[Below is a shortened version of my interview with Tim Pat Coogan in my book ‘Whose Past Is It Anyway?’ – the ideal Christmas present…You’ve bought it already? Now that’s what I call clever.]
Tim Pat Coogan mentioned that he was working on a book about the Famine when I interviewed him. Since then, the book has come out and he’s received all sorts of hostile responses for the title (The Famine Plot) and the content of his book. He’s even been refused a visa to the US. All of which will help, I hope, to generate even greater publicity and sales.
He’s a big, warm, fluent man, whose head is filled with Irish history, political and personal.
“My father had an excellent, very strongly nationalist library. As quite a small boy I learned about figures in Irish history that you wouldn’t learn about in school, like Cahir O’Doherty and Galloping O’Hogan, and obviously the great O’Neill, Sarsfield, and figures like Parnell. So I had a strong grasp of Irish history , from a nationalist perspective, I suppose, but I broadened that out. I was always interested in history and in writing; and living here on the east coast, you got BBC broadcasts and television when nobody else did. That was a kind of window on the world, seeing ministers being put on the spot in current affairs programmes and so on.”
He attended Blackrock Collge and his mentor there was the history teacher, Fr Carroll. The priest rang up Vivian de Valera of the Irish Press and said that he “had a boy who would either turn out a genius or break his heart. I regretfully never managed either”. But the phone-call did get him a toe-hold in journalism, in which he worked for nearly thirty-five years.
He sees the Covenant and the Larne gun-running as all “part of a seamless garment” with Easter 1916. “ But I don’t know whether I would use the word ‘celebrate’ for any of the three centenaries; I would use the word ‘commemorate’.” He laments the absence of such distinctions in Irish life.
“People take a very simplistic, today’s-headline-or-soundbite view of history. When Martin McGuinness decided to go into southern politics at the time of the presidential election, the seagulls rose up in the media and there was tremendous denunciation, as if this were something extraordinarily foreign to Irish politics. Every single party on the island entered the democratic arena or the parliament with a gun in its pocket or else at home in the store. And that included the unionists, the Labour party, and of course the various strands of the Irish Party. Both Fine Gael and de Valera and his people came into the Dail with guns”.
On the subject of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, he speaks of Lloyd George’s surprise after meeting Sir James Craig, that what he’d thought of as a nine-county Ulster was going to be, for Craig, a six-county Ulster.
“So they made it a state where they would be safe by using the laws to discriminate and gerrymander constituencies against the Catholics. It was intended that they would have an upper chamber, which would give the Papishes some sort of say in the north, and they would have PR, but they knocked both those things out because they had this siege mentality, a citadel mentality”.
Things have changed, he believes.
“I mean, the admission by Trimble that the six counties had been a cold house for nationalists seems to indicate that the next logical step over the coming years would be to make the house warm, to have some sort of a welcome sign somewhere in the house – a fáilte. I imagine it would only be neighbourly and dignified modern political behaviour for the unionist organisers of the Covenant commemoration to invite southern visitors, certainly to invite the MLAs of the Sinn Féin party to it, and that all parties would comport themselves with dignity. “
And he thinks those organising the Easter Rising commemorations have a similar obligation.
“I most definitely think unionists should be invited to the Easter 1916 commemorations. I very often find it difficult to invade the mind of a nationalist politician, or those of the Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil stripe, so to take over the interior working of Mr Poots’s ..I suppose I can call it intellectual activity – I find that rather unfathomable. But the political situation is evolving so fast. We’re in Europe now. And the six counties may think they’re extraneous to all the crises in the euro and southern Ireland; they’re not. They can go down the tubes even further and faster than the south can.”
As to the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, he looks to young people.
“They don’t see an abrogation of unity in acknowledging that so many Irishmen fell in that battle. I think there is a valid intellectual argument that they were misled and that they fell in an imperial war while they thought they were defending plucky little Belgium or that in some way it was going to help the Irish Home Rule movement. I think you should recognise there were brave people on both sides and that according to their lights, they were doing the right thing”.
He’s very struck by the changes in northern nationalism during his lifetime.
“In my younger days going up to the north, there wouldn’t be the slightest possibility of seeing young nationalists, Catholics, on the road with hurling stick or going to a football match with obvious GAA gear. They’d be rousted by the RUC; they’d be lucky to escape a kicking. And now what do you find? You find that the PSNI have joined in football matches with them.”
He believes the Ulster Covenant signing came out of a state of fear among unionist people.
“Now that fear has demonstrably lessened. The recognition by the south of the north, everything that’s enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, tells you that there shouldn’t be problems with centenaries. As to the 1916 commemorations, I can’t see modern Sinn Féin being triumphalist. I certainly can’t see the Dublin Government being allowed to by the electorate. But the manifestation of your own identity is not to deny somebody else their identity. And there is a Green tide. The fact is that there are hundreds and thousands of people between Croke Park and Casement Park, and six counties teams have been winning All-Irelands. I mean look at Tyrone, Derry, Armagh – all those places. There is a message in it. And the message is, as Parnell said many, many years ago: no man can set a barrier to the onward march of a nation”.