Tuesday 25 October 2016

Scarred by forced exodus of southern Protestants

Published 14/12/2008 | 00:00

LAST weekend I found myself in Cork at two family gatherings which left a good feeling behind. The first was a birthday bash for my brother Michael. The second was a gathering of Cork Protestants at a successful seminar called 'Understanding Our History -- Protestants, the War of Independence and the Civil War in County Cork'.

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The seminar, which had a full house, was the brainchild of the popular Paul Colton, Church of Ireland Bishop of the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross -- easily the best, as well as the best-titled, job in Ireland. Be back to Paul's People in a moment. First, let me give you a flavour of my own family gathering.

It included one of the bravest women on this planet, my first cousin, Sister Anne O'Halloran.

My sightings of her in the past 40 years have been few, but they are frames from a film of progressive politics in the modern world. My first memory of her, dating back to the depressing 1950s, is her sitting, dressed in black leather, on the pillion of a Norton motorbike, before going off to be a nun.

My second sighting was in SoHo, New York, in 1974, where I met her with the famous journalist Jimmy Breslin. Arising from anti-Vietnam war activities, she had been on the run from the FBI with the famous Berrigan brothers. Back then, she was still called Sister Rosaleen, but 30 years on, I am afraid to ask Ann what she is called now.

In recent years, Ann worked in Zimbabwe, and was badly beaten up by Mugabe's thugs. Today, she looks after women refugees across the border. Apart from her courage, what makes Ann special is her idealism. In spite of all she suffered at the hands of his hooligans, she still feels a sense of loss that a socialist star like Robert Mugabe should fall from her sky.

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THE same sense of loss lay behind the statistics supplied by a strong party of UCC historians at the seminar on 'Understanding History', which looked at what happened to ordinary Protestants in the period 1919-23. The most senior historian present, Professor Geoffrey Roberts, seemed as absorbed by our small wars as by the titanic struggle which formed the centre of his concise and brilliant book, Victory at Stalingrad. Any sadness at the subject matter was well balanced by the benign feeling left behind at the end of the day.

The truth bestows its own grace. And we got a lot of truth from the panel assembled by Archdeacon Robin Bantry-White, who was assisted by Philip McKinley of the Hard Gospel project -- a group which recently published a study of ethnic targeting in Fermanagh during the recent Troubles.

Dr David J Butler, crossing comfortably between history and geography, set the scene with an inspiring illustrated talk on Protestant land settlement in West Cork. This did much to dispel any lingering delusions about Protestants having all the good farms. Some of these hardy souls still inhabit the most inhospitable hilly regions of West Cork.

Dr Andy Bielenberg's talk was drily titled 'Protestant emigration from the south of Ireland 1911-1926, some statistical evidence'. But there was nothing dry about his final figure. Excluding extraneous factors (such as connections with the British forces, civil service, World War One casualties etc) Dr Bielenberg concluded that 39,000 southern Protestants became "involuntary migrants" in that period.

"Involuntary migrants," is another name for victims of intimidation.

As Bielenberg showed, many of them were not farmers, but small-town traders and artisans.

Behind the figures we glimpsed a grim picture -- decent Irish families caught in a conflict over which they had no control, and forced to flee from the land of their birth.

To this day, Dublin Protestants have little sense of the suffering of their country cousins. But in rural Ireland, the enforced exodus of almost 40,000 Protestants left scars on the soul as well as on the landscape. It was good to hear that some who fled came back to their farms -- proof that expelled southern Protestants were patriots who loved their country with the same passion their descendants show today.

Kevin Myers, writing in the Irish Times, was the first to break the silence about the sufferings of southern Protestants in that period. Academic study only began with the publication of Peter Hart's book, The IRA and its Enemies. At the seminar, with the heavy lifting behind him, Professor Hart shifted the focus to the notion of fear.

As Hart argues, both the IRA and its Protestant "enemies" became prisoners of a paralysing fear that the other side was secretly conspiring. This led to pre-emptive strikes, almost always by the IRA.

Hart believes the most important lesson is of the power of small violent acts to produce fear out of all proportion to the act itself.

The next speaker, John Borgonovo, author of Spies, Informers and the Anti Sinn Fein Society seemed determined to redress any perceived revisionist imbalance.

Although Borgonovo has clearly done a lot of work, it seemed to me that his American background blocked out some local nuances. Like the Aubane Society, he makes far too much of public protestations on the part of some Protestant clerics that they had no problems.

In 1922, in provincial Ireland, Protestant clerics were a small minority whose community was held hostage by armed men. What else would they say? And given the anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast, a Cork Protestant cleric could hardly publicly complain about Protestant farm families forced to sleep in their fields.

As the Belfast pogroms are sometimes used as an excuse for the bad treatment of southern rural Protestants, let us pause here to point out two big differences. First, a Catholic family driven from mixed area of Belfast had the support of other Catholics in a similar situation. Second, the family was merely moving a few miles to another part of the city.

By contrast, a Protestant family forced to flee was frequently on its own, had no support from other families and -- most significantly -- were not just made move from one town to another, but forced to flee the country of their birth, leave their farms and shops behind, and start a new life, in Australia, Canada or the UK.

The final speaker, Professor Joe Ruane, in a talk titled 'Reconciling the Memories in the Irish Context', convincingly argued that southern Protestants could best be compared with French Protestants -- and that like the latter, especially as confessional differences faded, Irish Protestants should look for a similar proud and progressive role in the national narrative.

Judging by the joyful audience reaction to this superb seminar, West Cork Protestants are well on the way to doing just that. Which is why I felt free to have a bit of fun. So I told them about my wife's fruit theory. Gwen says Catholics are strawberries, Protestants raspberries and Methodists gooseberries.

But while this got a good laugh, I balked at sharing a belief of my own: that Don't-rock-the-boat Dublin Protestants are to Irish Protestantism what wimpy Leinster is to Irish rugby -- but Cork Protestants are Munster to the hard core.

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