Victoria White: I know now why my English grandmother hated Cork

History returns to public debate with the coming centenaries of the 1920-23 period. However, Victoria White writes that what we choose to ignore is as important as what we choose to commemorate.
Victoria White: I know now why my English grandmother hated Cork

William Edward Parsons and his mother photographed shortly before his execution by the IRA. Picture: National Archives
William Edward Parsons and his mother photographed shortly before his execution by the IRA. Picture: National Archives

So the Civil War is finally over.

It will be interesting to see what version of history Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, working together, allow to emerge as we enter the disputed centenaries of the 1920-23 period.

Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin made some political capital out of Fine Gael’s difficulty in attempting to convene a memorial to fallen RIC men back in January.

Amazing to think that was a big deal just a couple of months back.

When the worst of the Covid crisis over, history is bound to return to the political agenda, however.

I hope it does and not only because it would be better than contemplating deaths happening in real time but also because there are still a lot of bodies underground from the period following the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921 and the cessation of Civil War hostilities in May 1923 which have never been acknowledged anywhere by this State.

I feel I am the kin of some of those people. By blood I’m not, but as a Protestant, and particularly a Protestant with Cork roots, I feel their deaths as those of my ancestors.

Among the bodies unacknowledged so far by this State are those of Protestants murdered by the IRA in Cork city and surroundings in 1921 and 1922.

I kept thinking of them, back in January, while the RIC controversy was going on. I thought about the dead British soldier supposedly found under the floorboards of the now deserted home of Martin Corry, Fianna Fáil TD for East Cork from 1927 to 1969.

He was probably shot in a case of mistaken identity and the IRA denied all knowledge of the body.

I thought about 15-year-old Edward Parsons, seemingly abducted and shot dead in Glounthane in March 1922 on suspicion of being a spy. An account of his torture and execution was later given by Martin Corry as the perpetrator.

Young Parsons was told he would be hanged but if he put up his hand and was prepared to talk, he would be shot instead.

A noose was put around his neck and his feet weren’t far off the ground before he signalled his willingness to talk and he apparently confessed that there was a small-scale informers’ ring operating out of the YMCA in Cork.

He was shot and buried on Corry’s farm, as it seems were more than 30 others who Corry claimed he “sowed oats” over.

In The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork 1921-1922 (2010), historian Gerard Murphy questions much of Corry’s version of events, most of all the claim that the killings of Parsons and his so-called associates happened before the Treaty.

Murphy shows convincingly that many of these killings happened in the first three months of 1922 as the local IRA attempted to round up and dispose of any supposed informers.

He attributes responsibility for the killings not to a rogue element within the IRA, but to Florrie O’Donoghue who was head of intelligence in Cork at the time, and his wife, Josephine Marchment, who he suggests may have personally abducted one of the teenagers near her house off the Blackrock Road in May 1921.

He speculates also that she may have been involved in the drowning of YMCA-connected boys in Cork Harbour.

By Murphy’s reckoning, O’Donoghue and Marchment were responsible for the killing of several of their Protestant neighbours for spurious reasons, including the inoffensive father and son, James and Fred Blemens, so that nearly all of the Protestants living near her home were gone by 1924.

It was, says Murphy, “the most dangerous place in Cork if you were a Protestant between 1920 and 1923.”

O’Donoghue and Marchment are still ascribed mythic status by many to this day. In fact, Marchment would be featuring in a Cork City Libraries exhibition entitled on Cork women of the Revolution highlighting “the bravery and idealism of the women of Cork”, if it were not closed to the public.

A veil of almost absolute silence shrouds this murderous side of their astonishing story.

Murphy points to a sad little advertisement in this newspaper on March 25, 1922, asking for information on the whereabouts of 15-year-old Edward Parsons; “information gladly received by his parents.”

They received no information except from the IRA who told them to “hold out no hopes as there were a lot shot.”

It is curiously poignant to read Murphy’s account of finding three trees standing in what is now Frankfield Golf Club where he was told the bodies of three murdered Protestant teenagers lay. They may have been picked up with the YMCA touring car on the morning of the Truce.

Killings like these, which happened after the Treaty, were often not even reported in the papers.

In the words of IRA man Mick Murphy, the people “just disappeared” and both Civil War sides, with the passive collusion of the Protestant community, have kept it that way for a century.

I didn’t know anything about these killings until I read Murphy’s book despite the fact that from growing up as a Protestant in South Dublin, I know nearly all the names.

The Borough of Cork was half-emptied of its Protestants by 1926, compared with the 1911 Census; though many went to England and the North, others moved to Dublin and I was brought up with their descendants.

This was desperately sad for Cork and was surely among the reasons that the city had a somewhat shocked and deserted air for much of the 20th century. A port city thrives on the diversity which has now returned.

Florrie O’Donoghue’s comment that Protestants “got control on the business of Cork but recently they are intermarrying with Catholics. It is a question of time now before they disappear” explains a lot.

What astonishes me is how the outrages against Protestants in the city and the subsequent flight of their people has been expunged from the national consciousness.

My English grandparents lived off the College Road where many crimes were committed. They were members of the Low Church Protestant community typically targeted and my grandfather may have been suspected by the IRA if he was a Freemason, which he probably was.

Why did they stay?

Maybe worse times awaited them back in England. It is no longer a mystery to me, however, why my poor Granny hated Cork and longed for home. It’s more of a mystery why we spent decades laughing at her for it. We simply didn’t know and were never told.

My father, Jack White, wrote a book about Protestants in Ireland called Minority Report (1974) which did not mention these killings, surely because he had never heard of them.

That was surely because it was not useful for the Protestants who stayed to remember. They forgot and that’s fine except when we are trying to commemorate.

To commemorate is to remember. The new government will need to reconvene the Expert Advisory Group on commemorations because we need to try to remember everything.

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