Gerard Murphy’s The year of disappearances

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2011), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 19

Sir,—Gill & Macmillan have published a second edition of Gerard Murphy’s The year of disappearances ten months after publication of the first. It alleged systematic IRA sectarianism toward Protestants in Cork during and after the War of Independence. Initial positive commentary from Independent Newspapers columnists was replaced by heavy criticism in seven consecutive academic reviews. Murphy took exception, including to John Borgonovo’s HI review and to local historian Jim Fitzgerald’s objections (HI Jan./Feb., Mar./Apr., May/June, July/Aug. 2011).Murphy’s preface to the second edition concedes, however, that the first contained ‘errors’. With one exception and despite acknowledging the ‘collaborative’ nature of historical research, he does not indicate what errors were made, where corrections and amendments have resulted, or who pointed out his mistakes. Unfortunately, attempted rectification has deepened first-edition incoherence, in which mistakes are compounded. Two examples suffice to illustrate the point.In the first edition Murphy claimed that IRA veteran Connie Neenan referred to the deaths of three Protestant teenagers in an interview recorded in the Ernie O’Malley notebooks (UCD Archives, P17b/112, p. 126). Murphy cited Neenan as stating, ‘Three were friends, they confessed to their trackings, and they were killed’. This was so central to Murphy’s thesis relating to alleged IRA targeting and killing of Protestants that he referred to it at least fifteen times. However, Murphy’s transcription was inaccurate. The O’Malley notebook sentence reads, ‘Both kids confessed their trackings, and they were killed’. When the reliability of his transcription was questioned, Murphy told Sunday Tribune journalist John Downes, ‘I stand over everything in the book and completely reject the suggestion that it is based on a questionable interpretation of documents . . . my transcription of this [sentence] is the correct one’. Furthermore, he asserted, ‘a blind man’ could see this.Gill & Macmillan were subsequently presented with a copy of the document and an accurate transcription. In his second edition, Murphy silently corrected himself. However, Murphy continues to insist that Neenan referred to the killing of ‘three Protestant boys’ in his O‘Malley interview (second edn, pp 173, 303, 304). Murphy claims that this trio were executed together after the Truce of 11 July 1921 and that ‘this may have set in motion a whole witch hunt fuelled by suspicion and paranoia which led to dozens of deaths’.Aside from Murphy’s continuing failure to name these and other allegedly dead Protestants, nowhere in the interview did Neenan refer to three Protestants being executed together by the IRA. Instead, Neenan (whose use of language reflected having lived in the USA) referred to the killing of two unnamed ‘kids’ of unspecified religion, which he linked to an alleged British spy ring connected with the YMCA. One of these was a fifteen-year-old who, according to Neenan, was killed ‘15 months after the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain’—i.e. June 1921, not after the Truce. The identity of the second ‘kid’ and the date he was killed are unknown.Neenan later referred to two ‘kids’ who were suspected of spying and killed by the IRA in separate incidents. One was John Begley, a Catholic ex-soldier killed in July 1921, whom Neenan described as ‘a young kid, a nondescript type’. Neenan stated definitively that the other unnamed ‘kid’ was a Catholic who was exposed by IRA intelligence officer Seán Culhane. Therefore there is no possibility whatsoever that Neenan referred to the killing of three Protestant teenagers anywhere in his interview with O’Malley. Lamentably, Murphy continues to attribute to Neenan’s O’Malley notebooks interview statements Neenan did not make.In a second example, an Irish Times letter (18 January 2011) informed Murphy that he had misinterpreted an article in the London Times. Murphy suggested that it was ‘an eyewitness account of the abduction of a teenager, the only one we have’, that occurred soon before publication on 18 May 1921 (both editions, p. 110). The article merely stated: ‘somebody’s child, it appeared, had been kidnapped by a mysterious individual in a motor car’. From this Murphy speculatively but typically (on no evidence) suggested that the culprit was IRA spy Josephine O’Donoghue, wife of the IRA’s head of intelligence. Significantly, Murphy was unaware that the Times article, one of five giving ‘An English Officer’s Impressions’, was published (in 1922) as A journey in Ireland 1921 by Wilfrid Ewart (republished in UCD Press’s ‘Classics in Irish History’ series in 2009 and featured in Bookworm, HI Sept./Oct. 2009—Ed.). Ewart reported being in Cork City from 23 to 25 April (pp 25, 54) and commented on an ‘abduction’ at that time, which he did not ‘eyewitness’ as he arrived afterwards. Yet in the second edition Murphy asserts that it took place on 12 May (p. 306). One related ‘disappearance’ has disappeared from Murphy’s narrative. In the first edition Edward Kenny ‘disappeared’ nearby on 22 April and ‘was executed’ by the IRA (Murphy’s emphasis, p. 155). However, an indexed first-edition discussion of Kenny on seven pages was deleted, replaced by an un-indexed endnote admitting confusion (p. 370, n. 20). Additionally, another new note implies disingenuously that Murphy reveals Ewart’s name and book (which does not appear in the Bibliography, p. 389, n. 3).As evidence, Murphy’s speculations are valueless. These examples, two of many, raise serious questions about Murphy’s ability to accurately transcribe and interpret historical material. It also poses the question of whether either edition of Murphy’s book should be treated seriously as a work of history. It calls into question the judgement of Gill & Macmillan’s academic referee, who recommended publication. On a more general level, Gerard Murphy’s book illustrates the collapse in standards attendant upon support within the academy for the ‘IRA sectarianism’ thesis. Its proponents have reduced the War of Independence period to an exercise in propaganda.—Yours etc.,NIALL MEEHANGriffith CollegeDublin 8

PÁDRAIG ÓG Ó RUAIRCUniversity of Limerick

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