‘Ethnic cleansing’


Sir, – Charles Townshend reviewing Gemma Clark’s Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (“Campaign of fire”, September 6th) writes that: “Between 1911 and 1925 [County] Tipperary lost 46 per cent of its Protestant population . . . it seems likely that the great majority left after 1921”. He concludes: “fertility and migration patterns can hardly account for such an exodus. If this was not, as some historians have suggested, ‘ethnic cleansing’ . . . it was a process far from the normal”.

Prof Townshend’s observations balance on a hunch and a few statistics.

In a recent article in Irish Historical Studies (“Protestant Depopulation and the Irish Revolution”, November 2013), Prof David Fitzpatrick arrived at different conclusions. Prof Fitzpatrick charted the steady depopulation of southern Irish Protestants between 1911 and 1926 in which, he argues, revolutionary violence in 1920-3 played no exaggerated role. “The . . . Protestant malaise in the nascent Irish Free State”, Prof Fitzpatrick says, “was not excess migration but failure to enroll new members, presumably as a consequence of already low fertility and nuptiality, exacerbated by losses through mixed marriages and [religious] conversions”. Prof Fitzpatrick’s reinterpretation rests on a sophisticated analysis of census and other data.

However, common to both interpretations is the laboured suggestion that southern Irish Protestants might have experienced, despite the lack of evidence, ethnic cleansing. For Prof Townshend, this is because some historians have “suggested” as much. In 1996, the late Prof Peter Hart used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the experience of southern Protestants, whereupon it was seized on by polemicists. Prof Hart was the only serious historian ever to apply the term to the 1920s, but he reversed his position in 2005. Then he conceded that the conditions for ethnic cleansing had not existed in southern Ireland. Prof Hart’s unequivocal rejection of his earlier findings is often overlooked.

In her new study of the Civil War, Gemma Clark also categorically rejects “ethnic cleansing” terminology.

In his article Prof Fitzpatrick writes: “If any campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ was attempted, its demographic impact was fairly minor”.

But “if” ethnic cleansing was attempted, how, logically, could it go undetected and still be worthy of the name? For reasons unexplained, an invented event for which there was never any credible evidence remains a reference point for diametrically opposed interpretations of Protestant demographic decline.

“The spectre of Protestant extermination has distracted debate about revolutionary Ireland for too long and should be laid to rest”, says Prof Fitzpatrick. I could not agree more.

Prof Fitzpatrick’s conclusion that the “inexorable decline of southern Protestantism was mainly self-inflicted” is very far distant from continued suggestions that ethnic cleansing, or something of its kind, might have happened. – Yours, etc,


School of Humanities,

University of Dundee,