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Peter Hart
Peter Hart

Newfoundland historian Peter Hart was an expert on the IRA Add to ...

A good historian is expected to be meticulous and balanced. A very good historian is challenging, perceptive, integrative, and nuanced. But a great historian is all that and more - audacious and brave. Peter Hart, who died at 46 on July 22 following a brain aneurysm, was well on his way to becoming a great historian. Although only in mid-career, he was already a major international figure in Irish history.

His first book, The I.R.A. and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford University Press, 1998), "remains a work of central importance," according to Richard English, professor of politics at Queen's University Belfast. "Peter's work brought together the methods of the historian and the social scientist, and it represents still the most important analysis of, for example, the social structure of the early 20{+t}{+h} century IRA, and the local dynamics of conflict in the Irish revolution."

Among Hart's strengths was his impartiality, his ability to remain non-partisan even in so fractious an arena as modern Irish history. Psychologically astute, he once said in an interview that he was interested in violence because "once people become violent, any difference between the two sides is essentially eliminated. Both act the same. People always used the same excuses for murdering people."

The I.R.A. and its Enemies won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in 1999, "a prestigious award for a work helping to increase understanding between Britain and Ireland," according to Roy Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish History, Hertford College, Oxford. "It was founded by the widow of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British ambassador to Ireland who was assassinated by the IRA in 1976."

In addition to his research, which produced five well-received books, Hart taught at the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he was the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies.

"He was a huge star for all the right reasons," said Danine Farquharson, an English professor at MUN. "He won all the prizes, he was the guy to get for keynote speeches. He did exemplary work, and was extremely courageous. Losing Peter leaves a momentous hole in Irish studies internationally. He willingly and knowingly took on some of the behemoths of 20{+t}{+h} century Irish history."

These included "the themes of commitment, contradiction, revolutionary ethics and communal tensions," according to Foster. "It goes without saying that these are issues which arouse strong feelings in Ireland, and the fact that his early work concentrated on some controversial incidents during the Anglo-Irish War in Cork [1919-1921, though hostilities continued into 1922] guaranteed that there would be aggressive reactions from local historians and pietists of various sorts."

The iconic characters and events Hart examined included the 1920 Kilmichael ambush, the 1922 Dunmanway killings, IRA leader Tom Barry, and Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, subject of his book Mick: The Real Michael Collins (one of The Globe's Top 100 Books of 2006). Hart was also working on a collection of Collins' letters when he died.

These subjects were "Republican holy ghosts," said David Wilson, professor of Irish Studies at the University of Toronto. "Peter challenged the orthodox view. It generated extreme hostility. You did not go to Ireland with Peter without some group of ultra-nationalists dogging his every step."

"In some circles of Irish nationalism he's quite a villain," said Jeff Webb, who teaches history at MUN. "I spoke to Peter about that once or twice and he always expressed himself with equanimity. I would have been a lot more upset than Peter ever seemed to be to have people showing up at lectures, waving picket signs and trying to shout me down."

Even Hart's composure raised some ire, "because people said he quote unquote didn't respond," said Webb. But Hart was planning a book about the experience, something measured, logical and articulate. "He didn't go brawling, he'd go back to the evidence."

Hart's scholarship was exact, sensitive, sophisticated, and noted for its range and depth. He was deeply curious, and once told an undergraduate class he became a historian because he liked to ask questions, and in history you could ask the greatest questions.

Peter David Hart was born Nov. 11, 1963, in St. John's, the second of three children of David Hart, a psychologist, and Anne (Hill) Hart, former head of MUN's Centre for Newfoundland Studies, and a successful biographer. After graduating from Booth Memorial high school, he spent a year at MUN before studying at Queen's University in Kingston (BA, History, 1985), Yale University (MA, International Relations, 1987), and Trinity College in Dublin (PhD, Modern History, 1993). He joined MUN's history department in 1995, and also occasionally lectured and researched at Queen's University Belfast and Trinity College. A list of his published articles and his papers and speeches runs on for pages.

He was a well-liked instructor, a generous supervisor and a respectful, un-pompous colleague. "His success was not done at the expense of others," said Webb. "Peter was not like that at all."

And he was an amazingly productive writer, especially for an author without a set routine, who tended to work in binges. He did have a few writing quirks, though; working on one book, he refused to cut his hair until it was finished; with another, he didn't shave. Perhaps this hirsute approach helped keep him focused, for his interests were legion.

He had that kind of mental appetite, which was hungry for detail, and avid for engagement with, say, the novels of David Foster Wallace, or investigating the contextual analysis and cross referencing in Finnegan's Wake, or analyzing international junior hockey statistics. "If you wanted to know who was the big, slow-skating defenceman who played for Finland in the 2005 World juniors, you'd call Peter," said Jamie Fitzpatrick, a friend in Peter's "keeper league," a perpetual hockey pool.

Of course, he left his deepest mark in modern Irish history. Growing up in Newfoundland, he had an awareness of, and felt a proximity to Ireland. Irish history, Hart once said, had just "grabbed hold of me." He knew it was a political animal, he knew he would "annoy" some people. But Hart also knew his own research and writing was not an end point, but just another stage in the historical method. "Every book is going to be corrected because that's the process of history," Hart said. "No one person writes the definitive account. It moves forward by debate and correction."

Hart's sudden death has shocked and saddened an international circle of colleagues. "Peter Hart had his enemies, but he had many, many more admirers," said Wilson.

Hart leaves his partner Robin Whitaker, his parents, two siblings and his extended family.

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