By Lisa Marie Griffith
Micro-history has pioneered a whole new genre of historical analysis where we look at history from the ground up. Irish writers have produced some fantastic micro-histories that examine various periods in Irish history and provide a unique insight into the mindset and lives of ordinary citizens. I am a big fan of this type of history and a couple of my favourite Irish micro-histories, which I think can rival even the best European micro-history, include Toby Barnard’s The abduction of a Limerick Heiress (Dublin, 1998), Des Elkin’s The Stolen Village (Dublin, 2006) and Brendan Twomey’s, Dublin in 1707: A year in the life of the city (Dublin, 2009). A personal favourite is Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary (London, 1999). The in-depth research that Bourke undertook for this book brings Bridget Cleary, her husband and their Tipperary community back to life.
It is with this in mind that I picked up Tim Fanning’s The Fethard-On-Sea Boycott which was released earlier this month. The Fethard-On-Sea Boycott recounts the story of a Catholic boycott of Protestant business people in a small Wexford village in 1957. The boycott became so bitter that it took the personal intervention of Eamon De Valera to call a halt to the boycott. The incident started with a family dispute. A Protestant woman, Sheila Cloney, argued with her Catholic husband, Sean, about which local school to send their daughter to. The local Catholic clergy intervened and, with mounting pressure from both within her home and outside, Sheila left the village with her two daughters and went to Scotland. The boycott was carried out under the direction of the local parish priest who maintained that it would be upheld until Sheila returned her daughters to her husband for them to be sent to the local Catholic school.
The story offers up a lot of themes and possible threads. Fanning’s main line of enquiry is the economic background of the boycott. He looks at the displacement of Catholics from the local district to make way for new English Protestant settlers from the plantations onwards and the nineteenth-century land war in the locality. He also examines the economic climate of the 1950s to show that financial pressures pushed some Catholics to support the boycott as they believed they would gain from Catholics withdrawing their support from local Protestant shops and switching to their own. Another interesting aspect of this case is emigration. The two local schools, one Catholic and one Protestant, feared loosing teachers and financial support as the population dwindled. He shows how and why the ‘boycott’ was used to good effect in rural Ireland and why it was the natural tool for the parish priest to pick up.
While an interesting examination, Fanning seems to miss the most important element in this story and one which most micro-histories, particularly Bourke’s Bridget Cleary, focus on: the personal experience of the event and how the individuals involved felt and reacted. Fanning goes to great pains in his introduction to explain to the reader that he had a personal connection to Sean Cloney. He discusses what Sean was like as a young man, his love of history and his heavy involvement in the local community. He does not, however, go into great detail of Sean’s own personal experience of the boycott, where he was at each stage, how he dealt with it on a day-to-day basis, how he felt at being ostracised from his community.
Indeed, the greatest omission from the story is Sheila Cleary. I was fascinated by this woman who managed to marry outside her own religion and yet upheld her own religious beliefs and background. Sheila and Sean had made a pact on their marriage that they would bring their children up in both their faiths. This seemed extraordinary to me and incredibly liberal for 1950s Ireland. It must have taken an incredibly strong-willed woman to go up against the Catholic Church. How common was it for a woman to maintain her own religion? It must have been unusual in 1950s Ireland for a woman to leave her home and husband with her two children and something huge must have pushed her to it. What did the family in Scotland who took care of Sheila during the boycott think? This woman took an incredibly courageous stance, as did the family who took her in, but Fanning leaves Sheila in the background and does not adequately explore this aspect of the story. I was also curious about how Sheila’s daughters felt about the event and yet their voices are omitted from the account as well except in passing reference. While it is an interesting account it lacks the personal detail which would have brought the story of this boycott alive to me.