“History may be servitude, History may be freedom,” the poet T.S. Eliot observed in Four Quartets. When it is the former it can also be lethal, as Britain and Ireland were reminded last week. The virus of Irish Nationalism produced another shocker with the revelation that a parish priest in Northern Ireland was the prime suspect in one of the worst atrocities in the three decades of mayhem and murder known as “The Troubles”. Bad history must bear a large part of the blame for this particular manifestation of evil, as it must for much of Ulster’s tragic tale over those 30 years.
The Chesney case, like recent scandals of clerical abuse, appals because of the shocking incongruity of a man committed to the beatitudes of the Christian gospel allegedly taking command of a para-military cell and committing mass murder in the pursuit of a political goal.
It was 1972, the bloodiest year in the recent history of Northern Ireland, the year of Bloody Sunday and the year in which 496 people died in political violence. An undeclared civil war was raging. On the morning of July 31 the local IRA unit detonated two car-bombs in the village of Claudy in County Derry. Nine people were killed, including three children. More than 30 were injured. In the weeks following, it emerged that one of the suspects was a priest in a small neighbouring parish, Father James Chesney.
He was never charged. He was never even questioned. His superiors, with the collusion of the civil authorities, eventually moved him out of the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom into the Republic of Ireland. He died of cancer in 1980. Officially he is only the number one suspect but few people now have any doubts about his crimes.
The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman released a report last week sketching the case against Fr Chesney. Together with records of police intelligence, including interviews with Cardinal William Conway, it contains the text of an anonymous letter sent by a “Father Liam” to the police in Northern Ireland in 2002. The writer claimed that he had met Fr Chesney at a house in Donegal in late 1972. In a long conversation Chesney broke down and confessed his role in the bombings. “He said that he was horrified at the injustices done to the Catholic people… He became a member of the IRA and was soon in charge of a small number of volunteers,” the letter revealed. He had been ordered ordered to place bombs in Claudy to relieve pressure on the IRA brigade in Derry city”.
According to the letter, Chesney had wanted to give warnings of the bombs so the streets could be cleared but when they stopped at nearby Dungiven, the IRA men could not find a telephone box in working order.
“This horrible affair has been hanging over me like a black cloud,” Fr Chesney allegedly said. “I must talk to someone in authority before I die… I must meet my maker with a clear conscience. The souls of the deceased are crying out not for vengeance but for justice.” The police now think that errors and inconsistencies suggest that the letter was not written by a priest. But it may represent Fr Chesney’s state of mind.
Why didn’t the authorities act? Probably because they feared a bloodbath. What might have followed the arrest of a Catholic priest for the murder of nine innocent Catholics and Protestants did not bear thinking about.
The Claudy atrocity was the culminating one in a month in which nearly 100 people lost their lives. Just 10 days earlier, more than 20 bombs exploded in Belfast over a period of 75 minutes, killing nine people and injuring a further 130. Ulster was a powder keg. The arrest of a Catholic priest might have set a light to the fuse. For Catholics it would have been the last straw in victimisation; for Protestants the confirmation of everything they believed about the Catholic Church.
But commenting last week, Mark Durkan, former leader of the moderate nationalist party, the SDLP, while accepting the concerns people might have had, still holds that it was a grave error of judgement. The oldest of axioms should have been given priority: “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall,” he said.
The real story behind this murkiest of murky affairs will probably never be known. Rumours are even spreading that the real reason for the non-arrest of Chesney is that he was an undercover agent for the security forces. But the mystery — if it is a mystery rather than just another example of Realpolitik at work – of the decisions taken by the agents of justice is only one part of story. The other is the mystery of how a man trained to live by and serve the gospel of Christ could end up in the place in which Chesney eventually found himself – allegedly a perpetrator of mass murder.
Perhaps there is no mystery. One of the patriotic icons of Irish history was the 1798 rebel priest Fr John Murphy. We can be sure that Fr James Chesney regarded himself as another Fr Murphy. To compare the two might enrage nationalists who revere one as a martyr while despising the the other as a terrorist. But this is the problem with bad history. The truth is that Chesney and Murphy responded to oppression in a similar way.
Fr Murphy led a rebellion against the forces of the Crown in the failed rebellion of 1798. He triumphed for a short period but was eventually captured, tried and barbarically executed. His story is retold in graphic detail in a ballad which is a virtual second Irish national anthem, Boolavogue.
Back in 1998 a long historical article about him appeared in An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper of Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA’s political arm. It tells the story of a priest, somewhat at odds with his pro-government bishop, but initially obedient in “getting people in his parish to hand in whatever weapons they held in a hope that such a gesture would relieve the terror being inflicted on the people of County Wexford by the crown forces.”
“But the Yeomanry continued their reign of terror. That radicalised Father Murphy to the point where he aligned himself with the highly organised United Irish structure in Wexford, particularly in the Ferns district.” A contemporary, Edward Hay, writing in 1803, says that seeing what was happening he advised the people “that they had better die courageously in the field, than to be butchered in their houses”.
Fr Murphy and others then organised and procured arms for a growing army. In the first major engagement with the opposing militia he routed them and nearly wiped them out: 105 out of 110 were killed while only six of the rebels died. The town of Enniscorthy was the next target. An Phoblacht recounts how “The attack, led by Edward Roche and Father Murphy, saw the town taken with high casualties on both sides; several hundred United Irishmen and around 100 of the North Cork Militia garrison lost their lives.”
Fr Murphy’s eventual capture and execution made him a hero. Militant nationalists used his story to inspire Irish armed resistance for 200 years. To give you an idea, An Phoblacht described him as a patriot cut down by the tyranny of the British and the servility of the Catholic hierarchy: “While men like Father Murphy… played an important role in the rising and in many subsequent attempts by republicans to wrest Ireland’s independence from Britain, the true history shows that far from being with the people in their fight, the Catholic Church has been guilty at the very least of obstructing them and usually being in active collaboration with the imperial forces in Ireland.” No doubt that was Fr Chesney’s view as well when he packed explosives into three cars which would explode on the streets of Claudy.
An Phoblacht’s account of the Murphy story rationalises the option for armed resistance and violence. It is dangerous but ultimately can be countered with the incontrovertible truth that violence only perpetuates violence and diminishes humanity in appalling ways. But the mythological and emotional account of the career of John Murphy and the entire rebellion of 1798 is much more dangerous. This is the version of the story lodged in the consciousness of the Irish race “wherever green is worn”, presenting Fr. John Murphy in the image of a pious martyr for faith and fatherland. It is much more difficult to deal with.
The hero worship of half-truths is one of the most lethal potions available to mankind. The priest-terrorist of Claudy is another sad example of the slavery induced by bad history. The mythology of Irish Nationalism must bear a large share of the responsibility for 30 years of suffering endured by the people of Britain and Ireland.
(This post was first published online in www.MercatorNet.com which carries links to other material including the ballad, Boolavogue.)