Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Response to Niall Meehan and Padraig Og O'Ruairc in History Ireland

Hereunder is my response to the letter of Niall Meehan and Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc in History Ireland concerning the 2nd edition of The Year of Disappearances (HI Nov/Dec 2011). This was published on the online edition of HI (Jan/Feb 2012), though not in the print edition.

I am glad to be in a position to let Niall Meehan and Pádraig Óg Ó’Ruairc (HI, November/December 2011) know that any errors – mostly minor transcriptional and/or typographical errors – that they found in the first edition of The Year of Disappearances have been corrected as part of the process of bringing out a 2nd edition. Any other issues raised by academics in the wake of the book coming out originally have also been addressed as a matter of course.  The main reason, however, for bringing out a 2nd edition so soon was that I had found significant new material just after the original book went to print when it was too late to include it and felt that this should go out as soon as was practicable.
However, let us look again at the issues raised by Messrs Meehan and O’Ruairc lest there be any confusion about them. The first concerns the various transcriptions of a line from Connie Neenan’s account to Ernie O’Malley of the execution of alleged teenage ‘spies’ by the Cork city IRA. Pádraig Óg Ó’Ruairc took me to task for mistranscribing one word from this passage in January of this year. In Mr. Ó’Ruairc’s reading the passage goes:
We did not know then that the British had organized the youngsters of the YMCA to track our men. They were mostly from good families. It was then only 15 months after the murder of Tomas MacCurtain that we learned that a kid of 15 had tracked him home that night. Both kids [??] confessed their trackings and they were killed. We thought that this had stopped their YMCA org.’
In the first edition of The Year of Disappearances I transcribed the beginning of the second last sentence as ‘3 were friends’, on the basis that O’Malley usually wrote numerals as numbers and usually had a downstroke in his capital ‘B’s. As anybody who knows O’Malley’s handwriting will tell you, it is difficult to decipher at the best of times. On the basis of my own notes I believed I was correct at the time and let this be known. However, since this was a trap set for me by Mr. Ó’Ruairc with the aid of a Sunday Tribune journalist (presumably in an effort to discredit my book on the basis of minor textural errors), my response to it has to be seen in this context. If anyone doubts that this was the case all they need do is read the article in question.[1]
However, I took Mr Ó’Ruairc’s suggestion on board for the second edition on the basis that he had a better opportunity to study the text than I had and had consulted experts on O’Malley’s handwriting. So I changed my interpretation accordingly. I thought this was the end of the matter and am now surprised to see it being raised again. In fact this is my fourth time publically responding to this. If anyone wishes to read a more detailed response to this they can do so on my website.[2] I think though that Mr Ó’Ruairc is being more than a little disingenuous in suggesting that these ‘kids’ were of ‘no specified religion’. If they were members of the YMCA they were Protestants of one denomination or another. So Mr. O’Ruairc’s statement that ‘there is no possibility whatsoever that Neenan referred to the killing of three Protestant teenagers anywhere in his account with O’Malley’ may itself have to be reviewed. In fact in an interview he gave in the 1970s Neenan stated that the first YMCA boy ‘in his confession he implicated a few others’.[3] He also mentions these events in his memoir.[4] Would he have said ‘they mostly came from good families’ if the number was one or none? Mick Murphy also confirmed on several occasions that Protestant boys were executed.[5]) Either way, depending on how you interpret it, what the above account states is that either two, three or four teenage members of the YMCA were executed as ‘spies’ on the south side of Cork city.
In my book also I quote from a Times article entitled ‘Life in Cork’ published on 18 May 1921. This was written by an ex-officer and journalist Wilfrid Ewart, though he is unnamed as author in the newspaper account. A few years later he published a book on his travels in Ireland, which I was not aware of at the time at the time I went to print. In this he gives a somewhat more detailed account of a kidnapping by ‘a mysterious individual’ that took place on the Blackrock Road in Cork in the spring of 1921. Messrs Meehan and Ó’Ruairc state that ‘an Irish Times letter [of] 18 January 2011 informed Murphy that he had misinterpreted [this] article in the London Times’. In fact, the letter that ‘informed’ me was written by Niall Meehan himself and in it he misinterpreted the article a lot more spectacularly than I may have done. He claimed ‘that as Wilfrid Ewart passed an agitated group he overheard a description of Mr Murphy’s ‘mysterious individual’ as ‘some bastard of an Englishman’’. In fact, when quoted in full, it gives quite a different impression: On a ‘calm spring evening’ in May 1921, Ewart wrote, he was making his way back from Blackrock to Cork city: ‘Near to the city, at an open ground where children play, high commotion prevailed. Mothers, fathers, children and strangers were all jabbering away in a crowd, pointing in the direction of the town. Somebody’s child, it appeared, had been kidnapped by a mysterious individual in a motorcar.’ What Ewart actually overheard next was: ‘‘No Irishman did that,’ caught my ear as I passed; ‘it’s some bastard of an Englishman.’’ Which is not the same thing at all.
In other words the quotation fails to ascribe the kidnapping to one side or the other. In my book I look at the possibility that this ‘child’ may have been snatched by British forces before going on to suggest that it is more likely that he was taken by the IRA. As the evidence for this is far too long and detailed to be included here I suggest that readers consult The Year of Disappearances (2nd Ed), chapters 55 and 56. What is still at issue is the date on which the kidnapping took place. I suggested that it took place on 12 May because on that day Robert Parker, a near neighbour of Josephine O’Donoghue’s, who lived overlooking the piece of open ground where the kidnapping took place, was shot and wounded. Niall Meehan suggests, on the basis of Ewart’s extended account, that the kidnapping took place about two weeks earlier, on 23-26 April. Mr. Meehan is probably correct in this. But it doesn’t alter the fact that the kidnapping took place, or where it took place, or that it took place in the time period I was talking about. Indeed, all it does is increase the likelihood that Parker, a Methodist businessman, was shot because he was a loyalist and because of where he lived, rather than because he may have witnessed the abduction. (The context here is that three other Protestant near neighbours of Josephine O’Donoghues were either shot or kidnapped and executed by the IRA – and Josephine was certainly involved in at least two of these.) Mr. Meehan’s objections, bar the date, have already been dealt with – and effectively dismissed – in the new edition of The Year of Disappearances (see Chapter 55 and footnote 3 on page 389).
The other issue raised by Messrs Meehan and O’Ruairc concerns an error that I found myself in the original text. This was where I described the Cork city IRA as having executed a schoolboy called Edward Kenny. I discovered just before Christmas that he had in fact been shot in West Cork. I resolved to correct the error as soon as possible, so I removed all references to him from the text. Since this is clearly flagged in the 2nd edition – as a footnote to Chapter 28 (footnote 20, p 370), there can be no confusion about it. The important point is that these issues – minor and all as they are in the overall context of the book – have now been corrected or addressed in the text, which renders them redundant. Describing, as Messrs Meehan and Ó’Ruairc have done, a book as ‘valueless’ and suggesting that ‘it should not be treated seriously as history’ and haranguing my publisher, as they have done on numerous occasions, on the basis of hair-splitting errors that have already been corrected must surely constitute some kind of literary (if not historical) record.

[1] Sunday Tribune, 16/1/2011.
[3] Connie Neenan interview Belt 7 PR7/1, Cork City and County Archives
[4] Connie Neenan Memoir 1916-1940, PR7/7, Cork City and County Archives
[5] Year of Disappearances, Chapter 17, pp 95-99.