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Uncovering Truth: An Extraordinary Irish Patriot

Updated on February 3, 2013

Gearoid O Sullivan: Man in the Shadows

You might recall that my novel is about Gearoid O Sullivan, child prodigy, Irish rebel, adjutant general during the Irish-Anglo War, staunch advocate for the preservation of a dying Irish culture and language, acerbic wit, political leader, teacher, scholar, barrister . . . and in the end, a sad and lonely figure forgotten by history and misrepresented by some fool over at Wikipedia.

Where It Began: The General Post Office In Dublin

In 1916, Gearoid fought beside leaders of the 1916 Irish 'Rising at Dublin's General Post Office (GPO), where Gearoid, youngest soldier at the GPO, was ordered, by the doomed leader/poet and scholar Padraig Pearse, to raise the Irish flag.
In 1916, Gearoid fought beside leaders of the 1916 Irish 'Rising at Dublin's General Post Office (GPO), where Gearoid, youngest soldier at the GPO, was ordered, by the doomed leader/poet and scholar Padraig Pearse, to raise the Irish flag.

Impatient Researcher Learns to Wait . . . and Wait Some More

Considering that the General Post Office in Dublin, repository of many historic records, was severely damaged in the 1916 Irish 'Rising, it's especially difficult for a researcher to discover historical information about a character as enigmatic as my ancestor, Gearoid O'Sullivan.

This challenge to gather information is compounded by a slower pace of life that seems to exist among the Irish citizenry, a pace at odds with the European-flavor that has overtaken much of the country. The cultural shift renders much of the country barely recognizable to the typical Irish-American or Irish-Canadian tourist, bearing sentimental visions along with his or her luggage as the plane taxis along the runways of Shannon or Dublin airports.

Gone are the cliched images of an Ireland where men sit in pubs, sipping warm ale and singing maudlin songs to commemorate injustice and deaths occurring decades and even centuries ago. Once a visitor enters more populous areas of Ireland, they're more likely to find nouvelle cuisine than beef stew; pop music or jazz instead of traditional folk songs.

Yet there is still a mystery about Ireland that a visitor will struggle to identify. Unlike the United States, which celebrates its independence with fireworks and flags on July 4th, it seems the Irish have only begun the process of retrieving the bones of old memories, and perhaps have a distance yet to travel before reconciling themselves and their connections to a troublesome past.

In the course of my research, I have discovered that many important sources in Ireland will allow long gaps in time to elapse before returning phone calls or e-mails; sometimes the promise of information and its actual delivery can take months. In one case, my quest for answers to disturbing questions will remain forever unanswered, one sad outcome of the tragic death of an important source, the Canadian historian and author Peter Hart. Hart was viewed by many in Ireland as a fabricator of information, and is now unable to answer for himself.

Survivor's Guilt?

As an American, and particularly as a former journalist trained to nail down the information and then write the story before deadline, this waiting can be a maddening thing. On the other hand, I now realize that these delays form an insulating barrier, protecting me just as they protect my sources. This barrier gives my sources time to think about how much they want to reveal. Often, a reversal of thought will become evident when information they previously denied knowing about is suddenly offered. In this way, I feel I am slowly earning their trust as I dive deeper into the history of Ireland and begin to understand the reality of the country. I have developed a more nuanced understanding of this land, which is much more complicated than a typical traveler from the vast Irish diaspora can possibly know.

A Country Caught in its History

I am learning that Ireland is a country deeply enmeshed in its own history. It's a country whose people are far more challenging to understand than common cliche has tricked many into believing. It is a land whose populace has clung stubbornly to a culture and to a system of traditions and beliefs, at one time mystifying and maddening the English "conquerors" who would attempt over 800 years to squelch their "strange ways."

This place has and perhaps always will inspire heated passions and provocative debate, whether amidst Ireland's citizenry and even from a distance, amongst the millions around the world who claim an Irish heritage.

Lingering Irish Guilt?

It occurs to me that there remains lingering shame among the Irish living in the Republic, which until recently enjoyed an economic boom. Perhaps it is survivor's guilt, stemming from their good fortune and from the knowledge that this fortune is based on a contract, the infamous Treaty with England that led to the partition of Ireland and cost many a leader his life, including Michael Collins, Erskine Childers, Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha. These leaders died not at the hands of the English, but during the Irish Civil War which erupted soon after the Treaty's signing.

So is it guilt that one senses? Is it the awareness of a wound which will not heal: the partition that created the 26-county Republic of Ireland and the six-county area within the Ulster Territory commonly referred to as "Northern Ireland," a British territory? That England might want to control the opposite coast of the Irish Sea, given its vulnerability to attack from open waters, probably made sense at some point, and given the state of the world today, may still make sense of sorts. But since the Clinton-era Good Friday peace accord, the English do not seem to be the problem plaguing Northern Ireland so much as the people themselves who call this place home. These are the Republicans and the Loyalists who - despite having more in common than they will concede - have dragged along their hostilities from generation to generation like an unbearable weight, trapping between them the multitude of Northern Ireland's citizenry who want nothing more than a normal, peaceful existence.

Even so, in some places the contrast is stark, as between the more prosperous Irish Republic and the ghetto areas of Northern Ireland. In the Republic, one can readily enjoy cultural events, art, and fine dining on par with the finest of any established European city; while in the north, a battle begun hundreds of years ago still rages, in areas that are at times breeding ground for mutual hatred and violence, mixed with that volatile combination of poverty and unemployment and anger bred of blatant discrimination. These circumstances are ripe for the seeds of hatred - and for fresh crops of young recruits to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who will join, act, get caught, and go to prison in an endless, fruitless circle. The IRA is not alone in this violence; the Loyalists, too, have their own militia. And so a condition the Irish and English euphemistically call "The Troubles" continues to flourish.

Yet it was the hope of some Treaty supporters that in creating a 26-county Free State, they could pursue laws and open the door wide to growth, to prosperity, to a national cultural revolution. In doing so, they hoped to put in place the stepping stones that might lead one day to a unified country. They envisioned the new "Free State" would prove so successful that the other six counties to the north would willingly come aboard. Or so thought such Treaty supporters as Michael Collins, leader of the Treaty delegation, who participated in negotiating sessions with England's Prime Minister Lloyd George and its former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Traveling with the negotiating party was Gearoid O Sullivan, who, enigmatic as ever, maintained his usual low profile.

Civil War Pits Brother Against Brother

Adding to the unease one senses in Ireland even today is the Irish Civil War that erupted directly after the Treaty's signing. This war pitted men who once, while vastly outnumbered and out-weaponed, fought side by side against the far superior English Army, and also the notorious "Black and Tans" - returned World War I soldiers brought in to supplement the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in policing the Irish people. The Black and Tans (so named because of their hastily pulled together uniforms of tan shirts and black pants) were hated for their harsh tactics toward the citizenry - including burning down houses, as they did the family homes of both Collins and O Sullivan. Later, a more elite force of solders would be brought in to bolster these policing efforts; they were truly frightening.

So fighting as they once did, side by side, brother to brother, and then fighting each other, rendered the Civil War perhaps the darkest period in Ireland's history. Families literally fought each other, as was the case of Gearoid and his younger brother Tadgh, the latter jailed by ministers of his brother's own political party.

Brash American Stumbles In

My first blunder, apparently, was jumping right into the conversation on an Irish forum to express shock over the tragic and sudden death of the historian/author Peter Hart. Unbeknownst to me during my nascent days as a researcher/novelist was the fact that Hart's best-selling biography, Mick: The Real Michael Collins, and especially his previous book, The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923, had ruffled quite a few Irish feathers.

I had only read Hart's first book, a biography of Michael Collins, which portrayed a national hero with clay feet, someone who managed to rise to the top by dint of opportunity, personality, cleverness, strategy and manipulation, and was then able to position himself as a leader of the reinvigorated and renamed Irish Republican Brotherhood's (IRB), who led the effort to rid Ireland of its unwanted English occupants. The IRB would ultimately become the Irish Republican Army and fight in the Anglo-Irish War (now called the War of Independence). This IRA is known as the "old IRA" to distinguish it from the IRA most people know today.

While the perceived attack by Hart on Ireland's bonafide national hero seemed maddening to the Irish people, it was his earlier IRA book, which sits amidst a pile of books I have yet to read, that provoked anger within the hearts of many an Irishman or woman. The biography rises from a foundation that most people would agree is more or less accurate: that the "War" was in fact a series of guerrilla attacks combined with a clever strategic campaign to position Ireland on the world stage as a "small country" victim to a larger bully. Hart would cite tactics used during the war as examples of Collins' clever use of political tools and PR manipulation to earn worldwide antipathy toward Ireland's enemy.

But what really set many an Irish Republican's blood boiling was the book's central premise: that between the 1916 revolt and 1923, the IRA deliberately targeted innocent people for execution-type killings and particularly chose as targets the small number of Protestants living in County Cork who were suspected spies. Furthermore, the book tramples the name of another national hero, Tom Barry, who led a military charge on an English convoy, something Hart alleges in his book was no more than a carefully planned ambush leading to the slaughter of defenseless English troops.

Hart Leaves Unanswered Questions for This Author

I will say two things of Hart: His book covered in exhaustive detail the life and times of Michael Collins, providing more information about the man than I have read to date (although another thick book, by the wonderfully gifted Irish newspaperman, historian and author Tim Patrick Coogan - who actually talked with key participants - awaits my attention). Mr. Coogan had every right to give up on this fumbling American out of touch with her ancestral homeland - a frustration common among Americans, which Coogan expresses in his excellent book, The IRA: A History, tracing the roots of the IRA from its inception to modern times. Yet despite this researcher's awkward first steps, Mr. Coogan has been exceedingly helpful, and has provided information that will surprise readers and certainly strengthen the content and substance of my book.

But to get back to Peter Hart, he is the first well-known author to express interest in my project; enthusiasm even, and he provided a great deal of information and suggestions. When I first spoke with him, he was going to give the matter some thought and then get back to me. I have no idea why he suddenly changed his mind and decided to talk then and there, but I am forever grateful that he changed his mind, providing tons of information during that first conversation, and following up with an e-mail suggesting other avenues of enquiry. Because sadly, he died not long after that, suddenly, at age 46, of a massive brain hemorrhage.

In death, Peter Hart has left me with many questions to which I will probably never learn the answers.

For instance, he referred to a hand-written journal written by Gearoid that he had stumbled across during his research, but could not remember where, precisely, he found it. He was going to give it some thought. I don't know If he ever did recall the location of this journal, but if he did, that is something I will never discover.

Hart also stated in his Collins book, that Gearoid was one of the assassins involved in Collins' group of "The Twelve Apostles," which in a single day eliminated England's spy network in Ireland. This is something I have not read anywhere else, and which Gearoid had once flatly denied. I hadn't thought to discuss it when I had Hart's attention. Now, of course, we won't be having that conversation.

These are matters to revisit at another time my friends.


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