Cork Fatality Register

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Above: The late Peter Hart—‘Since Protestants were conspicuously over-represented among executed civilians [in the Cork Fatality Index], Bielenberg has inadvertently confirmed the credibility of Hart’s original thesis’.

Sir,—Why, after two decades of often acrimonious debate, do the late Peter Hart’s findings on sectarianism in the Irish revolution continue to intrigue, vex or perplex so many history buffs? Each attempt to settle the issue so far has raised more problems than it has solved. Andy Bielenberg’s ‘Platform’ article (HI 25.5, Sept./Oct. 2017) asserts that ‘this sectarianism thesis has now been disproven by our fatality index with regard to the War of Independence, since the majority of suspected spies and informers killed in County Cork were Catholics (69%)’. Bielenberg repeatedly staked the same claim at the recent West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen, exhibiting every appearance of scholarly judiciousness. Polite suggestions that his statistical interpretation was perverse were ignored, and the alleged refutation of Hart’s thesis was applauded and widely reported. The Cork Fatality Index had, it seemed, delivered the last word on this contentious subject.

Yet Bielenberg’s own figures, if carefully examined, strongly endorse Hart’s original findings. Of 71 civilians identified by Bielenberg as having been shot by the IRA in Cork before July 1921, 22 were non-Catholics (31%). As Bielenberg stresses, no less than 56% of these 71 victims were ex-servicemen (34 Catholics and six Protestants). Of the remaining 31 victims, it follows that sixteen (52%) were non-Catholics. These proportions vastly exceeded the non-Catholic proportion of Cork’s population (9% in 1911), a crucial fact omitted from Bielenberg’s ‘Platform’. Since Protestants were conspicuously over-represented among executed civilians, Bielenberg has inadvertently confirmed the credibility of Hart’s original thesis, insofar as civilian fatalities provide an index of sectarianism.

Hart’s own statistics for alleged spies and informers shot by the IRA between 1919 and 1923 were broadly consistent with Bielenberg’s. In The IRA and its enemies (1998), p. 304, Hart reported that 36% of the 204 executed civilians were Protestants, only slightly exceeding Bielenberg’s figure for the pre-Truce period (31%). No sensible historian, Hart included, has claimed that civilian victims in general were Protestant, or that Protestants were the only group regarded by republican gunmen as intrinsically suspect. Indeed, Hart emphasised the vulnerability of several other categories, including ex-servicemen (who accounted for 29% of the executions that he identified). He would have been gratified to learn that Bielenberg’s Fatality Index indicates an even higher ex-service component (56%), confirming the endemic suspicion with which nationalist veterans were viewed by republicans (especially by reformed nationalist veterans such as Tom Barry).

In future presentations, Bielenberg would do better to proclaim that ‘this sectarianism thesis has now been confirmed by our fatality index with regard to the War of Independence, since the majority of suspected spies and informers killed in County Cork (with the exception of ex-servicemen) were non-Catholics (52%)’.—Yours etc.,

DAVID FITZPATRICK
Trinity College, Dublin

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