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Seán Lemass: Democratic DictatorPrinter-friendly versionPDF version

Seán Lemass: Democratic Dictator
Bryce Evans
Cork, Collins Press, 2011, ISBN: 9781848891227; 336pp.; Price: £15.99
Professor Brian Girvin
University of Glasgow
Professor Brian Girvin, review of Seán Lemass: Democratic Dictator, (review no. 1447)
Date accessed: 24 May, 2024


ihr.webmasterFri, 23/08/2013 - 07:44
Professor Brian Girvin recently published a critical review of Bryce Evans book, Sean Lemass: Democratic Dictator (July 2013). The author, as is only proper, had a right of reply. Evans robustly rejects various criticisms relating to his use of historical sources and some of the historical judgments deployed in the book. Other specialists in modern Irish history will form their own judgement of the relative merits of the two sets of arguments. My concern is a different one. In the course of his reply, Evans writes the following: “Sometimes, to challenge powerful historical myths, a corrective is badly needed. Hence the late Peter Hart’s controversial The IRA and its Enemies.(2) Like Hart, my book challenges a few shibboleths. Unlike him, I do not distort sources.” The extract contains a gratuitously insulting reference to the late Peter Hart. Professor Hart was a leading historian of modern Ireland. His work on the Irish Revolution has had a seminal importance for later historians. Unlike some, he may not have been infallible in his use of sources and the historical judgements he sometimes made. But he did not distort sources, as Evans alleges. This Canadian scholar brought brilliance to the study of 20th century Irish society. While he died at a tragically young age, his scholarship lives on. Liam Kennedy Professor of Economic & Social History University of Ulster
Bryce EvansWed, 02/10/2013 - 17:53
I would not question the elegance and originality of Peter Hart's 'The IRA and its Enemies' for one second. Hart was a brilliant historian, as Professor Kennedy points out, and he is sadly missed by the wider community of Irish historians. 'The IRA and its Enemies' was a groundbreaking study that contributed enormously to the historiography of twentieth century Ireland and works following it, this one included, remain in its debt. However, the sad fact remains that Peter Hart included in his sources on the Kilmichael ambush a spurious interview with an IRA volunteer who was in fact dead. This is what I mean by the distortion of sources. None of us, of course, are infallible in the use of sources. Rather, my reference to Hart merely draws attention to the hollowness of Professor Girvin's claim that I deploy 'questionable sources' in this biography. Any professional historian will recognise this as a dangerous slur necessitating a strong response. On reading Professor Girvin's words I was deeply concerned that he may leave readers with the impression that some of the sources used in this book are, rather than the product of assiduous research, simply made up. In short, the distinction I draw is between imagination and originality in the historian's craft - the very thrust of my rejoinder to Girvin - and the falsification of sources, which is a different matter entirely.
ihr.webmasterThu, 19/12/2013 - 15:07
This comment has been added by Brian Girvin: I am pleased that Bryce Evans has withdrawn his incautious remark concerning the late Peter Hart in his reply to Professor Liam Kennedy. However, he continues to maintain that my criticism of his use of sources is unacceptable and by implication, with his reference to Hart, that I consider them to have been distorted. If he had read my review with greater care, Dr Evans might not have responded so defensively and it might have been possible to have had a useful exchange on the issues raised in the review. What I said was that ‘some of the sources are open to question’, and that is a position I continue to maintain. I see no reason to change my view that Evans discussion of gambling and possible corruption was ‘unconvincing’ and based on ‘questionable sources’. It is not unreasonable to raise questions about sources, especially when they are been used to make claims about an individual’s behaviour in a biography. In fact the question is not about sources as such but about the use to which they are applied and the interpretation made by the historian. The sources cited by Dr Evans on pp. 160-61 are not strong enough to support the implications he derives from them. They are based on interviews that took place 30 to 40 years after the event. While oral history has to be taken seriously the material also has to be treated with caution. The fact that there were rumours among army officers tells us very little about what actually happened. Rumours are part and parcel of political life and many are not true. One of those interviewed Jack McQuillan was a close ally of Noël Browne and openly hostile to Fianna Fáil when the interview occurred. This is not to claim the rumours were wrong but only to advise caution when utilising interviews recorded much after the event, to interrogate sources more carefully and to seek confirmation from other sources. Dr Evans is dependent for his assessment on the material collected by John Horgan for his biography of Lemass. Unlike Dr Evans, Horgan took particular care when assessing charges of corruption or gambling based on these sources. In contrast he provides a nuanced assessment of these issues that provides context and treats the evidence is a critical fashion.(1) Dr Evans does not engage critically with what Horgan says in his book and does not bring anything new to the discussion in terms of sources or analysis. It is in this context that I raised questions concerning sources and their use and continue to believe that this is legitimate. A similar problem arises when Dr Evans discusses Lemass’s attitude to membership of the EEC. Again he uses an interview source provided by Horgan to make the claim that German and French politicians agreed to support Ireland to end partition. Not only is this fanciful but no other sources are cited to demonstrate this point. If this was true it would be a major contribution to the study of Anglo-Irish relations and Europe. Yet, the extensive archives available simply do not support this contention and indeed Horgan treated the source with considerable scepticism.(2) A reviewer has an obligation to provide an accurate description of the book under discussion and, when necessary, offer a critical commentary on it. I took the opportunity to review this book because I considered it to be of enough interest to warrant the extended word length provided by Reviews in History. This allowed for a more detailed engagement with the author’s interpretation, narrative and use of sources. 1 John Horgan, Seán Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot Dublin, 1997, 97-105. It should be noted that Horgan has generously shared his personal archive with other scholars on Lemass. 2 For a recent assessment of this topic see Michael J. Geary, An Inconvenient Wait: Ireland’s Quest for Membership of the EEC 1957-73, Dublin 2009.
ihr.webmasterMon, 06/01/2014 - 11:37
This comment has been added by Eve Morrison: Bryce Evans is entirely incorrect in stating that ‘Peter Hart included in his sources on the Kilmichael ambush a spurious interview with an IRA volunteer who was in fact dead.’ Peter Hart interviewed Kilmichael veteran Ned Young (cited as EY in his PhD and AA in The I.R.A. and their Enemies) in April and June 1988, over a year before Young died. Hart conducted a separate interview with a man identified only as an ambush scout a few days after Young’s death in November 1989. Several of Hart’s critics wrongly assumed that the date for this interview referred to Young. Eventually, Niall Meehan, one of Hart’s most persistent detractors, consulted Hart’s PhD and realised this. A ‘statement’ from John Young, one of Ned Young's four children, then appeared maintaining that Hart could not have interviewed his father. John Young’s claims have recently been challenged by Marion O’Driscoll, the widow of the late Jim O’Driscoll, SC, the man who personally introduced Hart to Ned Young. The letter she co-wrote with me can be accessed via the Letters Extra section of the History Ireland website. Hart did not lie, falsify or invent anything, and he made far fewer errors than his critics in their attacks on him.
ihr.webmasterMon, 06/01/2014 - 11:38
This comment has been added by Niall Meehan: Leading off this sidebar discussion Liam Kennedy remarked, "Professor Peter Hart was a leading historian of modern Ireland. His work on the Irish Revolution has had a seminal importance for later historians. Unlike some, he may not have been infallible in his use of sources and the historical judgements he sometimes made. But he did not distort sources, as [Bryce] Evans alleges." I agree that Hart was leading and that his importance was seminal. The position was achieved in The IRA and its Enemies (1998) by distorting, camouflaging and censoring evidence. That is a fact (see on Hart, his defenders, and the Kilmichael Ambush, Some historians admire Hart's power of exposition, in particular a capacity to marshal sources in support of analysis and conclusions. However, it is easier to write well when evidence serves conclusions, rather than as sources dictate. Some defenders say Hart 'muddled' sources (Morrison), others that he was 'careless' in presenting them (Fitzpatrick). Since the careless muddle usually pointed in the same narrative direction that implies deliberation at work. There is now considerable literature on the Hart phenomenon. Some historians continue to insist that Hart was a fine practitioner (though with disguised foibles, see Kennedy above). Increasingly however, Hart is erased from discussion he initiated. For example, in a recent Kilmichael Ambush discussion Charles Townshend ignored Hart, apart from one reference note (The Republic, 2013). Hart's Kilmichael ambush conclusion, arrived at by hiding evidence and interviewing a not alive anonymous source, in which the IRA massacred unarmed prisoners, was linked to his view that 'the nationalist revolution was also a sectarian one'. Both topics suppressed evidence that suppressed Hart's conclusions. For Hart conclusions came first and this thought is suppressed by historians too busy to look at evidence. An exception is David Fitzpatrick, Hart's original thesis supervisor. His recent analysis of Cork Methodist congregations demonstrated no basis for Hart's 1996 charge of 'ethnic cleansing' of Protestants (Methodist Bulletin, IHS, 2013). This is progress, particularly as Fitzpatrick assiduously promoted Hart's view long after Hart abandoned it in 2003. Fitzpatrick thinks a lot of Hart criticism unfair, though he also thinks it fair to dismiss critics as unnamed 'apologists for contemporary republicanism' (History Ireland, Sep-Oct 2013, my response, Nov-Dec). He also appears emotionally, as distinct from intellectually, attached to Hart's republican sectarianism thesis (pace Fitzpatrick's song at the 2013 Magdalene College Cambridge Parnell Lecture). However, in his IHS and Methodist Bulletin articles Fitzpatrick has put historiography first. Others might note and do likewise. At some stage Hart will become history, though not yet. Bryce Evans' alarm at his own thought that his Lemass research was likened to Hart's on Kilmichael demonstrates this. Does Brian Girvin think Evans 'incautious' for having his mistaken thought or for stating that Hart distorted sources? After Kennedy's intervention Evans now concludes that Hart was 'brilliant', as well as a source distorter. We may ask, brilliant at what? We should also continue to ask why Hart's historiography was once uncritically celebrated and why critics proven largely correct were dismissed and ignored. The wider discussion here involves interpretation and weighing of evidence, an entirely different matter.
Niall MeehanWed, 08/01/2014 - 14:29
That is an excellent suggestion by Eve Morrison, consultation of the discussion at the History Ireland website. The link is, Eve Morrison misses the point, however, on the late Peter Hart's anonymous interviews with Kilmichael Ambush veterans. Anonymity was a barrier to differentiating them and Morrison is correct to indicate some head scratching (given Hart’s refusal to discuss the point) until I looked at Hart's 1992 PhD thesis in 2008 (however, be it noted, Meda Ryan first raised the issue in her 2003 Tom Barry biography). The problem is essentially this, the last surviving (publicly acknowledged) ambush veteran, Edward 'Ned' Young, died on 13 November 1989. Hart in his 1998 book reported interviewing an ambush participant, an unarmed scout, six days later. That anomaly is compounded by the fact that the mystery man was neither unarmed or a scout in Hart's 1992 PhD thesis. Hart's claim that he interviewed two ambush participants in 1988-89 is confronted therefore by three problems a) only Ned Young was alive then, b) Hart's second anonymous veteran was interviewed after Ned Young died, c) Young's son stated it would not have been physically possible for his 96-year-old father to have contributed the anonymous interview Hart claimed in 1988. Space is too short to detail another curiosity concerning Ned Young. In summary: Hart presented him as three separate people, as a 1988 interviewee for Hart, for Fr John Chisholm in 1970, and also in Young's own name from his 1950s Witness Statement (making the 1988 interview somewhat redundant?). Readers were not made aware that the same person's utterances were presented in three different guises. Hart also failed to detail what Young said confirming a false surrender event at Kilmichael. If there are alternative plausible explanations for the suggestion that Hart obscured, camouflaged and distorted sources, the historical profession and academics generally would, I am sure, be happy to hear them. In her discussion with me in on this site, concerning her Kilmichael chapter in Terror in Ireland 1916-23 (2012), Morrison stated that she was on the trail of the mysterious (still unidentified) scout. How is that going?