Regular readers of thebrokenelbow.com, who also subscribe to The Irish Times, might have recognised as something they had read before, an article in Saturday’s People section of the paper about the suicide of Dr David Ross, who was the Maze prison doctor during the 1980 and 1981 republican hunger strikes. Dr Ross killed himself with a shotgun in the family garage of his Templepatrick, Co Antrim home in 1986.
The article. which filled most of a page, was written by Simon Carswell.
Attitudes to Dr Ross amongst the republican prisoners in the Maze varied sharply. Brendan Hughes, who led the 1980 prison fast which ended in confusion, believed that Dr Ross was sympathetic to the prisoners and he suspected that his suicide might have been caused by the trauma he had experienced during the two jail protests.
He remembers Ross bringing in spring water for the hunger strikers because the water in jail was harsh to the system and he dubbed him, after his death, ‘the eleventh hunger striker’. Bobby Sands, on the other hand, along with some other inmates believed Dr Ross was a fake and distrusted him.
Whatever the truth, the story of Dr Ross is a tragic and fascinating sidebar to one of the more traumatic but consequential episodes of the Troubles. The only problem with The Irish Times story is that it had already been substantially published, some two-and-a-half years ago on this site, and its appearance this weekend raises all sort of questions.
I first heard of Dr Ross from Brendan Hughes and after I finished writing ‘A Secret History of the IRA‘, I made some admittedly sporadic efforts to gather material to write a story about the doctor’s life and death and his impact on the IRA prison population. It was on my ‘to do’ list, albeit intermittently. Eventually, after a lengthy and mostly fruitless search, I was told that the Public Records Office had a file on his inquest and I made contact and arranged to pick up a copy of the file on my next trip to Belfast, which I did in 2017.
I more or less sat on the file for a while but when The New Yorker’s Patrick Keefe contacted me and asked for help in writing his book on the disappearance of Jean McConville, I mentioned Brendan Hughes’ humanity and, as an example, the concerns raised by Dr Ross’ suicide, while mentioning that I was going to write about it at some stage; he asked if he could make a copy and I agreed.
There was no doubt in my mind that he knew I would write about the story eventually, but his interest was primarily because of the role played by Brendan Hughes, who was of course the source in ‘Voices From The Grave’ for the allegation that Jean McConville was an informer (who he let off). He wanted to know the date of Ross’s death and when I obtained the inquest file, I happily let him have a copy as proof.
Keefe’s book ‘Say Nothing‘ was published in Ireland and the UK on November 1st, 2018 and the following Spring it was unveiled in American bookstores. His account was, in my view, self-serving, inasmuch as it played down much of the evidence which supported the IRA’s claim that the widowed housewife had been supplying information to the British Army while emphasising evidence to the contrary. This was important because while the IRA’s abduction and killing of Jean McConville was obscene, if the British military had used her as a source they were no less despicable and responsible for her death.
I thought that his account of the McConville affair was seriously unbalanced and I let him, and others, know that. By that stage Keefe was on a publicity tour in Ireland and it was evident that he had hooked up with Simon Carswell of The Irish Times. Carswell hosted Keefe on his Irish Times podcast, heaping praise on ‘Say Nothing‘. Note the date.
I later put my thoughts about Keefe’s book together and tried to get them published. Such is the power of The New Yorker – or perhaps the care many of this city’s writers take not to offend a publication most of them would kill to work for – that only Counterpunch would publish. You can read my judgement on Keefe here.
I thought no more about all this until a few days after Keefe’s Irish publicity tour when, purely by chance, I came across an advert in the Belfast press asking anyone who might have known Dr David Ross to contact Simon Carswell.
A coincidence or something else? I had let Keefe have a copy of the Ross inquest file to help him write his book on Jean McConville, I then criticize his book quite openly, Keefe travels to Ireland and hooks up with Carswell and days later an advert appears in the Belfast press from Carswell seeking to speak to anyone who knew Dr David Ross.
I had shared what I knew and what I was to discover about Dr Ross with Keefe but he knew all along that while I had no objection to him using material from the inquest report in his book, the story was one I had discovered and that the inquest file was something I had obtained and it was not his to give away to whomever he wished. It was my story, parts of which I had shared with him – but no-one else.
So the question remains, how and when did Simon Carswell learn of Dr David Ross?
The Irish Times version: