DESCENDANCY: IRISH PROTESTANT HISTORIES SINCE 1795

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

 

Reviewed by
John M. Regan

Borrowing Tom Bartlett’s coinage, David Fitzpatrick defines ‘descendancy’ as the ‘states of mind engendered by a shared awareness of the declining power and influence of a past ascendancy’. Professor Fitzpatrick explores fractured and contradictory Protestant experiences, bridging military service, support for and opposition to Home Rule, sectarianism, Orangeism, the border, ethnic cleansing, persistent depopulation and the shock of revolution. Six of the nine chapters were previously published in scholarly, if occasionally inaccessible, journals. Deservedly, this volume opens Fitzpatrick’s ground-breaking research to new and attentive audiences.

bigbookFitzpatrick addresses culture as much as religion or politics. He renders sensitive readings of a bewildering array of archives, many previously untouched by scholarly hands. And he brilliantly illuminates often-remote corners of Protestant experience: the quiet decline of Orangeism in the southern border counties; the discreet ‘Orange upbringing’ of W.B. Yeates and Louis MacNeice; the complex relationship between Methodism and Orangeism.
‘Mainstream loyalism,’ Fitzpatrick observes, ‘was more successful than mainstream nationalism in restricting unwanted violent and conspiratorial activity by fringe groups.’ He attributes this ‘discipline’ to the ‘persistent influence of the Orange Order’ rather than to the absorption of some extreme loyalists into the security forces. During the late 1990s the Order’s capacity to impose discipline was tested during its annual stand-off with nationalists and the security forces at Drumcree in County Armagh. Related violence included the kicking to death of an off-duty policeman by a loyalist mob in Ballymena in 1997, and a UVF arson attack in Ballymoney, which left three children dead, in 1998. Such hateful acts query the Order’s ‘discipline’ when it mattered most.

Fitzpatrick’s prologue ends with the sombre reflection that ‘Would-be loyalist paramilitaries could not draw inspiration and hope from the same rich mythology of uprisings and martyrdom that kept the “republican flame” perpetually flickering’. Interesting here is not only the juxtaposition of uninspiring loyalist mythologies and potent republican alternatives but also the assumed cause-and-effect relationship that Fitzpatrick attributes to myth and violence. Fitzpatrick endorses cultural explanations of political violence in which historians shoulder heavy responsibilities for what they say.

In A nation and not a rabble [to be reviewed in HI 23.5, Sept./Oct. 2015], Diarmaid Ferriter outlines this responsibility: ‘During the Troubles reordering the revolutionary generation … [into] pro-state democrats and anti-state dictators was common’. As Ferriter explains, ‘numerous scholars felt it vital to define the IRA in 1922 as anti-democratic in order to undermine the Provisional IRA’. Ferriter likely refers (there is no footnote) to ahistorical reinterpretations of events like the 1922 ‘pact’ general election or civil–military relations during the Civil War. But Ferriter cannot explain how ahistorical writing undermined the Provisionals. The so-called ‘democrats and dictators’ interpretation to which he alludes gathered momentum from the mid-1990s, largely post-dating the Troubles. Coinciding with this historiographical turn, some historians began to discover hitherto unheard-of levels of ethnic violence perpetrated by the same ‘anti-state’ IRA in 1922.

In his chapter on ‘Protestant depopulation and the Irish Revolution’, Fitzpatrick re-examines the late Peter Hart’s 1996 contention that between 1920 and 1923 Southern Ireland experienced what ‘might be termed “ethnic cleansing”’. Two issues, Fitzpatrick writes, have dominated the ensuing ethnic cleansing debate: ‘the influence of sectarian hatred’ on the IRA, and ‘the extent to which Protestants were actually forced out of their homes by intimidation’. Partially, Fitzpatrick’s summation is accurate. Also punctuating and connecting this debate to a broader historiographical discussion is criticism of Hart’s empirical method. Identifying ethnic cleansing in nine southern counties, Hart claimed that more than 53,000 Protestants left Southern Ireland during the revolutionary tumult of 1920–3. Since 1996 no one has sought to verify the statistical basis of his interpretation.

According to official census data, between 1911 and 1926 the Southern Protestant population declined by 33% (106,000). Following Hart, the problem that Fitzpatrick addresses is to differentiate how much of this decline is attributable to ‘normal’ economic migration, low fertility and the British administration’s evacuation after 1922, and how much is attributable to the forced migration described by Hart. The vital questions remain: who left, when and why? ‘To advance the study of Irish “ethnic cleansing” beyond conjecture,’ Fitzpatrick boldly announces, ‘we must search for new sources.’

Among the ‘fresh evidence’ that David Fitzpatrick brings to the table are the ‘neglected set of annual returns’ recorded by the Methodist Church in Ireland. These incredibly detailed tabulations enable Fitzpatrick to forensically profile the Methodist demographic annually. He advances the hypothesis that the Methodist demographic profile accurately represents ‘the broader Protestant population’. But experiences varied. For example, in The year of disappearances: political killings in Cork 1920–23 (2010), Gerard Murphy reports ‘what almost amounts to a pogrom on Methodists’ in County Cork during 1922. Between 1911 and 1926, County Clare, albeit an extreme example, lost half of its Episcopalians, two thirds of its Presbyterians and over four fifths of its Methodists. Can the Methodist demographic be truly representative of wider Protestant experiences?

Fitzpatrick concludes that Southern Protestant decline in the revolutionary years, 1920–3, was actually slower than during the relative calm of the pre-war triennium, 1911–14. He states that ‘Cork, Hart’s prime example, did not experience abnormally heavy Protestant depopulation’ in 1920–3. And quoting Hart, Fitzpatrick adds that ‘several other counties experien-cing “similar campaigns of what might be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’” … were even less affected [than County Cork]’. Bandon and Dunmanway, ‘the reputed epicentre of “ethnic cleansing”’, witnessed no exceptional Methodist decline. Vindicating earlier research by Martin Maguire, Enda Delaney and Barry Keane, Fitzpatrick concludes that chronically low levels of births and marriages explain the Protestant demographic decline after 1911. The Methodist returns indicate no evidence of ethnic cleansing or anything like it.

Gemma Clark’s recent study, Everyday violence in the Irish Civil War (2014), draws inspiration from Hart. She cites evidence of widespread intimidation directed at Protestants in counties Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick. ‘Targeted violence,’ writes Clark, ‘is one of a number of social, economic and natural causal factors that contributed to the outflow [of Protestants].’ She cites Andy Bielenberg’s estimate of between 2,000 and 16,000 non-voluntary Southern Protestant migrations between 1919 and 1923. Using compensation applications to the British and Irish governments as her evidence, Clark compares the plight of Munster Protestants in 1920–3 with the processes expelling 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from the new Israeli state in 1947–50. If Fitzpatrick’s analysis now casts doubt on such comparisons, Clark’s interpretation also queries some of Fitzpatrick’s more strident conclusions.

Peter Hart’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ thesis drew on two sets of data drawn from Episcopalian sources. Annual Reports of the Board of Education of the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross identified an unexceptional 30% decline in enrolled pupils between 1911 and 1926. What was exceptional about this decline, as Hart noted, was that ‘nearly three quarters … took place in 1920–2’. Hart asserted that this shocking downturn was also confirmed in several Church of Ireland parish preachers’ books from West Cork. These recorded weekly church attendance as declining by 22% between 1919 and 1926. Two thirds of this decline, Hart claimed, occurred in one year: 1922. What was happening to the Episcopalians? Hart said that their school enrolment and church attendance numbers were unaffected by the British withdrawal in 1922. Therefore he attributed the sudden decline in Episcopalian numbers to ethnic cleansing. If Fitzpatrick’s hypothesis that the Methodist demographic is indicative of all Protestants is to work, he needs to explain Hart’s Church of Ireland figures. This Fitzpatrick does not do.

Complicating matters greatly, Hart wrote that ‘Methodist congregations in the Cork district followed an almost identical path’ to the Episcopalians’ school enrolment and church attendance figures. He added: ‘as did the [Methodist] congregations throughout the three southern provinces’. Hart’s evidence for these statements are the annual Methodist returns. Used by Hart (and other historians) in the mid-1990s, the returns are not quite the virginal source that Fitzpatrick suggests. Indeed, Hart’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ thesis substantially rests on the Methodist returns.

In a footnote, Fitzpatrick attempts briefly to resolve the anomaly of Hart’s interpretation of the Methodist figures disagreeing with his own:

‘In a passage citing M[ethodist] C[hurch] M[inutes] (1911–26), Hart claimed that “Methodist membership (in Cork district) was higher in 1918, 1919, and 1920 than in 1914, but fell precipitately thereafter. Once again, 1921–3 were the crucial years, accounting for seventy-four per cent of the lost population”.’ [my emphasis]

And Fitzpatrick continues:

‘Though it is true that 74% of the loss between 1920 and 1926 occurred in 1921–3, this period accounted for only 30% of the total decline from 1,825 in March 1911 to 1,146 in March 1926.’

Fitzpatrick explains that Hart exaggerated the Methodist decline in ‘the Cork district’ by nearly 150% by conflating six years of decline (1920–6) into the three revolutionary years (1921–3). Yet Fitzpatrick misrepresents Hart. In the passage quoted by Fitzpatrick, Hart attributes the decline of 74% in 1921–3 to the Methodist congregations ‘throughout the three southern provinces’. Lest there be any ambiguity, Hart added a footnote:

‘These figures include junior and adult members for Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Sligo Districts and are derived from the Methodist Church in Ireland Minutes of Conference, 1911–1926 (Wesley Historical Society)’.

Apparently, Hart’s analysis is no more based on ‘conjecture’ than is Fitzpatrick’s.
Properly calculated, decline in the five southern Methodist districts in 1921–3 was 24% of the total decline between 1911 and 1926. Hart’s figure of 74% is therefore a gross exaggeration and may be another unfortunate error. Nevertheless, Hart claimed that all of his data sets charted an ‘almost identical path’. His ‘ethnic cleansing’ thesis rests on returns for five southern Methodist districts agreeing with his figures for school enrolment and church attendance in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork. Statistically, it is highly unlikely (but not impossible) that any two independent Church of Ireland data sets will agree with Hart’s miscalculated Methodist returns. This observation raises the possibility, however unthinkable, that Hart’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ thesis rests on miscalculations in all seven data sets. Alternatively, if Hart’s analysis of the Episcopalian school enrolment and church attendance is indeed accurate, Fitzpatrick’s hypothesis that the Methodists are representative of all Protestants looks increasingly precarious. To resolve these anomalies, Hart’s figures should be recalculated (where possible) and his methodology explained. Drawing on samples of Church of Ireland records, the preliminary evaluation of this reviewer is that Fitzpatrick’s hypothesis is probably correct.

Descendancy is a landmark contribution to the study of Irish Protestantism. David Fitzpatrick does great service in signposting how an error entered the historical record, carrying the language of genocide in its tow: ‘the [IRA] gunmen wanted to exterminate or drive away all Protestants’. Reports of a sudden ‘mass exodus’ of Protestants now appear baseless, and hard evidence of ethnic cleansing has not been produced.

John M. Regan lectures in British, Irish and public history at the University of Dundee.

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