Year of disappearances

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

Sir,—I am glad to be in the position to let Niall Meehan and Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc (letters, HI, Nov./Dec. 2011) know that any errors—mostly minor transcriptional and/or typographical—that they found in the first edition of The Year of Disappearances have been corrected as part of the process of bringing out a second edition. Any other issues raised by academics in the wake of the book coming out originally have also been addressed as a matter of course. The main reason, however, for bringing out a second edition so soon was that I had found significant new material just after the original book went to print when it was too late to include it and felt that this should go out as soon as was practicable.

However, lest there be any confusion, let us look again at the issues raised by Messrs Meehan and Ó Ruairc. The first concerns the various transcriptions of a line from Connie Neenan’s account to Ernie O’Malley of the execution of alleged teenage ‘spies’ by Cork city IRA. Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc took me to task for mistranscribing one word from this passage in January 2011. In Mr Ó Ruairc’s reading the passage goes:


‘We did not know then that the British had organised the youngsters of the YMCA to track our men. They were mostly from good families. It was then only 15 months after the murder of Tomás MacCurtain that we learned that a kid of 15 had tracked him home that night. Both kids [??] confessed their trackings and they were killed. We thought that this had stopped their YMCA org.’


In the first edition of The Year of Disappearances I transcribed the beginning of the second last sentence as ‘3 were friends’, on the basis that O’Malley usually wrote numerals as numbers and usually had a downstroke in his capital ‘B’s. As anybody who knows O’Malley’s handwriting will tell you, it is difficult to decipher at the best of times. (Indeed, it could also be interpreted as reading ‘3 other kids’, so this is not an easy one to work out by any means). On the basis of my own notes I believed at the time that I was correct and my response reflected this. It is important to point out that this was part of a trap being laid for me by Mr Ó Ruairc with the (probably unwitting) aid of a Sunday Tribune journalist, presumably in an effort to discredit my book. If anyone doubts that this was the case all they need do is read the article in question. (Sunday Tribune, 16 Jan. 2011) However, I took Mr Ó’Ruairc’s suggestion on board on the basis that he had consulted experts in the field and I changed my interpretation accordingly. I would have thought that this should have satisfied him and that this would be the end of the matter, so I am surprised to see it being raised again. In fact this is my fourth time responding to this. If anyone wishes to read a more detailed response they can do so on my website. (

I’m not sure though that I agree with Mr Meehan and Mr Ó Ruairc’s statement that ‘there is no possibility whatsoever that Neenan referred to the killing of three Protestant teenagers anywhere in his account with O’Malley’, (or that this does not refer to one plus two equals three). In a separate interview he gave in the 1970s Neenan stated that the first YMCA boy ‘in his confession he implicated a few others’. This has to refer to at least two or possibly more teenagers in addition to the first one. He also refers to these events in his memoir. Mr Ó Ruairc is aware of these sources since he appears to use them elsewhere in his work. Either way, depending on how you interpret it, what the above accounts state is that either three or more teenage members of the YMCA were executed as ‘spies’ on the south side of Cork city. Besides, would Neenan have said ‘they mostly came from good families’ if the number was one or none? Mick Murphy confirmed on several occasions that Protestant boys were executed in the area. Messrs Meehan and Ó Ruairc are being more than a little disingenuous in suggesting that these ‘kids’ were of ‘no specified religion’. If they were members of the YMCA they were Protestants of one denomination or another. They are also being disingenuous in equating these killings with those of the Shields group, which are a separate matter and are referred to by Neenan in a different part of his interview with Ernie O’Malley.

The second item they take issue with is a Times article entitled ‘Life in Cork’ published on 18 May 1921 and which I quote in my book. This was written by an ex-officer and journalist Wilfrid Ewart, though he is unnamed as author in the newspaper account. A few years later he published a book on his travels in Ireland, which I had not read at the time I went to print, in which he gives a slightly more detailed account of the same event, a kidnapping by ‘a mysterious individual’ that took place on the Blackrock Road in Cork in the spring of 1921. Messrs Meehan and Ó Ruairc tell us that ‘an Irish Times letter (18 January 2011) informed Murphy that he had misinterpreted [this] article in the London Times’. In fact this letter was written by Niall Meehan himself and, in it, not only did he misinterpret the article but he rather transparently distorted it. His letter states that ‘as Wilfrid Ewart passed an agitated group he overheard a description of Mr Murphy’s ‘mysterious individual’ as “some bastard of an Englishman”’. In fact, when quoted in full, Ewart’s piece gives quite a different impression: On a ‘calm spring evening’ in May 1921, Ewart wrote, he was making his way back from Blackrock to Cork city:


‘Near to the city, at an open ground where children play, high commotion prevailed. Mothers, fathers, children and strangers were all jabbering away in a crowd, pointing in the direction of the town. Somebody’s child, it appeared, had been kidnapped by a mysterious individual in a motorcar.’


But what Ewart actually overheard when he passed the agitated group was: ‘“No Irishman did that”, caught my ear as I passed; “it’s some bastard of an Englishman”’—which is not the same thing at all. In other words, the quotation fails to ascribe the kidnapping to one side or the other. In my book I look at the possibility that this ‘child’ may have been snatched by British forces before going on to suggest that it is more likely that he was taken by the IRA. As the evidence for this is far too long and detailed to be included here I suggest that readers consult The Year of Disappearances (second ed.), chapters 55 and 56. The only thing at issue is the date on which this kidnapping took place. I suggested that it took place on 12 May because on that day Robert Parker, a near neighbour of Josephine O’Donoghue’s, who lived overlooking the open ground where the kidnapping took place, was shot at and wounded. Niall Meehan suggests, on the basis of Ewart’s extended account, that the kidnapping took place a few weeks earlier, on 23-25 April. Mr Meehan is probably correct in this. But it doesn’t alter the fact that the kidnapping took place, or where it took place, or that it occurred in the time period we are talking about. Indeed all it does is increase the likelihood that Parker, a Methodist businessman, may have been shot because he was a loyalist and because of where he lived, rather than because he witnessed the abduction. (The context here is that three other Protestant near neighbours of Josephine O’Donoghue’s were either shot or kidnapped and executed by the IRA—and Josephine was certainly involved in at least two of these.) Most of Mr Meehan’s objections have already been dealt with—and effectively dismissed—in the new edition of The Year of Disappearances (see Chapter 55 and footnote 3 on page 389).

The other issue raised by Messrs Meehan and Ó Ruairc concerns an error that I found myself in the original text. This was where I described the Cork city IRA as having executed a schoolboy called Edward Kenny. I discovered just before Christmas that he had in fact been shot in West Cork. I resolved to correct this as soon as possible, so I removed any references to him from the text. Since this is clearly flagged in the second edition—as a footnote to Chapter 28 (footnote 20, p 370), there can be no confusion about it.

The important point is that these issues—minor and all as they are in the overall context of the book—have now been addressed in the text, which renders them redundant. Describing a book, as Messrs Meehan and Ó Ruairc have done, as ‘valueless’, and suggesting that ‘it should not be treated seriously as history’ and haranguing my publisher as they have done on numerous occasions over the past year on the basis of hair-splitting errors that are now corrected, must surely constitute some kind of literary (if not historical) record.—Yours etc.,


Institute of Technology, Carlow


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