Coolacrease and ethnic cleansing

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 16


—I think that Dr Hanley in his critique of the ‘Killings at Coolacrease’ programme protests too much when he writes that talk of ‘ethnic cleansing . . . should be banished from any serious discussions’ on what happened in Ireland in the 1920s. Some communities in the twentieth century leave their homeland when they see little commercial or political future there (e.g. Christians in the Middle East). This is a willing movement from one place to another. There are times, however, when communities see actual violence or a perception of impending violence to life, liberty and property as a reason, outside of their control, to leave. This can be either state-sanctioned (e.g. Yugoslavia, Rwanda) or created when there is a lack of government control or perceived government indifference (e.g. India and Pakistan on partition). With a sustained campaign of destruction of Ascendancy country houses, the anarchy caused by having two forms of government and the war itself, it is not surprising that Protestants were concerned about not just their property but also their lives. The murder of the Pearsons fitted into a perception that there would indeed be a physical ‘undoing of the conquest’. It was this fear, real or imagined, that drove people away. As such, there was a form of cleansing. How else to explain the fact that the Protestant population in the Republic fell by a third between the 1911 census and that of 1926? How else to explain some of the furore over the Coolacrease programme? Dr Hanley is right that more needs to be taught on what happened in the 1920s; if so, there should be no taboos.

—Yours etc.,


—There are a couple of points from the last issue (HI 16.1, Jan./Feb. 2008) that should be brought to the attention of your readers.
To begin at the end (p. 66): the Dictionary of Irish Biography should be notified that Alfie Byrne did not resign from Dáil Éireann in 1951 but remained a deputy until his death in 1956. It is an interesting fact that in the ensuing by-election Patrick Byrne held the seat against a strong challenge from a young Charles Haughey.
Second, in Brian Hanley’s otherwise fine article on Coolacrease, he ends by being rather too concerned to be even-handed in warning readers to be ‘wary of the assertion’ that there was ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Catholics in Belfast. At what stage sectarianism becomes ethnic cleansing is, of course, a debatable point. What is certain is that the Belfast pogroms of 1920–22 represented a greater level of sectarianism than isolated attacks on Protestants by Irish Republicans outside Ulster. The Republican leadership did indeed truckle too much to clerical pressures, in education policy, for example. It never resorted to calls for sectarian discrimination. It is useful to compare the unanimous condemnation by both wings of Sinn Féin of the Dunmanway murders in April 1922 with Carson’s incitement at the 12 July gathering in 1920, or, indeed, Craig’s praise for the pogromite plumbers in Harland and Wolff’s (‘Do I approve of what you have done? Yes, I do’) months later.
It should be added that the scale of Protestant deaths in the pogrom does not show that both sides were equally at fault; if one-third of the deaths were non-Catholic, two-thirds were in a city where Catholics comprised a quarter of the population. Nor do the Protestant casualty figures allow for ‘rotten Prods’, victimised for refusing to be intimidated into the same sectarianism as their neighbours. Finally, it is notable that most of the sectarian murders of Protestants outside Belfast occurred after the pogroms in that city had begun.

—Yours etc.,


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