we shouldn’t turn them into false gods!

In April 1996, Brian Looney, then editor of this newspaper, sent me a letter forwarded to him by a member of the board. It suggested that I was anti-national and a combination of Eamonn Dunphy, Bruce Arnold and Conor Cruise O’Brien. He asked how I would respond.

I replied that he was not paying me as much as any of them, much less the three of them together. His call seemed particularly ironic in view of the column I had already submitted for the following day. I asked if he had read it. “No,” he replied. “Did you do it again?”

There was a paedophile scandal in the news at the time and I quoted Pádraig Pearse’s poem — “Little Lad of Tricks” — about kissing a boy. One verse ran:

There is a fragrance in your kiss

That I have not found yet

In the kisses of women

Or in the honey of their bodies.

As the 80th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion was approaching, I also wrote about Pearse’s glorification of death in the First World War. “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields,” Pearse wrote. “Such August homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives gladly given for love of country.”

Whoever wrote that was “a blithering idiot,” James Connolly remarked. It certainly was a vile piece of twaddle that should be recognised as such.

The unquestioning celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 fed the tensions in Northern Ireland that led to the Troubles. It was Captain James Kelly of our Military Intelligence who came up with the idea of providing arms for Northern nationalists.

“It is now necessary to harness all opinion in the State in a concerted drive towards achieving the aim of unification,” he wrote to Defence Minister Jim Gibbons on August 23, 1969. “This means accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort, as the ultimate solution.”

“If civil war embracing the area was to result because of unwillingness to accept that war is the continuation of politics by other means,” he added, “it would be a far greater evil for the Irish nation.” The Arms Crisis was not just an attempt to arm Northern nationalists; it was a hair-brained plot to end partition — by civil war, if necessary.

Charles Haughey was part of this patently unconstitutional plot. Frank Aiken, who knew about civil war, warned Fianna Fáil and duly quit politics over Haughey’s ratification as a party candidate in 1973. Haughey was a false god, and it’s time we understood the cost of political idolatry. In five years time we will be celebrating the centenary of the Easter Rebellion. The revival of Sinn Féin is a grim warning of the dangers ahead. We should learn from our real history, and not be deceived by the political mythology of the past century.

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