Dervla Kirwan had a problem last night. She was featured on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the producers clearly decided that they weren’t going to waste the fact that Dervla is Michael Collins’s great-grandniece. Dervla herself said she was very proud of the great man and of his brother, her great-grandfather, who also fought in what’s commonly called the War of Independence, although since it didn’t achieve independence, that’s an odd name for it. The thing was, Dervla wanted to get some vivid detail on her great-grandfather’s role in things, but she didn’t want it to be, um, too vivid. So she knew he’d been part of a flying column in West Cork, and she knew that he’d been involved in violent operations, so what did she choose to highlight? An encounter where he waved a burning brand to warn his comrades and so saved their lives. You get it? He was in the flying column to save lives, not to take them.
We got more of the same when Dervla pored over her forebear’s records. After the establishment of the twenty-six county state, her great-grandfather joined the Irish army, and on his records he had to fill out ‘Previous Service’. He wrote ‘I served in the IRA for three years’. Cue alarm bells. Dervla looks worried and says that that word, IRA, makes her feel uneasy. And she wanted to stress that the IRA being talked about was a very different IRA from that involved in the Troubles in the north and elsewhere over the past forty years. Not the same at all. Completely different. The old IRA fought for Irish independence and the more recent IRA fought for, um, well, Irish independence, yes, but in a different way, they shot people and killed them and exploded bombs, whereas the old IRA, um, shot people and…Look, they’re different. And yes, there was a Sinn Féin party back then, just like now, but that Sinn Féin party was different from the present one because they, well, they believed in Irish unity, a 32-county republic, whereas ….
It’s a hopeless, hilarious argument, trying to convince yourself and everyone else that, as my late mother-in-law used to say, the old IRA “were nice” and the more recent version was un-nice.
There are just two possible reasons why people march up this logical cul-de-sac. The first is that, because the IRA violence of the 1970s, 80s and 90s was more recent, it also looks a lot rawer. The second possible reason is that people see clearly the link between the goals and methods of the old IRA and the more recent one, but willfully close their eyes to the link because, as Dervla says, it makes them very uncomfortable.