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  • Forkhill Protestants and Forkhill Catholics, 1787–1858
  • Brian Clarke
Kyla Madden . Forkhill Protestants and Forkhill Catholics, 1787–1858. McGill-Queen's University Press 2005. xvii, 240. $32.95

On the evening of 28 January 1791 Alexander Berkley was passing a quiet evening at home when a crowd of men rushed in, seized him, cut out his tongue, and then carved off the fingers of his right hand. After that they did the same thing to his wife and her brother. As the men left, they vowed ominously that 'those like him' would suffer a similar fate. Berkley's wife died of her wounds; Berkley and his brother-in-law survived. A contemporary account of this incident opens Kyla Madden's superbly researched, elegantly written, and highly revisionist account of sectarian relations in Ulster. Forkhill Parish in County Armagh is indeed an ideal location to examine Catholic–Protestant relations. As a county with a mixed population, Armagh has had a long-standing reputation for sectarian conflict – it was, after all, the birthplace of the ultra Protestant and anti-Catholic organization, the Orange Order. Forkhill itself was a Catholic stronghold that had just recently experienced Protestant settlement. Protestants remained a small minority in the parish, no more than ten per cent of the total population. As a result, the attack on Berkley set off a shock wave, one that has reverberated down the centuries. Among the Protestant residents of Ulster, the incident immediately became a symbol of the region's sectarian violence and their status as a besieged community. And it has remained so ever since (the Reverend Ian Paisley cited it an as indication of the depth of Catholic hatred towards Protestants). Likewise, the region's historians have taken the outrage to be emblematic of Catholic–Protestant conflict. But, Madden argues, historians have uncritically adopted a sectarian interpretation of Irish history, which divides the Irish into two opposing and warring groups, Protestant and Catholic. As a consequence, they have assumed that such violent episodes were motivated by religious antipathy. As it turns out, the reference to 'those like him' didn't refer to Berkley's religious affiliation at all but rather to his actions as an informer. Hence the savage attack on his tongue to silence him; hence the mutilation of his right hand, a punishment that would end forever his ability to earn his living as a weaver. The attack on Berkley was one of several that occurred as Protestants moved into the Forkhill area. It has been long assumed that these incidents were part of a general attack against Protestant settlers. Not so, argues Madden. Cruel these attacks were, but they were not sectarian. Rather, those who were attacked were targeted because they had violated communal mores by acting as informers, tax collectors, and so on, not because they were Protestants.

Indeed, Madden maintains that much of the violence that wracked Forkhill was intra-communal. As she meticulously documents, this was [End Page 255] most certainly the case in the attacks against those involved in land grabbing, a regular occurrence in this densely populated parish with notoriously poor soil. In the period between 1835 and 1840, for example, Madden can identify 130 attacks in which the religion of the participants was recorded. Almost three-quarters of these attacks were Catholic on Catholic. Similarly, the anti-tithe agitation of the 1830s was largely directed at fellow Catholics who had collaborated with the authorities in the collection of the tithe. Once again, in both the struggles over land and in the anti-tithe agitation, it was the betrayal of communal norms, not religious affiliation, that singled people out for punishment. Relations between Catholics and Protestants defied stereotypes, as Madden illustrates in two further case studies. Before the 1830s, after which Catholics were able to establish their own school system under public auspices, Catholics attended schools established by Protestant charities. And during the Great Famine of 1845–50, many Catholics owed their survival to the intervention of Protestant charities. In popular memory such relief would be remembered and denounced as 'souperism,' that Catholics had been compelled to renounce their faith in return for food. But in the case of Forkhill...


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