Dr Regan and Mr Snide

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

John M. Regan, editor Tommy Graham and David Fitzpatrick at the History Ireland Hedge School in the National Library, Dublin, on 11 January 2012. (National Library of Ireland; Lar Boland)

John M. Regan, editor Tommy Graham and David Fitzpatrick at the History Ireland Hedge School in the National Library, Dublin, on 11 January 2012. (National Library of Ireland; Lar Boland)

Sir,—Do most academic historians of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Ireland conform to a ‘constitutional narrative’, driven by a moral imperative to subvert republican interpretations of Irish history? Has their shared political agenda led to widespread and deliberate distortion, suppression, ‘elision’ and even falsification of the evidential record? Have they repeatedly abused their academic positions by indulging in tendentious ‘public history’ under the cloak of scholarship? Is it high time to confront and root out ‘the insidious influence of Irish public histories presented as objective historical evidence’? Have negligent or manipulative supervisors and examiners of youthful ‘revisionists’ colluded with doctoral students in perpetrating such historical malpractices? Is it the duty of supervisors to interfere with the manner in which students collect, select, interpret and present evidence? Does ‘the credibility of the historical profession’ in Ireland demand ‘urgent attention’ to the failure of one particular supervisor, and one particular examiner, to ‘uphold disciplinary standards’ in the case of one particular student? Should those responsible be publicly excoriated? In the view of John M. Regan, presented in a series of articles including in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of History Ireland (‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: the two histories’, pp 10–13), the answer in all cases is an emphatic ‘yes’, expressed (so he would have us believe) more in sorrow than in anger.Since the prime examples of malpractice alleged by Regan relate to my lamented former student Peter Hart, who, being dead, cannot answer for himself, I am placed in the awkward position of either defending the detail of another historian’s work, distancing myself from his findings or remaining silent. Though continued silence might be the most dignified response, the manner in which Regan’s critique has been personalised and publicised renders it necessary to offer a defence, not so much of Hart’s findings on revolutionary Cork as of academic freedom. After a recent presentation by Regan at Trinity College, Dublin, a journalist approached the college administration to ask whether consideration was being given to posthumously stripping Hart of his doctorate on the grounds of ‘academic fraud’. During the discussion, Regan had indeed described Hart’s treatment of sectarianism as ‘propaganda, and I’m also describing it I think quite fairly as academic fraud’. Under questioning, he added: ‘I’m saying consciously he constructed a narrative, a reductive narrative, of Roman Catholics murdering Protestants when the evidence didn’t support that conclusion. As a liberal academic, I find that deeply offensive.’ Alas, the spirit in which these attacks have been conducted is anything but ‘liberal’ in its manner, content or inspiration. Such suggestions and innuendoes have long been circulated by bloggers and republican apologists, with the result that the popular reputation of Hart and other historians may have been corroded. The enlistment in this unseemly chorus of Regan’s voice (judicious, donnish, suave, plausible) adds credibility to points hitherto dismissible, for the most part, as the fantasies of cranks. I owe it to Hart’s memory, and to the achievement of several generations of authentic scholars, to speak out.Did my own generation of scholars, loosely referring to those (intellectually) active during the northern ‘Troubles’, share an anti-republican political agenda? I imagine that most of us had a strong distaste for both ‘republican’ and ‘loyalist’ gunmen and their political apologists, and that some of us did (as Regan maintains) feel a moral obligation to draw lessons of contemporary relevance from revolutionary history. On occasion, we drew these lessons before non-academic audiences as an exercise in ‘public history’, hypocritically deplored by Regan but widely regarded as a civic duty for near-contemporary historians in a country, like Ireland, saturated with history and pseudo-histories. Yet there is no justification for inferring that distaste for ‘terrorists’ led to the endemic distortion or falsification of history, in either its scholarly or its public aspects. Drawing contemporary lessons from the scholarly study of revolutionary history might take many forms: exposing politically driven falsification of the past; unpicking fraudulent attempts by contemporary ‘republicans’ or ‘loyalists’ to assert continuity with less tainted predecessors; or (on the contrary) exposing ugly suppressed episodes in the revolution with affinities to the sectarian atrocities contaminating most parties in the northern conflict. Historians differed. All of these approaches were legitimate, if adopted with due regard for alternative models and relevant evidence. None, however, were paramount as inspirations for my own research or that of kindred spirits such as Hart. The excitement we derived from Irish revolutionary history came, above all, from discovering something new, forgotten or concealed, consuming and digesting all the evidence we could unearth, and trying to devise provocatively novel interpretations. We were not paradigm-primed political pawns or plotters but ‘revisionists’ in the benign sense of that much-abused term.Regan’s critique of Hart’s studies of revolutionary Cork focuses on his lucid, occasionally lurid exposure of sectarian elements in the republican campaign, especially in the ‘Bandon Valley massacre’ of a dozen or so civilian Protestants in April 1922. In a characteristic passage, Hart concluded: ‘Behind the killings lay a jumble of individual histories and possible motives. In the end, however, the fact of the victims’ religion is inescapable. These men were shot because they were Protestant.’ As Regan observes in the journal History, Hart was inclined ‘not only to exaggerate, but also to simplify’—usually, in my view, when reducing complex arguments to sound-bites. Unfortunately, Regan neglects the complexity of Hart’s argument in his eagerness to denounce this or that pithy phrase. For Hart, the Dunmanway ‘massacre’ was a relatively rare eruption of endemic sectarian antipathy into lethal violence. He accepted that the unnamed perpetrators were probably influenced by a medley of suppositions, mistaken or otherwise, about their targets. They may well have believed that they were shooting informers, members of a loyalist murder-gang or land-grabbers. Yet, according to Hart, the fury aroused by the shooting of an IRA raider (Michael O’Neill) by ex-Captain Herbert Woods inspired a flurry of probably uncoordinated sectarian attacks, which momentarily exposed the embedded belief that Protestants as a community were outsiders and interlopers, collectively implicated in a covert campaign against the Irish nation. Nowhere did Hart claim that most republican violence was directed against Protestants, that sectarianism was the dominant strand in republican mentality or that other groups identified as suspect ‘outsiders’ (such as tramps, sexual deviants and ex-servicemen, often Catholics) fared any better.By alleging that Hart had ignored the possibility that the victims were either informers or believed to be informers, Regan prepared the ground for a seemingly devastating exposure of Hart’s alleged suppression or ‘elision’ of evidence. In particular, Hart drew no direct connection between the massacre of Protestants and the almost simultaneous abduction, presumed interrogation and shooting of three British military intelligence officers (along with their dog and driver) near Macroom. In addition, he failed to discuss the probable involvement in both episodes of Frank Busteed, reputedly the product of a mixed marriage who therefore would not (in Regan’s perhaps naive view) have entertained hostile feelings towards his late father’s co-religionists. Though nothing is reliably known as to what information about informers, if any, emerged from this episode, Regan holds Hart culpable for failing to speculate about a possible link between killing Protestant civilians and the presumed failure of interrogators to establish the identity of spies who had infiltrated local IRA units.The accusation is strictly irrelevant, since Hart had in fact written at length about local suspicions that several of the victims were ‘informers’ or ‘friends of the police’. Furthermore, his account of the genesis of the murders is far more persuasive than Regan’s convoluted alternative. Hart drew a strong circumstantial connection between the killing of Michael O’Neill and the massacre initiated on the following evening. This inference seems distinctly more robust than the tissue of ingenious but fact-free speculations that Regan offers as a credible alternative narrative. Though accounts differ as to how the intelligence officers were killed, Regan’s version is emphatically contradicted by Busteed himself, as sensationalised by Seán O’Callaghan in Execution (1974). The intelligence officers were probably ‘on a spree rather than on official business’; they were shot almost instantaneously, allowing no opportunity for interrogation; and the senior officer was targeted out of revenge for the killing of Busteed’s mother, not to extort information. As for Hart’s decision not to name Busteed and other reputed perpetrators of the massacre, I see no reason to doubt his own explanation: ‘I have not included the names cited by [Kevin] Myers or my own informants as some of this information is contradictory and the identifications are second-hand and unproven. The identity of these killers remains a hugely sensitive topic in West Cork.’ The fact that names included in Hart’s thesis were dropped from the book does not betoken suppression of relevant facts but enhanced prudence and rigour in the use of evidence.The manner in which Regan has chastised not only Hart but also ‘the academy’ in general raises a serious ethical problem. The issue of decorum relates not merely to Regan’s phraseology but to accusations of bad faith and innuendoes which in some cases may be libellous as well as false. In his own recent excursion into unfootnoted public history in History Ireland, Regan playfully depicts his fellow historians as paranoid schizophrenics whose benign, scholarly persona as Dr Jekyll masks their manipulative, mendacious persona as Mr Hyde. Regan ridicules Hyde the revisionist for denouncing his critics as ‘conspiracy theorists’; yet he too smells a conspiracy behind the revisionists’ suppression of relevant evidence: ‘To work, this has to be a collaborative effort—a consensus exists or is enforced’. Since Irish academic historians are a notoriously disputatious lot, including many iconoclastic foreigners, the only agency capable of achieving unanimity would have been enforcement. As Regan explained to his perplexed audience at Trinity College: ‘This kind of research is the product of a particular culture and the decision that was taken in the mid-1980s by several historians to write a particular narrative of the past, which was ideologically motivated.’For the conspiracy theorist, enforcement must have been carried out by a dominant clique, implicitly exercising iron discipline over the manufacture, supervision and examination of theses, the publication, assessment and reviewing of historical works, the organisation and funding of conferences and research grants, the membership of appointment panels and the marginalisation of dissident historians. Let me reassure fearful readers of History Ireland that it didn’t work! Nor, so far as I am aware, was it ever attempted. Tossing back another draught of elixir, Regan mocks ‘the academy’ for allowing republicans to dictate their ‘agenda’: ‘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.’ There is an unsettling element in Regan’s polemic, which should not be allowed to further poison debate on Ireland’s revolution. Sly hints, defamatory innuendoes and paranoid fantasies have no place in ‘liberal’ discourse.—Yours etc.,DAVID FITZPATRICKProfessor of Modern HistoryTrinity College, Dublin.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568