Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews Propaganda as Anti-History: Peter Hart's The IRA and its enemies by Owen Sheridan (introduction by Jack Lane), Aubane Historical Society, ISBN 978-1-903497-41-8, €15 (A4 stapled pamphlet)
IF PROFESSOR Keith Jeffery refers to Peter Hart's work on Henry Wilson's execution as a "fastidious forensic investigation", what can be said of Owen Sheridan's clinical dissection of Hart's work? (Even in the particular of Wilson's demise, Sheridan, from his encyclopaedic knowledge of Cork and of contemporary Irish history, offers a convincing account of the background to that event, which Hart failed to notice or dismissed.)
Owen Sheridan's criticism of The IRA and its Enemies is fierce and fundamental. It is probable that following his meticulous study of The IRA and its Enemies, he knows that book better than its author.
Although the circumstances of his research remain controversial, Hart has acquired something approaching a messianic status among Irish historians. Nonetheless, those of us who have learned of the 'Troubles' directly from participants - as Hart claims to have done - frankly, find his account incredible.
In Troubled History (2008), Niall Meehan and Brian Murphy challenged the efficacy of The IRA and its Enemies. Their charges are among those which have gone unanswered.
Owen Sheridan's methods differ radically from those of Murphy and Meehan. One might see it as a thematic analysis. His observations have been marshalled into a coherent strategy to identify and address Hart's objective, which Sheridan asserts, is to portray the IRA as thugs and murders, motivated by sectarian hatred.
He argues that Hart avoided citing IRA volunteers directly. "Speaking humanizes a character and if you want to dehumanize him, he needs to express his thoughts as little as possible." He deftly demonstrates Hart's "content and process".
There is an exception where a volunteer, Frank Busteed, is allowed a voice. Sheridan affirms that this is designed to demonize the IRA: it is "cruel, crude - and blatantly sectarian." Busteed is alleged to have told Mrs Lindsay, an elderly member of the 'Irish gentry':
"Listen you old bitch, you think that you are dealing with a bunch of farm labourers, the men who will touch their caps to you and say 'Yes, Madam' and 'No madam'. Well, we're no bunch of down-trodden tame Catholics".
This citation contains 40 words; it is less than half of the words the source reported. Hart omitted:
"My grandfather was Protestant and my bloody cousins are Protestants all over West Cork. This is not a religious war we're fighting. I don't give a damn for any religion. I'd shoot Father Shinnick just as soon as I'd shoot you …."
Both Sheridan and Hart drew on the same source (O'Callaghan, Execution, (London, 1974) p.133"), indicating that Hart was aware of the non-sectarian tenor of Busteed's remarks. Nonetheless, Hart stands accused of citing "an anti-sectarian speech" and "selectively misquoted to give the opposite impression". (Hart "selectively quoted" rather than "selectively misquoted".)
Here, Sheridan demonstrates his integrity as a historian. Having proved his point, he considered the time - fifty years after the event - and the circumstances of the Busteed-O'Callaghan interview. He warns his readers that the account may be exaggerated. Conversely, Hart published without reservation, that part which purported to validate his message.
Hart contended that Busteed took part "in nearly every ambush or barracks attack between Cork and Macroom, as well as numerous operations and executions with the city gunmen." In what appears to be an attempt to preclude the possibility that his equivocal allegations might fail to establish Busteed as a sociopath, Hart added that "(h)is mother's death after a British raid only increased his passion for revenge…."
Again as Sheridan intimates, Hart omitted vital detail, giving the impression that Busteed's existing "passion for revenge" was the fundamental evil. On 13 March 1921, members of a British raiding party "dragged his invalid mother out of her bed and flung her down the stairs breaking her back. She died the next day." (Sheridan pp.27-28)
Hart's treatment of Busteed contrasts starkly with that received by a convicted murderer, an auxiliary police cadet. Hart mentioned the murder of Canon Magner in Dunmanway [December 1920] but omitted the murder of the innocent, Timothy Crowley. The septuagenarian priest protested and was beaten for fifteen minutes and shot by the same, unnamed auxiliary police cadet.
In parliament, the chief secretary for Ireland explained that the miscreant:
"has been tried by court-martial and convicted of murder, but was found to have been insane at the time of committing the crime. He was sentenced to be detained during His Majesty's pleasure and is at present under detention awaiting transfer to a criminal lunatic asylum. The conduct of the other cadets who were present on the occasion of the murders has been the subject of a careful and searching official investigation. The officer commanding the company of which these men were members has been suspended." (HC Deb 17 February 1921 vol 138 cc244-6)
In an apparently 'planted' question, Lieut.-Colonel Archer-Shee asked:
"Has it not been reported that this cadet was made insane by the massacres which had taken place a few days before in Cork".
Greenwood replied that he "was a chum and companion of Cadet Chapman, who was massacred in an ambush a few days before in Cork, and undoubtedly that had an effect on his mind." (Ibid.)
In 1920, a friendship between British ex-officer-chums was a mitigating factor. Seventy years later, the brutal ill-treatment and murder of Busteed's invalid mother, was just another and later contributor to his sociopathic personality.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2009 Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill