Saturday, 5 July 2014

A Blue Plaque for a member of the Old IRA

Today the Irish News devoted an entire page to a new blue plaque which has been erected by the Ulster History Circle.  It also got a mention today in Eddie McIlwaine's page in the Belfast Telegraph.
The plaque was unveiled in Newry to recognise Peadar Barry (1895-1966) who was secretary of the County Down Board of the GAA for 31 years from the formation of the board in 1926 until 1957 and thereafter he was lifetime president.

The Irish News also tells us that Peadar Barry was a political ally of Eamon de Valera and a Nationalist politician and that he produced and acted in local plays and campaigned for the Ulster Farmers Union.
All this is true but it is interesting that the reports on the Ulster History Circle website and in the Irish News and the Belfast Telegraph omit any reference to another important part of the life of Peadar Barry, his role in the Old IRA.
Peadar Barry
Peadar Barry was born in 1891 and was the son of Peter Barry from Corrags and Annie O'Hare of Derrylecka.  As a boy he learned the stories of the United Irishmen and the Land League around the fireside in the family home.  He went on to play an active role in the War of Independence as a member of the Fourth Northern Division, Pre-Truce IRA, under the command of the notorious Frank Aiken.  It was Aiken who organised the murder of nine innocent Protestants at Altnaveigh in June 1922.
Later, as president of the Down GAA, Peadar Barry welcomed Frank Aiken, his former IRA commander-in-chief and then the Eire Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the official opening of Pairc an Iuir (now Pairc Esler) in Newry.
When Peadar Barry died in 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 rebellion, his coffin was covered with an Irish tricolour and escorted by an Old IRA guard-of-honour.  There was an oration at the graveside and a bugler sounded the Last Post and Reveille.  This was an Old IRA funeral.

Why did the Ulster History Circle and the newspapers omit any reference to Peadar Barry's role in the Old IRA?  That is a question that only they can answer but it is a question worth asking.

However this led me on to thinking again about something that has been pointed out before, the need for balance in the selection of plaques by the Ulster History Circle, so I took another look at the Ulster History Circle website, which lists all the blue plaques that have been erected.

This is the second plaque erected to commemorate a member of the GAA.  The other was for John McKay, a founding member of the GAA in 1884.  However there are no plaques relating to an organisation which plays a similar social role in the Protestant and Unionist community and by that I mean the Orange Order.

There are five plaques to leading members of the United Irishmen - William Steel Dickson, Jemmy Hope, Thomas McCabe and William Putnam McCabe, Henry Joy McCracken and Thomas Russell - who are described on the plaques as United Irishmen.  There is also a plaque for William Drennan, another United Irishman, who is described as a Patriot and Radical.

The Society of United Irishmen and the Orange Order were both founded in the 1790s but while one ended in 1798 the other is still a significant organisation and down through the years has played an important role in Ulster society.  Why then is there is no mention of the Orange Order on any plaque?

There is a plaque in Newry to John Mitchel (1815-1875) and John Martin (1812-1875), who are described as Patriots and Writers and who were from the next generation of republicans.  As regards later republicans there is a plaque to Alice Milligan, a Gaelic revivalist and also a member of Sinn Fein.

The use of the word patriot in relation to Drennan, Mitchel and Martin is understandable but all three were republicans, although in the end William Drennan rejected republicanism and became a unionist. Is it impossible to be a patriotic unionist?  Is the word patriot reserved for Irish nationalists and republicans?

So where is the recognition of unionism in the plaques and why is there no mention of unionism?  Are there no significant unionists who deserve to be commemorated?  What about Sir James Craig, the leader of Ulster Unionism and one of the founding fathers of Northern Ireland?  What about Thomas Sinclair, the author of the Ulster Covenant and leader of the Liberal Unionists?  What about Fred Crawford, who organised the Larne gunrunning and whose life could be turned into a Hollywood epic? What about one of the former Grand Masters of the Orange Order?  What about one of the former prime ministers of Northern Ireland?  What about Thomas Sloan MP, leader of the Independent Orange Order?

A shared future must have a place for unionism and a place for Orangeism but in some circles there seems to be no place for them.  Unionism and Orangeism are very much under-represented in the work of the Ulster History Circle.

Yesterday a blue plaque was unveiled for a county secretary of the GAA and a former member of the Old IRA.  What then does the Ulster History circle intend to do to address the under-representation of leaders within unionism and Orangeism?  Will we ever see the words unionist or Orange appear on a 'blue plaque'?

The Ulster History Circle does a valuable work in highlighting significant figures in Ulster history and I regret having to raise this point but it is one that cannot be overlooked.


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