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The History of the Last Atrocity

John M Regan
Terror in Ireland 1916-1923, by David Fitzpatrick (ed), Lilliput, 248 pp, €15, ISBN 9781843511991

The front cover of Terror in Ireland carries a shocking scene of terror in practice. In the foreground in the middle of a road lie three bodies broken or dead. In the background two or more civilians are being searched and questioned at gunpoint by members of the British Crown forces. Properly, we might assume the scene depicts the aftermath of a bloody ambush and the image of destruction and death retains its shock value, while being faintly familiar. A caption on the back cover reads, “Cover illustration: ‘The Great War’ ‑ in Ireland (The Graphic, 27 Nov. 1920): scene staged for press propaganda on the Vico Road, Dalkey”. This exposé reminds us that when depicting revolutionary Ireland, things may not be quite what they first appear to be.

Terror in Ireland is the latest addition to the Trinity History Workshop series, now in existence since 1986. The research essays in the present volume are contributed by scholars at different stages of their careers. No less than three are authored by undergraduates, two by postgraduates, and three from post-doctoral researchers. The other six chapters are by published scholars including Brian Hanley, Anne Dolan, Fearghal McGarry, Eunan O’Halpin, Jane Leonard, and the volume’s editor and Workshop co-founder, David Fitzpatrick.

This volume is dedicated to the memory of one of the Workshop’s earlier contributors, the late Peter Hart, who died in 2010 at the tragically young age offorty-six. Eight of the fourteen chapters were delivered at a specially convened seminar in November 2010, also dedicated to Peter’s memory. In the book’s introduction David Fitzpatrick writes affectionately of his star student: “I remember him still as a brilliant boy, audacious yet unruffled.” That was Peter, self-assured, slightly imperious, understated, quickwitted. He appeared on the scene in the 1990s as an almost fully formed historian, with abilities in advance of his years. In Peter there converged brilliant intellect, cool rationality and formidable capacities for archival research and history-writing. Back then discovering Peter was a fellow candidate at job interviews always induced a kind of sinking feeling. But like the rest of us he had his share of temporary contracts. He knew what it was to come second at the job races, and not to be called for interview at all. In one of our last conversations he complained that one Irish university had not replied to his job applications, even when early on he had published some significant work. He was not annoyed. He was, and this was typical, inquisitive – the reason for not been called had to be discovered. Did I know anything? I told him I had similar experiences, and probably for the same positions ‑ it was nothing personal. Peter said nothing, and pondered the anomaly and my reply.

In the 1990s Hart cut new paths through the study of the “Irish Revolution”. His monograph The IRA and its enemies (Oxford 1998) was an inspiration for those following his socio-historical approach into local studies, and for those who loudly disagreed with his findings. Controversy suited Hart, and he courted it. He revelled in “the debate” and the recognition it brought his career. He liked historical disputation best when it became a match of intellects. But responses to his work polarised discussants, and the reaction of most academics was predictable. One of their own, a brilliant young scholar, was under fire for telling home truths about republicanism, revolutionary violence, and guerrilla leaders like Cork’s Tom Barry. What ensued was not always pretty. Sometimes attacks were personalised and abusive. It is also true Hart made some equally barbed responses, but he was always prepared to face his detractors.

The vitriolic nature of the debate stymied meaningful discussion. Criticism of Hart’s innovations meant being grouped with the “obsessed bloggers”, “disaffected Benedictines”, not forgetting the “conspiracy theorists”. Inside the academy dissent from the Hart orthodoxy became the kind of litmus test beloved of Irish intellectuals obsessed with where people “stand”. And their binary mentality comforted itself in a monochrome world: orthodox or unorthodox; professional historians or “republican apologists”; Unionist or Nationalist; Oxford or Aubane. In this view the Irish intellectual landscape was traduced to a Celtic-Rangers “home-firm” derby, where from the terraces even sophisticated supporters waved flags and screamed their abuse.

The debate divided supposedly embattled liberals from the bogies of the Aubane Historical Society and their “fellow travellers”. In truth, it suited some to have Hart’s scholarship go unchallenged within the academy; more so after the cracks began to appear. This is because in the 1990s his work chimed with a “public history” (history privileging the demands of mass consumption, not the evidence), associating negative values with Irish republicanism. Hart’s 1993 description of the West Cork IRA as wanting to “exterminate or drive away all Protestants in the area”1, gave way in 1996 to allusions 'to what might be termed “ethnic cleansing”'. This work attempted to smash romanticised interpretations of the revolutionary period and in some quarters this was egged on. But Hart’s revisions, often exaggerated and grossly simplified, were mostly directed toward a republicanism he recast as sometimes being driven by naked sectarianism. This had been ignored by earlier scholars and memorialists, he argued. But Hart did violence to historical understanding, as too to the historical profession. Terror in Ireland is welcomed, but its publication coincides with a challenge to Hart’s corpus by among others, the present reviewer.

Brian Hanley’s chapter “Terror in the Twentieth-Century Ireland”, provides the opening salvo. Hanley struggles to find an adequate definition of “terror” as an analytical category with which to study twentieth century Ireland. Challenging some contemporary definitions, he properly includes state-sponsored terror in his categorisation. Describing “the British state in the revolutionary era as ‘terrorist’ is not problematic for Irish nationalists”, he notes. But, he continues, it is the application of the language of terror to the IRA of the 1920s which “touched a raw nerve”. What follows is a sophisticated analysis of the contradictions found in historical interpretations of the use of terror and terrorism. Provisional Sinn Féin, Hanley tells us, in some respects anticipated aspects of Hart’s reinterpretation with its 1985 pamphlet The Good Old IRA. This documented the hitherto unreferenced unseemly side of IRA violence in the 1920s. So described, inevitably this drew comparisons with the Provisionals’ contemporary use of terror. But, as Hanley notes, there were no howls of foul play concerning Provo-style “revisionism”.

The debate surrounding Hart’s work mostly concerned his use of sources, but it was sometimes driven by a “misplaced belief that the [1920s] IRA upheld codes of chivalry”. Citing the work of John Borgonovo, Philip McConway, John O’Callaghan, Padraig Óg Ó Ruairc and Tim Wilson, Hanley identifies scholarship that has advanced to more nuanced interpretations, some challenging, others endorsing, Hart. What complicated this historiography was the “long war in Northern Ireland”, as elsewhere Fearghal McGarry calls “the Troubles” c1968-98. Hanley engages this historiographical problem head on, drawing attention to a contribution by Professor John A Murphy to the 1982 Michael Collins commemoration at Béal na Bláth. Murphy distinguished Collins’s IRA from the Provisionals, claiming the former had an electoral mandate for using violence against the Crown Forces in 1920, whereas the latter had no legitimacy. The Provisional IRA, Murphy argued, were “a self-appointed group” who “wished to terrorise the whole Unionist community”, whereas Collins “ruled out the coercion of the Unionists in the north-east”.

In 1975, Murphy wrote of Collins that “he found himself [in 1922] in the anomalous position of sanctioning the supply of arms to the IRA in the North irrespective of what position they took on the Treaty issue”2. In 1982, Murphy categorised Collins, the IRA, and the southern state formation violence as mandated, essentially constitutional, pro-partitionist. This belongs to what I have called the constitutional-democratic narrative of state formation, beloved of southern Irish nationalists. These simplifications, necessities of the public history agenda, exerted corrupting pressures on the use of historical sources by some professional historians. They still do.

Hanley’s essay concludes identifying loyalist terror in Ulster is a “blind spot” both in southern nationalist mentalities and the wider historiography. His observation is endorsed in a volume scarcely referencing terror in Ulster. Between 1920 and 1922, Belfast endured the most intense terror experienced anywhere in Ireland. That this goes largely undiscussed in this volume is a significant failing.

In his essay “Violence and the Easter Rising”, Fearghal McGarry writes of the influence of “contemporary republican violence” on the historiography of the Easter rising. “[I]t seems reasonable to suggest,” writes McGarry, “that the polarized politics of the period [1968-1998] influenced how such accounts were framed by historians and deployed in public debate.” There now exists a literature on this problem saying something less pedestrian than “context influences historiography”, but McGarry scarcely references it. Meanwhile, we are told, peace and prosperity in Ireland created in the 2000s the conditions for a “more sympathetic interpretation of the rising”. McGarry’s conclusion appears to respond to a change in outlook where he writes, “the Rising’s reputation as a chivalrous fight may well be deserved”. Is this objective analysis or navigating the contours of public opinion?

McGarry’s analysis of the Easter 1916 rebellion draws on testimonies recorded by the Bureau of Military History (BMH), thirty-five years after the event. He is alive to the problem of memoirs as historical sources, noting that no witness statement records the killing of unarmed RIC Constable Lahiff at the rebellion’s outset. But one is left wondering what else went unremembered. McGarry is right to say the rebellion must be “understood within the context of the idealization of military values during the Great War”, and that interpretations of 1916 should not be framed by the “violence that followed”. He continues that the “Sectarian hatred, communal violence, tit-for-tat assassinations, the war of terror against spies and enemies – the climate so brilliantly evoked by Peter Hart’s research on the Irish revolution – were largely absent in 1916”. Two pages earlier we are informed British army discipline “collapsed entirely on some occasions”. A Dublin bank manager was almost murdered by British soldiers before he proved he had lost two sons at Gallipoli. Rebels claimed the British shot prisoners in cold blood, while all week the combatants shot indiscriminately at anything that moved in Dublin. British army regular Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst, a scion of an Anglo-Irish family from near Macroom, Co Cork, had four civilians summarily executed, two of them journalists: a bit of West Cork “tat”? The Irish Citizen Army was involved in “dubious killings around Stephen’s Green”, McGarry writes, and “witness statements describe the furious response of working-class Dubliners to the rebels in parts of the inner-city”. It probably occurred to civilians that they were doomed to be human shields in any British bombardment. Volunteer Matt Walton recalled seeing his comrade shoot a civilian woman who tried to strike him. Among Dubliners this was intra-communal violence – but in 1948 did anyone think to interview the tenements or even old “Tommies”?

McGarry writes:

The wartime context explains much that seems otherwise inexplicable about the [British] state’s response [to the rebellion]: the frontal assault on Mount Street bridge, the devastation of the city centre by artillery, the imposition of martial law, the pre-emptory nature of the executions and the counter-productive coercion that followed.

But the burning by Crown forces of Cork in 1920 (and many towns besides), official and unofficial reprisals including murders and hostage-taking, and again the imposition of martial law, argues for more expansive explanations of British responses. This is not to disagree with McGarry, but instead to ask: what explains the excess of British counter-terror after the Great War?

Following Hart, most of the essays in this volume study terror examining isolated events, “Easter 1916”, “Bloody Sunday” (1920), “Kilmichael”, “Balbriggan”, or categories of atrocity like the murder of informers, attacks on policemen or civilians or “social deviants”. In these approaches ‑ local, personal, intimate ‑ the greater political forces at play – abstract, impersonal, universal ‑ too easily can go overlooked where the spectacle of the terror diverts our gaze. In a typically evocative essay Anne Dolan writes: “Terror and counter-terror … need to be understood and interrogated on their own very practical terms.” For Dolan this approach is liberating, allowing her to “admit the possibilities of other measures, other chronologies, other geographies of terror … [to] admit the terror of the terrorist and the terrified just the same”. In Dolan’s hands this is reflective and invigorating. But what we are left with are multi-angled descriptions of acts of terror, and while fascinating this tells us nothing of why they happened, only sometimes how. Rather than liberating us this approach may be limiting, even voyeuristic.

It was Conor Cruise O’Brien in 1972 who described the discussion of violence in Northern Ireland ignoring context as “the politics of the last atrocity”3. O’Brien later abandoned the phrase, but the Provisionals embraced it when describing responses to terrorism (theirs and others’) inadequately addressing the causes of what they called “the situation”. Understandably, media reportage of the carnage focused on the human interest, because this was tangible in ways abstract discussions of conflicting ideologies could not be. At the same time, after each relentless atrocity, focus on the victims and their families inevitably shifted attention away from the ideological toward the remorseless personal tragedies. The terrorism was described as “cynical”, “criminal”, sometimes even as “mindless”.

Revisiting Hart’s work, we discover the “the history of the last atrocity”. To use Dolan’s terminology again, this explores the practicalities of terror and terrorism sometimes at the expense of providing political context. It also marginalises ideology as a motivational factor. And similar approaches are observed among some of the students’ essays in this collection, a few of which indulge the exuberance of Hart’s early work. The “last atrocity” approach dramatises intimate moments of terror by exploring human tragedy and its aftermath, long-term and short. The study of history, it is true, must deal with the whole of human experience including human suffering. And too often this goes unseen in clinical expositions on “revolutionary struggle”, “contested ideologies”, “imperialism”, “self-determination”, and the like. But in the rush to the crime scene the ideological forces giving meaning and sense to any act of terror may be overlooked. And there are consequences for this, not all positive. A narrowing focus on acts of terror devoid of context creates an unsatisfactory victimology. In this victimology the examination of the victims’ harrowing experiences becomes an end in itself. For those who believe that the historical endeavour is about understanding the past, and moreover explaining why things happen, examining the practicalities of terror may be unsatisfactory.

Human misery, while appalling, also happens to be mesmerising. This is why Madame Defarge daily watches the spectacle of the guillotine while doing her knitting in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is why some motorists slow down to crane their necks at road traffic accidents. And this fascination with terror is as true in news reports as it is in historical writing, where, irresistibly, historians are also drawn to the flames. To understand terror we have to make the mental effort to comprehend those forces giving context and meaning to it. And it is worth reflecting that in twentieth century Ireland ‑ governed from Westminster, Stormont, or Dublin ‑ the health of the constitutions people lived under conditioned their behaviour, belligerent and pacific. Restoration since 1994 of the British constitution in Northern Ireland is the exemplar of disease giving way to vitality. And historians have responsibilities to study terror alongside constitutional health if only to alert us to, as Seamus Heaney put it in 1966, the danger of “something rotten” living in our midst.

In 1920, as again in 1970, the British constitution ‑ unwritten, abstract, fundamental – shattered in Ireland, where servants of the Crown resorted to extra-legal means –torture, reprisal, murder ‑ to restore order. It is only by understanding those contexts that we begin to make sense of, as opposed to describing, the terrors accompanying collapses. The victims’ stories are always heartrending and should be explored. But devoid of context, biographies say little that is historical, as opposed to newsworthy.

In the 1970s, as later, reductive media approaches facilitated explanations of Northern Ireland’s violence as being the product of the “implacable” and “atavistic tribal” hatreds of warring “tribal” communities. This view endorsed what some now call the “primitivist interpretation”4 of the Northern Ireland conflict. O’Brien again was a leading exponent of the primitivist view, and its assumptions and lexicon were embraced by several, like Roy Foster and Marianne Elliott, inside the academy. Part of the function of the primitivist explanation was to undermine claims that militarism-republicanism was ideologically led, as opposed to being an expression of sectarian impulses. This was not altogether unfair. But responding to this, militarist-republicans argued, as with other minorities, they used terror to achieve a democratic settlement in a united Ireland. Had not that been the intention of the Easter 1916 rebels, they reasoned? Had not Irish separatist nationalism been a minority nationalism devoid of a majority mandate inside the United Kingdom before 1922? Were not the Provisionals’ tactics similar to those of Collins’s IRA, and their claims to nationhood almost identical? These questions, as we have seen, posed difficulties for historians. And when they answered in the negative, sometimes this demanded historians stretch the evidence.

An answer of sorts was available in the primitive interpretation. It said claims on democratic arguments by the Provisionals were merely the thinnest of veneers covering ethno-religious hatreds. This argument trumped all claims to any ideological motivation for terrorism. And proof of this primitivism was to be seen in nightly news reports of atrocities where Roman Catholics mindlessly murdered Protestants, and vice-versa, “tit for tat” as they said. This reactive violence, O’Brien told us, existed long before partition, and therefore partition was not the problem: the people were.

Primitivist explanations of the origins of the contemporary violence helped close down discussion on structural problems like partition, southern Irish nationalism, and British rule. Those who raised these or said the Provisionals’ violence could in any way be understood as ideologically driven were decried as “terrorist apologists” or worse. (This denunciatory-rhetoric still resonates inside the academy.) And so for over forty years the primitive interpretation became the warp and weft of how we constructed the meaning of terror in Ireland. Unremarkably, we now observe its weave in the historian’s wardrobe.

In the 1990s in accounts of the so called “Bandon Valley massacre”, Hart described the murder of thirteen or more West Cork Protestants in late April 1922. Hart’s interpretation is an example of atrocity history combined with a reductive primitivist interpretation, since as he described it the massacre was “a final reckoning of the ancient conflict between natives and settlers”. Victims, he claimed, were murdered principally because of their religion by Roman Catholics in the IRA. Significantly, Hart’s narrative explained the violence as developing organically from the cultures and traditions of a pre-industrial society. “Irish folk culture also contained an accepted element of ritualized rebellion,” Hart wrote in 1998. This ritual, he continued:

allowed for a temporary and largely symbolic reversal of roles. On festival days such as St Stephen’s Day, St Bridget’s Day (or Eve), Shrove Tuesday, or wedding days, young men had a customary right to wear masks or otherwise disguise and decorate themselves, march about in a military fashion, and demand food, money, or entrance to houses.

He purposefully developed this:

I.R.A. units were a natural extension of this youth subculture and its body of unspoken assumptions and bonds. Usually benign events and practices became vehicles for political mobilisation and customs such as ‘strawing’ became part of the political struggle. The family resemblance between the majority of I.R.A. ‘operations’ and the actions of the Straw Boys is close and clear: the same use of masks or blackened and painted faces, often the same ‘queer clothes’, the same-sized gangs of young bachelors acting anonymously under a ‘Captain’, the same pseudo-military posturing and the same nocturnal raiding and petty intimidation.

This was innovative, plausible, even compelling, and was rehearsed as early as 1990 in Hart’s debut contribution to the History Workshop publication, “Revolution?”5. But then as now, the approach switched attention from the constitutional crisis enveloping the Union after 1885, toward an exposition of terror rooted in agrarian custom and crime. The constitutional crisis was of course acknowledged, as too was the rise of Sinn Féin’s new “cause”. But the ensuing terror in intimate settings like West Cork resembled the tribal primitivism being commentated on in contemporary Northern Ireland. Reports along the border in the mid-1990s of what was called “ethnic cleansing”, were soon followed by Hart with similar sightings in 1920s Laois, Offaly, South Tipperary, Leitrim, Mayo, Limerick, Louth, Cork, and elsewhere besides.

Fitzpatrick (followed by Brian Hughes), takes up the running in Terror: “ ... characteristic techniques and rituals had evolved over centuries of agrarian, sectarian, and republican agitation … echoes of past Ribbon, Orange and Fenian campaigns were audible in the Irish troubles [1916-23]”. Did the culture of ad hoc agrarian justice and secret societies inform terror in 1920? The answer is that it had to – they were a historical context. But after 1885, among unionists and separatists there was an intense awareness of the political inequalities the successive home rule crises exposed inside the United Kingdom. The postponement of home rule, contradictory official responses to unionist and separatist paramilitarism and the conscription crisis of 1917-8 withered the ailing British constitution in Ireland. The task of the research historian must be to do justice to the personal and the immediate, while addressing the abstract and the remote. This is to argue that a discernible thread connects the battered corpse of some suspected informer in a lonely West Cork ditch to the division lobbies at Westminster. The burning of Irish towns or the poison letters sent to a policeman, the murder of British officers in Dublin or West Cork are all described in gruesome detail in this volume. But what we find in some approaches is the abandonment of context. (It is an oversight David Fitzpatrick avoids in his own essay, but one that resurfaces among student contributors.) The casualties are victims of acts of isolated terror and terrorism, but they are not victims of anything so impersonal as a constitutional crisis. It is of course possible to describe any amount of horror in twentieth century Ireland without referencing the British constitution. But to understand the associated terror and terrorism, the causes and implications of decay in the constitution must be reasoned with, dull thought it might appear to some as a subject for historical inquiry.

To return to the question McGarry prompted earlier: why did British post-War repression intensify in Ireland? The loyal and disloyal of Cork, Balbriggan, and Belfast were subjects of the United Kingdom living before 1920, at least nominally, under the protection of the British constitution. With the onslaught on the civilian population led by politicians, policemen, soldiers and special constables, vigilantes and Volunteers, that protection was eviscerated. In part republican provocation, as in 1916, explains British responses, but not in 1920 their intensity or their failure to discriminate. Wider non-Irish contexts of civil and industrial unrest across the post-war United Kingdom and Europe, and anti-imperialism inside the Empire have to be reckoned with. Strikes in the army and the police, high unemployment alongside the growth of organised labour and the pervasive fear of Bolshevism framed British reactions. In 1919, the British government sent soldiers and tanks to “Red Clydeside” to thwart revolution there – they stopped short of torching Glasgow.

A year later the situation in Ireland was worse, following the near collapse of the RIC. Ross O’Mahony quotes Longford native and senior general Sir Henry Wilson’s reaction to policemen shooting Sinn Féiners in Balbriggan, Thurles, and Galway “without question or trial”. “Winston [Churchill] saw very little harm in it”, Wilson recorded in his diary on September 23rd, 1920,”‘but it horrifies me.” To restore order in Ireland the British government abandoned the British constitution there. As with other Tory diehards, Wilson remained a through-and-through unionist, and Crown forces murdering Crown subjects signalled to him a collapse from which the Union might never recover. By September 1920, Churchill was already thinking as a post-unionist. In Ireland the British constitution was sacrificed in the interest of Great Britain – and this goes some way toward explaining the terror and the counter-terror’s context, otherwise the “situation”. Reflecting on Queen Elizabeth’s recent state visit to Ireland, it is no exaggeration to say that we are still recovering from the “situation”. Do we describe the past as a place where terrible things once happened? Or do we try to understand those events?

Eve Morrison presents a much anticipated and persuasively argued essay, “Kilmichael Revisited: Tom Barry and the ‘False Surrender’”. In his 1998 book, Hart revised an icon of separatist nationalist history, the Kilmichael ambush of November 28th, 1920, in West Cork. This involved fifty-odd combatants and ended with three IRA dead and all but one of eighteen RIC Auxiliary cadets (all ex-military officers) killed. Peeling back the covers on IRA violence, Hart discovered another atrocity lost to both memory and historiography. Ostensibly, Morrison follows Hart, rejecting claims that toward the end of the ambush the Auxiliaries offered a “false surrender” to the IRA, whereupon IRA volunteers showed themselves and were gunned down. For Barry, writing in 1949, the Auxiliaries’ treachery justified their annihilation. Hart challenged Barry’s account, accusing him of “lies and evasions”. Others said Hart’s scholarship went wanting. The ensuing debate centred on Hart’s anonymous oral interviews, some of which challenged Barry’s account.

Morrison argues that Hart’s scholarship is vindicated in her examination – Barry was a liar after all. And she has the advantage of using BMH witness statements (unavailable to Hart in 1998) and has also been given access to tape recordings of IRA veterans made in the 1960s and 1970s by Fr John Chisholm; a longstanding critic of Barry’s account of Kilmichael. Hart used Chisholm’s tapes extensively. Among the alleged anomalies found in Hart’s research was his claim to have spoken to an ambush veteran on November 19th, 1989, when all known survivors were deceased. Morrison concedes there are errors in Hart’s handling of oral sources. For example, she says that Hart’s transcription of one of Chisholm’s interviews is inaccurate, “but the meaning is not compromised”. More disquieting, two quotations attributed by Hart to Chisholm’s tapes cannot be identified by Morrison. In another example, the taped words of IRA veteran Jack O’Sullivan are attributed to the veteran interviewed by Hart on November 19th, 1989. O’Sullivan died in 1986. Hart was repeatedly challenged about the identity of this anonymous veteran, but steadfastly refused to name him beyond the letters he ascribed to the interviewee in his book, “AF”, and in his 1993 doctoral thesis, “H.J.”. “H.J.” toured the ambush site with him in 1989, Hart claimed.

In an unpublished riposte written in 2004, “The truth about Kilmichael”, Hart drafted a reply to his critics and this manuscript has also been made available exclusively to Morrison. Finally, this identifies the veterans whose testimony Hart used, with the notable exception of “H.J.”. Inevitably, we are left wondering why Hart did not identify “H.J.”. And how in 1989 this interviewee spoke verbatim the words of a dead man? Morrison’s assumption is that these anomalies are errors of transcription.

Sifting the evidence Morrison notes that none of the BMH statements explicitly mentions Barry’s account of the “false surrender”. This is the substance of her case, and it is persuasive. But one ambush veteran, Jack Hennessey, in his BMH statement recorded: “I heard the three blasts [of Barry’s whistle] and got up from my position, shouting ‘hands up’. At the same time one of the Auxies about five yards from me drew his revolver. He had thrown down his rifle. I pulled on him and shot him dead. I got back to cover …”. Morrison says of this incident that the Auxiliary was not necessarily surrendering and may have thrown away his rifle because he was out of ammunition. This is plausible. Alternatively, the Auxiliary feigned surrender or someone looking on might have assumed this was a false surrender. In combat who has clarity of mind or vision? Timothy Keohane’s BMH statement, quoted by Morrison, recounts a call to surrender by the IRA followed by the Auxiliaries’ reply of gunfire. The veteran Hart interviewed on November 19th, 1989, “H.J.”, was paraphrased as saying there was “a kind of false surrender”. Hart accepted this. Further confusing matters there are undeniable similarities between Jack Hennessey’s BMH witness statement and Hart’s account of his interview with “H.J.” on November 19th, 1989. Hennessey died in 1970.

All this is only to identify the difficulty of resolving the problem confronting Morrison. Following Hart, she attempts to arrive at a definitive account from testimonials recorded decades after an incident lasting seconds during frenzied fighting. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is contradictory. But Morrison’s conclusions, like Hart’s before her, are emphatic. She makes claims for the “authenticity of what he [Hart] uncovered”, and continues that it “is sad that he [Hart] died before he could fully vindicate himself and the men whose narratives he championed”. And this identifies a problem. Hart wanted to tell the story of Barry’s “lies and evasions” and he organised historical information, detailed, unique, unverifiable, to champion what appears to be his a priori reasoning. Similarly, Morrison sallies out to construct a case for Hart. But faith in her impartiality is rocked at the outset by her description of dissenting voices as “conspiracy-laden” and “Barry’s partisans”.

Following Hart, Morrison indulges reasoning and argument resting on weak induction. This is significant because it is impossible to make sense of their methodologies (and those of others), without understanding the importance of induction in arriving at their findings. An inductive approach employs plausible arguments and examples to persuade the reader to accept conclusions that may or may not be true: Barry was a liar; Hart was right. This is qualitatively different to a deductive approach attempting to say things which can be verified as truthful. We need to be alive to this. Deduction describes the empirical method aspired to by most research historians. But historians also use inductive reasoning where they make the leap from the evidence to probable conclusions. All historians do this. Conclusions derived from deductive reasoning are more or less guaranteed by the evidence. Conclusions derived from inductive reasoning are probable outcomes and critically here they are based on stronger inductions (very likely true) or weaker inductions (less likely to be true). Deduction borrows from the language of scientific investigation, and welds the historian to provable statements. Induction affords the historian a more suggestive vocabulary of “almost certainties”, “safe to assumes”, “most plausible explanations”, “high probabilities” and “strong possibilities”, “likelihoods” and “presumptions”. These words and phrases are the footprints revealing where induction is hard at work.

Between the two approaches lies a philosophical argument about what history is or can be. Those who believe history is a science play safe and lean toward deduction. But those who say we can never know the past, that our interpretations are always present-centred and subjective, can argue that understanding history as science is a fallacy. And historical science denies history’s imaginative components and the ability to fully explore the possibilities of the human experience, because, annoyingly, it limits our understanding to the millstone of evidential proof. For these historians induction may liberate them from the dry-as-dust positivism of von Ranke’s historicist tradition, once vigorously defended inside the covers of Irish Historical Studies.

Inductive reasoning allows for creativity, and in extremis the line (for those who see a line), between history and fiction dissolves. For this and other reasons induction is commonly employed by the public relations industry, where it is used to sell everything from political parties to soap powder to cat food. In order to persuade, induction employs examples and inferences drawn from probabilities: “eight out of ten owners said their cats preferred Whiskas”. The reasonably strong inductive inference is that your cat will be among the 80 per cent, and you too will buy Whiskas. The advertising industry is regulated to protect consumers from weak inductions presented as guaranteed truths. Equally, the strength or weakness of an induction – its probable truth ‑ is important in historical writing, where deductive and inductive reasoning is (normally) regulated by editors, peer reviewers, and critics. Research historians desire only to use strong inductions, where the probability of truth is so high they are likely to go unchallenged. But some public historians may use weak inductions to sell their preferred version of the past. Caveat emptor.

Hart offered examples of inductive reasoning and argument in his account of the so-called “Bandon Valley massacre”6. All the victims of the massacre (as Hart defined “victims”) were Protestants so, ultimately, Hart reasons: “These men were killed because they were Protestants.” Critically, the induction’s strength or weakness depends on context and in this case the probabilities of sectarian murder this predicts. A depiction of a primitive and virulently sectarian society in Co Cork strengthens Hart’s induction; as does the removal of contradictory evidence. Much of Hart’s 1998 book is constructed to support his induction – IRA violence was atavistic, disproportionately targeted at civilians and Protestants and settled old scores. (O’Halpin’s chapter raises further doubts about the reliability of Hart’s statistics.) But identification of a less sectarian and more modern society and the admission of contradictory evidence weaken Hart’s induction until it collapses. Weak inductions can also appear strengthened where they reinforce the reader’s preconceptions and prejudices. Again this is important, because the anachronistic projections of the contemporary conflict in Northern Ireland onto Co Cork in 1922, greatly facilitated Hart’s induction: Hart discovered what his public already knew to be true.

My critique of Hart’s massacre chapter does not explain what happened in April 1922, but it does expose Hart’s conclusions as ahistorical. Nonetheless, Hart demonstrated how powerful even weak inductions can be made to appear in history writing. And for this reason inductive reasoning remains the indispensable tool of PR gurus and catfood sellers who, like some public historians, would impart to their audiences messages, not understanding.

This brings us back to Morrison. Her defence of Hart depends on her ability to confirm that Barry was a liar who invented his account of the false surrender. But we cannot know what Barry saw or knew, beyond what he said he saw and knew. For understandable reasons all memories of the ambush differ in detail, but Hart only accused one witness of “lies and evasions”. In being doctrinaire, Hart overreached the evidence, where equally he might have been plausibly suggestive: Barry, it is likely, wrote an eyewitness account explaining his actions in a favourable light. But the difficulty Morrison is burdened with is defending another of Hart’s unambiguous interpretations. Morrison rests her case against Barry on the seemingly strong induction that several BMH statements and taped oral testimonies do not identify a false surrender (as she defines it). Therefore, the probability is that Barry lied. But while Morrison can stack any amount persuasive argument against Barry, she can not sufficiently overcome the anomalies in the evidence ever to be certain “there was no false surrender”. In historical writing it is difficult to prove anything, even a simple negative.

Morrison writes at the start of her article: “Hart claimed that it [the false surrender] was a fiction concocted by Barry to save his reputation, and that a number of Auxiliaries had been killed after surrendering legitimately.” But clearly (and Hart said as much), the story was never Barry’s alone. False surrender stories had been reported by senior British civil servant and Oxford history professor Lionel Curtis in 1921 (“an account … was obtained from a trustworthy source in the district”7), and by the former Commandant of the Auxiliary Division, Brigadier-General Frank Crozier, in 1932. IRA Volunteers endorsed surrender stories from the outset. Seventeen years before Barry’s memoir appeared, Crozier wrote:

It was perfectly true that the wounded had been put to death after the ambush, but the reason for this barbarous inhumanity became understandable although inexcusable … Arms were supposed to have been surrendered, but a wounded Auxiliary whipped out a revolver while lying on the ground and shot a ‘Shinner’ with the result that all his comrades were put to death with him.8

The perceived strength or weakness of Morrison’s induction – witnesses don’t mention a false surrender, therefore it did not happen ‑ depends on that induction’s context. Where Barry’s account of a false surrender was contradicted or ignored by veterans, Morrison’s induction is strengthened. Where the false surrender stories were endorsed by independent commentators Morrison’s induction is weakened. The weighting of the evidence is therefore vital. Curtis is not cited by Hart or Morrison. But Hart did quote Crozier above, adding a qualifying footnote: “Crozier stated that ‘I journeyed to Cork to find out the truth about this carnage, and as I was in mufti and unknown, learned a great deal, not only about the ambush’.” And Hart follows this with an ingenious diversion:

That a senior British police officer could have infiltrated the west Cork I.R.A. to such an extent is simply incredible. It is almost certain that Crozier picked up this information – which certainly does have an authentic ring to it ‑ after he had resigned and after he had become persona grata to republican leaders such as Michael Collins (see pp 219-224). Much of the material in his book clearly came from this source [emphasis in original].9

The “incredible” suggestion that the Commandant of the Auxiliaries infiltrated the Cork IRA is Hart’s alone, and this prompts the question: what is going on here? Hart’s knowingly absurd suggestion is followed by a more reasonable one, that the source of Crozier’s information was the republican leadership in 1922. Hart here promotes the assumption that Crozier’s information had to come from republican sources. But this is nonsense when we consider Lieutenant FH Forde, the sole Auxiliary ambush survivor. The seriously injured Forde convalesced in a Cork hospital during December 1920, returning to England in the following January. This was obvious to Hart, because elsewhere Hart said Forde had to be a source for early British reports of the ambush. Excluding Forde as Crozier’s informant is both inconsistent and wholly irrational.

Overlooking Forde distances the only British eyewitness from Crozier’s endorsement of a false surrender. This is important. British endorsements of a false surrender carry more weight than similar IRA claims, because British endorsements unavoidably dishonour the British dead. This is as true for Curtis as it is for Crozier, and it is fair to conclude they must have had good reasons for endorsing the idea of a false surrender.

But matters are further complicated by the “long forgotten” testimony of Forde, which Morrison now introduces. In an astonishingly lucid recollection of the ambush published in the Irish Independent in January 1921, Forde stated that two Auxiliaries attempted to surrender, but were immediately gunned down.10 Hart did not cite or reference Forde’s testimony. Forde did not mention a false surrender, either because it did not happen or because he did not see it or because he did not wish to stain the honour of his fallen comrades. Nevertheless, he remains a complicating factor because Crozier had access to Forde during his investigations in Cork. It may be that Crozier derived his information from the republican leadership in 1922 as Hart apparently believed. Alternatively, there is a possibility that Forde was the source of Crozier’s false surrender. In a balanced and reasoned approach the historian must weigh these possibilities, and this Hart is at pains not to do.

That more than one British commentator acknowledged an account detracting from the Auxiliaries’ honour has to be noteworthy. This does not prove there was a false surrender – nothing really can – but it greatly complicates matters for Hart and for Morrison, because separate British and Irish accounts accepted that an attempt to surrender was compromised on the Auxiliaries’ side. Referencing French historian Antoine Prost, Morrison concludes her essay reasserting that Barry concocted the false surrender as part of a “heroic public narrative” to make the killing of the Auxiliaries acceptable to his community. But this alone would not explain why Curtis and Crozier anticipated that narrative in 1921 and 1932? The problem this presents is resolved in Morrison’s essay simply by ignoring the content of Curtis and Crozier’s accounts. This strengthens her induction, but it is unacceptable and leads to confusion.

Morrison writes that a “sub-set” “of veterans consistently contradicted” Barry. This is a central premise in her essay, but Morrison presents no clear evidence for it. Morrison does say: “Jack O’Sullivan categorically denied to Chisholm that there had been a false surrender”, but there is no quotation or any reference supporting this statement. A footnote adds: “This denial [sic] [of the false surrender] was more emphatic in an untaped portion of the interview with O’Sullivan: telephone interview with Chisholm, 27 July 2011”. O’Sullivan’s alleged contradictions of Barry are the only such cited by Morrison. That the evidence for O’Sullivan’s refutation of Barry rests on a telephone conversation between Morrison and Chisholm, wherein Chisholm recollected an unrecorded conversation forty years earlier is unsatisfactory. No reliable evidence is adduced by Morrison for any witness explicitly contradicting false surrender stories by Curtis or Crozier or Barry or anyone else.

Hart’s methodology never met the requirements of historical research – at critical moments in his narrative he deployed unverifiable evidence, as now Morrison does. At a pivotal moment in her essay Morrison writes: “Barry’s story does not fit the generally agreed story”, meaning the story Morrison favours. And this prompts us to ask, by what measures has the historian substituted one doctrinaire interpretation for another? As with Hart, the answer can be discovered carefully retracing Morrison’s inductions as they build helter-skelter, one upon another.

Morrison and Hart service unambiguous histories, because there is always public demand for historical certainties populated by villains and heroes, victims and perpetrators. But the past is never black or white. It is, as all research historians know, infinitely grey, requiring careful description without colour or favour. At the beginning of a historian’s career mentors are well placed to offer direction on this, but I cannot feel otherwise than that in the editing of her essay Dr Morrison has been ill-served.

Undeniably, Peter Hart pushed the outer limits of historical plausibility when he published The IRA and its enemies in 1998. Then historians failed to make the distinction between historical and ahistorical writing. Elsewhere, propaganda’s trespass into academic writing is monitored by senior academics possessing the skills both to write propaganda and to excise it. That some historians have, as I recently argued in Irish Historical Studies11, contributed to writing ahistorical public histories may explain why detection sometimes did not happen. But if we cannot differentiate propaganda from historical research, then Irish historians have no claim on funding inside our universities against disciplines that rigorously regulate their manufacture of knowledge. Unless, that is, our universities wish to underwrite the ahistorical hokum of some of our public historians.

What we now see clearly are systemic failures to test Hart’s work in review, in refereeing for Oxford University Press and in the examination of Hart’s 1993 Trinity College doctoral thesis. About that examination Fitzpatrick writes: “Hart’s … thesis had the rare distinction of being accepted exactly as it stood”. My recollection of Michaelmas term 1992 is different. Then I recall Peter in Dublin correcting his doctoral thesis, and that he was perturbed. Memory, I must agree, is a faulty instrument for recovering the past. But Fitzpatrick’s assertion adds another to the list of anomalies surrounding the examination of Hart’s thesis. And Irish historians need to learn to read for anomalies and not to satisfy themselves until they go explained. With that small epiphany we might begin anew to part historical research from its impostors.


1 Hart continues: ‘This idea of a final settlement of old grievances was a common one in 1921 and 1922’. This anticipates the argument developed Hart’s 1998 book (see above), that Protestants suffered retributive violence at the hands of Roman Catholics. The evidence supporting Hart’s 1993 statement is contained in a footnote: ‘See U.C.D., O’Malley papers, P17b/111, interview with N. Murphy and S. Moylan’s speech in the Treaty debate: Dail Eireann official Report: Debate on the Treaty Between Great Britain and Ireland (Dublin, n.d.), p. 146’. The relevant part of Moylan’s speech reads if, ‘there is a war of extermination on us...by God, no loyalist in North Cork will see its finish’. ‘Loyalist’ here is inferred by Hart to mean ‘Protestant’, but ‘loyalist’, as thousands of Roman Catholic members of the RIC and British army attested to, simply meant loyal to the Crown, as similarly ‘Unionist’ meant supporter of the Union. Hart conflates usage of these terms in the Northern Ireland of the 1990s with Co Cork in the 1920s. This elemental mistake appears in Hart’s doctoral thesis at critical points in the narrative, but Hart was well aware that in 1922 some Roman Catholics were loyalists and unionists, and some Protestants were separatist-nationalists, and he said so. N[ed] Murphy references ‘Unionists’ and ‘die hards’, but not Protestants in the testimony cited by Hart. Hart’s anachronistic and inconsistent use of ‘loyalist’ and ‘unionist’ is sometimes strategically deployed to infer aggressively sectarian values in what were understood to be political descriptors. Significantly in 1993, Hart was unable to muster credible evidence supporting his argument that sectarian retribution was common. Peter Hart, ‘Class, community and the IRA in Cork, 1917-23’ in G. O’Brien & P. O’Flannigan (eds), Cork: history and society (Dublin, 1993), pp 963-981, at 980; Peter Hart, ‘The Irish Republican Army and its enemies’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Dublin, 1993).
2 John A. Murphy, Twentieth Century Ireland (Dublin, 1975), p. 47.
3 Conor Cruise O’Brien, States of Ireland (Dublin, 1972), p. 283. The original author of the phrase was Erskine Holmes, chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
4 See Richard Bourke, ‘Languages of Conflict and the Northern Ireland Troubles’, Journal of Modern History, 83/3 (Sep. 2011), 544-78.
5 Peter Hart, ‘Youth culture and the Cork IRA’, in David Fitzpatrick (ed.), Revolution? Ireland 1917-1923, pp 10-24, esp. 15-18.
6 John M. Regan, ‘The ‘Bandon Valley massacre’ as a historical problem’, History, 72/325 (Jan. 2012), pp 70-98.
7 Lionel Curtis, ‘Ireland’, The Round Table, no. 43 (June 1921), pp 465-534, at 499-500.
8 Frank P. Crozier, Ireland for Ever (London, 1932), p. 128.
9 Peter Hart, The IRA and its enemies (Oxford, 1998), p. 37, n. 71; see also, thesis at, p. 52, n. 62.
10 Irish Independent, 17 Jan. 1921.
11 John M. Regan, ‘Irish public histories as an historiographical problem’, Irish Historical Studies, 37/146 (Nov. 2010), pp 265-92.