Sectarianism and ethnic cleansing

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17


—Over the past year several letter-writers have raised the issue of sectarianism and ethnic cleansing in the Irish Revolution and afterward, for instance Nick Foley (HI 16.3, May/June) and Clive Sinclair-Poulton (HI 16.2, March/April, and HI 16.5, Sept./Oct.). The blunt answer is that human nature does not change and the present is the key to the past so we can be sure that, as more recently, there was a great deal of sectarianism and what we now would call ethnic cleansing in the North at the time of the ‘Old Troubles’. In August 1920 Cardinal Logue deplored the ‘mad outbursts of sectarianism, resulting in the loss of many useful lives’. Next to the Belfast pogroms, the most notorious instance was when Frank Aiken’s Fourth Northern Battalion of the IRA murdered nine Protestants, a woman among them, at Altnaveigh in 1922.
Sectarianism elsewhere was less blatant: there were fewer Protestants farther south. But at this remove sectarianism is hard to discern, because then it was conflated with land and party-political interests, and cultural identification. A couple of factors that Mr Sinclair-Poulton might note are that Southern Protestants were disproportionately represented in the officer class during the Great War, and that the very high mortality rate of junior officers in that conflict accounts in part for the decline in the Southern Protestant population between 1911 and 1926; their own sectarianism may have led others to leave, rather than live under any form of ‘Rome Rule’.
That said, though, ever since the Celtic Dawn at least the notion of an ‘Irish Ireland’ had marginalised all who did not conform to what Republicans chose to define as ‘Irish’. Charles Townshend shrewdly observes that traditional Republican ‘emphasis on an inclusive identity of Irish birth was subtly different from the growing emphasis on exclusive cultural homogeneity’. Any whiff of heterogeneity therefore made sectarianism easy to camouflage; and because the Revolution’s victors have written our history, they have airbrushed their own sectarianism out: how many know of Altnaveigh?
Donal Kennedy (HI 16.4, July/August 2008) claims that the destruction of Big Houses through the Old Troubles followed on from—and, he seems to imply, was a response to—the Black and Tans’ burning of ‘non-Ascendancy’ property. This is simplistic. In the years prior to the Revolution, land was a—sometimes literally—burning issue, and the charred victims mostly Protestant. As the potential of the various land acts became apparent, Defenderism became more aggressive, and after Wyndham’s 1903 act made wholesale farm purchase feasible there was a concerted effort to intimidate landlords into selling demesnes and other property they might otherwise have decided to retain. What F. S. L. Lyons describes as ‘watershed’ years—1903–7—were, significantly or coincidentally, ushered in by Wyndham’s act, and afterwards, whatever their religion, landlords, their agents and any who would work for them were all fair game if Defenders called for a boycott.
More sinister tactics than boycott were employed: ‘cattle driving’ (turning landlords’ or graziers’ cattle out of fields and scattering them across the countryside); ‘houghing’ (hamstringing) them; stabbing horses’ eyes out; ‘spiking’ hayfields (driving short iron rods into the ground to break mow-bars); burning haystacks and houses; even murder. Was all this sectarianism or—hardly more edifying—‘only’ land-grabbing? So widespread was Defender/Republican intimidation that emergency legislation from the Land War was resurrected; but few were convicted of any crimes, probably for the same reason that, for example, the recent McCartney and Quinn murders go unpunished.
Douglas Hyde’s displacement by Eoin MacNeill at the 1913 Gaelic League Ard-Fheis smacks of sectarianism. Similarly, the sidelining, in 1907, of Protestants Horace Plunkett and George Russell by the Cooperative Society, which they had founded, had sectarian undercurrents, for all that gombeenism and politics (Plunkett was a unionist) were also involved; and the burning of Plunkett’s Kilteragh House in 1923 was a conflation of politics, sectarianism and land-grabbing, as was the burning of most Big Houses.
Donal Kennedy points out that Monty ‘did not care how many houses were burned . . . in order to defeat Sinn Féin’. But was this thuggish behaviour by the Crown forces sectarian or military-political? An ex-soldier, Bert Clark, explains: ‘if they did something to us, we went back and did it to their people’. Clark frankly admits to taking hostages in order to ensure safe passage, but, though doubtless individual Protestants among the Crown forces indulged their personal bigotry, the attitude seems not to have been sectarian per se, but anti-Sinn Féin, or just plain old anti-Irish: Jack Campbell, British Army veteran and no friend of Republicans, suffered harassment from the Black and Tans.
That sectarianism was rampant before the Revolution in both traditions seems undeniable, and it’s a bleak fact that war tends to bring out the worst in people, so it would be miraculous if sectarianism evaporated through the Revolution only to re-condense later: in 1934, having made common cause with Catholic workmates against employers, some Shankill Protestants made the pilgrimage to Bodenstown, where, in an eloquent demonstration of how they would unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, Republicans beat them up.
Republicans’ sanitisation of history is of a piece with their forensic sanitisation of Magennis’s Bar in 2005, and their denial of sectarianism through the ‘armed struggle’ of the late twentieth century. In fact, the Darkley Hall and King’s Mill massacres were nakedly sectarian, and mass murders at Omagh, Enniskillen and La Mon, to mention just a few, were too, but apologists always claim that victims were loyalists or British agents, or, at a pinch, really killed by police bungling—after all, ‘adequate warning’ had been given. One Southern Sinn Féiner allegedly was baffled by the outrage following La Mon: weren’t the dead ‘only Orange bastards’? So the victims were to blame for their own deaths, because of their political, religious or cultural affiliation, or the neighbourhood they had chosen to live in, or chanced to wander through; certainly they were not murdered by sectarian thugs.
Our noble history is written in the dripping red blood of Republican martyrs. There are enough sordid footnotes, though, to prove that patriotism is the enduring refuge of many a sectarian scoundrel.

—Yours etc.,
Co. Dublin


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