On your suggestion, I have read Niall Meehan’s review of Gerard Murphy’s book, and frankly I’m disappointed. In fact, his review has quite put me off the man, and the close examination of his work, demanded by actually studying this review in depth, leads me to revalue the worth of all his writing.
Until now I’d been impressed by this—for Meehan is impressive on first blush. He makes an intelligent argument, marshals his points well, and musters a large amount of evidence that purports to support those points. However, close examination reveals that much—much
: I do not say all—of his argument is more sophistry than substance. (Certainly in this instance.)
Meehan outlines his position at the outset, and this apparently frank and reasonable introduction cleverly establishes a false premise, for it camouflages Meehan’s presentation as “fact” that “republicans … were politically anti-sectarian”. This makes it appear that Murphy is effectively telling lies, or at best wasting his own and his readers’ time, by exploring any possibility that republicans might have been sectarian. This is underhand, for Murphy makes clear—many times—that republicans, by and large, indeed were “politically anti-sectarian”: his concern is that some
republicans were not; and that some within this group carried out sectarian murders.
Having cunningly cast Murphy’s thesis in an unfavourable light, Meehan then undermines his scholarship: “Unfortunately, though referenced in notes, the book contains no list of primary sources”. This might be true, yet the book provides a wealth of primary sources in almost fifty pages of endnotes. That some of these notes have unpaginated references in an inconvenience, an irritation to a researcher, perhaps indicative of poor professional protocol; but none of this need compromise the work itself. Stephen O’Donnell’s book, The Royal Irish Constabulary and The Black and Tans in County Louth
is even less professional in these regards, but it remains a valuable source of information. I’m sure we all could think of similar works.
For Meehan to undermine Murphy’s work in such ways strikes me as sly and underhand. What also strikes me is, why would anyone use sly and underhand tricks, and what does such use say of both the person who would employ such tricks, and the true value of his substantial argument? Also, what exactly is that person trying to do? Is Meehan seeking to put people off reading Murphy’s book? If so, what is he afraid they might learn from it?
For if, as Meehan rightly claims, “History is what the evidence compels us to believe”, new evidence equally may compel us to review, or at any rate revisit, what we’ve believed to this point; and though a lot in Murphy’s book is speculative, a great deal is supported by evidence. That often this evidence is inconclusive, that it does not compel us to believe anything specific, is something with which Murphy would agree—indeed, one senses from the tone of his introduction that he would be relieved if his own tentative conclusions could be disproved.
Meehan becomes even more underhand when he brings into his review articles by Kevin Myers, Eoghan Harris and John Paul McCarthy. Whatever the quality of their articles, that these people use Murphy’s work to support arguments of their own is utterly beside the point of a review of Murphy’s book, and besides, is something beyond Murphy’s control. Dragging in these articles constitutes an “association fallacy”, or “damning by association”. “Poisoning the well” is a pithier way of putting it.
It was this cheap shot that convinced me that Meehan is as partisan as Myers or Harris—he’s merely on the other side, and his “review” is just a hatchet job.
But as any good liar builds his case on half-truths, any partisan reviewer concentrates on “facts”. Murphy, by contrast, acknowledges: “truth is … more elusive than what can be reconstructed from mere facts” (xii). And I am not
calling Niall Meehan a liar here, merely drawing an analogy—though I do say that he is grossly unfair in this review—for in truth much of his criticisms are valid and indeed valuable on occasion. But Murphy, I suspect, would agree—for he is not so much offering answers as asking questions. Certainly, he proposes tentative answers—and indeed sometimes he is less tentative than his evidence warrants—but from the outset he acknowledges that these may be wrong and wishes, with all apparent sincerity, “good luck” to anyone who comes up with better answers.
What Niall Meehan claims is “the nub of Gerard Murphy’s argument” will come as a surprise to many who have read Murphy’s book. The “nub” of this rather seems to be that there was an “Anti-Sinn Fein Society”, which Murphy quite plausibly suspects was a cover name for murder gangs drawn from the Black and Tans and undercover British soldiers; that many of these men used the YMCA as a base and probably subverted impressionable young Protestant boys there into becoming informers; that closely associated with the YMCA were Methodists; that there was close association between Methodists and Freemasonry; that there also was close association between Methodists, a proselytising sect, and army garrisons; that there was deep suspicion of Freemasonry on the part of many (indeed most) Catholics, and on the part of several Cork IRA men in particular; and—finally and fatally—that these associations, coupled with confusion, paranoia and suspicion resulted in many innocent Protestants being murdered by sectarian bigots within the non-sectarian IRA.
Murphy makes a persuasive case that this is what may have happened—may
have. He does not pretend to know what did happen—and his tentative thesis is repeatedly acknowledged to be vulnerable through reliance on circumstantial evidence. Not only does he constantly reminds his reader of these circumstantialities, he acknowledges that many if not most of the Protestant “disappeared” were “legitimate targets” (to borrow a more recent IRA euphemism). He accepts that they were loyalists and that at least some of them likely informed on the IRA.
In this regard especially he is far more intelligent and nuanced than Meehan’s “review” would lead one to expect: “These men [Methodists] felt compelled because of their Christian beliefs to pass on any information they may have had on what they saw as a campaign of murder…. If that duty entailed passing on information on IRA activities then it is easy to see the dilemma in which Cork Methodists found themselves” (p. 237).
Furthermore, Meehan is just wrong in claiming that Murphy has to “establish who organised the disappearing and shooting of uninvolved Protestants”; to make such a claim is to invert logic, or at any rate sequentiality: Murphy’s concern is to establish that uninvolved Protestants were “disappeared” and murdered, not who commissioned or committed the crimes. He frankly speculates on the identities of the guilty and, though no court would convict any of his suspects, he builds a case persuasive enough for any justice to issue a warrant for the arrest of at least some of those suspects.
So, though Meehan accurately highlights the many weaknesses in Murphy’s book, his accuracy is that of the “sharpshooter” who shoots trawled-up fish in a barrel of his own construction. For all its superficial plausibility, his review is biased to the point where, for all his subtle sophistry, he betrays that he has an agenda of his own and that this agenda is far more blatant than any he pretends that Gerard Murphy has.
For Murphy is as condemnatory of the British murder squads as he is of the IRA’s, and open-handedly credits the good offices of Tom Barry and other non-sectarian republicans in their defence of beleaguered Protestants against bigoted murderers under whatever banner.
Nor does he overstate such case as he does make that sectarian blackguards murdered or drove out Protestants from Cork: rather, he acknowledges both that Home Rule Catholics as well as Protestants were expelled from the “Cork republic” by republican blackguards, and that Protestants as well as Catholics were terrorised by the Black and Tans. Blackguards of whichever stripe, Murphy points a fearless finger.
So why do I find Niall Meehan’s opinions so at odds with my own evaluation of the book Meehan purports to review? We both seem to be reasonably intelligent men, so how could one of us have got it so wrong?
Well, it’s possible that there’s been some massive misunderstanding—or misreading—on my part. If this is so, I would welcome clarification from Niall Meehan (or perhaps yourself, Padraig, or any other forum member). If I have misread or misunderstood Mr Meehan, he has my apologies.
But I doubt that I have. I suspect that Mr Meehan, clever man, has divided his eggs between the baskets of “poisoned association” and the “package-deal”—the latter fallacy being that because things always have been grouped thus, they constitute an ineluctable, eternal package.
So, if you’re proud of your Irish birth, your Irish heritage, your culture, your history, your song—in short, all that makes you Irish—you must be proud of all that has been done in your Irish name, by whomever, and however shameful those deeds. For if they were done in the sacred name of Ireland, how could those deeds possibly be shameful? (Yet more fallacies: “appeal to tradition”; “composition fallacy”.)
So who is pushing an agenda here? Meehan effectively brands Murphy a revisionist (in the disparaging sense of that word); but Murphy makes it clear from the outset that his concern is with questions, and that any answers he gives are provisional.
Niall Meehan and Gerard Murphy take polar opposite views on almost all matters with which they deal. Whatever the details of either’s conclusions, my support is for the honest man who isn’t afraid to ask questions.