Separating fact from folklore

UCC historian John Borgonovo casts doubt on some claims made in the TV3 series ‘In The Name Of The Republic’

TV3’s TWO-PART documentary series, In the Name of the Republic has created a stir among historians, though perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.

The programme illustrates the danger of accepting local folklore as historical fact, especially during this much-heralded “decade of centenaries”.

In the first episode, viewers met an aged Co Laois man who related his boyhood encounter with a neighbouring farmer, who claimed he had dug up a body while ploughing his field, one of three corpses supposedly buried there by the IRA.

Series host Prof Eunan O’Halpin (of Trinity College Dublin) told the audience his research had uncovered two civilians abducted by the Tipperary IRA and “never seen again”. The rest of the episode attempted to prove his theory that they were interred in this Laois field.

At considerable expense, a team of forensic archaeologists dug up the fine pasture, before informing O’Halpin that no corpses could be located. Meanwhile, O’Halpin travelled to Dublin to request the release of Department of Justice files relating to his two missing men.

The episode concluded with O’Halpin opening the sealed files, only to learn that both had survived the conflict. They were never killed by the IRA, much less secretly buried in Laois. The obvious lesson here is: Finish your research before you rent the JCB.

Undeterred, in the second episode, O’Halpin moves to more fertile ground in Cork City and Knockraha, a village a few miles east of Cork. In recent years, the area has attracted considerable speculation about the killing of alleged informers, especially Protestants.

Much interest stems from Gerard Murphy’s 2011 book, The Year of Disappearances, which received overwhelmingly negative reviews from historians concerned by his over-reliance on folklore and supposition. Murphy’s unlikely theories of covert revolutionary activity in Cork included the IRA’s unrecorded killing of up to 30 Freemasons in the spring of 1922, and the drowning of Protestant schoolchildren by IRA intelligence agent Josephine Brown.

The absence of such dramatic events in contemporary and later records (civilian, military, governmental, and religious) leads me to conclude that they did not occur. I was surprised, therefore, by the sight of Murphy relating additional theories for In the Name of the Republic.

My own research indicates that a total of 10 Protestant civilians were executed by the Cork City IRA from 1916 to 1923. One of them was a member of the Church of Ireland Boys Brigade.

The strong majority of IRA civilian victims came from Cork’s large population of Catholic ex-servicemen. It is unclear precisely how many people the IRA executed in Knockraha. Yet In the Name of the Republic is not afraid to provide an unlikely high figure, based on oral testimony from Martin Corry, the local IRA commander in Knockraha and later Fianna Fáil TD.

Recorded on audio tape by a local historian in the early 1970s (interviews now held in the Cork City and County Archives), the cackling Corry confidently tallies the IRA’s Knockraha victims at an even 60. These include “17 or 18 Camerons”, members of the Cameron Highland Regiment based at nearby Cobh.

However, in 1922, the British army reported only three missing soldiers from that unit, any of whom could have simply deserted. In the audio tapes, two other interviewees in the room express scepticism at Corry’s total of 60 victims, though their doubts were not heard by viewers of In the Name of the Republic.

Corry answers them by recollecting an IRA pension submission made by the “governor” of the IRA’s Knockraha prison. Surely, that pension documentation is more reliable than Corry’s recollection of what it said 40 years later? To be clear, police, military, IRA, and government records of missing persons cannot account for the number of Knockraha corpses claimed in the programme.

The broadcast figure contradicts Corry’s testimony elsewhere. During another omitted portion of the interview, Corry estimates 30 people were buried in Knockraha. A moment later this figure jumps to 37.

In the 2012 book, Terror in Ireland, O’Halpin reported that Corry’s own IRA pension application claimed 27 Knockraha victims. Even that number is considerably higher than my estimate, based on extensive research.

Overstatement was not unknown to Corry. I was disappointed that viewers did not hear another of his sensational wartime experiences. During an omitted portion of the interview, Corry described his ghostly encounter with a supernatural beast in Knockraha.

He recalled: “The thing came out right through the back door of the loft. And the back door of the loft was closed and padlocked. And he was about the size of a calf. A young suckling calf, you know. Black like a black dog. [It] came out and stood on the top step. And he made a grab for the pocket for the skit [gun]. And Daithi [unintelligible] brought a hand halfway down and said, ‘Ah Martin,’ says he, ‘don’t fire.’ He [the beast] hopped down in front of us at the [unintelligible] and hopped from that over on top of a gate 50 yards away. And he disappeared after that. Well I wasn’t afraid... But I could never make off [sic] what he was.”

Though it could make interesting viewing, I would advise against TV3 commissioning an eminent zoologist and a team of paranormal investigators to locate this flying beast. Instead, Corry’s ghoulish recollections should be considered critically, and viewed against written documentation from the time. Enough genuine nightmarish deeds have taken place in Knockraha without adding dubious ones.

Sealed Department of Justice files would help clarify this murky revolutionary history. As Prof O’Halpin argues in the programme, the time has come for the State to release all missing person files from this period. An open democratic society should not withhold information on events which occurred roughly 90 years ago. O’Halpin has been a persistent advocate of such open access.

Unfortunately, in this programme he also demonstrates the unsatisfactory alternative for historians: continued dependence on folklore, leading to fruitless excavations of Laois pastures and unwise speculation in Cork.

*John Borgonovo of the school of history at UCC has written extensively on the War of Independence and Civil War. His most recent book is The Battle for Cork: July-August 1922

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