Sunday, October 11, 2009

West Cork, revisited: 1. Some historical background

A few days back, Malcolm was considering the fourth programme in the RTÉ documentary series:
Cork's Bloody Secret

CSÍ looks at the killing by the IRA of 13 West Cork protestants over four days in April 1922.

In the course of so doing, Malcolm referred to Joseph O'Neill's Blood-Dark Track, a Family History, including this bit:

Pat went into the house and returned with a white towel. He handed it to Brendan. They laughed, and Brendan came over to the car, got into his seat and slammed shut the door. He dropped the towel on my lap. I felt a weight among the folds. I unfolded the towel. A rusted revolver sat between my knees. I looked at my uncle. Colt .45, he said, starting the engine, that's the gun that shot Admiral Somerville.

Our American Cousin's comment on that took Malcolm aback:

To be quite honest, I can't find anything wrong with the killing of Admiral Somerville.
Well, here's the Irish Times revisiting that murder:

A RETIRED British navy vice-admiral was murdered by the IRA in west Cork in 1936 for recruiting 52 Irishmen, including IRA members, into the British armed forces.

Vice admiral Henry Boyle Somerville (73), a relative of writer Edith Somerville (of Sommerville and Ross), was shot when he answered the door of his home at Castletownshend, Skibbereen, on March 24th, 1936.

A placard was found in the hallway, with a words arrangement from letters cut from newspapers, stating “This English Agent sent 52 Irishmen into the British army in the last seven weeks”.

Garda papers note that in February that year an attendance of 40 was expected at an IRA meeting in Coombe outside Skibbereen, but only 12 turned up to hear Patrick Joseph Collins of the west Cork Battalion speak.

“Collins expressed disappointment on the small attendance and was informed that several members had recently joined the British navy and army and that others had gone to England in search of work.”

At the meeting it emerged that a young man named Lehane, a captain in the Drimoleague IRA company, was among those who joined the British navy, and that vice admiral Somerville had paid the fares of a number of recruits.

“During the discussion Patrick Joseph Collins said that something would have to be done to stop the recruiting campaign.”

Gardaí believe the matter was “taken out of the hands of the local IRA” and that headquarters in Cork city were involved.

Documents found at the naval officer’s home showed “applicants from Kerry and Waterford as well as Co Cork were included in the number of recruits in whose enlistment he was in some way concerned”.

Gardaí said “nothing was left undone to break down those alibis” of the three main suspects, “but without much success”. It was “no ordinary murder, but a well and coolly thought-out outrage, well-planned and daringly executed”.
The episode made it, in a more racy form, and with some useful illumination, to the pages of Time magazine:

Irishmen, by & large, are poor sailors but excellent admirals. The late Earl Beatty was an Irish admiral. So is Edward VIII's chief naval aide-de-camp, Admiral Sir William ("Ginger") Boyle. Irish Dramatist Lord Dunsany's brother, Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, is Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth, and the principal naval aide-de-camp to George V was an Admiral Kelly.

Officially retired since 1919, and living quietly in his home at Castletownshend, near Skibbereen, last week was still another Irish admiral, Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville. His Majesty's Government have worried greatly in recent months over the difficulty of finding British recruits for their rapidly expanding Navy and air force. Admiral Somerville had done much better. Hunting likely young men throughout the Irish Free State who were in need of a job, he saw to it that dozens of them were able to make their way across St. George's Channel to enlist in the British Navy. In many a Dublin back room, in many a country pub, grim-faced young Irish republicans vowed to get even with Admiral Somerville.

Comfortable though the Admiral's cottage is, it has not yet been wired for electricity. At 9:30 one evening last week he sat in his small drawing room reading the papers to his wife. There came a crunching of feet in the gravel driveway. An elderly housemaid announced that some young men wished to speak to the Admiral.

"Hmph," said he, "more recruits!"

He picked up a flickering oil lamp, went out to the hall. Mrs. Somerville, at her knitting, could hear every word.

"Are you Mr. Somerville?" said a voice.

"I am Admiral Somerville, young man."

There was a shot. The lamp crashed to the floor. Mrs. Somerville rushed screaming to the dining room for another lamp, but it blew out before she could reach the hall. In the dark she heard the pounding of running feet on the gravel again. The Admiral was still breathing when she reached him, but he died before a doctor could be summoned. By his body lay a card: RECRUITER FOR THE BRITISH. THIS IS A WARNING! By the door was a crumpled British recruiting poster and another card. It read:

"A British agent who has sent 52 boys to the British Navy within the last few months. He will send no more."

In the Dail Eireann last week the Free State's Army bill was passed providing it with an Army of 5,900 regulars, 5,800 reserves, 18,500 volunteers at a total cost of $7,650,000.

There are two ways of looking at the assassination:

  • Somerville was an "English agent" and therefore a legitimate target in the era of the "Economic War". If it helped to maintain IRA morale and recruitment (particularly so when former adherents were defecting to Fianna Fáil and "legitimate" politics), so much the better -- if not for one particular septuagenarian.
  • Somerville doing what he could, as best he could, to find employment for his fellow Irishmen, in a period when Ireland was in severe economic hardship, and at a time when re-armament against rising Nazism was no bad thing. After all, even De Valera, in Dáil Éireann, on 25 February 1937, voiced his view that:
    the truth is that in modern War there is not any neutrality.
More than anything, what sticks in Malcolm's craw is that adjective "English".

[To be continued]

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1 comment:

yourcousin said...

Of course I would have to start back to my full time union job this week. I will deal with the larger issue of putting you aback later when I have time to properly respond to the post with the attention it deserves, but I would note in the seven minutes I have before I have to go to work that it is only in the Irish Times revisit that "English Agent" is used and that the Times magazine version, both in this post post and the original use the term "British Agent". So before we get too worked up over the Anglo-Irish pejoratives let us admit that it could very well be a simple typo from the papers.

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