Bishop Colton and Minister Flanagan help us to face the past
SAM Maguire, who died in poverty, was a patriot who still continues to serve his country. Last week he linked two brave testimonies, by Paul Colton, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, and Charlie Flanagan, Minister for Justice and Equality.
Bishop Colton was speaking at St Mary’s Church of Ireland in Dunmanway where he dedicated the Sam Maguire Community Bells, brainchild of Rev Cliff Jeffers.
Samuel Maguire, the subject of a fine new biography by Kieran Connolly, lies beneath a Celtic Cross much visited by public figures who rightly revere this sporting Protestant Republican.
But Bishop Colton knew local Church of Ireland listeners had not forgotten that not far away are the remains of three victims of the IRA who have yet to receive proper respect.
On April 27, 1922, an IRA gang shot down Dunmanway chemist David Gray, solicitor Francis Fitzmaurice, and draper James Buttimer — three innocent victims of the Bandon Valley massacre who some IRA apologists still try to smear as spies.
Bishop Colton carefully picked the time and place to tell us some hard truths I had given up hope of ever hearing from senior clergy of the Church of Ireland.
For nearly 100 years, the Church of Ireland preferred not to publicly notice grim ghosts, believing it was showing sensitivity and promoting peace.
But they were really depriving Roman Catholics of vital information about the feelings of the minority community, repressing Protestant folk memory and, in my experience of talking to young Protestants, doing serious psychic damage.
Bishop Colton is cut from tougher cloth. He began by asking how best to conduct the ministry of reconciliation. His answer was to speak the truth.
For the first time I can recall, Bishop Colton shared the fears and feelings of rural Protestants with the majority of their fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic community.
Referring to the centenary of the War of Independence and Civil War, and the four years of commemorations to come, he laid it on the line.
“Among some of our Church of Ireland community (and I am sure they are not alone) the commemorations are anticipated fearfully and with a certain dread.”
This may have come as a shock to many urban Roman Catholics and Protestants who are remote from the realities of rural Ireland.
In certain pockets of our country, particularly where there has been a sectarian past, a tiny minority of tribal thugs continue to treat rural Protestants as hostages.
Sectarian incidents rise during celebrations of the War of Independence or in periods where Loyalists are causing problems for northern nationalists.
This was particularly the case during H-Blocks, marked by broken church windows, anonymous letters, bullets through the post, or sectarian graffiti.
More recently, credible bomb threats were made against a small Protestant church in west Cork; Camolin Church in Wexford was defaced with sectarian slogans; and feelings in Fethard-on-Sea continue to fester.
The reason we don’t hear more reports of petty tribalism is because the Church of Ireland plays them down for fear of making things worse — and from a reluctance to give a reality check to Roman Catholics who like to believe such things don’t happen.
Bishop Colton signalled the end of sugar-coating. “There is an understandable reluctance to name anything in our past as sectarian or undesirable, but we are not well served by pretence either.”
The sugar-coating should have stopped with Peter Hart’s classic The IRA and Its Enemies which accused the IRA of sectarian actions.
Some serious historians disagree with Hart’s thesis — they have an alternative analysis.
Also there are apologists for the Old IRA who prevented both Catholics and Protestants from digesting Hart’s work and atoning for the past.
Apologists saw Protestant victims exclusively as spies based on self-serving IRA statements to the Bureau of Military History.
That is why Gerry Gregg and myself made An Tost Fada (The Long Silence), the testimony of Canon George Salter. But even his transparently honest story could not move hardcore Old IRA apologists.
At the West Cork History Festival, as local Protestants assembled to watch a screening of An Tost Fada, members of the Aubane Historical Society handed out flyers condemning the documentary as “gravely incompetent history as propaganda”.
Free speech, you might say — but also a reminder to rural west Cork Protestants that even the testimony of a Church of Ireland Canon would not be accepted as proof of past suffering.
Some academics have also sought to mitigate IRA actions with the help of a battery of statistics.
Here it is worth noting that history is not a science. Facts are not fixed. Like statistics, they are subject to many interpretations.
Bishop Colton pointed out the limitations of statistics in giving us a real sense of Protestant fear during the War of Independence and Civil War.
“Statistics do not tell people’s human stories as they are remembered... the truth itself about that period cannot be extrapolated from statistical analysis of deaths alone.”
There is strong evidence to support him. In letters to the Sunday Independent, Cal Hyland and Professor Liam Kennedy, who have reviewed the raw data from the Irish Grants Commission, confirmed that Protestant memory of sectarian abuse was well founded.
But the most striking aspect of the debate is the role of what I call ‘Public Protestants’, who profess to have no problems with the past.
Roman Catholics who correspond with me often wonder about the motives of Public Protestants who dominate public discussion on the subject.
Certainly Robin Bury, author of the recently published Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland, would like an answer to that question.
Bury’s book is a powerful, polemical and detailed account of the decline of southern Protestants.
So far it has received nothing but negative notices from Protestant reviewers who rushed to assure Roman Catholics that things weren’t that bad.
Luckily Roman Catholic politicians like Charlie Flanagan, who grew up with rural Protestants, prefer to face the past, warts and all.
Last week in Laois, unveiling a plaque to LanceSgt Jack Moyney VC, he responded warmly to Bishop Colton’s call for honesty and sensitivity in the coming War of Independence and Civil War commemorations.
“I agree with Bishop Colton. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I wish to assure Bishop Colton and communities of careful planning and most sensitive handling of these events.”
Charlie Flanagan has the same kind of moral courage as Bishop Colton.
In proof of that I noted that he publicly praised the work of “Kevin Myers who is here with us today”.
Like Bishop Colton, he could have kicked into touch. But he rightly gave Myers his due. This prompts me to tell the media a truth.
Tolerance is not merely permitting. It’s permitting while disapproving.