Large crowd attend Centenary Lecture for executed IRA man George Plant in his native Fethard
Abymill Theatre, Friday 17th September 2004
A call for a ‘genuine Irish attempt at peace and reconciliation within the various communities and Irish political parties’ was called for at the weekend, in the course of a lecture on George Plant, attended by over 130 people, in the Abymill Theatre, Fethard, Co. Tipperary Plant's native area.
Born in 1904, Plant, who had been involved in the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Civil War (1922-1923), continued in the IRA up into the 1930s, on both sides of the Atlantic. His trial and execution by firing squad in Port Laoise prison on 5th March 1942 was one of the most controversial incidents of the Emergency Legislation and Military Courts era of the early 1940s, and is still one seen by international legal experts (as well as the late S.C. Dr. Sean Mac Bride who defended Plant) as one of the worse examples of a dubious legal history which goes right back to the early days of the State, and the shooting without trial of any sort, of four Republican prisoners within 48 hours of the Free State constitution and government coming into operation, in December 1922.
Over 130 people attended the Abymill theatre in Fethard on Friday, September 17th 2004, to hear Nollaig Ó Gadhra's talk about George Plant and his family. Photographed at the lecture above were L to R: Mary Hanrahan (Fethard Historical Society), Catherine O'Flynn (Fethard Historical Society), Michael Moroney (author of the “definitive Plant story” published in the 1988 Tipperary Historical Journal), Nollaig Ó Gadhra (guest speaker) and Dóirín Saurus (Fethard Historical Society).
Mr Ó Gadhra, whose books include Civil War in Connacht and Guth an Phobail, a history of the evolution of Irish democracy, said it was time for all sides involved in political violence in Ireland since the gun was brought back into politics in 1912 (by the U.V.P. and their Tory and Unionists backers, who defied the will of their own Westminster Parliament) to start gain where it seems to me we left off in the Dublin Castle Forum on Peace and Reconciliation. This Forum effectively went out of business with the fall of the Fianna Fáil/ Labour Government under Albert Reynolds, ten years ago this autumn.
The reasons for the downfall of that government, which had made such spectacular progress on the Northern and the Anglo-Irish conflict after 30 years of bloodshed, are also something which should now be probed openly and honestly. If only because ten years down the road, very few of a younger generation can tell you why, in fact, the architects of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 were brought down so suddenly and with no apparent insurmountable difficulties for a continuation of the Labour/Fianna Fáil alliance at that time, except certain media speculation and frenzy.
Photographed at Fethard Historical Society's lecture on 'George Plant and Family' by Nollaig Ó Gadhra are L to R: Kathleen Lyons, Denis Lyons, Jane Lyons and Tess Lyons from Kilkennybeg, Killenaule.
“As Uachtarán of Conradh na Gaeilge this year, I have no wish to get involved in party or other politics or even to seek to set media agendas above and beyond on-going attempts to get a fairer crack of the whip for the Irish language and the rights of Irish speakers and communities. But that does not mean that I or anybody else must close their eyes to what they see going on around them or cease to express in as positive and simple a way as possible, their views about things that interest them. Which in my case at least involves current affairs, but also past history and some of the unresolved past issues of our history.”
I therefore welcome and congratulate the people of Fethard and district, Protestant and Catholic, Republicans, Socialists, Free State sympathisers and all those in between, for having the courage to try and come to terms with the legacy of their own area, even if my attempts here tonight are only a ‘sop in áit na scuaib’. The definitive George Plant story, which is well covered in the 1988 Tipperary Historical Journal, is an essay by Michael Moroney, which is based on a thesis he wrote two years earlier while a student in Mary Immaculate Education College in Limerick. It was a brave and difficult topic at the time and the Tipperary Journal people are to be congratulated for having the courage to publish it in 1988, on their own doorstep, where memories were still pretty fresh and many of those no longer with us were then still alive and active in various groupings, parties and associations.
An t-aon bhrón a bheadh orm gan amhras ná nach bhfuil an plé seo ar siúl i nGaeilge, mar tá Gaeilge ag cuid mhór de na daoine a bhfuil baint acu leis an scéal. Ach le cuidiú Dé, bunóidh an Cumann Staire seo craobh den Chonradh anois ar an mbaile nó ar a laghad cinnteoidh siad go mbeidh cúpla ócáid nó léacht eile i nGaeilge anseo gach aon bhliain. Mar is ceart i gcás na gcumann staire eile ar fud na tíre. Tá sé mar dhualgas orainne, Conraitheoirí, a bheith buartha ní amháin faoinár n-oidhreacht féin ach faoi gach gné de shaol an phobail agus deiseanna a sholáthar, chomh fada agus is féidir, chun daoine a mhealladh leis an nGaeilge atá acu a úsáid, agus úsáid ach go háirithe in imeachtaí taitneamhacha ach ag plé abhár a bhfuil spéis ag an bpobal iontu. Ní fearr áit le tosú i gcás ar bith ach leis an stair áitiúil. Agus sin an fáth gur thoiligh mé, mar bheart eisceachtúil, sa chás seo, léacht dátheangach a thabhairt ar ábhar conspóideach go maith. Mar go bhfuil colas áirithe agam nach raibh ar fáil ag daoine eile b’fhéidir. Agus téip a rinne mé le deirfiúr George Plant, Elizabeth, siar in 1991 - bliain sar ar cailleadh í in 1992.
Photographed at the lecture were L to R: Mary Hanrahan (Fethard), Seamus Troy (Coalbrook), John Tyne (Glengoole) and Gerry Long (Rathsallagh).
My main contribution to the full and frank Plant story is simply due to the fact that in 1991, I recorded a taped interview with Elizabeth, George's ageing sister, in her home place near St. Johnston, dealing specifically with some of the issues outlined in the Moroney essay. This was at a time when neither RTE nor indeed any of the commercial radio services which were then coming on air, allegedly as local services that would deal with matters of local interest, could or would talk even to the relatives of Republicans, never mind former and/or retired IRA people.
Elizabeth, a lovely person, with a very vivid and honest mind, died the following year, in May 1992 just at the time Albert Reynolds was taking over government and was about to scrap all the Section 31 censorship nonsense which had frustrated truth, debate and dialogue in Ireland for a generation. Albert and Labour Minister Michael D. Higgins, who became Minister for Broadcasting, allowed the directive to lapse. Both Mr Higgins and Mr Reynolds apparently had hoped that with full freedom of expression within the ordinary law, RTE would then proceed to make up for some of the terrible editorial decisions taken under Section 31 in the previous 20 years, many of them ironically influenced by the rabid anti-Republican bias of another Labour Minister, Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien.
The reality is however, that while RTE no longer felt it necessary to ask GAA footballers from the Six Counties what their views were on the 'Provos' or 'Sinn Fein' before allowing them on sports programmes, they certainly did little to correct the historical record, or even set straight the record or the major gaps in historical recording from the 1970s and 1980s. Ms Plant, who died in 1992, may have been only one of the smaller casualties of that era but the performance of 're-balancing' following full editorial freedom in the past 10 years has been dismal and disappointing. All the more so because as things 'moved on' and ceasefires came and went, and political somersaults were made all around, the factual political and recorded record remains distorted in a way that is a shame not only to broadcasters and journalists but to historians and those employed in archives whose job it is to preserve for posterity and for the record the full story of all our people.
The record is more distorted by reason of the fact that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and certain others who played an important part in ‘the war’ but ‘were never in the IRA’ are now being, wined and dined by the political establishment. Fair enough. Ní miste, b'fhéidir, because no honest commentator can ignore the huge sea-change these people have brought about in thinking in this country. But they are not the only Sinn Féin party or school of thought in this country. Nor were they the first MPs or TD s to be elected on the Sinn Féin ticket in places like Mid-Ulster, no more than the late Bobby Sands and, on his death Owen Canon, were the first Sinn Féin, Republicans or anti-partitionist elected members in Fermanagh and Tyrone. The ghosts of Frank Maguire, Frank McManus, Philip Clarke, even the great Cahir Healy still need to be set to rest, all the more so in the coming year when we mark the founding of Sinn Féin as an abstentionist but Dual-Monarchy not a Republican party, by Arthur Griffith in 1905.
Photographed at Fethard Historical Society's lecture on 'George Plant and Family' by Nollaig Ó Gadhra are L to R: Tom Quigley, Michael Quigley, Michael Kennedy, Lily Barrett, John Fahey and Sean Watts. All from Killenaule.
Two years ago, as part of my on-going attempt to promote reconciliation and understanding by simple historical analysis I suggested that there is no point in Fine Gael people going to Béal na mBláth each year while the Fianna Fáil faithful make their annual pilgrimage to Liam Lynch's grave near Fermoy in the same county of Cork. What I proposed was that the Béal na mBláth attenders (and I have attended on several occasions) invite Bertie Ahern to their function, while Michael Noonan, then the Fine Gad leader should have been asked to honour, or at least remember and pray for his fellow-Limerickman Liam Lynch.
Nothing came of it at that time. But in view of Albert Reynolds' recent brave and logical decision to attend the funeral Mass for Joe Cahill in Belfast and the false and biased misrepresentation which followed in some Dublin media in particular, I think there is a lot to be said for what I believe to have been Albert's approach to this historical legacy, ten years ago, and ever since. Trying to decide if deValera or Collins was the ‘best Republican’ is, in political terms, a total waste of time. The academics should get on with the examination of the historical facts in the light of various contexts and schools of history. But the politicians and other leaders, including the Church leaders, should simply demand that we all put all the warts out there in public. Admit that we all did terrible things on all sides, sometimes for base reasons, sometimes for genuine reasons of conviction, seek forgiveness, South African style and then get on with the business of solving the problems of today and the future. If we seek genuine forgiveness and in particular undo any particular hurt or misrepresentation especially where families are concerned, then you finally close the chapter', end the old futile argument and save the nation and the political system all the energy and frustration that has characterised ‘Civil War politics’ for at least two generations.
Of course that is not the end of the matter. We need to address these sort of things right across the board, not only to the large Unionist minority in Ireland, but in terms of all those various Socialist, Republican, Christian and other minorities who often feel they have been ‘forgotten’ or are ‘outside the loop’ or have been ‘misrepresented’. George Plant, a Tipperary Protestant IRA man, is symbolic of these smaller groups. But he was not and is not the only Protestant to be in the IRA, and not in any one of the four provinces either! There were important social, cultural and historical reasons for this, as outlined by Elizabeth Plant, his sister, in 1991. Just as it is important to have on tape a factual explanation of why Ms Elizabeth Plant resented the presence of Gerry Adams and his followers at her brother's grave for commemorations in St. Johnston in the late 1980s. Again, context is important. 'This was after the 1986 ‘split’, after Enniskillen, and at a time when the IRA (of which Mr Adams was never a member according to himself) was still engaged in some pretty bloody and bitter warfare.
Photographed at Fethard Historical Society's lecture on 'George Plant and Family' by Nollaig Ó Gadhra are L to R: Michael Power (Tullowcussane, Drangan), Pat O'Donnell (Mocklershill), Joan Heffernan (Ballyvaden), Paddy Heffernan (Ballyvaden), and Michael Moroney (Mullinahone).
Let me finally add that such is the massive Anglo-American influence on Irish media today that even the ‘peace process’ is not the only problem that needs a fresh new ‘peace and reconciliation’ approach. We need it in terms of language and culture, in our approach to minorities and non-nationals with only two simple rules in the game. Seek truth even where it is clearly hard to come by the totality. And let there be no drawing of lines in 1912, 1916, 1922, 1939, 1969, 1986 or even 1998. Life, like history, is a continuum, an ebb and flow. The historic Irish nation did not begin or end with the Truce of 1921, the Treaty or Béal na mBláth no more than it did with the Battle of the Bogside or the second Bloody Sunday. But all these events did influence the course of Irish history, all our lives, and need to be examined and discussed in context, and from all, not just some points of view.
The myths in the ‘Michael Collins’ film about the way Harry Boland died in 1922 are as damaging and insulting to his family as a lot of the folklore about George Plant, and the role of Harry Boland's brother in the draconian ‘Emergency’ Security policies of Fianna Fail in the 1940s. At least his nephew, Mr Kevin Boland, a Minister for Defence and other areas in the 1960s tried to come to terms with that sad and frightening legacy, so that he had the guts to resign from government in 1970 and in later years, not only became friends with several of the families who were dealt with so harshly by his father; but also was man enough to seek forgiveness, reconciliation and most importantly a way forward. Not only are these facts largely forgotten by our media super-class, but the stories of Kevin Boland's participation in the events of 1969 and later on, much of it written by himself with his usual blunt honesty, has largely been written out of nearly all the approved history books and tv scripts. We owe it as much to the Boland family as we do to the Plant family to try and set as many ghosts as possible to rest. And we all have a role in this. Mar ní bhíonn saoi gan locht.
Nollaig Ó Gadhra
Na Forbacha, Gaillimh
Tel: 091 592454 / 087 9939298