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July 23, 2010 Friday
SECTION: COMMENT; Pg. 38
LENGTH: 969 words
HEADLINE: The forgotten force;
The RIC was airbrushed from the Republic's consciousness for 80 years. Artists
have a role to play to ensure it doesn't happen again, says Henry McDonald
Kevin McCarthy's brilliant first novel, Peeler, rescues from the margins of
Irish history a group that the future Free State and Official Ireland airbrushed
from national memory: the Royal Irish Constabulary.
When I was taught Irish history at grammar school back in the 1970s, this
force was only referred to by a single and dismissive sobriquet -- they were
merely the "eyes and ears" of the British Army which Michael Collins had so
ruthlessly blinded and deafened in the War of Independence.
At the time we knew nothing about what these officers were actually like, how
the vast majority of them were Catholic Irish and what happened to them once the
state was created and
In fact, compared with the details of fratricidal brutality wrought by the
subsequent Civil War, students were given next to no information about the RIC,
its casualty rates, its fate and the future for its members.
Peeler fills that knowledge-gap. The story of its central character, RIC
acting Sergeant Sean O'Keefe, was not just a hugely enjoyable read, but also
socially and historically illuminating.
McCarthy has turned these shadowy, ghostly figures relegated in history as
the "eyes and ears" to fully-formed flesh and blood characters, whose lives were
as complex and rich as the men in the Flying Columns who hunted them down.
Peeler is, first of all, a detective novel, a hunt for a suspected
serial-killer who has brutally murdered a young woman and abandoned her
mutilated body in the remote
While trying to survive one of Collins' assassination squads, O'Keefe and his
colleagues now find themselves searching for a murderer who has left the word
'Traitor' on the young woman's body.
That word prompts the British military-political establishment to think that
the victim has been singled out by the West Cork IRA who suspected she has been
passing on information to the RIC and the Army.
Meanwhile, the IRA has set up its own parallel murder inquiry and has
appointed West Cork Brigade intelligence officer Liam Farrell to head up the
Farrell represents the coming power in the land, the guerilla on the verge of
taking over law and order, the republican poacher turning
To McCarthy's credit, both O'Keefe and Farrell are sympathetic characters
with deep internal lives. Farrell is tortured by the necessities of war, of its
O'Keefe is also a victim, a mentally scarred veteran of the First World War,
who witnessed his regiment being slaughtered at
Yet it is not just the two main rival Irish figures pitted against each other
in a race to catch a serial murderer that are multi-dimensional characters.
McCarthy even evokes sympathy for the English demobbed soldiers hastily
drafted into an auxiliary military force to curb the armed insurrection or as
they are more notoriously known, the Black and Tans.
As a veteran whose brother fell beside him under Turkish machine gun fire,
O'Keefe regards some of these men as brutes and others simply as brutalised by
war and crushed into service in
McCarthy's book indirectly provokes bigger questions about the legacy of
At present, the devolved administration at Stormont and the British
what happened in the north over the last 40 years.
The approach thus far has been piecemeal with selective inquiries, the
appointment of four Victims' Commissioners and the Eames-Bradley process.
It has been, in essence, confusing and misdirected probably because in the
end any exploration into the past, let alone the 'truth' of the Troubles is to
going to be politically loaded.
Northern Ireland seemingly faces two options in terms of truth and
reconciliation: it can go down the Spanish road towards the 'pact of
forgetting', when all of Spain post-Franco agreed to put the crimes of the civil
war aside, re-enter Europe and move on; or it could adopt a South African Truth
and Reconciliation process, an official 'national cleansing' in front of the
cameras, open to all.
The reality is that there is going to be some cobbled together compromise, a
third way of muddling through.
While the victims and their families as a whole might receive some
retrospective compensation, or even psychological help and support in a new
Troubles-Trauma centre, there will neither be Spanish-amnesia or South
African-style collective catharsis. The answer to questions such as 'what or how
did that all happen?' cannot be properly offered by officialdom in any shape or
Perhaps the only positive way to explain where we have come from will be in
the guise of novels, plays, films, poetry, documentary and so on. (Time, by the
way, for broadcasters -- particularly the BBC -- to lift the unofficial
'embargo' on Troubles-related themes and give artists the space and the support
to explore some of the most important events of our lives over the last 40 years
through the medium of film and drama.)
Shelley once declared that poets are the unelected legislators of the world;
they can also be their truth-tellers.
Let's just hope that all those untold stories of our conflict just past won't
have to be told eight decades later the way the narrative of the forgotten RIC
have been finally brought back into public consciousness by Kevin McCarthy's
dark, brooding, multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece.
CAPTION: Forgotten men: author Kevin McCarthy (left) has helped to restore
the RIC to its place in history. Victims of Franco (centre) are also angry at
being overlooked by historians; the theme of re-living the past is also the
subject of the film Five Minutes of Heaven (right) LOAD-DATE: July 23, 2010