Peter Hart and Tom Barry

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Letters, News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13


—Peter Hart in his interview (HI 13.2, March/April 2005) dismissesmy work in Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter, saying that it ‘containsalmost no new evidence’ despite my in-depth analysis of the Kilmichaelambush, the sectarian issue (1920–22) that Peter Hart places suchemphasis on in his book (but not in the interview) and other aspects ofTom Barry’s life. The acquisition of Tom Barry’s papers plus interviewswith Tom Barry and participants in events, together with other primarysource material, is surely an addition to historiography. In relationto Peter Hart’s use of interviews to describe the ambush, he says thatI am not ‘interested in dealing with the substance of this evidence ina rational way’. I’ll leave that for readers of my work to decide.
Regarding the Kilmichael ambush, Peter Hart talks about the differentversions Barry gave of the event. In fact Barry consistently gave oneversion, which included the false surrender. Hart must be aware (if hehas read those chapters of my book) that Barry’s 1932 Irish Pressaccount was edited, resulting in the exclusion of the false surrender,much to Barry’s annoyance.
I have dealt logically in my book with ‘the substance’ of the ImperialWar Museum (IWM) report allegedly written in 1920 by Barry, and cannotfind anything to indicate that Barry wrote it. Most of the sentencesare either at variance with the facts or do not conform to Barry’sstance as commander. Furthermore, A.J.S. Brady, an assistant in T.P.Grainger’s solicitor’s office (the firm that represented and processedclaims for the relatives of the Auxiliaries killed at Kilmichael),gives an account of the co-operation between Cope, assistantunder-secretary, and the Auxiliaries. Brady witnessed the compositionof a report required for compensation. Those in control working for theMacroom-based Auxiliaries were observed forging a report. A typedreport of this nature in the IWM is included with captured documents,though not specifically labelled ‘a captured document’. It states: ‘Thefollowing is the Rebel Commandant’s report on the affair’. (Curiously,a feature of the typewritten report is that of the 133 numbered pagesof text there are two pages numbered 64. If the ‘Rebel Commandant’sreport’ was omitted there would be no page duplication. It could be atypographical error. However, it is also likely that the extra page waslater inserted—sometime after its final composition.)
It should also be noted that in 1969, in a lecture to UCG students,Barry, when mentioning the late arrival to the ambush site of the horseand side-car, said, ‘there was a mistake in transmission. No orders oranything else were written at that time—in our brigade anyway’.Regarding written data that speaks for itself.
Peter Hart admits that there was a surrender but says, ‘The mainquestion is whether or not the ambushed Auxiliary policemen pretendedto surrender, thereby leading three IRA volunteers to their deaths’. Ifthe Auxiliaries in a military conflict shouted a surrender call andthis was accepted by the Volunteers, and Auxiliaries again used afirearm or firearms, then the surrender call was falsified, therebyresuming an open fight. Whether one or more ‘pretended to surrender’ orjust surrendered makes no difference, as it was not open for some toresume the fight after a lull while their colleagues beside themsurrendered or ‘pretended’ to surrender. It is at that time thatVolunteers were killed. Barry took up the challenge and it was a fightto its conclusion. Once the Auxiliaries falsified their surrender call,as military men they had to accept the consequences. Prisoners may betaken after surrender; a false surrender (particularly one that resultsin fatalities) nullifies that possibility.
Apart from interviews, documentary evidence demonstrates the veracityof the false surrender claim. Brigadier Gen. Crozier, Auxiliary forcescommander 1920–21, acknowledged the false surrender. Lionel Curtis,imperial activist and advisor to Lloyd George, accepted the falsesurrender (1921). Stephen O’Neill, Kilmichael section commander, wrote(1938) of the false surrender, as did contemporary writers such asPiaras Beaslai (1926), Ernie O’Malley (1936) and John McCann (1946).
The British cabinet acknowledged this ambush as ‘a military operation’.Lloyd George sent over Sir Hamar Greenwood, chief secretary forIreland. It ‘seemed to him’, to Bonar Law and to Tom Jones that thisambush was ‘of a different character from the preceding operations. Theothers were assassinations. This last was a military operation’, TomJones records. In this military operation the Auxiliaries werecommissioned officers with war experience and most had been decorated,so they knew the rules of war. Any military man who called a surrendershould have honoured that war code and not broken his word. Each knewwhen to fire and when not to; each one knew when he shouted ‘wesurrender’ that it meant exactly that—a surrender—a cease-fire.
Peter Hart questions why I queried the use of ‘the witnesses’ that hequotes, ‘most of whom were interviewed by someone else’, he says.  Harthas used the interviews (as well as the IWM report) to aid his claimthat there was no false surrender at Kilmichael. In his book he statedthat he used six interviews for his ‘reconstruction’ of the ambush. Oneby the Ballineen/Enniskeane Area Heritage Group is a general recording(with which I am familiar) and only mentions Kilmichael briefly—nodetails and no mention of a surrender or a false one. None of the threeinterviews that Fr Chisholm conducted mention a surrender—false orotherwise. (From experience, unless participants were queriedspecifically on a particular aspect they just didn’t mention it.)
Hart personally interviewed two people whom he says participated in theambush—rifleman AA, 3 April, 25 June 1988, and scout AF, 19 November1989, one of whom gave him a tour of the ambush site. This creates alogistical problem that only Peter Hart can solve. According toautobiographical details, all scouts and dispatch scouts were dead by1971, and all after-ambush helpers and riflemen were dead by 19November 1989. Rifleman Jack O’Sullivan, the second-last survivor, diedin December 1986. Rifleman Ned Young, the last known survivor, was 97when he died on 13 November 1989. Young’s faculties were impairedduring his final years, so it would not have been possible for him totravel nor to relate events at the site without the knowledge of hisfamily, with whom he lived for the last eight years of his life. Theyare unable to throw any light on this. However, if Peter Hart revealedthe names of AA and AF then the dilemma could be solved.
Hart mentions ten scouts and describes an interview with scout AF (19November 1989), who gives a graphic description of Barry and Volunteersshooting Auxiliaries in the head in a bizarre situation. (It’s unclear,but it sounds as if AF could have done some of this, though being ascout he would have been unarmed and positioned at a distance from theambush site.) According to the records, just three unarmed scouts werepositioned—two north, one south of the ambush site; the last survivor,Dan O’Driscoll, died in 1967. The two unarmed dispatch scouts movedfrom the scene once the fight began—the last survivor, Seán Falvey,died in 1971. If Peter Hart revealed the identity of scout AF (whom heinterviewed on 19 November 1989) then the credibility of this witness’sclaim could be examined. Named known relatives of Kilmichaelparticipants and people in the locality would welcome the revelation ofAA and AF’s identity, now over 84 years after the event (28 November1920).
To state, as Peter Hart does, that Barry’s ‘history’ of Kilmichael is‘riddled with lies and evasions’ is an extremely strong accusation, aswords such as ‘riddled’ plus ‘lies and evasions’ should not be lightlydispensed. The premises for such an accusation require a sound basis.So the non-mention of a false surrender in the IWM report does not seema valid reason for proposing that there was none. Yet Hart agrees thatthere was a surrender despite this lack of mention also. Hart expressedwonderment that upon publication of his book so much attention focusedon his account of the Kilmichael ambush. Though his awareness of itsimportance in Irish history is expressed in his book, he contradictsthis view in his interview.
A great number of Irish people will have difficulty in agreeing withHart that Tom Barry is ‘really a very minor character’ in the War ofIndependence, despite his pivotal role (in general and in West Cork inparticular) in the fight for Irish freedom, despite Michael Collinsrequesting him to visit GHQ members and to test a machine-gun, anddespite his being the only military man that Collins sent for duringthe Treaty negotiations.
Hart maintains that Barry was one of the ‘hard men’ in the Irish fightfor freedom in a category where ‘there were serial killers on bothsides’ and where they ‘behaved in much the same way and used the samelabels and excuses for killing’. These ‘serial killers’ were ‘notnecessarily psychopaths’. This categorisation and conditionality isdisturbing and in my opinion has little to do with history and more todo with criminal psychology. Hart says that, as Tom Barry with otherstook it ‘upon himself to kill other people’, he is amazed if people areamazed at his view. It begs the question, what were the Volunteersfighting for? Why did they make such sacrifices?
Hart says that he tries ‘to deal’ with ‘one of the important aspects ofthe IRA’ to discover ‘how many volunteers actually did make a choiceand refused to become ambushers and assassins’. Wasn’t it a volunteerforce? Barry and the Volunteers throughout Ireland who chose to joinmade sacrifices as they fought for Irish freedom, which ultimately ledto the present twenty-six county state.

—Yours etc.,
Co. Clare


—The interview with Peter Hart (HI 13.2, March/April 2005) wastimely and interesting. I have written on the subjects Peter Hartaddressed and on the view of his critics in The Village and I hope that HI will continue to probe the issues thatPeter Hart felt able to only partially address within the interviewformat.
For instance, Brian Murphy has suggested that the product of asophisticated British propaganda strategy, developed during the War ofIndependence, has re-emerged as part of the historical narrative. It isa point he addresses to Peter Hart’s work. Peter Hart felt unable tocomment, on the basis that Murphy’s research is not yet published.However, Murphy’s lecture on the subject was reported in one daily andone Sunday newspaper. These (and other) reports were reproduced onindymedia, on a page that Peter Hart contributed to. Perhaps Peter Hartis referring to first person and/or to academic publication.
One of Murphy’s criticisms has been in the public domain since 1999. Itis contained in his review of The IRA and its enemies (1998). PeterHart suggested that Protestants were targeted in Dunmanway by reason oftheir religion. He quoted a sentence from the British Record of therebellion to the effect that Protestants rarely gave informationbecause ‘except by chance they had not got it to give’. By implication,many IRA actions were sectarian in intent. Peter Hart omitted thesentences following, which noted that ‘an exception to this rule was inthe Bandon area’ (which includes Dunmanway), and that informers weresuccessfully identified and targeted. This information contradicted thepoint Peter Hart was making, and he omitted it. Peter Hart has writtenthat the Record is the ‘most trustworthy’ source of information on theperiod. Presumably Peter Hart is aware of Murphy’s criticism. Hispublishers printed a partial sentence from the review in later editionsof The IRA and its enemies. (The words quoted did not refer to thecriticism, but rather to the book being ‘important’ and‘controversial’.)
The absence of questions from interviewer Brian Hanley on the killingof Protestant men in Dunmanway in April 1922 was surprising. Inresponse to a piece I wrote in The Village on this subject, BrianHanley commented on the ‘increasingly sterile’ debate on Kilmichael, incomparison to the ‘much more serious’ issue of the April killings. Apity, therefore, that he did not pose the question when he had anopportunity to do so.
Brian Murphy and Meda Ryan have added to our understanding of theperiod. Murphy’s analysis of the development of media manipulation inwar is one that will be of interest to media and communications studiesanalysts, as will the observation that historians are being spun byhistorical ‘spin’. As opposed to Peter Hart’s reaction to criticismfrom a female historian, I found Meda Ryan’s analysis (Tom Barry: IRAfreedom fighter [2003]) ‘rational’. I thought her empirical evidence onthe false surrender at Kilmichael and on the April killings compelling.
Peter Hart has repeated his intention to publish a detailed answer toRyan and to Murphy. He said as much on 21 October last, on indymedia,in response to my attempt to promote this important debate. As in theHI interview, Peter Hart felt unable to comment in detail at that time.I look forward to reading a detailed comment in the not too distantfuture.

—Yours etc.,
Griffith College


—Peter Hart is rather unfair on the British Army when he says thatex-soldiers who joined the IRA in Cork during the War of Independencewere not ‘militarily significant’ (HI 13.2, March/April 2005). SurelyTom Barry’s own British Army training was of advantage when he joinedthe IRA, first as brigade training officer, and later as flying columnleader? This is not the place for me to again review in detail eitherPeter Hart’s The IRA and its enemies or Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRAfreedom fighter. My review of the former can be found in theBallingeary Historical Society Journal (2005), and of the latter inIrish Literary Supplement, Boston (Fall 2004). But I must expressbewilderment that Peter Hart now describes Tom Barry as ‘a very minorcharacter’, before going on to protest that ‘the Kilmichael chapter isonly six per cent of my book’. In that four-part book not only had thetheme for Part One been set by its opening chapter ‘The KilmichaelAmbush’, but that for Part Two had also been set by its opening chapter‘The Boys of Kilmichael’. And I am not aware that he uttered anyprotest at the time when reviews of his book hailed him for apparentlydemonstrating quite conclusively that Barry’s 1949 account ofKilmichael had been, in the author’s own words, ‘riddled with lies andevasions’.
I am, admittedly, expressing personal prejudices when I state that,for me, Tom Barry was not a particularly attractive personality. He hadrather unsuccessfully red-baited my father, Michael O’Riordan, duringthe 1946 Cork by-election, only to be outvoted by him at the polls.When I myself last encountered Barry, in 1975, I refused to haveanything to do with him, since I was outraged by the fact that he wassupporting a war in Northern Ireland to which I was militantly andconfrontationally in active opposition. But one does not have toparticularly like the man in order to appreciate his military genius inwinning the freedom of this state, and to abhor the attempted characterassassination of Barry in respect of his leadership during the War ofIndependence.
It is difficult to see how Peter Hart can maintain that ‘Meda Ryan’sbook contains almost no new evidence’. His own book set great store onhis claim that Barry had not thought of presenting the ‘falsesurrender’ argument in his 1932 Irish Press article on Kilmichael. Butnow Meda Ryan’s thoroughgoing research has come up trumps with a veryangry letter from Barry to that editor, protesting that the criticallyimportant ‘false surrender’ section of his submitted article had beenomitted from publication. And then there is Peter Hart’s prize exhibit,what he claims to be an authentic report written by Barry himself in1920 but later captured by the British military authorities. Hemaintains that others ‘can’t deal with the contents’ of that document.But was that not the case with Peter Hart himself, when he excised fromit such material as he found inconvenient for his argument?
Meda Ryan’s convincing response that Barry could not possibly havewritten that 1920 ‘report’ surely has as its coup de grâce herrestoration of a key sentence that Peter Hart had omitted. Peter Hart’sown narrative agrees with all other accounts that two Irish Volunteers,Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan, had been killed outright duringthe Kilmichael ambush, while another, Pat Deasy, would die of hiswounds sometime later. The key sentence omitted from an otherwise quiteextensive reproduction of the ‘captured document’ had contradicted thatfinding by stating the exact opposite in its detailing of IRAcasualties—‘one killed, and two who have subsequently died of wounds’.The ‘report’ concluded with a PS in respect of that earlier referenceto casualties, stating that ‘it was not until the finish of the actionthat P. Deasy was killed’, the only Volunteer so named. Meda Ryan’srestoration of the sentence omitted by Peter Hart makes clear that the‘report’ was in fact maintaining that Deasy had been killed outrightduring the ambush itself. But Pat Deasy did not in fact die untilalmost six hours later, and half a mile away from Kilmichael.
When asked to respond to quite specific criticisms raised by Meda Ryanand Brian Murphy, the reply offered by Peter Hart is that ‘the questionis so dependent on factual details that I don’t have the space toreally say much here’. If that is the case, is it not high time for himto engage in a public debate with these critics regarding all theevidence now available? Such a debate would itself be an event ofconsiderable historical importance!

—Yours etc.,
Dublin 11

The importance of primary sources

—Having read Peter Hart’s interview (HI 13.2, March/April 2005) Iam heartened to see his robust defence of primary source research. Thevalue of primary sources cannot be underestimated, but there is atendency to follow well-trodden paths. A case in point is the oft-citedHome Office class 100, without which no history of the 1790s iscomplete. Organised with regard to the needs of the bureaucracy thatcreated it, these bound volumes begin in 1782 and track through much ofthe nineteenth century. Devoting two volumes per year to militarymatters and three to civil issues, it is possible to track issues fromthere to other surviving document classes held at Kew (Public RecordsOffice, London). However, since few have strayed beyond the half-dozenmost cited volumes relating to 1798 no recent work has been done.
Working towards a basic outline of the contents of the military andcivil/secret volumes from 1782 to the Act of Union, I would be happy toshare my findings. A promising lead being pursued with researchers intoloyalist corps in the American War of Independence is the transfer fromthe American establishment to the Irish army of two prominent units.Oft mentioned, but never checked for in HO 100 or WO 8, these exiledAmerican Loyalists may yet exist in Irish records in unexpected detail.
I would suggest that if you want to augment History Ireland’saccessibility it would be useful to find contributors conversant withwebsites. I would recommend the Access to Archives (A2A) site, whichenables you to search English and Welsh county record office onlinecatalogues. Certainly reviews of Irish heritage/record office siteswould do no harm to the magazine’s coverage of heritage issues.
British Militia & Volunteer Study Group


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