Republican Cobh

By now, most of us are used to reading accounts of the struggle for independence one hundred years ago. Many of us will have read insider accounts of life as an IRA volunteer in the north during the second half of the twentieth century. These more recent accounts , by such as Sean O’Callaghan or Eamon Collins, are accounts by people who had been in the IRA but now rejected it as a blood-thirsty, unjustifiable and criminal organisation. In Republican Cobh and the East Cork Volunteers since 1913, Kieran McCarthy provides an insight into republicanism in Cork from the early years of the twentieth century right up to the present.

There are detailed accounts of the part played by the East Cork IRA during the Tan War, of the futile Operation Harvest in th 1950s and early 1960s. It follows events through Bloody Sunday and the impact that terrible day had on southern republicans. And it takes us up to the present day, when an end to partition and British rule in Ireland seems a very real prospect.

This is political history in close-up, showing internal feuds and disillusionment and firmness of resolve. In other words, it’s history involving real people living through periods of enormous stress.  Here’s the author describing a meeting which featured Dessie O’Malley and John Cushnahan:

“Dessie O’Malley didn’t look at all well, and every time I glanced a smile in his direction, he looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel. My instinct told me that O’Malley was motivated by a pure hatred of republicanism and rightly or wrongly, that was what he believed. Cushnahan on the other hand was a totally different kettle of fish. He was the opportunist who knew he was going nowhere up north and grabbed the chance to jump into bed with a like-minded party in the south when the opportunity presented itself.”

The book has many strengths, not least its author’s ability to bring an encounter or crisis to life in vivid detail, so we see and hear the human beings involved. But as the scope of the book indicates, moving from 1913 to the present day, it makes clear that republicans in the north were not abandoned by everyone south of the border: there were those who took an active interest in the conflict in the north and acted on their convictions.

The author explains how Cobh was rechristened Queenstown after a visit by Queen Victoria, and how many Irish people in Cobh were stout unionists, on the grounds that the local people in many instances put bread on the table working for the extensive British army barracks there, and if the British left, so would their livelihoods.

But perhaps the most powerful portion of the book occurs in the Introduction. There McCarthy gives the lie to those who would tell us that the republicans involved in the Tan War were men of courage whose deeds must be honoured one hundred years later; this assertion always being coupled with a denunciation of the criminal and blood-thirsty actions of republicans in the North during the Troubles.

Leo Varadkar has a huge oil-painting of Michael Collins in his office. When did you last hear the  Tanaiste comment on the uncomfortable facts detailed below?

“Historical records for instance show that Michael Collins ordered or approved of the destruction of the printing presses of a number of newspapers that published anti republican editorials, the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution among them. Between 1919 and 1923, three Cork Examiner reporters were shot for writing reports which were deemed to be anti-republican. Some historians differ as to the actual reason why these men were killed, from them being mistaken as British agents leaving the Examiner offices, to a belief that some were actually shot by agents of the ‘Anti Sinn Féin Society’ engaged in black propaganda. A more common practice at the time, however, was for reporters to be arrested (kidnapped) and forced to write retractions to their earlier reports at the point of a gun. Michael Collins was indeed a hero to many, but he became a hero in the eyes of the later political establishment principally because of the legacy he bequeathed to them. The irony, however, was that if Michael Collins was born in South Armagh or West Belfast in 1960, instead of West Cork in 1890, he most likely would have been viewed and held with the same level of contempt that the southern political establishment reserved for that later generation of republicans. Indeed, added to the ghostly and heroic names of Bobby Sands, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell and others, may well have been H-Block hunger striker Michael Collins in 1981.”

Had Kieran McCarthy not written another word, those few lines, asserting an often-skirted truth, would make the work worthwhile.  Read it and learn.

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