John Arnold: Why Betty and I braved cold to honour the fallen of Clonmult

John Arnold attended the commemorations at Clonmult last weekend, along with a neighbour who has special connections to the site in East Cork
John Arnold: Why Betty and I braved cold to honour the fallen of Clonmult

President Michael D. Higgins and Christy O’Sullivan, Clonmult committee secretary, at the commemoration ceremony on Sunday

A NEIGHBOUR and good friend of mine, Betty Barry, is heading for 90. On a wicked, sleety day like last Sunday, with deluges of rain cascading from the heavens, most people of Betty’s vintage would be glad to stay snuggled up by a warm fire for the day.

Having seen two storms gone on their way, we had a grand, crisp day on Saturday, but Sunday was only brutal. That prayerful phrase ‘valley of tears’ came to me as I headed down towards Clonmult in the heart of rural East Cork.

The wind and rain were relentless and even before noon the scene was akin to some recent days when National Ploughing Championships had to be cancelled. I was ‘double- wrapped’ to face the elements of wind and rain along with sub-zero temperatures.

Not normally one to don oilskins or waterproofs, I was glad of the protection and insulation they afforded me for nearly four hours last Sunday.

As I said, Betty Barry could well be commended for remaining at home rather than face the tempest that lashed the parish where she was born in the 1930s but, like me, she wanted, even needed, to be at Clonmult on February 20.

Some people have a dim view of history; like Henry Ford, they think it’s bunk, and each to his own. I can’t condemn those who have no interest in the story of our past - though in truth I cannot understand them!

Then again, I suppose so many people just want to ‘move on’, but there’s a big difference ’tween loving history and living in the past. I’ve been accused of both, but sure I take comments like those as compliments rather than insults as intended!

Last Sunday marked the 101st anniversary of the battle of Clonmult on February 20, 1921. Back in 2017, a small committee under the chairmanship of Christy O Sullivan was formed with a view to properly marking the centenary of the fight between IRA volunteers and Crown Forces.

This group laid out their plans for a fitting and lasting permanent memorial at the site where 12 Irishmen were shot dead in what has been called ‘the worst defeat for the IRA’ in the War of Independence.

With the aid of finance from Cork County Council and several major fund-raising efforts, the Clonmult Committee did absolutely trojan work. All the plans formulated from 2017 onwards were pointing towards a major event on the actual centenary date of February 20, 2021.

A magnificent limestone monument in the shape of the original farmyard and farmhouse was put in place along with a new headstone bearing the names of all those present in Clonmult on that fateful day. President Michael D. Higgins had accepted the local invitation to give an address.

Then Covid put the kibosh on all the plans and last year’s event had to be cancelled. It was a major blow at the time, but undaunted, ‘Christy’s Army’ ploughed ahead and re-laid the unveiling and dedication events for Sunday last.

So the mud and the rain flowed but the local committee left no stone untuned and the event went off like clockwork. 

There were hundreds present, maybe close to a thousand. Brave and hardy people in the valley of tears.

Do you know, maybe the elements were crying tears of remembrance too in sympathy for the fallen 12, and two more comrades executed in the month of April, 1921. 

Those present at the battle site were in East Cork to pay homage to brave men who died for Ireland.

In an eloquent and beautifully crafted address the President spoke passionately. He knows his history and understood the chronology of events that led up to the Battle of Clonmult. Time and again, he mentioned the importance of reconciliation - something that was submerged into awful carnage during the ensuing Irish Civil War.

He commended all those who took on the task of organising the event on Sunday and recognised all the work gone into preparing for this day with over four years. And the rain kept coming, belting down in sheets.

We suffered on Sunday from cold and wet, but I thought how insignificant, even miniscule, was our little discomfort in comparison to those whose red blood flowed on the very spot where we stood in silent homage.

I wanted to be there on Sunday last not to be seen or heard, but just to be part of a community effort doing the right thing for our patriot dead.

Betty Barry braved the elements because she has a very special link with Clonmult. Her connection shows how close we are to history - not something away, away down the mist-covered boreens of time, but very near to our kith and kin.

After the last horrible shot was fired on that fateful Sunday evening in Clonmult, just as darkness fell, the British left the awful scene, taking their prisoners with them. As the Crossley Tenders departed, they didn’t leave silence in their wake. No, the crackling embers of the thatched farmhouse were still burning and wisps of acrid smoke curled up into the evening sky.

This was the scene Betty Barry’s mother, Nell Mulcahy, along with her sisters Hannah and Agnes and National Teacher Lena Allen and Mary Cashell, came across when they accompanied Fr Michael Curtin CC to the scene of the killings. Blood was still oozing from the bodies, the falling burning thatch had further mutilated some of the dead.

With candles and tilly lamps, those women took on the awful task of laying out the 12 corpses with some dignity. 

They bandaged the open wounds, washed the bloodied faces, closed the eyes of the slain, and did what they could in the aftermath of the killings.

Those women never forgot what they witnessed that Sunday evening in February, 1921. Betty Barry had heard the harrowing tales from her mother and aunts so in their memory, and to honour those killed, she felt she simply had to be present last Sunday - come hell or high water.

It’s important to remember and commemorate, though others may say we were glorifying violence. That’s an argument often put to me, but I can only answer by simply saying that we should not be too judgmental after all these years. We could forever dwell on the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘maybes’ but sure that’s a futile exercise. History can teach us lessons but we have to ensure the facts are correct and not changed or amended to suit any ulterior motives.

I went back to Clonmult again on Sunday after the cows were milked here at home. It was after 8pm on a dark and sleety night with occasional wisps of wet snow in the cruel wind blowing in from the East Cork coast.

I walked round and round the monument. Praying silently as I whispered the names of the fallen. Truly this is sacred ground.

I joined with friends and neighbours in the O’Sullivan homestead as we reflected on a historic and poignant day. The seeds planted in 2017 had finally borne fruit, despite wind and rain and cold.

In his speech, the President had reflected how the fledgling Irish State had tough years with many teething problems but, like the mighty oak grown from the acorn, Ireland survived and prospered. You know there may be tough times ahead of us, now with inflation and ever-rising costs of living, but we’ll get through.

Personally, I take inspiration from those who paid the ultimate price and sacrifice to gain our freedom and the heroes of Clonmult are amongst these ranks of Irish patriots. In Clonmult now, their memory is ‘set in stone’ permanently to remind generations to come that freedom is so precious and must never be taken for granted.

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