Secret history

Feb 5th, 2014 | By | Category: Ireland

Anyone who seriously believes that spring begins on Saint Brigid’s Day should try driving around the Irish Midlands on a February afternoon when the rain feels as though it has been pushed, rather than having fallen, and the wind through the electricity cables is doing an impression of a bean sidhe, if such a being existed, which it doesn’t.

He was sat in his familiar armchair inside the kitchen door, his terrier in its usual spot beside the range. It was not a day to be venturing out. “You weren’t out in the workshop today?”

“Do you know, it must be two months since I was in the workshop. It’s cold out there”.

Born in the summer of 1918, he still has the mental agility of someone years younger. The conversation meanders and he tells of a family he had known who had lived on a road leading to a bog where local people had cut turf. “When we were children they would tell stories of seeing horses going down the road at night time with big loads on their backs. The loads would be rolled up in old carpets”.


“No, bodies. There was a deep pool in the bog. The IRA would weight the bodies and throw them into it”.

“Whose bodies were they? British soldiers’?”

“No. Informers’.”

“They are building a wind farm on that bog. Do you mean that they could dig up someone’s body?”

“You wouldn’t know what they might dig up. Bodies last a long time in bogs”.

(Bodies do indeed last a long time in bogs; one found in the county in 2011 is believed to date from four thousand years ago, making it the oldest fleshed bog body in the world).

What does one make of such memories?

Esmonde Robertson, my history lecturer at the London School of Economics more than thirty years ago would have urged caution regarding such stories. He had an intense dislike for Irish history being told like a fireside chat. “An interview with someone who says things like, ‘The man wouldn’t keep quiet, so I plugged him’, might be interesting, but it’s not serious history”.  Robertson was, of course, right, real history is about asking questions about the processes and circumstances that led to the man being “plugged”.

But such memories point to something significant. Even if no horse ever passed down the road at dead of night, even if no body weighted with stones was ever thrown into the black bog waters, (an Internet search provided no suggestion whatsoever of such burials having happened in the area), the telling of the story speaks of a belief that there was a secret history, one that doesn’t appear in the books.

More than ninety years later, is it now safe to ask how many secret histories there are? And, perhaps, to ask to what extent the culture of seeing nothing and saying nothing during those years, created a fertile ground for decades of sexual abuse and political corruption?

Wind farm

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