MUN History professor Peter Hart says he still sometimes hears echoes of the controversy that met his book The IRA and It's Enemies when it was published 10 years ago. Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
When his book "The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923" came out 10 years ago, historian and St. John's native Peter Hart never imagined its publication would become the flashpoint in what is now a decade-old controversy.
Today, having his readings picketed and his question-and-answer sessions taken over by protesters is nothing out of sorts.
"It's now very familiar," Hart said. "However, it's kind of wearying, especially when it gets personal."
In the book, which evolved from a PhD thesis, Hart argues that during the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in County Cork targeted community outsiders, not just the British. Hart cites examples where the Catholic-dominated IRA directed violence against Unionist Protestants, non-landed people, and ex-soldiers.
To a large extent, Hart's conclusions turned the traditional understanding of the IRA on its head. The book won many plaudits, earning the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, an award given to a piece of writing that contributes to greater understanding between Ireland and Britain.
Not everyone agreed with what Hart had to say. Some academics took exception to Hart's findings. However, Hart's most vocal opponents were staunch Irish nationalists who said his conclusions were designed to serve a political purpose.
Among the labels Hart has earned, "revisionist" is among the more flattering.
"They assume that because I'm from Newfoundland I'm somehow anti-Irish, pro-British, imperialist, all sorts of nonsense," Hart said.
One of Hart's more vocal detractors is Niall Meehan, head of the Journalism and Media Faculty at Griffith College Dublin.
Meehan, along with Brian Murphy, a member of the Benedictine Community in Limerick, Ireland, recently published a pamphlet called "Troubled History: A tenth anniversary critique of Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies." It was distributed at a conference Hart attended in Belfast several weeks ago.
One of the key sticking points surrounds a 1920 IRA ambush of British soldiers at Kilmichael led by an IRA soldier named Tom Barry. Barry and his band of IRA soldiers killed 17 auxiliary Irish police, all former British soldiers. For the rest of his life, Barry claimed the British had pretended to surrender before killing three IRA members, forcing the Irish to open fire on the British.
Long considered a hero among the Irish Catholic population, Barry is cast by Hart as a political serial killer. Hart cites anonymous interviews from IRA members who participated in the ambush, suggesting the false surrender story was fabricated by Barry in order to justify a massacre.
"These are fairly sensational claims," said Meehan in a telephone interview from his office in Dublin, calling Barry "a significant leader in the war for independence."
Meehan said one of the interviews Hart uses to reach his conclusions can't be real. According to Meehan, the interview, which Hart said was conducted on Nov. 19, 1989, occurred six days after the last known participant in the ambush died.
It's a claim Hart has denied from the outset.
"What all this rather contrived controversy is about is a red herring, because almost all my research was based on other people's interviews that they had taped years before I wrote the book," Hart said.
Hart said both Barry and the ambush form a small part of his argument.
"None of the larger arguments of the book depend on whether I'm right or wrong about the ambush," he said.
Hart said his critics are a small group of non-academics with political axes to grind.
"These people aren't interested in historical truth or serious debate," he said. "These are politically motivated people who are campaigning and looking for ways to discredit me."
Meehan is calling on Hart to explicitly address doubts about his research. He believes Hart should reveal the name of the person he interviewed in November 1989, saying that person is "clearly a fraud."
"This has arisen because Peter Hart hasn't really addressed the questions that were raised about the research. And they're fairly basic questions," Meehan said.
"All of (Hart's) mistakes and anomalies point in a particular direction," he said. "He has an apparent desire to paint the war of independence with sectarian colours."
Hart is currently finishing a companion work to his most recent book, "Mick: The Real Michael Collins," but said he will eventually write another to address the controversy surrounding "The IRA and its Enemies." However, he doubts it will "make a single bit of difference" in changing his detractors' minds.
Even after all the tumult Hart's work has stirred, he has few regrets.
"If a historian writes a book and doesn't get under anybody's skin or doesn't change anybody's mind about anything, then that's a kind of failure," Hart said.