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RESTING PLACES : ON WOUNDS, WAR AND THE IRISH REVOLUTION

By Ellen McWilliams

Beyond the Pale Books. 196 pages. £15. ISBN 978-1-914318-24-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When a truce was declared on the 11th July 1921 and fighting between the British Army, including the notorious “Black and Tans”, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) stopped, it might have been expected that a semblance of peace would return to Ireland.  But the treaty signed between the British Government and a newly-formed Irish Government was not acceptable to many people. It still did not give full independence to Ireland, it insisted on partition so that the  counties within Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, and it had other aspects, such as a continued oath of allegiance to the King, that were not to everyone’s liking.  Elements of the IRA were fiercely opposed to it and a Civil War soon broke out. Men and women who had fought the British now fought each other.  This lasted from 1921 to 1923 and resulted in the defeat of the Anti-Treaty forces by the National Army.   

That brief outline may help English readers understand what the situation was in Ireland in 1923. I may be wrong, but in my experience very few English people have an awareness of Irish history from the period concerned. Ellen McWilliams remarks in her book that the English don’t take anything too seriously, and she may be right. Their disregard for the facts of history, as opposed to the myths, may explain why they find it difficult to understand  and react with surprise when other nationalities seem to have a deeper regard for their historical experiences.

McWilliams was born in 1977 into a working-class Catholic family in Bandon,  a small town in West Cork.  It’s of relevance to note that, during the War of Independence, Cork was a hotbed of armed activity by the IRA. The legendary guerrilla fighter, Tom Barry, famous for leading a unit that ambushed and almost wiped out a Black and Tan unit, operated  largely in Cork. What particularly affected McWilliams as she grew up and slowly established some knowledge of events in a community often reluctant to talk about them, were the stories of how between the 26th and 28th April 1922 thirteen men and boys, all of them Protestants, were taken from their homes in Bandon, Enniskeane, Dunmanway and  Clonakilty, and shot  by members of the IRA.  The oldest was in his eighties, the youngest sixteen. Their crime was allegedly having been informants for the Crown forces, providing details about  IRA personnel and movements.  It was true in some cases, but not in others. The killings led to some Protestants leaving the area, and to divisions in communities where Catholics and Protestants had once co-existed and co-operated  in a peaceful way.

McWilliams was educated at local schools  and, when she was eighteen, went into higher education at Cork University. Working, researching and teaching in various countries – Germany, Italy, America - eventually led into full-time academic work in England.  She has some pertinent things to say about English attitudes towards the Irish: “there is reason to reflect, on occasion, that the history of anti-Irish racism in Britain has not always paused to care a great deal about the difference between an Irish Protestant and an Irish Catholic. I remember an incendiary device in the form of a remark from a preening academic man so casually dropped on the floor of an institution I spent time at years ago, his glib salvo that ‘Edmuind Spenser loved Ireland, but just didn’t like the people who lived there’. And the unapologetic laughter that followed”. I was reminded of an Irish man I worked with just after I came out of the army in 1957 and what he told me about the outrageous things people said to him. If he objected he got the standard response, “Can’t you take a joke?” or “What’s the matter, no sense of humour?”.  This was a time when signs saying “No blacks, no Irish”  were sometimes to be seen in boarding house windows.

Partly due to the fact that silence often surrounded the events of the past, McWilliams only slowly came to a realisation of what had happened fifty or so years before she was born. As a result she struggles to balance the past and the present in Irish history, just as she does to balance them in her own life which has encompassed Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty (she pays tribute to the values taught there) to what she calls the “the class-ridden corridors and pigeon holes and boxes of British academia”. I’m not sure what home-grown academics will think of that comment and some others in which she takes a less than positive view of certain aspects of the places where she has been employed. I’m not an academic and have only come into contact with that world around its edges, so having nothing useful to say I’ll claim “the value of silence”. 

Carrying the weight of history as she grew up and became more aware of what had happened in Ireland before she was born, McWilliams mentions Oliver Cromwell’s savage behaviour as Drogheda and other places were put to the sword. The Black and Tans crop up more than once, and Terence MacSwiney is referred to. I remember  being told  about MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor oF Cork and his hunger strike.  My father was a young sailor in the Royal Navy and aboard a warship patrolling off the West Coast of Ireland. He happened to be ashore in Cork on the day when MacSwiney’s death was made public and, aware of the feeling in the city, thought it best to return to his ship. I once asked him if he’d seen any Black and Tans, and he told me he had but there was nothing good to say about them.

I don’t want to give the impression that Resting Place is just an account of looking to the historical as opposed to the personal past or being annoyed with the present. There are passages about growing up in “a world that has always had an unspoken understanding that the smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention”. And others about the experience of giving birth. McWiliams sympathises with a fellow –academic  “who like me is thoroughly fatigued by the so-called culture wars that have raged for years in the elite corridors of British academia”. And she fears that English departments are under attack as “ the political establishment plots to ensure that our subject will soon be one that is only available to the most privileged”.  

It’s difficult to pin a label on the book which, in turn, can be autobiography, political polemic, Irish history, social commentary, and much more. I liked it because it can’t be pigeon-holed.  But also because, whatever the subject being dealt with, it is well-written. There are lines I returned to just to hear their rhythm again: “ I pour milk into my son’s favourite dinosaur cup and kiss the top of his head as he sits painting a rainbow at the kitchen table and I hold my breath as I return the carton to the fridge and close the door and stop still for a moment  to see if the haunting is still there”. The “haunting” is of the stories of who did what to who and  when and why.

Resting Places is a fine book, personal and yet reaching out to the reader in a way that draws you in and convinces with its sincerity. There is anger present but also quite deep levels of love and concern.