It’s right that we remember and salute our heroes of 1920

What’s the difference between commemoration and celebration? So asks John Arnold in his weekly column
It’s right that we remember and salute our heroes of 1920

REMEMBRANCE: A Clonmult ambush anniversary procession passing through Main Street, Midleton, in February, 1935

‘ONE man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ is an old saying which highlights the different attitude two people can have to the same subject.

Remember earlier this year, there was fierce furore over plans to have an event to do with the Royal Irish Constabulary — the RIC. For a century, 1822 ’til 1922, the RIC was the police force in this country, which was under British Rule.

A job in the RIC waa a good position in Irish society. The make-up of the force, from a religious background point of view, reflected the mix of faiths and creeds in Ireland.

One of the founding members of the GAA, Thomas St John McCarthy, a native of Bansha, Co. Tipperary, was an RIC officer in Templemore in 1884 when he travelled to Thurles for the historic meeting on November 1.

The RIC were the body who kept ‘English law and order’ in Ireland and undoubtedly there were many fine, decent men in the force. During the Irish War of Independence, however, their ranks were supplemented by two other groups brought over from England, the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans. In essence, the three became one.

That’s why all the brouhaha happened this spring when the Government — or one Department at least — announced a Commemoration event for the RIC was planned. There was uproar as many felt the RIC, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were inextricably linked and their reputation, especially in the 1919-1922 period, was anything but honourable.

This begs the question, what’s the difference between commemoration and celebration? I saw one definition or explanation which, to my mind, is a bit over-simplistic — commemoration deals with those that are dead whilst celebration is for the living. If one used that yardstick you’d find plenty exceptions.

Over the last few years in Ireland, we commemorated the 1916 Rising and aftermath in a very fitting and sensitive manner which drew widespread acclaim, and rightly so. Things are a bit more difficult now and for the coming few years.

I read a comment somewhere a few months back, ‘Can we not just leave the past in the past? There’s enough problems in the present without dredging up divisive topics from 100 years ago…’

Look, I suppose it’s a fair point and I can empathise with the person who said it. Many people simply want to ‘move on’ — in the words of Phil Coulter, ‘what’s done is done and what’s won is won and what’s lost is lost and gone forever’.

Now, I don’t condemn or despise those who, like Henry Ford, think ‘history is bunk ‘ everyone is entitled to their own personal view. There were awful and terrible things done in this country a century ago — there was war going on and war is seldom pretty.

The truth is, though, that what happened did happen — no use denying it. The Holocaust happened, though many now try to deny it and airbrush it out of our shared history. It’s an undeniable fact that those who cannot remember the mistakes of past are doomed to repeat them.

Next February marks 100 years since what is termed The Battle of Clonmult, deemed ‘the worst defeat for the IRA’ in the War of Independence when 12 Volunteers were shot dead by British forces at a farmhouse in East Cork and two more were subsequently executed.

Last year, a small group of interested locals got together to discuss how to mark the centenary of this bloody confrontation. Commemoration, or celebration, or do nothing?

Nobody likes bloodshed, shooting and killing and if only Daniel O’Connell’s maxim “the freedom of a nation is not worth the shedding of one drop of human blood” had proved effective, we might have got our Independence in an easier and more peaceful fashion.

Would that it were so, but it wasn’t, and the generation inspired by 1916 do deserve to be remembered.

Of course, there is always a danger that if we glorify violence as a legitimate means to freedom we may send out the wrong message. That’s where the concept of ‘a just war’ comes in and that’s no easy square to circle!

Anyhow, the Clonmult committee decided to produce a commemorative calendar for 2021 featuring the details — or what’s known of them — of the events of February, 1921. It’s a suitable tribute to those who truly did fight and die for Ireland.

Clonmult, Upton, Kilmichael, Crossbarry, Dripsey — I could go on, but all these events are part of the story of Rebel Cork. No doubt not everyone involved — on both sides —covered themselves with glory, but lets not be judgemental. Historians are tasked with ascertaining what happened, though I fear that Historic Revisionism or SSA (Selective Suitable Amnesia) is also alive, well and thriving!

The Headstone of Robert Charles Cambridge in Kingston-upon-Thames cemetery in London proclaims that he was but 18 years of age when he died. On the morning of December 10, 1920, a group of IRA volunteers —members of the recently formed Fermoy Battalion Flying Column — ambushed a lorry of Military personnel at Kirby’s Cross not far from O’Leary’s Cross on the Conna to Rathcormac road. The leaders of the IRA column in this attack were Seán O’Mahony and Paddy Egan. The other participants included Dan Daly and Jimmy Brennock (Rathcormac); William ‘Bronco’ Buckley, David Kent, Mick Mansfield, and Dan Cronin (Castlelyons), Jack Egan, and Martin Condon (Bartlemy).

Growing up in the 1960s, I knew several of these men but back then knew little of their IRA involvement all those years ago. The ambush resulted in the wounding of four British soldiers, and one of these, Gunner Robert Charles Cambridge died of his wounds. He was a very young soldier but:

‘His was not to question why

his was but to do or die’

And die he did in East Cork. He joined the British Army as a teenager and was posted to Ireland with the Royal Field Artillery. As he went along the road that morning, he might have been thinking of leave at Christmas. This is where the conflict, maybe that’s too strong a word, the disagreement, arises — but when we gather on the roadside near Kirby’s cross on December 10 and remember the deeds of the IRA volunteers in capturing much-needed guns and ammunition, should we not too say a silent prayer for young Cambridge?

There has been a conflicted debate as regards whether it’s ‘winners’ only we should be remembering. No-one suggests that the Nazis should be commemorated in the same breath as the brave French Resistance fighters — definitely not.

In the aftermath of the December 10 ambush, the British forces in our area did what they often did in a frenzied thirst for revenge — they went on an arson attack. The homes of the Cotter and O’Mahony families of Ballynanelagh, Colemans of Bridesbridge and Dalys of Hollyhill, Bartlemy, were set on fire, as was Mulvey’s pub in Rathcormac village.

There was no Christmas cheer for the men of the Flying Column, they were truly ‘on the run’, going from safe house to safe house — moving by night in order to escape capture.

Like in every conflict, spies and ‘double agents’ abounded on both sides. Betrayal was often only a mile or a day away.

It was a very bitter and bloody conflict, but in my humble opinion the ‘guerrilla warfare’ tactics employed by the IRA at the time succeeded in bringing the might of the British Empire to the negotiating table.

Some say it’s time to bury our past with our dead and look to the future. Sure, we must be forward-looking, but always remember where we have come from and who paved the pathways to the liberties we now enjoy.

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