MacBride and Coughlan remembered
Nollaig Ó Gadhra
MILITARY history is perhaps a legitimate aspect of a modern tourism industry. Certainly since my time, 30 years ago, with Ireland West, I always accepted that the full spectrum of a legacy and a historical heritage should be available to visitors when they come into an area, any area. That was reflected, I am told, by common consent, in the old Galway Guide for Co Galway and a bit of Mayo, which I penned as part of the Bord Fáilte series. But, then as now, there was history, and history! Shortly after (the second) Bloody Sunday – the one in Derry in 1972 as opposed to the first one in Croke Park in 1920 – it was not easy to promote the idea of retired British Army Brass visiting the west of Ireland in search of their ‘roots’, or worse still, those new generation historians who wished to see where grandfather had served in the Black and Tans.
The Connaught Rangers was a more difficult business, because by that time, and after the re-burial of Commandant Jim Daly and the others who died in the Indian Mutiny in protest against British policy in Ireland in 1920 (Finance Minister Charlie Haughey paid to bring their remains back from India in 1970!), there were two views in Britain itself and amongst regiment survivors about what their role had been and how they should be honoured.
I had just written (my first) book in Irish on Gandhi to mark the 100th anniversary of the Mahatma’s birth, but accepted it was for each group of visitors to make up their mind about how ‘we’ should honour the fallen. In essence, families and relatives, old comrades, should always be allowed to come, remember, mourn and pray as they saw fit.
All we had to do was to facilitate the visitors, make sure places were marked, well-kept, and well sign-posted and provide as much factual and honest information as possible – and in as many languages as possible in order to ensure that everybody went home happy. That is still my basic view about these matters and indeed about ‘commemorations’ of whatever kind. As long as it is clear that we stick to basic truths, do not preach revenge or animosity to old ‘enemies’ (I always wonder at the patience of German visitors to Ireland, neutral Ireland, when you hear some of the copy-cat anti-German reactions we repeat from British films and TV and even the big lie techniques of American movies, which never even recall that, up until the attack on Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941, the US was neutral also, and did not raise a hand to ‘protect the Jews’ under Hitler – the most fashionable excuse for their carpet-bombing of Germany in the last couple of years of World War II). It is only when you recall that RTÉ banned records selling in their millions all over the world, from groups like the Wolfe Tones in those years, while visiting travel-writers who probably came to Ireland to enjoy a pub ballad session with the Tones were consciously discouraged from going to such places by Irish officialdom (and not for artistic, musical or aseptic reasons!) that one finds it possible to comprehend why Gerry Collins, Conor Cruise O’Brien, etc got away with the Section 31 censorship regime for so long. I did not get to India at the time of writing the Gandhi book. But one of the things that was hinted to me as I began to write up aspects of the Connaught Rangers, in later years, was a suggestion that a great ‘cover up’ had taken place in 1947-48, when the British finally withdrew from India, because the old colonial master, in the person of Lord Mountbatten, having partitioned the sub-continent, and presided over another ‘bloody disaster’ of Britain’s making, made sure to bring home to the vast vaults of Imperial Archives every possible scrap of paper concerning the Connaught Rangers, including their wage sheets. This had led some people to suspect that this ‘home’ regiment from ‘the homeland’, white Europeans, were paid less than the other ‘United Kingdom’ regiments though probably not as badly as the ‘local’ Indian Regiments, the Gurkas, etc. It is only an allegation, and I was unable to pursue the matter further, even after going as far as New Delhi four years ago, and making some searches in the Gandhi Library and other State archives. The British legacy is still evident in this great Indian city, in architecture, public policy and sharp class distinction, while the Irish contribution to the great British colonial experiment is assured by the fact that Connaught Place remains one of the most fascinating stops in the inner city/downtown area of India’s capital city. But not a scrap of paper is to be found on the detail, the nuts and bolts, of the British legacy. When the British finally decided to withdraw, to pull out, and go home, they certainly made sure there was a clean break as far as past legacies were concerned!
This is a timely reminder, perhaps, of what in fact was involved when Sergeant Major Cornelius Coughlan was awarded the VC while fighting in the British Army in the Indian Mutiny. He was, no doubt, a brave soldier, and probably joined the British Army for the same combination of family, financial and career reasons that prompted Irish Nationalists and Catholics to enrol in that imperial force down the years. But for me the bottom line is that anybody who gets a VC, especially on a war abroad, then as now, invariably was involved in a bloody conflict against some other ‘natives’, be it in India, or South Africa (echoes of Major MacBride’s Westport legacy!) or Lance Corporal Ian Malone, the first Irishman to be awarded the Iraq Medal in 2004 whose poor mother was recently awarded the honour for her son’s ‘contribution’ to the Coalition Forces and the war in Iraq.
I have no objection to families remembering their dead, or even honouring their involvement in overseas adventures of dubious validity or merit. In that regard we are a very patient people and usually allow those who clearly sided with the British might against our own people to go their way and remember their dead without let or hindrance. In contrast to the objections frequently raised by British media, and others, when the Irish abroad pay tribute to those who fought for the freedom of this country.
If those who wished to honour Cornelius Coughlan in Westport wanted to make a balanced contribution to the Irish historical experience, then one might have expected an active presence and an invitation to the Indian Ambassador and Embassy in Dublin so that the full facts of the Connaught Rangers’ contribution to British Imperial policy in India might justly be recalled. Instead, we had Jim Fahy’s RTÉ television report dominated by the British Ambassador to Ireland going on about ‘the courage to debate matters we might have been reluctant to debate in the past’, laced with loaded phrases like ‘answering the call’, etc. As if joining the British regiments in whatever circumstances, and for whatever reasons, was always a brave and laudable thing to do! This is the same British Ambassador who had to present Mary Malone with that medal for her son ‘who had fought and died with the first Battalion of the Irish Guards’ in that dubious adventure, and probably illegal war, in Iraq where in RTÉ-speak the locals are now ‘insurgents’ or ‘rebels’, the US and UK forces are the ‘coalition forces’, and the natives are ‘re-taking part of the city’ in their own country which have been occupied by ‘western’ forces some 4–8,000 miles away from their home bases! For the record, let it be stated that most citizens of this neutral Ireland have no reluctance in discussing these or other complex historical and political issues, though why this is not reflected in mainstream political and media circles is another matter.
It does, however, raise another matter as to why our then Defence Minister, Michael Smith, was involved in the Connaught Ranger-VC man’s ceremony. Especially given some of the rather ‘western-style’ statements Mr Smith made to justify the lease of Shannon Airport to the highest bidder over the recent past, and the ongoing policy of the Fianna Fáil-PD Government in this regard, even after the whole world has been told about some of the criminal activities of the ‘boys in blue’ who drop off for a pint on their way to Iraq without even having to put on their civvies, as used to be the case in Foynes during World War II – in the age of De Valera. Worse still, it seems members of the Irish army, our neutral Army, were allowed to dress up in old-style Connaught Ranger gear at the Westport ceremony and fire shots over the British soldier’s grave to honour and endorse his achievements for King and ‘country’ in ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ of British colonial plunder, half a world away. Tourism? Movie business? Hardly. These were live shots, it seems; they certainly were interpreted by all involved as signifying the ‘coming together’, not of the Irish and English (or even British!) peoples but of their two armies and their two military traditions. This is unacceptable, dishonest and was particularly wrong for Minister Smith at this time, when, as Minister for Defence, he should be making it clearer than ever that not only are we neutral or unaligned by command of the Irish ballot box, but we have serious reservations about anything that would blur the distinction between us and those forces who are breaching every international law in the book in Iraq, and trying to pass it off as a ‘coalition’ that has the support of all ‘westerners’.
In that context also, the recent reminder in this paper by Liamy MacNally on the legacy of Major John MacBride is timely, not just because of the South African and anti-colonial legacy he represents but also because it seems Westport, like the whole nation, has largely overlooked the fact that his son, Dr Seán MacBride was born just over 100 years ago, on January 25, 1904.
It is still not too late for Mayo at least to honour this remarkable man, a former Minister for Foreign Affairs in the first Coalition Government, the only person I know who won both the Nobel and the Lenin Peace Prizes and did a stint as Chief of Staff of the IRA (in the 1930s) as well! The legacy of this man is as complex as that of the Connaught Rangers and will, hopefully, start to be unravelled before this year is out. But not by the sort of selective, inaccurate and confusing approach to honest factual history we witnessed in the Coughlan case. No insult of any sort is meant to genuine local interests or relatives. But more than Minister Smith – fighting for his cabinet seat at that time according to the media gossips – and the British Ambassador – who has to try and justify what his army is doing in Iraq as well as in part of our country – need to have their ‘positions’ heard in such cases.
Nollaig Ó Gadhra is one of the country’s most prolific writers on history and politics. He is a regular contributor - in both English and Irish - to Irish publications, as well as to many foreign newspapers and journals.