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28 April 2005 Edition

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In defence of Cork and the IRA's fight for Irish freedom - Revisionist historian Peter Hart criticised at packed Cork meeting


Historian Dr Brian Murphy spoke to a packed audience recently in Cork's Imperial Hotel. Over 200 attended and heard of the non-sectarian nature of the IRA's war with Britain from 1919-'21, with particular reference to Cork. Dr Murphy said that parts of Ireland with a nationalist majority had generally good relations between Catholics and Protestants. He indicated how republican ideology was opposed to and fought sectarianism.

The lecture, followed on from a theme first developed by Murphy in a talk last October. Murphy showed how sophisticated British propaganda was reproduced in contemporary accounts of the period, written by revisionist historians like Peter Hart and Roy Foster. Sectarianism was a method or British rule that British propagandists falsely accused republicans of fomenting.

Peter Hart's work came in for scrutiny from Dr Murphy, and from speakers in the audience. Hart had accused Tom Barry of "lies and evasions" in relation to the Kilmichael Ambush of November 1920 and accused republicans of conducting an "ethnic" war directed at their Protestant neighbours.

Murphy noted that the evidence did not support Hart's allegations and that Hart engaged in evasions of his own in relation to sources. At the time in Ireland, nationalists were experiencing sectarian pogroms in the North, something Hart had very little to say about. Indeed, he said very little in detail about the reign of British terror in Cork.

Burned out by the RIC

Murphy pointed to an unfortunate Protestant trader who wrote to The Irish Times saying that Protestants were not under threat from their Roman Catholic neighbours. Within days the RIC burned his shop, then worth £30,000, to the ground. (Today, such a trader should rest more securely in his bed, as the letter might not be published in the first place.)

Murphy cited a typical RIC police bulletin carrying a loyalist Anti-Sinn Féin Society article, boasting of killing at least two Sinn Féiners for every occupation force member killed, and of the intent to kill three republican supporters if Sinn Féiners were not to hand.

The large turnout, which included members of the History Department in UCC, indicates that Hart's work has annoyed those who know what actually happened during and after the 1919-'21 period. Murphy dealt with the killing of Protestant men in Dunmanway in April 1922, in defiance of an amnesty for spies and informers after the Truce.

Following on from the seminal research in Meda Ryan's Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter, Murphy said that there is not a single piece of creditable evidence that sectarianism in any form motivated the killings. Sectarianism was, in fact, promoted by the organisation of paramilitary unionism in the Bandon area, acting in concert with British forces and reinforcing the reign of terror.

Meda Ryan, whose Liam Lynch: the Real Chief is published later this month, was also in attendance. Her work was praised by Murphy and others. Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter will be republished in paperback later this year (the hardback is sold out).

Hart's evasion

Murphy pointed to the British Record of the Rebellion admitting to having use of Protestant informers exceptionally in the Bandon area, who, they further admitted, were identified and dealt with by the IRA. Peter Hart quoted a sentence preceding that one, which indicated that Protestants in general did not inform. This was the basis for Hart's arguing that Protestants shot in the Bandon area were targeted for "reason of their religion". The evidence flatly contradicted Hart, so he omitted it. Brian Murphy took a dim view of this historical method.

Yesterday and today

The research is fascinating, as it details in microcosm what was to become British policy in the North post-1968. The northern state, a byword for pro-British sectarianism, witnessed the incorporation of civilian unionism into British security policy through direction of the UDA, UVF, etc, in addition to the collusion and sectarian repression conducted through the RUC and UDR/RIR.

It is clear that inter-communal violence and hostility is a means of stabilising British rule and that anti-sectarian republicanism that resolutely challenges sectarianism in all of its forms, that pursues the common name of Irish person over the category of Protestant or Roman Catholic, destabilises British rule. People living in Ireland are free to pursue whatever identity they wish, but British colonial policy privileges one form of identify over others on a sectarian basis.

Southern man

The southern state represents both a partial victory and a partial defeat in the fight to free Ireland. The refusal of nationalist ideology in Ireland to embrace a sectarian identity indicates the continuing relevance of the anti-sectarian vision put forward by Wolfe Tone, which was written into the 1916 Proclamation by Pearse and Connolly and pursued by Tom Barry in the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-'21. It also animates Irish republicanism today, operating in the sectarian cesspit of Six-County politics; confronted by a Unionist Party still debating whether to allow Roman Catholics to join in the 1960s and a DUP led by someone whose politico-religious views emanate from the dark ages.

Murphy said that the sectarian vision put forward by Hart was relentlessly publicised by Eoghan Harris in The Sunday Times and The Sunday Independent, and by Kevin Myers in his Diary patch overlooking The Irish Times' letters page.

Hart's (at this stage) discredited research is also relentlessly promoted on Orange Order and unionist websites. Hart's depiction is grist to the mill for Orangeism, since it is a justification for 'ethnic' separation. Hart's research depicts and promotes ethnic conflict. He creates, as Dr Murphy, observed, an IRA that exists "largely of his own imagination".

• A recording of Brian Murphy's lecture is available online at:

Who is Peter Hart?

Peter Hart is an academic from Newfoundland, a part of Canada often associated with Ireland, that witnessed Orange Order dominance for a long period. Hart's The IRA and its Enemies won the Ewart Biggs prize in 1998. Roy Foster chaired the panel.

There was immediate controversy over Hart's analysis of the Kilmichael Ambush. Tom Barry "lied" about the false surrender by British Auxiliaries, said Hart. He alleged that the conflict was "ethnic" and led to the killing of Protestants in Dunmanway in April 1922. Meda Ryan's Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter (2003) meticulously examined the ambush and the Dunmanway killings. She brought forward sensational new evidence, which demolished Hart's case.

Unlike Hart's book, Ryan's was largely ignored. It was undermined by an Irish Times review alongside another of Hart's books by a close university colleague, a review that ignored clear differences, that damned Ryan's book with faint praise before going on to laud Hart. The Irish Examiner, which circulates mainly in Munster, has not reviewed Ryan's book.

An interview in the current edition of History Ireland shows a Peter Hart in disarray. Hart rows back from an infamous comment to The Sunday Times in 1998 that Barry was a "serial killer". "Hard men" such as Tom Barry and Michael Collins's 'Squad', were "not necessarily psychopaths", observes the historian and part-time criminal psychologist. On the other hand, Michael Collins, who directed the Squad that knocked out Dublin Castle's 'Cairo Gang' on Bloody Sunday, is described as someone Hart would like to "have a beer" with.

Hart characterises Meda Ryan's meticulous critical analysis as not "rational" and ignores Brian Murphy's criticism. Hart reiterates the alleged "ethnic" basis for the conflict. He also promised, not for the first time, to produce a defence of his view.

Hart also says that current research, possibly undertaken as part of his forthcoming biography of Michael Collins, indicates unionist and Church of Ireland complicity in sectarianism in the North. It is "not a pretty picture". He says that "ethnic cleansing" was not a feature of the Irish revolution, though the activity of Carson and the unionists "came close". Does he not realise that this comment undermines what he had written previously on Kilmichael and Dunmanway? Peter Hart may be feeling the critical pressure. Will Hart's revisionism be revised? We await the response.

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