A letter to historians

In an open letter to historians, Jack Lane of the Aubane Historical Society challenges revisionist historian Peter Hart on his interpretation of the Irish War of Independence and raises serious questions raised about the historian's methods

by Jack Lane

THE CONTROVERSIAL revisionist historian, Dr Peter Hart, is to speak on 'Political Violence' at the Irish Historical Society in UCC on Tuesday May 9.

One of the events in Irish history, on which Dr Hart made his reputation, is the Kilmichael Ambush of November 1920.

Hart accused IRA and ambush leader General Tom Barry, who stated that British Auxiliaries engaged in a false surrender leading to IRA fatalities during the ambush, of engaging in "lies and evasions". Hart alleges that Barry simply killed unarmed British combatants without cause.

In the hitherto accepted version, after the apparent 'surrender' and in the lull that followed, Auxiliaries killed IRA soldiers standing in plain sight to take the surrender. This caused Barry to issue an order to recommence firing until all the Auxiliaries were killed.

Two British and two Irish sources from the 1920s and 1930s support Barry's account of the false surrender. It circulated freely in West Cork after the ambush. It was not regarded as contentious until Dr Hart arrived to challenge it 70 years later.

While the heat of battle and the fog of war has generated the heat and fog of this historical debate, it is important to state that Dr Hart uses Kilmichael to view the War of Independence as a sectarian war in West Cork. That is why the debate goes beyond arguments over what exactly happened at Kilmichael and Hart's directly quoted controversial contention in the Sunday Times (April 19th, 1998) that Tom Barry was "little more than a serial killer".

Peter Hart claims support for his view that Barry lied, as a result of interviews allegedly conducted in the late 1980s with those Hart claimed were IRA veterans who had participated in the ambush. Peter Hart anonymised the names of interviewees in his research findings.

This leads to an issue touched upon by Dr John Regan of Dundee University, in a recent review of Meda Ryan's Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter (Mercier 2003 HB). Regan wrote: "Hart was indeed fortunate in finding survivors of the ambush alive and lucid nearly seventy years after the event." Regan observed, "one of whom he [Hart] notes visited the site with him".

Dr Hart dates an interview with an ambush scout as taking place on November 19th 1989. The last surviving ambush participant, Ned Young, died six days earlier, while the last surviving Kilmichael ambush scout died in 1967. Meda Ryan has dated the time of death of all ambush survivors in the recently published (Mercier 2005 PB) paperback edition of her Tom Barry biography. Her dating is in agreement with that of other researchers.

Dr Hart's persistence in anonymising his interview accounts means that unravelling the issue is problematic. We are dealing with an event that took place over 80 years ago in which all of the participants are deceased. Governments operate a 30-year rule on secret material, source material that historians usually crave. Dr Hart appears to be operating a 'perpetuity' rule in relation to his own secrets.

As Dr Regan noted "The question pointedly raised is: Whom did Hart interview?.... The issue of anonymity only becomes problematic if there were no bona fide veterans to interview". Dr Hart has had opportunity to resolve the dating problem but has declined to do so. This is unsatisfactory.

There are other problems with Dr Hart's approach, outlined over four issues of History Ireland (March-April to Sept-Oct 2005 - see www.historyireland.com) and centre on accusations that Dr Hart omits relevant information in original source material. An allegedly "captured" typed document, now generally accepted as a British forgery, purported to be Barry's account of the Kilmichael ambush. Its true provenance as a forgery designed for a particular purpose would have been clearer earlier had Dr Hart published it in full, instead of quoting from it in a highly selective manner.

Similarly, Hart made an accusation of sectarianism in relation to Protestants shot near Bandon after the truce in 1922, an act condemned by both sides of the then pre-Civil War Treaty divide. Hart used a British source (the Record of the Rebellion in Ireland) to promote his view that these shootings, and others carried out earlier by the IRA, were simply sectarian and aimed at randomly selected Protestant victims.

However, the source cited by Hart contained a following sentence contradicting the sectarianism point Hart made. Hart omitted it in his research findings. An Irish Times reviewer referred to Dr Hart as being "disingenuous" in appearing to deal with this omission (January 18, 2003). Brian Murphy (2006) has pointed to further omissions in this context.

Research by both Meda Ryan (see above) and by Brian Murphy (2006), using original source material, has questioned Peter Hart's opinions on the Bandon-Dunmanway sectarianism issue. Recently published and forthcoming work by John Borgonovo (published by Irish Academic Press) clarifies the position further with regard to sectarian loyalist activity in Cork during the War of Independence period.

In the interests of historical accuracy, perhaps Dr Hart could address some of these points, or else participants at the event might address them to Dr Hart for reply. I am sure all can agree that the questions are clear and they are important.

Jack Lane, Aubane Historical Society, Cork


  1. Borgonovo, John (2006), Florence and Josephine O'Donoghue's War of Independence, Irish Academic Press
  2. Murphy, Brian (2006), The Origins and Oganisation Of British Propaganda in Ireland in 1920, Aubane and Spinwatch
  3. Regan, John (2006), Review of (2003 HB) Tom Barry IRA freedom Fighter, in History, Journal of The Royal Historical Society.
  4. Ryan, Meda (2003 HB, 2005 PB), Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter, Mercier
  5. Hart, Peter, Meda Ryan, et al, in History Ireland, March-April to Sept-Oct 2005 (see full content at www.historyireland.com)

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