The Bog Of Bones

Not far from my family plot in Midleton cemetery lie the graves of the Clonmult Martyrs. On February 20, 1921, 20 IRA volunteers were surrounded in a remote farmhouse by British forces. Some were killed in a gun battle, some died after – the Irish side say those who surrendered were summarily executed, the British side say they were shot while trying to flee. The Clonmult Ambush, as it became known, was one of the heaviest single casualties of the War Of Independence. A total of 22 people died in the ambush and subsequent executions – 14 IRA members, two Black and Tans and six suspected informers. There is a memorial in Clonmult where the battle happened, and there are commemorations at the graves in Midleton each year.  

A stone’s throw from their graves lies that of Martin Corry TD. He was a colourful character in his later years as a political representative for east Cork in the Irish parliament, but during his time with the IRA in the War Of Independence he ran a notorious prison nicknamed Sing Sing inside a vault in a cemetery in Kilquane. Corry claimed to have tortured and killed dozens of men and dumped their bodies in a nearby bog known as The Rea. He chuckled about it in later years, as he discussed the executions. 

History isn’t binary. I know I’m not the first person to say that, but it’s worth repeating. All our glorious dead were not saintly angels, all the hated invaders were not monsters, and to commemorate is not to celebrate. My great grandfather was in the Royal Irish Constabulary (as was Martin Corry’s father) and I never gave much thought to it until 2019 when a Government minister suggested commemorating those who served. It was derided as a celebration of oppression, of brutes – these vicious hateful men who joined the British police force in Ireland were, in the eyes of some, no better than the gestapo. My great-grandfather was an ordinary man – I looked him up on the National Newspapers Archives and most of his appearances in the pages of the Southern Star (he was stationed in Bantry) were testifying in drunk and disorderly cases, or in one case, a trial where someone was accused of failing to remain in control of their cow. But in Ireland now, a century on, to have anything other than loathing for any member of the RIC is to be a card-carrying fellow traveller with the invaders. The RIC’s role in Irish society has been conflated with the vicious, murderous actions of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. History crushed, compacted, and compartmentalised.  There was to be no space for a commemoration of RIC members. How wide do we want to cast this net – after the RIC, who next? Anyone who worked for the state under British rule? Civil servants? Anyone who wasn’t actively planning sedition for the entire duration of their lives under the crown? How many traitors can we find?

Bringing out a whiskey in honour of, or celebration of, or to commemorate the Proclamation of Independence makes economic sense (technically this whiskey is in honour of the printing of the document, a handy sidestep from anything with too strong a whiff of cordite off it). If we get a little uneasy or begin to sneer about things like this, which effectively sell Irishness to people who are into that kind of thing, we should remember that we have a remarkably powerful brand; we are the loveable rogues whose national holiday is celebrated across the globe. We don’t get involved in military quagmires, and are often seen as a relatively benevolent nation of poets and pissheads. Big Green is a powerful USP – slap a shamrock on your product, ship it to America and let it fly. I have no doubt that this whiskey will sell, just as the Michael Collins whiskey sells. I’ll let the press release tell some of the story: 

105 years ago this month, the famous words of the Irish Proclamation were immortalised into their distinctive print by three lesser-known Dubliners, William O’Brien, Michael Molloy and Christopher Joseph Brady, the printers of the Irish Proclamation document. Printed secretly during this time, the original document was created in two parts as the men had insufficient type to print the document all at once. Distinctive font along with a spurious ‘e’ are additional hallmarks of the original Proclamation, which together add another layer to a story in time, part of the backdrop to a significant period in Irish history. Proclamation Irish Whiskey, launched in 2020, was created in honour of O’Brien, Molloy and Brady, to acknowledge the important role these unsung heroes played over a century ago in Dublin. 

This bottling is from the same team who created Grace O’Malley whiskey, a slightly more playful and less contentious historic resurrection. O’Malley’s time is centuries past – the War of Independence is only a century ago, the Civil War closer again. It’s Ireland’s Decade Of Centenaries now, when we are expected to mark the many brutal and difficult occasions that led to the foundation of the Irish state. History has become pliable – you don’t have to look far to find countries that have chosen not to remember the atrocities they committed and only recall their heroism and greatness. Nationalism is a hell of a drug. 

The good people at Burrell PR were generous enough to send me a bottle of Proclamation whiskey, and here are the official tasting notes: 

NOSE: First to be revealed is ripe Williams pear, followed by an abundance of apricot and crème brulée notes. Slowly developing through to rich custard, freshly brewed cappuccino and ending with woody notes.

PALATE: Front loaded notes of toasted brioche, freshly baked pastry and overtones of macerated yellow fruits. Fusions of tannins on the mid-palate with a robust yet rounded finish.

FINISH: Overwhelmingly smooth and creamy with a mellow finish, with hints of toasted cereal.

I enjoyed it. I’m not the target demographic for this, with my angsty hand-wringing about the past. Maybe if I did less thinking and more drinking I would be more fun to be around. If you want to pick up a bottle, it’s available in SuperValu, Carry Out off licences and independent retailers nationwide, for €35. For further information, visit www.proclamationwhiskey.com.

If you are interested in knowing more about Martin Corry, there is an extensive biography here. It is worth reading, just to see what he said in his later years about the North of Ireland, about Hitler, and about the importation of barley into Ireland from Iraq.

If you want to see the inside of Sing Sing, the local Rubicon Heritage team took photos in recent years. A plaque was erected outside it in 2001, referring to its use as a prison. It makes no mention of torture and killing. There are no plaques in The Rea. 

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