‘A Hard Local War: the British Army and the guerilla war in Cork, 1919-1921.’

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

Sir,—May I add afew words to W.H. Kautt’s review of William Sheehan’s A Hard Local War: the British Army and the guerilla war in Cork,1919-1921 (HI 19.4, July/August2011)? Sheehan refers to a book of mine, TheOrigins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland, 1920, and claimsthat I make ‘sweeping claims’ such as ‘the British Army was inspired by racistsentiments, and that the IRA, while attacking loyalists, did not engage insectarian activities’. In fact, this quotation is taken from an appendixto the book entitled, ‘Peter Hart and the Issue of Sources’. By failing tomention that context and by omitting part of my sentence, Sheehan has distortedmy conclusion to the article.
The focus of my article in regard to Peter Hart, nowsadly dead before his time, concerned his treatment of the document ‘A Recordof the Rebellion in Ireland in 1920-1921’ (Imperial War Museum, London). Itstated that ‘in the south the Protestants and those who supported theGovernment rarely gave much information because, except by chance, they had notgot it to give’. Hart had cited the reference to show that Protestants didnot have sufficient knowledge to act as informers and that, therefore, theywere killed for sectarian reasons. I pointed out that Peter Hart had omittedthe next sentence from the ‘Record’, which read: ‘an exception to this rule wasin the Bandon area where there were many Protestant farmers who gave muchinformation’. In short, the ‘Record’ did not sustain Hart’s thesis—quitethe contrary.
The article, as re-published inthe appendix, also raised questions over Peter Hart’s editing of the ‘Record’when publishing it, with David Fitzpatrick, as part of ‘British Intelligence inIreland, 1920-1921. The Final Reports’ (2002). In his introduction, Hartreferred to the ‘Record’ as ‘the most trustworthy source’ that we have. Iobserved that he gave no adequate explanation for the omission of the criticalsentence, mentioned above, regarding Protestant informers in the Bandon area.Moreover, although an editorial note alerted readers to the fact that some ofthe ‘Record’ had been omitted, it concealed the fact that a section on ‘ThePeople’ was also omitted. This section contained valuable information on theattitude of the British Army to the Irish people. For example, it stated that

 

‘…practically all commanders and intelligence officers considered that90% of the people were Sinn Féiners or sympathisers with Sinn Féin, and thatall Sinn Féiners were murderers or sympathised with murder. Judged by Englishstandards the Irish are a difficult and unsatisfactory people…many were of adegenerate type and their methods of waging war were in most cases barbarous,influenced by hatred and devoid of courage.’

 

Again I askedwhy had Peter Hart and David Fitzpatrick, the series editor, not made it clearthat this section had been omitted. It clearly showed that most of the officersin the army viewed the Irish in racist terms but, while reviling them on manycounts, it did not accuse them of sectarianism. Presumably, they would havedone so, if that had been the case.
My article ended with thesewords: ‘it seems safe to conclude, from the evidence of “the most trustworthysource” (Peter Hart’s words) that we have that the British army was inspired byracist sentiments and that the IRA, while attacking loyalists, did not engagein sectarian activities’. In short, my conclusion, although general in itsfindings, was based precisely on the evidence of ‘The Record of the Rebellionin Ireland’. Other evidence may tell a different story but this is thestory from ‘the most trustworthy source’. Many questions arise over Sheehan’suse of sources: for example, does he find it acceptable that Peter Hart shouldomit the sections of the ‘Record’ that do not accord with his sectarian thesis?The answer, regrettably, appears to be, yes! He praises Hart’s work for ‘a morenuanced understanding of the complex nature of the Irish revolution’ and his’particular attention to the subliminal sectarianism within the conflict’. Inconclusion, I would suggest that these observations confirm the critical opinonof your reviewer that ‘Sheehan seems to accept British sources uncritically andwithout justification’.—Yours etc.,

BRIAN MURPHY OSB
Glenstal Abbey

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