Coolacrease

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 16

Sir,

—Contrary to your editorial (HI 16.1, Jan./Feb. 2008), the case ofthe Pearson killings was not a ‘truly hidden history’. Among otheraccounts, local historian Paddy Heaney detailed the killings in hisbook At the foot of the Slieve Bloom: history and folklore ofCadamstown, published in 2000. As Brian Hanley argues in his review,the evidence suggests that the Pearsons were killed for attacking IRAVolunteers engaged in a roadblock operation. Two Volunteers werewounded, one seriously. Both the RIC and IRA were firm and unequivocalon the motive. While the execution was botched by inexperiencedVolunteers, in terms of agonising deaths there were worse cases amongboth the RIC and IRA in Offaly.
The claim of sexual mutilation broadcast by RTÉ surpassed theverisimilitude tactics of a British propaganda document on the killingsthat alleged that ‘The shooting was carried out so that both men shoulddie in agony, both being hit in the stomach and thighs’. In defiance ofthe court of inquiry in lieu of an inquest findings, the versionbroadcast by RTÉ maintained that the brothers were shot ‘verydeliberately, in the genitals, in their sexual parts, in their sexualorgans’. As the Pearson family was taken to the grove at the rear ofthe house it is doubtful whether they witnessed the executions.
Local accounts were unanimous that the Pearsons integrated into theircommunity and were on amicable terms with their neighbours until 1920.The Pearson children played hurling and attended the local Catholicnational school in Cadamstown. In 1919 William Pearson attended arepresentative meeting of farmers in Kinnity to inaugurate a branch ofthe King’s County Farmers’ Association. He was held in sufficientesteem to be elected as an officer on the Kinnity branch and was chosenas a representative on the county executive. Pearson was part of agroup of five men involved in a house-to-house canvass in the localarea to rally support for the farmers’ cause. Another member of thisgroup came from a leading Republican family.
RTÉ billed the documentary as ‘The bloody tale of a bitter landdispute’. There is no record of any land agitation at Coolacrease inthe RIC Confidential Monthly Inspector Reports from 1911 (when WilliamPearson purchased the farm) to 1921. There were no reported cases ofland agitation at Coolacrease in the local press for the same period.Indictable agrarian-related offences for the county peaked in May 1920with twelve cases and were negligible by 1921.
In his application to the Irish Distress Committee Pearson admittedthat he was a ‘staunch loyalist’ and ‘upholder of the Crown’. From 1920onwards, IRA intelligence officers observed British Army personnelvisiting the Pearsons on a regular basis. The family harboured amilitant loyalist ordered out of Luggacurran in Leix by the IRA for hisinvolvement in a plot with Crown forces to arrest a Volunteer. WilliamPearson actively upheld British rule in Offaly. He was a member of theGrand Jury for the quarter sessions that met in Birr in March 1921.There is no reason to dispute the sincerity of his loyalist allegiance.
Pearson also stated that he ‘assisted the Crown forces on everyoccasion, and I helped those who were prosecuted around me at alltimes’. There is no evidence to indicate that his neighbours weresystematically intimidated. F. R. Mountgomery Hitchcock, the Church ofIreland rector in nearby Kinnity, categorically denied the presence ofRepublican-inspired sectarianism where he resided. He had ‘never knownone case of religious intolerance. We can only live and let live downhere.’ There is no confirmed case of an Offaly Protestant from themainstream churches killed by the IRA in the county from 1920–3. Priorto the killing of the Pearson brothers, the South Offaly Brigade killedone spy, two informers and three RIC men—all Catholic.
GHQ escalated the war in Offaly. By May 1921 both Offaly IRA brigadeswere commanded by non-native, GHQ-appointed, men. The IRA wasreorganised, which saw the establishment of a new divisional structure.The 3rd Southern Division covered Leix, Offaly and North Tipperary.Initiative was wrested away from local IRA units, who were subject tomore centralised control. The majority of killings by the Offaly IRAoccurred while under the leadership of outside commanders, not locals.The South Offaly No. 2 Brigade killed one person before County Galwaynative Thomas Burke’s ascension as O/C. His tenure saw a sharp rise inkillings by the IRA, with seven persons killed. While fatalities on acomparative scale were low, this does not mean that Offaly wasquiescent. Up to 220 people were imprisoned or interned for politicallyrelated activity. Sabotage was the Offaly IRA’s main forte, for whichthey were lauded by An tÓglach, the IRA journal, as ‘an example of howto win a war’.

PHILIP McCONWAY
Tullamore
Co. Offaly

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