What happened to the Cork unionists after the First World War?



In 1919 the Unionist community in County Cork was prosperous, numerous and committed in varying degrees to the Unionist cause. They had their own newspaper, held parades and maintained a complex social system. Yet by 1923 their community lay decimated, torn asunder by a campaign of murder and intimidation and forced into a supposedly “Free State” which did little to protect them. What brought about such cataclysmic changes? How was the campaign of murder conducted and for what reasons? Did Cork Unionism maintain its identity during those violent years – and can this still be seen today?


The numerical decline between 1911 and 1926 of the Protestant (and mostly unionist) community in Cork, and indeed throughout Southern Ireland, is startling. The historian Hart puts the level of Protestant decline during this period at no less than 34% (the Roman Catholic population declined by merely 2%) and comments that “this catastrophic loss was unique to the Southern minority and unprecedented: it represents easily the single greatest measurable social change of the revolutionary era”

It is difficult to argue with Hart’s assessment that this population decline is unique in British history – representing “the only example of the mass displacement of a native ethnic group within the British Isles since the 17th century”

Precise figures for the decline of Southern Protestantism can be seen by an examination of the 1926 census of Saorstat Eireann (the Irish Free State):


Church of Ireland Presbyterian Methodists Baptists Total “Others” Roman Catholics
1911 249,535 45,486 16,440 1,588 327,179 2,812,509
1926 164,215 32,429 10,663 717 220,723 2,751,269
% Decline -34.2% -28.7% -35.1% -54.8% -32.5% -2.2%


The decline in Cork was even more marked than in the rest of Southern Ireland:

Church of Ireland Presbyterian Methodists Baptists Total “Others” Roman Catholics
% Decline across SI -34.2% -28.7% -35.1% -54.8% -32.5% -2.2%
% Decline in Cork Co Borough -52.8% -61.6% -38.7% N/A -49.8% +9.2%
% Decline in Cork County -40% -54.9% -40.4% N/A -40% -6.0%


A closer examination of the census reveals that the pattern of decline was broadly similar across the county, although Protestants in Skibbereen escaped significantly more lightly than Protestants elsewhere, losing 1 in 3 of their number during the period:


Roman Catholics Others;
Cork County Borough* +9.2% -49.8%
Queenstown* -6.5% -54.9%
Youghal* +0.5% -57%
Mallow* +7.5% -54%
Bandon* +0.9% -45.5%
Middleton -12.4% -59%
Bantry -11.1% -52.2%
Skibbereen* -10.4% -33.2%
* denotes a branch of the Irish Unionist Alliance in the town


Thus we can see that the decline of Protestants in County Cork during the 1911-26 period was highly significant, and constituted the most significant demographic shift in the British Isles during that period. It cannot be attributed simply to rural population decline, as there is a large disparity between the figures for the decline of Roman Catholics and for the rest of the population. Hart points out that the decline was not spread evenly throughout the period 1911-26, citing the records of Protestant Sunday services in West Cork:

“After 1919 attendance fell by 22%, with more than two-thirds of the decline taking place in a single year – 1922”

Nor can this decline be seen as merely a part of a wider pattern of Protestant decline occuring since the middle of the 19th century.

“A change in administration would be anathema to them”

There is no single reason for the decline of the unionist community in Cork during the war of independence period. Much of this essay concentrates on the campaign of murder carried out against Cork Loyalists, however it must be remembered that other factors accounted at least in part for the decline. For instance the departure of Union forces from the Cork area; as Hart points out:

“Departing soldiers, sailors, policemen and their families account for about one quarter of the emigrants, a significant contributing factor although ultimately a minor one.”

There is often a tendency to point to the Great War as a reason for the decline of Southern Protestantism. However an analysis of sign-up figures demonstrates clearly that Southern Protestants had quite a low volunteering rate (there was no conscription in Ireland) – one broadly similar to that of their Catholic neighbours. Both Southern Catholics and Protestants were far less inclined to sign up for King and Country than were Ultonian Catholics and Protestants. As Hart concludes “it was not the world war that blighted Southern Protestantism, but what came after”.

“Down the mardyke thro’ each elm tree”

In 1919 the Unionist community in Cork was relatively prosperous and committed to the Unionist cause. Their views were reflected through the local unionist organ, the Cork Constitution, which trumpeted that

“The Cork Constitution is read daily and exclusively by people representing a greater purchasing power than all the readers of all the other papers published in Munster”

In July 1919 the paper positively glowed with pride in being British; reflecting the wider pride felt in the Cork Unionist community at the declaration of Peace and the return of soldiers, Catholic and Protestant, from the front. Particular emphasis was placed on the flying of the Union flag. The paper carried reports from all over Munster and the Kingdom as to how Peace Day had been celebrated. At Skibbereen the paper records “A large Union Jack floated from the Post Office buildings, the Protestant Church, Hollybrook House and other residences throughout the day”. In the Unionist stronghold of Bandon the paper commented that “The Union Jack was floated proudly from the Tower of St Peters church”. As the editorial asserted.

“The citizens of Cork have every reason to feel proud with one of two exceptions the shops in Patrick Street, King Street and other main thoroughfares stopped business for the day and from their premises hung the Union Jack and Allied flags in considerable numbers”

Corkonians had suffered during the Great War; a survey of gravestones at Bandon contained a number of those who had died, including “Private D. Chambers, Royal Munster Fusiliers, 6th November 1917 aged 32” and “Timothy O’Leary, Telegraphist, RN.342012, HMS Defiance, 26th May 1914, aged 20”. Many of those who did survive to return to Cork ended up as targets for the IRA, regardless of whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

Many in Cork, both Catholic and Protestant, would have shared the sentiments of pride and remembrance expressed in the Constitution in mid-1919. During the war itself Cork was relatively united behind the war effort in the early years. Following the 1916 rising the Council, controlled by the Home Rule party, declared:

“That we the Cork County Council wish to assure His Majesty the King of our Loyal Support in the government of our country”

Cricket was a particularly popular sport amongst unionists in the county, and was played regularly before and during the war of independence. The arrival of Union soldiers from the mainland contributed to this, with the Constitution often carrying reports on military cricket matches. Cork County Cricket club was something of a bastion of unionism, with prominent Irish Unionist Alliance activist the Earl of Bandon among it’s patrons. The centenary of the club comments that:

“After the last war there was a considerable revival of the game in Munster. The League was more keenly contested and there were more frequent visitors to the Mardyke”

By late 1919 however the Sinn Fein revolution had gathered ground and this concern was reflected through the pages of the Constitution. In Queenstown notices started appearing urging the populace to shun the police service as “spies and traitors” . Early in 1920 the editorial talked with growing concern of an “organisation of desperadoes who are prepared to hesitate at no crime” – this was prompted by the IRA attack on the police station at Carrigtwohill . On January 9th an attempt was made to murder Sir Alfred Dobbin, “one of the leading merchants of Cork, a staunch Unionist” – which led to sensationalist headlines in the Constitution. IRA gunman Michael O’Suilleabhain recalls that 1920 “had opened with a general attack on RIC barracks throughout the county” . The nightmare was beginning.

“Has fair play been extended to the loyalists of Ireland?”

Early in 1920 the Unionist minority was spread throughout the county. However unionists do appear to have been concentrated in Cork city, Queenstown, and in towns and villages in rural West Cork such as Bandon and Skibbereen. Both of the latter villages for example proudly flew the Union flag to mark the victory in WW1; “A large Union Jack floated from the Post Office buildings, the Protestant Church, Hollybrook House and other residences throughout the day” .

The Irish Unionist Alliance and Unionist Anti-Partition League were organised throughout the county. Whilst the Constitution tended to take the side of the IUA, it gave over many column inches to covering the activities of both groupings. The IUA had district branches organised in Bandon, Buttevant, Charleville, Clonakilty, Dunmanway, Durras, Fermoy, Glanmire, Innishannon, Kilmun, Mallow, Mitchelstown, Monkstown, Muskerry, Newmarket, Queenstown, Rosscarberry, Skibbereen, Schull, Timoleague and Youghal, as well as in Cork city itself.

Referring to the Queenstown urban council the republican historian McCarthy talks witheringly of the “unionist influences still strongly embedded in the town” asserting that “the UDC had several unionists in its midst”. O’Callaghan, Saunders and Downing were three such unionists, forced to term themselves independents as “there was little else they could have called themselves in the political climate that prevailed at the time.”

Referring to Bandon the ex-IRA man Liam Deasy comments that it’s inhabitants had “changed little in their loyalties with the passing of the years they could scarcely have been more opposed to the Volunteers”

Skibbereen on the other hand was the home of the local Skibbereen Eagle which upheld a fiercely loyalist line, in direct competition to it’s competitor the Southern Star which was pro-nationalist in sympathies.

Republican hatred of the Irish Unionist community in these areas shines through the work of such historians as McCarthy, Deasy and McDonnell. The pro-British minority community were clearly seen as an obstacle in the way of the IRAs separatist ambitions. Most in the IRA would have regarded Protestants as opposing their aims and, at worst, as “spies and traitors”.

Therefore, throughout 1920 the IRA began a systematic campaign of murdering those whom they felt were not entirely sympathetic to their cause. By mid-July the revolution had gathered ground and the Constitution began to reflect the views of a community which saw itself as being increasingly isolated and under siege. This sense of isolation translated itself easily into strong support for the police and for the concept of Law and Order. Under the headline “Ireland in Revolution” the editorial reminded readers that “Seven shocking murders have been perpetrated in West Cork” – going on to call for greater assistance for the loyal community in the county. “Crime in Ireland” became a central editorial theme and horror was expressed at the Sinn Fein practice of

“dragging young girls from their beds and shearing off their hair with every circumstance of terror as a means of intimidating them from associating with policemen and soldiers”

In the light of such IRA activity it is hardly surprising that the paper commented with satisfaction on the “armed constabulary” shutting down a Sinn Fein court in Foynes. The paper also carried in full a government notice announcing a curfew for Cork – a tactic which had the whole-hearted support of the editor.

Later in 1920 a republican fisherman came across his daughter courting a young British soldier. The daughter was sent home in disgrace whilst the fisherman and his son “strangled the soldier with their bare hands”

“It is time they and their sort were out of the country!”

It was in the early months of 1921 however that the IRA reign of terror reached its peak. The Southern Irish Loyalist Relief Association began publishing long lists of those unionists, Protestant and Catholic, who had been murdered or otherwise harrassed by republicans. One such pamphlet recalled the case of Alfred Cotter, “a master-baker living in Bandon” who was taken from his home in his mother’s presence and shot dead. His crime was that he supplied bread to the local police.

Those few loyalists brave enough to supply information on terrorist activities to the police service faced a similarly terrible fate. Two Skibbereen unionists, Sweetnam and O’Connoll, were murdered on February 23rd for having “given evidence against a man who had been levying subscriptions for the IRA” . As the relief workers commented “it is as much as a loyal man’s life is worth to be seen entering a police barracks in many parts”. James Beale, a Protestant, was kidnapped and shot for fraternising with local Auxiliaries.

Others were murdered for lesser crimes – Alfred Reilly was executed as “a leading member of the Methodist body in Cork” whilst on March 6th a young Protestant girl in Castletownbere had her hair shaved off for fraternising with Union soldiers.

In April Michael O’Keefe, an ex-serviceman, was dragged from his bed in Carrigtwohill by IRA terrorists – his body was later discovered with an IRA claim that the dead man was “a convicted spy” . This was a pattern that was terrifyingly familiar to Cork’s minority unionist community and to ex-servicemen.

The IRA carried the war to Protestant social activities also; on the 29th of June Deasy recalls an attack on a “Protestant social hall” in Bandon. Deasy, claiming that the social hall was “earmarked for enemy occupation” proudly recalls how “a party of Volunteers daringly burnt the building to the ground”.

Richer Protestants suffered alongside their working-class and farmer co-religionists. Dunboy mansion was torched by the IRA – a neighbour, Albert Thomas recalls:

“One night I was called up and was shown a very large glow in the sky overlooking the castle about a mile away. The rebels had burned the castle down as they said they would. I was very sorry; sorry for all the lovely old silver, the beautiful glass and splendid linen all being burnt, all those gorgeous statutes and pictures, the wonderful drawing-room all burning for what? One can understand war with all its horrors, but this seemed to me a very wanton thing to do”

The quote from Thomas sums up admirably the confusion and despair felt by the unionist minority in the area at what seemed to them to be an IRA assault on their culture and whole way of life. The IRA excuse for the burning of Dunboy, that “the castle would be used as a garrison for British soldiers” rapidly became a stock excuse for attacks on unionist property.

Intimidation of known unionists began to follow a familiar pattern. An initial demand for money was likely, if refused, to be followed up by the theft of a farmer’s livestock. Hart writes that “simple dissent with IRA demands condemned many… very few were guilty of aiding the enemy”.

By 1921 news of the massacres had reached Dublin, leading the Irish Times to refer to the incidents as “pogroms” – commenting on Southern Unionists generally it asserted that

“All of them have not yet experienced such pogroms as that of West Cork; but few have been without distinct intimidation”

Boycotting of unionists was also a common republican tactic. As John Clarke, a Unionist in Dunmanway wrote to the compensation claim commission in 1927

“I was boycotted in 1921,1923 and 1923 because I was known to be a loyalist”

Clarke recounts a litany of low level intimidation – money was stolen, as was food and corrugated iron. In December of 1921 he was accosted a grouping of ten terrorists who demanded he serve them dinner. He refused “although their captain threatened me” – his wife, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, was terrified by the IRA activity and “a week after gave premature birth to twins” – one of whom was stillborn. A doctor had to attend upon his wife “for six months afterwards”.

As sympathisers on the mainland commented:

“All the public hear is a brief announcement that Mr A or Mr B has been taken out of bed and shot – but what a tragedy of broken hearts and agonising scenes lies behind the bald reports in the newspapers”

As time went on the IRA resorted to ever-more brutal tactics in order to terrorise the minority into submission. During the “Truce” a Cork Unionist wrote anonymously that

“the IRA are now billeting their men on private residences near here. In one case a widow lady had to give dinner and beds to seven”

It was around this time that the police and army began systematically evacuating their barracks – leading the anonymous commentator to assert bitterly that “loyalists are being left without any protection whatsoever either for their person or property” . The IRA took full advantage of this helplessness, stepping up their campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Spring of 1922. Hart recalls that “churches were marked for destruction in order to intimidate or punish their congregations” .

One might assume from all this that the minority community in Cork were engaged in an organised plot against the republican insurrection. The opposite was true. Hart points out that during the great period of Irish political mobilisation from 1912-1922 all the Southern Unionists were able to come up with was the Irish Unionist Alliance which, whilst effective for its size, was not a mass organisation. Whilst pro-British most unionists didn’t play an active part in politics, and were mindful of their position – scattered amongst an increasingly threatening nationalist population.

Despite leaflets urging Unionists to inform anonymously on the IRA there is little evidence that many plucked up the courage to do so. One police constable, Brewer, recalls that Unionists were“afraid to be accused of giving us news they kept away from us altogether”. The IRA claim that the Unionist community posed a serious threat to their operations simply doesn’t hold water in the light of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The fact that Unionists joined nationalists in reacting with outrage to the burning of Cork city demonstrates that, whilst pro-British, they were unwilling to go along with the excesses of some of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. An editorial in the Constitution called for an independent inquiry into the burnings:

“The demand for a satisfying inquiry is becoming irresistible and should it not be forthcoming the public will naturally draw conclusions by no means complimentary to the Administration”

Even when provoked by the IRA campaign Unionists failed to respond effectively, although some local unionists did risk their lives to help the army and police. Where resistance did occur it was “spontaneous, unorganised and almost always punished with the utmost severity” . Information from one unionist however was responsible for the near annihilation of the East Cork IRA terrorist group; needless to say the unionist paid for this with his life.

However even when unionists didn’t respond they remained targeted. Hart comments that:

“In the Irish revolution an unobtrusive unionist was still a unionist as Richard Williams found out when the IRA burned his house outside Macroom in June 1921 his situation could stand for that of thousands of others”

A friend of Williams recalled that “they could have left him alone I suppose, but they didn’t leave anyone alone, that’s the point”.

IRA man O’ Suilleabhain does defend his unit’s activities; “We burned no house occupied by a civilian, loyalist or otherwise” – however he does concede that “in other areas it is true that the IRA reacted to this [army activity] by burning loyalist homes”.

Hence we can see that, even when politically inactive, Protestants and Unionists were still targeted. Not all IRA violence was religiously based however; in terms of IRA attacks on the Catholic population they were largely directed at ex-servicemen – the loyalist relief association asserted that “many Catholics have been shot by the IRA particularly ex-servicemen whose lot in the South is truly deplorable”.

Nor was the violence class-based. Of the 113 houses burnt to the ground by the IRA just 15% belonged to Catholics – in a 90% Catholic county. Many of the Protestants murdered were working-class – Robert Eady, murdered on February 12th 1921 in Cork city is a case in point.

In conclusion therefore it seems clear that the Cork pogroms occurred for a variety of reasons. Primarily republicans appear to have seized the opportunity to work off old sectarian grievances, targeting Protestants out of all proportion to their numbers, and regardless of the fact that they posed but a marginal political threat to the aspirations of Sinn Fein. However Catholics seen as being associated with Britain or Britishness also suffered, as the attacks on Catholic ex-servicemen prove. At a very basic level the Cork pogroms were motivated not for political reasons or class envy but simply out of a sense of sectarian anti-British hatred on the part of the IRA.

“In parts of county cork life is one long nightmare”

The events of the war of independence in County Cork, and throughout Southern Ireland, was to have lasting ramifications on the unionist community there. Even today many Unionists South of the border refuse to refer to the 1919-23 period as the “war of independence”, opting instead for the more emotive term “the reign of Sinn Fein terror” , a term which perhaps accurately sums up the unionist experience of the republican revolution.

The period plunged the Protestant community in Cork into a period of decline. As TCD Senator Mary Henry asserted in a speech to the young unionist group in Trinity College; “once a small community grows smaller it can only decline”. From the winter of 1920 onwards thousands of ordinary Protestants and unionists throughout West Cork “spent many nights away from home, sleeping in barns and fields. While IRA volunteers were going on the run from their enemies, these people were on the run from the IRA”.

The numerous boxes of compensation claims from the county, still held in the Public Records Office in NI bear impressive testament to the suffering of Cork Unionists at the hands of the IRA. Many were to flee to Northern Ireland or the mainland, never to return.

It is unsurprising therefore that such a ghastly period was to have a lasting bearing on the attitudes of Unionists in County Cork. However the Unionist identity was maintained. The Skibbereen Eagle maintained it’s staunch loyalist editorial line until closing down in 1929; the Constitution had effectively been shut down during the Civil War.

Many people in the county still hold to their Unionist heritage and their British identity , boosted by an influx of immigrants from the mainland. In 1987 a Unionist candidate, Stan Gebler-Davies, stood in rural Cork and polled several hundred votes, proving once again the old maxim that political traditions never really die out; they merely hibernate until given the opportunity to revive themselves.



© David Christopher 2002

2 thoughts on “What happened to the Cork unionists after the First World War?

  1. “unique in british history”! this is Irish history and while we’re on the subject, why not talk about the displacement, murder, starvation and ethnic cleansing of the Irish people over the last 850yrs. mr. hart was an embittered revisionist and has been proven unworthy of historical unbiased time and again. he doesnt deserve to be quoted. fitting that his vitriolic tongue is silent.

    1. Hi Patrick,thanks for stopping by,and for your comments. As you’ll realise, we’re reblogging an article, not presenting a particular position. Give us time and we’ll gladly sift through that 850 years that you mention.Cheers again.

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