Revealed: why 40,000 Protestants fled Ireland in four years

A southern Protestant who always wondered why he felt like 'an outsider' says he has discovered a virtually unknown of exodus of 40,000 Protestants who fled the south from 1920-23 due to sectarian intimidation and murder.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 1st May 2017, 11:48 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:58 pm
Eamon de Valera, centre, worked closely with the Catholic Church to formulate the 1937 constitution. He is seen here visiting Shannon airport in the 1960s.

Robin Bury, the son of a Co Cork Church of Ireland cleric, studied history at Trinity College Dublin and worked as a history teacher and later with the Irish export board.

He made his findings through an M Phil at Trinity, now published in his recent book.

The most dramatic discovery he has made was what happened from 1920-23, when normal policing broke down and hidden sectarian tensions came to the surface, resulting in wide-scale religious intimidation and the murder of up to 200 Protestants.

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Robin Bury, author of the book 'Buried Lives, The Protestants of Southern Ireland'

Protestants made up around 10% of the population in the south in 1911 but had dropped to only 3.2% in 2011 – despite a major influx of foreign national Protestants in recent years, he said.

“I wouldn’t say in my own personal life that I suffered from discrimination, but I suffered more from not really belonging, being a bit of an outsider,” he said. He now lives in Canada, partly because the country “is not preoccupied by what religion you are”.

The most surprising thing he found in his research was that “the key to the theme of separation and feeling an outsider was what happened in 1920-23, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

“I established that approximately 40,000 Protestants left the south of Ireland in that period. which I call ‘involuntary emigration’.”

Author Robin Bury uses records from the Church of Ireland in his recently published book

He added: “There was intimidation, there was a fearfulness of what would happen once the Free State was established. There was a feeling of uncertainty and in some cases there were actual murders of Protestants, particularly in rural areas. There was a pretty nasty pogrom in west Cork but there were other incidents of violence.”

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In fact the 1920-23 mass exodus of Protestants is something which “generally speaking other historians haven’t really come up with”.

Robin Bury, author of the book 'Buried Lives, The Protestants of Southern Ireland'

He carried out his work with support from Prof Brian Walker from Queen’s University Belfast.

“In 1911 there were about 300,000 native Irish Protestants in the 26 counties but there was a drop of 175,000 from 1911 to 2011, or about a 60% drop in the Protestant population.

“This surely tells a story. Emigration and the Ne Temere decree were the driving factors in this decline.”

Ne Temere, the Catholic doctrine on mixed marriages, was seen by many as helping ensure the resulting children were brought up as Catholics.

Author Robin Bury uses records from the Church of Ireland in his recently published book

By contrast Catholic numbers “steadily increased” in the south in the same period and in Northern Ireland increased from about 35% of the population to 45% today.

He accepts that doctrinal differences on birth control may have initially have been a factor – until the legalisation of contraception in the south began in 1980.

His book includes graphic accounts of people who fled the country and later filed claims for compensation for lost property from the Irish state, based on records in Kew national library.

But he also estimates that 100 to 200 Protestants were murdered.

“The most disturbing without any doubt is the west Cork Bandon pogrom that took place in April 1922. They went to murder 28 Protestants in that area around Bandon and Dunmanway and I think they murdered 13. They were shot. One quite young lad, he was 15-16, the rest were men.”

Much of the intimidation came from “the civil war IRA”, there being no police at the time.

Robin borrows the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the most violent period, but says this later evolved into a milder form described by West of Ireland Protestant Fiona Murphy. “She said there was ‘polite ethnic cleansing’. It wasn’t aggressive or violent after the Free State was formed. People were aware of our difference and they were aware that really we were here as a matter of indulgence, as opposed to a matter of right.”

Although “the ice has melted” now, southern Protestants also came under pressure due to the Troubles. “During the hunger strikes there was real fear among the Protestant community of a backlash.

“In fact a Catholic said to me – out of concern: ‘You know, you want to be a little careful because of what is going on in Northern Ireland’.”

The 1926 census of Northern Ireland found 24,000 people had come from the south in the previous 15 years, he said.

“A lot of this has been buried – I think ‘Buried Lives’ is quite a good title for the book – people want to keep quiet about it and don’t want to talk about it.”

• Buried Lives, The Protestants of Southern Ireland by Robin Bury (from The History Press Ireland).