Coolacrease. The true story of the Pearson executions—an incident in the Irish War of Independence

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

1Coolacrease. The true story of the Pearson executions—an incident in the Irish War of Independence
Philip O’Connor (ed.)
(Aubane Historical Society, €20)
ISBN 9781903497487

On a superficial level this book is about an incident in County Offaly during the Irish War of Independence in which two brothers were executed by the IRA. Richard and Abraham Pearson were sons of a Protestant farmer who had bought the 341-acre Coolacrease farm near Cadamstown in 1911. The reasons given by the IRA for the execution included the allegation that the Pearsons had attacked a party of Volunteers who were blocking a road by cutting down trees on their farm, that the family was passing information on to the authorities and that they had links with a loyalist paramilitary force. The airing by RTÉ in October 2007 of a documentary in the Hidden History series in which the incident was portrayed as an example of sectarian violence motivated by land hunger has caused much controversy and was the reason for the publication of this compilation of essays. Although the motivation behind individuals’ actions in the past is impossible to determine with absolute certainty, this book shows conclusively that the documentary gave a false portrayal of events, and that its makers were not as well informed as they should have been.
The documentary evidence, much of it reproduced here, shows clearly that the Pearson family were actively opposed to the IRA and that they did attack one of their road-blocking parties. One can debate the rights and wrongs of the matter, but in the eyes of the IRA such actions warranted extreme measures. The fact that other Protestants in the area were not touched and that IRA members involved did not directly profit from the division of the land in 1923 indicates that this was not an act of sectarian murder or a land grab. Other research has made clear that the IRA as an organisation did not support such activities, although individual Volunteers were at times motivated by them. The Pearsons’ execution clearly fits into a general pattern of the treatment of those who did not belong to the core support group of republicans. If such people—who also included many Catholic ex-servicemen and travellers—intimately associated with the authorities they were almost automatically suspected of informing and in extreme cases shot as spies. Although the allegations supported in the book that their household was a centre for loyalist paramilitary activity cannot be substantiated, the Pearsons did fall into this category.
The successful refutation of the central tenet of the RTÉ documentary does not, however, make this a good book. The various contributions are quite uneven, with those sticking closely to the documentary evidence being much stronger than some of the more argumentative pieces. The often simplistic republican interpretation of Irish history will put off most professional historians and those of other political persuasions. Uncorroborated statements like ‘Millions starved in genocidal conditions. Millions more were driven off in ethnic cleansing of unparalleled scale’ do not concur with the results of modern research into government policy during the Famine.
There is also a lot of superfluous and sometimes repetitive information, and some of the central academic conventions, such as referencing, are not adhered to. The selective use of evidence is highlighted in the discussion of Eoghan Harris’s allegation of deliberate sexual mutilation by the executioners. In the absence of actual wounds to the genitals this is hard to prove but certainly cannot be disproved by arguing that the earlobe is closer to the brain than the groin is to the genitals. The fact that almost all the wounds inflicted on the two men were to the lower body and, besides some superficial wounds to the back, none to the torso, the normal target in an execution, certainly needs exploration, as does the fact that the two men were left to bleed to death and that the officer in charge apparently failed to ensure that the execution had been carried out properly.
This book, however, is not just about the events at Coolacrease in 1921. On a broader level it can be seen as an expression of an upsurge in the conflict between two interpretations of the national past. In academic writing the so-called revisionist approach has indeed long been dominant but is now widely challenged by a nationalist interpretation which always remained alive but had become submerged in public, largely owing to its association with Provisional IRA activity. This resurgence has taken its most vocal form around the work of Peter Hart. His assertion that Tom Barry had deliberately killed a number of Auxiliaries after they surrendered in the Kilmichael ambush became hotly contested after the publication of his doctoral study in 1998. His characterisation of events in April 1922 in West Cork as having the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing has become the basis of the contention by some commentators and historians that the IRA was a sectarian organisation which is also at the heart of the documentary on Coolacrease.
The serious questions over Hart’s use of source material, which he has unfortunately too lightly dismissed, are raised again here. It would indeed be helpful if Hart gave a systematic answer to these questions, most recently posed in the pamphlet Troubled History: A 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies, but the evidence put forward here to undermine his central arguments is not convincing. The targeting of Protestants, which undoubtedly took place at times, cannot be negated by showing that some Protestants denied that it happened. Neither can it be proven that the report on the Kilmichael ambush, on which Hart bases his assertion, was not written by Tom Barry because it claims that there were two IRA men wounded and one killed in the ambush while in reality two died and only one wounded was taken from the area. This could simply be the consequence of a different definition of timing.
As it should be in historical debate, this book thus gives ample cause for discussions about interpretation. But legitimate questions and debate about individual cases are generalised here, in a fashion for which Hart is rightly criticised, to argue that all academic historians are in the pocket of the government and put forward a revisionist point of view. In fact, other academic historians have challenged Hart’s findings. The recent selection of Diarmuid Ferriter as Professor of Irish History at University College Dublin shows that an academic critical of revisionism can be appointed by a search committee that included professors Roy Foster and Alvin Jackson. A similar simplification is applied to the weaknesses of the Coolacrease documentary, which is used to claim that RTÉ and the Broadcast Complaints Commission are part of a revisionist plot. Programme-makers and even some presenters may well have been trying to push a particular line of interpretation, but that does not constitute a Dublin 4 conspiracy. Such sweeping statements in belligerent language are not helpful to the argument of the book, and are certainly not going to convince those who have an open mind on the issues concerned. It strikes one as a bit paranoid to describe the broadcasting of this documentary as ‘a strategic point in a long political campaign’. But Ryan Tubridy and Joe Duffy do not constitute RTÉ, and Hart and Foster do not make up the historical profession.
What all of this does show is the depth of feeling among republicans over the fact that their views are underrepresented in the public arena. For that to be remedied, however, they will have to accept that there are people with a different political frame of reference who interpret the past through their own blinkers, as we all do. Insisting on the debatable interpretation of the War of Independence as a struggle between a democratically elected government and an imperialist power as a basis for assessing the rights and wrongs of actions in the past does not work. The 1918 election victory of Sinn Féin does not necessarily constitute a legal basis for such a view. Despite the landslide victory, less than 48% of those voting supported Sinn Féin. The victory was not a mandate for the use of force, nor can it retrospectively justify the 1916 Rising. It is certainly possible to assume that a majority of the people voted for Sinn Féin, but not by arguing that uncontested seats were a normal feature of Irish electoral history.
The essence of whether the Dáil government established in 1919 could be seen as legitimate hinges on one’s definition of the people. The writers here assume that there was always a separate Irish nation encompassing the island of Ireland. Therefore even elections held in the context of the UK can be seen as Irish elections. A legitimate government, however, is not just made up of a majority of people in some self-defined area wanting to be independent. If so, there would be a lot more states on this globe. Republicans have never accepted a separate Ulster despite the fact that a majority of the electorate there voted for it. The recent declaration of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia shows that recognition by the international community is a central element in the debate on legitimacy, and in international law the Irish state was created by the 1921 Treaty and not through the vote in 1918.
Although Brendan Clifford makes an interesting legal point in stating that the suspension of the election in 1915 made the Westminster government illegal, the issue here is that, from their point of view, the Pearsons—and with them possibly a majority of the Irish population before the Treaty—simply acted as civilians loyal to an authority that there was no reason to reject. They did not see the situation as a war but as a rebellion against the legitimate government, and actions against the IRA, such as the attack on the road-blocking party, were therefore fully justified in their eyes. In evaluating this period in Irish history the rights or wrongs of people’s actions are always subjective and ultimately not fundamental. It would be more helpful to acknowledge that both sides felt justified in what they did.
There certainly is an institutional resistance to a strong nationalist line of interpretation in academia, but historians ultimately rely on evidence and, as long as we stick to that, every interpretation, whether republican or revisionist or even both, can become accepted.

Joost Augusteijn lectures in history at Leiden University.

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