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.
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