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Response to Review no. 1053

I have to say I was flattered to discover that my book, The Year of Disappearances, has caused ‘quite a splash’, especially among the dreaming spires of Cambridge where, I’d imagine, I’m hardly flavour of the month, at least in some quarters. Eugenio F. Biagini’s review is a fascinating piece of writing though. It is clear that the intention is to find fault with my book while at the same time putting plenty water between the academic community and the shriller of my critics. It does all this without getting down to specifics, except for the case of the Freemasons where the evidence I present is ignored.

There is plenty of evidence in Cork YMCA records and the records of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Ireland that significant numbers of both organizations left Cork city in 1920–3 under mysterious circumstances. Many of those, presumably, left for England or the colonies; others fled in fear of their lives, as their submissions to the Irish Grants Commission tell us. There is no question, however, that others disappeared at the hands of the IRA. Martin Corry stated that he executed seven members of the YMCA and buried them at his farm; Frank Busteed claimed up to a dozen loyalists were shot as ‘reprisals’ and buried at Rylane; Mick Murphy and Connie Neenan between them claimed that an unnamed but still significant number of ‘Anti-Sinn Fein League’ members – almost certainly a euphemism for Freemasons – were shot ‘singly and in pairs’ and buried in Carroll’s Bogs just south of the city, Connie Neenan separately claimed that three Protestant boys were shot and buried at Douglas. Finally, Florrie O’Donoghue stated that half a dozen members of what he termed a ‘Freemason Intelligence Organization’ were rounded up and shot. These all add up to a substantial number and this goes some way to explaining the sudden abandonment of areas of the city by Protestants. Just because we cannot now name these individuals does not mean these events did not take place. To argue that this is just ‘hypotheses-turned-into-assumptions and presented as factual evidence’ is just an attempt to create a fog of denial. As recently as yesterday’s Irish Times (IT, 19/02/2011), Dr Biagini‘s colleague, Caoimhe Nic Dháibéid, wrote that the Ernie O’Malley notebooks, in which most of these claims were made by his interviewees, are ‘detailed and frank’ and ‘form an important and unique part of the growing corpus of source material on the Irish revolution.’ I could not agree more. I think they’re marvellous and are a great credit to O’Malley’s honesty and his capacity to accept a warts-and-all view of the conflict. But you cannot go around saying these are detailed and frank and important statements and then ignore what they are saying.

The obvious thing I would take issue with is Dr. Biagini’s suggestion that ‘parts of [my] book are actually meticulously researched’ because this implies that other parts are poorly researched or not researched at all. I would hope that all parts of the book are equally researched. However, more evidence is available in some areas than in others. The difference lies in what is available not the meticulousness, or otherwise, of the research.

As for the suggestion that one of the main reasons why people are reading the book is that it’s ‘engagingly presented’ with a ‘rhetorical strategy’ this is another way of saying that the book is a triumph of form over content. In fact, I could be drooling down my bib and people, particularly in Ireland, would still want to read this book, solely for its content. These peripheral criticisms are cheap jibes aimed at damaging the book: ‘The author is not a professional historian and it shows.’ Indeed it does. Professional historians in Ireland, with one or two notable exceptions, have either proven incapable of, or are reluctant to, dig up the material that I have uncovered, even though it’s been sitting under their noses for two generations.

My aim, as I have written elsewhere, is to put out all the evidence I could find on the various strands of the conflict that I dealt with. Some of the evidence is incomplete, especially in relation to events in 1922 but I would hope, as your reviewer put it, that it asks new questions and may stimulate further study in this area. If you’ve spent ten years researching and writing this material and are then faced with blank dismissal and frankly silly reviews I think you are entitled to defend your work. Obviously, I’d accept some of the criticisms made, but they’re largely of a semantic nature. The perfect book has yet to be written.