Between the lines of a tale of murder and motive

A debate over 90-year-old Irish killings illuminates historians' conflicting roles. Matthew Reisz reports

May 24, 2012

Lining up for battle: Irish Free State soldiers on parade, c.1922. Historians are divided on whether the war originated in sectarian hatred or political dispute

Over the course of three nights in late April 1922 in the west of County Cork, 18 people - all but one of them Protestant - were killed.

This bloody episode, known as the Bandon Valley Massacre, is notable in recent British and Irish history for the sheer number of individuals slaughtered from a particular religious minority.

It is now the focus of controversy in an academic dispute that raises questions about the differing roles of the research historian and the public historian driven by wider, political, aims.

The massacre featured prominently in a 1998 book by the late Canadian historian Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923.

But John Regan, a lecturer in history at the University of Dundee, now argues that Hart manipulated the historical evidence.

According to Regan, this manipu-lation fitted the massacre within a wider narrative espoused by Hart and other influential historians, a narrative that presents the violence of Irish history as stemming from ancient sectarian hatreds, and ignores structural factors in the creation of the IRA such as partition.

Hart, who died in 2010, originally won widespread acclaim for his powerful revisionist account of early Irish republican history. Yet it has also had its share of detractors. Times Higher Education reported how, at a 2008 conference at Queen's University Belfast attended by Hart, critics issued a pamphlet entitled Troubled History: A 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies.

A key plank in Hart's revisionist argument was the Kilmichael ambush of 1920, where an IRA brigade led by Tom Barry killed 17 former British soldiers - although, he later claimed, only after the British had pretended to surrender and then shot three IRA men dead. Hart, who once described Barry as "little more than a serial killer", denied that this extenuating "false surrender" had taken place.

Niall Meehan, head of the faculty of journalism and media communications at Griffith College Dublin, and the other authors of the pamphlet challenged Hart's account, which relied on anonymous interviews with veterans of the ambush. Not only was "academic research without verifiable sources" questionable in itself, the critics argued, but all the relevant people had died or become incapacitated before the interviews were said to have taken place.

This may sound like a dispute about fairly minor details of motivation and methodology, of interest only to specialist historians. Yet both sides were convinced that far more was at stake.

Meehan told THE at the time that "Hart's conclusions were welcomed [for political reasons] to the extent that flaws in the research were overlooked", while Hart argued that his critics had "completely failed to engage with the book's larger arguments about the nature of the IRA and the Irish Revolution". The dispute has now been renewed, with fresh questions being raised over Hart's research.

Ends and means

For Regan, who recently critiqued Hart's work in the magazine History Ireland, there is a fundamental distinction between the genuine research historian and the "public historian" motivated by extraneous goals, however admirable, such as nation-building or defeating terrorism.

Regan writes that the tension between these two roles came to a head during the period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland lasting from roughly 1969 to 1997. Some intellectuals, he says, declared that "overemphasising the achievements of revolutionary republicanism [in roughly the period covered by Hart's book] nourished the resurgent IRA...if the 'wrong' history was the active ingredient causing the 'Troubles', some argued, the 'right' history might help them end or stop them spreading...In wartime, it was reasoned, liberal-academic niceties had to be sacrificed to counterterrorism."

Although Regan acknowledges that Irish historians were "pursu[ing] a noble objective" in "taking the offensive against the IRA", it was "one far outside their discipline" and effectively allowed "the Provisionals [to become] the organising principle around which a pseudo-intellectual culture was hastily erected".

In an atmosphere of "moral panic" which long "maimed Irish intellectual life", historians risked accusations of being terrorist fellow-travellers or ultranationalists, Regan says. Hart's work raised important issues about "the substance and credibility of research produced by the Irish historical profession", he argues.

Although Regan calls The IRA and its Enemies "a page-turner" and "an extraordinarily skilled and crafted piece of writing", he says in an interview with THE: "It's not historical. It's propagandist writing of a very subtle kind, which cannot be plausibly explained as a series of errors or omissions, a creation of a past suited to present needs."

The key chapter of Hart's work, which Regan subjected to searching analysis in the peer-reviewed journal History, concerns the Bandon Valley Massacre. Hart gave this chapter the title "Taking it out on the Protestants" and boldly states: "These men were shot because they were Protestants." This explicitly rules out arguments that the motivation went beyond "naked sectarianism" to vengeance on those who had acted as informers or were involved in anti-IRA organisations.

There were clear reasons why Hart's interpretation might have been well received at the time it was published, according to Regan. During the Troubles, he explains, "there was a tendency to talk about the violence as tribal, as motivated by deep atavistic religious hatreds, and an unwillingness to identify partition and structural issues as factors in the creation of the IRA [in the early 20th century]. Well-known writers such as Conor Cruise O'Brien and Roy Foster wanted to close down that debate and explain the violence solely in terms of ancient hatred."

Omissions speak volumes

Regan believes he has found a smoking gun to back up his argument.

He has written in Irish Historical Studies about the way that partisan "public historians" reveal their biases through the elision of important evidence. Such elision is often difficult to spot, given that no one can "have read everything or...included everything".

Regan says: "Elision can be accidental or reflect a conscious or even a subconscious response to historical information, but where patterns of omission occur, and are repeated, explanations not relying wholly on chance must be sought."

Although he points to a number of anomalies, Regan flags up one particularly damning example of "elision" in The IRA and its Enemies. Arguing that the Protestants killed around Bandon could not have been informers, Hart cites a secret report of the British intelligence services from 1922 claiming that "in the South [of Ireland] the Protestants and those who supported the government rarely gave much information because, except by chance, they did not have it to give".

This would have offered strong support to his case if the following sentences of the report - which Hart must have read but did not quote - had not continued: "An exception to this rule was in the Bandon area where there were many Protestant farmers who gave information ... it proved almost impossible to protect those brave men, many of whom were murdered while almost all the remainder suffered grave material loss." By including the generalisation and eliding the much more rele-vant caveat, Regan argues, Hart revealed that he had an axe to grind.

None of this, as Regan admits, proves that Hart was definitely wrong. "I believe the evidence is contradictory, whereas Peter produces an unambiguous account of sectarian violence which is unsound, ahistorical and unethical."

Not surprisingly, Regan has his own challengers. Responding to his article in History Ireland, David Fitzpatrick, professor of modern history at Trinity College, Dublin and Hart's original PhD supervisor - argued in a letter to the journal that: "Regan neglects the complexity of Hart's argument in his eagerness to denounce this or that pithy phrase...Nowhere did Hart claim that most republican violence was directed against Protestants, that sectarianism was the dominant strand in republican mentality or that other groups identified as suspect 'outsiders'...fared any better." Researchers such as Hart and himself, he added, were not "paradigm-primed political pawns or plotters but 'revisionists' in the benign sense of that much-abused term".

On the basis of some technical arguments, Regan believes he has proved Hart guilty of too categorical an interpretation of the motives of the (unknown) people who carried out this savage attack 90 years ago. Yet what sounds like a rather rarefied academic controversy also has far wider significance, exposing tangled questions of Irish identity, politics and responses to communal violence.

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