Troubles and strife as IRA historian draws peers' fire

The author of a revisionist study of Irish republicans defends his research against critics who claim inaccuracy. John Gill reports

July 3, 2008

An acclaimed study of the IRA that set out to challenge "myths" of Irish republican history has come under fire over alleged anomalies and the use of anonymous sources.

The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923, by Canadian historian Peter Hart, offers a revisionist version of events that proved highly controversial when it was published in 1998. It won several awards, including the 1999 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, which recognises work that furthers understanding between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Ten years after its publication, the book, which was based on a PhD thesis completed at Trinity College Dublin, has come under detailed attack. Claims of anomalies in Dr Hart's work, all denied by Dr Hart, have surfaced in a pamphlet that was distributed at a recent conference at Queen's University Belfast.

The conference, which Dr Hart attended, was titled "The Black Hand of Republicanism" and focused on the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Among the most controversial elements of his book is Dr Hart's assessment of the Kilmichael ambush of 1920, in which 17 auxiliary policemen, former British soldiers, were killed by a brigade led by IRA commander Tom Barry.

Mr Barry, who became a heroic figure for republicans, had claimed in a memoir that the policemen had pretended to surrender before shooting dead three IRA men. It was only then, he said, that he ordered his men to open fire on the policemen.

However, Dr Hart's work challenged this version of events, claiming that the police's "false surrender" had been invented to justify the massacre.

Speaking in 1998, Dr Hart described Mr Barry as "little more than a serial killer" who "thought of the revolution largely in terms of shooting people".

One of Dr Hart's most vociferous critics is Niall Meehan, who co-authored the pamphlet presented at Queen's, which is titled "Troubled History: A 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies".

Mr Meehan is head of the journalism and media faculty at Griffith College Dublin, a private further and higher education institution, and he is writing a critique of Dr Hart's book as part of his own PhD thesis.

In his research, Dr Hart relied on interviews with conflict veterans, whom he anonymised in the book. However, Mr Meehan claims it is possible in some cases to identify the interviewees by cross-referencing the original PhD thesis with the book, and by using initials used in the PhD to establish their identities.

One of Dr Hart's anonymous sources is described as a participant in the Kilmichael ambush and is said to have been interviewed on 19 November 1989. However, Mr Meehan claims that this was six days after the last known participant of the ambush died.

Another of Dr Hart's sources is cited as EY in the thesis, which Mr Meehan contends is Edward Young, the last known survivor. The pamphlet says: "John Young, son of the last surviving veteran ... denied that Peter Hart had interviewed his father". According to Mr Meehan, Edward (or Ned) Young had a severe stroke a year before Dr Hart claims to have interviewed EY, and no one saw him without his son's permission.

The pamphlet concludes: "Hart reported interviewing two Kilmichael ambush survivors, EY and HJ, when only one, Ned Young, was alive.

"He reported interviewing one of his two Kilmichael interviewees, HJ, when none were alive. When one Kilmichael veteran (Ned Young) was physically available for interview, he was not capable of submitting to an interview due to his medical condition."

The pamphlet criticises the use of anonymous sources. "The anonymity of interviewees prevents the possibility of verification of Hart's claims ... Academic research without verifiable sources is journalism ... Hart claims to have extracted anonymous information from aged veterans at a time when verification after publication of the research was impossible."

Mr Meehan concludes that the largely celebratory reviews of Dr Hart's book "were uncritical because Hart's conclusions were welcomed to the extent that flaws in the research were overlooked".

Dr Hart told Times Higher Education that he had been responding to criticisms ever since the book was published. "To repeat what I've said many times before, I did carry out the interviews I cite in my work. However, my book is about far more than the Kilmichael ambush, and my account of the ambush is not just based on my own research.

"In fact, as you can see in my footnotes, most of my reconstruction is based on other people's taped interviews of ambush participants - and they asked that their identities be kept secret just as I did.

"There are other issues involved. For example, I quote from Tom Barry's first report of the ambush, in which he makes no mention of a false surrender.

"My critics have tried to claim that this (report) was a British forgery, but they have no evidence or logic to support their claim.

"Nor am I the first person to raise questions about what happened. The controversy goes back to the days after the ambush, but it has also pitted Barry against erstwhile comrades.

"I think it is also fair to say that these critics have completely failed to engage with the book's larger arguments about the nature of the IRA and the Irish Revolution.

"Real historians are interested in exploring and analysing - and debating - how and why such extraordinary events come about, and that's what I will continue to do."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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