First, I’d like to say that that though I wish him the very best, I’m sorry that Sam McBride is leaving the News Letter to take up an offer he can’t refuse.
Published: 10 August 2021
I am proud to write for a newspaper that gives journalists their heads and allows them to tell the truth however inconvenient it may be, as Sam did over RHI. The whole island of Ireland would be a much better place if we had more investigative journalists of his calibre, more newspapers with integrity and more editors with guts.
We are rich, though, in other writers who try to make sense of our island’s stories, one of which has troubled me since last October when lust for land destroyed an entire family.
As an historian, I’ve learnt a great deal about the ugliness and brutality of land wars and my mother, a Cork gamekeeper’s daughter, told me many stories of the cruel consequences of caring more for land than people.
When in the 1990s I began covering Northern Ireland as a journalist, my new friends in Fermanagh and Tyrone showed me some of the heart-breaking murder sites and memorials to farmers and labourers murdered by the IRA. I heard more of it from my friend Sean O’Callaghan, the repentant Kerry IRA terrorist who spent most of his adult life atoning for the murders he had committed when deployed by the IRA in Tyrone.
In his memoir, The Informer, he would write about how as a teenager from Kerry who knew nothing about Northern Ireland, he first realised he was not part of a resistance movement against occupiers, but a sectarian war against neighbours.
“To stand with an old farmer on a hillside in Pomeroy in County Tyrone while he pointed out Protestant farms, ’stolen from us by them black bastards’,” he wrote, “is to understand the emotive power of blood and earth.
“No matter how I looked at it the reality stared me full in the face: this was a war between Catholics and Protestants, not against the British.”
One of the most haunting literary works about the violence of Irish peasant life was The Field, a play by Kerryman John B. Keane that became a brilliant film starring Richard Harris as Bull McCabe — the farmer whose passion for a rented field is responsible for the destruction of his family.
An even worse example, but this time one that is real, occurred in Kanturk, where Tadg O’Sullivan and his son Diarmuid planned well in advance and carried out the murder of his other son Mark and then committed suicide, leaving the terminally ill wife and mother Anne untouched so she could suffer the agony they believed she deserved.
As a child I often spent summer weeks in the house about five miles from Kanturk where my mother grew up, being tolerated on the local farm helping ineptly to feed hens or make hay. And my mother’s family name is O’Sullivan, though I knew nothing of this particular family. But that wasn’t why this event weighed on me so heavily. I am all too accustomed to reading about murder, but what happened on that farm was unutterable and inexplicable cruelty.
The story that emerged from friends, relatives and last week’s inquest was that Anne, née Cronin, an only child, had inherited her family 114-acre plot of prime agricultural land.
Since she was a nurse and Tadg was a motor mechanic, they leased it out for about €30,000 a year. Tadg, also an only child, had inherited a much smaller and less valuable holding.
Mark was a trainee solicitor and Diarmuid was just about to graduate with a first class degree in accountancy.
Diarmuid was close to his father, and Mark to his mother, but though Tadg was leaving his land to Diarmuid, Anne wanted to divide hers between the boys, yet Diarmuid demanded almost all of it and threatened suicide if he didn’t get his way.
As emerged at last week’s inquest, which had access to messages from Mark fearing his brother might kill him and several interviews with Anne before she died, six months after the tragedies, from the time they heard she was terminally ill they were harassing her to do what they wanted.
Tadg had compounded her distress by saying he had married her only to better himself.
As the bible put it, they could not rest until they did evil.
I often think about the dreadful cruelty shown in some of the rural assassinations I know about, particularly the deliberate murders in Fermanagh in 1981 and 1985, one by one, of the three Graham brothers, which Ken Maginnis MP rightly described as an example of “genocide — a conscious effort by the IRA to systematically wipe Protestant families in the community”.
Yet hideous though these killings were, they were comprehensible. But as a local farmer said at one of O’Sullivan funerals, “The fact this was pre-planned is hard to come to terms with. All for what? For this? People here understand what it means to own land but I don’t think anyone will ever be able to understand this.”
The coroner felt the same.
So would I, if I didn’t believe in evil.