Tuesday, December 2, 2014

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Thinking Inside the Box

Gerard Murphy adds his perspective to the discussion on the IRA and the Disappeared of the 1920s. Gerard Murphy is the author of The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork, 1920-1921.

Far be it for me to intervene in a dispute between Niall Meehan and his (former?) party leader Gerry Adams but sometimes the facts are more important than the distortion of the facts. This is in reference to a recent article by Ed Moloney in which he quotes Niall Meehan to the effect that very few people disappeared in the south of Ireland during the War of Independence period.[1] While I have nothing but the highest regard for Ed Moloney as a chronicler of the evils that befell this island over the past almost fifty years I have to take issue with his recent input on the 1920s ‘disappeared’ in which he states that ‘the historical evidence that such disappearances took place is, to say the least, hotly disputed’ and that it is a matter of ‘controversy and disagreement’.

It is, of course, hotly disputed, but the heat of the debate is largely the result of a cloud of steam being produced by those who would rather deny the evidence. Mr Moloney goes on to say that Niall Meehan, who is Faculty Head of Media and Journalism at Griffith College Dublin, has ‘comprehensively – perhaps brutally would be a better word – demolished’ the thesis that the 1920s Cork No 1 Brigade of the IRA ‘disappeared’ scores of individuals.

The problem with that statement is that Niall Meehan did no such thing. Rather he wrote a sneering, bullying and evasive review – ‘brutal’ might indeed be the right word for it – of a TV documentary which strove to tell the story of some of those who were abducted and killed by the Cork No 1 Brigade during the War of Independence period.[2] It is not possible to detail the many irrelevancies and side-tracks of Meehan’s review – he is a man who likes to swamp the reader with pointless detail perhaps in the hope that he or she will not get around to reading to the end of his pieces – but it is possible to look at the ‘comprehensive demolition’ and see how it stacks up.

After wading through a blizzard of obfuscating detail, the lucky reader is duly rewarded with Meehan’s conclusions, to wit that the disappeared persons are ‘quite possibly largely non-existent’ and that the documentary went looking for ‘imaginary bodies’. He manages in the process to get in a swipe at my book The Year of Disappearances which he claims entered ‘the outer reaches of speculative history’ when it came documenting the kidnappings and secret burials that took place around Cork city in 1919-23. His most ‘devastating’, ‘comprehensive’ and dare I say ‘brutal’ conclusion is to ask: ‘How many are actually missing? If we don’t know their names how do we know they are missing? Where is the evidence that relatives looked for them? Few human beings disappear without a family or friendly inquiry.’

Yet the answer to all those ‘how do we know’ questions is actually quite simple. It is in archives in Ireland and Britain, indeed mostly in Dublin within a mile of Mr Meehan’s faculty seat in Griffith College. Yet in twenty years of visiting these archives, even though I have seen almost every prominent historian in Ireland at one time or another I have never once laid eyes on Mr Meehan at any of these archives. (I’m sure he will tell us that he regularly trawls through the stacks – but this is just my observation.) So it is disingenuous, to say the least, for him to attack Eunan O’Halpin or myself for the crime of actually doing the legwork necessary for historical research. For Meehan will not even accept that the list given at the end of the programme[3] – which is far from complete, by the way – has any validity, focussing instead on the one person on the list who may (or may not) have escaped IRA retribution.

For what is always at the core of Meehan’s method is to find an exception to a rule and flog it for all it is worth. In his ‘hotly contesting’ review of my book, for instance, he claimed that just because a clergyman stated at the Protestant Convention of May 1922 that he had never known intimidation that no such intimidation ever took place – even though the convention was called to deal with precisely that issue in the first place. (The clergyman’s relatives were burnt out of West Cork so he had a good reason for denying that it happened.) He applies the same method in his review of the documentary, focussing on William Shields who may or may not have been killed, while ignoring all those whom we know were in fact killed. Indeed he is probably deliberately confusing William Shields with Dan Shields, a well-known British military agent who does appear to have evaded IRA justice, going on to imply that it is quite likely there was nobody – or next to nobody – secretly executed.

This technique of always ‘looking at the smaller picture’ makes for good propaganda. It is akin to the tobacco lobby claiming that just because some heavy smokers live to a ripe old age there is no connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Indeed Mr Meehan has made quite a career out of this over the past 25 years. And it’s highly effective; it can even hoodwink as level-headed an observer and writer as Ed Moloney. But the real question is how many of these ‘possibly imaginary bodies’ are there and how does the ‘comprehensive’ and ‘brutal’ demolition stand up?

Well, based on ‘family or friendly inquiries’, as Meehan puts it, or to answer the questions he poses: ‘If we don’t know their names how do we know they are missing?’ and ‘Where is the evidence that relatives looked for them?’ the short answer, perhaps to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is in the region of 80. Yes, that is 80 actual disappeared individuals whose names we know of in the Cork area alone whose families enquired – sometimes begged – of the authorities of the Free State or the British military for information for their missing loved ones. Only a handful of bodies was ever recovered. This is not ‘the outer reaches of speculative history’. This is mere fact. For what it’s worth, these consist of 34 civilians, 40 military and 6 RIC. Considering that this is sometimes referred to as ‘The Tan War’ it is ironic that only five of the missing were actual Black and Tans or Auxiliaries. For the record, the list of known disappeared in Cork can be found at my website.

Ed Moloney’s claim that Meehan’s ‘masterly and lengthy critique’ that the thesis that the Cork IRA disappeared a lot of victims ‘does not pass the smell test’ is the equivalent of saying that Jean McConville, or anybody else you care to mention, could not possibly have disappeared until her body was found. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the last 30 years in Ireland will know that finding the bodies of disappeared persons is no easy matter.

Coming from a place of deliberately cultivated ignorance – that is to say ignoring overwhelming evidence in favour of nit-picking over minor or disputable detail is not masterly – although it is certainly lengthy – it is simply a dishonest and diversionary tactic. ‘Hotly disputing’ research over what amounts at the end of the day to minor or sometimes even typographical errors is one of the reasons why historians sometimes get a bad name. Because the burden of mediocrity does not go away just because you are in academic life.

What Meehan is also doing, of course, is in effect branding people like Mick Leahy, Ernie O’Malley and indeed half of the East Cork IRA as liars when they claimed that many of these missing persons were shot and buried in East Cork. After all, they have to be buried somewhere and since Sing Sing was the ‘official Brigade prison’ and because they say so in account after account, it is fair to assume that the documentary makers were at least looking in the right place. The real question, as Eunan O’Halpin has pointed out, is why the Cork No I Brigade executed and buried more civilians than all the other brigades in the country put together – and in a comparatively short period. We are no closer to finding an answer to that, but this does not mean it did not happen.

The bottom line is that at least 80 persons were shot and buried in Co Cork between 1919 and 1923 and only a handful of their bodies was ever recovered. And this is almost certainly a conservative estimate. In a more recent blog Meehan concedes that O’Halpin’s estimation that there were about 70 documented ‘spies’ shot in Cork ‘appears largely uncontentious’, though ‘there may be quibbles here and there.’ (This is surely ironic coming as it does from the master of ‘quibble’, if I may be forgiven for using a Harry Potterish pun.) But if there were around 70 ‘uncontentious’ disappeared why are the missing ‘quite possibly largely non-existent’ with the concomitant claim that the documentary went looking for ‘imaginary bodies’? I guess it’s a case of the small print giveth and the large print taketh away. Of course if he were not so busy orchestrating a Goebbels-like campaign against The Year of Disappearances he would know that many of these people and their stories were told in that book. But then, that might be too close to the truth for his taste.

Finally to answer the ‘dispute’ between Mr Meehan and Mr Adams as to the number of disappeared in the South during the revolutionary era, it is in the region of 140 the last time I counted. So it is clear that Mr Adams, though he was only making a political point that the policy of disappearing persons did not begin in Belfast in the 1970s, was just telling it as it is, even if his figure of 200 is probably too high. But it is ironic that Mr Adams who is over 80 miles away from the archival sources for these figures has more accurate information than Mr Meehan who is only a fifteen-minute walk away. There are none so blind as those who decide they will not see.

[1] http://thebrokenelbow.com/2014/11/08/the-ira-disappeared-of-the-1920s-gerry-adams-vs-niall-meehan/

[2] ‘In the Name of the Republic’, TV3, 2013. See Meehan’s reply also at http://thebrokenelbow.com/2014/11/08/the-ira-disappeared-of-the-1920s-gerry-adams-vs-niall-meehan/

[3] http://thepensivequill.am/2014/11/the-1920s-disappeared-real-question-not.html


AM said...


a fine piece. TPQ is pleased to have you feature here.

Simon said...

It was great following such an interesting and informative debate. Many an article on the quill and the associated comments make great reading and the articles on early disappearances, as a unit, are perfect examples of this.

ozzy said...

An Sionnach Fionn has posted a good rebuttal of this author.
It is worth noting that his previous two works are work of fiction and as An Sionnach Fionn points out in his rebuttal the author starts off this work with the lines:
“…some conclusions may turn out to be incorrect when more evidence becomes available. It is at best a theory or, rather, a series of interrelated theories. These may be refuted by future scholars.”

Funny that..I read a book by Anthony Beevor on Stalingrad..He never started off that historical piece by such a paragraph.

ozzy said...

Also from An Sionnach Fionn for anybody interested in this topic he has posted this which contains many, many links to other sources on this topic.


Gerard Murphy said...

The point that just because someone has written fiction disqualifies them from writing non fiction is just a cod argument.

Besides, if my book were fiction then An Sionnach Fionn would hardly have needed to state that he could not 'find words to describe how offensive he found this book' when it first came out. If it were fiction it would not matter and An Sionnach Fionn would probably not even have bothered to review it.

And for what it's worth, I'm still waiting for 'future scholars' to refute it in any but the most wretchedly evasive and typographical way.

Besides, I would have thought it was Meehan who was in the dock here, not myself.

AM said...


this is quite a good piece and you have put the invitation out to all comers to refute what you have said. Ozzy is frequently a mine of good detail but this time the critique doesn't work for the reasons you outlined. I would imagine something more substantive than you sometimes openly authoring fiction would be needed if the case you make is to be deconstructed.

It would be different were you to present your fiction as fact.

I think for many following the discussion, whatever way their sympathies lie, the debate has been stimulating and informative.

Hopefully it continues.

ansionnachfionn said...

Perhaps the reason Gerard Murphy glosses over the criticisms of those who have reviewed his book and opts instead for attacks on their personal character, complete with comparisons to Nazi propagandists, is because he has no real defence to offer? And perhaps the reason Ed Moloney, a staunch opponent of “Provisional” republicanism and chronicler of that movement’s history, has dismissed the “massacre” theories of Murphy and co. is because he recognises counter-factual nonsense when he comes across it?

Fantastical tales of Protestant boys being rowed out to sea to seek a watery doom at the hands of Republican harridans may titillate the apologist commentariat of Harris, Dudley-Edwards and the rest of the Dublin media elite but they ring pretty hollow to the rest of us.

Less of a "perspective" and more of a fist-shaking come ye all to Murphy's detractors.

Simon said...

I thought Gerard Murphy made many good points.

If there is evidence of disappearances by the IRA in the national archives through contemporary accounts then that carries some weight.

If someone has evidence that the national archives hold no such evidence then an account for that should be given as a challenge to Gerard's argument.

What ulterior motive would there have been to claim participation in the act of disappearing? There doesn't seem to be an obvious answer.

However his point that he never saw Niall Meehan at the National Archives is a weak one to make as he can't have been there all day every day for years. In fact he admits the weakness of this argument when he notes he saw "almost every prominent historian", the key word being "almost". So there were some exceptions.

However, although I give much weight to Gerard's argument I would like to hear more evidence rather than conjecture from others. There were certainly disappearances but the scale of which remains a mystery.

I try not to dismiss an argument purely because it conflicts with my world view or principled beliefs. I analyse it and may re-consider my position if that is appropriate. This case maybe being an example of that.

frankie said...

I'm in agreement with Simon. What Gerald has said and documented sounds more than plausible to me. I'd be very surprised if the only people disappeared at the hands of Irish Republicans was soley the Provisionals/INLA work... Maths or logic doesn't add up in my head.

I can link Edward Heath and Jimmy Saville into the disappearance of kids with no trace, I've read about the present Queen of England involved with the disappearance of kids with no trace..

What I'd like to know ansionnachfionn is have you tried to research the disappearance yourself or are you simply going on what you've read by Gerald?

Alfie Gallagher said...

From reading the reviews of Gerard Murphy’s The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork 1921-1922, it seems that most of his critics do accept that the IRA did kill and secretly bury a number of Crown forces and alleged civilians informers in the revolutionary period. Indeed, one of the historians who castigated Murphy’s book, John Borgonovo, had already documented 9 cases of alleged civilian informers having been disappeared by the Cork City IRA brigade in his book Spies, Informers and the 'Anti-Sinn Fein Society': The Intelligence War in Cork City, 1919-1921.

However, what Borgonovo and other academic historians have criticised is Murphy’s very tenuous thesis that the Cork IRA managed to kill dozens of Protestant civilians in 1921-22 without the killings ever being documented in any governmental, military, civilian or religious records. In several cases, Murphy cannot even name the people he claims the IRA killed.

The most common objection to Murphy’s arguments is that he draws his conclusions in spite of hard evidence rather than because of it. For example, here is what TCD historian David Fitzpatrick wrote about Murphy’s claim that up to 32 Cork Freemasons were disappeared by the IRA in 1922:

”The fact that several Freemasons were ‘struck off’ the membership list of Cork lodges in 1925-6 is attributed, not to the suspension of lodge meetings for several years, or to emigration, or to a prudent decision to abandon a contentious association, but to unrecorded killings. Though ignorant of ‘how many of them were actually killed’, Murphy is ‘of the view, however, that the majority of these men probably disappeared’. And so he goes on, building up a dossier of mysterious or unconfirmed killings without adequate confirmation, relying on his personal ‘belief’ or ‘view’. “

This criticism is echoed by Eugenio Biagini of Cambridge University, who writes that the “documentary deficit is the most serious flaw in his [Murphy’s] argument, much of which depends on hypotheses-turned-into-assumptions and presented as factual statements.” Similarly, University of Sheffield’s Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid complains that “[s]olid evidence is cast aside in favour of a series of suppositions and possibilities, and these perhaps, what-ifs and maybes are the building blocks of Murphy’s argument.”

Thus, whatever objections he may have to Niall Meehan’s allegedly “brutal” review, Gerard Murphy surely cannot dismiss all of the cogent critiques of his work as a mere "cloud of steam”.

Simon said...

Very interesting Alfie. Looks like you did a little research. This is an area where there would be a gap in my knowledge.

Gerard Murphy said...

Why did this change from being a discussion of Niall Meehan's dismissal of a TV documentary to a discussion of my book?

Do I catch the whiff of diversionary tactics?

Tut, tut.

grouch said...

tut tut urself.