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Eve Morrison

Response to John Regan’s review of Eve Morrison’s “Kilmichael revisited: Tom Barry and the ‘false surrender”’ in D Fitzpatrick, Terror in Ireland: 1916-1923 (Dublin, 2012)

I write in response to John Regan’s review of my contribution to Terror in Ireland. A number of the arguments he makes are very similar to those of Niall Meehan in another review of the volume which, again, concentrates primarily on my article. I deal with several of these in that response so I have tried to avoid going over the same ground here. Normally, a newly qualified scholar like myself would be thrilled to have such attention paid to her research. It would be petty to quibble over reasonable criticism, particularly from a more experienced historian like Regan. However, in this case, and similarly to Meehan, Regan has so distorted my arguments that I feel I have to respond.

According to Regan, my defence of Peter Hart “depends on her ability to confirm that Barry was a liar who invented his account of the false surrender”. Elsewhere he suggests that I concluded that Barry “was a liar after all”. Apparently, I also attempted to “arrive at a definitive account” of the ambush. This is a total distortion of my arguments and conclusions. What I dealt with at length was Barry’s account of the ambush and the extent to which the false surrender story was supported by other Kilmichael veterans’ accounts. As a recent (and more accurate) reviewer has concluded, my article “suggests that the main dispute was between Tom Barry and his comrades”. My starting point, contrary to what Regan asserts, was not an account of a false surrender that I constructed myself - a “false surrender (as she defines it)” – but rather the false surrender story as Tom Barry defined it, and insisted was the only credible version of events. I assessed the extent to which the personal testimony from Kilmichael veterans were confirmed by other contemporary sources, and the extent to which they supported Barry’s story. My conclusion was that every other first-hand account I consulted, bar one from Stephen O’Neill, differed from Barry’s in crucial respects. Regan also misquotes or misstates what I wrote on several occasions. He gives an erroneous précis of the anomalies I found in Hart’s use of oral evidence, stating (incorrectly) that I could not identify “two quotations attributed by Hart to Chisholm’s tapes”. The unidentified quotes were not cited by Hart as Chisholm interviews. Chisholm’s interviews were done in 1969, not the “1960s and 1970s”. I wrote that “Barry’s story does not fit the generally agreed narrative” not the “generally agreed story”. There is no need for sophisticated historiographical concepts or Latinisms to describe this: “sloppy” does the job.

Regan also quotes me as saying that a ‘“sub-set’ ‘of veterans consistently contradicted”’ Barry. What I actually wrote was that a “sub-set of Kilmichael veterans consistently contradicted or ignored the false surrender story”. Either way, to suggest that I present no “clear evidence” for this, as Regan does, is nonsense. In a blatant instance of “elision”, Regan ignores evidence I cited that the Anvil Press was reluctant to publish Towards Ireland Free unless Barry approved it because of Paddy O’Brien’s Kilmichael account. Liam Deasy refused to change a word of it, saying that the details had been “corroborated by two living members of the column who also fought there. Perhaps if Pat [the internal reviewer] enquired more closely into the full details of the fight he might come to appreciate that I have been more discreet than he would seem to credit me.” This is not “weak induction”. This is “clear evidence” that O’Brien’s account was a deliberate counter to Barry’s. Deasy was also implying that O’Brien’s account was being kinder to Barry than he perhaps deserved. Likewise, every single statement from Kilmichael veterans given to the BMH simply ignores the false surrender story. None of these accounts attribute the IRA fatalities (Jim O’Sullivan, Michael McCarthy, Pat Deasy) to a “false surrender” by the Auxiliaries, and in this respect fundamentally contradict Barry’s narrative. The Bureau Chronology carried by investigators taking statements contained an account of the false surrender and cited Barry’s memoir as the source. The Bureau, if anything, was inviting the Kilmichael veterans to corroborate Barry’s story. Not one of them did.

Historians working with oral sources and retrospective testimony need to familiarise themselves with the methodologies of oral history and memory studies in order to assess and interpret it accurately. They cannot simply rely, as Regan does, on a crude, self-reverential extolling of scientific history and stock in trade clichés about the unreliability of memory. Two generally agreed methodological principles when working with oral sources are: that they should be used in conjunction with surviving contemporary evidence; and that recollections of events which an interviewee actually witnessed or experienced ‑ eye-witness testimony – are generally more accurate than information heard second-hand. This is as true of early modern testimony like the 1641 depositions as it is in modern oral history interviews. That eyewitness testimony is superior to hearsay is also a cornerstone of democratic legal systems. I suspect that Regan will find few supporters in arguing that hearsay about an ambush should be considered more reliable than first-person testimony from a participant.

Regan argues that I ignored General FP Crozier’s and Lionel Curtis’s acceptance of the “false surrender”, and that their remarks “carry more weight than similar IRA claims, because British endorsements unavoidably dishonour the British dead”. In reality, the comments of Crozier and Curtis are only proof that the false surrender story had been circulating since 1921, which I acknowledged in the first paragraphs of my article. Furthermore, Curtis (who was a fellow of All Souls in 1921, but not an “Oxford history professor”) does not endorse the false surrender story in The Round Table. On the contrary, he simply reports that ‑ according to a “trustworthy source in the district” – it had been “alleged by Sinn Fein” that surrendered Auxiliaries opened fire on an IRA attacking party. He described this as an “ex parte” (that is one-sided or unilateral) account. Curtis’s remarks in relation to Kilmichael were part of a discussion about reprisals by Crown Forces, and were preceded by the following:

The Irish are a highly imaginative and emotional people with a singular facility for expressing their feelings in words ... The truth of these matters cannot be obtained even from written affidavits, still less from stories current in Ireland ... Visitors like ourselves have to depend upon evidence which is generally second-hand, and often far from impartial.

Crozier does accept some degree of foul play by the Auxiliaries but even at that, his account (quoted by Regan) does not verify the “false surrender” as Barry would later tell it:

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.

Crozier’s description is very similar to the account of the shooting of Pat Deasy given in the “rebel commandant’s report” which was reproduced in the Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, a British army history: “it was not until the finish of the action that P. Deasy was killed by a revolver bullet from one of the enemy whom he thought dead”.

As I said in my article, the oral testimony from Kilmichael veterans suggests that surrendering Auxiliaries were being killed throughout the engagement, and afterwards. The testimony is surprisingly accurate when used in conjunction with a map of the ambush site drawn by the patrol who found the bodies and the testimony of the coroner who examined the bodies of the Auxiliaries. The oral testimony of HF Forde, the wounded Auxiliary who survived, and of Jack O’Sullivan, a Kilmichael veteran, both give very similar descriptions of two Auxiliaries being shot down after surrendering legitimately. The incident described by O’Sullivan and Ford seems to have occurred after the one Barry recounted as a “false surrender”. It very difficult to be any more precise than that, and I never made any claims about having arrived at a “definitive” account of the ambush, as Regan suggests. The similarities in detail between Forde’s account and the IRA veterans’ testimonies make it difficult to simply dismiss Forde’s account as atrocity propaganda.

In addition, at no stage did I call Tom Barry a liar, and I did not reassert “that Barry concocted the false surrender” in the concluding paragraphs. I discussed how several Kilmichael veterans either acquiesced in or publicly supported a version of events with which their personal testimonies and interviews indicate they privately did not agree. Far from demonising Barry or any other Kilmichael veteran, I discussed their responses to the controversies surrounding the ambush in a deliberately non-judgmental way, within the general context of the difficulties that all war veterans face when remembering and commemorating their experiences. Can these conclusions really be considered “black and white” history or dealing in “historical certainties populated by villains and heroes”?

Regan also makes reference to his critique of Hart’s use of evidence in relation to the April 1922 killings of several Protestants in Dunmanway in “The ‘Bandon Valley Massacre’ as a Historical Problem”. It goes something like this. In a footnote of his 1992 thesis, Hart suggested that Frank Busteed, a member of Cork I Brigade, might have been involved in the 1922 killings, but did not include this passage in his book, The I.R.A. and Its Enemies. Regan argues that Hart excluded this reference to Busteed (an atheist with a Protestant grandparent) in order to enhance “his narrative of sectarian massacre”. Regan also links the killing by the IRA of three British intelligence officers (and their driver) in Macroom on April 26th to the Dunmanway events using the Record of the Rebellion, and an interview with Busteed carried out by Ernie O’Malley. He concludes that “As with Busteed’s admission to Ernie O’Malley, it is difficult to identify any event other than the April [1922] massacre for which the Record’s description applies.’ Regan considers his work to be an example of superior historical methodology to that employed by Hart. David Fitzpatrick, myself and others have noted that Hart made mistakes and went too far in his arguments relating to the April 1922 killings. Nonetheless, as even Regan acknowledged, what Hart wrote in relation to April 1922 “is of course valid, mostly it is factual”. By contrast, the “millstone of evidential proof” seems of very little concern to Regan. He does not produce a shred of credible evidence to link Busteed or the killing of the officers in Macroom to the events in Dunmanway.

For a start, it is in fact easy to establish that the Record of the Rebellion is not referring to the April 1922 events. It was published before those events took place. The full set of the Record of the Rebellion with accompanying notes on its compilation and printing were declassified by the National Archives at Kew in 2001. They confirm that the Record of the Rebellion was received in London on April 13th, 1922, almost two weeks before the killings in Dunmanway began. The Record of the Rebellion is almost certainly referring to the shooting dead by the IRA of several farmers in or within fifteen miles of Bandon in February and March 1921: two men of the same name, Thomas Bradfield (January 23rd and February 1st), Thomas Cotter (March 1st), John Good (March 10th) and his son William (March 26th). Further away but also in West Cork, Matthew Sweetnam and William Connell were also shot dead in Skibbereen (February 19th). To call any of these men “spies” is an exaggeration, but they were certainly sympathetic to Crown Forces and hostile to the IRA.

In relation to Frank Busteed, his comments concerning the shooting of loyalists in his O’Malley interview are certainly intriguing:

Pakes house was burned by us Boyd Colsters, of Dripsey’s house. They were loyalists and their houses were burned as a reprisal. (In the (C/W) we shot 4 or 5 locals – then we could move anywhere.) We shot 5 to 6 loyalists Protestant farmers as reprisals. We had continuous skirmishing with patrols.

Busteed also makes passing reference to the killing of three intelligence officers in Macroom in the O’Malley interview. He later told Sean O’Callaghan that he was actually involved in these shootings, blaming the officers for the sudden death of his mother in March 1921. However, Busteed does not ever, anywhere, link this with the events in Dunmanway, nor did any other IRA veteran who spoke about the fate of the officers in Macroom. The ‘5 or 6 loyalists’ might be a reference to the same individuals described in the Record of the Rebellion as having been killed by the IRA (during the War of Independence), but the passage is not specific enough to link it with any particular events. Hart was certainly correct to revise his footnotes. Likewise, if I discover errors or mistaken conclusions in my earlier work, I will revise it and my footnotes accordingly. I have no doubt that I will be much the better historian for doing so.

Few would disagree with Regan in pointing out the “necessity of verifying sources when reviewing historical writing, in order to check interpretative problems and academic fraud”. Regan has also travelled the length and breadth of Ireland warning us not to trust Irish academic historians, and to be on the lookout for elision and present-centred history. There are indeed plenty of credible arguments to make with regard to how the historiography of the Irish revolutionary period could be improved, revised and reconceptualised. I fully intend to make some of those arguments in future publications. However, Regan is guilty of more distortion, misreading, elision and misstatement in the twenty odd paragraphs he devoted to my article than Peter Hart was ever accused of even by his bitterest detractors. Similarly, in his picking over of a dead man’s footnotes, Regan fails to employ the most basic skills of his profession ‑ accurately interpreting and dating his sources. His is the “ahistorical hokum” pushing the “outer limits of historical plausibility”. Regan’s critiques are a postmodern joke, not a worthwhile dissection of Hart’s work (or mine)


Read John M Regan The History of the Last Atrocity