Peter Hart (1963-2010)

Contributed by Fearghal McGarry

The death of Peter Hart at the age of 46 has deprived Ireland of one of its finest scholars: it is difficult to think of anyone who contributed more to the historiography of the Irish revolution, or whose work on the subject had a greater public impact.

Peter wrote three major works during his short academic career, and he was close to finishing several more at the time of his death. His first, The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-23 (1998), remains one of the most important studies of the period. It is a testament to the intimidating breadth of Peter’s scholarship that his second book – a collection of essays entitled The I.R.A. at War (2003) which explored the themes of his local study on a broader canvas – also serves as one of the best undergraduate textbooks on the Irish revolution. Mick: The Real Michael Collins (2005) was written for a popular rather than scholarly market. Peter had a refreshingly North American attitude about this: he wanted to write books that people would buy in airport bookshops, and he believed that academics should be able to connect with a mass audience (notwithstanding the hostility that their research could generate).

What made Peter’s work original? In part, his status as an outsider. Born in Newfoundland, he studied at Queen’s, Ontario, and Yale before coming to Trinity College. He wasn’t particularly interested in Irish history in itself, he chose Ireland (whose revolution he considered the best documented in the world) as the focus for his broader interest in revolutionary movements, the dynamics of violence and the role of communal identities. Indeed he had briefly considered studying history in Beijing; given his iconoclastic approach to national narratives it was probably as well he didn’t. His work was characterised by an unusually strong comparative dimension. He was interested in what the international and theoretical literature could bring to the Irish revolution and, more ambitiously, sought to give Ireland a place in that wider analytical canon.

His scholarship combined a forensic focus on local detail, and a comparative, sociological methodology underpinned by a statistical, empirical rigour with often innovative theoretical frameworks: most historians can pull off some of these but the combination was unusual. A fan of crime fiction, he was very interested in narrative. He was a stylish writer with a literary sensibility: The I.R.A. and its Enemies deploys an unusual structure in which key chapters reconstruct particular events – a night of murder or a single ambush – in gripping, intimate detail.

Peter was not slow to acknowledge his intellectual debts; most obviously his work was influenced by his Ph.D. supervisor, David Fitzpatrick, in its use of a local focus to anatomise the wider revolution. Where Peter most advanced the historiography was in his determination to challenge established narratives by applying categories of inquiry – such as class, status and ethnicity – to explore explanations for collective action beyond those of patriotism and national liberation.

This approach brought Peter into stormy waters. Some of the resulting controversies fell within the realm of legitimate debate, but a lot didn’t. The inordinate focus on who did what at Kilmichael detracted from appreciation of the significance of his body of work as a whole, and his depiction as a crude anti-nationalist revisionist was misleading. Peter’s uncompromisingly critical analyses of the uses of revolutionary violence derived not from a narrow political agenda but an empathy with the victims (often marginalised and forgotten – as his research demonstrated) of violence on all sides, and a desire to expose how ignorance, fear and myth could prove fatal agencies within polarised communities.

In person, Peter was unassuming, tolerant, courteous and funny (in a laid-back, Canadian sort of way). He lacked the air of self-importance that well-known academics can exude, and encouraged younger researchers. And he was generous, quick to share his unpublished research or read the work of others (he had a knack for coming up with titles for other people’s books). His work will continue to shape our understanding of the Irish revolution for years to come.

Fearghal McGarry is senior lecturer in modern history at Queen’s University, Belfast. His most recent book, The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916 was published by Oxford University Press in 2010.


19 Responses to “Peter Hart (1963-2010)”

  1. patrick maume Says:

    A very good post. I knew Peter quite well when we were both teaching at Queens, albeit in different departments. We used to have a little weekly seminar in Bookfinders with Joost Augusteijn and Ben Levitas, and it was always intellectually stimulating.
    Some of Peter’s methodology was certainly open to debate (I remember being present at a couple of amiable and mutually respectful exchanges between him and John Borgonuovo about the reliability of certain published memoirs which he had used) but the portrayal of him in certain works published by the Aubane Historical Society (notably the appropriately-titled PROPAGANDA AS ANTI-HISTORY: AN ANALYSIS OF PETER HART’S ‘THE IRA AND ITS ENEMIES’ by Owen Sheridan) as an apologist for British rule and deliberate purveyor of atrocity propaganda was really laughable for anyone who knew him. He had fairly standard left-liberal views, and basically assumed/regretted that the natural course of events would have been for Home Rule to evolve into dominion status; anyone who has read his contribution to Myles Dungan’s SPEAKING ILL OF THE DEAD will know that he was very critical of the British Conservatives’ role in the years up to 1921, and I remember Paul Bew telling me that Peter was surprised at the very mild criticisms of Gladstone’s handling of the Home Rule issue (contained in Paul’s paper in the same volume) because Peter assumed that Gladstone was simply “the good guy”.
    His reputation I think will rest on his detailed local studies; his comparative work was still I think a bit undeveloped, though it promised to grow into something very fine. He is a great loss to scholarship; still more so to his friends, his family, and Robin.

  2. patrick maume Says:

    Here’s a nice obit from the Toronto GLOBE AND MAIL (h/t to the Newshound site where I found the link)

  3. Frank Says:

    Perhaps those who knew him might also like to read the comments or contribute their own on the following online memorial site:

  4. Captain Rock Says:

    There was a long discussion on the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog about Peter Hart´s sad death. It is worth checking out, if only because so many of the comments reflect the fact that Hart´s work has been descredited in many peoples eyes, especially the Kilmichael interviews stuff. There is background material on the debates in various History Ireland features. I don´t have a strong opinion either way, but for a historian who put great faith in popular reaction to his work, it seems the view of the reading public here may differ greatly from the academy.

  5. What use are historians anyway? « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] Whelan, lecturer in international politics at UCC, died at the age of just 37. The following month Peter Hart passed away in Newfoundland. And on Friday 6 August the profession lost Tony Judt, professor of […]

  6. patrick maume Says:

    In relation to Captain Rock, I am not altogether sure that the opposition to Peter Hart represents the “reading public”. On some of the online forums which have been discussing his work (these would include, Cedar Lounge Revolution, and Slugger O’Toole) some of the critics responded to defenders who said that Peter’s work was about much more than Kilmichael by saying that they had not read any of his work and did not intend to, on the grounds that if his Kilmichael work was discredited as a fabrication everything else he wrote was automatically discredited. Clearly these people are not really interested in judging the work for themselves or understanding where Peter was coming from; they just take Aubane and Meda Ryan’s word for it that he was a neo-Unionist.
    Another point might be that analysis of the political mobilisation process is by its nature more complicated and less easily grasped than a narrative which focusses on the flying column alone and assumes that everyone except a few spies and degenerates automatically supported them. (This is not just academic v. memoir; the contrast between Barry’s Flying-Column-centred memoir and the Deasy-Chisholm account TOWARDS IRELAND FREE which is much more “decentred” and covers the much more numerous local IRA units and support structure as well as the Flying Columns is very striking.

  7. Frank Says:

    Just came across an interesting and lengthy discussion of his work here:

    Also, those reading this blog who didn’t know Peter or who haven’t read any of his books can get a sense of the man and his work from the following online lecture:

  8. patrick maume Says:

    That is a good discussion of Peter’s work. The suggestion that he strained some of his work a bit farther than it would really go to make a point is plausible (the problem with the fitzpatrick school’s emphasis on statistics is that statistics require prior assessment/interpretation of the data, and this is eaily overlooked) but at the same time it does justice to his considerable achievements.
    Another point that might be made in answer to captain Rock. What happened to Peter was not a case of the reading public neglecting him – the common fate of academic historians. He was targeted by a systematic campaign of demonisation, led by BICO/Aubane and latched onto by Republicns of various stripes, which led to large numbers of people who had never read a word he wrote being told that he was a historical falsifier and an apologist for British imperialism.

  9. Frank Says:

    Two important reviews of his work by historians also merit consideration:

    William Kautt uses his military background to make some interesting points about the analytic methods used in the collection of essays published as The IRA at War while Timothy MacMahon fairly assesses strengths and weaknesses of Mick: The Real Michael Collins.

  10. Eve Morrison Says:

    Peter Hart was extremely kind and helpful to me over the years, as he was to so many other researchers. His equlibrium, honesty, fair-mindedness and genuine commitment to fraternal debate provide a model for us all.
    He was also great fun to go for a pint or a coffee with, for a laugh and a natter.
    I feel privileged to have known him, and I know that his scrupulous scholarship will stand the test of time. The same cannot be said for his detractors.

  11. Niall Meehan Says:

    Patrick Maume and Fearghal McGarry refer to what they construe as disagreeable elements of the critique of Peter Hart (Maume more so than McGarry).

    It would perhaps be helpful if readers accessed the source of this martial directly, rather than form an opinion based on second hand assessments.

    Troubled History – a tenth anniversary Critique of Peter Hart’s ‘The IRA and its Enemies’ (2008)

    Click to access Troubled__PUBLISH_.pdf

    The issues were summed up recently in the shorter:

    The stubborn facts of Kilmichael: Peter Hart and Irish Historiography (2010)

    Click to access Peter_Hart___Irish_Historiography__Spinwatch_.pdf

    Gerard Murphy’s recent ‘The Year of Disappearances’ (Gill & Macmillan, 2010), which openly acknowledges a debt to Hart’s pioneering research, and recent reviews, might help to further the discussion:

    An ‘amazing coincidence’ that ‘could mean anything’: Gerard Murphy’s The Year of Disappearances (2010)

    Click to access Gerard_Murphy_review_FINAL_2010.pdf

    The book was reviewed in the Irish Times (11 Dec 2010) and in the Jan-Feb 2011 edition of History Ireland. The Irish Times review was challenged by the author (6 Jan 2011), links below:

    Rumour, gossip and coincidence, review by Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid (Cambridge)
    Political killings in Cork, letter by Gerard Murphy (IT Carlow)
    The Big Book, The year of Disappearances, review by John Borgonovo (UCC)
    (History Ireland Jan-Feb 2011 edition not yet linked on website (11 Jan) – on sale in shops.)

    (Finally, links to the debate with Peter hart in History Ireland in 2005 are listed at: 11 January 2011 07:10,

  12. Gavin O'Brien Says:

    Why are the reviews by NicDhaibheid and Borgonovo considered somehow critical of Peter Hart? Hart and Gerard Murphy are not the same person.

  13. Niall Meehan Says:

    I suggested that consideration of Murphy’s book might further the discussion. This is on the basis that Murphy acknowledged (p. 22) that Hart’s work was the inspiration for his own research into the Cork IRA.

    Peter Hart featured in a recent TG 4 programme on Tom Barry. It can be accessed here (Part 3 contains a discussion of Hart’s research):

    19.01.11 – A documentary on the life of General Tom Barry, legendary IRA guerrilla leader of the Third West Cork Brigade.

  14. You have been reading, in order of appearance… « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] Peter Hart (1963-2010), 3 August 2010 In which Fearghal McGarry recalls the life of the Irish historian. […]

  15. Revisiting the Bandon Valley Killings of April 1922 - Page 5 Says:

    […] […]

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