Ewart and Coolacrease

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Sir,

—In relation to Joost Augusteijn’s review (HI 17.2, March/April2009) on the controversy over the June 1921 shootings of the Pearsonbrothers at their family farm in Coolacrease, Co. Offaly, by the IRA,your readers may be interested in a scrap of information that I cameacross when editing Wilfrid Ewart’s A Journey in Ireland 1921 for UCDPress (with Paul Bew).
Wilfrid Ewart (1892–1922/3) was a former Guards officer and novelistwho wished to develop a career as a journalist. On 18 April 1921 hearrived in Dublin with the intention of interviewing various prominentrepresentatives of Irish opinion and of walking from Cork to Belfast toobserve the country for himself before returning to England (which hedid by ferry from Belfast on 10 May).
Ewart was repeatedly warned that his proposed walking-trip wasextremely foolhardy. (Crown forces in certain areas were known to shootsuspicious-looking civilians at random, and also to send out scoutsdisguised as tramps to pick up intelligence; the latter practiceencouraged the IRA to look on all vagrants with suspicion and many wereshot as spies.) Ewart was arrested by Crown forces in Mallow and takento Limerick before being released, but he continued walking into themidlands.
Ewart’s book describes (pp 123–30) how on Sunday 1 May, while walkingthe 22 miles from Birr to Tullamore (during which he had to traverseseveral barricades), he was followed by five young IRA men on bicyclesand detained for half an hour (meditating gloomily on his prospects ofending up in the adjacent bog) while his captors went through hisrucksack and notes and discussed the authenticity of the pass given tohim by Sinn Féin activists in Cork. Ewart was then allowed to proceedand his possessions were returned intact.
So what is the significance of this incident for the Coolacreasekillings? Firstly, it establishes that the Offaly IRA were notindiscriminate killers; although Ewart was an Englishman and formerarmy officer (as must have been apparent by his accent and mannerisms),he was not shot on suspicion but released after his captors satisfiedthemselves that he was indeed a journalist. This does not mean thattheir suspicions were entirely allayed—and this raises a secondpossible connection. Coolacrease lies on the main Birr–Tullamore road;Ewart must have passed it. One of the justifications later given forthe shootings was that the presence in the area of suspicious-lookingmen, believed to be soldiers in civilian clothes, led to suspicionsthat the Pearson farm was a centre of espionage. Did Ewart, withoutever knowing what had happened or how he had influenced it, contributeby his mere presence on the road to the Pearsons’ fate?

—Yours sincerely,
PATRICK MAUME
Belfast

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