But then that’s hardly a big surprise now, is it?
John O’Neill has written that:
…between January 1919 and June 1922, around 20% of all War of Independence fatalities occurred in Belfast…the almost absolute absence of meaningful histories of the period in Belfast, until Facts and Figures was eventually made widely available in 1997, is still astonishing. A moment, which could have possibly seen some sort of coming to terms with the immediate past in 1922, was entirely missed. Failing to quickly unpack the legacy of 1920-1922 may also have been crucial to creating the type of long-term dynamics around ‘dealing with the past’ that we still see today. While the Provisional Government effectively censored reporting on the violence in Belfast after 19th August 1922, the likes of Belfast Newsletter and Northern Whig could continue, unchallenged, to dismiss accounts of the violence as shameless propaganda.
Such an example can be found in the Belfast Telegraph which, on the 20th September 1921, captioned this image with the following:
So bad have conditions become in Vere St., Belfast, that the loyalists have had to tunnel the walls of their backyards so as to get to and from their business, the street being under continuous fire from a Sinn Fein locality. Here is a man and child standing in the tunnelled back gardens.
However, the family in question were Catholic.
And a relative, Dominic Corr, has now put pen to paper to tell the story.
Ostensibly about his mother’s cousin, Sean 'Johnny' McCartney (Belfast IRA), who died at the Battle of Lappanduff in May 1921 (and whose corpse was, according to the book, mutilated by Black and Tans), Corr uses it as a starting point to discuss how his relatives were burnt out of their homes four times between 1920 and 1969.
Beginning by discussing how the tale of McCartney had been passed down from generation to generation in his family, Corr details the sense of loss evident thanks to the handling of McCartney’s corpse, the allegations that an informer was at work, the RIC harassing the funeral and the fact that McCartney had not been awarded a posthumous medal by the Free State. Then we get some biographical details (McCartney had fought in the First World War), followed by the circumstances leading up to, and in the aftermath of, the battle of Lappanduff.
It's an interesting tale (and one that recognises the importance of Cumman na mBan in the War of Independence) which gives way to the family history talked about above. While an obviously important part of Corr’s tale (and one that must have been cathartic to write), it can’t be denied that it’s not as exciting a read as the story of Sean McCartney. However, for those interested in the geographical history of Belfast, there’s quite a bit to chew on (I was unaware, for instance, that the area around Little Patrick Street was known as ‘Little Italy’).
Closing by asking the reader if Irish republicanism is a relic of the past (as well as listing the various slogans that have been used to describe Ireland over the past century), Corr demonstrates that such a history cannot be buried under superficial pleasantries and that, if we are to move forward, a full and frank discussion of the past is needed.
While the writing style, at times, lacks in pace and nuance, and the narrative can jump too quickly at times, this work of passion certainly sheds a light on a lesser remembered part of the War of Independence, as well as the early years of Northern Ireland.
Reading for the centenary.
Dominic Corr, 2021, There Lies My Son: Volunteer Sean 'Johnny' McCartney. Privately Published. ISBN-13: 978-1527292437
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.