Peter Hart, the Canadian Historian whose work on the IRA in West Cork aroused such controversy, has died, aged 46. He will be most remembered in Ireland for his book “The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923,” which drew the ire of many in West Cork for his interpretation of the actions of the IRA in the area during the War of Independence.
That debate runs on still. A a minor level, itÂ hangs mainly on Hart’s use of evidence from official documents, his unwillingness to trust Forence O’Donoghue on a source, his infamous interview with a veteran of the Kilmichael Ambush, and his account of the killings of loyalists in Bandon at the end of the war. At a macro level, his opponents point out that he adopted a narrow, legalistic view on national self-determination which made every freedom fighter a terrorist.Â There is a summary of some of the debate on indymedia – as you can see, it is a long, complex and heated argument which may now never be resolved.
His criticism of Tom Barry at Kilmichael depends on interviews whichÂ he claimed to have conducted that shed fresh light on the events of that ambush. However, his research in West Cork was carried out at a time when all the veterans of the ambush were either dead, or known to be senile. Hart never satisfactorily explained this, in spite of being frequently challenged on it.Â There is no real debate about what happened at Kilmichael – even Tom Barry, who led the IRA column, made no secret of the sequence of events – some of the “Auxies” raised their hands and said they surrendered, then shots were fired and several of the IRA men were hit and killed. After this, the fighting resumed (if it had ever really stopped) and all of the British were killed. Hart’s book opened a huge debate about motives and ethics, but the unanswered questions about his research undermine his interpretation. In warfare, things like this happen, either by accident or as deliberate subterfuge.Â As long ago as 1971, John Keegan in The Face of Battle, devoted space to discussing the problems of surrendering in the middle of a fire-fight, and produced examples of false or partial surrenders, and of the shooting of enemies who had surrendered or who were trying to surrender.
In the case of the Bandon shootings, the facts are also pretty clear.Â At the end of the War of Independence, a number of men, Protestants, and presumed to be both Unionists and to have provided help to the British during the war, were killed by men who were in the IRA. Whether or not is was organised ethnic cleansing or not is the debated issue. I don’t have Hart’s book here at home, so I can’t quote his exact words, but my recollection is that he characterised it as a mini-pogrom.
Hart’s interpretations are certainly open to debate, and his position was never helped by the his failure to address serious issues in his handling of primary sources.Â Professional historians, notably UCCs John Borgonovo, or W. A Kautt, and others at several conferences in UCC, have dealt indirectly with some of those problems of sources in their own work. The problem of his ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the War of Independence in Cork still rouses amateur historians to fury. Ireland being a small country, many of his critics are related to the men whose motivation Hart criticised. Sometimes, I think his critics protest too muchÂ – just or not, the War of Independence was a nasty and unpleasant terrorist war in which men on both sides were shot down in night and died in the cold wet ditches.Â Hart’s interpretation may have swung too far, but there are still many people in Ireland who are not comfortable admitting how our state was born. Dealing with our past – and in the case of Northern Ireland, our recent past – is part of the contribution we can make to understanding and resolving conflict in the world.