David Fitzpatrick on ‘ethnic cleansing’

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Letters, Volume 22

Sir,—Niall Meehan (HI 21.6, Nov./Dec. 2103, letters) takes me to task for unfairly contributing to the ‘denigration’ of republican revolutionaries, through the performance of a spoof ballad expressing sectarian attitudes as an introduction to my Parnell Lecture at Magdalene College, Cambridge, on ‘The Spectre of Ethnic Cleansing in Revolutionary Ireland’. As I wrote in response to the publication of Justine McCarthy’s report of this lecture in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times: ‘By composing a ballad recounting attacks on West Cork Methodists, I hoped to dramatise incidents tending to create fear among Protestants, with a view to underlining the resilience of the minority and their determination to take a full part in the life of the new Irish state’.

My letter, which was published in truncated form in the next issue of the Sunday Times, quoted the explanation that McCarthy had omitted to incorporate in her highly misleading report:

‘I specifically refrained from discussing the influence of sectarian motives and attitudes on republicans and the IRA, arguing that all motives are mixed and ultimately impenetrable. Having analysed fresh evidence from Methodist records, I concluded that the sharp decline in Protestant population (one-third between 1911 and 1926) was largely due to reduced intake of new members and to some extent to emigration. Though markedly higher in 1920–3 than immediately before and afterwards, the scale of Methodist emigration in the revolutionary triennium was similar to that in 1911–14. I therefore suggested that the demographic impact of violence and threats against West Cork Protestants has been exaggerated, and that much of the Protestant community weathered the storm and fairly soon resumed normal communal life. Though many members of the audience assumed that the ballad was genuine, I took care to acknowledge authorship in the discussion, making it clear that it was neither an attempt to encapsulate republican attitudes nor an expression of my own views.’

I maintain that the sectarian sentiments in my now notorious ballad, though not representative of most republicans, accurately embodied the perceptions of many embattled West Cork Protestants, as expressed by personal testimony and compensation claims. They believed, on the basis of strong prima facie evidence, that certain republican activists, at certain times, made a concerted attempt to drive Protestants and ‘loyalists’ out of West Cork. Like Peter Hart, I share that belief; but no attempt was made in my lecture to establish the particular responsibility for sectarian attacks, or the extent to which other motives contributed to apparently sectarian outcomes. I concluded the lecture as follows: ‘The outcome was not “ethnic cleansing”, but a concerted attempt to rebuild Protestant communities and establish a satisfactory modus vivendi in the Irish Free State. 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.’

Anyone wishing to read an extended version of my Parnell Lecture should beg, borrow or buy the latest Bulletin of the Methodist Historical Society of Ireland. A broader statistical analysis of ‘Protestant depopulation and the Irish Revolution’ appeared in the most recent issue of Irish Historical Studies [see Bookworm, p. 54].—Yours etc.,

Trinity College


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568