So at the weekend Eoghan Harris took steady aim at one of the south’s most sacred cows. Unlike most of official Ireland, he looked at the first Bloody Sunday through the prism of a Liam Weldon song, Dark Horse on the Wind that warned how “the warriors spring from the earth to maim and kill their own”:
RTÉ’s non-stop stream of nationalist necrophilia, with no balancing programmes such as Spotlight on the Troubles and Cops on the Frontline.
RTÉ’s latest offering, Bloody Sunday, 1920, was one of the better documentaries and tried to deal with the two sets of killings that day. But it did not hammer home two things.
First, Michael Collins’s much-vaunted operation barely dented British intelligence in Dublin for the simple reason that only seven of the 15 killed were intelligence officers.
The rest of the victims comprised two ordinary courts martial officers, one RIC, two Auxiliaries and three innocent civilians who deserve remembrance.
Patrick Joseph McCormack, in Ireland to buy horses, was from a prominent Castlebar family. Leonard Wilde was a former monk, and Thomas Smith of Morehampton Road a Protestant landlord.
Second, the film failed to probe the morality of a botched operation that still incites retrospective tribal gloating in Sinn Féin and nationalist circles.
For years, Vinny Byrne’s cackling face cheerfully reassured potential recruits to the Recurring IRA how justified and how easy it was to “plug” helpless men.
Does it not bother us that the Provos used Byrne and Bloody Sunday to justify the most brutal murders in Northern Ireland?
But it is Michael Collins himself who must bear moral responsibility for what, in half the cases, was cold-blooded murder.
Far from the clinical Collins precision of folklore, the attempt to wipe out British intelligence was a sloppy operation, with names (and wrong addresses) being added on the morning of the killings.
He goes on…
When I mention Michael Collins’s moral responsibility, I am also thinking of the Squad’s youngest killer, Charlie Dalton, who was 16 when Collins recruited him.
Dalton had just turned 17 when he helped to shoot two British officers, Dowling and Montgomery, on Bloody Sunday.
Charlie Dalton was marked for life by what he did that day. In 1922, as a senior Free State officer, he helped murder three innocent Fianna boys near the Red Cow.
What happened that day in Croke Park, in response to Collins’s earlier killings, was an atrocity. But a whole country is mourning “our” dead while Collins’s victims are treated as collateral damage.
But we lose our humanity if we turn others into abstract figures who can be blown away as casually as in Natural Born Killers.
To hold our humanity we need to put a face on “our” IRA victims and not look away as they die.
So let me put a face on Captain WF Newberry, a court martial officer, shot in front of his wife in Lower Pembroke Street.
Captain Newberry was not an intelligence officer. Few intelligence officers go on duty with a pregnant wife sleeping beside them.
Bill Stapleton, who shot him, recalled without regret: “He was in his pyjamas, and as he was attempting to escape by the window he was shot a number of times. The man’s wife was standing in the corner of the room and was in a terrified and hysterical condition.”
But he is evasive about the desperate bloody details. He and Joe Leonard fired through the inner bedroom door which the hunted couple had blockaded. They wounded Newberry who ran for the window where they shot him repeatedly.
His corpse hung out the window. His wife could only throw a coat over his body.
But the greatest tragedy was that Captain Newberry was already married in England: his “wife” turned out to be a woman who was pregnant with his child.
Traumatised, for three weeks she seemed to hear the laughter of Stapleton and Leonard as they washed her husband’s blood off at a sink. She died as nameless as her stillborn child.
To this day, researchers don’t know her name. But she was most likely Irish.
I see the Abbey Theatre and the GAA are marking “our” Bloody Sunday by commissioning 14 writers to write short monologues remembering “our” Croke Park victims.
By not including some victims of the IRA the Abbey retreated from the redemptive power of art to show us the face of the other.
It would have been more cathartic if some of Collins’s victims were brought to life. More dramatic, too – Patrick McCormack and Wilde lived lives that were racy enough to give some humour. And the nameless ‘Mrs Newberry’ is the stuff of Greek tragedy.
No doubt a deep reflex to Brexit has given way to a wave of anti British sentiment in the south, but as this Twitter account almost daily reminds the stories that tell of our own greatness often depends on disposing of difficult facts that stand in the way of the stories we like to tell about our own preferred greatness…
#OnThisDay in 1974 the IRA murdered Heather Thompson, 17. Filling station attendant shot along with manager, Crumlin Road. A motorist stopped to buy fuel. When no one came to his car he went across to the office & discovered the two bodies. Both had been shot in the head #OTD pic.twitter.com/uI8iMh55sw
— OnThisDayTheIRA (@OnThisDayPIRA) November 23, 2020
The Irish American professor of literature Joseph Campbell once warned us about the simplifying tropes of religious fundamentalism, but the parallels hold for the more secular types we’re so familiar with in both of Ireland’s political and cultural traditions. Such abstractions can be injurious to our societies’ future health:
The moral order has to catch up with the moral necessities of actual life in time, here and now. And that is what we are not doing. Old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. By going back you throw yourself out of sync with 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