Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Diarmaid Ferriter: Western People's hysterical response over ministers will take some beating

Paper sees region’s overlooked politicians as victims in battle raging since 17th century

There has been no shortage of assertions about the need for politicians in the new Government to “deliver” for the west of Ireland.

In response to the outcry about the absence of any full cabinet minister from the west, government chief whip Dara Calleary and Hildegarde Naughton, Minister of State with responsibility for international and road transport, who are not full ministers but will have a seat at Cabinet, have promised deliverance for their western constituencies.

The Western People newspaper apparently sees the two politicians as the latest victims in a battle raging since the 17th century. Even by the standards of traditional Connacht outrage, the paper’s hysterical response will take some beating.

There were 2,141 deaths as a result of political violence in Ireland between January 1917 and December 1921. Munster alone accounted for more than half the total

Its editorial did much violence to history and perspective as it decried “a cabinet fit for Cromwell” and the “disenfranchisement” of 1.1 million people in 10 counties in a move “so breathtakingly dismissive of rural Ireland”. It could not resist, of course, the punchline: “To hell or to Connacht, indeed.”


Neither Cromwell nor his successor commanders in Ireland used that phrase. As pointed out by a leading authority on this subject, John Cunningham, author of the 2011 book Conquest and Land: The Transplantation to Connacht 1649-1680, the phrase has its origins in much later episodes: sectarian conflict between Catholic Defenders and Protestant Orangemen in rural Ulster in the 1790s, when nocturnal raiders posted the offending notices on the doors of Catholic holdings.

Cunningham is not in the business of underestimating the impact of ethno-religious conflict during the vicious Cromwellian era, and the forced removal to the west of Catholics deemed to be guilty of disloyalty, but he is rightly wary of the triumph of lore over history. He concluded that Cromwell was hostile to the excessively punitive confiscation and transplantation policies approved by the Westminster parliament and favoured by the Dublin government and sought to restrain them.

It was also the case that some transplanted Catholics to Connacht became part of the landed ascendancy. Some of the most notorious of our historical episodes are also some of the least understood.

Fighting west

The Western People maintains that Dara Calleary and Michael Ring should have been appointed to cabinet because their respective family histories represent the two sides of the Irish Civil War and as we approach its centenary, and they as full ministers could have symbolised the much vaunted end of Civil War politics.

But it could not resist squeezing extra martyrdom into its denunciation: “When Ireland lay broken and bleeding it was the men and women of the West who sacrificed their livelihoods, liberty and in some cases their very lives to raise her up to the dignity of an independent nation. We fought in the West”. The decisions about the new cabinet were thus “a final betrayal” of the brave “Men of the West”.

The neglect of the west of Ireland has been criticised with much justification throughout the last 150 years

One of the most significant developments in the recent writing of the history of that period has been the determination to prioritise hard evidence. The compilation of statistics and assessments of regional dynamics that went in to the making of the 2017 Atlas of the Irish Revolution, for example, was about mapping the conflict in all its bloody complexity.

The painting that adorns the cover of the Atlas is Seán Keating’s Men of the South, the raw material provided by North Cork IRA members in 1921. Was that another betrayal of the West? Hardly; if this were a game of active service and fatality statistics, Connacht would lose to Munster. The Atlas highlights that “Munster was the frontline of what IRA GHQ termed the war zone” and that along with Dublin, “Munster was the war’s most dynamic and strategically significant theatre”.

There were 2,141 deaths as a result of political violence in Ireland between January 1917 and December 1921. Munster alone accounted for more than half the total.

Purse strings

Of course, it is not a game of statistics; the sacrifices and contributions of the west were many and deep, but the overplaying of the victim card by the Western People is pseudo-historical posturing and retrospective monopolisation and colonisation of national spirit for one part of the country that will undermine attempts to commemorate the War of Independence and Civil War in a balanced way.

The neglect of the west of Ireland has been criticised with much justification throughout the last 150 years, but it has hardly been alone; nor has it been shy of vocal champions and energetic politicians, from Michael Davitt during the late 19th-century Land League days to Enda Kenny’s recent holding of the taoiseach’s office and our current President.

What was really at play this week had nothing to do with a pure, downtrodden people but with what the political scientist Jane Suiter referred to as “Chieftains Delivering: political determinants of capital spending in Ireland”, whereby “individual, powerful ministers in charge of the purse strings direct funds to their own constituencies”.