Hart, Peter (1964–2010), historian, was born on 11 November 1964 in St John’s, Newfoundland, the second of three children of David Hart, a psychologist, and his wife Anne (neé Hill), a librarian and author. He attended Booth Memorial High School and enrolled in Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, for a year before moving to King’s College Ontario to study history, graduating BA in 1985. He took an MA in international relations at Yale (1987), before enrolling for a Ph.D. in history on the Irish revolution in Cork at TCD, under the supervision of David Fitzpatrick (whom Hart acknowledged as a major influence). Graduating in 1992, he worked briefly at Memorial University before moving to QUB in 1997 as a research fellow and subsequently lecturer in history. His partner, the anthropologist Robin Whitaker, was involved with the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition during their residence in Belfast, and Hart himself was regarded by contemporaries as broadly liberal in outlook.
His interest in Irish history arose from a more general interest in revolutions and the role of violence as a factor in history (his original focus had been in Asian history and he had considered studying in China). His doctoral thesis was passed, according to his supervisor, without the necessity for correction and revision, and was published by Oxford University Press as The IRA and its enemies: violence and community in Cork, 1916–1923 (1998). It was, as he put it, ‘a study of the rise and fall of the revolutionary movement in a single county … the focus throughout is on how the revolution was experienced, presented as often as possible in the words of the participants, observers, and victims themselves’ (IRA and its enemies, vii). The book was notable for Hart’s distinctive approach to studying the Irish revolution, analysing it as a social as much as a political phenomenon, with many of its arguments based on statistical analysis. Lavishly praised, it won the 1998 Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize.
In 2002 Hart returned to Newfoundland to take up the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial University. His second major work, The IRA at war (2003), was a collection of essays that showcased the breadth of his interests. Many of these had first been published in prestigious academic journals (including Irish Historical Studies, English Historical Review and Past & Present) and included studies of the social composition of the IRA, gun-running, IRA activities in Britain, the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson (qv), the experience of southern protestants in the revolution, and the ethnic basis of violence against both protestants and catholics, especially in Northern Ireland. His doctoral supervisor characterised Hart as ‘a brilliant boy, audacious yet unruffled … adept at deploying sensational material to provoke discussion rather than to bully his readers; skilful in sifting and interpreting primary sources, if occasionally careless in citing them; influential in arousing academic and popular interest in the topics that he tackled’ (Terror in Ireland, 3). The latter points are crucial to understanding Hart’s significance, as his public and academic profile became increasingly defined by allegations of flawed and imprecise scholarship.
These principally focused on two aspects of The IRA and its enemies. The first was his account of the Kilmichael ambush of 28 November 1920, in which members of the Cork IRA under Tom Barry (qv) had successfully ambushed a convoy of auxiliary cadets near Macroom in Co. Cork, killing seventeen of them. Hart argued that Barry deliberately insisted on killing British prisoners and covered this up by claiming that the fight continued only after a so-called ‘false surrender’. Hart’s account was largely based on interviews, conducted by himself and others, and attracted a great deal of attention soon after its publication in 1998. The plausibility of Hart’s version of Kilmichael was extensively debated thereafter in ongoing campaigns of letters to local and national newspapers and magazines, at various public events, and in 2000 was even brought up on the floor of the seanad.
The second contentious aspect of the book was Hart’s argument that the IRA campaign in Cork had a marked sectarian element and, by extension, that sectarianism permeated the independence movement. At the core of this was his account of the killings of thirteen protestant civilians in and around Dunmanway in Co. Cork in April 1922, which he characterised as essentially sectarian. The wider implications of this singular event were highlighted by his work elsewhere on protestant depopulation in the twenty-six counties during the revolution. Hart suggested that sectarian attacks and intimidation played a direct role in the decline of the protestant population in the twenty-six counties during the revolutionary period, to a hitherto unacknowledged degree. An associated argument was that the IRA killed civilians from marginal groups (often loyalist and/or protestant) on the spurious grounds that they were informers.
Hart’s conclusions in both instances rapidly prompted an unusual degree of public disputation. This, in turn, led to him being accused of misinterpreting key sources and, more seriously, of discreetly excluding evidence that did not suit his arguments. In particular, various critics claimed that there were major discrepancies in his use of eyewitness testimony in his assessment of the Kilmichael ambush (Hart declined to publicly name the interviewees on whose testimony he had based his account). Assertions that he had misinterpreted evidence, deliberately or otherwise, were subsequently highlighted in acrimonious debates that essentially dealt with the legitimacy of the republican struggle past and present, and the nature of ‘revisionism’ in Irish historical writing, though it should be said that both critiques of his methods and conclusions came from within the academy, as well as without. These controversies dogged his career, and while Hart promised to publish a detailed refutation of the allegations made against him, no such rebuttal appeared in his lifetime.
In person, Hart was engaging company, and in professional terms was regarded by contemporaries (admirers and otherwise) as courteous, courageous, polite and generous. In print, however, his rhetorical style could be provocative, and his responses to critics combative, if not dismissive. He was consistently exasperated that his critics tended to focus on some aspects of his work to the exclusion of others, given that The IRA and its enemies dealt with much more than the Kilmichael ambush and republican violence. Yet this could also be said of some of his admirers: Hart’s suggestion that sectarianism infused the IRA campaign was widely publicised by commentators critical of Irish republicanism, in its contemporary and historic manifestations. The attention devoted to a handful of issues overshadowed many of his other conclusions. The local focus of his first book underpinned wider discussions about how violence was used by all sides in the revolution. Hart did not ignore British and unionist violence; that he seemed to focus primarily on the violence of the IRA was, he pointed out, because his research had been on the IRA. In private Hart expressed his admiration for many of the members of the IRA who were the subject of his research.
Hart was distinctive among academic historians in analysing the Irish revolution through the prisms of ethnicity and sectarianism. The concept of ‘ethnic cleansing’ had entered public discourse in the early 1990s after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia; Hart invoked the term in 1996, claiming that some protestant communities in southern counties experienced ‘campaigns of what might be called “ethnic cleansing”’ (IRA at war, 237). His use of the term attracted a good deal of attention and criticism, but Hart seems to have been wary of how his work was selectively used for polemical purposes. He later distanced himself from some of the language he had used in his books and the implications of what he had suggested. By 2003 he had explicitly rejected the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ as being applicable to the Irish revolution.
His final major published work was a biography: Mick: the real Michael Collins (2005). Hart was very willing to engage with the wider public; hence the decision to write a more popular work for a trade rather than an academic publisher. He had a wide range of interests outside academia, especially sport and literature; his writing style was notably polished. One obituarist later noted how, in an eccentric touch, he apparently declined to cut his hair until one of his books was completed, or to shave while completing another. Hart remained interested in the history of his native Newfoundland, and worked on a number of additional projects during his career, including a broader study of Irish protestants during the revolution, an edition of Michael Collins’s correspondence, and a study of the historiographical controversies in which he had become embroiled. These remained unfinished at the time of his death. Hart suffered from serious health problems from the 1990s onwards, being the recipient of a liver transplant. He died of a brain haemorrhage on 22 July 2010 in St John’s, and was survived by his partner, parents and siblings.
Regarded by admirers as a brilliant scholar of great potential, and by detractors as a politically motivated fraud, Hart was an innovative if controversial historian of the Irish revolution and Irish revolutionaries. His approach followed in the footsteps of his supervisor, David Fitzpatrick, but proved enormously influential in its own right, given his willingness to analyse the revolution in conceptual, quantitative and comparative terms, the sheer range of his research interests, his almost sociological approach to history, and his focus on the victims of the revolution. With the release of additional material unavailable to Hart when he published his doctorate (notably the testimonies collected by the Bureau of Military History), some historians have argued for the validity of his account of the Kilmichael ambush; Eve Morrison, having consulted Hart’s notes on the interviews he conducted, concluded that there was no credible basis for any suggestion that he fabricated testimonies when writing it.
Hart’s interpretations of republican attacks on informers and protestant depopulation as phenomena largely driven by sectarianism have been significantly qualified, though not fully overturned, by subsequent scholarship. Yet without Hart’s work the issue of sectarianism during the revolution is unlikely to have been explored to the same extent; in that sense, as in others, his work broke new ground in the study of the Irish revolution. Even an academic critic such as John Regan could concede that ‘Hart brought a fresh, not to say radical, perspective to the study of the revolutionary period, and helped change perceptions of both the IRA and its victims’ (Myth and the Irish state, 177). Hart’s personal papers, including his research notes, are retained in Memorial University, Newfoundland.