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Feeling the Squeeze

Roy Foster

Descendancy: Irish Protestant Histories since 1795, by David Fitzpatrick, Cambridge University Press, 282 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-1107080935

This concentrated, original and suggestive book packs a punch which outweighs its modest length, but that is only to be expected. Forty-odd years ago David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish Life, a close-up study of Co Clare during the revolutionary decade, set a benchmark which later historians of Ireland have been aspiring to ever since: an exploration of mentality, history and society which illuminated the psychology of those years (and of Co Clare) in a completely new way. His work since then has branched out in several new directions. It includes a classic and profoundly moving account of emigration to Australia, a rather quizzical biographical study of Harry Boland, a survey of “the two Irelands” in the twentieth century, and most recently, a remarkable and empathetic biography of Bishop Frederick MacNeice, father of the poet. There has also been a stream of seminal articles on the geography of Irish nationalism, the disappearance of the Irish agricultural labourer and other key Irish socio-political issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When he is described on the jacket of his new book (by Alvin Jackson) as “one of the most gifted, original and influential historians of modern Ireland”, it is no more than the truth. He is out on his own, and you are never quite sure where he is going next.

Invariably, Fitzpatrick ploughs his own furrow. His latest work deals with aspects of the Irish Protestant experience, and like everything else he has written it conceals a faintly contrarian angle behind an urbane and judicious style. The title tells us what to expect, suggesting that the declining fortunes of Ireland’s Protestants will be surveyed; but there is nothing here about Big Houses and decayed estates, nor about the possessor bourgeoisie alleged by Fergus Campbell to have held the reins of privilege well into the twentieth century. Fitzpatrick is interested in the little people, their associations, how they consort together, their dogged faith and their reaction to the threats of violence and expulsion which hung in the air during the Troubles. Accordingly, his sources are not the diaries, memoirs and estate records of landlords and ladies; instead he has plumbed the archives of the Grand Orange Lodge and of the Methodist Historical Society, the minutiae of census returns and church records, memorials of long-forgotten preachers and the highways and byways of genealogical websites such as ancestrylibrary.com. His work (particularly in the closing chapters) also shows the rich social history to be extracted from the files of compensation claims lodged with both the British and Irish governments after 1922 ‑ as recently demonstrated in Gemma Clarke’s absorbing book on interpersonal violence during the Civil War.

It is a rich and suggestive mix, and the picture that emerges is in some ways a surprising one. Implicitly invoking David Trimble’s memorable phrase about Catholics in Northern Ireland, Fitzpatrick points out that the minorities he surveys “became expert at keeping themselves warm in cold houses”, and the picture that emerges suggest that – in the twentieth century at least ‑ inter-communal tension owed more to land hunger and historic grievances than sectarian animosity. His picture of Irish Protestant life at the demotic level investigated here reminds us of some salient facts, obvious but often implicitly ignored. One is that Irish Protestants were far from universally a middle- or upper-class elite ‑ especially before the 1920s. Another is that, before independence, and partition, a Protestant presence – at all social levels ‑ was distributed more widely throughout the island than later commentators often assume. And a third important fact is that for many Irish Protestants, partition presented itself as a worse evil than the prospect of all-island Home Rule. The recognition may have come belatedly, but it came nonetheless.

As late as the 1960s, the ecclesiastical architecture of provincial Irish towns and cities featured not just the elegant spires of the Church of Ireland, but a surprising variety of modest meeting-places dedicated to Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists ‑ and often a “Protestant Hall” used by all varieties for social purposes. Rural congregations were more scattered, but still hung on tenaciously in places like Co Cork, the subject of much of Fitzpatrick’s research. His early chapters, however, dealing with the Orange Order, necessarily concentrate on Ulster, all nine counties of it (there is much interesting material on Monaghan, as well as a wide gallery of Belfast activists). The origins of lodges are related to an Enlightenment moment, though their idea of “civic and religious liberty” differed from that of the Freemasons, with whom their rituals had much in common. The rebarbative ideology of Orangeism widely infiltrated the army and yeomanry, a process carefully traced in this book; this led to serious issues regarding conflicts of loyalty and instability of allegiance, which came into sharper relief when Orangeism emerged as equally dominant in paramilitary organisations.

At the same time Fitzpatrick draws attention to the alternative tradition of less predictable Protestant politics represented by luminaries such as the Home Ruler JB Armour, and the part played in Dáil politics by Border Protestants with Orange tinges. But overall, the gloomy image of a subculture of teetotalism, meat teas and dreary assemblies in damp fields persists. Fitzpatrick injects some energy into the subject by drawing out statistical patterns and, as ever, looking for the unexpected and treasuring exceptions; this perhaps lies behind his enduring affection for Bishop MacNeice, who though not the Home Ruler his son claimed him to be, was nonetheless a liberal, thoughtful and percipient figure. MacNeice’s refusal to sign the Covenant in 1912 is given detailed treatment here, along with other non-Covenanters; while those who did sign are profiled by intensive use of a fascinating contemporary survey conducted by the Daily Mail, along with a battery of material culled from biographical and church sources. The non-Covenanting Protestants include not only the perennially interesting Armour but also the clergyman Arnold Harvey, incumbent at Portrush during 1912, later bishop of Cashel: his liberal opinions might perhaps be traced back to his friendship with Lady Gregory’s family at Gort, where he tutored the young Robert Gregory and forged a lasting friendship with Jack Yeats (who sketched him rowing on Coole Lake).

Harvey had been rector at Lissadell, and another avenue which Fitzpatrick prospects in his determined quest to shine a new angle on the subject concerns WB Yeats, and the Orange connections of his Sligo forbears (Yeatses no less than Pollexfens). The poet’s slightly devious and evasive use of the theme in his memoirs is carefully anatomised, and related to his later political attitudes (one is reminded that Fitzpatrick long ago wrote a pioneering article on Yeats’s Senate speeches). More might perhaps be made of Yeats’s refusal to sign a 1912 manifesto on behalf of Irish Protestants, which claimed that they had no fear of Catholic bigotry; and, indeed, his remarkable defence in 1926 of the “Cromwellian” tradition in Irish life. (“He had been told the previous night that he was a Cromwellian, and there was a valuable part of Ireland – the Cromwellian part ‑ which had its own patriotism. It was chosen, and it had great qualities.”) Yeats the Protestant remains something of a no-go area in Yeats studies, and elsewhere; years ago my description of him as a déclassé Protestant was furiously contested by a senior figure in RTÉ: “You can’t talk about Yeats like that! He was as Irish as I am.”

Protestantism and Irishness intertwine in odd ways, as this book shows: never more so than in the subculture of Irish Methodism, which ‑ as the book goes on ‑ seems to preoccupy Fitzpatrick more and more. (So much so that he sometimes takes an explanation of terms such as “circuits” and “colporteurs” for granted.) This is partly due to the exceptional richness of Methodist records, for the purposes of demography and biography fully exploited here. Fitzpatrick also pays close attention to the sociology of Methodism in Ireland. They appear as “something of an occupational and educational elite”, overrepresented (like Ireland’s Jews) in the professions and shopkeeping, while among the third of the Methodist population working in agriculture, most were farmers occupying relatively large holdings, with very few farm labourers or servants. Before the revolution in West Cork, an area of especial interest for Fitzpatrick, though a small minority they were a well-organised and active community linked by Sunday schools, temperance associations and Christian Endeavour societies. There were twenty-nine chapels and a 151 halls and homes where services were held ‑ all this for fewer than two thousand adherents. (Each “circuit” kept intensive records both of financial organisation and of personnel, enabling the detailed reconstruction provided in this book.) Good social relations were preserved, not only with fellow Protestants of other denominations, but apparently with Catholic neighbours as well ‑ though intermarriage was in Fitzpatrick’s words “abhorred by both communities”, a reflection which, while depressing, is certainly accurate.

All this forms the background to Fitzpatrick’s close and absorbing delineation of the decline and exodus of the Methodist population from about 1920, and how far it was precipitated by what he calls the “unsurpassed ferocity and frequency of attacks against Cork Protestants”. His general conclusion (which is shared by previous commentators) is that the unrest between 1916 and 1923, while it may have accelerated the decline of Protestant communities in the rural south, did not inaugurate it. The last two chapters in the book discuss the process with the aid of huge and complex batteries of statistics, concluding that the general picture of low nuptiality and fertility, the effects of Ne Temere, and the failure to enrol new members provide most of the explanation for the decline in numbers: though he admits that “statistics … reveal little about the mentality or emotions of the people lurking behind the numbers”. With this caveat in mind, he turns to the actual events and memories of those West Cork Methodists who were targeted and threatened during the Troubles. It is clear that some of the events, such as the killing of British soldiers attending a service at Fermoy Methodist church, however traumatic, were directed at combatants rather than Protestants; the same could be argued for the killing of Methodist farmers entrapped into giving information to IRA members disguised as Auxiliaries (an episode recounted in what Fitzpatrick calls “chirpy detail” by one of Tom Barry’s flying column members for the Bureau of Military History). The subsequent contest for the farms involved suggests a longstanding antagonism over tenure, traced back in one case by Fitzpatrick to alleged “landgrabbing” in the early 1880s. The killings of three Methodists, tagged as “spies”, by July 1921 was accompanied by a far larger number of threatenings, woundings and pressure to emigrate; the circumstances are vividly recorded in compensation claims. Boycotts and intimidation featured heavily in subsequent efforts to sell the farms of those who had left the country. “Sectarian animosity was compounded by festering agrarian or political resentments, which often outweighed issues of religious affiliation.” Fitzpatrick also draws a picture of temporary withdrawal from the area by local Protestants at time of heightened insecurity, returning when things quietened down ‑ as indeed was the case with the relicts of some of those who emigrated to Britain.

But the Truce was not the end of it, and the terrible “Bandon Valley massacre” of April 1922, in which a dozen Protestants (including two Methodists) met their deaths and more were wounded, created a real sense of panic. It is vividly and horribly conveyed in a letter from the widow of the murdered 81-year-old James Buttimer to her solicitor.

My dear husband was holding my hand at the time, as he was so frightened. He said “Surely, boys, you would not harm an old man like me?” Then by light of the candle behind us I saw several faces turn from each side of the door and aim at him and he fell down by my side and was soon lying in pools of blood. His teeth were scattered all over the place as his jaw was smashed in and he was riddled with bullets.

Sons (who had long left home) in the British army may have had something to do with it, but this cannot explain the generalised attack on other Protestants; the killing of a local anti-Treaty republican may have precipitated the attacks, but their genesis remains veiled in uncertainty. Local feeling was apparently strongly against the killers, but the psychological impact was deep, and emigration –while not amounting to a dramatic exodus ‑ was certainly accentuated. The progress of these “displaced families” is carefully logged by Fitzpatrick, who concludes that “violence and intimidation did not necessarily lead to a panic-driven, unplanned, terminal and irreversible exodus”. The spectre of extermination had been raised, but ‑ in his view ‑ the response was an effort to rebuild communities and to come to terms with life in the Free State. That electric phrase “ethnic cleansing” is not applicable.

This seems a judicious and convincing conclusion, but a certain fear and constraint must have remained among the people whose lives had been threatened and who had been frightened from their farms. Such fears and memories are transmitted to posterity in half- unspoken ways, though the relations of Protestants to the Free State were to some extent eased by the public determination of the Cumann na nGaedheal government that they should see the new dispensation as fully representing them (indeed, in the Senate, somewhat overrepresenting them). The escalating pietism and unofficially theocratic inclinations of future governments form a counter-narrative , but it is not part of this book. It is hard to disagree with Fitzpatrick’s restrained and judicious conclusions, but it is also important not to airbrush the undertone of sectarian animosity out of this history. As Yeats said in his response to that Protestant Home Ruler manifesto in 1912, “there is intolerance in Ireland, it is the shadow of belief everywhere, and no priesthood of any church has lacked it”. This is equally applicable to the Orange tradition explored in the earlier part of the book. But above all, the dispassionate exploration of these themes, intimately woven into Irish history, is essential; and not the least value of Descendancy is the manner in which it is written, which contrasts markedly with the strident, pompous and self-regarding language adopted by some contributors to the discussion of the historical problems dealt with here. Ideally, it should help lower the hectic and accusatory tones in which the issues of Protestant depopulation in the Irish revolution have come to be treated. But I somehow doubt that it will.


Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford, and the author of many books on Irish cultural, social and political history, including the authorised two-volume biography of WB Yeats. His most recent book is Vivid Faces: the revolutionary generation in Ireland 1890-1923 (Allen Lane, 2014).