Peter Hart

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, it  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.  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 which  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.  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.  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.  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.  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 much  – 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.  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.

8 thoughts on “Peter Hart”

  1. The passing of Peter Hart, at such a young age, is tragic. It makes one wonder about the effects of over-commitment to work and the stresses he must have been under due to constant heckling. His work was certainly controversial, but I hope in the inevitable debate after his passing, people remember that he was somebody’s family too.

  2. Hart’s refusal to disclose his source must mean that we cannot accept the conclusions he draws from that source: the quality of a historian’s work is staked in large part on the fact that his sources can be interrogated independently. Hart refused to permit this of his own work and so it falls from the pedestal of ‘true’ history. Eoghan Harris was a big acolyte of Hart’s; but our own John A. Murphy threw down the gauntlet to Harris in asking him to furnish specific documentary evidence for his claim of a systematic sectarian pogrom and mass displacement of Protestants from Cork in the 1920s. Harris, like Hart, remained silent (and John A. would normally be lumped into the ‘revisionist’ camp with those two gentlemen.) Harris claimed in one of his columns (c. 2004, if memory serves) to answer critics of Hart’s methods and motives with the retort that Hart was Canadian and therefore could not be guilty of any vested interest. Talk about side-stepping the serious questions raised by plenty of academic historians outside of the Aubane Historical Society faction.

    In any case, it’s a shock to hear that Hart has passed at such a young age.

  3. Peter Hart was not a real historian rather he was a propagandist of the Anglo tradition over all others. Harts thesis is based on interviews he never did and people who were dead whom he claimed to interview. Hart picks out one small dimension of the struggle for Irish independence a movement that began with the British failure to acknowledge the democratic statement of the Irish people. A few yrs ago, I was present at a meeting in UCC where he was present. The air was thick with tension of many of the relatives of those brave people who stood up to the British Empire and whom let their feelings be known of what they thought of Hart. Conjecture, misinformation, and downright propaganda doest make history.
    What Hart and his like minded cabal failed to note in pre 1920 Ireland was how totally isolated were the majority of the Irish population in their own island. A small largely alien group with the support of their alien master controlled the majority. The Irish Parliamentary Party which was the democratically elected representative body were looked upon in imperial Westminster as an ass boil. On the displacement that took place following the Irish revolution, it was very very minor and affected those who actively stood against it. Compared to what happened with his like-minded in N Ireland it was minor and as for the mass movements that took place in East Europe after WWII was insignificant. If there is failures which I’m, sure there are it’s all a British failure in failing to acknowledge the voice of the majority of Irish people during British run Ireland. While Ireland was part of Union it was in effect a colony administered by an unelected and unaccounted cabal selected by an imperial master. No doubt his cause has being manna for the likes of Eoghan Harris, Kevin Myres and to a lesser extend the other revisionist JA Murphy.
    Hart looked for a cause, found a few loose scraps and conjured a make-believe.

  4. Very sorry to hear of Prof Hart’s death. Could I point out to john that the meeting at UCC to which he refers was not ‘think with tension’, it was thick with bemusement at the hijacking of a discussion of ‘violence in history’ by a group of self-important, self-righteous hecklers. A lot of nonsense was spoken on that occasion, and not by Hart.

  5. I can assure you the air was thick with tension and the bemusement of others especially the visitors that the fighting spirit of West Cork had not died in the Irish revolution. And Hart kept his peace for he knew too well he was outside his envelope. Yes indeed, it seems we have here another who wants to rewrite history. These people you refer to as “self-important, self-righteous hecklers” have every right to correct the ramblings of a man who is now deceased. These are protecting the very sacred name of their ancestors that took on an empire that would not recognise the democratic right of a people and these people were using a public forum to express their views in a very democratic way. Is it you also want this too to curtailed for some revisionist view of history that the late Cruise O’Brien wished to impose in a Nazi type solution of censorship?

  6. As someone who had the great honour of working with Professor Hart, I’d like to express my disgust at the most of comments made here – to use the announcement of a great man’s death to rehash tired old arguments is just sad on your part. Peter was the first to acknowledge anyone’s right to disagree with him, his work, or his opinions. If those of you casting judgement about who is the “real historian” cannot behave with professional and human dignity, then it is certainly not you. For God’s sake, have some respect.

  7. Yes indeed hypocrisy and escapism comes first to mind after reading your comment. It was out of controversy and unsubstantiated allegations that Hart made his name. As for a historian the very concept is founded on substantiating. This Hart could not do.

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