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Northern Troubles in Irish History: Moving beyond War of Independence propaganda with Dr Niall Meehan… A Virtual Féile Event August 5, 2020

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.

At Féile this weekend:

Over nearly thirty years’ historians depicted the killing of Kate Carroll in April 1921 by the Monaghan IRA as sectarian.Dr Niall Meehan will discuss errors of fact and of interpretation, and how treatment of Carroll’s death represents a symptomatic failure by revisionist historians. He will contrast historians’ interest in alleged sectarian attacks on Protestants with relative disinterest in anti-Catholic pogroms, whose 100th anniversary falls in 2020. The real reason for the execution of Kate Carroll will be revealed.

Niall Meehan is the author of The Embers of Revisionism (https://www.academia.edu/34075119). A fully sourced essay, on academia.edu, will accompany the talk .

Here is the introduction by Jack Lane accompanying the essay:

During the 1990s Irish historiography, in its ‘revisionist’ variant, made a startling discovery: the IRA systematically persecuted Protestants during the 1919-22 Irish War of Independence. Because not previously a feature of historical writing, the ‘persecuted-Protestant’ field was portrayed as something not merely new but previously hidden by ‘Catholic-nationalists’. The very fact of its emergence, into the light of academic consideration, demonstrated to polite society that, as TCD’s Anne Dolan put it, ‘fester[ing] under the quite sanitised surface of Irish nationalism’ were what ‘may have been little more than a sequence of dirty deeds’.

Ireland had been seen as a country subject to British sectarian, colonial and imperialist aggression, a rulership that included war, dispossession, and famine. Then, in 1919-22, the victims were victorious. Mainly Roman Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans, despite espousing anti-sectarian sentiments, allegedly turned the tables on their now defenceless erstwhile Protestant overlords. The latter, in the guise of innocent Protestant civilians, were subjected in their homes, farmsteads and businesses to, as the late Peter Hart put it in 1996, ‘what might be termed “ethnic cleansing”’. This effort was concentrated, he said, in south Leinster and Munster, most particularly in Cork.

Hart’s multi-sourced and nuanced analysis was praised, almost universally. Roy Foster and Baron [formerly merely Paul] Bew of Donigore heralded Hart as the foremost historian of the ‘Irish Revolution’. Journalists Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris were newspaper champions.

Historians from outside the academic bubble picked some holes. Why did Hart omit from his analysis clear evidence that some Protestants, said by Hart to be innocent IRA victims, were loyalist participants in the conflict? How did he manage to interview an anonymous elderly participant in the November 1920 Kilmichael ambush six days after the last participant died in November 1989? Some historians inside the bubble began questioning too. His figures on southern Protestant population decline were not merely wrong; he made them up. The boy genius’s reputation became somewhat tarnished, despite valiant attempts to resuscitate it and to undermine his critics as cranks.

Young historians were meanwhile encouraged to search out examples of sectarianism in what was to become in 1922 the 26-County Irish Free State. Looking within the confines of the new Six-County Northern Irish territory, made up of six of Ulster’s nine counties, was discouraged. Its birth pangs were bathed in the blood of 455 people, after thousands of Catholics (and ‘rotten prods’, socialists and trade unionists, who supported them) were expelled from their jobs, homes and businesses in 1920-22. Most of the victims were Catholics whose fate would, if included, upset new research parameters.

Instead, historians mined an apparently rich seam of sectarianism in Monaghan: an Ulster county left out of Northern Ireland because, like Donegal and Cavan, it contained too many Catholics for unionists to successfully subdue. The sectarianism historians were interested in, though, was of the republican variety.

A woman called Kate Carroll was fore-grounded, one of three women executed by the IRA between 1919-21, from a currently estimated total of 196. Her end constituted enough of an exception from which historians could generalise. This putative sectarian victim was presented as a poor Protestant poitín distiller. Terence Dooley of NUI Maynooth said (four times) that the IRA targeted her in a ‘callous’ act of sectarian ‘revenge’, as a result of imagined ‘ancient grievances’ and ‘jealousies’. The charge of spying against her was, said Fearghal McGarry of QUB, ‘a convenient rationale for the execution of an obvious and antisocial security risk’. She was a ‘middle aged Protestant spinster’ of ‘no social consequence’. UCD’s Diarmaid Ferriter thought she might have been killed because she ‘had amorous intent towards an [unappreciative] IRA man’, an assertion Anne Dolan originated and Fearghal McGarry repeated. The different, sometimes overlapping and contradictory arguments, are paraphrased on the cover.

This essay by Dr Niall Meehan examines historians’ claims. He demonstrates that their dissection of the sad fate of Kate Carroll is wanting in every respect, not least in the fictitious origin of the sectarianism argument. He presents here for the first time a detailed explanation of why the IRA executed Kate Carroll in April 1921.

Dr Meehan explains how Irish revisionist historiography has produced a fantasy version of Irish history. He contrasts the imaginary sectarianism concocted in the case of Kate Carroll with the comparatively ignored real thing on the streets of Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.

This essay should be read by all interested in how history is written, as distinct from made.

Irish history students could consider it as their professors explain what transpired when historians happened upon the death of Kate Carroll. It might become a case study of, ‘how not to write history’.


1. CL - August 5, 2020

“revisionism represents an ideological project, which provided an elite counter narrative of Irish history. This produced an overtly ideological reading of Irish history, founded on a refusal to acknowledge the colonial nature of the island’s past – a hegemonic position with potentially adverse consequences for the island’s future as well.”


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