‘1923: Birth of a Nation’

How violence affected members of the Protestant community

Sir, – The recent special historical supplement “1923: Birth of a Nation” (May 2nd) drew attention to the effects of violence on many sections of the population 100 years ago. Little attention was paid to how it affected members of the Protestant community.

An interesting article on the burning of the “big houses” did relate to some members of that community but the gentry were only a small part of the Protestant population.

The Irish Times is a good source for information on contemporary Protestant experiences. On May 15th, 1923, the paper reported a sermon by the bishop of Derry and Raphoe, JI Peacocke, in St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin, on the eve of the meeting of the Church of Ireland general synod.

He stated: “For whatever reason – some because of their religion, often for political or social causes – the members of their church had been much the worst sufferers in this time of disturbance”.


Peacocke continued: “Very many of them, who would have been good and loyal subjects of the Free State, and who only asked to be allowed to live quietly in their homes, had been driven from home and everything, out of the country. The country was the poorer for their loss, no less than the church”.

On May 18th, an editorial in the paper declared that members of the Church of Ireland had “suffered more than the members of any other community in Ireland from the recent disorders because, for a variety of reasons, they were exposed peculiarly to the greed and violence of lawless men”.

Statements by two Catholic bishops at the time, recorded in The Irish Times, confirm the harsh treatment of Protestants, as well as their strong condemnation of such occurrences.

In a pastoral letter, reprinted on February 17th, 1923, the bishop of Cork, Daniel Coholan, described how “Protestants have suffered severely during the period of the civil war in the south” and urged that “charity knows no exclusion of creed”.

On May 6th, 1923, the bishop of Killaloe, Michael Fogarty, appealed to a higher sense of patriotism, noting that “their Protestant fellow countrymen – he regretted to say it – were persecuted and dealt with in a cruel and coarse manner”.

The violence of this period forced many members of the protestant community to leave the country. Their departure would be an important factor in the fall in their numbers from 1911 to 1926.

At the end of July 1923, Thomas Sterling Berry, Church of Ireland bishop of Killaloe, addressed his diocesan synod at Nenagh, Co Tipperary. After referring to recent suffering and loss in the diocese, he declared that “it is better to think of the present and of the future than of the past”.

He warned: “one of the worst results of civil strife is the risk that it may leave behind it antagonisms which will endure for many generations”. He praised the “ideal of a generous forgiveness and forgetfulness of the past”.

Subsequently, for many in the Protestant community, as in other communities, there was an effort to draw a curtain over this tumultuous period. Now these events can be looked at with sympathy and without fear.

Most accounts of the civil war have paid little attention to Protestant experiences at the time. Today it is important that we take a fully inclusive approach to this important period in modern Irish history. – Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus,