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Playing Handball Against a Haystack: A Response to Brian Hanley's Defence of Peter Hart

category cork | miscellaneous | opinion/analysis author Tuesday May 31, 2005 22:29author by Niall Meehan Report this post to the editors

A history of the discussion on this matter can be found on the following web pages:
What Is The Dispute about Kilmichael and Dunmanway really about?
Response to History Ireland Interview: Peter Hart replies on Tom Barry and Kilmichael (but not Dunmanway)
Audio Report: 'Political Culture in Cork' - a talk by Brian Murphy
Peter Hart interview with Brian Hanley from History Ireland

“Asking the Taoiseach a question is like trying to play handball against a haystack. You hear a dull thud and the ball does not come back to you. It goes all over the world, but it certainly does not come back to the person asking the question.” Joe Higgins Socialist Party TD, Leinster House 29 January 2003

The Ireland Institute is to be congratulated for hosting a talk by Dr Brian Hanley of Maynooth on “Historians and the Irish Revolution” on May 12.  

Brian Hanley interviewed Peter Hart recently in History Ireland. He clarified his differences with critics of Peter Hart’s work on the War of Independence in Cork (The IRA and its Enemies 1998). In the absence of a detailed reply from Peter Hart (which we still await), a response to Hanley’s talk may serve to clarify the discussion and to eliminate some of the confusions.


Brian Hanley criticized those who apparently believe that the War of Independence consisted of “four glorious years” and who allegedly have difficulty with the fact that the IRA assassinated or ambushed the enemy at close range. Adherents of this view were not identified. Ironically, these could be the type of republicans Peter Hart admires, who for “moral” reasons “refused to become ambushers and assassins” (see History Ireland interview).  

Focusing on Peter Hart’s Critics, Hanley said: “some … argue that it is utterly preposterous to suggest that any action of the IRA could have been motivated by sectarianism”. The holder of this preposterous view was again not named. (Brian Hanley’s at times inability to identify who he was talking about and what precisely they said or wrote creates a difficulty – of which more below.)  


Hanley said: “It is impossible to believe that no IRA member acted out of personal malice or out of the belief that Protestants were not really Irish”. It would indeed be foolish (though not impossible) to take issue with this view. Derivation of motivation in every individual case is not the historian’s task. The issue is the significance or effect of such views, if indeed they had any significant effect over the course of the War of Independence. Where such views existed they would have to be put into context. For instance, it is not sufficient to portray as sectarian the infusion of religious belief into a political outlook. Otherwise, we would have to portray Gandhi and Martin Luther King as sectarian. By and large sectarianism as a motivating factor was explicit in the ideology of unionism and in the policy and practice of the British government and its forces. Sectarian violence or its justification was not a feature of republican politics or action. Peter Hart almost concedes as much in his recent History Ireland interview, in a way that implicitly contradicts his West Cork research.  

The problem with Peter Hart’s work on Cork is that he concludes that sectarianism as such motivated the IRA campaign and the republican struggle generally in West Cork. Hart concluded that this was essentially a war of “neighbour against neighbour”.  

Kilmichael = Dunmanway  

Two events are pivotal to Hart’s thesis. Indeed, he links them.  

They are:  

a) The Kilmichael ambush and Hart’s refutation of the claim that Auxiliaries engaged in a false surrender;
b) Hart’s allegation that the post-Truce Bandon/Dunmanway killings of loyalists [Hanley said 13, others say 14] in 1922 were motivated by sectarianism.  


If Peter Hart had concluded from his examination of the Kilmichael ambush that he was unsure of the accuracy of the false surrender claim in the midst of the fog of war, we could agree to differ and to forget the matter. It would be too trivial to pursue. However, for Hart the false surrender claim is in fact a lie concocted by IRA commander Tom Barry. Hart’s newspaper allegation that Barry was a “serial killer” was part of the argument that the battle was occasioned by savagery that was part of a vicious sectarian conflict. It “culminated” in the Bandon/Dunmanway killings, said Peter Hart.  

Taken with Hart’s deliberate omission of key aspects of a contentious document (the omitted sections reinforce the case for its being a British forgery) and the demolition of other aspects of Hart’s case against Barry (see Meda Ryan), we are left with little more than a case made on the basis of assumptions. While it is possible to believe such a case it is not necessarily historical belief, more an act of revisionist faith.  

The interest in the false surrender at Kilmichael stems from the fact that establishing it as a lie enables Peter Hart to place the IRA on the same level of moral and political opprobrium as the British forces: the Black & Tans, Auxiliaries and RIC. If Hart’s evidence stood up we could argue over interpretation of the evidentiary and documentary basis of the argument. But the evidence falls apart on examination and Peter Hart has been criticised as a researcher who is, at best, less than careful in its presentation.  


Take the Bandon/Dunmanway killings. Peter Hart misreported and in this case misrepresented another document (again from British sources, though genuine in this case). Hart asserted that Protestants shot as informers by the IRA could not have supplied information because, according to the British Record of the Rebellion, Protestants “had not got it to give”. Hart left out the next sentence which stated: “the exception to this rule was in the Bandon area”, where there was active informing and where the IRA shot the culprits. In other words a source said by Hart to be “the most important and trustworthy we have” contradicted his central point, and he omitted it.  

When he came to publish an edited version of the Record of the Rebellion a few years later, Peter Hart glided over his omission in a manner said by an Irish Times reviewer to be “disingenuous”. He also left out of his published version a section in which it was admitted that the British Army had a sectarian view of the Irish. (I am indebted to Brian Murphy for this latter point. It was Murphy who in 1999 pointed to the original omission by Hart.)  

Brian Hanley did not deal with these specific and quite serious criticisms, even when raised from the floor by Manus O’Riordan and by me. Perhaps he did not wish to appear critical.  


There are aspects of Hart’s work that Brian Hanley said he does not “go along with” but these were not explained. He observed that merely because Kevin Myers of the Irish Times agreed with a proponent of a historical work, in this case Peter Hart's, it did not of itself render the work wrong. Indeed.  

For instance, Hart’s “evidence for the Dunmanway killings is compelling”, said Brian Hanley, without referring to the issue of Hart’s use of the Record or other recent evidence (see below). He gave a short account of the original impetus for the killings. Hanley said they resulted from a desire for “revenge after the deaths of IRA volunteers” [in fact one IRA volunteer]. However, Hanley reported it to be improbable that “suddenly 13 informers were found”: those done to death were killed because they were a part of an “outsider” group. Hanley, following Hart, suggests the victims were picked at random from the Protestant community.  

It is surprising that Hanley did not refer to the evidence in Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter (2003). The names of all those shot were on the list of “helpful citizens” left by the Auxiliaries when they vacated Dunmanway workhouse. Three were directly implicated in the killing of the IRA volunteer and two relatives of others on the list were shot (surnames were listed in that case – this in itself reveals the relationship of the killings to the Auxiliary list). Ryan documented the exceptional organization of paramilitary loyalism on an explicitly sectarian basis in the Bandon area within sections of the Protestant community (a level of organization that Peter Hart denies). During the War, the IRA shot informers or expelled them from the area, irrespective of their religion. The allegation that Protestants were targeted as such, or, even more seriously, that innocent Protestants were targeted, has little evidentiary or documentary basis. The best case that can be made for such an approach arises from the Bandon/Dunmanway killings. Under examination, as with Kilmichael, the case is weakened considerably. (See details in references below)

(There are elements of repetition and of omission in this account. More detail can be found in my response to Peter Hart’s History Ireland interview and the discussion summary. If they could be answered, the repetition might cease.)  


In fact, the Bandon/Dunmanway killings were exceptional, but they were also not sectarian. They took place during a ceasefire period, in defiance of an IRA amnesty for spies and informers. They were roundly condemned by every section of republican opinion, pro and anti-Treaty. Even the Select Vestry of the Church of Ireland said they were exceptional. These comments were issued in the absence of knowledge of the Auxiliary list. Tom Barry played an honourable role in stopping the killings and preventing further targeting of former British intelligence agents and operatives on the Dunmanway list – these individuals were potentially still under threat. Manus O'Riordan and Meda Ryan have detailed this episode and their evidence appears compelling.  

Brian Hanley, in partial retreat, suggested that what is important is how the killings are “seen” by "one million Irish people" in the North of Ireland. Certainly British propaganda did everything it could to portray the War of Independence as a war against Protestants. Deviators were terrorised back into line. In his recent talk in Cork Brian Murphy recounted the experience of an unfortunate Protestant trader from Cork named Biggs, who asserted in a letter to the Irish Times that relations between Protestants and Catholics were fine. Within three days his shop was razed to the ground by the RIC. The audio recording of Murphy's talk on Indymedia.ie reveals this and other similar and telling details.  

Orange Order  

Every effort was made to help unionists "see" the conflict as sectarian and to persuade them to fight on that basis. Peter Hart helps them ‘see’ this anew, which is why his work is promoted extensively on Orange Order inspired web sites.  

Many Protestants, including in Cork, supported or were sympathetic to the Republican struggle. Sam Maguire, a Protestant from Dunmanway, was Michael Collins’ right hand man who took a pro-Treaty position. He took part in the 1924 Army Mutiny in protest against Free State policy since Collin's death (on his death in 1927 Maguire’s former IRA comrades defied priestly prohibition to provide an IRA honour guard at his Protestant funeral service, a point made by Manus O'Riordan at the talk).  

This phenomenon, ignored by Hart, would have been highly improbable had the IRA conducted themselves as depicted by him. The main point here is that there were Protestant republicans in Dunmanway, Bandon, Ballineen and other areas, just as there were Roman Catholic loyalists. The element of support for and opposition to the British Empire as a powerful worldwide entity is missing from Hart’s account. Instead we are given a simplistic inward looking tribal or ethnic view of the community and of the fight. It is inadequate.  

However, Hanley’s observation on what northern unionists “see” leads to the question: is the perception of an event more important to a historian than an investigation of what actually happened? Historical perceptions have consequences, even contemporary ones. But presumably historians like to help in the formation of perceptions based on understanding of what actually happened, rather than on inaccurate propaganda.  

Otherwise, are we not dealing simply with a history of perceptions or of sentiment and prejudice? Isn’t this approach merely a reverse of the alleged nationalist bogeyman history of the ‘glory days’ of the IRA?  


Although Brian Hanley said he had not read Brian Murphy’s recently published ‘The Catholic Bulletin and Republican Ireland’, he made a point of referring to anti-Semitic views in a series of Bulletin articles (by a Fr Thomas Burbage) and as expressed later by the Editor, JJ O'Kelly. A pity he had not read the work, as Murphy addresses the issue. It was difficult to discern the relevance of the comment (given that Brian Hanley admitted that such views were not predominant) except as an illustration of his view that critics of Peter Hart exist in a sort of pure republican cocoon.  

It may have been slightly disconcerting for Brian Hanley to suggest, even implicitly, that Peter Hart’s Critics have little to say about the anti-Semitism of JJ O'Kelly, 'Sceilg', when the originator of the research on that subject, and Peter Hart critic, Manus O’Riordan, was sitting directly in front of him. O’Riordan asserted that Peter Hart had a pro-British bias and spoke in detail on the anti-sectarian nature of the IRA campaign during the War of Independence.  

Class Act  

It is also odd that O'Riordan, Head of Research in SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union, and populariser and defender of the legacy of James Connolly and Frank Ryan, was also in effect accused of not being interested in the class struggle elements of the Irish revolution, another Hanley claim. Manus O’Riordan was accompanied by his father, Michael, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Spanish Civil War Veteran and native of West Cork, who attended both of Brian Murphy’s recent talks.  

It may also be unnerving to note that DR O’Connor Lysaght, historian of the Limerick Soviet and over 40-year proponent of the views of Leon Trotsky, rose and spoke in tones similar to those of Manus O’Riordan. He pointed out that a feature of the revisionist method was to “generalise from the exceptions” and that Hart’s depiction of the Bandon/Dunmanway killings was a classic example.  

Donegal, Monaghan not in North  

There was little if any hagiography in the remarks of O’Riordan (who was very critical of aspects of Tom Barry’s politics after the War of Independence), or from others who spoke in opposition to Hart. Brian Hanley countered my comment on the exceptional, to the south, organization of paramilitary loyalism in Bandon. He responded that the UVF were active in Ulster counties, Monaghan and Donegal. Brian had referred earlier to the killing of Protestants in those counties, but on that initial occasion had not mentioned the presence of the UVF.  

It is a curious feature of this debate that Brian Hanley did not cite a specific word, sentence or passage from Peter Hart’s critics. Similarly, not once did Peter Hart do so in his intervention on the Internet, on the BBC or in his History Ireland interview. Brian Murphy’s recent talk is on Indymedia.ie (his previous talk on British propaganda is extensively reported and his original criticism is from 1999). Meda Ryan’s book is out over a year and a half. Manus O’Riordan’s work is published and also on the Internet and I have also summarized the Peter Hart criticism on Indymedia. It is not as though the argument has been hard to come by. Brian Hanley reiterated his curious assertion that Peter Hart’s (unnamed) critics concentrate on Kilmichael to the extent that they ignore Dunmanway. There is no evidence for this assertion and I wonder why it is repeated. What function does it serve? Perhaps Brian Hanley has not actually read the criticism. Otherwise, he might quote something he takes issue with. Strangely however, Brian Hanley ignored Dunmanway in the interview.  

Kitchen Sink  

Instead of argument that can be evaluated, Peter Hart has informed us that Meda Ryan’s criticism is not “rational” [a scarcely credible comment], and that Brian Murphy’s is not published [demonstrably incorrect]. From Hanley we learn that this is the “Limerick’s fighting story” version of the revolution and that those who criticize Peter Hart are not interested in “class divisions” (though the fact that Peter Hart appears uninterested in pursuing this approach was not mentioned as a deficiency).  

In his wide ranging account, Brian Hanley told us about the shooting of Protestants in Monaghan and Donegal, about the IRA response to loyalist pogroms in Belfast, tensions between North and South, about land agitation in Galway, about Protestants in Dublin, lack of IRA action in Meath, the Labour Party performance in 1922, and the anti-Semitism of JJ O'Kelly and Tomas Ashe. From which tour of the revolution and some of its personages, we are given to understand that Brian Hanley knows a lot.  

From such generalizations onlookers are possibly supposed to conclude that this is a debate of huge and impenetrable complexity. Arguably the criticism of the criticism is in fact a smokescreen for inability to defend a largely indefensible approach.  

It has long been a conceit of revisionist historiography to insinuate that nationalist history does not take into account the social and class tensions endemic to the War of Independence period. As with the accusations of republican sectarianism, this is often an attempt to project backwards into the War of Independence period a crystallized ruling elite already subordinating the working class to the interests of capital. Instead of promoting an account of the struggle that incorporates a socialist analysis of imperialism, this approach usually attempts to separate socialism from the politics of the national question. 'Socialist' variants of this approach pay homage of the role of Connolly while in effect rejecting in practice the actual course he adopted in 1916.  

Brain Hanley is in danger of promoting this approach by insinuating that a defence of the anti sectarian trajectory of the fight in West Cork is somehow a failure to confront sectarianism. One reason why this generalized approach has been adopted is, it would seem, because a detailed refutation of the Ryan and Murphy case is not possible.  

Frankly, it would help if Brian (or, more importantly, Peter Hart) read the criticism and responded directly, rather than with speculative generalizations, many of peripheral relevance. Otherwise, the debate is a bit like playing handball against a haystack.  


(I may be guilty of unintentional caricature in what follows, but it encapsulates a feeling I have about an aspect to Brian Hanley's argument.)  

One thing that is missing from Brian Hanley’s account is the role of Britain. British policy and strategy in itself fomenting sectarianism while attempting to portray its opponents as sectarian fanatics is not examined. It makes Hanley’s account rather one sided and gives the appearance of navel gazing – a bit like the sound of one hand clapping. Brian Hanley says he is arguing from a broadly republican perspective, that he is himself a republican. But why, if typical republicans in Cork were narrow-minded sectarian bigots, so consumed with feelings of propriety and catholic notions of piety, that they conducted the War of Independence by shooting innocent Protestants, and by ignoring informers within the IRA, the clergy, and in the ‘respectable’ ranks of Roman Catholic society.  

Why a socialist republican would wish to have anything to do with the cause of such people is beyond me, and how they won by shooting those innocent of informing, while tolerating the real informers, is utterly perplexing.  

Perhaps we could all agree to dispense with caricature and unfocussed generalisation, and to move on.  

Brian Hanley is in the unfortunate position of answering inadvertently for the sins of Peter Hart. Hanley expressed the view that Peter Hart "should answer for himself". That is something on which we can all agree. We await the day and the hour.  

Furthering the Debate  

Something else that might be agreed in the meantime would be an Invitation to Brian Murphy to deliver a talk to the Ireland Institute on British propaganda during the War of Independence period. It would allow Institute members to gauge the accuracy or fairness of the criticism of Peter Hart’s approach, and whether the critics are as Brian Hanley depicted.  

Note: Mercier will publish the paperback edition of Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter in the autumn. A few remaining hardback copies are available from Athol Books.

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author by Percival!!??publication date Wed Jun 01, 2005 11:09author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"It is said we killed people. We did kill. Killing is a hard thing and we make no apology for what we have done,
and if circumstances arose we would kill again."- Dan Breen, Fianna Fáil (1934)

Sometimes you need to break eggs to make an omelette!

author by Andrewpublication date Wed Jun 01, 2005 14:10author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"In fact, the Bandon/Dunmanway killings were exceptional, but they were also not sectarian"

The argument here would appear to be that because 11 of the 13 killed were on a list of informers and the remaining two were relatives of those on the list this proves that the killings were not sectarian.

However if all 13 were protestants this doesn't make sense unless there is a suggestion that EVERY known informer in the Bandon area was protestant (which would seem unlikely - even if it is the case for the list cited).

The killings would also have been sectarian if the killers had delibretly only picked protestants from amongst known informers. Is this the case because otherwise on the issue of the Dunmanway killings both sides are talking past each other.

A useful comparison here is with the Scullabogue massacre of 1798 which is also often presented as a sectarian attack. But in that case number among the 100 victims were 8 catholics which suggest the motivation for that massacre was political (the victims were loyalists) rather than sectarian.

author by historicuspublication date Wed Jun 01, 2005 17:12author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Excellent piece by Niall Meehan. As he points out it is indeed ironic that a "socialist republican" like Hanley (the Cruiser once described himself thus as well) should be adding his centsworth to this rather tedious debate. Obviously Dr. Hanley has identified a way of hunting with the hounds (the revionists) while pretending to be a hare (a socialist republican). I am not sure of what variety of "socialist" he is but I wonder would he argue that the historiography of every socialist revolution or attempted socialist revolution should be taken up entirely with the minutiae of killings. Mind you, we would be talking about untold millions so that would keep many a mediocre doctor occupied long after the funding runs out!

author by Eamon A Chnoicpublication date Wed Jun 01, 2005 17:49author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The memory of this massacre was indeed regularly used to forment sectarian division. As recently as 1998 the Orange Orders contribution to the 1798 bicentennial was to produce a pamphlet entitled "Murder without Sin" which was a deeply sectarian rehashed 1840's memoir of a Wexford Orangeman, completely ignoring the fact that some of the victims were Catholic and many of the perpetrators Protestant.

Just goes to show how tenaciously these distortions of history are perpetuated by those seeking to inserting the revisionist agenda into the collective memory and by extension, the "body politic".

Related Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scullabogue_Barn_Massacre
author by SFM - myselfpublication date Wed Jun 01, 2005 18:42author address author phone Report this post to the editors

This Republican socialist hare would like to know why everyone seems so engrossed in defending the actions of Catholic militia forces during the war of independence. Really sad that people cannot accept the brutality of war and the leave Kilmicheal to the mists of time. It was a great action which drove terror in the hearts of those who undoubtly can be characterised as the oppressor but I‘ve heard people, and this is true, actually stand up and meetings and state they know who waved a flag when and who shot when – they do not know this, and it is very dangerous they think they know this for the truth and their own sanity.

Meehan, I was at the meeting you refer to and there was none of the confrontational exchanges which are implied here – some leading members of RSF actually congratulated Hanley on the talk.

But more importantly is this an attempt to re write history which will then allow for the future historically clouding of the sectarian massacre of 9 Irishmen at Kingsmill and 8 in Teebane in years to come. Indeed Republican socialist hares, like myself may have much further to run from the Nationalist bloodhounds than anybody else.

author by .publication date Wed Jun 01, 2005 20:52author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Socialist republican? Dunno about that. But he used to be an SWP hack in Dublin. Is he still an SWP member?

author by Niall Meehanpublication date Mon Jun 06, 2005 09:55author address author phone Report this post to the editors

My understanding is that the 13 targeted in the Bandon Dunmanway killings (two incorrectly as the list contained only surnames in their case) were regarded as among the 'hard-core' of the Loyalist Action Group, which was known under various guises, another commonly known name being the Protestant Action Group – this latter appellation indicating the ideological association of their religion with loyalty to the Crown and Empire. There were no Roman Catholics in this underground organisation, which engaged in house burnings and killings, as well as ‘spotting’ or targeting on behalf of regular Crown forces.

In the original Auxiliary list of informers, that was left in Dunmanway Workhouse, all the names were of Protestant loyalists.

It is significant to note that a distinction was made between spies and informers at the time. ‘Spies’ were often paid and were Roman Catholics in the main. This was referred to as ‘blood money’. ‘Informers’ were characterised as acting out of conviction, out of loyalty to the British Crown and with a large degree of sectarian self-association between Protestantism and the British cause. Barry and other IRA officers regarded this latter group as the more dangerous since they acted out of conviction not avarice.

There were of course more Protestant loyalist names on the Auxiliary list. The individuals were considered to be in immediate danger as a consequence of these post Treaty killings in defiance of the IRA amnesty. Tom Barry and the IRA put an end to the killings on his return from Dublin by immediately oganising protection details at the homes of loyalists. There are quotations from many of those detailed to protect the houses of loyalists in Meda Ryan’s ‘Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter’.

Tom Barry later noted that 15 individuals were shot as spies or informers in his area during the War itself. He added, “incidentally, for those who are bigots, 9 Catholics and 6 Protestants”. Barry further pointed out, and this is reinforced by Brian Murphy’s recent work on British propaganda, that the Protestants executed were announced as “Protestant landowners”, “But if it was a Catholic who was executed for spying – “blood money”, he was only mentioned by name, never that he was a catholic” (see Meda Ryan, pages 156-164).

It is still the case today that many in the area are unaware of the role of their relatives in spying or informing. After the cessation of hostilities a conscious decision was taken on the republican side not to dwell on the role of spies or informers, and particularly not to expose the role of loyalist informers within the Protestant community. The ironic result of this charitable and in some ways politically commendable decision is that it left the door open for speculation of the type that has surrounded the Dunmanway killings. Once Peter Hart entered the scene and used the events to dramatise his thesis of ethnic cleansing and his grand narrative of tribal hatreds and rectifying of old local wrongs, it became necessary to set the story straight. It is of inestimable value to the task of setting out an accurate depiction of events that Meda Ryan had been meticulously researching the war of Independence locally since the 1970s. Without her researches, it is arguably unlikely that we would have the body of information that directly challenges Peter Hart’s findings (this is the body of research that Peter Hart asserts is not “rational”!).

There is reluctance to this day to open old wounds by naming names in the area concerned. A local objection has arisen to Peter Hart, from both sides of the Christian divide, that he started this process of naming names in his book. When Tom Barry was writing Guerilla Days in Ireland in 1949, he had intended to name names - only of those killed and named in newspapers. But the Editor of the Irish Press, where the book was serialized, asked him not to, and he agreed. He then also omitted the names from the book before it was published.

The problem is that some of Hart’s presentation of the information is inaccurate and his interpretation and his wide application of generalisations is often misleading.

To conclude (this over long comment), it was acknowledged by prominent and representative Protestant opinion that there was no sectarian targeting of Protestants during the War of Independence, in what was to become the 26 County State (in the North of Ireland the vast majority of sectarian killings, attacks and expulsions were directed at nationalists by unionists). That is why the Church of Ireland, characterised the killings as ‘”exceptional”. In the light of Meda Ryan’s revelation of the origin and the basis of the Dunmanway Workhouse list, that is why I say they were also not sectarian.

It is important to note that even though loyalists in the Bandon-Dunmanway area attempted to foment sectarian division of the type that unionists succeeded in creating in the North of Ireland (with the assistance of British policy in both cases), their success was partial. The dominant ideology, nationalism and republicanism, had always been generally hostile to political division based on religion, and indeed Protestants had played a leading role in republican and nationalist politics. A significant number of Protestants in the area were supporters of the republican cause. In other parts of Ireland there were instances of local Protestant populations that were predominantly republican in outlook. Apart from in the area being discussed, I am not aware of other significant attempts in the South (or, taking Brian Hanley’s suggestion that Donegal and Monaghan are in the ‘South’, outside Ulster), to sustain sectarian loyalist paramilitary groups.

(A commentator has referred to a “catholic militia”. There is no evidence for such a body. It is suggested that I imply “confrontational exchanges” at the meeting. I hope not as it is not my intention. There were differences of opinion. )

author by Jack Lane - Aubane Historical Societypublication date Mon Jun 06, 2005 14:10author email jacklaneaubane at hotmail dot comauthor address Aubane, Millstreet, Co. Corkauthor phone Report this post to the editors

This is an excellent clarification and background explanation on the Dunmanway killings. How long more do we have to wait for Professor Hart to defend or withdraw his allegations.

author by Jack Lane - Aubane Historical Societypublication date Mon Aug 08, 2005 08:19author email jacklaneaubane at hotmail dot comauthor address Aubane, Millstreet, Co. Corkauthor phone Report this post to the editors


In the current issue of History Ireland (July-August 2005) Peter Hart attempts to reply to three critical letters in the previous issue that challenged a number of specific points from his book on the IRA in West Cork during the War of Independence and in an interview in the previous edition of History Ireland.

He begins by caricaturing his critics, describing them as people who
“.. practice a kind of faith based or creationist history: faith in the purity of the IRA; creationism with regard to their politics.” None of his critics showed any evidence of ‘faith-based’ or ‘creationist’ history or any such childishness but had put straightforward questions that Hart has evaded for some time.

One of the letter writers, Manus O’Riordan, is someone I happen to have known for a while (over 35 years) as a ‘two nationist’ which in itself is hardly evidence of a faith based approach to Irish history. O’Riordan has also publicly detailed his critical assessments of Tom Barry on specific aspects of his politics on a number of occasions. He has researched and made radical assessments of even bigger fish than Barry, namely James Connolly, pointing out that his actions in 1916 can only be fully understood on the basis of his support for a German victory in WW I. Again, hardly evidence of a ‘faith based’ approach to history. I have had, do have, and no doubt will have disagreements with him but there is absolutely no doubt that his positions on these issues are based on thorough research with a ruthless respect for the truth of the conclusions he draws from that research. He is therefore, almost inevitably, one of the growing group of trenchant critics of Hart.

Dead men alive, live man dead but all deleted!

In his letter O’Riordan concentrated on just one aspect of the many suspect aspects of Hart’s prize exhibit, the “report” that he claims Barry wrote just after the ambush and he asked Hart to explain why he had chosen to omit from his own reproduction of that "report" the sentence that immediately demonstrated its bogus character, i.e., the claim that only one volunteer ("P. Deasy" in a postscript) had been killed outright at Kilmichael and two others died later. But it was the other way round. Deasy died of his wounds six hours later and half a mile away at Gortroe and the two others (Sullivan and McCarthy) were killed outright in the ambush. Could Barry not know who was dead and who was alive after the ambush? Could he have made such a mistake? Of course not, and Hart knows he could not, so he cuts it out of the “report” in his book. This is the question O’Riordan posed and what does Hart say about this crucial fact in response? Not a word, not a single word. Silence speaking volumes comes to mind.

Dead men talking and touring!

In her letter Meda Ryan asked Hart, yet again, to explain how he was able to interview participants in the ambush on dates after they had all died and she challenged him to name them. But Hart does not explain how he did this extraordinary feat (and how he had toured the ambush site with one of them). He presents a most curious extract from notes he made of an interview with one of them where ‘false’ is conveniently inserted in square brackets as follows: “No, there was no such thing as a [false] surrender…” which is one way of getting rid of a false surrender!
Could we not have the full notes reproduced to clarify matters?
He will not name the interviewees because he promised not to, he says. So we have two of the famous ‘Boys of Kilmichael’ who did not want their names known nearly 70 years after the event, nor for all eternity. Modest people indeed.
Maybe there is a simple explanation. People in West Cork can be kindly and generous and go in for a bit of mutual flattery with visitors and tell them what they want to hear. As they say down there about a certain type of person who comes their way, ‘they saw him coming,’ and maybe Hart falls into that category.
Anyone who has listened to some local accounts of ambushes will know that they were really massive affairs and the only wonder is why the IRA did not use the occasions for fundraising by selling tickets for the events. Barry had this problem shortly after the Kilmichael ambush itself and had to get a number of self proclaimed ‘participants’ to clear off at a commemorative event.

Meda Ryan demonstrated in her book that the killing of 13 Protestants in the Bandon/Dunmanway area happened because their names appeared on a list of local informers left behind by the Crown forces so they were killed as informers. And if Catholics had appeared on the list they would undoubtedly have met the same fate as indeed many Catholics already had for the same reason. Does Hart challenge this? No, he simply ignores these facts and refers again glibly to the ‘massacre of Protestants.’

Selective quotation
In his letter, Niall Meehan brought up, again, after first being raised by Brian Murphy in 1998, the misuse by Hart of the source material contained in the “Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, 1920-1921”. (Jeudwine Papers, Imperial War Museum). Hart has used this source to argue that 'men were shot because they were Protestants' and not because they were informers. The extract from the Record, chosen by Hart, reads: 'in the south the Protestants and those who supported the Government rarely gave much information because, except by chance, they had not got it to give.' If that was the case, then Hart's position would be almost made. However the next two sentences tell a completely different story. They say: 'an exception to this rule was in the Bandon area where there were many Protestant farmers who gave information. Although the Intelligence Officer of this area was exceptionally experienced and although the troops were most active it proved almost impossible to protect those brave men, many of whom were murdered while all the remainder suffered grave material loss.' These sentences destroy Hart’s case so he omits them! What does he say to Meehan about this – not a word. Again, silence speaks volumes.

Omission equals admission

Hart again makes play of the fact that if the false surrender is not mentioned by somebody in an account of the Kilmichael ambush then that’s evidence that they are saying it did not happen. That’s like saying that everyone who ever sang ‘The Boys of Kilmichael” is therefore confirming that there was no false surrender as the song does not mention it. The fact is that the false surrender was a fact agreed by people on both sides and constant reference to it was therefore unnecessary. It was a banal fact for nearly 80 years. Indeed, if it were mentioned over and over again by all on every possible occasion there would be a justified suspicion that they might be protesting too much. For example, if I kept referring to where and when I am writing this there might be a justified suspicion of some sort of alibi being concocted. Hart tries to get Liam Deasy on his side by this tactic but it does not work. Deasy and Barry had a dispute about various aspects of the War, tactics, strategy, roles played by people, the capability of the IRA etc. And there was a political party edge to the dispute. But if Deasy thought that Barry (and many others) were downright liars he would hardly have summed Barry up as follows saying that his “… distinguished service in the national cause became an inspiration, and as a guerrilla fighter his name became a household word throughout the country ... He had proved himself an ideal Column Commander .. He was a strict disciplinarian and a good strategist, but he was something greater still: he was a leader of unsurpassed bravery, who was in the thick of every fight and so oblivious of personal risk that his men felt it an honour to be able to follow him".

Instead of replies - abuse and homilies

Instead of replies to the questions posed what we get is abuse of Meda Ryan that verges on the libellous “.. her book is a catalogue of justification for killing”. Abuse which is clear evidence I would suggest that he has lost the argument. Also, homilies about the awfulness of war and killings and fantastic, absurd analogies and comparisons between the actions of the IRA in the War of Independence and the American invasion of Iraq and their destruction of Fallujah and with the Balkan wars.

He refers to his “… belief that people who take it upon themselves to kill others (the IRA was a self-selected volunteer forces after all) should be scrutinised very carefully indeed, and hence my amazement that people should object to this.” If that was the case they should not only be scrutinised they should be arrested, charged, tried for murder and sentenced.

We are told that ‘… the IRA were not soldiers and what was happening in Ireland was not a war.” He ignores here, as he always does, the rather significant fact that the IRA was the army of the legitimately elected government set up on the basis of the 1918 election. The British government suppressed that government and the elected government defended itself. That is the fundamental fact, the basic cause and effect, of the War of Independence and it is the fact that Hart and all the other revisionists must determinedly ignore because if they don’t their whole house of cards falls down. It’s the huge elephant in their garden that must be ignored at all costs.

Lord, let me reply but not yet - again!

Another of Hart’s standard responses is repeated: “I have not been able to tackle every issue the letter-writers brought up and I have a lot more to say about those I have discussed. If readers would like to read more, I am currently writing a brief book on all this in answer to the three books (!) that have appeared so far denouncing me.” I wonder will a brief book be sufficient seeing as he not yet refuted any but simply ignored all the essential questions put to him so far. Maybe he realises, as anyone would who reads this article of his, that he is digging himself into a hole and his only choice is to dig away as slowly as possible and hope that people will ignore him and tire of the issues involved. However, that does not seem likely if the response to his original interview is anything to go by.

Jack Lane
(Irish Political Review, August 2005)

author by Andrewpublication date Mon Aug 08, 2005 13:59author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Niall just saw your answer above to my question now - thanks for taking the time to post such a detailed and pretty spin free response.

The issue of the experience of southern protestants of sectarianism in the post independance period is very complex. Dunmanway is pretty much the only example where a serious case can by made for organised sectarianism coming from the republican movement (and you do a good job of answering the case above).

From family stories though in Dublin at least there was also widespread 'popular' or spontaneous sectarianism for a least 3 decades. The most ironic is of a relative who played some part in the IRA during the war of independance but for economic reasons migrated to Liverpool. During the war he sent his two kids to Dublin (Stoneybatter) to escape the bombing (and because there was more food) but such was their experience of sectarianism they actually returned to Liverpool within months! All that is a tangent to this story except perhaps to explain why Hearts theories find something of an audience.

author by Stephen Howepublication date Thu Aug 11, 2005 08:11author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Some of these exchanges are so ‘intimate’ that intervening now, one feels almost like an unwelcome interloper intruding on a family quarrel – but here goes…

Much of the Kilmichael, Dunmanway etc. dispute rehearsed on Indymedia and elsewhere seems to revolve around documents and/or interviews whose provenance, or even sometimes very existence, is extremely murky.

One example is Tom Barry’s purported post-Kilmichael-ambush report. Brian Murphy has made powerful-sounding arguments that it’s a fake. Murphy mounts this argument, however, entirely by inference rather than direct evidence of such a forgery. Some other commentators, following him, have now created an enormous rhetorical structure on the back of that avowedly speculative inference. This is, quite simply, not a scholarly or intellectually responsible procedure. Until or unless we have hard evidence of forgery – and Hart, in his turn, has produced some strong arguments against – it’s surely irresponsible to write as if the case were established.

Second, the interviews with Kilmichael veterans (or, given the disputes over authenticity, maybe one must say ‘supposed veterans’). Thus far it would appear that Meda Ryan and other critics have succeeded in casting considerable doubt on Hart’s version of events about this particular point, and on his use of some sources. Personally, if I were him, I’d now name my interviewees – but surely we should respect his declared motives in not doing so, and we should view some of the abuse thrown at him on that front as both unfair and unethical. However, further evidence not available to either Hart or Ryan for their books has now been uncovered by Seamus Fox of Dublin City University. Interviews conducted in the 1950s by Ireland’s Bureau of Military History (BMH), only released in March 2003, include transcripts from five Kilmichael veterans. At least two of them were also among Ryan’s interviewees. In the BMH transcripts none of them mentions a false surrender. This seems a strong piece of ‘negative evidence’ on Hart’s side. Fox has produced undoubtedly the most detailed, careful and fair-minded analysis of the Kilmichael evidence. Indeed the care of his investigation puts some of the professional historians involved in these controversies to shame.

Third, and most important, the ‘Dunmanway dossier’. The killings of Protestant civilians are in my view a far more significant issue – both historically and in terms of evaluating the contemporary legacies and significance of 1920s conflicts – than Kilmichael. Meda Ryan’s attempt to refute Hart rests mainly on a claim that British military documents, discovered by the IRA at Dunmanway, listed many local Protestants as spies and agents working for them. Those killed were almost all on the list, and thus – so she implies – were legitimately executed by the IRA. Others in these pages have now echoed that claim, with ever greater rhetorical self-confidence.

But the supposed Dunmanway documents remain extremely mysterious. Ryan has not apparently herself seen them nor, with one rather ambiguous exception, even interviewed anyone who did. Otherwise she produces a ragbag of poorly-referenced testimony, including that of a woman who was a young child at the time and whose evidence is of no real value whatever. Has anyone who’s contributed to these debates, on Indymedia or elsewhere, ever seen those documents – or, again, even talked to anybody who claimed to have done so? Peter Hart had repeatedly, aggressively been challenged to name his interview sources. Those who rely, for their interpretation of the Bandon valley civilian killings, on the ‘Dunmanway dossier’ must face up to the same challenge. Where’s the evidence?

Unequivocally sectarian killings – murder of civilians simply because they were Protestant – were certainly not a widespread or typical feature of the 1919-22 revolt. Much evidence, from Protestants in many parts of Ireland indicates that in the majority of cases they did not feel a need to fear the local guerrillas on religious grounds. Parts of the north-east, especially Belfast, were the most evident exceptions – and there sectarian intimidation, ethnic cleansing and murder, though they went both ways across the confessional fault-lines, clearly involved more Protestants targeting Catholics than vice versa. Yet all this does not by any means invalidate Hart’s case, even if it does qualify some of his more sweeping claims.

We can speculate that some – a few – of those killed were indeed ‘agents’ for the British forces in the sense of sympathising with them and passing on to them what little information about the IRA they might have. It must seriously be doubted – for reasons Hart has fully if perhaps too self-confidently summarised – whether many if any of them actually had valuable information to impart. More may have been believed by the local IRA to be enemies or spies. More still among the victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ironically, the greatest success of security forces in recruiting informers and agents may not lie in the actual information these can provide, but in creating an atmosphere of paranoia among guerrilla movements, which leads them to suspect and kill innocent people and thus undermine their own legitimacy. Ireland in 1920-22 exemplifies this all too well.

author by Niall Meehanpublication date Wed Feb 01, 2006 21:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Just to keep matters in this debate up to date. Besides the material written here on Indymedia. History Ireland pursued this debate over four issues, from March-April to September-October 2005:

Peter Hart was interviewed by Brian Hanley in History Ireland Vol. 13 No. 2 March/April 2005:


Letters critical of Peter Hart were published in History Ireland Vol. 13 No. 3 May/June 2005:


Peter Hart replied to his critics History Ireland Vol. 13 No. 4 July/August 2005:


Meda Ryan answered Peter Hart in History Ireland Vol. 13 No. 5 September/October 2005:


There were also four letters in critical of Hart's response in the same issue History Ireland Vol. 13 No. 5 September/October 2005:


Stephen Howe

I have just spotted the comment by Stephen Howe, which I have not time to go into at the moment.

However, I take issue with the following:

“Thus far it would appear that Meda Ryan and other critics have succeeded in casting considerable doubt on Hart’s version of events about this particular point, and on his use of some sources. Personally, if I were him, I’d now name my interviewees – but surely we should respect his declared motives in not doing so, and we should view some of the abuse thrown at him on that front as both unfair and unethical.”

Though he refuses to name his alleged informants Peter Hart could answer two questions.

a) How did he manage to interview a participant in the Kilmichael Ambush six days after the last participant died?

b) How did he manage to interview an ambush scout over 20 years after the last scout died?

Incidentally, Stephen, if anything I wrote could be construed as ‘abuse’ perhaps you would be so good as to point it out.

Incidentally, again on this point, perhaps you might consider the following written in History Ireland (Sept-Oct – link above) by Dr Andreas Boldt of Maynooth University:

“I take issue with the argumentative manner in which Peter Hart approaches his response. In comparison to his original interview and the three critical letters, his language is emotional and aggressive. I don’t believe that comments like ‘I don’t think any of the letter-writing critics […] deal with the evidence in a rational way’, ‘those brave boys couldn’t possibly do wrong’, ‘Ryan is right to be sceptical as a rule, but scepticism combined with ignorance and prejudice is a poor form of analysis’, and ‘Oh, but Ryan has an excuse for every death—her book is a catalogue of justifications for killing’, to quote just some, are proper for a public debate. One of the rules I learned as a student was to treat other historians with respect, never mind if they are right or wrong. I don’t believe that Hart is able to convince his ‘enemies’ by denouncing them; he has to argue with them, based on historical evidence and understanding of that time.”

On the issue of the authenticity of Hart’s interviews, Boldt had this to say:

“May I suggest a solution? How about Hart erasing names and all personal notes of the interviewees and giving a typescript of the interview, questions and answers, to Ryan and all other interested Irish scholars? They would then have the chance to check the details. Ryan is correct to note that she feels critical about these interviews because of absent or questionable references: if I had done that as an undergraduate student, I would have failed everything. History is a subject that is based on facts, and cannot be compared to journalism at all.”

Meda Ryan address the BMH issue in her reply to Peter hart in the Sept-Oct edition of History Ireland (link above).

Dr Brian Murphy will publish part of his research on the organisation of British propaganda, the propaganda that Peter Hart appears (unwittingly) to re-spin for a modern audience, in the near future.

Finally, new research into the organisation of a sectarian based paramilitary loyalism in Cork and Bandon (the "Londonderry of the South") in aid of British forces during the War of Independence will probably be published this year. It may tend to support Meda Ryan's substantive rather than Peter Hart's dismisive views on the matter.

author by Niall Meehanpublication date Wed Feb 22, 2006 18:36author address author phone Report this post to the editors

A development of our understanding of the questions raised in this thread, not least in the contribution by Steven Howe (above), can be examined in the piece by Pat Muldowney (http://www.indymedia.ie/article/74400). Muldowney questions yet another allegation of IRA sectarianism during the War of Independence and finds it wanting in detail.

The launch of Brian Murphy's work on British propaganda (referenced in my last contribution above) is relevant. Murphy shows how manipulation of the media by Clarke, Foulks, Pollard and Street on behalf of the British side in the War of Independence has had a long term affect on history writing - to its detriment.

Teachers Club Friday March 24 7.45pm

See www.indymedia.ie/article/74416 for info - all welcome
See www.indymedia.ie/article/74416 for info - all welcome

Related Link: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/74400
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