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Marie Coleman: Nation and Empire

25th February 2021


Go raibh maith agat as an gcuireadh le páirt a ghlacadh i seimineár Machnamh 100.

Prof John Horne has offered us a comprehensive yet succinct perspective on the themes of nation, empire and partition in the context of this island, and its wider place within the British empire and beyond, 100 years ago.

I would like to explore how these themes affected the personal experiences of some of those who lived through the events and to reflect on how we remember, a century later, a distance sufficiently safe to allow for more inclusive reflection.

Nation and empire

Prof Horne has suggested that the dynamics of nation and sovereignty were stronger driving forces behind the Irish revolution, than were concerns of empire. That is a convincing analysis from the perspective of the insurgents. But have we looked sufficiently at the factors motivating their adversaries, members of the Crown Forces who served in Ireland during these years – from the Irish perspective, the ‘other’ referred to by the President in his remarks launching this series in December?

In that reflection, the President noted how the violent actions of the crown forces were strategic tools employed to defend empire, and certainly that was the vision of the political and military leaders who deployed these men to Ireland. But what of the individual motivations of the men who defended the British nation and empire in Ireland throughout 1920 and 1921? We know something of what triggered reprisals, whether knee-jerk reactions to deaths of comrades or the inevitable consequence of over-indulgence in alcohol.

These events took place in Ireland, but what brought these men to Ireland in the first place? The President has cautioned against stereotypical depictions of ‘the other’. A way to avoid this in the case of the ‘enemy’, in this case the Crown forces, is to look to their own personal experience and testimonies in an effort to identify their motivations, while remaining cognisant of the later Prof David Fitzpatrick’s warning that personal motivation is notoriously resistant to historical enquiry.

Just over one hundred years ago, on 2 February 1921, a group of nineteen men including engineers, mechanics, clerks, a messenger, a dairy assistant, an actor, a spinner, and a teacher and preacher, all of whom were members of M Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC, were ambushed by the North Longford flying column of the IRA in the isolated townland of Clonfin between the town of Grandard and the village of Ballinalee. Four Auxiliaries were killed and a further seven were subsequently discharged as medically unfit, never to serve again on account of the injuries which they sustained.

The vast majority had been in Ireland for six weeks at most and their original training, for trench or airborne warfare during the First World War left them ill-prepared for an ambush on a quiet Irish country road. Testimonies of the injured and the families of the deceased in claims for compensation offer some insight into what led them to such strange surroundings.

One survivor, William Bellingham, said he ‘joined the Auxiliaries merely to tide him over in the crisis in the engineering trade’. Harold Clayton, one of the fatalities, had been sending home £5 weekly to his pregnant wife and child. The most unusual member of the group, a South African Boer War veteran who had served on the side of his own former enemy during the recent Great War somewhat cryptically hoped ‘that something would come out of joining’ the RIC - indicating a possible ideological motive. Though the fact of his divorce later in 1921 suggests a possible element of escapism to his brief Irish adventure.

Exploring the lives of the individual members of the Crown forces, allows us to view events in Ireland in 1920 and 1921 from the perspective of ‘the other’ and suggests that while at the marco level considerations of nation, identity, loyalty and empire drove the conflict, at the micro level of the individual participants more mundane considerations of job security and economic stability go some way to explaining how it was that many British men who served in the Crown forces during the War of Independence found themselves in Ireland in the first place.

The centenary commemoration of the Clonfin ambush took place earlier this month, a much more muted event in the context of the pandemic and the restrictions on public gatherings. The event epitomised the spirit of ethical remembering which the president has done much to encourage. In a similar vein, the personal journey of reconciliation undertaken by Sr Maeve Brady, whose father, Tom Brady was a member of the IRA ambush party at Clonfin, to visit the four cemeteries in England where the deceased auxiliaries were laid to rest, was at once a simple but powerful and significant gesture.


In the final section of his discourse, dealing with the effects of partition, Prof Horne drew attention to the Catholic and nationalist minority ‘trapped’ in the ‘enclave’ of the newly created Northern Ireland and has also alluded to the problems that ensue when a nation or state becomes defined by the identity of the majority.

One hundred years on, as we live through the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, we face one of the most challenging contexts for all of the events that have to date been marked during this past decade of centenaries. For one community it is a heroic tale of survival against the odds and for the other of abandonment, alienation and discrimination. How can a middle ground be found between those extremes? Perhaps the answer is that one can not, and therefore should not, be sought.

The role of scholars is to expose the complexity of the facts from which the various competing narratives draw their interpretations. We should be wary of those who seek to appropriate conveniently cherry-picked events to make a statement relevant to current issues. In a similar vein, cheerful prognostications about the potential of the coming century, made in the context of centenary commemorations, runs the risk of ignoring how the present has been conditioned by past painful experience.

The issues of identity, loyalty and nationhood explored at the outset by Prof Horne, are also pertinent to the experience of Ireland’s other minority population which found itself left behind in a majoritarian jurisdiction – the southern Protestants. When the first census of the Irish Free State was held in 1926 it revealed a significant demographic change – the reduction by 1/3 of the non-Catholic population of the twenty-six counties from the time the last (an all-island) census had been conducted in 1911.

There is a relative level of scholarly consensus that this phenomenon was the result of a myriad of economic and demographic factors which played out over a long period of time, pre-dating the revolutionary period, but intensifying during it. Voluntary emigration for economic reasons; natural decline, where birth rates failed to keep pace with mortality; and the departure of the British garrison and other servants of the state in 1922, all contributed to the significant downturn, though there is dispute as to which of these were the most significant.

While scholars reject the emotive claims alleging ethnic cleansing, that is not to say that the revolutionary upheaval of the period was not a factor in Protestant departures, especially in the most violent years between 1920 and 1922. If Protestants were not targeted specifically because of their religion alone, their denominational affiliation was often part of a wider associational culture – such as membership of the Orange Order, or fraternising in church or social groups with co-religionists who were members of the Crown Forces – that was part of the explanation for them coming under suspicion.

In January 1922 southern Protestants faced an unknown future. The decline in their numbers by 1926 indicate that some at least departed, to Britain or Northern Ireland in many cases. However, the focus on departures can distract focus from the fact that the majority elected to remain. An editorial in the Church of Ireland Gazette in January 1922, soon after the ratification of the treaty by Dáil Éireann, recognised that ‘loyalists of the south and west’ did not ‘regard the change which is impending with any great enthusiasm’, but asserted that ‘they are determined to make the best of things’, promising to ‘give their whole-hearted and active support to the Irish Free State’.

The enormity of that decision, and the wrench which it entailed for many in abandoning an integral part of their identity and association with ‘nation’ is one which should not be over-looked in our current commemorative landscape. For the descendants of those Protestant remainers, commemorating certain actions from the War of Independence and Civil War in the south will evoke painful memories of past family experiences.

The faith placed in the new state by Protestants was not always reciprocated. Discrimination against Protestants in the south was never comparable to that of Catholics in the north. Yet, in his memoir of early life in south east Leinster, the late Church of Ireland canon, Norman Ruddock, recalled the ghettoisation of life live around sectarian institutions, the divisions within families caused by Catholic insistence on Ne Temere and the difficulties of navigating heightened local tensions as a recently ordained cleric during the Fethard-on-Sea boycott of the 1950s.

We may think of these experiences as now belonging, thankfully, to the history books. Yet, similarities can be observed between the choice facing southern loyalists in 1921 - of whether to leave or to remain - and the choices that might yet face unionists in Northern Ireland in the current context of discussions about border polls and the constitutional future of the entity created by the partition that we are focusing on here today.

During an interview with the comedian Patrick Kielty, for a television documentary made not long after the Brexit referendum, the NI First Minister, Arlene Foster, speculated that in the hypothetical event of Irish unity she did not feel she would be able to continue living in Ireland. These views were far from unanimous within unionism; by contrast, Lady Sylvia Hermon, then a sitting independent unionist MP for North Down, declared forthrightly “I’ll be staying, I’ve always loved this country … I will not leave it, even if it was ruled by Dublin.’

While wary of drawing anachronistic parallels between the past and the present, we can still look to the past to inform the future. In the event of a united Ireland, are there lessons to be learned from the experience of the integration of the southern unionists after 1921, that could inform any future status of northern unionists in such an entity?

Commemoration is a contemporary process. The events belong to the past. The commemorative act reflects current sensibilities, opinions and priorities. The future also has a role in this process. Reflecting in the present on how we did things in the past offers the opportunity to inform future practice.