BATTLE OF BALTINGLASS
Sir, - RTE's Telling Tales: The Battle of Baltinglass was broadcast on October 10th. It was disappointing that any attempt at balance was sacrificed in order to give the programme a whiff of scandal.
Though I was not born at the time of the dispute between supporters of Helen Cooke and Michael Farrell over the appointment of the sub postmaster, I cooperated with the programme makers as a local historian. I was the only person with whom they recorded an interview (other than Liam Kavanagh) who was not a Helen Cooke sympathiser.
My contribution was, they said, to bring a balance to the story. Before the broadcast, the producer told me that my interview was being omitted as they needed to devote extra time to Maureen Watts, Miss Cooke's daughter. He guaranteed, however, that the narration would provide the balance. Sadly, this was not the case.
The Farrell family was portrayed by the interviewees as rich and rather rapacious. In reality, their generosity prevented them from ever being wealthy. They were described to me as having "fed half the town"; allowing the poorer inhabitants credit on groceries for which there was little hope of ever being paid. The Farrells were good, decent people and were popular in Baltinglass until Michael was appointed sub postmaster.
There is no doubt that his appointment was political, but that was hardly the first or last time such a thing occurred in Ireland.
There again, heredity is no more a justification for such an appointment, so Helen Cooke did not have any greater claim to the position. Indeed. they were not the only applicants for the job.
Helen Cooke was the sort of snappy character who gives postmistresses a bad name. It was not for her charisma that she won supporters. Telling Tales failed to examine the political and financial motives of some of the instigators. No doubt most of the activists were moved by the difficult situation she found herself in, but what began as a demonstration for her turned into a nasty victimisation of the Farrells. They were not just boycotted; they were intimidated. When Mrs Farrell went to Rathvilly to attend Mass, protesters followed.
This mob element was very strong. However, not everyone in Baltinglass subscribed to it. Michael Farrell was not without his supporters, but they were not as articulate or as comfortably middle class as most of the Cooke activists. There were also those who remained neutral; my late father was one of this small group. Because he refused to close his shop while a proCooke protest march passed through the town, he too was boycotted.
The Battle of Baltinglass is a study of mass hysteria in microcosm. Photographs of the Cooke faction marching through the town, wielding black flags, bring to mind images of fascist rallys two decades earlier. It is a lesson in how ordinary people can be manipulated into behaviour they would never contemplate under ordinary circumstances. The Battle was a shameful episode in the history of Baltinglass; one not spoken of publicly while I was growing up. Perhaps it is best forgotten but, when it is being discussed, the whole story should be told.
Lawrence Earl's book The Battle of Baltinglass is a one sided account of the events that has all the ingredients of a Passport to Pimlico type Ealing comedy. Telling Tales could have set the record straight. Instead, they chose to turn it into an Edna O'Brien novella. The existence of Miss Cooke's daughter might have spiced up the programme, but it had nothing to do with the Battle of Baltinglass.
Telling Tales asked: What would have happened to her support had the truth been known? Baltinglass was never that innocent a place. Helen Cooke would not have been unique in that regard, and I doubt if things would have been very much different. - Yours, etc.,
Sutton, Dublin 13.