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Dealing with the historical facts

I noted Gerard Murphy’s letter (Apr 4) in response to my recent article discussing the TV3 documentary series, In the Name of the Republic (Irish Examiner, Mar 27).

I will answer what appear to be its most pressing points.

I can confirm that my article was not aimed at Gerard Murphy, but rather at the makers of the TV3 programme, In the Name of the Republic.

This should have been clear, since Murphy and his book The Year of Disappearances are mentioned in just two of my article’s 21 paragraphs.

Despite Murphy’s assumptions to the contrary, I do not advocate ignoring IRA veteran testimony, records of non-governmental agencies, or other evidence relating to IRA killings in the revolutionary period. My 2007 book, Spies, Informers, and the Anti-Sinn Féin Society used such sources when examining, in gruesome detail, the IRA’s killing of 26 suspected civilian informers in Cork city during 1920-1921. I named all those victims (including nine who ‘disappeared’), and provided an approximate date of death for 24 of them. The book was based on my MA thesis completed in 1997, which Murphy read in 2003.

I am highly critical of Murphy’s argument that a secret wave of mass murder occurred in Cork during 1922. The evidence I have seen, and Murphy has produced, cannot justify submitting this unproven theory as historical fact. Murphy considers my criticism of his work essentially personal, stemming from what he supposes is my view, ‘that the Irish revolution was a noble exercise, with all the nasty work carried out on one side’. I do not hold such an opinion, nor am I engaged in a vendetta. Neither, presumably, are my fellow historians who wrote negative reviews of Murphy’s book. Their ranks include Professor David Fitzpatrick of TCD (‘This is the work of an amateur enthusiast… At times the exposition resembles that of a mediocre essay by a bright but untrained undergraduate’); Professor Eugenio Biagini of Cambridge University (‘…hypotheses-turned-into-assumptions and presented as factual statements’); and Dr Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid of University of Sheffield (‘Solid 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.’) Murphy is on firmer ground when he protests that I incorrectly dated the publication of The Year of Disappearances. He is correct, as the book was released Oct 1, 2010. A second edition appeared in 2011.

I also suggested TV3 hire ‘an eminent zoologist and a team of paranormal investigators’ to find a ‘flying beast’ described by the IRA witness Martin Corry in taped interviews omitted from In the Name of the Republic. Murphy appears to have taken my recommendation at face value. For reasons still unclear to me, Murphy believes I misrepresented his occupation and demeaned the field of archaeology.

Such unlikely inferences are Murphy’s only. To be clear, Dr Murphy is a biochemist at Carlow Institute of Technology, not a zoologist. Readers should also be aware that I will not be searching for Corry’s ‘flying beast’ either alone or with a camera crew in tow.

Though I have never doubted Murphy’s research skills, I retain serious misgivings about his scholarly judgment and his interpretation of historical evidence (and lack of evidence) as displayed in his book The Year of Disappearances. Murphy’s response to my article has reinforced those reservations.

John Borgonovo

School of History

University College Cork

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