Protestant decline tied in with collapse of the old order — not sectarianism

I READ with interest the letter from Robin Bury headlined ‘Protestants targeted by IRA men with a personal agenda during War of Independence’ (Irish Examiner, July 10).

It followed on from an interesting series of letters relating to the assertion by historian Peter Hart relating to the killing of a number of Protestants in West Cork in April 1922.

Mr Hart’s book on the history of the IRA in Cork is deeply flawed as a historical work not because it is biased (because most historians carry their biases into their written work but many are still excellent pieces of historical work) or because of lack of research (because he researched the era extremely well), but because he was trying to write a polemic pushing a political point that Irish republicanism always was and always will be unjustified and sectarian. In the Bandon area a number of well disguised local men accompanied British patrols. When the British forces left the area after the truce, they left behind documents which were recovered by the IRA identifying a number of the men from the Protestant community in the locality. Some of these were later shot by the IRA and others were killed in the carrying out of operations.

Peter Hart denies this and tries to attribute other motives for the killings, primarily land-grabbing.

Unfortunately for Mr Hart, there was one flaw in his theory. He had earlier edited an account of the head of British Intelligence in Ireland during the War of Independence. This was written shortly afterwards so they might learn from their mistakes.

In other words, it was not meant to see the light of day and we must thank Mr Hart that it did. In this account, the British Intelligence chief recalled how they got little support from the unionist community, except in the Bandon area where those involved were later badly treated. Mr Hart, in a note, points out that he does not accept this view. The fact that a historian does not accept a point made by a person of such standing written in a document which was not meant for public viewing, without strong supporting evidence, clearly undermines his role as a historian.

My own view is that the decline of the Protestant community in the South in the first quarter of the 20th century resulted from of a number of factors, notably the sale of land to the tenants which involved its transfer from an overwhelmingly Protestant landlord class. This resulted in the decline of the Big House and the related economic decline of the rural Protestant community. Once the estate was sold on very generous terms to the landlord class, the Big House was no longer sustainable, and when that went so did the whole community around it.

Ironically, the Protestant community around Bandon was one of the few to survive as a viable entity in the South. This also undermines Mr Hart’s assertions.

The other main factors include World War I, which had a devastating impact on the social structure of the Protestant community in the South, far more so than in the North. This was particularly the case among the officer class which, in the case of southern Protestants, came mainly from landed gentry families.

The establishment of the Free State and the retention of the North within the UK meant that in border areas particularly, there was a continuous exodus of Protestants to the North because of better economic conditions. It was a case not so much of discrimination against them in the South but discrimination in favour of them in the North.

Certainly Protestants faced difficulty during the period 1920-’24, as did the rest of the population, but that is not the same as to say there was a deliberate plan to terrorise them because of their religion and to force them out of the country, as implied in Mr Bury’s letter.

I reject the contention that the Protestant community was treated in a negative fashion by successive Irish governments and, in fact, the evidence is that in certain areas they received positive discrimination, most notably in education.

Contrast this with the position of the Catholic community in the North.

PJ Feeney

‘The Weigh Inn’


Co Cork

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