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History In A Hurry

David Fitzpatrick

The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork, 1921–1922, by Gerard Murphy, Gill & Macmillan, 408 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717147489

Revolutionary terror is a topic of neverending public interest, periodically revived by horrific news of contemporary attacks on civilians by revolutionaries or by oppressive regimes. In Ireland, the desire to analyse and interpret terrorism in the revolutionary period has been heightened by later conflicts in Northern Ireland, still not fully resolved. Did the British government organise, or collude in, a campaign of counter-revolutionary terror conducted by “murder squads” or an “Anti-Sinn Féin League”? Did the IRA, or maverick groups within it, select certain groups of civilians as targets for terrorism, and, if so, why?

Because revolutionary violence and counter-revolutionary coercion were most intense in Cork, much of the resultant debate has concerned that city and county (“rebel Cork”). The first fully documented and sustained analysis was The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916–1923 (1998), by Peter Hart. Professor Hart, who so sadly died last summer in Newfoundland, was remarkable for his intellectual rigour, thorough research, fair judgement and lucid, unexcited prose. His work indicated that over 200 civilians in the county were killed by the IRA, of whom thirty-six per cent were Protestants, five times the Protestant proportion in Cork’s population. Though these victims were usually identified as “spies” or “informers”, he argued that many were selected as “soft targets” and on the basis of flimsy intelligence. Republican terrorism intensified in late 1920 and early 1921, in a tit-for-tat cycle of reprisals and punishments for which uncontrolled Crown Forces were at least equally culpable. But the fact that such killings peaked in early 1922, during the Truce period, suggested vengeance against various detested groups, now that the country was virtually unpoliced. Republican suspicions, all too often, were based on categorical assumptions about the unpatriotic disposition and corruptibility of groups such as declared “loyalists”, Freemasons, Orangemen, ex-servicemen, military deserters, ex-policemen, those associated with the Crown Forces in any way, and, most contentiously, Protestants.

In subsequent essays, such as “The Protestant Experience of Revolution”, published in The IRA at War, 1916–1923 (2003), Hart went further. He suggested that killings, raids, and arson were the tip of an iceberg of social exclusion and personal harassment amounting to “what may be called ethnic cleansing”. This analysis called into question the morality and sincerity of the republican movement, which strenuously disavowed sectarianism and defined the enemy as Britain and her Irish garrison. Hart’s findings outraged readers for whom the integrity of the revolutionaries of 1916-21 was an article of faith. Even many who deplored and despised the actions of the IRA’s purported successors in Northern Ireland believed, or wished to believe, that the revolutionaries retained and acted on the noble principles and motives attributed to the men and women of 1916. More sceptical analysts also judged the revolutionaries leniently by comparison with modern terrorists. Their revolution was much briefer than the Northern “Troubles”, they were less well armed and less ruthlessly efficient, the illegitimacy of their “British” adversary was more obvious, and they enjoyed much broader public support (or at least acquiescence). In short, whether for political, sentimental, or historical reasons, Hart’s tentative hypothesis of “ethnic cleansing” has provoked a steady stream of academic criticism and also counter-revisionist polemic, the latter often ugly and personally offensive. Any slip in Hart’s footnotes is construed by some bloggers and letter-writers as deliberate falsification in pursuit of a preconceived revisionist agenda.

The growing controversy over issues such as ethnic cleansing or Tom Barry’s conduct at Kilmichael also stimulated some valuable research. John Borgonovo is a good example of a scholar who would like to believe in republican integrity and republican claims to communal support, yet is prepared to gather and present evidence tending to subvert his own often implausible arguments. His first book was assertively entitled Spies, Informers and the Anti-Sinn-Féin League: The Intelligence War in Cork City, 1920–21 (Dublin, 2007). Though Borgonovo’s work cannot match the flair and balanced judgement displayed by Hart, its style is relatively restrained and contrary interpretations are at least considered.

Gerard Murphy’s disorganised dossier on forty-odd killings attributed to Cork City’s IRA lacks the intellectual power and academic skill of predecessors such as Hart, to whose arguments and copious bibliography he is deeply indebted. This is the work of an amateur enthusiast who intended to write a novel but was advised by his publisher to refactualise the story. The vast, rambling outcome, with its miniature chapters, false trails, autobiographical asides, melodramatic scene-setting, strings of rhetorical questions and wild speculations, deploys many familiar devices associated with bad fiction. The prose is often histrionic and hackneyed: “Here was a tale waiting to be told.”; “the entire rotten corpse of the revolutionary period in Cork”; “This was a killing system, death by remote control”; “living in the wrong street with the wrong neighbours ... Their’s (sic) is the tragedy of war”; “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. We are bombarded with references to unexplained “silences”, supposedly disingenuous “denials”, “what if?” ruminations and rhetorical sighs such as “So what does it tell us?” At times the exposition resembles that of a mediocre essay by a bright but untrained undergraduate.

As history, the book is almost impenetrable. Experienced historians, confronted with conflicting evidence or dead ends, do most of the work for their readers before writing. They sift the data in private, reach an informed judgement as to which composite account is most convincing, and finally try to offer the reader a balanced synthesis. Murphy, by contrast, invites us to accompany him in the thrilling chase after evidence, pursuing all the red herrings, and to share his delight when developing a “belief”, noticing a “pattern” or detecting a “coincidence”. Since the relevant evidence about a particular case of “disappearance” or death is often scattered over several chapters, it is difficult to assess the credibility of many of his findings. One of the few cases in which he actually has tracked down the fate of one of the “disappeared” is that of fifteen-year-old Edward Parsons, kidnapped and killed while a junior member of the YMCA in March 1922. But Murphy's findings are revealed only after several passages of irrelevant speculation about his father and brothers, who did not disappear.

Other reviewers have already pointed out various errors of citation or misreading of documents. I shall content myself with drawing attention to a few examples of loose argument and factual error.

Murphy proposes to offer “best-fit theories” for each killing, cheerily admitting that the available evidence is often inconclusive or ambiguous. Yet often, in his rush towards publication, he neglects better-fit theories. It occurs to him that ex-servicemen, in “revenge” for their public humiliation on returning to Cork, joined the “new Free State” (sic) Army in huge numbers. By then it was “a case of the empire striking back”. It does not occur to him that many of those recruits were motivated not by vengeance but by the prospect of employment, patriotism, and/or the hope of reintegration into the new Ireland. A parliamentary question about British undercover agents by Kenworthy, the anti-reprisals campaigner, though officially denied, “make[s] it clear” that agents were indeed at work. The fact that three victims “had connections with the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps]” is enough to persuade Murphy of a conspiracy against this service: “This may of course be mere coincidence, but the pattern is clear enough.” After revealing that two intended victims in Dunmanway were away from home when sought by the IRA, he finds that “the only conclusion is that they were expecting unwanted visitors”. People leave their homes of an evening for less life-threatening reasons.

The high “turnover rate” for Methodist ministers in 1920-3 is attributed to the flight of clerical informers or suspected informers, even though Methodist ministers were normally moved every three years and mobility was accelerated in the aftermath of the Great War. The fact that several Freemasons were “struck off” the membership list of Cork lodges in 1925-6 is attributed, not to the suspension of lodge meetings for several years, or to emigration, or to a prudent decision to abandon a contentious association, but to unrecorded killings. Though ignorant of “how many of them were actually killed”, Murphy is “of the view, however, that the majority of these men probably disappeared”. And so he goes on, building up a dossier of mysterious or unconfirmed killings without adequate confirmation, relying on his personal “belief” or “view”.

An egregious case of Murphy’s intellect succumbing to his imagination is the alleged killing of Henry Harris MBE, an organiser of the Cork YMCA who left Cork for Bristol in May 1921. Murphy knows of no local animosity against Harris, but surmises that his involvement in organising wartime centres for servicemen throughout Munster should have made him a target for the IRA. Indeed, Murphy ponders, “was Harris a spy?” – maybe a second Andy Cope. Reports of the discovery of an unidentified American or English body in Boulogne in March 1923, and of an anonymous letter to the Boulogne police claiming responsibility for the IRA, persuade Murphy that Harris was yet another of Cork’s “disappeared”. After all, Harris was struck off the Masonic roll in 1925/6 and failed to attend a conference of YMCA secretaries in Boulogne in June 1923! Though Harris might have died of natural causes or left the YMCA, Murphy has little doubt of his true fate: “We are not 100 per cent sure, of course, that the body found in Boulogne harbour was that of H. A. Harris, though the circumstantial evidence is strong. More information is needed to resolve this mystery.” One might propose, for a start, a dip into the indices of English death registers. Murphy is a man in a hurry to publish, sometimes content with “a cursory perusal of newspapers of the time”, “a quick check of the . . . Registers”, and so forth.

The supposed drowning of Harris contributes to an equally implausible insinuation about the supposedly sinister role of Florence O’Donoghue’s wife, an experienced sailor, in drowning Cork Protestants, particularly boys. Murphy detects an “amazing coincidence”: that Harris “appears to have been drowned”, that “we have already speculated that boys may have been taken and thrown into the sea”, and that O’Donoghue wrote rather flippantly to his wife about a boating accident involving a “youngster”. This coincidence of dubious speculations helps Murphy to conclude that killings of alleged informers were the work not of mavericks but of the Cork high command.

Though Murphy has consulted many of Hart’s primary sources and a few others in search of confirmatory evidence, he is often cavalier in his references to previous scholarship and ill-informed on the political and social context. One story has a citation reminiscent of Tim Pat Coogan at his most secretively melodramatic: “I was told this by a very reliable source.” Murphy is admittedly indebted to Jane Leonard’s seminal study “Getting Them at Last: The IRA and Ex-Servicemen”, published in the Trinity History Workshop’s volume on Revolution? Ireland, 1917–23, ed David Fitzpatrick (1990). Yet, in headlong pursuit of new information and insights, he crudely misrepresents her argument before concluding that it is “too simplistic to account for all or many of those killed”. In fact, the concentration of troops in barracks was but one of several factors by which Leonard accounted for the increasingly frequent attacks on ex-servicemen.

Despite the central importance to Murphy’s book of Protestant youth organisations, which he believes to have been the primary target of republican terror, he has not done the necessary homework. The Boys’ Brigade was not “a specifically Anglican branch of the Boy Scouts”, but an independent body antedating the Scouts and accepting boys from all Protestant denominations. The Boy Scouts were not, certainly in their origin, “even more closely connected to the military” than the YMCA: indeed, one of Baden Powell’s motives in creating the Scouts was to avoid the military associations of the Boys’ Brigade. Nor were the boys in the YMCA typically “middle-class” or “well-connected”, the organisation having been formed to cater for working class boys. And in what sense did “the YMCA double as a Boy Scout troop for non-denominational Protestants”, with the implication that the Scouts were denominational?

Murphy shows little interest in or awareness of previous studies of the social context of the revolution, accepts the reality of the probably imaginary “Cairo Gang”, and utterly misrepresents the level of confidence of IRA leaders at the time of the truce. Far from “almost universally” claiming “that victory had been snatched from their grasp by the Truce”, leaders such as Collins, Mulcahy and MacEoin all emphasised the extreme military weakness of the organisation when contributing to the Treaty debates.

Perhaps the most serious misreading concerns one of the basic sources for the hypothesis of “ethnic cleansing”, the sharp reduction in the Protestant population between 1911 and 1926. Without any citation, Murphy claims that “it is generally accepted by historians that ... urban Protestants were largely untouched by the revolution”. Murphy correctly observes that the non-Catholic population of Cork City declined by 50 per cent, compared with 40 per cent for the county. This leads him to assert that the city experienced a particularly rapid Protestant exodus, “the reasons” for which “are not hard to fathom”. After some more repetitious rumination, he almost bites the bullet of “ethnic cleansing”: “If you were a Protestant living in Cork in the summer of 1922, you would be forgiven for thinking that a process was in place to drive you out.”

The trouble with this analysis, as every student of the 1926 census reports knows, is that the reduction in Protestant population was invariably greater in urban than adjacent rural areas, partly because of the larger number of urban Protestants holding jobs associated with the military and civil services, which disappeared upon independence. The reduction in Cork City was unexceptional, ranking only eighth out of the thirteen towns in Cork (ranging from a decline of 93 per cent in Fermoy, 69 per cent in Kinsale, 59 per cent in Midleton, and 57 per cent in Youghal, to only 11 per cent in Macroom). Limerick Protestants experienced a greater proportionate loss, and Waterford’s loss was only slightly smaller. Cork may have been a “city of spies”, a nest of intrigue, a site of unexplained “disappearances”, generally a dark and evil place; yet the rate of departure of the city’s Protestants was not abnormally high. The doctrine of Cork’s exceptionalism as a source of sectarian terror is not sustainable, at least on the basis of demographic inference.

Like so many recent books on Irish history, this one would have benefited from having been more carefully assessed and copy-edited before publication. Even the table of abbreviations contains howlers such as “General Registers Office”, “Public Records Office” and “District Commissioner”; gerontocracy appears as “geritocracy”; the masonic Grand Priory of Ireland becomes a “Grand Priority”. When the inimitable Colm Croker copy-edited books for Gill & Macmillan, such slips would have been silently corrected, most of the contextual errors would have been discreetly queried, and huge clumps of repetititous and exclamatory prose would have been weeded. It is sad to realise that the meticulous publisher of my own first book is now prepared to issue work needing, and deserving, drastic revision before facing the grim array of pedants, nay-sayers, and footnote-checkers.

Despite these flaws, Murphy’s book contains a great deal of detailed and interesting information on those who disappeared (or possibly did not), and draws together many unexpected connections between disparate documents. Though melodramatic and unbalanced, it is a work embodying extensive research imaginatively (too imaginatively) handled. More systematically than any previous student, he has revealed the ubiquity of serious factual errors and self-justifying distortion in much republican testimony, such as that collected by the Bureau of Military History or by Ernie O’Malley. In these respects, his book is vastly superior to another much publicised addition to Gill & Macmillan’s history catalogue, Kevin Johnston’s “ground-breaking” possible bestseller The Great War and the Irish Revolution (2010). Johnston’s book is remarkable for its comprehensive neglect of primary sources and its exclusive reliance, as the basis for each chapter, on extended paraphrase and quotation from three or four scholarly studies. Murphy has attempted something more original, more probing, more scholarly and altogether more exciting. Sometimes he hits the mark, only to ricochet off target in yet another flight of fancy. One can only lament that a major historical opportunity has been largely squandered.

David Fitzpatrick is Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin. He has written extensively on the Irish Revolution, emigration, Irish social history, and (recently) literary biography. His next book, ‘Solitary and Wild’: Frederick MacNeice and the Salvation of Ireland, will be published by the Lilliput Press later this year.