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The History Ireland Debate - Peter Hart, Brian Murphy, Meda Ryan, and others
history and heritage |
Sunday December 24, 2006 16:24 by Niall Meehan
The Kilmichael Ambush and the April 1922 Killings near Dunmanway
As it is no longer availailable elsewhere online this History Ireland debate is reproduced here - either with a graphic (click to read) or with text.
The critics reply to Peter Hart 1 of 3 - click to read
FEATURE from Vol. 13 No. 2 March/April 2005
Rarely has a publication debut provoked such a strong reaction as Peter Hart's The IRA and its enemies (1998), a micro-study of the IRA in County Cork, 1919-23. His claim that there was no 'false surrender' of RIC Auxiliaries at the Kilmichael ambush, as claimed by IRA commander Tom Barry, and the predictable furore that has resulted have tended to obscure the wider significance of his work. In a recent conversation Brian Hanley quizzed him on the bigger picture
BH: Tell us a little about your background.
PH: I'm a Newfoundlander, which no doubt gave me some insight into sectarianism and nationalism, thanks to denominational education and our status as a former country and generally pissed-off part of Canada. Newfoundlanders have a strong sense of identity, and there are Newfoundland clubs, bars and newspapers across Canada and beyond. After (General) Booth Memorial High School, I was educated at Queen's in Ontario, Yale in the United States, and Trinity College in Ireland. I used to work at Queen's in Belfast-a terrific place to work on Irish history-but now I'm lucky enough to be able to work at home, at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where I hold the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies
BH: To what do you owe your interest in Irish history?
PH: I did as much political science as history before choosing my doctoral subject (my MA is in international relations) so this was a rather late interest. For a long time I was focused on Asian history-I almost went to the University of Hawaii or to Beijing. But my underlying interests were revolution, military history and associated subjects, and they ultimately took me into Irish history instead, which, apart from anything else, meant not having to learn Chinese.
BH: Who were your main influences among historians?
PH: Reading David Fitzpatrick, Tom Garvin, Theodore Hoppen and Charles Townshend in the 1980s got me very excited about Irish politics as a subject. They were undoubtedly formative influences. Having David as a supervisor was enormously beneficial. I should also add Joseph Lee's little book, The modernisation of Irish society-what a terrific piece of writing. Lucien Karchmar of Queen's in Kingston was an extraordinary polymath and expert on revolutionary warfare, who first got me interested in the subject. Sadly, he died recently, so his great book on the subject was never completed. Moving away from history proper, Jim Scott at Yale introduced me to the comparative and intimate study of revolutions and social movements.
BH: Why were you drawn to the IRA, and why the IRA in Cork in particular?
PH: The IRA and the Irish revolution was what I was interested in to begin with really-a broader interest in Irish history followed after. It turned out to be a good choice: little studied (when I started) but with a vast amount of material to work with. And there were still a fair number of veterans about whom I could interview. My starting-point for the thesis was to do a nationwide statistical study of the IRA and violence from 1917 through to 1923. I did this (the results can be found in The IRA at war ) but I soon added a county study by way of contrast, and that's where Cork came in. Cork I chose because it was big and contained several different regions, including a city. It was also obviously a very active place during the revolution so there was a lot to write about. I was lucky to meet a couple-the O'Driscolls-who let me stay in their house there when I was doing research. This made a big difference for me, a poor graduate student. And when I went down to look around I really liked and enjoyed both city and county. West Cork was also the site of my second big research project, on Protestants from 1911 to 1926, which has yet to be written up.
BH: Were you surprised by the volume of reaction, both positive and negative, to The IRA and its enemies?
PH: The IRA and its enemies  was my first book, so I didn't really know what to expect. The fact that so many people did read it and buy it amazed me, but Irish people are really interested in their own history-one of the things that makes being a historian of Ireland so interesting. In terms of criticism, I was most afraid of local people feeling I hadn't got the place right-that I'd put a town or a townland in the wrong place, that kind of thing. No one has ever pointed out such a mistake so I've always been very pleased by that. As for reviews, there were some positive ones I didn't like and some mixed ones that I thought made good points. It's always useful if the reviewer engages with the whole book, but this wasn't (and isn't) always the case. Many reviewers, even academics, only read bits of it, which is really annoying. Once it got some media attention, people often only paid attention to the chapter on the Kilmichael ambush, as if the whole thing was some meditation on Tom Barry. He's really a very minor character. The Kilmichael chapter is only six per cent of my book, but it was all people wanted to talk about in radio and press interviews. Often other points I made about other issues-including positive comments on the character of most IRA men-were simply cut. I made this remark that there were serial killers on both sides; not necessarily psychopaths, but individuals and small groups who did the dirty work - like the Dublin 'squad'. It's a common pattern in all kinds of wars, I think. I made the point that Tom Barry was one of these hard men and, of course, the rest of the argument was dropped to leave the headline 'Tom Barry was a serial killer'! That kind of thing is a good lesson, although I still try to say whatever I think.
BH: You took part in quite a public debate with some of your critics at the time. How do you respond to those criticisms now?
PH: Real debate is fun: what's the point of writing if everyone agrees or ignores you? And there was some good discussion in newspaper columns and on TV and radio. However, a lot of the criticism was and is clearly politically driven and assumes that I am too, which simply isn't true. I always found the fight over 'revisionism' - it was never a real debate - boring and incoherent. I've never supported any unionist or nationalist group and I don't have any religious affiliation. Apart from all that, I have yet to see any convincing refutation of anything I've written. Most critics have never even been in the archives and haven't got a clue what's there or how the IRA really worked. Honestly - when you are reduced to claiming that documents are forgeries because you can't deal with the contents, you're like Mary MacSwiney claiming that British agents must have killed those Protestants in 1922 because the IRA couldn't possibly have. If Tom Barry or anybody else takes it upon himself to kill other people then they'd better expect to have their behaviour scrutinised. The idea that that is somehow inappropriate is amazing to me.
BH: The obvious response is what about when government forces kill people?
PH: I make no distinction in my book between state and insurgent violence or between killers in and out of uniform. There were death squads on all sides and my book is full of examples of that. The first chapter of The IRA and its enemies is the real introduction to the book, not the Kilmichael chapter, and there I show a cycle of IRA and police violence, followed by IRA reprisals on suspected informers. My chapter on the Hales family had a lot of detail on how republicans suffered. It's true that I spend more time on the IRA than on British forces, but then the book is about the IRA. In world historical terms the Irish revolution was not actually that bloody, but what is odd is that the IRA was the single most violent organisation involved-probably responsible for the majority of deaths on its own. That's very similar to what happened in Northern Ireland in the recent troubles. This is very unusual indeed, as governments elsewhere are almost always way more violent than rebels. I do think highly of those Republicans who tried to put their ideals above tactics, who tried to avoid or refused to be drawn into sectarian violence or certain types of violence that they found morally wrong: people like Tomás MacCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, and then Seán Moylan and Liam Lynch, who tried to stop the Civil War. I respect people who took the moral aspects of the choices they took seriously, and one of the important aspects of the IRA I try to deal with is how many volunteers actually did make a choice and refused to become ambushers and assassins.
BH: Meda Ryan and Brian Murphy have raised quite specific criticisms. How do you respond to those?
PH: I recently gave a paper at Maynooth rebutting their statements about Kilmichael, but the question is so dependent on factual details that I don't have the space to really say much here. The main question is whether or not the ambushed Auxiliary policemen pretended to surrender, thereby leading three IRA volunteers to their deaths. Much of the debate boils down to the question of witness statements and the different versions Barry gave of the event. Meda Ryan's book contains almost no new evidence but rather attempts to dismiss the witnesses I quote (most of whom were interviewed by someone else) and the report I use to query Barry's later published account. She isn't interested in dealing with the substance of this evidence in a rational way. Brian Murphy has recently done some research on British propaganda but it isn't published yet so I can't really comment. At this point it's hard to see what it has to do with IRA accounts of what happened, which is what I based my reconstruction on in The IRA and its enemies. These details aren't terribly interesting in themselves and none of my general arguments depend on the ambush in any way, as they are almost all statistically based. It does raise bigger questions about history and how it's understood, though, so I'll be going into all that in a full reply to my critics. One point I will make - apart from saying that I stand by everything I've written - is that the main interpretative reason I included the Kilmichael chapter was to illustrate my general point about how similar the IRA and government forces really became once the struggle got going-they behaved in much the same way and used the same labels and excuses for killing. It wasn't to prove that Tom Barry was a bastard - he's really a very minor character in the whole story, and not at all typical.
BH: Would the evidence in the Bureau of Military History Papers not seem to point towards a much greater role for ex-British servicemen in the IRA rather than as simply targets for its violence?
PH: A noticeable percentage of those killed by the IRA as spies or collaborators were ex-soldiers. On the other hand, I would say that only a tiny minority of veterans ever joined the IRA. In Cork they were only a handful of men, and some of these were forced to join. It obviously needs further research, but in my view they were not numerically or militarily significant. Of course, there is the greater question of class and marginalisation, of tramps, corner boys and drunks, all the factors that made ex-soldiers objects of IRA suspicion.
BH: So who did inform?
PH: Anybody. Priests and clergymen, farmers big and small, people angry at the IRA for a variety of reasons, petty criminals, classic touts who did it for money, IRA men's relatives, and of course IRA men themselves-a broad spectrum. Informer studies would be a fascinating area of research.
BH: Are you convinced that the idea of ethnic conflict is applicable to the violence in both Belfast and Cork during the revolutionary period?
PH: Yes indeed, and throughout Ireland. I think it's blindingly obvious that violence had an ethnic basis. The Irish political system before partition was based on ethnic solidarity and division, so how could popular violence derived from rival Unionist and Nationalist mobilisations not be? Violence was both mobilising and polarising and had vast unintended consequences. When it came down to it, people were often targeted and attacked on the basis that they were outsiders or not of the community. But it's important to stress that I don't argue that this was ethnic cleansing. There was no ethnic cleansing in the Irish revolution (although the attacks on Catholics in Belfast came close) but there was ethnically targeted violence.
Not that this was the only thing going on, mind you: I've discussed this in my last book, The IRA at war. It was worse by far in the North, because Catholics were a large and active minority with support from the South, and Unionist organisations embraced or acquiesced in sectarianism in a way Nationalist ones - to their credit - did not. But that doesn't mean there were categorical differences in the way they worked. One key difference between North and South was that in the South it was not the Free State or the Catholic Church that was responsible for anti-Protestant violence - they were largely blame-free, and in European terms their record was very good. In the North, however, Unionist politicians had direct links to death squads, and people like Edward Carson encouraged the riots in the shipyards. Incidentally, I think one of the big untold stories of this period is how Protestant churches behaved in the North-it's not a pretty picture. But pretending that the South and North were different countries in this regard is to commit the foolish partitionist fallacy. It just seems silly to ignore ethnicity as a central factor in modern Irish history and as a key concept in its analysis.
BH: What about issues such as class or agrarian conflict as factors in the violence?
PH: A lot of agrarian and class violence did occur in 1916-23, but it had little to do as such with any phase of the revolution, except perhaps the rise of Sinn Féin in the midlands and west in 1917-18 and its resilience there in 1922 and 1923. Both Unionist and Nationalist movements were cross-class, and most labour unions subordinated themselves to one side or another. Of course class is important, it's a factor in everything, but I don't think class struggle as such was a major factor in the Irish revolution.
BH: I detected a shift in tone in relation to Republican revolutionaries in The IRA at war; is this impression correct? You mention, for example, that the officially non-sectarian rhetoric of Republicanism did act as a brake on sectarian conflict.
PH: In The IRA at war I deal with the whole of Ireland and Britain, as well as the whole of the revolution, so there is a much more structural and comparative view of things. I don't think I've actually changed my mind in any serious way. Not that I'd be a good judge of my own work, mind you! In The IRA and its enemies I go to great lengths to conclude that the guerrillas were pretty much what they said they were: patriotic, ordinary, respectable men. I point out that they fought more cleanly than the National Army in the Civil War. I never use words like 'terrorist' to describe them, and I use 'murder' just as much with policemen or soldiers as with the IRA. I argue that the two sides became very much like each other-dirty-as the struggle escalated, but I do have extensive statistics to prove my case.
BH: Would you agree that the Northern Ireland troubles affected how contemporary historians dealt with the issue of revolutionary violence in Irish history?
PH: Yes, I'm sure, but largely for Irish and British historians, though. I was fortunate in this sense that my first book didn't appear until 1998, so the debates that followed weren't nearly so coloured by ongoing violence. I was in Belfast a lot in the 1990s, and lived there from 1997 on, and it was wonderful to live through the changes there. However, in the 1970s and '80s, it obviously made talking rationally about violence, its practitioners and its victims much more difficult.
BH: Why have you chosen to work on Michael Collins?
PH: Ah, the white whale! I've always been interested in Collins. Some of my earliest articles dealt with him. As I was researching the IRA and the revolution, I collected hidden bits and pieces along the way, so I had a lot of new material to start with. There are literally thousands of previously unknown letters out there, so I'm doing a collection of these as well. I spend a lot of time looking at his life before the 1916 Rising, when he cut a very different figure indeed, so the big question for me is his extraordinary rise to power. He reminds me of Lyndon Johnson or Alex Ferguson - at least as described in biographies. He would have been a great guy to have a beer with or be friends with, but he left a lot of former friends in his wake. He was a good boss and a rotten cabinet colleague (I have every sympathy for de Valera, Stack and co.). He seems to have been genuinely without religious or racial prejudice, a very rare thing at the time. I have read thousands of his letters and there is no expression of sectarianism in any of them. He seems to have been a genuinely open-minded and curious person, interested in everything. An extremely modern person, convinced that science and technology would wipe out poverty and inefficiency in the future, and very optimistic. But he was also a very political animal, very interested in acquiring power. A wider question is how the Irish revolution was such a tremendous opportunity for people like Collins, who because of class or ethnicity would otherwise have been denied that opportunity, to make history. During the revolution there is this absolutely profound feeling that anything was possible, a real genuine spirit, similar to that described by John Reed in Ten days that shook the world. People like Liam Lynch, Ernie O'Malley and others express that spirit, but Collins was the ultimate, he went right to the top.
Brian Hanley lectures in history at NUI, Maynooth.
See my respnse to this interview: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/69172
Now it's History (Ireland)! Peter Hart replies on Tom Barry and Kilmichael (but not Dunmanway)
LETTERS from Vol. 13 No. 3 May/June 2005
Sir,—Peter Hart in his interview (HI 13.2, March/April 2005) dismisses my work in Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter, saying that it ‘contains almost no new evidence’ despite my in-depth analysis of the Kilmichael ambush, the sectarian issue (1920–22) that Peter Hart places such emphasis on in his book (but not in the interview) and other aspects of Tom Barry’s life. The acquisition of Tom Barry’s papers plus interviews with Tom Barry and participants in events, together with other primary source material, is surely an addition to historiography. In relation to Peter Hart’s use of interviews to describe the ambush, he says that I am not ‘interested in dealing with the substance of this evidence in a rational way’. I’ll leave that for readers of my work to decide.
Regarding the Kilmichael ambush, Peter Hart talks about the different versions Barry gave of the event. In fact Barry consistently gave one version, which included the false surrender. Hart must be aware (if he has read those chapters of my book) that Barry’s 1932 Irish Press account was edited, resulting in the exclusion of the false surrender, much to Barry’s annoyance.
I have dealt logically in my book with ‘the substance’ of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) report allegedly written in 1920 by Barry, and cannot find anything to indicate that Barry wrote it. Most of the sentences are either at variance with the facts or do not conform to Barry’s stance as commander. Furthermore, A.J.S. Brady, an assistant in T.P. Grainger’s solicitor’s office (the firm that represented and processed claims for the relatives of the Auxiliaries killed at Kilmichael), gives an account of the co-operation between Cope, assistant under-secretary, and the Auxiliaries. Brady witnessed the composition of a report required for compensation. Those in control working for the Macroom-based Auxiliaries were observed forging a report. A typed report of this nature in the IWM is included with captured documents, though not specifically labelled ‘a captured document’. It states: ‘The following is the Rebel Commandant’s report on the affair’. (Curiously, a feature of the typewritten report is that of the 133 numbered pages of text there are two pages numbered 64. If the ‘Rebel Commandant’s report’ was omitted there would be no page duplication. It could be a typographical error. However, it is also likely that the extra page was later inserted—sometime after its final composition.)
It should also be noted that in 1969, in a lecture to UCG students, Barry, when mentioning the late arrival to the ambush site of the horse and side-car, said, ‘there was a mistake in transmission. No orders or anything else were written at that time—in our brigade anyway’. Regarding written data that speaks for itself.
Peter Hart admits that there was a surrender but says, ‘The main question is whether or not the ambushed Auxiliary policemen pretended to surrender, thereby leading three IRA volunteers to their deaths’. If the Auxiliaries in a military conflict shouted a surrender call and this was accepted by the Volunteers, and Auxiliaries again used a firearm or firearms, then the surrender call was falsified, thereby resuming an open fight. Whether one or more ‘pretended to surrender’ or just surrendered makes no difference, as it was not open for some to resume the fight after a lull while their colleagues beside them surrendered or ‘pretended’ to surrender. It is at that time that Volunteers were killed. Barry took up the challenge and it was a fight to its conclusion. Once the Auxiliaries falsified their surrender call, as military men they had to accept the consequences. Prisoners may be taken after surrender; a false surrender (particularly one that results in fatalities) nullifies that possibility.
Apart from interviews, documentary evidence demonstrates the veracity of the false surrender claim. Brigadier Gen. Crozier, Auxiliary forces commander 1920–21, acknowledged the false surrender. Lionel Curtis, imperial activist and advisor to Lloyd George, accepted the false surrender (1921). Stephen O’Neill, Kilmichael section commander, wrote (1938) of the false surrender, as did contemporary writers such as Piaras Beaslai (1926), Ernie O’Malley (1936) and John McCann (1946).
The British cabinet acknowledged this ambush as ‘a military operation’. Lloyd George sent over Sir Hamar Greenwood, chief secretary for Ireland. It ‘seemed to him’, to Bonar Law and to Tom Jones that this ambush was ‘of a different character from the preceding operations. The others were assassinations. This last was a military operation’, Tom Jones records. In this military operation the Auxiliaries were commissioned officers with war experience and most had been decorated, so they knew the rules of war. Any military man who called a surrender should have honoured that war code and not broken his word. Each knew when to fire and when not to; each one knew when he shouted ‘we surrender’ that it meant exactly that—a surrender—a cease-fire.
Peter Hart questions why I queried the use of ‘the witnesses’ that he quotes, ‘most of whom were interviewed by someone else’, he says. Hart has used the interviews (as well as the IWM report) to aid his claim that there was no false surrender at Kilmichael. In his book he stated that he used six interviews for his ‘reconstruction’ of the ambush. One by the Ballineen/Enniskeane Area Heritage Group is a general recording (with which I am familiar) and only mentions Kilmichael briefly—no details and no mention of a surrender or a false one. None of the three interviews that Fr Chisholm conducted mention a surrender—false or otherwise. (From experience, unless participants were queried specifically on a particular aspect they just didn’t mention it.)
Hart personally interviewed two people whom he says participated in the ambush—rifleman AA, 3 April, 25 June 1988, and scout AF, 19 November 1989, one of whom gave him a tour of the ambush site. This creates a logistical problem that only Peter Hart can solve. According to autobiographical details, all scouts and dispatch scouts were dead by 1971, and all after-ambush helpers and riflemen were dead by 19 November 1989. Rifleman Jack O’Sullivan, the second-last survivor, died in December 1986. Rifleman Ned Young, the last known survivor, was 97 when he died on 13 November 1989. Young’s faculties were impaired during his final years, so it would not have been possible for him to travel nor to relate events at the site without the knowledge of his family, with whom he lived for the last eight years of his life. They are unable to throw any light on this. However, if Peter Hart revealed the names of AA and AF then the dilemma could be solved.
Hart mentions ten scouts and describes an interview with scout AF (19 November 1989), who gives a graphic description of Barry and Volunteers shooting Auxiliaries in the head in a bizarre situation. (It’s unclear, but it sounds as if AF could have done some of this, though being a scout he would have been unarmed and positioned at a distance from the ambush site.) According to the records, just three unarmed scouts were positioned—two north, one south of the ambush site; the last survivor, Dan O’Driscoll, died in 1967. The two unarmed dispatch scouts moved from the scene once the fight began—the last survivor, Seán Falvey, died in 1971. If Peter Hart revealed the identity of scout AF (whom he interviewed on 19 November 1989) then the credibility of this witness’s claim could be examined. Named known relatives of Kilmichael participants and people in the locality would welcome the revelation of AA and AF’s identity, now over 84 years after the event (28 November 1920).
To state, as Peter Hart does, that Barry’s ‘history’ of Kilmichael is ‘riddled with lies and evasions’ is an extremely strong accusation, as words such as ‘riddled’ plus ‘lies and evasions’ should not be lightly dispensed. The premises for such an accusation require a sound basis. So the non-mention of a false surrender in the IWM report does not seem a valid reason for proposing that there was none. Yet Hart agrees that there was a surrender despite this lack of mention also. Hart expressed wonderment that upon publication of his book so much attention focused on his account of the Kilmichael ambush. Though his awareness of its importance in Irish history is expressed in his book, he contradicts this view in his interview.
A great number of Irish people will have difficulty in agreeing with Hart that Tom Barry is ‘really a very minor character’ in the War of Independence, despite his pivotal role (in general and in West Cork in particular) in the fight for Irish freedom, despite Michael Collins requesting him to visit GHQ members and to test a machine-gun, and despite his being the only military man that Collins sent for during the Treaty negotiations.
Hart maintains that Barry was one of the ‘hard men’ in the Irish fight for freedom in a category where ‘there were serial killers on both sides’ and where they ‘behaved in much the same way and used the same labels and excuses for killing’. These ‘serial killers’ were ‘not necessarily psychopaths’. This categorisation and conditionality is disturbing and in my opinion has little to do with history and more to do with criminal psychology. Hart says that, as Tom Barry with others took it ‘upon himself to kill other people’, he is amazed if people are amazed at his view. It begs the question, what were the Volunteers fighting for? Why did they make such sacrifices?
Hart says that he tries ‘to deal’ with ‘one of the important aspects of the IRA’ to discover ‘how many volunteers actually did make a choice and refused to become ambushers and assassins’. Wasn’t it a volunteer force? Barry and the Volunteers throughout Ireland who chose to join made sacrifices as they fought for Irish freedom, which ultimately led to the present twenty-six county state.—Yours etc.,
Sir,—The interview with Peter Hart (HI 13.2, March/April 2005) was timely and interesting. I have written on the subjects Peter Hart addressed and on the view of his critics in The Village and in indymedia.ie. I hope that HI will continue to probe the issues that Peter Hart felt able to only partially address within the interview format.
For instance, Brian Murphy has suggested that the product of a sophisticated British propaganda strategy, developed during the War of Independence, has re-emerged as part of the historical narrative. It is a point he addresses to Peter Hart’s work. Peter Hart felt unable to comment, on the basis that Murphy’s research is not yet published. However, Murphy’s lecture on the subject was reported in one daily and one Sunday newspaper. These (and other) reports were reproduced on indymedia, on a page that Peter Hart contributed to. Perhaps Peter Hart is referring to first person and/or to academic publication.
One of Murphy’s criticisms has been in the public domain since 1999. It is contained in his review of The IRA and its enemies (1998). Peter Hart suggested that Protestants were targeted in Dunmanway by reason of their religion. He quoted a sentence from the British Record of the rebellion to the effect that Protestants rarely gave information because ‘except by chance they had not got it to give’. By implication, many IRA actions were sectarian in intent. Peter Hart omitted the sentences following, which noted that ‘an exception to this rule was in the Bandon area’ (which includes Dunmanway), and that informers were successfully identified and targeted. This information contradicted the point Peter Hart was making, and he omitted it. Peter Hart has written that the Record is the ‘most trustworthy’ source of information on the period. Presumably Peter Hart is aware of Murphy’s criticism. His publishers printed a partial sentence from the review in later editions of The IRA and its enemies. (The words quoted did not refer to the criticism, but rather to the book being ‘important’ and ‘controversial’.)
The absence of questions from interviewer Brian Hanley on the killing of Protestant men in Dunmanway in April 1922 was surprising. In response to a piece I wrote in The Village on this subject, Brian Hanley commented on the ‘increasingly sterile’ debate on Kilmichael, in comparison to the ‘much more serious’ issue of the April killings. A pity, therefore, that he did not pose the question when he had an opportunity to do so.
Brian Murphy and Meda Ryan have added to our understanding of the period. Murphy’s analysis of the development of media manipulation in war is one that will be of interest to media and communications studies analysts, as will the observation that historians are being spun by historical ‘spin’. As opposed to Peter Hart’s reaction to criticism from a female historian, I found Meda Ryan’s analysis (Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter ) ‘rational’. I thought her empirical evidence on the false surrender at Kilmichael and on the April killings compelling.
Peter Hart has repeated his intention to publish a detailed answer to Ryan and to Murphy. He said as much on 21 October last, on indymedia, in response to my attempt to promote this important debate. As in the HI interview, Peter Hart felt unable to comment in detail at that time. I look forward to reading a detailed comment in the not too distant future.—Yours etc.,
Sir,—Peter Hart is rather unfair on the British Army when he says that ex-soldiers who joined the IRA in Cork during the War of Independence were not ‘militarily significant’ (HI 13.2, March/April 2005). Surely Tom Barry’s own British Army training was of advantage when he joined the IRA, first as brigade training officer, and later as flying column leader? This is not the place for me to again review in detail either Peter Hart’s The IRA and its enemies or Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter. My review of the former can be found in the Ballingeary Historical Society Journal (2005), and of the latter in Irish Literary Supplement, Boston (Fall 2004). But I must express bewilderment that Peter Hart now describes Tom Barry as ‘a very minor character’, before going on to protest that ‘the Kilmichael chapter is only six per cent of my book’. In that four-part book not only had the theme for Part One been set by its opening chapter ‘The Kilmichael Ambush’, but that for Part Two had also been set by its opening chapter ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’. And I am not aware that he uttered any protest at the time when reviews of his book hailed him for apparently demonstrating quite conclusively that Barry’s 1949 account of Kilmichael had been, in the author’s own words, ‘riddled with lies and evasions’.
I am, admittedly, expressing personal prejudices when I state that, for me, Tom Barry was not a particularly attractive personality. He had rather unsuccessfully red-baited my father, Michael O’Riordan, during the 1946 Cork by-election, only to be outvoted by him at the polls. When I myself last encountered Barry, in 1975, I refused to have anything to do with him, since I was outraged by the fact that he was supporting a war in Northern Ireland to which I was militantly and confrontationally in active opposition. But one does not have to particularly like the man in order to appreciate his military genius in winning the freedom of this state, and to abhor the attempted character assassination of Barry in respect of his leadership during the War of Independence.
It is difficult to see how Peter Hart can maintain that ‘Meda Ryan’s book contains almost no new evidence’. His own book set great store on his claim that Barry had not thought of presenting the ‘false surrender’ argument in his 1932 Irish Press article on Kilmichael. But now Meda Ryan’s thoroughgoing research has come up trumps with a very angry letter from Barry to that editor, protesting that the critically important ‘false surrender’ section of his submitted article had been omitted from publication. And then there is Peter Hart’s prize exhibit, what he claims to be an authentic report written by Barry himself in 1920 but later captured by the British military authorities. He maintains that others ‘can’t deal with the contents’ of that document. But was that not the case with Peter Hart himself, when he excised from it such material as he found inconvenient for his argument?
Meda Ryan’s convincing response that Barry could not possibly have written that 1920 ‘report’ surely has as its coup de grâce her restoration of a key sentence that Peter Hart had omitted. Peter Hart’s own narrative agrees with all other accounts that two Irish Volunteers, Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan, had been killed outright during the Kilmichael ambush, while another, Pat Deasy, would die of his wounds sometime later. The key sentence omitted from an otherwise quite extensive reproduction of the ‘captured document’ had contradicted that finding by stating the exact opposite in its detailing of IRA casualties—‘one killed, and two who have subsequently died of wounds’. The ‘report’ concluded with a PS in respect of that earlier reference to casualties, stating that ‘it was not until the finish of the action that P. Deasy was killed’, the only Volunteer so named. Meda Ryan’s restoration of the sentence omitted by Peter Hart makes clear that the ‘report’ was in fact maintaining that Deasy had been killed outright during the ambush itself. But Pat Deasy did not in fact die until almost six hours later, and half a mile away from Kilmichael.
When asked to respond to quite specific criticisms raised by Meda Ryan and Brian Murphy, the reply offered by Peter Hart is that ‘the question is so dependent on factual details that I don’t have the space to really say much here’. If that is the case, is it not high time for him to engage in a public debate with these critics regarding all the evidence now available? Such a debate would itself be an event of considerable historical importance!—Yours etc.,
FEATURE from Vol. 13 No. 4 July/August 2005
Following last issue’s unprecedented response in our letters pages to his interview in the previous issue (March/April 2005), Peter Hart responds to his critics.
If I may begin at the end of Niall Meehan’s letter, he refers to his ‘promotion’ of—and my non-participation in—‘this important debate’ on the Kilmichael ambush. In fact, I have been debating the ambush and other aspects of the revolution in Cork since my first book, The IRA and its enemies, came out in 1998. I have exchanged letters in newspapers, appeared on television and radio programmes with critics, and given numerous public lectures in Cork, Galway, Dublin, Belfast and Maynooth, all of which were followed by questions. I have actually debated Kilmichael with Brian Murphy on three separate occasions over the years.
Sexism and rationality
Another ‘issue’ that has entered the ‘debate’ is my supposed sexism in saying of Meda Ryan’s book that ‘she isn’t interested in dealing with the substance of this evidence in a rational way’. Not to worry: I don’t think any of the letter-writing critics—male or female—deal with the evidence in a rational way. I have complimented Ryan’s original biography of Barry several times in print and used another of her books several times as a source without adverse comment.
What would it mean to deal with evidence in a rational (logical, systematic) way? Well, for starters, approach it with an open mind and mould your explanations around it—don’t just dismiss it if it doesn’t fit your preconceptions. In Meda Ryan’s case, these are summed up in the subtitle of her book, ‘IRA freedom fighter’, as well as her answer to her own question: ‘what were the volunteers fighting for? . . . they fought for Irish freedom’. I devoted a great deal of The IRA and its enemies to exploring who joined the Cork Volunteers and why, and why some men became guerrillas while others did not. My last book, The IRA at war, asked many of the same questions about the organisation as a whole. I assembled a great deal of statistical information. I mapped out family and neighbourhood networks. I traced individual careers. I looked at change over time and the differences between officers and men. For Meda Ryan, however, the question answers itself in ideological terms and in the terms used by the organisation at issue, so there’s no need to actually think about it. At the very least, she is confusing evidence—the political rationale used at the time—with explanation.
Nor is she alone. In my opinion, when it comes to explanation, she and most of the other Kilmichael critics practice a kind of faith-based or creationist history: faith in the purity of the IRA; creationism with regard to their politics. Before, there was nothing—a political void—and then, thanks to the miracle of the Easter Rising (a terminology much used at the time, incidentally), came the freedom fighters. If they killed someone, it had to have been justified, even if the victims were unarmed, sick and elderly; even if they were wounded or had surrendered. Those brave boys couldn’t possibly do wrong.
Patriotism, idealism and bravery
Well, most of them were patriots and idealists, as I point out in my books. And they did accomplish things: they made history. But would Ryan and others be willing to apply the same justifications to other events? Take the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, for example. The official apologists justify it in terms of future results: we’re shooting and bombing and torturing now, but this will pave the way for the freedom that will make it all worthwhile.
And speaking of Iraq, who remembers the battle of Fallujah in 2004, in which a US marine was famously filmed shooting a wounded, unarmed Iraqi prisoner (one of many so treated)? The killer could be heard saying that the prisoner was ‘faking’ death and then shot him in the head. Another marine then said: ‘Well, he’s dead now’. American Republicans often defend their troops as decent and brave, and therefore either justified in, or incapable of, doing the things they’re accused of. It all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?
Many US soldiers probably are brave, decent people, as were IRA guerrillas—and Irish policemen and British and Irish soldiers, for that matter. But that often turns out to be little impediment to violence once fear, hatred and rage are factored into the equation. Violence has a dynamic of its own and, once it gets going, good people can do very bad things. Decent, idealistic men start a war for freedom fully intending to fight a clean fight and build a brave new world, but once they’re into it they lose control: the killing goes on and on, ethnic or religious hatreds and fears are aroused and new, civil, wars break out. The freedom fighters always end up wading through someone else’s blood.
Bravery, idealism and self-sacrifice are far from unique, and foolishly overrated anyway. These words can also be applied to many unionists, loyalists, home rulers, conscientious objectors, fascists, Nazis, communists, imperialists, terrorists, religious fanatics, soldiers of innumerable armies doing no end of horrifying things. People who kill or get killed don’t have a monopoly on patriotism—or history.
Hence my belief that people who take it upon themselves to kill others (the IRA was a self-selected volunteer force after all) should be scrutinised very carefully indeed, and hence my amazement that people would object to this. How is this different from a policeman or soldier who kills someone ‘in the line of duty’ in present-day Ireland, north or south? Don’t they always have some excuse that boils down to: ‘I had to, I thought I was in danger’? Even when it turns out that the victim was unarmed, mentally ill—or peacefully marching in a civil rights parade? How is Tom Barry’s excuse any different, and why is Meda Ryan defending him without question?
Barry’s report on Kilmichael
This raises another basic element of historical investigation: apply the same standards to all the evidence. Ryan and others have gone to great lengths to discredit Barry’s original report of the ambush that I unearthed. It conflicts with Barry’s later accounts so it must be a forgery! But do they scrutinise or test Barry’s accounts in any serious way? Quite the opposite: his word is accepted without question. In Ryan’s book, Barry’s is automatically assumed to be the authoritative account of any event.
Which leads me to a third principle: always ask in whose interest a statement is made. Was it in Barry’s own interest to claim that he was perfectly justified in ordering the killing of surrendered and wounded men? In the ambush that made him a hero? On the other hand, was it in their own interests for the IRA witnesses I quote to describe the ambush they were part of as degenerating into murder?
Similarly, why would someone involved in British propaganda or intelligence forge an IRA report? In whose interest would it be? The obvious answer is that they would have done it to smear the guerrillas in some way, to use it as proof of British claims about IRA barbarity. Remember, the Kilmichael controversy began when the British government claimed that the ambushers had fooled the Auxiliary patrol with a false uniform and used axes on both living men and corpses. But does this document suggest such things? Not at all: it suggests a clean fight. And if they forged it, why wasn’t it released to the public? I found it in unpublished military reports, used as an example of IRA methods, and even criticised by British commentators as inaccurate! Why would the forger(s) bother?
Rather than face this problem squarely, Ryan has come up with a rather unlikely story about compensation claims after the July 1921 truce, which she repeats in her letter. Not only is this implausible on a number of counts but also the chronology doesn’t fit, as the first time the report appeared in a British document was in June 1921, well before the truce.
This is an example of what I meant when I said that Ryan had produced no new evidence on the ambush. She offered no new witness statements and no new documents on the events of that day. The purported compensation claim, Barry’s later struggles with editors (well, we can all sympathise with that), even British propaganda: none of this tells us anything new about what actually happened. Incidentally, there is new evidence available on the ambush itself but Ryan doesn’t make use of it in any way. Why not? Presumably because it doesn’t support her—and Barry’s—claims.
Ryan also asserts—as has often been argued in attacking my books—that such after-action reports were not even written during the war and so the very existence of such a report is unlikely. This reveals a sad ignorance of the IRA and of the archives. Such reports were written in abundance, in West Cork and elsewhere, before and after the ambush. I refer to and quote from many of these in my books.
The fourth principle of explanation is to look for precedents and patterns. In the case of the 1920 ambush report, we could ask whether there are other such reports known to be forgeries. Was this a general practice at the time? As far as I know, the answer is no. British propagandists and report-writers lied copiously and badly, but they did not, to my knowledge, forge IRA reports. So why even suspect it’s a forgery?
According to Ryan (and others before her), it is de facto suspicious because the facts reported—the number of men, the times, the sequence of events—don’t match Barry’s later account. Now we’re back to faith again. Fortunately, we can apply the fourth principle, along with the fifth: look at all the evidence before coming to your conclusion. In fact, once we compare them, none of Barry’s extant column and ambush reports (and there are a lot of them, contrary to Ryan’s belief) match his later accounts. Nor do they match the accounts provided by Liam Deasy and other participants who have left memoirs of their guerrilla days. Of course Ryan is right to be sceptical as a rule, but scepticism combined with ignorance and prejudice is a poor form of analysis.
So precedent and pattern, and a systematic examination of the evidence, suggest no good reason to believe that the report is a forgery. By elimination, that leaves us with the conclusion that it is genuine; in which case, if there was a false surrender causing the deaths of his men (as he later insisted), why would Barry not say so at once? Why, one might almost come to the conclusion that there was no false surrender . .
As it happens, I did not base my reconstruction of the events of 28 November 1920 on Barry’s report. Instead, I relied on IRA witnesses interviewed by myself and others. The quotations I use are, in fact, largely drawn from other people’s work, which illustrates principle six: the strongest case is one that relies on multiple independent sources. Why did I conceal the names of my informants? Because I said I would, and because this allowed them to speak more freely. This should hardly surprise most readers: informant anonymity is a standard research technique used by other historians, sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, anthropologists, folklorists and journalists. If a subject is touchy, delicate, sensitive, if what the informant says might get them into trouble in some way, it is often the only way to get the full story. Even more importantly, it is ethically necessary to protect informants from harm—a requirement for doing research at Canadian universities. Am I unusual in providing anonymity? Hardly. All the other taped interviews I refer to in my account of the ambush were provided to me on the condition that I did not reveal the names of those speaking.
Never mind, sniffs Ryan in her letter, these other witnesses don’t support my argument anyway. In her book she does not deal with them at all, except to suggest that the witnesses must have been ill, old or confused. That’s what I meant when I said that Ryan ‘isn’t interested in dealing with the substance of this evidence in a rational way’. Most of her work is based on interviews she herself carried out but, while they are assumed to be reliable, anyone else’s are suspect.
It is worth recalling that the Kilmichael controversy also flared up in 1973, when West Cork veteran Liam Deasy published Towards Ireland free and enraged Barry for—among other things—not mentioning the false surrender in his account of the Kilmichael ambush. When Barry objected in his usual sane and rational way, a large number of surviving veterans lined up behind Deasy. Ryan, as always, takes Barry’s side and sloughs this fact off, but a fact it remains. I only wrote what I did because members of the IRA who participated in the ambush said what they did. When Ryan and others attack me and my sources, and defend Barry against all attackers, they are not just contradicting or dismissing me, they are contradicting or dismissing a considerable portion of the West Cork IRA itself. Those men were the first to make a point I made in my book: the West Cork IRA was a lot bigger than just Tom Barry.
Barry’s role in the revolution
Which brings us to my remark that Barry was no more than a ‘minor character’ in the revolution. The Irish Volunteers in Cork were formed in 1914 and reorganised in 1917, after many members had been on the run or jailed in 1916. Its first operations took place in 1918. By the time Barry joined in mid-1920, its structure and personnel were set, many of its activists had won a long hunger strike, and a guerrilla war was well under way. Kilmichael—at the very end of November—was Barry’s first independent command and only his second time in combat (unlike the column men he belittled in his memoir). With him involved, the West Cork IRA was not any more active or successful than the other two Cork brigades, and flying column effectiveness actually fell in 1921. He wasn’t involved in organisational or political work, nor did he invent or perfect the flying column. All in all, he contributed little to the development of the IRA. Again, his supporters should try looking at the facts—all the facts—before rushing to his defence.
So what did the witnesses I quote actually say? One, whom Ryan says gives ‘no details and no mention of a surrender or a false one’, in fact (according to my notes) said the following:
No, there was no such thing as a [false] surrender . . . they [two surrendered Auxiliaries] died, to my mind, a cruel death, because the men that were in with Mick McCarthy, where he was shot, they knew these two [IRA] men were shot, and they came out and shot ’em and I think a bayonet was used on one, or maybe two of them.’
When asked if the two Auxiliaries got up and surrendered, he replied:
Oh they did . . . They put up their hands and went up the road and went back the road . . . They did about half the journey . . . the firing was stopped. I don’t know who gave the signal . . . We knew it was all over when we saw our men getting out on the road.
In retrospect, then, Ryan’s blanket denial looks a mite careless. The Chisholm interviews confirm these details and add others, particularly about the execution of wounded men in addition to those who surrendered. This is something else Ryan and others don’t want to deal with.
Rules of war?
Where does this leave Ryan’s self-invented ‘rules of war’ and ‘war code’? First off, under international law, the IRA weren’t soldiers and what was happening in Ireland wasn’t a war. Second, even if such a code existed informally, what does it say about killing wounded men? Nothing good, I hope. And even if we accept Ryan’s case, what does that say about Barry’s outright killing of two surrendered soldiers in February 1921? Or the IRA’s massacre of thirteen Protestants in April 1922? Oh, but Ryan has an excuse for every death—her book is a catalogue of justifications for killing. It’s the worst double standard of them all. If a policeman or soldier kills, it’s murder. If a republican guerrilla kills, well, he had a good reason, and anyway he did it for his country. Has she ever reflected on the logic of what she says?
Soldiers—or policemen for that matter—are not allowed to make up their own laws, for obvious reasons, and a ‘war code’ is a very dangerous standard to judge actions by. It can cover an awful lot of evil and it can be used by all sides. For example, it justified many murders by policemen and soldiers in Ireland as those responsible were outraged by the IRA’s ‘unsoldierly’ ambushes and assassinations. It also sounds a lot like the ‘shoot to kill’ and ‘big boy’s rules’ killings in the North.
Morality and explanation don’t mix, so my books avoid endorsement or condemnation. I think that readers can judge these things for themselves and, anyway, that’s not why I write. My reason for including a chapter on Kilmichael was to help demonstrate the key point that it is impossible to separate ‘clean’ or ‘military’ killings from the rest, and that government and rebel justifications became awfully similar once guerrilla war got under way. Crown forces used the old ‘false surrender’ line as well.
Still, I’ll give my view: if the horrors of the twentieth century have taught us anything, isn’t it that killing in the name of one’s country is far too easy and usually creates far worse problems than those it is intended to ‘solve’? ‘Freedom’ is as blood-drenched a slogan as the rest: just ask Iraqis, Afghans, Croats, Bosnians and Serbs. Anyway, Irish nationalism offers a much greater tradition—that of democratic and non-violent action. This achieved great political freedoms and social progress in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and still provides an enlightened model for peaceful liberation. Irish nationalists practically invented ‘people power’. Goodness knows it’s not up to me, but why are these heroes forgotten while gunmen are celebrated?
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. There are a lot of important historical issues at play here, but I’m afraid much of the so-called ‘debate’ on Kilmichael is about as genuine as Errol Flynn’s Irish accent in Captain Blood.
LETTERS from Vol. 13 No. 5 September/October 2005
Sir,As a reader of History Ireland for a number of years I have followed with great interest the debate involving Peter Hart over the last few issues. I would like to comment on his response to the previous critical letters, and mainly view it from a historiographical point of view rather than from that of a person who specialises in the history of the early IRA and the struggle for Irish independence. This view follows modern historiographical approaches invented by the German historian Leopold von Ranke (17951886), whose methodical principles of archival research and source criticism became commonplace in academic institutions.
First, 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 deathher 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.
Second, Hart cannot compare 1920s conflicts with the Americans in Iraq. These are two completely different matters. In the case of Ireland it was a guerilla war to defeat the centuries of British rule; in their battle against a superpower everything was allowed, and ambushes such as Kilmichael were normal warfare tactics to demoralise the British. The Americans, on the other hand, invaded Iraq, and soldiers of the invading superpower, not the Iraqis, do the shooting described by Hart, a completely different situation.
This brings me to the point that Hart does not accept the IRA as an army. Well, from today’s point of view it is not, but how was it in those times? Did the politicians not need the IRA because they realised that talking would lead them nowhere and action was necessary at the same time? So the IRA acted as an army for a non-existent independent state in order to fight the British army, and the IRA was well accepted at that time. Of course it was also feared, and the people did not approve of everything. But Hart should look more closely at Ranke, who said, ‘one has to extinguish themselves to let the documents speak’, and try to understand events in their own time, not to judge them from today’s view.
Before moving to my last point I would like to comment on the following quote:
Bravery, idealism and self-sacrifice are far from unique, and foolishly over-rated anyway. These words can also be applied to many unionists, loyalists, home rulers, conscientious objectors, fascists, Nazis, communists, imperialists, terrorists, religious fanatics, soldiers of innumerable armies doing no end of horrifying things.
I absolutely disagree with Hart. A conscientious objector does not do ‘horrifying things’; that is why a person does not join the military service. As an objector myself, who joined the ‘civil service’ in a German hospitaland I believe that was not foolish at allI reject being placed on the same level as the Nazis, especially when my own family members were imprisoned in concentration camps and some of them lost their lives. But that is a personal perspective.
My last point concerns documents and witnesses. Source criticism was invented by Ranke as an academic rule and I trust that Ryan has good reasons to question a number of documents. Hart has to understand, according to Ranke’s criteria, that when researching a period he must understand what happened at that time, the thoughts, motives and actions. When researching, for example, Kilmichael it is not only the battle itself he has to examine, but also what happened before. I believe that both Hart and Ryan have done their homework and their materials will provide a major source for future research, but I feel that Ryan seems to have a surer touch of what was going on at that time. What about witnesses? A person who was there does not always need to tell the truth. This I know from my own research in Germany on the Third Reich, about which we know that until today many Germans lied or hid the truth. From a conference in Derry I learned that the recent trial on Bloody Sunday brought lots of witnesses to the stand, but until today we don’t know who shot first. So I pose the question to Hart: what is truth? I guess he will not claim hundreds of witnesses of Derry as being liars, will he? Most people, asked some 70 or 80 years after an event, usually forget things, colour them or add to them. And, of course, they may consciously change their memories according to contemporary political taste.
From the debate I got the feeling that the main battle between Hart and Ryan concerns the two interviewees whose names Hart refuses to give. 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.
Viewing the debate as a whole, I believe that the last contribution by Hart became very emotional in comparison to the letter-writers. I also think that from Hart’s perspective it is a personal battle between him and Ryan. Referring to Manus O’Riordan’s letter, I certainly believe that it is ‘high time for him to engage in a public debate’. I would like to conclude that debates are there to contribute to a discussion, not to deepen contradictions, and it is open discussion and engaging with and accepting other views that will contribute to the further development of history.Yours etc.,
Dr ANDREAS BOLDT
A chara,I would like to comment on Peter Hart’s reply (HI 13.4, July/August 2005) to various writers who challenged his views on the ambush at Kilmichael, Co. Cork, in November 1920. Referring to the ambush, Hart says, ‘I did not base my reconstruction of the events of 28 November 1920 on Barry’s report. Instead, I relied on IRA witnesses interviewed by myself and others’. The question must be asked, who were the IRA witnesses that Peter Hart claimed to have interviewed? Those who participated in the ambush at Kilmichael, with one exception, were not alive on the dates of the alleged interviews. In addition, who are the people classified as ‘others’ that Hart relied on for information regarding the ambush? In the interests of justice and fairness, I again call on Peter Hart to name his sources for the information he claims to have received. Hart also states, ‘I only wrote what I did because members of the IRA who participated in the ambush said what they did’. People can draw their own conclusions when it transpires that Hart did not interview participants of the Kilmichael ambush. Hart raises a number of red herrings to divert attention away from his concocted account of the ambush: for example, he refers to the war in Iraq, that ‘the IRA were not soldiers’, that ‘what was happening in Ireland wasn’t a war’, that ‘Barry was no more than a minor character in the revolution’.
The game is up, Peter! You have done your utmost to denigrate and dishonour genuine Irish freedom fighters, many of whom sacrificed their lives in trying to rid this country of an aggressive occupying power. Do the honourable thing now and admit that Tom Barry and his comrades had legitimate reasons for using physical force to drive out the invader.Is mise,
SEÁN Ó CEILLEACHAIR
Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemoration Committee
Sir,The very least that can be said of ‘Peter Hart and his enemies’ (HI 13.4, July/August 2005) is that it is riddled with evasions. Subheaded ‘Peter Hart responds to his critics’, he concludes his four-page treatise with the lame excuse that he has ‘not been able to tackle every issue the letter writers brought up’. That he purports to be making some sort of a reply to me is left in no doubt when he insists that it is all three of ‘the letter-writing critics’ of the previous issue whom he is accusing of failing to ‘deal with the evidence in a rational way’. While his ‘enemies’ Niall Meehan and Meda Ryan are indeed named if not answered, his granting of unasked-for anonymity to myself evokes a variation of the Edward CarsonOscar Wilde exchange, but this time concerning the enmity that dares not speak its name.
Readers can judge for themselves if I am being irrational or mad in highlighting the fact that Hart persists in evading a quite reasonable question as to why he excised key sentences from his presentation of a document whose apparent authenticity would have been demonstrably undermined by their inclusion. But for this unnamed critic the issue moves beyond the realm of mere evasion with Hart's not-just-mad-but-bad charge that most of his Kilmichael critics practise an IRA faith that ‘if they killed someone, it had to have been justified, even if the victims were unarmed, sick and elderly; even if they had surrendered’.
Apart from my own militant anti-IRA activities at the height of the violence of the 1970s and 1980s in such campaigns as Socialists Against Nationalism, Peter Hart knows full well that in my Irish Literary Supplement review of fall 2004 I had quite pointedly drawn specific attention to what I described as ‘the mindless murder of Admiral Somerville in 1936, for which Barry must be held responsible’. But it is quite another matter for Hart to paint Barry as the war criminal of Kilmichael when, yet again, he falsely accuses him of murdering British auxiliaries who ‘had surrendered’. While he has now been forced by Ryan's meticulous research to retreat from his previous claim that Barry had not even bothered to allude to a ‘false surrender’ in writing his 1932 article, Hart still insists on the authenticity of the 1920 ‘Barry report’ that he so proudly ‘unearthed’. He sums up my challenge to its authenticity with the caricature that I am arguing that ‘it conflicts with Barry's later accounts so that it must be a forgery!’. On the contrary, my challenge to Hart was to point out that he had chosen to omit from his own reproduction of that ‘report’ those sentences that immediately demonstrated its bogus character, the claim that ‘P. Deasy’ had been killed outright at Kilmichael. For it is not only Barry's own accounts but also every other single account accepted by Hart himself that clearly establish a radically different fact, that Pat Deasy died of his wounds six hours later and half a mile away at Gortroe.
Among those accounts was that of the youth's own brother, the third West Cork Brigade's adjutant and later commander, Liam Deasy. (The unknown author of the 1920 ‘report’, while being unsure as to whether ‘P’ was Peter, Paul or Paddy, at least recognised the importance of name-dropping ‘Deasy’). The Barry/Deasy controversy of 19734 is, of course, invoked by Hart in order to point out that Deasy's memoir had made no mention of Barry's ‘false surrender’ claim. But neither does it support Hart's counter-claim that ‘they had surrendered’ for real. More significantly, Hart chooses to ignore everything that Deasy says to contradict the latest twist in pursuit of his obsessive desire to ‘finish off’ his quarry, his contention that ‘Barry was no more than a minor character in the revolution’.
Deasy explained how vitally important it had been to take account of the rapidly changing pattern of the War of Independence in mid-1920, and to move from battalion fighting columns towards the formation of a brigade flying column, with Barry as its training officer. Deasy sums up his assessment of Barry as follows:
His subsequent 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.
Hart, however, would have us believe that Barry ‘contributed little to the development of the IRA’ and that ‘with him involved, the West Cork IRA was not any more active or successful then the other two Cork brigades’. No such begrudgery possessed Sean Moylan of the North Cork brigade when his memoir recalled how keenly he had anticipated their own first meeting in April 1921: ‘I had heard so much of Tom Barry and of his high reputation as a leader of troops in action that I was anxious to see him...A few weeks before he had had at Crossbarry a great success against the British’. So much for the ‘minor character’! Yours etc.,
Sir,Peter Hart’s four-page defence of his position contains a lecture on historical authenticity (HI 13.4, July/August 2005). Hart omitted an important element, possibly because he did not glance in the mirror during composition. It concerns credibility. Before I explain this observation, I would like to make two points:
(a) Hart’s use of my name in line one of his defence-cum-personal-manifesto is a prelude to ignoring the question I asked him in the May/June issue of HI. In four pages of text Hart has ‘not been able to tackle every issue’. He ‘tackles’ few if any. That is because he clutters his message with snide remarks about Meda Ryan and irrelevant asides that traverse world trouble spots.
(b) This debate is not only about the false surrender at Kilmichael. It also involves Hart’s characterisation of the BandonDunmanway killings of loyalists in April 1922 as an ‘IRA massacre’ of randomly targeted Protestants.
Serious questions emerge from analysis of Peter Hart’s presentation of evidence. The most important are:
(1) Why did Peter Hart censor part of the so-called ‘rebel commander’s report’ of the Kilmichael ambush? He omitted a detail known to a participant in the ambush but possibly unknown to a possible forgerwhen and where Pat Deasy and two other IRA volunteers died. The ‘report’ has it the wrong way round and misreports Deasy’s demise. Manus O’Riordan asked this question. Answer: none.
(2) How is it possible for Peter Hart to interview, whether anonymously or otherwise, a former participant in the ambush six days after records indicate that the last known participant died on November 13 1989? Meda Ryan raised this point. Answer: none.
(3) Why did Peter Hart censor the concluding part of a cited paragraph in ‘the most trustworthy source we have’, The Record of the Rebellion. It contradicted directly the preceding section used by Hart to make a case for sectarian killings in BandonDunmanway. I asked this question, well actually Brian Murphy asked it in 1998 and has been re-phrasing to the point of seeming futility ever since. Answer: none. Not even Brendan Ó Cathaóir’s observation that Hart is ‘disingenuous’ on the point (Irish Times review, 28 January 2003, of Hart’s editorship of The Record) has bestirred Hart from his reluctance to engage.
(4) Why did Peter Hart omit (and fail to reveal the fact that it was omitted) a significant section on The People from his edition of The Record of the Rebellion, which illustrated the British Army’s racist view of the Irish people? This is a relatively new question from Brian Murphy that now joins the queue of unanswered questions.
I will apply Peter’s principles of authentication and point scoring: ‘apply the same standards to all the evidence’ that Peter Hart presents; ‘scrutinise or test’ his account; ask ‘in whose interests’ is the evasive and patronising fog that is Peter Hart’s reply; and lastly, look for ‘precedents and patterns’ in relation to the inability to present evidence ethically and to respond to questions put.
Peter Hart says he has no ‘political affiliation’. That is undermined by his censorship of evidence and shows a bias in one direction. Hart’s facile treatise on violence is a camouflage for support for a status quo that between 191821 in Ireland ignored the ‘people power’ that elected Sinn Féin to power, a status quo that attempted to suppress with violence and coercion the democratic will of the Irish people. Hart failed to depict the British government’s sectarian policy, which cynically attempted to foist a sectarian image on Britain’s opponents. Far from being a supporter of ‘people power’, Peter Hart has denied the legitimacy of the overwhelming electoral and popular support for the setting up of Dáil Éireann in 1919. Peter Hart attempts through historiography a policy that failed historically. Where facts don’t fit, censored presentation of evidence suffices.
Hart has shown inconsistency in response to new evidence. In Hart’s The IRA and its enemies (1998) Tom Barry was alleged to have invented the false surrender story in 1949 and, significantly, of failing to mention it in a 1932 account. Meda Ryan brought forward new (yes ‘new’) evidence on this point, showing Hart to be mistaken. He dismisses her in a patronising comment. Similar treatment is accorded to Meda Ryan’s discovery of a document naming those killed in 1922 as being active informers. Hart refuses to address the substance and instead accuses Meda Ryan of ‘having an excuse for every death. Her book is a catalogue of excuses for killing.’
Hart is the first commentator on Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter (2003) to note this failing. No reviewer (including in History Ireland or the Irish Times) spotted Ryan’s alleged evidential irrationality or her ‘ignorance and prejudice’. Only the person Ryan criticises uses such offensive language. In whose interest does he make these observations? Before criticising Peter Hart Meda Ryan was, according to him, a good historian, but suffered a precipitous decline in quality after that point. How credible is that?
I put it in terms that Peter Hart understands and indeed expects from his critics; I have little faith in his capacity for objectivity. I repeat, Peter Hart has not debated the central questions; he has avoided and evaded them. Peter Hart does not answer questions that in usual circumstances a historian would and could answer clearly and with alacrity.
I suggest that readers refer to audio of Brian Murphy’s talk on Indymedia (summarised on pp 78 of HI 13.4, July/August 2005) and to my summary of the debate. A simple search will ‘unearth’ the material.Yours etc.,
The critics reply to Peter Hart 2 of 3 - click to read
The critics reply to Peter Hart 3 of 3 - click to read
Report of Brian Murphy talk on political culture in Cork 1 of 2 - click to read
Talk on political culture in Cork 2 of 2 - click to read - audio of talk at: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/69567