University of Dundee Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Over three nights in late April 1922, eighteen people were killed in west county Cork, in Ireland. All save one of the dead were Protestants. This article re-examines one of the most iconic and contested pieces of Irish historical writing to appear in recent decades: Peter Hart’s chapter ‘Taking it out on the Protestants’, published in his award winning monograph, The IRA and its Enemies (1998). It has long been acknowledged that there were problems in Hart’s use of sources supporting his thesis, that the massacre was a sectarian-inspired event. But the extent of these problems only becomes apparent when the primary sources are examined in detail. Doing this allows us to deconstruct Hart’s methodology and narrative, thereby identifying the criteria for his selection of evidence, alongside examining how he addressed anomalies in the evidence, which questioned whether what motivated the killings was indeed sectarian hatred. We cannot know what precisely happened in West Cork during the massacre. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify an ahistorical methodology at work in Hart’s chapter, which props up an unambiguous, and for that, an equally ahistorical narrative of random sectarian murder.
Recognition of this sends a stark warning to the wider community about the necessity of verifying sources when reviewing historical writing, in order to check interpretative problems and academic fraud.
In a review of Peter Hart’s classic study of Irish revolutionary violence and community in county Cork during the years 1916–23, The IRA and its Enemies (1998), Brian P. Murphy, queried Hart’s use of sources.1 Among the problems Murphy believed he identified, was the use of evidence relating to the killing of thirteen Protestant loyalists in West
Peter Hart died on 22 July 2010 aged 46, before we had any opportunity to discuss this article. He was among the very brightest of our generation of Irish historians and perhaps its most talented writer. We disagreed on most things, oftentimes fundamentally so. But in our exchanges, at conferences and in journals, I greatly appreciated the keenness of his intellect, and sharpness of his responses. Among his peers, he was the historian I most enjoyed debating history with. I would like to thank Sean Kane, Deirdre McMahon, Brendan O’Leary, Jim Tomlinson, Richard McMahon and the journal’s editors and referees for their critical comments on earlier drafts of this article. The ‘Protestant Identities Workshop’, organized by Linda Connolly at University College Cork on 26 May 2011, provided an appropriate testing ground for some arguments advanced in what follows.
1 Brian P. Murphy, ‘The IRA and its Enemies’, The Month (Sept.–Oct. 1998), pp. 381–3 [hereafter Murphy, ‘The IRA’].
Cork at the end of April 1922. This horrific affair, sometimes known as the ‘Bandon Valley massacre’, is an exceptional event in modern British and Irish history, because of the high number of a single religious minority killed in one local incident. In the war between the IRA and the British administration (1919–21), and in the Irish civil war which followed (1922–3), no incident outside Ulster compared to what happened to the Protestant community in West Cork, between 27 and 29
April 1922. Even Belfast, the epicentre of sectarian violence between 1920 and 1922, produced only a few events of comparable scale among the more than 450 deaths occurring there.2 After the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish ‘treaty’ by the Sinn Fein Dail in January 1922, the British army and police constabularies began to withdraw or disband in the twenty-six counties of Southern Ireland (after December 1922, the Irish Free State).3 The treaty agreed to establish a dominion Irish Free State inside the British Commonwealth, and made provision for the establishment of a new Irish government and constitution. Northern Ireland could, and quickly did, opt out of this arrangement, preferring to continue with home rule inside the Union. In between the British withdrawal in the south and the much later establishment of the new Dublin government’s authority, Southern Ireland fell into a kind of administrative limbo. And in the absence of any alternative in early 1922, the only effective institution for ensuring order became the IRA. However, like the rest of the revolutionary movement, the rebel army fractured over the treaty into ‘treatyites’ accepting the Free State,
During the first half of 1922, rival factions of the IRA threatened a civil war, which eventually erupted in June. The Bandon Valley massacre of
late April followed closely the withdrawal of the crown forces from West
Cork, during a period of increasing lawlessness and instability. It also
happened during a truce between British and IRA forces, which had been
somewhat unevenly observed since the July of the previous year. There
can be no doubt that the Protestant victims were all murdered, but what
has always been disputed is the reason why and by whom.
Refuting allegations that the victims had been killed because they had
previously informed on the IRA to the British authorities, Hart vehemently
argued that the massacre was borne of sectarian hatred directed
against the religious minority by Roman Catholics in the IRA. This
interpretation was central to Hart’s challenge to the hitherto more celebratory
accounts of the republican struggle in county Cork and elsewhere,
which he suggested denied sectarianism was an important
motivation for IRA violence. Hart brought a fresh, not to say radical,
perspective to the study of the revolutionary period, and helped change
perceptions of both the IRA and its victims. The Canadian-born historian
came to Trinity College Dublin in the late 1980s, after studying at
2 Robert Lynch, The IRA and the Early Years of Partition (Dublin, 2006), p. 227; see below, nn. 42, 43.
3 John M. Regan, The Irish Counter-revolution 1921–36 (Dublin, 1999).
Memorial University in St John’s Newfoundland, and Queen’s University, Ontario, and as a postgraduate at Yale in the United States. He quickly established a reputation as an exceptional graduate student with
provocative seminar papers and scholarly articles.4 At Trinity he was
supervised by David Fitzpatrick, who in 1977 authored an acclaimed
study of county Clare, Politics and Irish life 1913–21.5 This became a
model for Hart’s doctoral work on the IRA in county Cork.
By contrast English-born Brian P. Murphy is an independent scholar
who belongs to the Roman Catholic Benedictine community, at Glenstal
Abbey, county Limerick. A graduate of Oxford and Trinity College
Dublin, he completed his doctorate at University College Dublin, publishing
6 Brian P. Murphy, Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal (Dublin, 1991).
7 Brian P. Murphy, The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland in 1920 (Aubane,
2006): ‘“The wind that shakes the barley”: Reflections on the Writing of Irish History in the Period of the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence’, in The Impact of the 1916 Rising among the Nations, ed. Ruán O’Donnell (Dublin, 2008), pp. 200–20.
8 For surveys of what ‘revisionism’ might mean in Irish historiography see: Ciaran Brady (ed.),
Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism 1938–1994 (Dublin, 1994); D. G. Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds.), The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy (1996); Evi Gkotzaridis, Trials of Irish History: Genesis and Evolution of a Reappraisal,
1938–2000 (2006); Giorgos Antoniou, ‘The Lost Atlantis of Objectivity: The Revisionist Struggles
between the Academic and Public Spheres’, History and Theory, Theme Issue xlvi (2007), pp. 92–112;
John M. Regan, ‘Southern Irish Nationalism as a Historical Problem’, Historical Journal, i (2007),
of alternative interpretations explaining the massacre. The pressures a
sectarian narrative and, equally, an opposing ‘informer narrative’ placed
on the use of evidence are considered in the penultimate section. The
article concludes with an attempt to place the massacre in its broader
In living memory few books on modern Irish history excited more critical
attention, or drew closer scrutiny, than Hart’s study of the IRA in
county Cork during the revolutionary years 1916-23. Omission of the
Record’s reference to the murder of loyalist informers around Bandon
was one among many anomalies some scholars alleged they had discovered
in Hart’s work. These became the subject of protracted debates
over his conclusions, and the evidence on which they rested. Some of
these exchanges over, for example, Hart’s use of anonymous oral evidence
have been convoluted to the point where even diligent observers
may find the detail baffling. Among the most serious accusations levelled
at Hart was that he had claimed to have interviewed two IRA
veterans of the Kilmichael ambush in West Cork (28 November 1920),
when none were available in 1989.18 By the standards of the Great War
the military engagement at Kilmichael was small, involving about fiftyfour
combatants (eighteen Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Auxiliaries,
and thirty-six armed IRA volunteers). But it had a powerfully symbolic
significance for Irish republicans, and for those in West Cork in particular.
In 1920 Kilmichael established remarkable precedents for both
the British government and the IRA, because it was a set-piece battle in
which the British force, mostly ex-officers with war service, was all but
annihilated. For both sides Kilmichael demonstrated the true potential
of Irish republican violence. In his defence, Hart repeatedly claimed
that any confusion about whom he had interviewed arose from his citation
of sound recordings made by other researchers.19 Implicitly, this
suggested the mistaken dates were attributable to other interviewers.
While all this still raised valid questions about the possibility of some
of Hart’s interviews taking place with aged and infirm veterans, the
18 Meda Ryan, letter to History Ireland, xiii (2005), 13–14.
19 Peter Hart, ‘Peter Hart and his Enemies . . .’, History Ireland, xiii (2005), 16–19, at p. 19; Meda Ryan, ‘The Kilmichael Ambush, 1920: Exploring the “Provocative Chapters” ’, History, xcii (2007), 235–49 [hereafter Ryan, ‘Kilmichael’].
matter appeared irresolvable while the interviewees’ identities remained anonymous.
Hart’s revision of the ambush at Kilmichael in part rested on anonymous oral testimonies. He provoked his republican critics by concluding that some of the Auxiliaries were murdered in cold blood and their bodies mutilated.20 At the centre of the controversy was whether or not the
Auxiliaries had offered a ‘false surrender’ before being killed. It was
alleged by the IRA commander, Tom Barry, that the Auxiliaries offered
to surrender, but immediately resumed shooting when two IRA volunteers
showed themselves. Both volunteers were fatally wounded. For
Barry, the Auxiliaries’ treachery justified a fight to the end, with no
quarter given, although Hart was shown to be mistaken in his claim that
Barry invented the ‘false surrender’ story many years later in his autobiographical
Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949).21 It is also true that the
testimony of five republican participants in the ambush recorded in the
1950s also failed to mention it explicitly.22 Neither did the same witnesses,
perhaps less surprisingly, verify Hart’s claims that prisoners had been
murdered and mutilated.23
Joined to this controversy, a long debate ensued over the authenticity
of a report of the action supposedly captured by the British, and allegedly
authored by Barry.24 This too omitted any reference to any ‘false surrender’.
For Hart this was conclusive evidence of Barry’s ‘lies and evasions’
in his later accounts.25 For Barry’s biographer, Meda Ryan, the report
contained too many inaccuracies to be attributed to Barry.26 The document’s
provenance was further queried when Ryan discovered that it
interrupted the pagination of the official document in which it is bound.27
Appearing on page sixty-four, there were two pages numbered sixty-four,
and Ryan reasoned it was a later insertion placed there to secure insurance
claims filed on behalf of the lone Auxiliary survivor, and the families
of the British dead.28 Though few military engagements in modern
history have been scrutinized more forensically than the Kilmichael
20 Hart, Enemies, ch. 6.
21 Dublin. Meda Ryan, Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Cork, 2003) [hereafter Ryan, Barry], pp.49–67.
history. On this and other aspects of the Kilmichael controversy see Seamus Fox’s conclusions;
Seamus Fox, ‘The Kilmichael Ambush – A Review of Background, Controversies, and Effects’ (Sept. 2005 edn.), http://www.dcu.ie/~foxs/irhist/Kilmichael%20(seamus)%20Ver%204%20-
%20Sept%2005.pdf[hereafter Fox]. Ryan has since contended that one of these interviews (Jack Hennessey’s), contrary to Fox, does describe a false surrender, although he does not use the phrase. Ryan, ‘Kilmichael’, p. 242, n. 21.
25 Hart, Enemies, p. 36.
26 Ryan, Barry, pp. 57–60.
27 Hart, Enemies, p. 36; Ryan, Barry, pp. 65–6.
28 Meda Ryan, ‘Peter Hart and Tom Barry’, History Ireland, xiii (2005), p. 13.
ambush, it has to be conceded that none of these arguments proved conclusive.29
On the tenth anniversary of the publication of The IRA and its Enemies, Murphy and Niall Meehan, a persistent critic of Hart, and Ruan O’Donnell, a historian at Limerick University, authored a pamphlet summarizing criticisms of Hart’s work.30 Meehan claimed that by
cross-referencing the anonymized oral testimony in Hart’s book with the
same testimony in Hart’s 1992 doctoral thesis, and through known biographical
information about participants in the events described, he
could identify Hart’s two anonymous Kilmichael ambush interviewees.
Meehan argued that the original letters Hart used to identify interviewees
in the thesis were the interviewees’ actual name initials (sometimes
reversed). ‘EY’, Meehan reasoned, was ‘Edward (“Ned”) Young’, reputedly
and generally acknowledged to be the sole surviving ambush veteran
after 1986. Despite this, Hart dated an interview with another anonymous
veteran ‘AF’ (otherwise ‘HJ’), six days after Young died on 13
November 1989.31 Hart again responded that not all the interviews were
his own work.32 But this was less convincing where Hart had explicitly
identified himself as the interviewer of ‘AF’ in his book.33 The pamphlet
was distributed at a conference Hart attended at Queen’s University
Belfast, in June 2008. It was published by a ‘local history group’ based in
North Cork, the Aubane Historical Society. This is a spin-off from the
British and Irish Communist Organization, which now professes a united
Ireland nationalist agenda, whereas it was once the best known Marxist
exponent of the ‘two nations’ approach to Irish history.34 Arguably, it is
the purest institutional advocate of the kind of ‘reactionary mythologies’
O’Farrell railed against in 1993. The society interests itself in opposing
what it calls the ‘revisionist movement in Irish history’. And associated
with the publisher Athol Books, it promotes authors like Brian P.
Murphy and Brendan Clifford, who are critical of Irish academic historians.