by Niall Meehan
(originally published in The Southern Star)
TEN YEARS ago, a publishing sensation hit Irish history. Newfoundland historian, Peter Hart, turned the accepted view of the Irish war of independence and West Cork's role upside down.
In 1996 Hart accused the IRA of involvement in 'ethnic cleansing' of Protestants. 'Worst of all' was West Cork. Hart pursued this theme in his landmark 1998 book, The IRA and Its Enemies. Hart called IRA commander Tom Barry a 'political serial killer', whose history of the pivotal Kilmichael ambush of 28 November 1920 consisted of 'lies and evasions'.
The Waterford Professor Roy Foster chaired a panel awarding Hart's book that year's prestigious Ewart Biggs prize. He praised Hart then and ever since. In 2006, Foster criticised Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley, set in West Cork during the War, partly because it ignored Hart's view.
Foster was not alone. In 1990, the noted controversialist Kevin Myers praised Hart in The Irish Times. In 1995, Myers wanted Hart's research published. In May 1998 he called it 'a masterpiece'. Myers kick-started a dispute that has been running ever since, initially for six months on The Irish Times letters page.
Myers supported Hart's view that Tom Barry lied about the Kilmichael ambush and a false surrender by British auxiliaries. The false surrender justified Barry's order to keep firing until he thought all the British auxiliaries were killed.
Prisoner of war status was denied a force abusing a cry of surrender to kill its enemies. The recently deceased Padraig O Cunacahain wrote to defend Barry on June 5, 1998.
Hart replied and was followed in turn by historians Brian P. Murphy and Meda Ryan. Murphy and Ryan questioned Hart's use of an unsigned, undated, typewritten account of the ambush. Hart said he had 'unearthed' it in British archives and claimed it was by Barry. Murphy and Ryan argued it was not, not least because of its errors, the most obvious of which Hart censored.
It related to Irish casualties. All participant accounts say that IRA soldier Pat Deasy was badly wounded and died later, while Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan died at the scene. Hart's document puts it the other way around.
Other errors include a vast over-estimate of the amount of ammunition each volunteer had and on the circumstances under which the ambush started. Because the document did not mention a false surrender followed by IRA casualties, it meant there was no such event, said Hart.
So far, it looked like an animated historical debate. But unusual factors were emerging. Hart had left out of a document a factor undermining its credibility. For someone claiming to be objective that was a 'no-no'.
Was it an isolated slip up? In an academic review, Brian Murphy produced more examples. In Hart's account of April, 1922 killings of Protestants near Bandon, Hart wrote that an IRA volunteer admitted 'our fellas took it out on the Protestants'.
Murphy showed that the volunteer, Denis Lordan, was not talking about the 1922 events, that his comment was not sectarian, and that he was speaking to a friendly Protestant republican, Dr. Dorothy Stopford. Hart compounded the misrepresentation by naming his chapter 'Taking it out on the Protestants'.
In the second misrepresentation, Hart had claimed that British intelligence reported that Protestants were no good as agents or informers, because they had no information. It was Hart's justification for saying that Protestants shot in April, 1922 or during the war, were shot for sectarian reasons.
He left out the very next sentence of the British account. The British stated that the area around Bandon, where the killings took place, was an exception.
Murphy and later Ryan noted that the killings just prior to the start of the Civil War violated an IRA amnesty for spies and informers. However, they stated that Hart's omission affected the historical verdict.
Hart refused to distinguish Protestant and loyalist, Catholic and republican. His categories were relentlessly sectarian.
Was Hart pursuing a political view, rather than objective research?
Meda Ryan, who had written a short biography of Barry in 1982, began new research. Hart said he had interviewed anonymously two surviving Kilmichael ambush participants in 1988 and 1989. Ryan was puzzled.
Her uncle, Pat O'Donovan, had fought in the ambush. Ryan and most people who knew thought that Jack O'Sullivan, the second last surviving participant, had died in 1986 and the last, Ned Young, on 13 November 1989.
The Southern Star reported Young's death on 18 November 1989 with the headline 'Ned Young - last of the "boys of Kilmichael"'. Strangely, Hart reported interviewing an ambush veteran one day later, 19 November 1989.
Hart had already 'unearthed' a document in the British archives. Had he now done the same with a Kilmichael veteran? Could his history make the dead speak? Ryan wished to pose this question to Hart in The Irish Times. But, the editor had had enough at that stage. Instead, Ryan published Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter in 2003. She posed the question to Hart in the book. Five years later, he has not answered.
In addition, Ryan researched the April 1922 killings. Sensationally, she re-produced evidence left behind by departing Auxiliaries showing most of the April 1922 victims as working with British forces. She pointed out that, after the war, IRA leaders like Barry called for no victimisation of loyalists who fought with the British. The war was over.
They wanted silence on the matter because, said Barry, 'these people are our neighbours'. Barry did not name those shot as informers in his Guerilla Days in Ireland. Hart interpreted silence has guilt. He, like Kevin Myers, possibly could not have been more wrong.
Barry, Tom Hales and Sean Buckley, put guards on the homes of the vulnerable when the April killings started. The IRA, which vehemently opposed the killings, stopped them.
Local Protestants knew this to be the case and were grateful. It was one reason why, as a Fianna Fáil TD in the 1930s and 40s, Buckley received substantial Protestant votes. In 1994 Church of Ireland clergyman, JBL Deane, wrote in The Irish Times, opposing Kevin Myers on this very point:
"Many local Protestants in the constituency voted for (Buckley), not because they supported the policy of Fianna Fáil, but as a mark of gratitude and respect for what he had done in 1922.'
"I hesitated before taking part in this correspondence, as I could not see what beneficial purpose was served by regurgitating these unhappy events when the community affected by them had long since drawn a line under them and is living in harmony with its neighbours. However, silence might have been interpreted as agreement with some statements which were historically incorrect or incomplete."
Hart and Myers regurgitated with abandon.
In May 1922, two weeks after the April killings near Dunmanway, southern Irish Protestants reported in Dublin's Mansion House that, apart from the April killings, 'hostility to Protestants has been almost, if not wholly unknown in the 26 Counties in which they are a minority'. Myers and Hart ignored the evidence of Irish Protestants, who were more interested in condemning pogroms against Catholics in the new state of Northern Ireland.
If Hart missed The Southern Star of 18 November 1989, he also misrepresented its 29 April 1922 edition. Hart reported that the wife of one of the April killings victims 'seems to have recognised at least one of her husband's attackers.' In fact The Southern Star and other papers reported her emphatic denial that she recognised any.
Is there a missing piece to this jigsaw? Just one.
If Hart could not have interviewed a Kilmichael participant on 19 November 1989, could he have interviewed the last surviving participant, Ned Young, earlier?
I examined Hart's earlier 1992 Trinity College PhD thesis on which his 1998 book is based. In the Book Hart's anonymous interviewees are AA, AB, AC, AD, etc. In the earlier thesis the real initials of their names are given. 'EY' a claimed Kilmichael interviewee, is none other than Ned or Edward Young.
Did Hart interview him on 3 April and 25 June 1988, as he claimed? In 1998, Hart said on Radio Kerry that the 'children' of veterans were 'concerned' at what they were saying. No 'children' emerged to confirm this detail.
However, Ned Young's son, John, completed an affidavit on this very subject in late 2007. It is reported here for the first time.
John Young states that his father suffered a debilitating stroke affecting speech and mobility prior to Hart's claimed interview. John Young states that he was in charge of access to Ned Young, who was nursed at home, and that Hart did not interview his father.
If Hart did not interview Ned Young then he interviewed no Kilmichael veteran. One of the signatories to the affidavit is James O'Driscoll, senior counsel. In his acknowledgements to his thesis and book, Hart thanks especially the same 'Jim O'Driscoll'. Many of those similarly acknowledged wish they had not encountered him.
Currently, I am researching why the book was initially received uncritically and reasons for the emergence of the mistaken view that the Irish war of independence was sectarian. Peter Hart's book will continue to be a sensation.
Niall Meehan is co-author, with Brian P. Murphy, of the recently-published 'Troubled History - a tenth anniversary critique of The IRA and Its Enemies'. The book is published by the Aubane Historical Society.
A related article can be found at:
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2008 Niall Meehan