A decade of controversy

David Whalen
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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.

david_whalen@hotmail.com

Organizations: Irish Republican Army, Griffith College Dublin

Geographic location: St. John's, Ireland, Britain Newfoundland Limerick Belfast Dublin

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Recent comments

  • Harry
    July 02, 2010 - 13:16

    Brendan OLeary, Lauder Professor of Political Science, Director of the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a review online at the Dublin Review of Books: Peter Harts work on the IRA, in its efforts to treat IRA actions in Cork in the war of independence as ethnic cleansing, goes significantly beyond what the evidence will bear, and, according to some, derives statements from interviews with dead people a method of inquiry not available to social scientists. Hart should stop beating around the bush and answer the criticism.

    [Note to moderator, Bew comment at http://www.drb.ie/apr08_issues/a_long_march.htm]

  • John
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    Are you pro anything? It is such a conceit for an academic to pretend they are above bias. Professors are human too. Not just objective robots though they would like us all to believe they have some insight into truth. Might you be pro-sales for your book?

  • conor
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    I am associated with the Aubane Historical Society, which has disputed Mr. Harts claims about the supposed sectarian nature of the Irish War of Independence. I have attended two of his public talks. Friends of mine have attended others. On one occasion a leaflet was distributed and on others pamphlets and books have been distributed. I can find no occasion where Mr. Hart has been picketed or where his meetings have been taken over by anyone. He has been treated robustly but with courtesy. I fear that his claims are a matter of bigging himself up.

    Mr. Hart gives the impression that he has no political agenda. I will accept his word on that. But others have. The revisionist lobby in Ireland has the aim of seeing the country once more under the political sway of Britain. To this end they either rewrite Irish history or try to make us ashamed of it. I believe that Mr. Hart has been shamelessly used by these people; and in particular by his former supervisor, Professor David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College Dublin, who, it seems to me, put him up to proving the sectarian nature of the IRA in the first place.

    Conor Lynch

  • Harry
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    Brendan OLeary, Lauder Professor of Political Science, Director of the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a review online at the Dublin Review of Books: Peter Harts work on the IRA, in its efforts to treat IRA actions in Cork in the war of independence as ethnic cleansing, goes significantly beyond what the evidence will bear, and, according to some, derives statements from interviews with dead people a method of inquiry not available to social scientists. Hart should stop beating around the bush and answer the criticism.

    [Note to moderator, Bew comment at http://www.drb.ie/apr08_issues/a_long_march.htm]

  • John
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    Are you pro anything? It is such a conceit for an academic to pretend they are above bias. Professors are human too. Not just objective robots though they would like us all to believe they have some insight into truth. Might you be pro-sales for your book?

  • conor
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    I am associated with the Aubane Historical Society, which has disputed Mr. Harts claims about the supposed sectarian nature of the Irish War of Independence. I have attended two of his public talks. Friends of mine have attended others. On one occasion a leaflet was distributed and on others pamphlets and books have been distributed. I can find no occasion where Mr. Hart has been picketed or where his meetings have been taken over by anyone. He has been treated robustly but with courtesy. I fear that his claims are a matter of bigging himself up.

    Mr. Hart gives the impression that he has no political agenda. I will accept his word on that. But others have. The revisionist lobby in Ireland has the aim of seeing the country once more under the political sway of Britain. To this end they either rewrite Irish history or try to make us ashamed of it. I believe that Mr. Hart has been shamelessly used by these people; and in particular by his former supervisor, Professor David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College Dublin, who, it seems to me, put him up to proving the sectarian nature of the IRA in the first place.

    Conor Lynch