A biography fit for a national hero

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Tom Barry: Irish Freedom Fighter, Meda Ryan, Mercier Press, €30 hbk, €14.99 pbk

DO NOT think that the 'revisionists' of Irish historical studies have gone away. They are still there and will probably remain a constant factor during the centuries to come.

After all, two thousand years after the Roman conquest and occupation of Britain, there are still some who would sincerely argue that the Romans brought 'civilisation' to the Celtic Britons and when Rome pulled out in AD 410, Britain then descended into a 'dark age'.

In this journal, back in October/November, 1999, I reviewed Peter Hart's book The IRA and its Enemies: violence and community in Cork, 1916-1923. This was an amazing piece of 'revisionist' work in which the destruction of Cork City in December, 1920, by British troops was dismissed in one sentence amidst a whole book aimed at showing that all republicans were psychopathic killers.

What was even more objectionable than the distortion of the truth by the omission of the facts, was the virulent attack on Tom Barry and particularly the action fought at Kilmichael in which British propaganda was accepted as truth and Barry depicted as a ruthless war criminal, personally shooting wounded, helpless soldiers, trying to surrender, and, moreover, relishing the task. In fact, Hart seemed to dismiss all republicans as serial murderers at large.

Thankfully, Meda Ryan has produced an excellent and well-documented biography of Barry in which she analyses Hart's claims with a historical forensic scalpel and demonstrates just what propaganda rubbish can be passed off as history.

Hart was not interested in the causes of the War of Independence and, indeed, the 1918 General Election, was only mentioned once in the book and then not as a distinct event but in passing without giving the results. This is like talking about the causes of World War I without mentioning the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria.

Meda Ryan's book is scrupulously researched, footnoted and, moreover, she has had access to the Tom Barry Papers which were so nearly destroyed when Barry's apartment was being 'cleared'. Meda knew Barry personally and, indeed, back in 1982 she wrote The Tom Barry Story (also published by Mercier). In that book she was confined to a certain number of words. The current work is 352 pages and not a superfluous sentence in it.

Barry, almost an icon of the War of Independence, has been singled out many times for attacks by English historians such as Ewan Butler's 1971 book Barry's Flying Column. It was inevitable he would be fair game for the neo-colonist school of revisionism, which has sadly arisen, in his own country.

Meda Ryan's biography is an absolute must for anyone who is interested in the War of Independence as well as in Barry's role in it.

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