The lesser-known Belfast troubles of 1920-1922 was a particularly vicious and sectarian black mark on the history of this city and of the island as a whole. Just under 500 people were killed in just over two years of inter-communal violence.
Historian Dr Alan Parkinson (author of Belfast’s Unholy War: The Troubles of the 1920s) has described it as a ‘forgotten conflict’, a period in time not only neglected by historians but buried by the trauma which emanated from what occurred. Belfast society had not the adequate time nor space to come to terms with what went on between 1920-22; the Irish civil war and the hungry thirties soon became the Second World War, and two decades after the war’s end we were on the precipice of yet another period of conflict that would last for 30 years. 24 years after the ‘end’ of our most recent period of conflict, and with the benefit of a peace and reconciliation process, we are still coming to terms with what happened. The twenties troubles, however, had no such post-conflict process, the wounds merely turned into sores over many years.
For many others, though, this episode is readily accepted as a ‘pogrom’ that was perpetrated against the Catholic community in Belfast by their Protestant neighbours. The use of the word pogrom to describe the 1920-22 violence appears to have originated in the contemporary columns of the Irish News and has stuck ever since. Father John Hassan’s inaccurate and controversial pamphlet ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom’ written in 1922 served only to confirm the false narrative of a pogrom.
Those who choose to use this terminology have at times admitted themselves that it is not an entirely accurate description. Kieron Glennon in his article ‘The Dead of the Belfast Pogrom’ concedes that ‘pogrom’ is a disputed term and that he ‘acknowledges that what happened in Belfast does not strictly conform to dictionary definitions of the word’. Why does he use it then? Glennon tells us that, despite the term not being an accurate description of what went on, it nonetheless respects the ‘lived experience’ of nationalists who felt that a pogrom was being perpetrated against them. In other words, the nationalist community in Belfast perceived there to be a pogrom (rightly or wrongly) and therefore history must reflect that perception as fact. This is problematic, not least because it validates only one version of the lived experience over others which were as keenly felt and are (or should be) equally as legitimate.
The rise in nationalist violence from 1920 created a fearful unionist minority across Ireland. In Ulster, the IRA saw itself as continuing the violent campaign of the War of Independence that was raging in the south. In which case the unionist response, as reprehensible as it was, should be seen in the context of a wider IRA campaign that they felt was nudging ever closer to their door. This might also be referred to as a ‘lived experience’, or a perception, albeit one that has been mostly ignored at the expense of the dominant ‘pogrom’ narrative.
Glennon is correct in one sense though, that the dictionary definition of a ‘pogrom’ does not match up with events on the ground. The Collins Dictionary definition of a pogrom tells us that it is ‘an organized persecution or extermination of an ethnic group’, derived from a Russian word meaning ‘destruction’. Its use implies that blame for the 1920-22 violence should somehow be owned by one community in Belfast, despite the fact that there were two aggressors. It is this version of events, despite its obvious inaccuracies, that has dominated the popular understanding of the period ever since.
Far from being exterminated or destroyed, the Catholic population between 1911 – 1926 in Belfast actually increased, which, by the yardstick of a ‘pogrom’ is quite an unusual outcome to say the least. Moreover, far from bearing sole responsibility for the violence which occurred, Protestants suffered some of the worst examples of it. 44% of the 498 killed in this period were from a Protestant background. They include William Patterson, Thomas Maxwell and Thomas Boyd; three Protestant civilians who were gunned down by an IRA gang at Garrett’s Cooperage on Little Patrick Street on 19 May 1922. Upon asking for the religion of the men one Catholic worker was permitted to escape unharmed while the others were shot for the crime of admitting their Protestant faith. Also murdered that month was Unionist MP William Twaddell, assassinated while travelling on foot to his business premises in the centre of Belfast. It meant that May 1922 was the bloodiest month of the entire conflict with 75 deaths, a direct consequence of an IRA escalation of violence, their ‘Northern Offensive’.
It strikes me, however, that patterns of nationalist violence such as this (and others throughout the period) are incompatible with the pogrom narrative.
That the Catholic community suffered disproportionately in Belfast is evident from the facts, but one must consider all of the facts in the round, and when doing so I think any reasonable observer would come to the conclusion that the so called ‘Belfast pogrom’ was not a pogrom, rather a much more complex episode in which both communities suffered.