This is the moving and redeeming story of William T Bennett of Killeady Mill, Ballinhassig, Co Cork, an ex-soldier and Protestant during the dark days of 1919-23.
ean Lemass sincerely apologized in memory of Irish ex-military personnel during the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
“In later years it was common – and I was guilty in this regard – to question the motives of those men who joined the new British armies at the outbreak of war, but they must, in their honor. and in fairness to their memories, they were motivated by the highest goal. “
Likewise, Brian Lenihan made amends with Protestant IRA victims in his 2010 speech in Beal na Blath, paying tribute to Peter Hart for describing the plight of those who suffered because of “where they worked or worshiped”.
Lemass and Lenihan are ashamed of the army of nationalist historians who have tried to explain what I would call political-sectarian actions by some of the IRA units during the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Ronan McGreevy gave a balanced picture that reflects Lemass’s view that veterans were sometimes ill-treated:
“For the Irish returning home, their fate was compounded by the political situation. These men were shunned, banned from Irish society, and in many cases murdered by the IRA. ”
But worse than avoid. More than half of the 71 victims executed as alleged spies by the First Cork Brigade IRA were ex-military personnel, Catholics, and Protestants.
As outsiders, they were easy scapegoats for IRA intelligence breaches, which common sense tells us were much more likely to come from within the IRA itself.
But life was especially tough for former Protestant soldiers, as we can see from the claim William Bennett made to the Irish Grants Commission in 1924, which had kindly been copied to me by Cal and Joan Hyland, who photographed the Kew files .
Bill Bennett, as he was known to his GAA colleagues, was what Thomas Davis, also a patriotic Protestant, would call “racy of the soil.”
So much so that, according to the 1911 census, his Church of Ireland parents spoke both English and Irish.
Bill was also an experienced athlete, a great road bowl player and most of all an ardent member of the GAA.
But being a cultural Irish patriot didn’t spare him from being stolen by the IRA for intimidation.
Tribe historians are trying to cover up the political sectarianism that emerged in some areas in the War of Independence.
That’s why they focus on classics like Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies and Robin Bury’s Buried Lives, which took on the 1923 Protestant story where Hart left off.
Bill is quite clear in his assertion about the political-sectarian mix that has persecuted him.
It was because he was “a Protestant ex-soldier and a loyalist, and that’s why I was prosecuted.”
His concise written statement begins: “I was drafted in 1914 and served in France. I passed on my father’s 105-acre farm. I lost money while on active duty because my wife found it difficult to continue because she faced a lot of opposition to my presence in the military. “
But Bill loved his hometown, and being a man of parts, he switched from farming to grinding.
“When I returned in 1918, I bought a mill. It was largely used by farmers and others, and when the uprising started I owed something like £ 300 for the use of the mill. “
However, as the War of Independence progressed, less conscientious Roman Catholic farmers began to pay their debts to Killeady Mill.
“In December 1921, I tried to get a share of my money, and as a result, my property was raided and my books burned.”
As he succinctly explains, “Burning my books, which prevents me from collecting bills.”
The prosecution did not stop with evading debt. “A dead set was made to me. I was boycotted in every possible way. People did not want to use my mill. ”
The prosecution was not only narrow-minded but lengthy. The IRA, and later hateful irregular tears, kept him under pressure not only during the armistice and civil war, but until 1923.
“The stairs were completely broken. Robbed for months of both my horses. From 1921, 1922 and 1923 I fed irregular groups of 20 and 30 at a time. ‘
Ultimately, it was a case of emigration or seeing his wife and family reduced to extreme poverty.
But like many other Protestants forced, the IRA was determined to leave him with nothing.
“I tried to sell my land to get out of the country, but no auction was allowed. Advertising for the sale of a farm is not allowed. ‘
But then, to the mind of a true republican, the saddest part comes – the GAA banned him from his beloved bowling.
“I was not allowed to participate in the Gaelic Association, where I had previously won several championships.”
This hurt him a lot, as in later years he would boast that he was the first man to “move the viaduct”, the acclaimed 100 foot high West Cork railway bridge just outside Cork city.
But with typical fairness, Bill added that he did it, not with the 28 oz heavy bowl, but the 16 oz “junior” bowl!
Luckily for our sense of shame and for the honor of true republicanism, there is a happy ending to Bill Bennett’s story.
Fanatic Ireland failed to expel this real Irishman from 1919-23. But as soon as the tribal bigots strolled back into the shadows, decent Ireland pressed Bill to his chest again.
How do we know that? Because the record shows that one of the standard-bearers at the 1924 Tailteann Games was a William T Bennett.
Bill Bennett’s story doesn’t end there. Because his son, Ossie Bennett, continued the proud GAA tradition of his tough dad.
Older Cork fans will remember that Ossie Bennett was the revered legendary masseur credited with a significant contribution to the great Cork hurling and football teams of the 1970s – while passing Ossie’s equally outstanding work for the Kilkenny team.
While it didn’t seem to bother Ossie, my real Republican father was outraged to see a Protestant like Ossie Bennett bend the knee to kiss the Roman Catholic bishop’s episcopal ring for a final in Ireland.
Like many Irish Protestants in the Republic, the Bennett family practiced a Stoic omerta about their past suffering. Sometimes what Gladstone called “blessed oblivion” seems like the easiest solution.
But keeping silent feeds tribal delusions and robs the Irish Republic of the saving grace of shame.
We must face what the IRA did to Bill Bennett and other Protestants in the years 1919-23 without academic excuses for IRA actions.
Saying sorry, like feeling shame, is one of the saving graces of civil society.