Acclaimed historian who prompted lively debate


Peter Hart:THE DEATH of the historian Peter Hart, at the age of 46, has robbed Irish history of one of its most impressively original talents. Prof Hart was the author of a series of important, compelling and – at times – controversial books.

Peter David Hart was born in 1963 in St John’s, Newfoundland. After a prize-winning career as a history undergraduate at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, he took his MA at Yale before moving to Trinity College for his doctoral research which focused on Co Cork during 1916-23.

At TCD he was supvervised by another distinguished historian of the same period, Prof David Fitzpatrick, and following the award of a PhD in 1993 Hart worked at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. But he then returned to Ireland, working at Queen’s University Belfast from 1997 until 2001, first as a research fellow and then as a lecturer in the school of history.

In 2002 he was appointed to the Canada Research Chair of Irish Studies in the department of history at Memorial University, a position he held until his death.

Hart’s PhD thesis was the basis for his excellent 1998 book for Oxford University Press, The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923.

Controversy around this book has focused mainly on two features. First, there was Hart’s much-disputed account of the November 1920 IRA Kilmichael ambush, and his denial of a British army false surrender (which IRA leader Tom Barry presented as the justification for the killing of numerous soldiers). Second, there was the book’s presentation of some IRA killings in Cork as sectarian in motivation.

Debate will continue around these questions, but the book – and indeed Hart’s wider work – involved far more than these two points. It offered a brilliant, detailed account of the escalatory dynamics of 1916-23 tit-for-tat violence, seen locally in terms of interwoven cycles of vengeful reprisal. It offered criticism of British as well as IRA action, and was clear about the genuine idealism of IRA volunteers.

Most importantly, perhaps, Hart’s book presented invaluably detailed research into the social and occupational background of IRA members, work which continues to be of the highest importance for other scholars of this turbulent era.

The book won both the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize and the American Conference for Irish Studies Donald Murphy Prize, was acclaimed by scholars from across the historiographical spectrum, and has become a central work in the field.

The IRA At War, 1916-1923was published in 2003, again by OUP, and brought together a range of Hart’s pioneering and stimulating essays on the causes, nature and consequences of violence in Ireland in those bloody years.

He then turned to work on Michael Collins, publishing an arresting biography, Mick: The Real Michael Collins, (2005)and was preparing another Collins volume at the time of his death.

Hart published widely in the world’s most prestigious history journals. He wrote frequently and insightfully as a book reviewer (including for The Irish Times) and he lectured extensively on his research specialism in Ireland, the United States, Canada and Britain. He was an engaging, thoughtful speaker, and a shy, gentle, courageous man.

In the 1990s he developed cancer and underwent a liver transplant, demonstrating throughout this experience both a quiet courage and an utter lack of self-pity. Courteous and dignified in debate – qualities not always displayed by his adversaries – he combined impressive professionalism with an intellectual restlessness to ask large and novel questions of local and painful human experience.

His work will remain vital to debates on early 20th-century Ireland, and the valuable discussions which he pioneered will represent, along with his powerful books, an enduring legacy.

He died after a brain haemorrhage, suffered early in July. He is survived by his long-time partner, the anthropologist Robin Whitaker.

Peter Hart: born November 11th, 1963, died July 22nd, 2010