Picking a fight over the rights and wrongs of our history
John Regan’s essays are marred by questionable sources, repetition, pretension and invective
Questioned: Michael Collins in 1922. Photograph: Walshe/Getty
Myth and the Irish State
Irish Academic Press
John Regan’s first book, The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-36 , from 1999, was an insightful, thoroughly researched analysis of the dilemmas and dynamics of governance during the early years of the Irish Free State. In the 15 years since then Regan has been particularly preoccupied with challenging fellow historians on their approach to the history of the revolutionary period 1916-23, especially the year 1922.
This book brings together articles and reviews he has published in this area, all but one of which have been previously published in history journals. To describe them as provocative would be an understatement. Regan presents himself as a crusader uncovering the politically driven research agendas of historians and political scientists. He accuses them of a deliberately selective use of evidence in writing about the history of the revolutionary period as a response to the impact of the Northern Ireland Troubles from the late 1960s. Too many scholars of this period, he maintains, have not written freely about the past “much as they find it” but “constructed, sometimes knowingly, at other times unwittingly, a new foundation myth for the Irish state”.
At the core of the myth is the idea that the battle for political and military supremacy in 1922, at the time of the Civil War, was between republican dictators and pro-Treaty democrats. Three themes in this regard are focused on repeatedly, to the point of tedium: the June 1922 general election, which Regan argues did not deliver as clear a mandate for the pro-Treaty side as has been maintained; Michael Collins briefly presiding over what “closely resembled a military dictatorship” in April 1922; and the threat of British force or war that same year, which he insists has been either downplayed or ignored by many historians. In the midst of all this, it seems, is an ego hurting; Regan’s conclusion in relation to military dictatorship in 1922, he complains, “has been met with marked indifference” from professional and amateur historians.
It is a book that, to the author’s credit, raises serious questions about the impact of the Troubles on history writing and the challenges of sources and proof. But his approach is problematic in numerous ways. Regan’s admission that it was not “even remotely a planned book” is not only a curiously arrogant start but also explains the extreme repetition. Because each of the journal articles as it was sequentially published had to state his case afresh, the reader is faced with the same arguments, incidents and details in most of the chapters.
The tendentious tone and assertions sometimes allow Regan the conspiracy theorist to win out over Regan the historian. He is, it seems, determined to prove that he is the smartest boy in the history class and adopts a stance that is too often imperious and condescending. His prose style is frequently turgid and pretentious; there is too much preoccupation with “teleology”, “unhistoricity”, “digestible binary orders” and “paradigms”. Ironically, in seeking to liberate history from the academic myth-makers for the benefit of the public, his writing is often patronising and snobbish, as he crafts inaccessible jargon. Another problem is that in accusing others of elision, evasion and ignoring vital sources, he elevates alternative sources to a status they may not merit.
His argument that “where patterns of omission occur and are repeated, explanations not relying wholly on chance must be sought” is undoubtedly true. He convincingly demonstrates that Collins’s devotion to constitutionalism in 1922 has been exaggerated. Collins was commander in chief of the national army at the same time as he was president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and Regan declares it cannot be claimed with certainty that “the Treatyite regime was independent of the IRB executive”. It is, however, “impossible to say” how much power the IRB had.
Regan sees a deliberate conspiracy in the refusal of other historians to refer to a memoir deposited in the UCD archives in 1974 that suggests Collins planned for the IRB to remain active. In August 1922, by vetoing demands to have parliament meet, Collins also transferred executive powers to the military command. The lack of legal relationship between the Treatyite government and the army during the Civil War was another anomaly.
These ambiguities and short cuts were perhaps unsurprising in the midst of civil war, but more needs to be made of the reality that neither side during this conflict had a monopoly on virtue or democratic sentiment. In underlining that, Regan makes very good use of archival material and correspondence between, for example, Collins, Arthur Griffith and Richard Mulcahy.
His analysis of the general-election result in June 1922, however, is odd. Pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin agreed to run a joint panel of candidates to maintain their existing strength in the Dáil, with third parties running against these panel candidates. Regan maintains that a vote for a panel candidate was a vote for the status quo rather than one involving democratic legitimacy. He argues that two-thirds of the electorate “voted for Sinn Féin’s right to frustrate the democratic will”, with the remaining third voting for nonpanel candidates.
There is little doubt many regarded the pact as undemocratic, but Regan’s assertions do not involve reflection on how voters saw their actions at the time; the idea that two-thirds of an intelligent Irish electorate were voting to undermine their own will is far-fetched.
Regan also cites Winston Churchill’s portentous and threatening letters to Michael Collins in April 1922, warning that if Collins did not oust republicans from the Four Courts British force would. Others have highlighted such threats, but how much should be read in to them is debatable. Churchill was, after all, a master of melodrama.
Regan suggests that “more acceptable sources are available” than those drawn on by Brian Farrell, Joe Lee, Tom Garvin, Dermot Keogh and David Fitzpatrick in their writings on this period. Farrell formulated the thesis in 1968 that the Irish parliamentary tradition was more important than its revolutionary one, which, Regan insists, “presaged a public history insisting on the fidelity of the state’s constitutionalism from 1922”.
But it was also the case that Farrell’s generation were working without access to a broad range of source material for the revolutionary period, and this was another factor that influenced their perspectives.
Farrell indeed painted in black and white instead of grey, absorbing messy reality into a neat narrative of constitutional progress, and falsely insisted in 1971 that those who resorted to arms after 1922 “found themselves on the periphery of Irish political life”. This was fallacious; Éamon de Valera, Regan points out, joined the anti-Treaty IRA at the outbreak of civil war and was president of Ireland while Farrell was writing.
Certainly, it can be concluded that Farrell’s focus was influenced by contemporary events; as Ronan Fanning has much more recently asserted, during the Troubles “political imperatives prevailed over historical truth”.
This is hardly revelatory; reordering the revolutionary generation as pro-State democrats or anti-State dictators was common, as numerous scholars felt it vital to define the IRA in 1922 as anti-democratic in order to undermine the Provisional IRA during the Troubles, a manifestation of southern 26-county nationalism.
Regan, however, also connects this to 1922, when elements in the IRA wanted to initiate a Border war, but “the Treatyites frustrated what could easily be presented as an attempt to liberate Ulster and this, in order to protect their nationalist credentials, had at all costs to be avoided”. Perhaps they also wanted to avoid it as they were aware it would have been a calamitous campaign and strategically unwise.
In evaluating the work of the late Peter Hart, Regan sits as supreme judge. He insists Hart ignored evidence about the Bandon Valley massacres in April 1922, the killing of 13 Protestant loyalists in west Cork. He cites the omission of Record of the R ebellion in Ireland in 1920-1 in the Imperial War Museum in London on the role of army intelligence that suggested there were more loyalists in the vicinity of Bandon than elsewhere. (Is this source unimpeachable?)
Regan does, however, demonstrate that Hart’s unambiguous sectarian narrative is not justified by the sources; he is also correct, in my view, that none of the arguments about the Kilmichael Ambush in 1920, when 16 auxiliaries were killed by Tom Barry’s IRA flying column, and in relation to which there were accusations that there was a false surrender by the British troops that resulted in the brutality of some of the deaths, have been proved conclusively. The contradictory evidence about what happened does not merit emphatic conclusions from anyone involved in the debate.
Hart did not sufficiently address inconsistencies in his explanations of his sources. But if it is true – and Regan builds a convincing case – that “there was in Hart’s work a compulsion not only to exaggerate, but also to simplify”, does that also mean that his doctoral supervisor, David Fitzpatrick, and external examiner, Charles Townshend, are guilty of “failure to uphold disciplinary standards”, which requires “urgent attention”? And this in relation to the Peter Hart who elsewhere Regan commends as having “brilliant intellect, cool rationality and formidable capacities for archival research and history writing”?
In preparing his charge sheet, Regan is confusing academic supervision with control. Not everything is tied up neatly in the doctoral process. History theses are not scientific experiments conducted in a laboratory; after all, Regan admits that source material that is “rich” can also be “ambiguous”. The weight to be attached to particular sources will depend of a variety of factors.
The shortcomings in Hart’s work do not justify the charge that he “did violence” to historical understanding and the historical profession, or Regan’s messianic declaration that “we must begin anew to part historical research from its impostors”. The notion of the historians as myth junkies collectively and conspiratorially injecting themselves with the revisionist drug is taken too far, and the accusations he levels at Hart, Fitzpatrick and Townshend are unwarranted and create the impression of a personal vendetta at work.
He also wonders piously, “is there ever any justification for using the pejorative language of a civil war in historical writing”? This amounts to an unrealistic expectation that Irish historians should be unique in completely preventing politics or contemporary environment from intruding on their writings.
Regan provides no evidence for the assertion that “projects begun in southern universities on revolutionary republicanism in the 1960s and 1970s were in some instances delayed or abandoned altogether”. Conor Cruise O’Brien, understandably, is a prime target because of his obsession in the 1970s with what he saw as the “wrong” history, and he crudely reduced historical perspective to supporting either the State or its enemies, but Regan exaggerates his influence. For all those O’Brien converted, many more were unimpressed by his cartoon history.
Much of Regan’s argument hinges on the idea of “the fabrication of a new public historical consciousness” serviced by historians, which is insulting to the intelligence not just of historians but also of the public.
It is evident that Regan is a talented researcher, which raises this question: why devote so much attention and energy to repeatedly deconstructing and critiquing the work of others instead of writing his own account of these years, based on his own research, and incorporating the criticisms he wants to make of other historical accounts?
Such a book, with a broader context, focus and perspective than this one, and with less invective and personalisation, could have much to recommend it.
Diarmaid Ferriter is p rofessor of m odern Irish h istory at University College Dublin . His most recent book Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s (Profile) is out in paperback.