Rite & Reason: Biggest impact of Irish Civil War on Protestants involved assaults on people and property

Prof Terence Dooley of Maynooth University estimates about 300 ‘big houses’ damaged or destroyed between 1920 and 1923

The 11-month Irish Civil War ended on May 24th, 1923. As few southern Protestants had been involved in the conflict as combatants, the biggest impact on them concerned assaults on their people and property. Compensation claims submitted subsequently to the Free State and British governments showed that the number of Protestants among victims in these categories was disproportionately higher.

There were some particularly disturbing physical attacks on Protestants during the truce and early stages of the Civil War. These included the killing of 14 Protestants around Dunmanway, Co Cork, in April 1922, and the heinous gang rape of married woman Eileen Biggs, a member of the Church of Ireland, Dromineer, Co Tipperary, in June.

The Biggs assault took place against a backdrop of threats against local Protestants which had been brought to the attention of the department of home affairs by then Church of Ireland Bishop of Killaloe and Clonfert Thomas Sterling Berry, just a week beforehand. Referring to the district around Nenagh, he wrote: “There is scarcely a Protestant family in this district which has escaped molestation.”

The resilience of the Protestant minority in adapting to life in the changed circumstances of the 1920s was epitomised by the Venerable Henry J Johnson, the Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Ardagh

Protestant-owned property was damaged, Protestant farmers had cattle driven off their land and a prominent member of the gentry was shot at on his way to church.


The subsequent attack on Mrs Biggs lent weight to Bishop Berry’s assessment that “[al]together a state of terrorism exists”. Evidence of this fear can be seen in other parts of the country where there was an increase in the number of Protestants offering their property for sale in the summer of 1922 and a decline in the number of children at Church of Ireland sunday schools.

Among the most visible manifestations of attacks on Protestants was the number of “big houses” damaged or destroyed in arson attacks during the conflict. Prof Terence Dooley of Maynooth University estimates that approximately 300 such houses were damaged or destroyed between 1920 and 1923, two-thirds during the Civil War. Such actions were motivated by a complicated intersection of religious affiliation, political ideology and land envy.

One of the houses targeted by the anti-Treaty IRA was Cappoquin House in Co Waterford, the home of Sir John Keane, singled out because of Keane’s appointment as a member of the new Irish Free State senate.

Keane was among those who chose to rebuild their homes and commit to life in the Free State. He served in the Free State senate until its abolition in 1934 and in Seanad Éireann between 1938 and his retirement in 1948, making him one of the longest-serving Church of Ireland members of the Oireachtas in the early years of the State.

Keane’s decision to remain in Ireland reflected the fact that, once the Civil War ended, life in independent Ireland resorted to a largely peaceful state after nearly 10 years of disruption during various armed conflicts. Trinity College historian RB McDowell noted that, apart from the constitutional and political situation, “there were remarkably few drastic changes” to the overall lives of Protestants, noting the retention of Protestant influence in institutions such as Trinity College and The Irish Times. In rural areas, families which had been established on the land for generations had a strong incentive to remain.

While peace prevailed after 1923, the toll taken by the years of conflict became clear when the statistics for religion and birthplace from the 1926 Irish Free State census were published in 1929. This showed a decline of 34 per cent in the Protestant Episcopalian (largely Church of Ireland) population of the 26 counties of the Free State, since the previous census in 1911. The corresponding figure for Presbyterians was 29 per cent and 35 per cent for Methodists.

Historians agree that this Protestant depopulation was a combination of voluntary migration, the impact of land purchase acts, removal of the British army from Ireland in 1922 and natural decline (as births or conversions failed to keep pace with deaths), in addition to intimidation and the experience of violence during the revolution, though they disagree on which of these factors was the most significant.

The resilience of the Protestant minority in adapting to life in the changed circumstances of the 1920s was epitomised by the Venerable Henry J Johnson, the Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Ardagh, in his address for the Ardagh diocesan synod in 1925: “ ... despite all the changes — social and political — which have fallen upon our country in the past years or may befall us in the future we have faith enough in the Providence of Almighty God to believe that our Church will never perish out of this land unless she deserves to do so”.

  • Dr Marie Coleman is professor of 20th-century Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast. This article is based on a historical introduction she has written for a Church of Ireland liturgy to mark the centenary of the end of the Civil War.