Peter Hart and his enemies

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13


—As a reader of History Ireland for a number of years I havefollowed with great interest the debate involving Peter Hart over thelast few issues. I would like to comment on his response to theprevious critical letters, and mainly view it from a historiographicalpoint of view rather than from that of a person who specialises in thehistory of the early IRA and the struggle for Irish independence. Thisview follows modern historiographical approaches invented by the Germanhistorian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), whose methodical principles ofarchival research and source criticism became commonplace in academicinstitutions.
First, I take issue with the argumentative manner in which Peter Hartapproaches his response. In comparison to his original interview andthe three critical letters, his language is emotional and aggressive. Idon’t believe that comments like ‘I don’t think any of theletter-writing critics […] deal with the evidence in a rational way’,‘those brave boys couldn’t possibly do wrong’, ‘Ryan is right to besceptical as a rule, but scepticism combined with ignorance andprejudice is a poor form of analysis’, and ‘Oh, but Ryan has an excusefor every death—her book is a catalogue of justifications for killing’,to quote just some, are proper for a public debate. One of the rules Ilearned as a student was to treat other historians with respect, nevermind if they are right or wrong. I don’t believe that Hart is able toconvince his ‘enemies’ by denouncing them; he has to argue with them,based on historical evidence and understanding of that time.
Second, Hart cannot compare 1920s conflicts with the Americans in Iraq.These are two completely different matters. In the case of Ireland itwas a guerilla war to defeat the centuries of British rule; in theirbattle against a superpower everything was allowed, and ambushes suchas Kilmichael were normal warfare tactics to demoralise the British.The Americans, on the other hand, invaded Iraq, and soldiers of theinvading superpower, not the Iraqis, do the shooting described by Hart,a completely different situation.
This brings me to the point that Hart does not accept the IRA as anarmy. Well, from today’s point of view it is not, but how was it inthose times? Did the politicians not need the IRA because they realisedthat talking would lead them nowhere and action was necessary at thesame time? So the IRA acted as an army for a non-existent independentstate in order to fight the British army, and the IRA was well acceptedat that time. Of course it was also feared, and the people did notapprove of everything. But Hart should look more closely at Ranke, whosaid, ‘one has to extinguish themselves to let the documents speak’,and try to understand events in their own time, not to judge them fromtoday’s view.
Before moving to my last point I would like to comment on the following quote:

‘Bravery, idealism and self-sacrifice are far from unique, andfoolishly over-rated anyway. These words can also be applied to manyunionists, loyalists, home rulers, conscientious objectors, fascists,Nazis, communists, imperialists, terrorists, religious fanatics,soldiers of innumerable armies doing no end of horrifying things.’

I absolutely disagree with Hart. A conscientious objector does not do‘horrifying things’; that is why a person does not join the militaryservice. As an objector myself, who joined the ‘civil service’ in aGerman hospital—and I believe that was not foolish at all—I rejectbeing placed on the same level as the Nazis, especially when my ownfamily members were imprisoned in concentration camps and some of themlost their lives. But that is a personal perspective.
My last point concerns documents and witnesses. Source criticism wasinvented by Ranke as an academic rule and I trust that Ryan has goodreasons to question a number of documents. Hart has to understand,according to Ranke’s criteria, that when researching a period he mustunderstand what happened at that time, the thoughts, motives andactions. When researching, for example, Kilmichael it is not only thebattle itself he has to examine, but also what happened before. Ibelieve that both Hart and Ryan have done their homework and theirmaterials will provide a major source for future research, but I feelthat Ryan seems to have a surer touch of what was going on at thattime. What about witnesses? A person who was there does not always needto tell the truth. This I know from my own research in Germany on theThird Reich, about which we know that until today many Germans lied orhid the truth. From a conference in Derry I learned that the recenttrial on Bloody Sunday brought lots of witnesses to the stand, butuntil today we don’t know who shot first. So I pose the question toHart: what is truth? I guess he will not claim hundreds of witnesses ofDerry as being liars, will he? Most people, asked some 70 or 80 yearsafter an event, usually forget things, colour them or add to them. And,of course, they may consciously change their memories according tocontemporary political taste.
From the debate I got the feeling that the main battle between Hart andRyan concerns the two interviewees whose names Hart refuses to give.May I suggest a solution? How about Hart erasing names and all personalnotes of the interviewees and giving a typescript of the interview,questions and answers, to Ryan and all other interested Irish scholars?They would then have the chance to check the details. Ryan is correctto note that she feels critical about these interviews because ofabsent or questionable references: if I had done that as anundergraduate student, I would have failed everything. History is asubject that is based on facts, and cannot be compared to journalism atall.
Viewing the debate as a whole, I believe that the last contribution byHart became very emotional in comparison to the letter-writers. I alsothink that from Hart’s perspective it is a personal battle between himand Ryan. Referring to Manus O’Riordan’s letter, I certainly believethat it is ‘high time for him to engage in a public debate’. I wouldlike to conclude that debates are there to contribute to a discussion,not to deepen contradictions, and it is open discussion and engagingwith and accepting other views that will contribute to the furtherdevelopment of history.

—Yours etc.,
NUI Maynooth

A chara,

—I would like to comment on Peter Hart’s reply (HI 13.4,July/August 2005) to various writers who challenged his views on theambush at Kilmichael, Co. Cork, in November 1920. Referring to theambush, Hart says, ‘I did not base my reconstruction of the events of28 November 1920 on Barry’s report. Instead, I relied on IRA witnessesinterviewed by myself and others’. The question must be asked, who werethe IRA witnesses that Peter Hart claimed to have interviewed? Thosewho participated in the ambush at Kilmichael, with one exception, werenot alive on the dates of the alleged interviews. In addition, who arethe people classified as ‘others’ that Hart relied on for informationregarding the ambush? In the interests of justice and fairness, I againcall on Peter Hart to name his sources for the information he claims tohave received. Hart also states, ‘I only wrote what I did becausemembers of the IRA who participated in the ambush said what they did’.People can draw their own conclusions when it transpires that Hart didnot interview participants of the Kilmichael ambush. Hart raises anumber of red herrings to divert attention away from his concoctedaccount of the ambush: for example, he refers to the war in Iraq, that‘the IRA were not soldiers’, that ‘what was happening in Ireland wasn’ta war’, that ‘Barry was no more than a minor character in therevolution’.
The game is up, Peter! You have done your utmost to denigrate anddishonour genuine Irish freedom fighters, many of whom sacrificed theirlives in trying to rid this country of an aggressive occupying power.Do the honourable thing now and admit that Tom Barry and his comradeshad legitimate reasons for using physical force to drive out theinvader.

—Is mise,
Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemoration Committee


Sir,—The very least that can be said of ‘Peter Hart and hisenemies’ (HI 13.4, July/August 2005) is that it is riddled withevasions. Subheaded ‘Peter Hart responds to his critics’, he concludes hisfour-page treatise with the lame excuse that he has ‘not been able to tackleevery issue the letter writers brought up’. That he purports to be making somesort of a reply to me is left in no doubt when he insists that it is all threeof ‘the letter-writing critics’ of the previous issue whom he is accusing of failingto ‘deal with the evidence in a rational way’. While his ‘enemies’ Niall Meehanand Meda Ryan are indeed named if not answered, his granting of unasked-foranonymity to myself evokes a variation of the Edward Carson-Oscar Wildeexchange, but this time concerning the enmity that dares not speak its name.

Readers can judge forthemselves if I am being irrational or mad in highlighting the fact that Hartpersists in evading a quite reasonable question as to why he excised keysentences from his presentation of a document whose apparent authenticity wouldhave been demonstrably undermined by their inclusion. But for this unnamedcritic the issue moves beyond the realm of mere evasion with Hart’snot-just-mad-but-bad charge that most of his Kilmichael critics practice an IRAfaith that ‘if they killed someone, it had to have been justified, even if thevictims were unarmed, sick and elderly; even if they had surrendered’.

Apartfrom my own militant anti-IRA activities at the height of the violence of the1970s and 1980s in such campaigns as Socialists Against Nationalism, Peter Hartknows full well that in my Irish Literary Supplement review offall 2004 I had quite pointedly drawn specific attention to what I described as‘the mindless murder of Admiral Somerville in 1936, for which Barry must beheld responsible’. But it is quite another matter for Hart to paint Barry asthe war criminal of Kilmichael when, yet again, he falsely accuses him ofmurdering British auxiliaries who ‘had surrendered’. While he has now beenforced by Ryan’s meticulous research to retreat from his previous claim thatBarry had not even bothered to allude to a ‘false surrender’ in writing his1932 article, Hart still insists on the authenticity of the 1920 ‘Barry report’that he so proudly ‘unearthed’. He sums up my challenge to its authenticitywith the caricature that I am arguing that ‘it conflicts with Barry’s lateraccounts so that it must be a forgery!’. On the contrary, my challenge to Hartwas to point out that he had chosen to omit from his own reproduction of that‘report’ those sentences that immediately demonstrated its bogus character, theclaim that ‘P. Deasy’ had been killed outright at Kilmichael. For it is notonly Barry’s own accounts, but also every other single account accepted by Harthimself, that clearly establish a radically different fact, that Pat Deasy diedof his wounds six hours later and half a mile away at Gortroe.

Amongthose accounts was that of the youth’s own brother, the third West CorkBrigade’s adjutant and later commander, Liam Deasy. (The unknown author of the1920 ‘report’, while being unsure as to whether ‘P’ was Peter, Paul or Paddy,at least recognised the importance of name-dropping ‘Deasy’). The Barry/Deasycontroversy of 1973-74 is, of course, invoked by Hart in order to point outthat Deasy’s memoir had made no mention of Barry’s ‘false surrender’ claim. Butneither does it support Hart’s counter-claim that ‘they had surrendered’ forreal. More significantly, Hart chooses to ignore everything that Deasy says tocontradict the latest twist in pursuit of his obsessive desire to ‘finish off’his quarry, his contention that ‘Barry was no more than a minor character inthe revolution’.

Deasy explained howvitally important it had been to take account of the rapidly-changing patternof the War of Independence in mid-1920, and to move from battalion fightingcolumns towards the formation of a brigade flying column, with Barry as itstraining officer. Deasy sums up his assessment of Barry as follows:


‘His subsequent distinguished service inthe national cause became an inspiration, and as a guerrilla fighter his namebecame a household word throughout the country…He had proved himself an idealcolumn commander…He was a strict disciplinarian and a good strategist, but hewas something greater still: he was a leader of unsurpassed bravery, who was inthe thick of every fight and so oblivious of personal risk that his men felt itan honour to be able to follow him.’


Hart, however, would have us believe that Barry ‘contributedlittle to the development of the IRA’ and that ‘with him involved, the WestCork IRA was not any more active or successful then the other two Corkbrigades’. No such begrudgery possessed Sean Moylan of the North Cork brigade whenhis memoir recalled how keenly he had anticipated their own first meeting inApril 1921: ‘I had heard so much of Tom Barry and of his high reputation as aleader of troops in action that I was anxious to see him…A few weeks beforehe had had at Crossbarry a great success against the British’. So much for the‘minor character’! Yours etc.,


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Sir,—Peter Hart’s four-page defenceof his position contains a lecture on historical authenticity (HI 13.4, July/August2005). Hart omitted an important element, possibly because he did not glance inthe mirror during composition. It concerns credibility. Before I explain thisobservation, I would like to make two points:

a)    Hart’s use of my name inline one of his defence-cum-personal-manifesto is a prelude to ignoring thequestion I asked him in the May/June issue of HI. In four pages of text Hart has‘not beenable to tackle every issue’. He ‘tackles’ few if any. That is because heclutters his message with snide remarks about Meda Ryan and irrelevant asidesthat traverse world trouble spots.

b)   This debate is not onlyabout the false surrender at Kilmichael. It also involves Hart’scharacterisation of the Bandon-Dunmanway killings of loyalists in April 1922 asan ‘IRA massacre’ of randomly targeted Protestants.

Serious questions emerge fromanalysis of Peter Hart’s presentation of evidence. The most important are:

1      Why did Peter Hart censor part of the so-called ‘rebel commander’sreport’of the Kilmichael ambush? He omitted a detail known to a participant inthe ambush but possibly unknown to a possible forger—when and where Pat Deasyand two other IRA volunteers died. The ‘report’ has it the wrong way round andmisreports Deasy’s demise. Manus O’Riordan asked this question. Answer: none.

2      How is it possible for Peter Hart to interview, whether anonymously orotherwise, a former participant in the ambush six days after records indicatethat the last known participant died on November 13 1989? Meda Ryan raised thispoint. Answer: none.

3      Why did Peter Hart censor the concluding part of a cited paragraph in‘the most trustworthy source we have’, The Record of the Rebellion. It contradicteddirectly the preceding section used by Hart to make a case for sectariankillings in Bandon-Dunmanway. I asked this question, well actually Brian Murphyasked it in 1998 and has been re-phrasing to the point of seeming futility eversince. Answer: none. Not even Brendan Ó Cathaóir’s observation that Hart is‘disingenuous’ on the point  (IrishTimesreview, 28 January 2003, of Hart’s editorship of The Record) has bestirred Hartfrom his reluctance to engage.

4      Why did Peter Hart omit (and fail to reveal the fact that it wasomitted) a significant section on The People from his edition of The Recordof the Rebellion, which illustrated the British Army’s racist view of the Irish people?This is a relatively new question from Brian Murphy that now joins the queue ofunanswered questions.

I will apply Peter’s principles ofauthentication and point scoring: ‘apply the same standards to all theevidence’ that Peter Hart presents; ‘scrutinise or test’ his account; ask ‘inwhose interests’ is the evasive and patronising fog that is Peter Hart’s reply;and lastly, look for ‘precedents and patterns’ in relation to the inability topresent evidence ethically and to respond to questions put.

Peter Hart says he hasno ‘political affiliation’. That is undermined by his censorship of evidenceand shows a bias in one direction. Hart’s facile treatise on violence is acamouflage for support for a status quo that between 1918-21 in Ireland ignoredthe ‘people power’ that elected Sinn Féin to power, a status quo that attemptedto suppress with violence and coercion the democratic will of the Irish people.Hart failed to depict the British government’s sectarian policy, whichcynically attempted to foist a sectarian image on Britain’s opponents. Far frombeing a supporter of ‘people power’, Peter Hart has denied the legitimacy ofthe overwhelming electoral and popular support for the setting up of DáilÉireann in 1919. Peter Hart attempts through historiography a policy thatfailed historically. Where facts don’t fit, censored presentation of evidencesuffices.

Hart has showninconsistency in response to new evidence. In Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies (1998) Tom Barry wasalleged to have invented the false surrender story in 1949 and, significantly,of failing to mention it in a 1932 account. Meda Ryan brought forward new (yes‘new’) evidence on this point, showing Hart to be mistaken. He dismisses her ina patronising comment. Similar treatment is accorded to Meda Ryan’s discoveryof a document naming those killed in 1922 as being active informers. Hartrefuses to address the substance and instead accuses Meda Ryan of ‘having anexcuse for every death. Her book is a catalogue of excuses for killing.’

Hart is the firstcommentator on Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (2003) to note thisfailing. No reviewer (including in History Ireland or the Irish Times) spotted Ryan’s allegedevidential irrationality or her ‘ignorance and prejudice’. Only the person Ryancriticises uses such offensive language. In whose interest does he make theseobservations? Before criticising Peter Hart Meda Ryan was, according to him, agood historian, but suffered a precipitous decline in quality after that point.How credible is that?

I put it in terms thatPeter Hart understands and indeed expects from his critics; I have little faithin his capacity for objectivity. I repeat, Peter Hart has not debated thecentral questions; he has avoided and evaded them. Peter Hart does not answerquestions that in usual circumstances a historian would and could answerclearly and with alacrity.

I suggest that readersrefer to audio of Brian Murphy’s talk on Indymedia (summarised on pp.7-8 of HI 13.4, July-August 2005)and to my summary of the debate. A simple search will ‘unearth’ the material.—Yoursetc.,,


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