“Forget not the boys of Kilmichael”: West Cork History Festival revives historiographical debate

tom barry

Posted on: 3rd August, 2017

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway’s Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

In the title of last month’s column, I noted that the West Cork History Festival ‘is set to bring Skibbereen to the forefront of historical debate’. Well, before the event even took place, it already had. In the lead-up, editorials from panelists and outside commenters alike blazed across the letter pages of the Southern Star. Unsurprisingly, a majority of the complaints centered upon the questionable overrepresentation of academics and journalists considered to be a part of the revisionist school. The spirited exchange is not unfamiliar to those who are well-versed on their Irish historiography, as much of the dialogue focused on the work of the late-Peter Hart, namely his The IRA and its Enemies (1998). In highlighting the lineup of the upcoming festival, I briefly alluded to the controversy surrounding Hart’s work but, in light of the recent developments, the matter deserves a bit more elaboration. Based upon his PhD dissertation (1992), The IRA and its Enemies analysed IRA activity in West Cork during the War of Independence, and was particularly damning of the actions and subsequent recollections of Tom Barry, commander of the Third (West) Cork Brigade at the infamous ambush at Kilmichael. According to Hart, in the 1980s, he had conducted interviews with the surviving members of Barry’s unit, and debunked the longstanding nationalist claim that a false surrender had occurred. In the false surrender narrative, it was said that the British Auxiliaries had killed two IRA men after initially appearing to surrender, thus bringing about retribution upon themselves. Instead, Hart concluded that the ambush was a mass killing, which “belonged to the same world of ‘disappearances’ and revenge killings” as other incidents of the same period. In this context, Hart’s assessment also undoubtedly draws allusions to the sort of rhetoric used to describe brutal elements of the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland. He further noted that Barry’s later recollections of the events (in regards to a false surrender) were “riddled with lies and evasions.” Academic and journalist Niall Meehan is at the fore of those calling Hart’s findings into question. He has also found himself embroiled in the skirmish in the Southern Star and even compiled a new pamphlet challenging keynote speaker Roy Foster. In his rebuttals of Hart’s claims about both Kilmichael and the incident known as the Dunmanway killings that occurred in the spring of 1921, he noted that the recurring pattern of shaky source-work suggests a desire on Hart’s part to support foregone conclusions fueled by his own biases. In particular, Meehan questions Hart’s claims in his PhD dissertation that he conducted an interview with an anonymous IRA veteran who had participated in the Kilmichael ambush and received a tour around the ambush site with the interviewee. As Meehan (and also Meda Ryan in her 2003 biography of Tom Barry) noted, the problem with this claim is that Hart’s interview is dated six days after the death of the last surviving veteran of the ambush. The issue was somewhat amended in the 1998 book, where the claims of the tour are conspicuously absent, and the IRA veteran is downgraded to an unarmed ‘scout’. As Meehan points out in his editorial exchange with Eve Morrison in the Star, there are still a number of issues with the ‘scout’ story. The individual, William Chambers, identified by Morrison and confirmed by his son as “secondary scout at Enniskeane Bridge during the Kilmichael Ambush”, would have thus been 15km away from the ambush site. Therefore, as Meehan states, it is tough to believe Hart’s claim that Chambers had relayed intimate details of the ambush to him. In retort, Morrison notes that witness accounts taken decades after the events often contain inconsistencies. This is undoubtedly true, even in the course of casual recollections, never mind a full-fledged fire-fight! That being said, as historians, shouldn’t we make sure that those ‘inconsistencies’ are juxtaposed against other available sources, questioned, and clearly identified to our readers?

Another interesting exchange in the Star is that between Tom Cooper and documentary film producer Gerry Gregg, whose An Tost Fada, which was written and narrated by Eoghan Harris, was shown at the festival. Replying to Cooper’s claims, which questioned the historical validity of the film (which was originally aired on RTÉ), Gregg writes off his criticisms as ‘nit-picking’. In a later correspondence, Gregg notes that both he and Harris have relatives who fought during the War of Independence, and as such, have spent the majority of their lives in that noble task of decrying anything with a semblance of nationalist sentiment, or as he put it, “asking questions about what we were told about the fight for Irish Freedom.” Now, if having a relative who participated in the War of Independence is the prerequisite for a seat at the table of this particular debate, then allow me to add my two cents. Like Gregg and Harris, I was also raised on stories of my great-uncles, who took up arms for ‘Irish Freedom’ as members of the First Batt. of the Fifth (West) Cork Brigade. Yet, unlike my esteemed counterparts, I don’t see a particular need to dedicate my time to taking up the pen in a counteractive fight against either the ghosts of family lore, or the cause for which they stood. Such is not to say that their actions should be unequivocally accepted without criticism or consideration. To look at the complexities, which have resulted from atrocities carried out in the name of nationalism, one needn’t look any further than the tricky matter of how, in the coming years, we go about commemorating the centenary of the Civil War. We’re in an age in which the increased digitization and release of previously unavailable archival sources allows us to access historical voices like never before. Therefore, should we not be rooting out the sort of emotive historical narratives from either side of the divide that, whether due to a lack of sufficient sources or an outright manipulation or misrepresentation of those available, serve to suit contemporaneous political narratives through their pre-drawn conclusions?

While the debates surrounding both Peter Hart’s work and An Tost Fada call historical legacies of sectarianism of the IRA in West Cork into question, this wasn’t what kicked up the most dust during the weekend of the festival. Instead, it was the sectarian rhetoric of one of its own participants. Sunday morning, as festival goers settled in for the final day, the national and international media were abuzz, as commenters of all stripes decried the abhorrently sexist and anti-Semitic views espoused by double contributor Kevin Myers in his column for The Sunday Times. As the fallout from his ill-advised column continued to mount, Myers, who along with Harris, has peddled the view that the IRA in Cork had a ruthless sectarian agenda, participated in a panel session covering the First World War. Myers, who is also a self-professed Holocaust denier, declined to comment on his controversial article, while coincidentally seated next to Rabbi Julia Neuberger. By day’s end, Mr. Myers was left to hit the road like a spailpín fánach, having been dismissed from the Times.

In their letters to the Star, Cooper and Meehan voiced their displeasure at the lack of diversity regarding those presenting on the War of Independence period. In his retort, Simon Kingston noted his desire for a “draw speakers with differing views together in open debate.” Indeed, the concerns of one-sidedness might have been premature. In the end, arguments like that of Dr. David Fitzpatrick, who remarked that Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins were not sincere in their beliefs of Irish republicanism, were counterbalanced by the likes of Dr. Andy Bielenberg, who, drawing upon research done in conjunction with Professor James Donnelly of the University of Wisconsin, clinically dissected Hart’s claims of widespread IRA sectarianism throughout County Cork. Though in its inaugural year, the West Cork History Festival certainly brought about lively discussion both during the event and in its lead up. In the years to come, let’s hope the historical debate continues to flourish, with an even more diverse list of participants to match the list of topics on tap.

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