John Borgonovo’s review of Gerard Murphy’s The year of disappearances

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2(March/April 2011), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 19

Sir,—I was somewhat disappointed with John Borgonovo’s review of my book The year of disappearances (HI 19.1, Jan./Feb. 2011). I would have expected more in the line of constructive criticism rather than the dismissal that the book received. My book, he asserts, ‘cannot be presented as serious scholarship; it is a work in which speculation replaces sound historical methodology’. Borgonovo’s method of criticism is to quickly run through the various elements of the book while asserting that I produce no evidence to support any of them. In each instance he ignores the evidence that I do provide. It is not possible to go through all his assertions in a letter of this length so a few examples will have to suffice.


He states that Martin Corry is an unreliable witness who frequently exaggerated his War of Independence experiences and that I don’t question his credibility. Yet the first eight chapters of my book are spent in doing precisely that. Corry’s claims that a large number of people from the brigade prison at Knockraha were shot are substantiated by other members of the 1st Cork Brigade, including his own commanding officer, Michael Leahy. As for the actual number killed, Corry himself in his IRA pension application form claimed that his group executed 27 prisoners during the War of Independence. It is well known that IRA pension applications were vetted by having their claims authenticated by senior veterans of the conflict. It is fair to assume that if Corry claimed to have executed 27 people this number was agreed by his superiors in the Old IRA. Thirty-five might have been an exaggeration, 27 is not.

Another example of Borgonovo’s method is his statement that the only evidence I produce on the abduction of half a dozen Cork city merchants on St Patrick’s Day 1922 are three newspaper reports. In fact, this story was carried by no less than six newspapers and was even picked up by the Press Association and ran, off and on, in these newspapers for the next week—though the men are not named. It is also supported by the accounts of IRA veterans who pre-dated it to make it look as if it occurred a year earlier. John Borgonovo knows this as well as I do. After all, he wrote a whole book trying to prove that these men were killed in the spring of 1921, something he failed to prove. Based on Liam de Roiste’s diary entry of 23 March 1922, he then states that the men abducted on 17 March 1922 were in fact two local IRA officers arrested for joining the Civic Guard. It is true that two IRA men called Hallinan and Kelleher were arrested around that date after making a visit to Dublin to join the Civic Guard, but these were not the six ‘prominent citizens’ taken on St Patrick’s Day. (Kidnappings were almost a daily occurrence during those weeks.)

Borgonovo states that I could not uncover ‘more blatant anti-Masonic and anti-Protestant sentiments amid thousands of pages of O’Donoghue material’. I think the reasons for that are fairly obvious. Maybe he should spread his wings a bit and have another look at the correspondence emanating from the 1st Southern Division in the Mulcahy and indeed the Lankford papers. There’s plenty of anti-Masonic stuff in there. Besides, what was O’Donoghue doing ‘updating’ his lists of Freemasons as late as 1930 when he was no longer a member of the IRA? Borgonovo’s review is full of such examples of partial reporting of the evidence presented in my book. To rebut them all would require me writing the book all over again.

As I have said previously, my book is a book of evidence, not a book of conclusions. I work from the standpoint of scientific methodology. What evidence I have, I put out there on the basis that it is falsifiable. My hope is to provide stimulus to others to further investigate the subject as new information becomes available. I was surprised at the tenor of John Borgonovo’s review, considering that my work augments his own and explains a lot of the puzzling ambiguities that his data, based largely on the accounts of Old IRA veterans, throw up. Suggesting that this is not a work of serious scholarship when I use considerably more sources than he does is not just being disingenuous, it is also plain wrong.—Yours etc.,


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