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Troubled History

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews Troubled History: a 10th anniversary critique of Peter Hart's 'The IRA and its Enemies' by Brian P. Murphy OSB and Niall Meehan, introduction by Ruan O'Donnell, Aubane Historical Society, ISBN 978 1903497 463, pp.47, €10

IRELAND HAS recently produced superb historiography like Ó Longaigh's Emergency Law in Independent Ireland 1922-1948 and Doherty and Keogh's 1916: the long revolution.

Troubled History, a relatively short, challenging document, warrants a place - perhaps a leading place - in this distinguished company.

It is not necessary to read Hart's The IRA and its Enemies (1998) as all three contributors write superbly with sufficient detail to allow the reader to appreciate the issues. The material is exceptionally well-footnoted, facilitating readers' own research.

It seems reasonable to assume that contemporaneous documentary sources tend to be somewhat one-sided. In An Intelligent Person's Guide to History (1995), Vincent commented that Pakenham's The Year of Liberty found "10,000 papers on the government side… tracing only 100 surviving rebel documents". Professor Vincent concluded: "In such cases, history has to be told as experienced by the government side…."

In 1919-1923, the IRA's contribution to official records should have been broadly similar. History would be weighted in favour of the 'government side,' unless striking new evidence is discovered. One potential source was the oral data collected by Dr Hart in west Cork, albeit 'three score years and ten' after the events.

In the Introduction, Dr O'Donnell's strategy is pragmatic and progressive. He analyses Irish historiography against the political background of 1970's and 1980's and the apparent national acquiescence in the twenty-six counties to the plight of the six.

He notes governments discouraging the "essentially beneficial pursuit of historic truth"and the compliance of the "strangely disinterested tenured professionals". Further, he acknowledges the potential benefits of the "revisionist trend", but with the caveat that it "all too often took the form of iconoclasm masquerading as serious comment".

Niall Meehan's analysis is a Euclidean accomplishment; it is direct, clear, logical, insightful but lightened with dashes of humour. For example, quoting Gallagher (2005) he cites the father of sergeant Michael O'Leary, who was decorated for, in the Cork version, "single-handedly surrounding a German machine-gun nest".

Mr O'Leary, a west-Corkman, urged young men to join the British army: "If you don't, the Germans will come here and will do to you what the English have been doing for the last seven hundred years." It was his one and only appearance on a British recruiting platform.

The procedure adopted by Brian Murphy is no less comprehensive than that of his co-authors, describing in detail his disputes with Hart and another Canadian academic concerning the Kilmichael Ambush.

Murphy is supported by fellow historian, Meda Ryan, whose critique of Dr Hart's work was dismissed by Hart as marked by "ignorance and prejudice". My experience of her work is entirely at odds with this opinion. As early as 2003, Meda Ryan indicated anomalies in Dr Hart's research.

In total, contributors to Troubled History produce seventeen points of conflict between their researches and that of Hart, and, their evidence is prima facie persuasive. It is difficult to understand why Hart should refrain from publishing his detailed rebuttals.

I take issue with Hart's assertion that the Christian Brothers "in teaching patriotism … created gunmen". I spent ten years in a CBS; eight of which were in one of their largest schools. To my knowledge, just one of my contemporaries became a 'gunman'. His father and all his uncles had served with the IRA in west Cork and Kerry.

The issues raised in this pamphlet are beyond academics' learned disputes. Dr Hart's findings have been aired and strongly supported publicly by the state-sponsored RTÉ, by academics and the press. Moreover, they appear to have influenced the secondary school curriculum.

Dr Hart has presented a thesis and the contributors their antitheses. In view of the issues at stake, there must be a form of synthesis so that matters can be progressed towards greater historical accuracy and perhaps some retrieval of national self-esteem.

Either way, we must embrace Thomas Mann's maxim to be found in the great German writer's obituary of Arthur Koestler (Guardian, 4 March 1983): "In the long run, a harmful truth is better than a useful lie".

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2009-05-17 16:06:20.
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