Sectarian gloss on State's early years is flawed

 

OPINION:The evidence does not support claims of sectarianism against Protestants in the South in the 1920s, writes NIALL MEEHAN

THERE ARE many misconceptions in David Adams’s commentary on the deaths of 14 people in west Cork in late April 1922 (Opinion and Analysis, October 8th). He wrote, “I don’t know west Cork”, but exercised his right to address southern sectarianism on the basis of “knowing people”. Some of the historical issues he addresses, with which I take issue, are covered in the autumn 2009 issue of the Dublin Review of Books, www.drb.ie.

Adams assumes a uniformity in Protestant attitudes towards sectarianism in politics during and after the War of Independence, roughly 1919-22. There were in fact deep divisions. It was not merely a nationalist-unionist division, there was also a division between North and South. Anti-Catholic pogroms centred on Belfast shipyards were initiated in July 1920 by unionist leader Edward Carson and retrospectively endorsed by his deputy, James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister. Over 10,000 were said to have been driven from their work within two weeks, including “rotten Protestants” (ie socialists) who objected and 1,500 Catholic ex-British army servicemen.

Vociferous objections came from southern Protestants, including unionists. They were provoked by Carson’s suggestion that sectarianism in reverse happened in the south. Daily newspapers, especially The Irish Times, published protestations that such had never been the case and was not the case in the middle of the violent Anglo-Irish conflict.

A statement from the Rev Bertram C Wells, St Thomas’s Church, Dugart, Achill Island, Co Mayo, was typical. On May 4th, 1922, he thanked “our Catholic neighbours and friends for their kindness and help” in making the “dance in aid of the Dugart National School a success”.

He continued: “To the officers and members of the IRA and volunteers who were present and came to my assistance in more senses than one on that night, I desire thus publicly to express my warmest thanks. In these days when there is so much foolish talk going on, I feel it my duty, as well as privilege, to state that nothing but the greatest kindness and courtesy has always been shown us by our Catholic neighbours.”

In order to declare separation from northern unionist sectarianism, an Irish Protestant Convention was held on May 11th, 1922. A published preparatory motion stated that southern Protestants had not suffered “hostility”.

Then 14 were shot in west Cork from April 26-29th, including 13 Protestants. The motion was amended to state “apart from this incident, hostility to Protestants by reason of their religion, has been almost, if not wholly, unknown, in the 26 counties in which [Protestants] are a minority”.

It is not conceivable that a representative group would utter such a pronouncement in such circumstances unless it accurately represented their views. The characterisation of the west Cork shootings as an exception was echoed emphatically by the then pro-unionist and pro-British Irish Times.

In my DRBarticle I suggest that a minority of loyalists identified strongly with the British war effort and with northern unionism and took arms or other action on that basis. This should not be seen as surprising, but has not been factored sufficiently into the discussion. Evidence suggests that this was a basis for the shootings in Coolacrease, Co Offaly, in June 1921 and of the irregular killings in west Cork in April 1922.

I have to conclude, in disagreement with David Adams, though in agreement with most southern Protestants in 1922, that virulent sectarianism is particularly a northern unionist problem. I would like to finish though on a point of agreement with regard to support for funding Protestant schools. Could I enlist his support for funding schools for widely dispersed urban and rural atheists? It might help us to get on with our otherwise blameless existence.


Niall Meehan, of Griffith College Dublin, is researching attempts to describe the War of Independence as a pre-enactment of the conflict in Northern Ireland, post-1968