Saving Ireland from ‘the revisionists’, or firefighting the truth?

If you think northerners are bad at rucking over history, try this controversy over one documentary programme about Richard and Abraham Pearson, two Protestant brothers were killed by the IRA back in June 1921, at their home in Offaly has fanned some very large flames on an RTE phone-in programme. Ann Marie Hourihane in today’s Irish Times picks up the story:

Irish history is so fragile to some, and so sacred, that they confidently assert that the Pearson brothers must have been British spies, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, not pacifists at all but given to taking pot shots at IRA men, arrogant towards their Catholic neighbours – in other words, asking for it.

It appears impossible for these people, standing guard over Irish history, even to countenance the possibility that the Pearsons were innocent men.

And so we had the strange sound of Joe Duffy speculating on the question of whether you can have a court martial without the defendants (that would be the Pearson brothers) being present, and whether members of the Cooneyite sect – to which the Pearsons belonged – would have even owned a shotgun, considering that the Cooneyites were widely believed to have been pacifist.

All this on a radio programme going out live on a busy weekday in November 2007. This group of people – which seems to be quite small – seems happy to talk and argue tirelessly on the most minor details of the Pearson killings in their efforts to justify them.

The trigger was an RTE documentary called Hidden Histories, which explored the case of the Pearson brothers in some depth, charting the eventual hounding of the family into emigration after the killing. Several have joined in with the counter blast, not least Pat Muldowney at the Village, who argues the documentary ignored the findings of a British Military Court of Inquiry. Hourihane again:

Thousands of us enjoyed the Hidden History television documentary about the Pearson killings simply because we had never heard about them before.

It aroused the suspicion in us that there are other stories like it – and we have no way of knowing how many, or how few, there might be – burning underground, stories that live on in the families of those who suffered, passed on in the deep privacy of family life so that, as one man told me last week: “It’s as if it would be disloyal to talk about it.”

He meant that it was as if it would be disloyal to talk about it in public. Within his family such matters were not discussed routinely, but only when he and his father were feeling particularly close to each other.

They became a family secret, in a country too full of family secrets. And so these stories, these whispers, are lost to the larger, Catholic population – perhaps forever.

It might be time now for the larger, Catholic population to ask itself: are we happy about this? Would we like to look at this small slice of our history, not in order to condemn men and women long dead, but because it is interesting and true?

See also: Indymedia and Niall Meehan in Counterpunch and the Offaly Historical and Archeological Society all of which argue that this is all as a revisionist attempt to re-write history.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty