BLOWING UP A STORM
As published in the Melbourne Herald Sun
3 October 2006
At 2.30 pm on 3 February 1921, two lorries of Black and Tans were
rattling their way towards the village of Dromkeen in bucolic Limerick,
Ireland when IRA Commandant, Donncadh OhAnnagain called on them
to halt and surrender. In an instant the ambush site was alive to
the sound of Enfield rifles and frantic voices, Irish and English.
OhAnnagain was my great uncle. Although the British called him Denis
Hannigan he always used the Irish spelling. His own uncle, John
Cleary - my great grandfather - also spoke Irish. Neither man accepted the English
occupation of his country.
|Donncadh O'Hannigan in the uniform of the Free State.
By the time the Battle of Dromkeen was over, eleven Black and Tans
were dead and one of the IRA Volunteers, Liam Hayes, was missing
a finger. In the days that followed, ten local houses were torched
and civilians harassed and brutalised. On 6 February the Tans rounded
up local farmers and forced them to set fire to the wounded Hayes'
home. No matter how unpalatable it might be to those of English
decent, history is not kind to the British soldiers who occupied
Ireland in those dark days before the Truce of 1921 and the Treaty
that precipitated the devastating civil war. What makes it worse
is that in the December 1918 election the Sinn Fein party - committed
to an independent Irish republic - won 73 of the 105 seats.
Yet as Ken Loach's confronting new film The Wind That Shakes
the Barley so tellingly confirms, brutality was not confined
to the British. In the Irish Military Archives are documents which
reveal how O'Hannigain executed two Black and Tans captured at Dromkeen
and later ordered the execution of a man who'd been involved in
the burning of the houses. However, one underlying fact cannot be
erased. No amount of state terror - endorsed by the British War
Cabinet of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill
- could bring the flying columns of Irish farm boys to heel. As
much as it upsets supporters of the invasion of Iraq, the lessons
are unmistakable. History shows that people simply do not give up
their piece of turf and their traditions without a fight.
At Dan Breen's and wife Bridgid's grave in Tipperary.
The Donncadh OhAnnagain who took up arms against the British and
ordered the execution of enemy combatants and Irish spies was no
barbarian. As a young man he'd won a scholarship to Dublin to study
horticulture and had gone on to marry a school teacher. Among his
children were priests and nuns. Killing people came at great emotional
cost. This was not a war about which he bragged or regaled friends
with stories around the dinner table. He was a considered and unassuming
man who, despite accepting the treaty, tried desperately to stop
the civil war that ripped the heart out of his country in 1922/23.
After an attempted ambush on his regiment by anti-treaty volunteers
that left a local man dead he handed in his uniform and left the
Free State army.
In the villages where OhAnnagain and his flying column risked their
lives against an enemy armed to the teeth and immune from the dictates
of the Geneva Convention these 'Irish insurgents' are heroes. At
every crossroad can be found monuments dedicated to 'fallen heroes
who died in the cause of Irish freedom.' Whatever the human failings
of these men and no matter how much the English and local press
derided them they were loved and harboured by their own people.
The Galtee Mountains that sometimes sheltered Oh Annagain
and his flying column.
Those who think Loach's film is biased and unfairly demonises the
British - I react against the British being depicted so unbelievably
brutally, said the Movie Show's Margaret Pomeranz -and
bears little relevance to the war in Iraq are either in denial or
don't know their history. Does Pomeranz think the Black and Tans
didn't burn houses and torture young Volunteers? Nor can the defenders
of the war in Iraq take comfort from the supposed compliance of the German and
Japanese people at the end of the Second World War. These were countries that had taken the war to the Allies and were
in such a state of devastation resistance was always going to quickly
Not so in Iraq, where the people genuinely believe, notwithstanding
the crimes of Saddam Hussein, they have been invaded without just
cause. In 1973 I met two old elderly female relatives in Dublin.
So fierce had been Maire and Nellie Cleary's devotion to the Irish
Republic they'd been gaoled by the Free State Army in 1923 for harbouring
rebels. Such was their hatred for what the British had done in Ireland
fifty years earlier one of them said she'd wished the Germans had
won the war. Invasions always breed fanatical resistance.
If the Cleary girls or their cousin Donncadh OhAnnagain were living
in Baghdad I know what side they'd be on. They'd wear the label
of insurgency (not suicide bomber) and be proud of it. If nothing
else, that's the lesson of Ken Loach's film.
|The famous Galtee boy Dinny Lacey. He was killed during the civil war.