Ulster says go: the forgotten exodus of Northern nationalists

TCD professor Eunan O’Halpin, whose own grandfather moved south in 1922 rather than be interned, on the fate of thousands of activists driven out by Stormont, the subject of a conference at Trinity


The experience of thousands of northern activists, who fled Ulster because they faced arbitrary detention and continuous persecution at the time of the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty, has been largely forgotten. Forgotten too has been this group’s significant contribution to the Irish revolution. The difficult experience of this group will be explored at a conference entitled The North Began?, a symposium organised jointly by Trinity College Dublin and St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra on Saturday, June 20th.

We hope that people from families with northern links from that era will attend and participate in the symposium. As well as those who became important political figures in the new Ireland such as Frank Aiken, Ernest Blythe, Seán MacEntee and Patrick McGilligan, this group of northern migrants included hundreds of less prominent people who had no choice but to leave their communities. They constitute a cohort whose experience of forced exile and resettlement has largely been overlooked.

Ulster and particularly Belfast was at the heart of the Irish cultural revival in the early years of the century and of the associated rise of separatist sentiment which, more than elsewhere in Ireland, drew in Protestant as well as Catholic radicals – the Quaker Bulmer Hobson was in many respects the intellectual progenitor of the Irish revolution despite being completely sidelined after the Rising which he opposed on purely tactical grounds.

Other Northerners such as Ernest Blythe, Denis McCullough, Alf Monaghan and the eccentric Herbert Pim figured prominently in police reports of subversive activity in the year before the Rising. They, like many other Northern activists, ultimately made their lives outside Ulster.

Many Northern IRA men such as Johnny Haughey from south Derry, “a stern disciplinarian even though at times he seemed ‘trigger happy”’, were trained at the Curragh for the Northern offensive planned by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy in spring 1922. Haughey then joined the National Army, and was stationed in Castlebar when his son Charles was born in 1925. Another south Derry man, Dan McKenna, rose to be an outstanding army chief of staff from 1940 to 1949. Renowned for his bluntness, while still a junior officer he wrote a scarifying critique of the “misleading and uncalled for tactics” of the ill-fated Northern offensive, which “resulted in another Plantation in the summer and autumn of 1922” and the exile of thousands of nationalists.

The remarkable Fr Louis O’Kane recordings and papers in the Cardinal Tómas O Fiaich Library and Archive in Armagh provide many instances of people who had no choice but to leave Northern Ireland. Take Henry McKeown, whose brother James was murdered in his bed by Specials in May 1922. Henry was issued with an exclusion order in 1923. Alice McSloy (née O’Neill) was interned and then served with an exclusion order, although she returned home quietly home two years later to care for her elderly father. My grandfather Hugh Halfpenny, “a dangerous man” whom the RUC wished to “have … interned”, left Co Down on his wedding day in 1922. Like many other Northern IRA officers who had served under Gen Eoin O’Duffy, he joined the Garda Siochána. His brother-in-law Dan Rice, “one of the most dangerous men in County Down”, went back north in early 1923 and was interned for almost two years, later emigrating to the United States before eventually returning home.

Not all republicans left, and some resented what they saw as abandonment of the nationalist community. Patrick Tohill was “scornful of those … who ‘scrammed’ to the Free State and left the Six Counties to their Fate, and for their getting high positions and later pensions that they did not deserve”.

In early 1923 a meeting in Dublin nominated Hugh Halfpenny and John Maguire of Antrim to negotiate a return north for republicans who wanted no part of the civil war. Halfpenny dropped out when he joined the Garda, but Murray continued to act, writing to the secretary of the Northern Ireland government that “the basis which we suggest would be: Liberation of the Internees and restoration of the Refugees to their homes, on the understanding that they abstain from use of physical force against the Northern Government; the Northern Government not to demand any oath from them against their conscience as a condition of their return”.

There was no prospect whatsoever of any such quiet rapprochement. Former separatists were not wanted in the new Northern state under any terms save abject surrender. Even then they lived under surveillance and the fear of arbitrary attack by official forces or unofficial groups.

Details of the symposium can be found here. Advance booking is advisable though not essential.

Material within quotation marks comes i. from the Barney Young, Patrick Tohill, Alice McSloy and Patrick and James McQuillan interviews in the O’Kane collection, and ii. as regards Halfpenny and Rice, from files HA/32/1/360 and HA5/2317 in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Eunan O’Halpin is professor of contemporary Irish history and director of the Centre for Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent monograph is Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality during the Second World War (Oxford, 2008). He is a joint editor of the Royal Irish Academy Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project, and a member of the Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations (2012). Prof O’Halpin has just completed research for a major study of The Dead of the Irish Revolution 1916-1921,and is preparing a number of articles on aspects of Afghan history during the second World War

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