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Response to Review of Terror in Ireland 1916-1923

Editor’s Response to Review

As most of Niall Meehan’s review concerns a single chapter in this volume of 14 essays by the Trinity History Workshop, any detailed response should come from Dr Eve Morrison, author of ‘Kilmichael Revisited: Tom Barry and the “False Surrender”’. As editor, I shall confine myself to defending the Workshop’s attempt ‘to restore balance and decorum’ to the often acrimonious debate on terror in revolutionary Ireland. Though perhaps ‘tautological’, my inclusive definition of ‘terror’ was designed to avoid the selective limitation of the word to actions by the IRA or other paramilitary groups. Meehan is disingenuous in claiming that ‘throughout the collection republican forces are often “Irish terrorists” or simply “the terrorists”. Their British opponents are not similarly identified, suggesting that the words have a pejorative rather than descriptive function’. Brian Hanley’s chapter rightly insists that the term be applied to state forces and ‘loyalist’ groups as well as republicans, rejecting the restriction to ‘sub-state groups’ preferred by American theorists and officials. Ross O’Mahony’s chapter on ‘The sack of Balbriggan’ assesses ‘its credentials as an act of state terror’ (p. 58), and my own piece on ‘The Price of Balbriggan’ refers to this and other reprisals by the forces of the Crown as ‘atrocities’ (p. 92). Far from being ‘at odds with the thrust of editorial commentary’, my conclusion that such atrocities ‘conferred moral legitimacy on the emerging republic’ exemplifies the Workshop’s ecumenical and non-doctrinal approach to the issue of ‘terror’. As stated in my introduction (p. 9), ‘the book cannot claim to encompass the entire terrain of its title’, and admittedly pays insufficient attention to the northern ‘pogroms’ (and the southern civil war). This imbalance is not, as Meehan insinuates, an expression of editorial bias, but of the lack of available contributors with relevant expertise. Nor does the book’s dedication to the late Peter Hart imply, as Meehan asserts, that ‘Fitzpatrick is intent on defending his reputation’. Several contributors, in line with my introductory statement that ‘this book is not an apologia for revisionism or for Peter Hart’ (p. 5), express reservations about some of his findings or citations while acknowledging the importance of his contribution to this topic. My own guarded reference to his provocative reference to ‘what might be termed “ethnic cleansing”’ exemplifies the absence of the ‘groupthink’ that Meehan perceives in the Workshop’s work. Hart himself, as Meehan observes, seems to have regretted this hyperbolic application of an incendiary contemporary phrase to revolutionary Ireland. In the same spirit, Terror in Ireland, 1916–1923 may help to depoliticise and mollify public debate. Sadly, this review and others suggest that ‘balance and decorum’ have yet to be restored.

Response from Eve Morrison

I write in response to Niall Meehan’s inordinately long review of Terror in Ireland (over 9,000 words) which is devoted almost entirely to my contribution, one of 14 essays. I apologise in advance for subjecting readers to an inevitably lengthy but hopefully less convoluted rejoinder than that to which I respond.

Firstly, I would like to outline what I did, and did not say in my piece. Contrary to what Meehan asserts, I never ‘endorsed’ the ‘assertion that Barry invented the false surrender narrative’ and made no claims to have produced a ‘definitive’ account of the ambush. My article identified, as far as was possible at the time, the anonymous interviewees cited by Peter Hart in The I.R.A. and its enemies: violence and community in Cork, 1916–1923 (naming all but one) and presented evidence undermining claims that a definitive list of Kilmichael participants exists that can be used to establish when the last one died. I examined the extent to which Tom Barry’s account of the ambush was supported by accounts from other Kilmichael veterans, and confirmed this testimony with reference to available contemporary sources. I cited mistakes in Hart’s footnotes, noted mis-transcriptions, and pointed out aspects of his analysis that had been conclusively disproved by Meda Ryan, such as his assertion that Barry was responsible for omitting the false surrender from an account published in the Irish Press in 1932. My overall conclusion was that Hart, though he did not get everything right, uncovered an authentic counter-narrative of the Kilmichael Ambush that did not rely on fabricated evidence. I argued that every other first-hand account I tracked down, bar one from Stephen O’Neill, contradicted or ignored the false surrender story. I had hoped, obviously naively, that this would be enough to put an end to accusations that Hart had invented his interviewees, thus allowing the debate to shift towards what actually happened at Kilmichael. I was wrong.

Meehan has responded with an aggressive restatement of his long held contention that Hart invented some of interviewees. By contrast, historians who have dealt with the Kilmichael Ambush have made a point of distancing themselves from such accusations. William Kautt, for instance, while not uncritical of Hart, argued that ‘one should assume Hart is telling the truth’ and discounted theories that a captured ‘Rebel Commandant’s report’ used by Hart was a forgery.(1) Meehan suggests Father Chisholm asked leading questions in his interviews, criticises my methodology and attempts to uphold the primacy of Barry’s version of events as an uncontested account of the ambush. The final section of his review degenerates into a general rant against ‘revisionism’. Terror in Ireland does not contain any ringing endorsements of Roy Foster or Conor Cruise O’Brien, so I am not sure on what grounds Meehan has brought these individuals, or the arguments surrounding the April 1922 killing of Protestants in Dunmanway, into the review. Is he suggesting that merely by contributing to Terror in Ireland we are somehow guilty by association? My article on Kilmichael is only the second I have published. Meehan has no other evidence of my views or work apart from what I said at a History Ireland hedge school last January.

As it happens, the word ‘terror’ does not appear in my article either, because I agree with Brian Hanley (another contributor to the volume) that it is inappropriate terminology to apply to Kilmichael. In this we differ from Professor David Fitzpatrick, but uniformity of viewpoints, or ‘groupthink’ as Meehan describes it, is not a requirement of the Trinity History Workshop. It is Meehan, rather than myself, who seems to be promoting a ‘present-centred’ interpretation of the Kilmichael Ambush to serve a political agenda. Unfortunately, in so doing, he mishandles several of the sources on which he relies and ‘elides’ (to use the currently fashionable expression) some of the most significant evidence I presented. This occurs so frequently throughout his review that I hope interested parties will read my article for themselves, because Meehan is a very unreliable guide to what I wrote. In this response, I will limit myself to three main issues: Meehan’s insistence that Hart fabricated some of his interviews, his efforts to discount the possibility that there are newly discovered (or still unknown) Kilmichael veterans, and his egregious attempts to refute the quite considerable amount of evidence I presented that almost every Kilmichael veteran who went on record about the ambush contradicted or ignored the false surrender story.

Identity of Hart’s Interviewees

Using Hart’s unpublished notes and Chisholm interviews with Jack O’Sullivan and Ned Young I was able to identify all but two of the anonymous quotations in Hart’s text. It was also possible to establish that Hart had consulted two or more accounts by some of these individuals. However, I decided not to use all of this information until I had confirmation, which I now have. Hart had access to three different accounts by Ned Young: a Father Chisholm interview, his Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statement, and the interviews he conducted with Young himself in April and June 1988, cited in his PhD as ‘EY’. Meehan dismisses the possibility that Hart interviewed Ned Young by citing an affidavit signed by John Young (one of Ned Young’s children) which states that Hart could not have interviewed his father. Recently, Mr. Young informed me that he did not actually live with his parents, and was just one of several individuals and family members who had access to their home. He insists that he gave strict instructions to all that no-one was to enter his parent’s house without his consent, but his evidence for maintaining that Hart did not visit is simply that no-one told him of such an event. Furthermore, Mr. Young confirmed that his father’s mental faculties were not impaired and that he could speak perfectly clearly. I asked him this twice, and he said he was willing to go on the record on this point.(2) Consequently, the Young affidavit is not evidence to discount Hart’s interview dates in his PhD and other notes, not to mention the fact that Hart cited Young’s witness statement as ‘being in the possession of Edward Young’.(3)

I have also established the authenticity of the interview Hart cited as ‘taped interview in the possession of the Ballineen/Enniskeane Heritage Group’.(4) Hart consulted their copy of Jack Hennessy’s witness statement, but the taped interview is with another veteran. I have also found more information about the ‘scout’, but not enough yet to identify him. I will expand on all this in due course, but can say no more at present, because those whom I have spoken to flatly refused to go on the record: ‘we have to live here’, they said. Although this is frustrating, in light of the petty harassment suffered by Hart and anyone who was seen to support him over the years I do not blame them. Father Chisholm was also bombarded with aggressive phone calls and letters demanding access to his interviews following publication of The I.R.A. and its Enemies. He eventually met several members of the Deasy family who decided that Liam Deasy (Liam Deasy’s nephew) should take over custodianship of the interviews.(5)

Kilmichael participants

Meehan’s theory that Hart invented some of his interviewees also rests on the assumption that there is a definitive list of Kilmichael participants. Without one, there is no way of determining when the last one died. The assumption that such a list exists is what enables Meehan to dismiss the possibility that Hart interviewed a previously unknown scout who was still alive at the end of November 1989. To begin with, compiling definitive lists of participants in IRA operations was notoriously difficult, and exclusions occurred for all kinds of reasons. The most famous politically motivated example was when Richard Mulcahy was not included on the list of participants in the Battle of Ashbourne in the 1916 roll of honour presented to the National Museum on 24 May 1936, despite the fact that he had played a leading role in the action.(6) In relation to Kilmichael, I stated that the BMH ‘interviewed five well-known column members and two previously unknown witnesses’ (i.e. Bureau witnesses who had not previously been associated with the ambush by researchers). One was Timothy Keohane and the other was a dispatch carrier named Cornelius Kelleher. The obvious significance of Kelleher’s testimony – which describes his unsuccessful attempt to reach the ambush with a dispatch – is not that he might have taken part in the fight, but simply that if one previously unidentified dispatch carrier was sent to the ambush site, then it is perfectly possible that other still obscure individuals might have been there as well. Meehan also attempts to cast doubt on Keohane and ignores a footnoted reference to Michael O’Dwyer, yet another Kilmichael veteran identified by Don Wood in 2010. Meda Ryan has also rejected Keohane and O’Dwyer as Kilmichael participants, though the arguments she and Meehan make are weak.(7)

All in all, the evidence for both Keohane’s and O’Dwyer’s being there is much stronger than the evidence against it, but in this response I’ll concentrate on Keohane. Meda Ryan suggests Keohane might have been one of the many individuals whom Flor Crowley told her had falsely claimed to have been at Kilmichael in hopes of improving their chances of qualifying for a Military Service Pension (MSP). What makes this explanation unconvincing is that the Bureau was given full access to the files relating to the administration of MSPs and often worked closely with local old IRA committees when selecting interviewees precisely to avoid taking statements from individuals considered to be unreliable. In the minority of cases where investigators felt questionable evidence had been given, it was recorded in their notes. As I stated in a footnote, the notes for Keohane’s statement show that he was recommended to the Bureau as a credible witness by two former officers he served under, Liam Deasy (OC of the West Cork Brigade) and Dan Holland (Quartermaster of Bandon Battalion). Both Deasy and Holland were members of the local body working with the pension board – the Old IRA Men’s Association (Cork County) Cork 3 Brigade Committee. Keohane is also listed as a Kilmichael participant in the witness statement of his company captain, John O’Driscoll. Oddly, among the evidence Meehan cites for discounting Keohane are two newspaper articles dating from 1970 and 1973 in which Keohane is named as a participant in the ambush. The earlier article, reporting on the ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the ambush, explicitly names Keohane as a Kilmichael veteran.(8) The second notes some discussion over adding Keohane (by then dead) to the official list, but no details are given.(9) This is not grounds for excluding him.

Criticisms of Barry’s account

Meehan also maintains that I presented no clear evidence that a sub-set of veterans deliberately contradicted or ignored Barry’s account. It is at this point that his review goes into ‘elision’ and distortion overdrive. Meehan completely ignores the extract I presented from correspondence in Liam Deasy’s papers which provides clear evidence that the omission of the false surrender from Paddy O’Brien’s account published in Towards Ireland free was deliberate. Deasy’s papers contain correspondence with Dan Nolan of the Anvil Press about publishing Towards Ireland free, which Nolan refused to do after his internal reviewer specifically queried the absence of any reference to the false surrender. Deasy flatly refused to change it, stating that O’Brien’s account of the Kilmichael Ambush had been ‘corroborated by two living members of the column who also fought there. Perhaps if Pat [the internal reviewer] enquired more closely into the full details of the fight he might come to appreciate that I have been more discreet than he would seem to credit me’. This evidence not only proves that the omission of the ‘false surrender’ was intentional, but it also gives an indication as to how controversial it was for Kilmichael veterans to give accounts that differed from Barry’s. This is the context in which the omission of the false surrender in Bureau statements should also be understood. The Deasy-Nolan correspondence was the ‘major piece of evidence’ I presented that Kilmichael veterans deliberately contradicted Barry’s story, not what Jack O’Sullivan told Father Chisholm in an un-taped portion of the interview – which I mentioned in a footnote.

Meehan also implies that Father Chisholm was not being frank about his role in relation to the re-drafting of Paddy O’Brien’s account in Towards Ireland free, and suggests I should not have used it. I cited the original and re-drafted O’Brien accounts for Towards Ireland free as well as O’Brien’s witness statement. Father Chisholm explicitly told me that he typed in the O’Brien account exactly as received. O’Brien sanctioned that account. He was one of the 14 signatories who publicly endorsed Towards Ireland Free in 1974 and explicitly disassociated themselves from Barry’s critique of it – The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War. Furthermore, as O’Brien’s Towards Ireland free account was the one to which Barry was responding in Reality, it would not have made methodological sense to use any other one when discussing that issue.

In addition – in a truly shocking methodological sleight of hand – Meehan misreads Barry’s account of the ambush and obscures the most important disparity between Barry’s story and the witness statements and Chisholm interviews: the point at which Michael McCarthy, Jim Sullivan and Pat Deasy were killed or fatally wounded. All the testimonies from men in No. 2 Section say that the three IRA fatalities were hit in the initial exchanges of fire with the second lorry. The men from No.1 Section say they did not even realise there were IRA fatalities until after the ambush (p. 167). This directly contradicts Barry’s story, and is a crucial difference, because Barry said that what prompted his order to kill the remaining Auxiliaries was the death of his men as a result of the false surrender. As Jack O’Sullivan’s Chisholm interview indicates, other members of the column were angry at the suggestion that the Volunteers who were killed or fatally wounded had naively stood up, particularly Michael McCarthy. So how does Meehan get around this? Twice in his review, Meehan insists that Barry never said Michael McCarthy was one of the Volunteers who stood up to take the false surrender. Meehan relies for his account, not on Barry’s memoir, but on a previous article published in An Cosantoír in 1941 under the pseudonym ‘eyewitness’.(10) That account was changed by the editors and differs in various respects from everything else Barry put on record. It includes the ‘false surrender’, but says that four individuals stood up and significantly, states that McCarthy had been shot earlier. In Guerilla Days in Ireland, published in 1949, when Barry had more control over the editing process he went straight back to the version of events he preferred with its clear implication that the three men who stood up were McCarthy, O’Sullivan and Deasy. In quoting Barry’s famous account in Guerilla days Meehan simply ‘elides’ the relevant sentences. For a fuller and more accurate quotation, see my article (pp.158–9).

Every account Barry gave thereafter is consistent with Guerilla days rather than the An Cosantoír account. In 1969, Barry told Nollaig Ó Gadhra that: ‘We were about sixty yards from the first lorry when we heard these follows shouting “We surrender! We surrender!” They knew by then that the first lorry was wiped out. I saw some of them myself throwing their rifles away. And three of our chaps stood up then, three Volunteers, and the next thing was they opened fire with revolvers and they killed two of them standing up’.(11) In 1974, Barry said that three Volunteers stood up, and adds in a footnote that McCarthy and O’Sullivan were ‘killed instantly’ and Deasy was wounded: ‘Of the three, two at least had fallen to the bogus surrender trick’.(12) Later,  he told Kenneth Griffith that ‘Three of our men stood then from their positions to take the surrender, but the minute they did the others opened fire on them and killed two of them’.(13) The two men who Barry says he found dead were Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan. Pat Deasy was wounded and died several hours later. As Barry consistently states that only three men stood up, and two of them died instantly, there is no-one else he could be referring to except McCarthy and O’Sullivan.

Only by ignoring this can Meehan claim, as he does, that Hennessy’s and Keohane’s statements are consistent with Barry’s. Meehan’s misreading also allows him to accuse Father Chisholm of misrepresenting Barry and to claim that Jack O’Sullivan’s anger at the suggestion that McCarthy stood up is not a criticism of the false surrender story, when clearly it is. Meehan also seems to be suggesting that O’Sullivan’s description of Jim Sullivan as being ‘up high’ can be understood as ‘standing up’, though this is obviously a reference to the fact that Sullivan was positioned on the rocks above McCarthy, as the witness statement by Michael O’Driscoll (who was in the same section as Sullivan) confirms.(14) Ned Young said the same to Father Chisholm. Meehan also fails to address other significant differences between Barry’s and the other accounts. Barry twice insisted in The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War that only men from the Command Post were on the road during the fighting, he denied that John Lordan had been wounded, and elsewhere asserted that only two men in the column had bayonets.(15) It is also hard to understand on what grounds Meehan ignores the Bureau testimony of Jim ‘Spud’ Murphy, who was in the same section as Barry, and who Barry says witnessed the false surrender with him. Of all the witness statements this is the one that should support Barry’s account. Yet Murphy says only that they got down on their knees and fired at the Auxiliaries from the second lorry until they were dead, and Ned Young said something similar in his witness statement. Neither Murphy, nor any of the Bureau or Chisholm interviewees, suggests any duplicity on the part of the Auxiliaries. Ned Young was very clear in saying that he did not see or hear the false surrender himself, and states specifically that John Lordan was not one of the people who had told him the story afterwards.

Tellingly, the first time Barry attempted to publish an account of the false surrender in the Irish Press in 1932, the editor removed all reference to it. Barry wrote to complain:

I know you mentioned that you have to omit any details that you feel would be libellous and also that space on your paper was a consideration, however important facts should not have been omitted … One of the most important facts of the Kilmichael ambush was the false surrender of the Auxies. Three of our lads thought it was all over and stood up. The Auxies began to shoot again after shouting ‘we surrender’ … Because so much of it was cut and altered there are other errors in the publication.(16)

These remarks by Barry beg an obvious question. Why would the false surrender be considered potentially libellous? As Meehan points out, the story had been circulating since 1921, and even some members of the British forces such as General Crozier had accepted an element of duplicity on the part of the Auxiliaries. It certainly does seem odd that the Irish Press would choose to replace an apparently uncontested account of the false surrender with one that was remarkably similar to ‘Spud’ Murphy’s and Ned Young’s witness statements, and the Towards Ireland free account:

After eight or ten minutes of terrific fighting the first lorry of the enemy was overcome and a party of three men from the then disengaged section of the I.R.A. advanced up the road to help their second section. They were firing as they advanced to the relief of their sorely pressed comrades, three of whom had already fallen. The end was at hand and in the short time the remainder of the Auxiliaries fighting the second section were dead. They like the I.R.A. had fought to a finish.

Finally, contrary to what Meehan asserts, I did not suggest that Barry necessarily invented the false surrender. I do not know whether Barry actively invented the story, or simply could not bear to acknowledge that he might have mistaken what he saw in darkness and rain. Perhaps there never was never any intention to take prisoners, and some veterans disliked the ‘false surrender’ story because it demeaned the fighting skills or bravery of Volunteers and Auxiliaries alike. Perhaps, unlike Barry, they did not feel they needed to justify anything. As I said, I do not know. My argument was simply that almost every other Volunteer who went on record about the ambush gave accounts that differed from Barry’s in crucial respects, and that deliberately excluded the false surrender. Only by distorting Barry’s story, misconstruing the other Kilmichael accounts, ignoring crucial evidence I cited and twisting my words can Meehan overlook these vital differences between Barry’s and the other interviews. So I suggest that it is Meehan, rather than I, who has methodological issues to address.

Meehan then goes on to call for Father’s Chisholm’s tapes to be made available to ‘eradicate residual doubt’, and for Hart’s unfinished piece on Kilmichael to be published. I am entirely in favour of as much historical information as possible being freely available. However, it is important to bear in mind that privileged access to privately held collections of papers and tapes is perfectly normal. Meda Ryan confirmed to me that she has never given anyone access to her interviews or notes, for instance, and is not willing to do so.(17) Yet I have never come across demands by Hart’s detractors to access any of her material in order to verify what Kilmichael veterans told her. Nor have they demanded sight of Barry’s personal papers which she used. Meehan’s seemingly wilful elision and distortion of the substantial evidence I presented, as well as his attempts to associate me with anti-republican iconoclasts despite having no evidence of my views, is a good example of the sort of tactics used by Hart’s detractors that make Father Chisholm, Liam Deasy and Hart’s family (as well as others who hold valuable sources) reluctant to release anything.

Notes

  1. William H. Kautt, Ambushes and Armour: the Irish Rebellion 19191921 (Dublin, 2010), pp. 101, 102, 109.Back to (1)
  2. Telephone conversation with John Young, 4 July 2012. See footnote 19 in Meehan’s review and ‘Affidavit by John Young’ in Niall Meehan and Brian P. Murphy, Troubled history: a 10th Anniversary Critique of Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies (Millstreet, Cork, 2008).Back to (2)
  3. Peter Hart, The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 19161923 (Oxford, 1998), p. 232.Back to (3)
  4. Ibid, p.36.Back to (4)
  5. Author interview (notes), Father John Chisholm, 15 Mar. 2010. I conducted four interviews with Father Chisholm, on three occasions (15 Mar. 2010, 29 Mar. 2010, 8 Apr. 2010 ) taking notes only and one recorded (25 Oct. 2010). We also exchanged numerous emails.Back to (5)
  6. Labhrás Joye and Brenda Malone, ‘The roll of honour of 1916’, History Ireland, 14, 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), 10–11.Back to (6)
  7. Meda Ryan, Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Cork, 2012), pp.63, 429; Southern Star, 8 Jan. 2011.Back to (7)
  8. Southern Star, 15 Aug. 1970.Back to (8)
  9. Southern Star, 27 Oct. 1973.Back to (9)
  10. See footnote 42 of his review.Back to (10)
  11. Quoted in Meda Ryan, Tom Barry, p. 427.Back to (11)
  12. Tom Barry, The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-21 in West Cork: Refutations, Corrections, and Comments on Liam Deasy's 'Towards Ireland Free' (Dublin, 1974), p. 16.Back to (12)
  13. Kenneth Griffith and Timothy E. O'Grady, Curious Journey: an Oral History of Ireland's Unfinished Revolution (Dublin, 1982), p.182.Back to (13)
  14. BMH WS 1297 (Michael O’Driscoll), pp.4–5.Back to (14)
  15. Tom Barry, The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War, pp.16–17; Meda Ryan, Tom Barry, p.73.Back to (15)
  16. Barry to Irish Press, 28 Nov 1932, quoted in Meda Ryan, Tom Barry, pp.87, 434.Back to (16)
  17. Telephone conversation with Meda Ryan, 7 July 2012.Back to (17)