Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: ‘the two histories’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Platform, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the research historian and the public historian often coexist in the same scholar.

Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the research historian and the public historian often coexist in the same scholar.

In late April 1922, thirteen Protestants were murdered or disappeared over three horrific nights in West Cork. In The IRA and its enemies (1998) Peter Hart described this as a massacre motivated primarily by sectarian hatred. Others said that the killing had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with spying against the IRA. Hart dismissed this. In 2010 I came across references to three British intelligence officers being kidnapped and murdered by the IRA. This happened around Macroom, West Cork, and coincided exactly with the ‘Bandon Valley massacre’. Could the two events be connected? Re-reading Hart’s book, it appeared that this question hadn’t occurred to him. And this seemed odd, because one of the officers, Robert Hendy, was Major (later Field Marshall) Bernard Montgomery’s battalion intelligence officer and among the most senior ranking intelligence officers killed in the period. So I wrote an article on Hart’s methodology for the journal History, and another in Irish Historical Studies, which identified ‘elision’—the expedient of ignoring ‘unhelpful’ evidence—in published research and concluded by saying that ‘there is something intrinsically wrong with the empirical method employed by some Irish historians’.The debate surrounding Hart’s work is not about whether there was a ‘false surrender’ at Kilmichael or whether or not victims of the West Cork massacre spied against the IRA, important though these issues are. It is about the substance and credibility of research produced by the Irish historical profession. To understand this we need to appreciate the tensions existing between what historians call ‘the two histories’. One of these is the historical research written by professional and some independent scholars. This follows recognised procedures in the use of evidence and purports to say something truthful about the past. Two principles must be applied simultaneously if historical research is to be effective. First, the evidence from which interpretations are drawn must be verifiable. Typically, historical research is footnoted with references to sources so that others may check these if they choose. The second depends on the first. Historical research must be critically engaged and interpretations tested against the evidence alongside existing interpretations. This is ‘historical method’. Where critical engagement and verification do not happen, people will be tempted—sometimes for good reasons—to introduce inaccuracies.

Peter Hart—the debate surrounding his work is not about whether there was a ‘false surrender’ at Kilmichael, or whether or not victims of the West Cork massacre spied against the IRA. It is about the substance and credibility of research produced by the Irish historical profession. (Sheilagh O’Leary)

Peter Hart—the debate surrounding his work is not about whether there was a ‘false surrender’ at Kilmichael, or whether or not victims of the West Cork massacre spied against the IRA. It is about the substance and credibility of research produced by the Irish historical profession. (Sheilagh O’Leary)

The second of the two is what some call ‘public history’, produced for mass consumption. Public history is seen everywhere—in the media, newspapers, films, television documentaries and museums. Public history reaches general audiences and attempts to educate—and entertain—and promotes ideas of ‘national identity’ and ‘heritage’. Historians mostly agree that public history can be a good thing—and it can be lucrative too. Public histories popularise the past, but they are conditioned by the needs of the present. They may want to win votes for the government or loyalty for a cause, or just pay their way as commercial ventures. Public histories pander to the expectations of mass audiences, whereas historical research is more interested in the past for its own sake. And public histories cannot easily be held to account—television documentaries have no footnotes. But—and this is our significant problem—to produce something acceptable to the present, public histories are always tempted to simplify, even to distort, the past. When this happens, academics are heard growl: ‘It wasn’t like that’. And between the two histories that noise identifies a healthy friction. In historical research there is scant room for compromise, and doctoral supervisors, jealous colleagues and peer-reviewers live to keep distortions at bay. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the research historian and the public historian often coexist in the same scholar. Even so, they never quite see eye to eye. Jekyll has pretensions to be a scientist and is shackled to his evidence. Hyde is committed only to the story his audience demands or (as in the Irish example) the story he thinks it needs. Jekyll exists to check Hyde when Hyde says things that are mad.A problem arises in Irish history where the two histories become indistinguishable. This is not necessarily disastrous. But where public histories compromise historical method—where, for example, evidence is forced to fit some or other acceptable story—problems emerge. Then the complexity, contradictions and nuance associated with historical research are replaced by the simplicities, inaccuracies and distortions of an ‘ahistorical public history’. And this latter term describes Mr Hyde’s darker side.It is entirely possible to respect historical method and to be what Roy Foster calls a ‘leading historian’, with objectives for historical writing beyond just understanding the past. But by adopting ambitions such as defeating terrorism we risk becoming ‘misleading historians’—for example, where an expert like Richard English, eager to argue that IRA violence in 1920 was not ‘legitimated through popular mandate’, ignores local election results that qualify his interpretation, or where reading nationalist histories in 1960s Tralee is presented by Foster as a reason for a Kerryman’s participation in ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the ‘killing fields of East Tyrone’ during the 1970s. IRA Volunteer-turned-informer Seán O’Callaghan, Foster tells us, murdered ‘two Protestants before he was 20’. But one of O’Callaghan’s ‘Protestant’ victims was a Catholic member of the RUC (as O’Callaghan identifies in his autobiography—Foster’s source). These examples demonstrate how even our best historians encounter problems in categorising republican violence.

Roy Foster—in his 1986 essay ‘We are all revisionists now’, he lampooned ‘influential popular histories written by zealous converts [to separatist-nationalism] like Cecil Woodham Smith’ and ‘naively hilarious works of piety about the Young Irelanders, written by amateur historians on the British left . . . joined by the half-baked “sociologists” employed on profitable never-ending research into “anti-Irish racism”.’

Roy Foster—in his 1986 essay ‘We are all revisionists now’, he lampooned ‘influential popular histories written by zealous converts [to separatist-nationalism] like Cecil Woodham Smith’ and ‘naively hilarious works of piety about the Young Irelanders, written by amateur historians on the British left . . . joined by the half-baked “sociologists” employed on profitable never-ending research into “anti-Irish racism”.’

To explain why this might be, we have to go back to the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’ in 1969. At that time some intellectuals (Conor Cruise O’Brien, Desmond Williams and Brian Farrell, among others) said that histories overemphasising the achievements of revolutionary republicanism nourished the resurgent IRA. This was a powerful idea explaining the origins of the crisis (though, importantly, it wilfully neglected structural problems like inequalities inside Northern Ireland and partition), and it transformed the way history’s influence on the present was viewed by Irish intellectuals. If the ‘wrong’ history was the active ingredient causing the ‘Troubles’, some reasoned, the ‘right’ history might help to end them or stop them spreading. An antidote was found in what was understood as a dominant ‘Irish constitutional tradition’, and this became the organising principle (grand narrative, if you like) for the ‘constitutional historians’.The emergence of the constitutional historians was a symptom of a moral panic about the inspirational influence of separatist-nationalist narratives on terrorism. Book-reviewers pointed accusing fingers at writers who, they hinted, condoned the IRA. Evocative of earlier Irish scares about communism, what followed was a ‘green scare’. This concentrated inside the academy and RTÉ, and for two generations it maimed Irish intellectual life. Into this poisoned atmosphere, in November 1971, F.S.L. Lyons, Trinity man and Professor of History at the University of Kent, intervened. At UCD, Lyons delivered a scalding rebuke to the constitutional historians. Defending historical research, he called for the continued pursuit of objectivity and balance. Supporting this, he drew attention to an elemental problem well known to historians. Lyons said that those writing history for the needs of the present would select only evidence supporting their preferred cause. This described the present-centred ‘Whig’ history, which the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield described decades earlier. Where the constitutional historians adopted this approach, Lyons warned, they were doomed to write history as flawed as those who obsessed about physical force and ‘1916 and all that’. There was another problem. Lyons counted among the Irish historical community’s achievements its professionalisation, led by T.W. Moody and R. Dudley Edwards and the journal they jointly founded, Irish Historical Studies. Their ethos, Lyons said, led to ‘a much more rational and unhysterical approach to even the very recent past’. Rather than by hurling abuse, disagreements could be approached using historical method. Moody and Edwards’s innovation removed the crude political prejudices and religious bigotry that despoiled earlier Irish historiographies. Putting the study of Irish history on a more scientific footing, they helped to transcend labels like ‘Catholic history’, ‘Protestant history’, ‘unionist history’, etc. Lyons said that while the intentions of the constitutional historians were honourable, direct involvement in the Northern conflict would be dangerous for the profession. The historians split between purists who followed Lyons, and those who wished to apply their skills to help save lives. But while Lyons commanded influence (he returned to Trinity as provost in 1974), attempts to overtly politicise the profession were firmly locked out. For people who said, like O’Brien and Foster, that the hero-cults of 1916 led to the carnage in Northern Ireland, Lyons’s intractability was frustrating. But their argument was flawed. The hero-cults pre-dated the Troubles, and during the IRA’s border campaign (1956–62) they attracted little support, North or South. It was the collision of the radicalising 1960s with Northern Ireland’s structural inequalities that mobilised (and later paramilitarised) northern nationalism—not the memory of Pearse.

F.S.L. Lyons—in November 1971 he delivered a scalding rebuke to the constitutional historians. Defending historical research, he called for the continued pursuit of objectivity and balance. (RTÉ Stills Library)

F.S.L. Lyons—in November 1971 he delivered a scalding rebuke to the constitutional historians. Defending historical research, he called for the continued pursuit of objectivity and balance. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Lyons died in 1983, and there followed a sea change. Armed with the best ‘revisionist’ writing, a robust response was heard from aspiring and new professors where they addressed ‘green’ history. In his 1986 essay ‘We are all revisionists now’, Foster lampooned ‘influential popular histories written by zealous converts [to separatist-nationalism] like Cecil Woodham Smith’, and ‘naively hilarious works of piety about the Young Irelanders, written by amateur historians on the British left . . . joined by the half-baked “sociologists” employed on profitable never-ending research into “anti-Irish racism” [in Britain]’. Some of this undoubtedly deserved Foster’s riposte, but it marked an end to what Lyons called the ‘temper of sweet reasonableness’ inside the academy. In wartime, it was reasoned, liberal-academic niceties had to be sacrificed to counter-terrorism. And this offers a clue as to why some issues still generate heat even among cool professionals. Historian Bernard Lewis describes a school of history that aims to ‘amend, to restate, to replace, or even to recreate the past in a more satisfactory form’. But is it credible that historians in our universities would resort to this? In his 1996 book 1922: the birth of Irish democracy, Tom Garvin wrote (without citing sources) that in 1922 the IRA ‘decided to prevent an election taking place as long as an alleged threat of war was being made by the British’. This is noteworthy because Winston Churchill wrote to Michael Collins on 12 April 1922 that ‘a state of war with the British Empire hangs over the country’. It might be that Garvin did not know this, but Churchill published the letter in 1929 in Aftermath, volume four of his history of the Great War. Thereafter it and other references to a threatened reconquest resurfaced frequently in republican historiography. Garvin’s elision radically changes his trajectory. Once British threats are removed, it is possible to say that the June 1922 general ‘pact’ election was ‘free’ and therefore ‘democratic’. This adjustment makes it permissible to say of the civil war (1922–3) that it was fought between pro-state democrats and republican anti-democrats. This is the constitutional narrative again, but this time towing a ‘democratic narrative’ in its wake’. From 1983, the constitutional-democratic narrative was purposefully advanced by leading historians like Ronan Fanning, Michael Laffan, Dermot Keogh, Eunan O’Halpin and Richard English, among others. Normally, where it is topical or commercial enough, historical research produced in universities flows into the wider community via public history media. Since the mid-1980s something different has happened in Irish scholarship. As in blocked drains, ahistorical public histories washed back into historical research, where they stained the work of our best professionals and their students.  And this brings us to Hart again. Initially, Hart said that the West Cork massacre was what might be called ‘ethnic cleansing’. Making this claim more disconcerting was the suggestion that memories of the massacre were suppressed. This was a potent observation, because it tapped subconscious fears in southern society about the spectre of religious violence erupting in the Republic. And, indeed, Hart projected contemporary violence onto the earlier period: 1992 East Tyrone, as it were, became 1922 West Cork. Again, this described Butterfield’s Whig fallacy, and it is now equally apparent that Hart constructed his unambiguous narrative of sectarian massacre from some dubious evidence selections.It is not possible to detail the problems in Hart’s treatment that I describe in History, but two points suffice. Nowhere in his book does Hart establish the identities of the murderers in the sectarian massacre by name, domicile, occupation, age, religion or military affiliation, except to say that they belonged to isolated IRA units, which acted spontaneously (this is Hart’s speculation). And this raises a fundamental question for everyone: can we attribute motive to unknown persons? But there is an ambiguity among the unidentified killers: IRA Commandant Frank Busteed. In his 1992 (TCD) doctoral thesis Hart accepted that Busteed was involved in the massacre. But Busteed complicated Hart’s narrative, because Busteed was an atheist and the son of a Protestant father. In Hart’s massacre chapter in his doctoral thesis Busteed’s participation in the killings is relegated to a footnote. But when the doctoral thesis became a book, references to Busteed’s involvement were deleted. Nowhere did Hart explain why he dismissed evidence connecting Busteed to the massacre, and on this spurious methodology rested Hart’s claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’. There is another complicating factor. Sometime around 26 April 1922, Busteed came into contact with Hendy and the two other British intelligence officers near Macroom. According to Hart, Busteed was involved in their murder. But nowhere in his massacre chapter (thesis or book) does Hart discuss the possibility that events along the Bandon Valley were connected by Busteed to those around Macroom. Did the intelligence officers’ capture inform the violence against the Protestants? Confronted with the evidence, it is ahistorical to assume that it did not, but that is what Hart did in his book. It was this elision that allowed Hart to publish his unambiguous narrative of sectarian massacre. Historical method demands that all sources be accounted for, most particularly those contradicting any favoured interpretation. But ahistorical public historians acknowledge no such obligations. Challenged by information that spoils their stories, they may ignore or even hide the evidence. But how could ahistorical public histories become confused with historical research without anyone noticing?Ignoring evidence, historians can tell any ‘oul’ shhtory’, but these only go unnoticed where critical engagement is suspended. To work, this has to be a collaborative effort—a consensus exists or is enforced. Otherwise put, the evidence is like a big bowl of ‘alphabetti soup’ from which we only choose letters spelling the words we want—the rest we leave behind. If nobody notices, or notices and stays dumb, we are free to write what we please. Justifying this there is a ‘lesser evil’ argument. It says that society is better served by purposefully inaccurate histories adapted to its needs than by historical research chasing abstract truths that may actually harm us. This is Mr Hyde speaking again, but he’s tetchy now. Hyde knows that to have credibility his stories must be presented to the public between the covers of bona fide historical research. Exposing this deception makes Hyde very angry, because to defend himself he cannot appeal to superior evidence or any acceptable argument. So Hyde denounces his critics as ‘terrorist fellow-travellers’ or ‘ultranationalists’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’, because during the moral panic, fear of these labels guaranteed their silence.In the late 1990s Hart damaged the history from which the Provisionals supposedly drew support. If that was his motivation—I cannot know—it has likely hurt the historical profession more than the Provos. And look at where we have arrived. By taking the offensive against the IRA, Irish historians pursued a noble objective, but one far outside their discipline. Spurred by atrocities, historians understandably became angry and acted. But they allowed an external force to organise their internal business. It was the historians who let the Provisionals into our profession and, once inside, the terrorists dictated the agenda. Inside the academy, the Provisionals became the organising principle around which a pseudo-intellectual culture was hastily erected. Then the historians began speaking untruths, writing falsehoods and teaching these to their students, all the while slapping each other’s backs. And how the Provos laughed.This describes something depressing in Irish life, where the ability to think critically is easily crushed in academic as much as in economic life. It is a failing to which the old Provos prove resilient, as recent election results show. They rationally debate their history, base decisions on it and move forward. Could the rest of society do as much on the history some professionals peddle? Could the historians?Dr Jekyll may be a crashing bore, but he is less likely to become hysterical when, inevitably, the crisis arrives. And between Jekyll and Hyde, I know which one I would want to supervise my Ph.D, teach me historiography, and decide whether or not my research gets funded next year. This may seem harsh on poor old Hyde, who is a good sort. He didn’t create the situation of fear, but he did exploit it, rather successfully.  HI
John M. Regan lectures in history at the University of Dundee.

Further reading:

J.M. Regan, ‘Irish public histories as an historiographical problem’, Irish Historical Studies 37 (46) (Nov. 2010), 265–92.J.M. Regan, ‘The Bandon Valley Massacre as a historical problem’, History: the journal of the Royal Historical Society Vol. 97, No.1.F.S.L. Lyons, ‘The dilemma of the Irish contemporary historian’, Hermathena 115 (1973), 45–56.http://dundee.academia.edu/johnregan/Papers.

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