Over the weekend, Eoghan Harris firmly aimed at one of the most sacred cows in the south. In contrast to most of official Ireland, he viewed the first Blood Sunday through the prism of a Liam Weldon song, Dark Horse on the Wind, which warned how “the warriors leap from the earth to maim and kill their own”:
RTÉ’s uninterrupted stream of nationalist necrophilia with no compensation programs like Spotlight on the Troubles and Cops on the Frontline.
RTÉ’s latest offering, Bloody Sunday 1920, was one of the better documentaries and attempted to deal with the two murders that day. But it didn’t hammer home two things.
First, Michael Collins’ much-vaunted operation did little to incriminate British intelligence in Dublin, with only seven of the 15 killed were intelligence officers.
The rest of the victims consisted of two ordinary courts-martial, a RIC, two auxiliaries, and three innocent civilians who deserve a reminder.
Patrick Joseph McCormack, who bought horses in Ireland, came from a prominent Castlebar family. Leonard Wilde was a former monk and Thomas Smith of Morehampton Road was a Protestant landlord.
Second, the film failed to examine the moral of a botched operation that still incites retroactive tribal hostility in Sinn Féin and nationalist circles.
For years, Vinny Byrne’s cackling face cheerfully reassured prospective IRA recruits how justified and how easy it was to “poke” helpless men.
Don’t we mind that the Provos used Byrne and Bloody Sunday to justify the most brutal murders in Northern Ireland?
But it is Michael Collins himself who has to bear the moral responsibility for the murder, which in half of the cases is cold-blooded.
Far from the clinical Collins precision of folklore, the attempt to wipe out British intelligence was a sloppy operation that added names (and incorrect addresses) on the morning of the murders.
He continues …
When I mention Michael Collins’ moral responsibility, I also think of the team’s youngest killer, Charlie Dalton, who was 16 years old when Collins recruited him.
Dalton had just turned 17 when he shot and killed two British officers, Dowling and Montgomery, on Bloody Sunday.
Charlie Dalton was shaped for life by what he did that day. As a high-ranking officer in the Free State, he helped murder three innocent Fianna boys near the Red Cow in 1922.
What happened that day in Croke Park in response to Collins’ previous murders was an atrocity. But an entire country mourns “our” dead, while Collins’ victims are treated as collateral damage.
But we lose our humanity when we turn others into abstract figures that can just as casually be blown away as in Natural Born Killers.
In order to preserve our humanity, we have to give “our” IRA victims a face and not look away when they die.
Let me put a face to Captain WF Newberry, a court martial who was shot dead in front of his wife on Lower Pembroke Street.
Captain Newberry was not an intelligence officer. Few intelligence officers are on duty with a pregnant woman sleeping next to them.
Bill Stapleton, who shot him, recalled without regret: “He was in his pajamas and when he tried to escape through the window he was shot several times. The man’s wife stood in the corner of the room in a frightened and hysterical state. “
But he evades the desperate bloody details. He and Joe Leonard fired through the inner bedroom door that had blocked the hunted couple. They wounded Newberry, who ran to the window, where they shot him repeatedly.
His body was hanging out the window. His wife could only throw a coat over his body.
The greatest tragedy, however, was that Captain Newberry was already married in England: his “wife” was a woman who was pregnant with his child.
For three weeks she seemed traumatized to hear the laughter of Stapleton and Leonard as they washed off her husband’s blood on a sink. She died as nameless as her stillborn child.
Researchers do not know her name to this day. But she was most likely Irish.
I see the Abbey Theater and the GAA mark “our” Bloody Sunday by commissioning 14 writers to write short monologues commemorating “our” Croke Park victims.
By ignoring some of the IRA’s sacrifices, the abbey withdrew from the redemptive power of art to show us each other’s face.
It would have been more cathartic if some of Collins’ victims had been brought to life. More dramatic too – Patrick McCormack and Wilde lived a life classy enough to add some humor. And the nameless “Mrs. Newberry” is the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Undoubtedly, a deep reflex on Brexit has given way to a wave of anti-British sentiment in the south, but with this Twitter account reminding almost daily of the stories that tell of our own greatness, it often depends on eliminating difficult facts that in the way are the stories we like to tell about our preferred size …
# That day in 1974, the IRA murdered Heather Thompson, 17. The tank attendant was shot dead along with the Crumlin Road manager. A driver stopped to buy fuel. When no one came to his car, he went into the office and found the two bodies. Both had been shot in the head #OTD pic.twitter.com/uI8iMh55sw
– OnThisDayTheIRA (@OnThisDayPIRA) November 23, 2020
Irish-American literature professor Joseph Campbell once warned us about the simplistic tropes of religious fundamentalism, but the parallels hold true for the more secular types with which we are so familiar in both Ireland’s political and cultural traditions. Such abstractions can harm the future health of our society:
The moral order must catch up with the moral necessities of actual life in the here and now. And we don’t do that. The religion of the old days belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. If you go back, you will no longer be in tune with history.
Photo by stevepb is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA
Mick is the founding editor of Slugger. He has written articles on the impact of the internet on politics and the media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty