Several years ago I came across mention of a long forgotten story. In March 1922, in the aftermath of the War of Independence, the IRA in Cork went to sea and in a brilliant series of manoeuvres captured a Royal Navy ship laden with over a hundred tons of arms and ammunition. It was an incredible tale of piracy and daring do; an incident that shocked Michael Collins, threw the British government into disarray and changed the course of the Irish Civil War. Even Winston Churchill grudgingly expressed his admiration: ‘The Irish have a genius for conspiracy.’ The incident seemed ripe for the telling.
And so I embarked on my research. I visited the National Archives in Kew, the Imperial War Museum in London, Winston Churchill’s archives in Cambridge, Cork City and County Archives and countless others. I toured numerous historical sites. I poured over official reports, inventories of weapons, secret telegrams, maps and diaries of generals and admirals.
Filled with great enthusiasm and energy I sat down and started to write. However, after a few months I felt that I was going nowhere. No matter how I rewrote the chapters they remained lifeless: it was difficult to discern the point of the project. I thought to myself, why would a reader be interested in what I have to say? How can I convey my passion for the project?
After thinking about my dilemma over numerous cups of coffee I realised that what was missing was real people and their personal stories. Characters should not be merely names on a page, but need to be presented as three dimensional relatable personalities. They need to be described along with their opinions, biases, foibles, vices and virtues. What good is a book if it is not built around a human story? Characterisation may seem primarily a feature of literary works, however it’s also nearly always necessary in non-fiction, unless of course you’re writing about Classical epistemology or the growth in Finnish GDP during the 1950s. History is not simply a sequence of events, but it is created and driven by personality, emotions, happenstance and memory of the past. Just as in fiction, individual character is crucial to understanding and explaining our past. And stories and vignettes are often the best way to illustrate character.
Therefore I refocused my efforts. I scoured hundreds of personal statements, army pension applications, unremembered autobiographies and obscure self-published books. I read musty books that hadn’t been taken off the shelf for decades. I made contact with some of the descendants of the participants I was researching. I met Len Williams, whose namesake and grandfather was a tugboat captain kidnapped by the IRA. I corresponded with the family of Admiral Ernest Gaunt who had been the Royal Navy’s commander in Ireland and with the descendants of Captain Jeremiah Collins a successful Cork merchant mariner, who was the key to the IRA’s scheme.
I realised that the incident could be envisioned as a struggle between two very different characters: Admiral Gaunt and Seán O’Hegarty the IRA leader in Cork. They were both fascinating personalities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses; their own insecurities, prejudices and enmities. Gaunt – an admiral of pomp and circumstance – thought he was in the colonies during his time in Ireland. While Seán O’Hegarty was a remarkably focused and unrelenting militant. O’Hegarty at one stage kidnapped an English journalist from the Times and put him on ‘trial’ in Cork, so that he would ‘correct’ an article that Seán deemed an insult. A totally bizarre incident that reminded me of Hamlet’s musings: ‘Rightly to be great is… to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake.’
Ultimately The Ballycotton Job would never have occurred were it not for Seán O’Hegarty’s tenacity, discipline and ingenuity. The incredible exploit was dependent on his personality and the circumstances that moulded his character as much as it was dependent on the historical situation.
In addition I tried to humanise the other characters; according each a story or anecdote. Sometimes complementary, sometimes not. Often I simply recounted an incident and left the reader to make their interpretation.
There was the acerbic General Nevil Macready who confessed: ‘I loathe the country [Ireland] … and its people with a depth deeper than the sea and more violent than that which I feel against the Boche [Germans]’. Lady Louise Gaunt – originally from Ballyvaughan by the way – shunned her sickly daughter Sheila since she regarded her as a ‘flawed child’. Captain Len Williams who rescued scores of survivors from the ill-fated Lusitania and afterwards suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic neurasthenia (as it was known in those days). There was even the ruthless gunman who complained of being cold and hungry; having only had a single sausage to eat all day. Perhaps he was ‘hangry’, though I suspect he was exaggerating the extent of his misfortune.
Stories can act as parables and the best of them are windows into the soul. Not only can stories touch us deeply but they help us understand the world we live in, understand the past and understand ourselves. They help us relate to others and they give us empathy.
‘Dry’ history with its lists of dates and statistics, kings and queens is not only boring but is incomplete. It fails to help us comprehend why things happen, why some leaders fail and others succeed, why some nations thrive and others collapse and why we live in the world we do.
Writing The Ballycotton Job was a lot of fun and at times frustration, but it also taught me a lot about the past and how it relates to our present. Sometimes I even feel I personally know the characters in the book and at times it seems as if I’ve stood alongside Seán O’Hegarty on top of Ballycotton pier on a freezing cold night in March waiting for my ships to come in.
(c) Tom Mahon
About The Ballycotton Job:
This is the story of the most astonishing act of piracy carried out in Ireland in the last two hundred years. It was an operation almost flawless in its planning and execution that changed the course of the Irish Civil War
Winston Churchill called it ‘brilliantly conceived’ adding ‘the Irish have a genius for conspiracy’. While a furious Michael Collins accused the British of deliberately arming his enemies in the IRA. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the bullet that killed him came from the Upnor.
The Ballycotton Job brings this long forgotten story dramatically back to life. For the first time all the strands of the adventure with its cast of disparate characters are woven together, resulting in a riveting account. It’s the first comprehensive description of: the seizure of the Upnor, the events leading up to it and the consequences of the operation. Based on years of archival research it uniquely tells the story from both an Irish and British perspective. The fast paced narrative is enlivened by dialogue and details obtained from historical interviews with many of the participants.
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