David Fitzpatrick on ‘ethnic cleansing’

Published in Letters Extra

Sir,—David Fitzpatrick believes there was republican sectarian intent during the War of Independence (HI Jan./Feb. 2014, letters). My summary of Fitzpatrick’s position is:

‘[V]iolence and threats against West Cork Protestants during the War of Independence have been “exaggerated”. However “certain [unnamed] republican activists, at certain [unidentified] times, made a concerted attempt to drive Protestants and ‘loyalists’ out of West Cork”. But there was no “ethnic cleansing”. In addition, Fitzpatrick’s “spoof ballad expressing [republican] sectarian attitudes…was neither an attempt to encapsulate republican attitudes nor an expression of my own views”. The song reflected, instead, Protestant perceptions. Despite this, “Republican terror_venomous, cruel, and brutal though it was—lacked the power to break the spirit of minorities such as the Methodists of West Cork”.’

In the tradition of Terror in Ireland (2012), edited by Fitzpatrick, ‘terror’ is Irish rather than British. Though republican ‘motives are mixed and ultimately impenetrable’, Protestant perceptions are clear to Professor Fitzpatrick. Evidence points one way, a ‘spoof’ song another. Let us instead consider evidence alone.

Contemporary testimony from Cork Protestants demonstrated increasing opposition to and alienation from British forces, not from the IRA. A loyalist, and also a Methodist, Tom Bradfield, featured in Fitzpatrick’s song (‘a fine snug farm had he’) and in his research (Methodist Bulletin, 2013). Bradfield was one of two similarly named cousins (the other Anglican). They separately divulged intelligence information they had collected to IRA officers both Bradfields thought British. As I pointed out in 2011 (in work Fitzpatrick read), they were executed in quick succession early in 1921.

In December 1920 Crown forces burned and looted Cork’s city centre. In Cork on 1 January 1921 British forces inaugurated a policy of large-scale (previously unofficial, now official) reprisals against people and property. On 3 January divisional commander, General Strickland, exhorted information from Cork civilians, on pain of prosecution for refusal to give it. Olga Pyne Clarke (1985) recounted one attempt:

‘“Look here Clarke, you are trusted by both sides: it’s your duty to give me information.” Father, looking [Strickland] in the eye, calmly said, “I will not inform against my own countrymen. It is your duty to control the rabble your government has let loose on Ireland. Good morning”.’

The IRA responded by shooting some of those the British enlisted, including the Bradfield cousins. The London Times (27 Jan. 1921) reported southern loyalist protests against Strickland because ‘it is now an offence to remain neutral’. The first Bradfield execution on 23 January was mentioned in this context.

Such evidence as exists indicates that the Bradfields were among a minority of loyalists doing what they considered a patriotic (and even religious) duty in league with and encouraged by Crown forces. Such activists were perceived by the IRA as a mortal danger for military not sectarian reasons.

No plausible evidence suggests a Cork IRA attempt to break the spirit of any religious minority during the 1919-21 independence war (or of the majority, since Roman Catholic spies were targeted also). Evidence suggests that most Protestants agreed, even after the late April 1922 killings of ten Protestant civilians in the Bandon Valley (the last victim of which was a third Bradfield cousin). For example, leading Methodist and later a West Cork independent TD (who co-ordinated loyalist compensation claims), Jasper Wolfe, discounted republican sectarianism allegations. We should consider his view seriously since the IRA tried to kill him in his previous position as crown prosecutor. Sectarian tensions were (indeed are) a feature of Irish society. By and large republican opposition to British rule was also an opposition to its historically sectarian basis. British imperial forces and agencies, the silent partner in Fitzpatrick’s research, promoted sectarian division as a weapon of war and of administration. For some years it has been a weapon of history.—Yours etc,


Griffith College, Dublin


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