Strange Fruit

“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 which carries links to other material including the ballad, Boolavogue.)

A New Dawn on the Island of Ireland?

It might be the end of a 30 year war, a 400 year war or an 800 year old war. But whichever it is it was about as muddled an end as you will find in many a war as far as winners and loser are concerned. We are all winners – because it is over – and we are all losers because it should never have started in the first place. Dr. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, yesterday’s men par excellence, finally met and agreed to let the forces of normal – well, fairly normal – political life fall into place in the six Ulster counties which make up the political entity of Northern Ireland.

Some would say it all began a little over 800 years ago in the distant feudal past when a disgruntled king of an Irish province asked Henry II of England to help him in his row with one of this neighbours. Others might put the key date at exactly 400 years ago when the leaders of the last great rebellion of Gaelic and Catholic Ireland came to an end with the flight of its leaders from the shores of Donegal. It was essentially a tragic event, recorded in Irish history as the Flight of the Earls. It is not a little ironic that this event is being commemorated nationally in Ireland this very year. For others it is a 30 year war of unfinished business left over after the Anglo Irish settlement of 1922.

Whatever it was, Irishmen on both sides of the so-called “Border”, Irishmen across the Irish Sea, English, Scottish and Welshmen on either side of the same sea – the largest single group of non Irish-born residents in the Republic of Ireland are British – have longed for this peace. They do not mind too much that it came in the end, not with a bang but with a whimper. This kind of peace comes better in this way.

Now ordinary men and women can get down to work and think about the ordinary needs of normal people. Dr. Paisley – with his phantom-dread of a united Ireland ruled from Rome – and Gerry Adams with his equally grotesque myth of a tyrannical British State occupying the sacred land of Ireland and oppressing its innocent people can now fade into the shadowy past where they belong. Nevertheless, some gratitude is owing to them in their later incarnations: they helped create two monsters but in the end they came good and have successfully chained them up again. Hopefully they will stay there. Real and unqualified credit, however, must go to the Prime Ministers of the two states which have had to suffer the consequences of the terror unleashed by these two monsters on their respective island jurisdictions – Tony Blair and Bertie Aherne. Both should surely be high on any short-list of contenders for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Their efforts have not only been supremely skilful but also truly heroic.

The business of containing death-inflicting terror on the island of Ireland can now be left behind. Sadly for Britain, no sooner has one source of terror gone than another raises it ugly head. However, the peoples of these two islands can now get together again to pursue their common economic interests and the business of life, sharing their common heritage of language and literature, institutions and laws,  and in the mutual enjoyment of their glorious differences – sport, music, native languages and customs.

While the undoubted event of the week was that “Meeting”, there were a few other events which seemed to contain a not-unrelated symbolic significance, pointing to the reality of our shared culture. The first was the investiture – if that is the right word – of Bono of U2 with a knighthood by Her Majesty the Queen of England. In Ireland, if you say “the Queen”, some will ask you, “which queen?”

For the other event we have to go all the way across the Atlantic and down to the shores of the Caribbean. There, in Guyana, the English cricket team faced the Irish (that is, island of Ireland) cricket team in the World Cup. Unsurprisingly England won – although as one of Ireland’s first cricket players, the Duke of Wellington, famously said of the Battle of Waterloo, it might have been “a damn close run thing”.

The irony and symbolic significance of the event runs right through it. The Irish team consists of a mixture of native born Irishmen and British Commonwealth citizens living and working in Ireland, while the English team consists of native born Englishmen, not a few from the same Commonwealth and probably the best cricketer Ireland has ever produced – well, at least since the Duke of Wellington – Irishman Edmund Joyce.

If all that doesn’t give us a glorious confusion of identity to rejoice in what will? But it is not confusion. It is what we are that matters and gives us our true identity. The truth is that what the people of these two islands have in common far outweighs our differences – differences about which we sometimes share a joke but which in the end we really value. Narrow nationalistic preoccupations with what we think we were, should be or might have been is – as sad experience shows – the stuff of poison cocktails.

– Michael Kirke