WHEN Tomás Mac Conmara talks about history, both his passion and the depth of his knowledge become very clear, very quickly.
It has been 100 years since the Scariff Martyrs – Michael Egan, Brud McMahon, Alphie Rodgers and Martin Gildea – were shot by Crown forces in Killaloe, and it’s an incident and period of time in Clare history into which Tomás has carried out a phenomenal amount of research.
He has written a book The Scariff Martyrs: War, Murder and Memory in East Clare, to be released early next year which will be the most extensive publication yet on the deaths of the four men and the subsequent trauma.
Tomás’ first recorded interview in relation to the killings was back in 2004, and while 16 years seems like a particularly long duration, he feels that history must be researched over an extensive period. “I’ve a really strong philosophy on that, I believe that the writing of history takes a long, long time. You have to understand the history you’re writing about, and my aim as a historian isn’t to accumulate a whole load of knowledge or be able to recount facts, or multiple statistics or dates, it’s to actually understand history. That takes a long time.
“Unless I’m able to understand the historical experience I’m investigating, then I won’t be able to convey that to the public. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, build that experience, build that capacity, talk to the people and investigate the places that can give me that understanding.
“With regard to the Scariff Martyrs, it can be described as an incident of local history, but there is so much intensity and richness and complexity and nuance to it that I think it deserves 16 years, it deserves that amount of time.” #
To underline the point he states he would probably have had enough material five years ago to write the book, but in the past five years has uncovered much more information.“Some little piece of information or some little piece of context that makes sense of some other aspect you were exploring illustrates how deep one event in the local history of an area can be,” he explains.
Most people will be living very different lives to 16 years ago, teenagers then are men and women now, while everyone’s understanding of themselves and the world around them will have evolved.
Tomás’ knowledge of the events covered in the book is completely different to what it was back in 2004, again showing the value of not rushing. “It’s certainly a much more nuanced understanding of the event. Early on in the time you can’t help but discern the emotion and the pride associated with the event and the fact that the four Scariff Martyrs are held in very high esteem by the local people.
“That hasn’t diminished in the 16 years of research. I had to be conscious of that, people talk about historians being objective, I don’t necessarily believe that’s a possible condition, but you can be honest and you can be credible.”
While there may be a great pride in the four men, he says that for their immediate families, the deaths were first and foremost a horrendous, heartbreaking tragedy. “I would have probably developed much more of a human sympathy for the families involved and an understanding that these four families didn’t want martyrs, this wasn’t something they desired.
“They’d have preferred not to have songs written about their sons and not to have them as heroes, but to have them alive. That’s a human reality.
“That doesn’t mean those families aren’t tremendously proud of their sons and their place in Irish history, and agreed with the struggle they fought for, particularly McMahon, Rodgers and Gildea. But that’s just accepting human reality.
“That sympathy for the families and that understanding of the human impact of these things developed over time.”
He now appreciates much more deeply how it effected people and he was struck by the emotions stirred in people generations after the four lives were snuffed out on a winter’s night in East Clare. “When you spend time interviewing people on the ground, as I have done over so many years, you really get a sense of that. Not only what happened, but of how people spoke about it and how it impacted on people.
“Alphie Rodgers’ mother was unable to be in a room when people were talking about her son over the decades that followed, whereas Brud McMahon’s mother was better able to handle it, at least outwardly, we don’t know inwardly how she felt.
“You develop all of those insights when you spend time talking to people and you realise the connections. So many people cried tears in front of me when they spoke about the Scariff Martyrs, some who were children at the time, others who were born in the years afterwards and never met them, but they inherited the emotion and the feeling that people had for it.
“That trauma passes through the generations and it manifests itself in front of your eyes when an old person is recalling a story and the way they inherited it.”
A big part of his work was establishing in as far as possible what happened on the night, not just accepting received wisdom. “Nobody in East Clare would accept the British account that they were shot as they were trying to escape, but it wasn’t enough for me as a historian to just repeat that.
“I had to break that down into minute detail, to try and almost forensically deal with what happened on the bridge, to figure out how we know what we know and then come to some conclusion as to what actually happened on the bridge that night.
“Also to deal with the historical contradictions and narratives; it has been presented as the Black and Tans that maybe there were others involved as well, as I’ve been able to establish.”
He has also had to present how the deaths resonated, with that happening in different ways for those closest to the men and those in the communities they came from.
“There are two levels to it, there’s the family connections to the story and I’ve gone very deep into that, to try and explain the impact on those families. That’s one experience and then you have the broader community experience.
“For the family, even though there’s massive pride, in the first generation the experience was one of absolute pain and trauma. For the community the experience was different, for them there was anger and trauma, but it quickly turned into pride and solidarity. There are these parallel experiences.
“From now on I suppose it’s more in the realm of solidarity, pride and how the local place had a really important place in the national story.”
Many events in the War of Independence became somewhat neglected from the 1970s onwards, largely due to the IRA campaign in the North, but Tomás says the Scariff Martyrs somewhat escaped that, always being remembered in East Clare. Nowadays he says there is a lot of interest from young people in what happened. “I’d be contacted by Leaving Cert students in Killaloe or Scariff, nearly every year there’d be a couple in contact with me looking for a bit of help with their Leaving Cert project on the Scariff Martyrs. It definitely has that sort of status and it resonates.
“Even if you look at it militarily, it is the most significant event in the War of Independence in East Clare, certainly up to the Glenwood Ambush of 1921, because four people are shot dead, three of them active IRA volunteers.
“They were three senior officers as well, they were significant volunteers, from a military point of view it was massively important as well as the emotional aspect of it.”
Unfortunately this year won’t see the type of commemoration that would have been expected for the centenary. “I’ve been involved with the Memorial Committee for many years and we worked incredibly hard over years to prepare for the 100th anniversary and we restructured everything earlier on this year to deal with Covid, but unfortunately as time went on then it just became impossible,” says Tomás.
While his book is ready to go, that has been put back to 2021 now in the hope that spring time will see more relaxation of current restrictions – a local launch for a project such as this would clearly be important. In general he feels a huge responsibility to record and document people’s views and recollections and that definitely applied to his work on the Scariff Martyrs. “I felt a sense of duty as time went on, particularly as an oral historian, I really felt a sense of duty to take on the story, to try and pull all of the different dimensions of it together and to hopefully tell the story effectively and to ensure as well that it’s remembered in another 100 years.
“I want to ensure there’s a full account of it there and people have access to that story, and hopefully, an understanding of it as well. “The ambition for me is to understand it and hopefully impart that understanding to the general public as well.”
His commitment to his work is very deep, and it is when it is finished that he feels a sense of accomplishment. “There’s a level of satisfaction that I get out of documenting that story and ensuring that it’s going to be there for generations to come, particularly when you record people who have really important human connections to the story, and you know you’ve done that and ensured that their story and contribution will be there forever more.”