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Response to Review no. 631

As David Leeson is an emerging authority on the Royal Irish Constabulary of 1916-21, I was interested to read his review of my book Spies, Informers, and the ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society‘. However, I came away disappointed. While he agrees with my thesis and raises some salient points about sourcing, I remain perplexed that so much of his review strays beyond the scope of my work.

Leeson’s lack of focus is problematic. For example, while his inclusion of vast primary material demonstrates an impressive knowledge of RIC records, it does little to engage with my work. Ultimately Leeson accepts my book’s arguments, which he says ‘have qualified – dare I say, revised – [Peter] Hart’s conclusions’. To me, such a finding should be the heart of his review and the basis of greater discussion. Unfortunately, Leeson does not use his 3,000 words to justify his conclusions or even to explain the book’s content. He essentially ignores my arguments, except one he disagrees with. As a result, I am afraid the reader comes away with little understanding of my book. Leeson could have avoided this pitfall had he concentrated on the substance of my work, rather than using his review as a platform for a much broader debate.

Leeson and I hold differing interpretations of Peter Hart’s theory of ‘tit-for-tat’ violence in The IRA and its Enemies. As he points out, Hart employs the term in regards to IRA attacks on members of the Crown forces, such as RIC Sgt. O’Donoghue (for examples, see Hart, pp. 17 and 79). However, Leeson ignores Hart’s use of the same term to refer to IRA shootings of accused civilian informers (see Hart, pp. 99 and 314). One of the concluding paragraphs of The IRA and its Enemies (Hart, p. 314) summarizes Hart’s argument quite well:

The war on informers must be seen as part of the tit-for-tat dynamics of violence, driven by fear and the desire for revenge. It was not, however, merely (or even mainly) a matter of espionage, of spies and spy-hunters. It was a civil war within and between communities, with the battle lines drawn by a whole range of social bonds and boundaries. As used by the men of the Cork IRA, the term ‘informer’ meant simply ‘enemy’ and enemies were defined by their religion, class, connections, respectability.

Hart proposes that the IRA targeted civilian informers out of tribal antagonism rather than military necessity. Without providing adequate evidence, he consistently claims these civilians rarely provided information to the Crown forces (see Hart, pp. 17, 298, 300, 303, 304, 311). Essentially, he argues that when the Crown forces struck the Cork IRA, the Volunteers responded (‘tit-for-tat’) by retaliating against innocent civilians of a different social, religious or economic background.

Hart’s choice of language reinforces the thrust of this argument. ‘Tit-for-tat’ can be defined as ‘equivalent retaliation’. When Hart wrote The IRA and its Enemies (the PhD thesis was published in 1993 and the book in 1998), ‘tit-for-tat’ also had powerful connotations in the Northern Ireland context, to describe paramilitary reprisal attacks on non-combatant civilians of a different religious community. To me, Hart’s use of such a loaded term underlines the reprisal aspect of his civilian informer thesis.

There are some specific sourcing issues I would like to address. I plead guilty to inconsistently titling the RIC County Inspector monthly reports. The proper title of each report is: ‘County Inspector’s Confidential Monthly Report for Cork (City and East Riding) for (month, year)’, with sequential CO references for each three-month block. Since I had 40 separate citations of different monthly reports, I tried to write out the full title during its first citation, then to employ a short-hand version for each subsequent citation (for example, CI Report for August 1920). Unfortunately, in ensuing chapters I inadvertently dropped the terms ‘confidential’, ‘monthly’ and the parenthesis around the words ‘City and East Riding’. I will not make the same error again. Please don’t judge me (or my copy editor) too harshly, as these were among 670 separate endnotes.

In terms of David Leeson, I suspect a disconnect is responsible for some of his criticism of my British sourcing. I consulted police records from ‘The British in Ireland Series’, a microfilm collection of surviving RIC documents held in London. This source is clearly identified in my bibliography under my University College Cork material (see Borgonovo, p. 183). ‘The British in Ireland Series’ includes RIC Inspector-General and individual County Inspectors’ monthly reports; ‘Returns for Agrarian Outrages’; ‘Illegal Drillings’ reports; lists of ‘Criminal Offences and Breaches of the Truce’; and ‘Weekly Summaries of Outrages Against Police’. If one checks Peter Hart’s compilation of his consulted RIC sources (Hart, p. 322), one will find it essentially matches the holdings of this series. Leeson refers to my ‘amateurish’ failure to include the London location and the prefix ‘TNA’ to my PRO [Public Record Office], CO [Colonial Office] citations. However, such headings would be improper, since I accessed the material at University College Cork, rather than London. I suspect Leeson is unfamiliar with ‘The British in Ireland Series’, and views my titling convention through the prism of the original documentation (and titling requirements) in London. This is ironic, considering his prolonged emphasis on the proper use of British sources.

Leeson also questions my exclusion of the Military Courts of Inquiry inquest reports. However, those military inquests were public hearings attended by newspaper reporters, and were therefore covered in detail by both the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution. Much of my material comes from the newspaper transcriptions of those inquests.

I am confused as to why Leeson faults my supposed neglect of the ‘Weekly Outrages Against Police’ material, since my endnotes cite eight of these reports (see Borgonovo, pp. 103, 130 and 131). One of the ‘Weekly Outrages’ reports I referenced was the same one Leeson criticizes me for omitting – the attack of 18 November on Auxiliary Cadets Maj. Moon and Capt. Jones (see Borgonovo, p. 131; please note that my reference omitted the Cadets’ names).

This latter report is relevant to Leeson’s point about the arrival of Auxiliary Cadet Company ‘K’ in Cork City. While it is true that ‘K’ Company was not formally activated until 2 December 1920, firm evidence places Auxiliary Cadets in Cork City before that date. One such indication is the above-mentioned attack on Auxiliary Cadets Moon and Jones (cited by Leeson), which occurred in the city on 18 November, two weeks before K Company’s enrolment. (For others, see the 4 October 1920 Cork Examiner reports of two separate city shooting incidents involving Auxiliary Cadets; the 9 October 1920 Cork Examiner reference to a contingent of Auxiliaries stationed in the city at Elizabeth Fort – now the Garda station on Barrack Street; and the IRA abduction of two Cadet intelligence officers in the city, which I describe on p. 21.)

Strangely, Leeson’s criticism even extends to the publisher’s text on the back cover of my book. He disagrees that my work ‘directly contradicts some conclusions made in Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies‘ regarding Cork City. Should I have used Leeson’s summary instead? He writes, ‘What Borgonovo has done in Spies, Informers, and the “Anti-Sinn Féin Society” is to demonstrate that Cork City was an exception to Peter Hart’s rule’. Those two statements seem remarkably similar.

My engagement with Peter Hart has been confined to our different findings regarding the targeting of suspected civilian informers in Cork City. Unfortunately, Leeson has a tendency to confuse me with Hart’s other critics. Despite his inference, I never claimed to have ‘rubbished’ or disproved Hart’s thesis. The reader might have an impression to the contrary due to Leeson’s selective quotation from my Foreword. The full excerpt (Borgonovo, p. 2) speaks for itself:

This book focuses exclusively on events in Cork City during 1920-1921. My study does not address the larger issue of informants during the Irish War of Independence, or explain attitudes towards its perceived civilian enemies throughout Ireland. However, it is hoped that when studying the example of Cork city, the reader will consider its wider implications in the Anglo-Irish conflict of 1919-1921.