Thorny fact-checking

October 17, 2013

It is surprising that Marianne Elliott thinks that criticism of the late Peter Hart’s research is “vilification” (“No word for what we’re doing”, Books, 3 October). Times Higher Education has twice reported criticism of the historian’s work (see here and here), initially in response to my and Brian Murphy’s text Troubled History (2008), a 10th anniversary critique of Hart’s The IRA & its Enemies (1998).

Hart concluded, after discussing the killing of 13 Protestant civilians near Bandon in late April 1922, that “the nationalist revolution had also been a sectarian one”, and linked this criticism to an assault on IRA behaviour at the Kilmichael ambush in November 1920. Tom Barry, the commander of the ambush, in particular was accused of executing without reason unarmed British auxiliary prisoners. Hart alleged that years afterwards, using “lies and evasions”, Barry concocted his mid-ambush “false surrender” scenario, according to which IRA volunteers accepting the auxiliaries’ surrender were killed.

Both subjects are detailed in Charles Townshend’s The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923, the subject of Elliott’s review. Townshend frames his sectarianism discussion around Hart’s original argument. Surprisingly, as Hart also originated the Kilmichael discussion, he disappears in Townshend’s Kilmichael narrative, apart from a reference note. I suspect the reason is as follows.

Hart’s sectarianism discussion may be debated conventionally. It relates, in the main, to the use or (controversially) the misuse of verifiable evidence. Discussion of Hart’s treatment of Kilmichael, on the other hand, must address uncomfortable facts (for instance, his claim to have interviewed a Kilmichael IRA veteran anonymously six days after the last recorded participant died, and to have interviewed two when just one was reportedly alive). Some historians might find that discussion difficult: I do not. Although my views are referenced by Townshend in the sectarianism discussion, they (and the interviewee issue) are absent in relation to Kilmichael.

Hart’s anomalous use of unverifiable sources and censorship of relevant evidence is subject to criticism. Elliott’s “vilification” accusation, in itself an interesting phenomenon, is usually a means of avoiding it.

Niall Meehan
Faculty head, journalism and media
Griffith College Dublin

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