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NEH funds study by history professor Sean Farrell on religious violence in 19th-century Ireland

May 9, 2018

Sean Farrell at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland

In the grand scale of history, it might seem like a minor footnote: an 1854 train wreck near Trillick, a small village in northwestern Ireland, that killed two railway engineers and left several passengers injured.

But NIU history professor Sean Farrell sees much more.

One of the world’s first “train wreckings,” the crash was no accident, had overtones of religious sectarianism and may have been an assassination attempt.

“I’ve always been interested in figuring out how simple Catholic versus Protestant stories came out of an Irish society that was so complex and fluid,” Farrell says. “The Trillick episode gives us a close view of that process. And this Irish story has obvious global and contemporary relevance given the prevalence of religious violence in divided societies around the world.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) would seem to agree that the story has historical importance. The NEH recently named Farrell as a recipient of its highly competitive Summer Stipends award to support his efforts to conduct a microhistory of the train wreck and its aftermath. NEH received almost 800 applications for Summer Stipends; only eight percent were funded.

The award will provide Farrell with $6,000 in funding to do archival research in Dublin, Belfast and Derry. He’ll also travel to the accident site “to get a better sense of the lay of the land.” The research will aid his new book project, “The Trillick Railway Outrage: Making Sectarianism in Postfamine Ireland.”

Microhistories are intensive historical investigations of single events, communities or individuals that can illuminate larger themes and issues. Northern Ireland has long been associated with Catholic-Protestant division, and Farrell has written two other books on the sectarian violence there in the 19th century.

He also has already collected 500 newspaper stories and government reports about the Trillick Railway Outrage. The deadly wreck involved two steam engines and a carriage that careened down a 40-foot embankment onto the low-lying land below. The train was driven off course by the deliberate placement of three large boulders on the recently-opened railroad tracks.

Farrell says the crash received widespread attention across the British Isles. Newspaper readers grappled with the event’s lethal mix of 19th-century progress and Ireland’s seemingly ancient religious quarrels. Many commentators assumed it was an attempt to assassinate the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen, who was the head of the anti-Catholic Loyal Orange Order and was seated near the front of the train.

Police arrested seven Irish Catholic railway workers positioned near the site of the supposed crime. Despite widespread efforts, sufficient evidence was never found to try the men, and they were released from jail nine months later, a decision that outraged conservative Protestants across the British Isles.

“The Trillick Outrage is a perfect illustration of the modernization of sectarianism in postfamine Ireland, as new communication and transportation technologies combined with a more competitive system of party politics to facilitate the creation of more sharply antagonistic communities in the north of Ireland,” Farrell says.

“Countless studies of ethnic, racial and religious violence across the world have shown how activists used modern tools and techniques to commit and narrate atrocities that reinforce ‘traditional’ boundaries and identities,” he adds.

Through a deep dive on the Trillick history, Farrell hopes to answer questions that are particular to the train wreck but would seem to resonate today as well: How did contemporaries construct narratives of the Trillick Railway Outrage? What factors were erased in this process? What roles did a new system of politics and new technologies play in hardening sectarian identities?

“Sectarianism is a complex historical subject,” Farrell says, “and demands to be treated as such.”

Farrell hopes to have the book project completed by the summer of 2019.