A ‘Protestant folk’?

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Volume 25

Addressing a historical imbalance in Irish folklore-collecting.

By Deirdre Nuttall and Críostóir MacCarthaigh

When one thinks of folklore study and folklore-collecting in the area that is now the Republic of Ireland, the Protestant community is not normally the first sector of society to come to mind (using the term here to denote the array of Protestant denominations that have typically intermarried and socialised freely together, despite often substantial doctrinal differences). While Protestant national schools contributed to the successful Schools’ Collection of 1937–8, now housed in the National Folklore Collection, as informants Protestants themselves are not well represented in archives or publications with a focus on Irish folklore and folkways. Sometimes the English-speaking culture to which most of them belong is even proposed as almost the antithesis of traditional culture in Ireland and as less worthy of note. A major collecting project being undertaken by the National Folklore Collection, focusing on Irish Protestants as a cultural group, seeks to redress this imbalance.

Protestant folklore previously neglected
Irish Protestants have been comparatively neglected as a focus for folkloric research for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Protestants in the south of Ireland have historically been over-represented in the middle, upper and professional classes, as well as among wealthier, more educated farmers. This is a tendency that is especially marked in Dublin, the east of the country and parts of west Cork. In general, traditionally wealthier social groups are much less studied as ‘folk’ than the less well-to-do. Moreover, the very visible presence of affluent Protestant communities in the areas that are hubs of academia and journalism gives the (inaccurate) impression to opinion-formers that they represent the totality of the group.

Secondly, although educated Protestants such as Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde had been deeply involved in folklore-collecting, as the subject developed academically in the Irish Free State it did so in the context of nation-building efforts predicated on documenting and preserving the Gaelic language and traditions that were associated mostly with the rural poor, especially in Gaeltacht areas at a time when those communities were severely threatened by emigration, poverty and other issues. Because very few Protestants were native Irish-speakers, this important work excluded most of them for reasons not associated with their faith or cultural background. (As an aside, when folklore-collectors came upon Protestant informants in the field, they did collect from them. For instance, Seán Ó hEochaidh collected a number of tales from a Protestant man called Charlie Walsh in Donegal in 1936, noting that he was an English-speaker but that he had every appearance of being a seanachaí.)

This tendency to exclude Protestants from ethnographic research, or not to consider them as an Irish cultural group that might warrant specific attention from researchers in this field, applied equally to early anthropological studies in Ireland. When the researchers of the Harvard Irish Study conducted anthropological work in Ireland in the 1930s, they benefited from financial support from what was a very nationalist Irish state. De Valera even suggested areas of study, people who could help and situations that would be best avoided, as well as arranging for the scholars, Arensberg and Kimball, to meet the Roman Catholic cardinal. Throughout the study, arrangements were made for the anthropologists to meet Catholic religious and political leaders in the districts where they collected data, so that they could enlist their support. They also benefited hugely from contact with Séamus Ó Duilearga of the Irish Folklore Commission.

Above: Collecting folklore in County Kerry in 1936. While Protestant national schools contributed to the successful Schools’ Collection of 1937–8, Protestants themselves are not well represented as informants in archives or publications with a focus on Irish folklore and folk-ways. (National Folklore Collection)

Folklore equated with ‘Catholic superstition’
Recent fieldwork suggests that at least some Protestants felt excluded from and/or excluded themselves from folklore-collecting projects. Some Protestants felt that they were considered not ‘really’ Irish in the same way as Catholics, while others felt that the image of Irishness that was promoted by various state bodies had no place for them and that the nationally accepted version of history tried to ‘write them out’, despite their intense feelings of Irishness. Some also experienced an independent Ireland as a country in which the only safe place to tell their own stories was within the boundaries of their group (while others, insulated by money and privilege, were able to live most of their lives in a Protestant ‘bubble’ of denominational education, and a social and work life largely conducted in Protestant circles). Yet others had a negative view of folk tradition and knowledge, associating it with Catholicism and ‘superstition’, and could not delineate their own folk tradition and knowledge as such.

Regardless of the social and historical context that helps us to understand why Protestants in southern Ireland have been studied relatively little from a folkloric perspective, there is nevertheless a lot to learn from a folkloric exploration of this group, and there are various compelling arguments that justify such an approach. Having identified the need to address this lacuna in the National Folklore Collection by focusing on Irish Protestants as a cultural group, a questionnaire survey was initiated, building on a series of lengthy interviews that were carried out in the period 2013–15. This phase of the research was launched in June 2016 and has proven extremely successful, with more than 400 people of Protestant origins having contacted the National Folklore Collection to take part. The questionnaire is predicated around matters including family and community history, inherited memories of important historical events, customs and traditions, and more, with broad-ranging questions about ‘Where your people came from’, about dramatic periods in Irish history and about the experience of living as a member of a minority. At the time of writing, responses are continuing to arrive, with some individual submissions reaching as much as 10,000 words in total. A detailed analysis of the material has not yet been completed, but a number of trends are becoming apparent.

Above: Protestants such as Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde had been deeply involved in folklore-collecting, but mostly from the predominantly Catholic rural poor. (RTÉ Stills Library; National Folklore Collection)

Diverse experience
While there are some commonalities, the experience of being Protestant is quite diverse, especially in terms of the levels of comfort associated with that status. In particular, individuals from affluent backgrounds and/or from areas with a relatively high density of Protestant inhabitants rarely express the feelings of marginalisation that are quite common among Protestants from areas where they are few in number and/or Protestants from poor backgrounds. Some of them express the view (widely shared by the general public) that ‘all’ Protestants are relatively well-to-do. This is strongly contested by other individuals from both urban working-class and poorer rural backgrounds (especially in areas with few Protestants), who have communicated historical stories of family and community hardship, marginalisation and bullying. They express frustration that their experience is often ignored, overlooked or simply not known: ‘They think we’re not here at all’. Rural Protestants from humbler backgrounds often stress that nobody in their family was ever acquainted with people from a ‘big house’, as in the following account:

‘There were several big houses in this area. The only contact people living in these houses had with the ordinary farmers was at church on Sunday. They just socialised with other people from big houses … In 1970, I rented a field to grow potatoes from the people in the big house. I went to ask if I could use their shed to store potatoes in as I had none of my own. It was the first time I had been in the yard or house.’

Urban Protestants from poorer backgrounds often report a feeling of near-invisibility, with many people struggling to believe them when they mention their faith/cultural background. ‘You’re not, love,’ one woman was informed when she told her colleagues at her cleaning job that she was Protestant. They found it impossible to understand that one could be a Protestant and a cleaning lady at the same time.

With respect to folk culture in Ireland, and Protestants’ relationship with it, a sense of ambivalence is apparent. Some report that Protestants, while aware of folk traditions, felt that these were the preserve of Catholics; some state that Protestants ‘are not superstitious’, while yet others give accounts of active tradition-bearing in their communities, such as having grown up in a home in which people gathered to tell stories, having knowledge of beliefs connected to fairy raths, and so forth, and of Protestants operating in their communities as traditional healers. One tradition refers to descendants of Cromwell’s soldiers having ‘saved’ traditional cures after monasteries were sacked, and as having used them constructively for hundreds of years subsequently.

Protestantism—‘the most Irish thing there is’
Many informants have provided detailed stories about their families of origin, which they are often able to trace back for many generations; sometimes these stories have proven difficult to tell, evidenced by one man’s account of his family initially arriving in Ireland as part of Cromwell’s army—‘but we tend not to say it’. The origins of Protestantism in Ireland are also referenced quite frequently, including the idea that the Reformation allowed Ireland to return to the ‘true’ faith that was brought to its shores by St Patrick, and that Protestantism is ‘the most Irish thing there is’. One narrative gives an example of this belief:

‘… at a special St Patrick’s Day service … the canon in his sermon explained that St Patrick brought the old faith to Ireland and it had much more in common with the Protestant faith. However, not everyone believed this, there were others who believed differently. When I was about 13 or 14 an old lady was staying at our house for some months … My brothers and I couldn’t stand her and the day she left was one of the happiest days of our childhood. The subject of St Patrick came around and what religion he was. I said that I thought he was a Catholic when she rounded on me. He was a Presbyterian, she snapped, and everybody knows it. I tried to point out that there were no Presbyterians as such when St Patrick was around but she would have none of it.’

Above: A collector transcribing folklore in 1957. (National Folklore Collection)

Ne Temere
Many informants are eager to share information about courtship and marriage, and in particular about problems caused to them personally, and to their families and communities, by the Ne Temere decree:

‘The Ne Temere decree had a huge impact on us growing up and nearly led to the extinction of the Protestants. Both sides obeyed the clergy then. I never saw any hostility between the two communities socialising in the work place. They both accepted each other for who they were [but] they hardly mixed at all socially as a “mixed marriage” was considered a terrible thing, so even to go out together was not good. Both sides respected each other but they had their own youth clubs, tennis clubs, dances, etc., so it was not hard to marry within their own community. We never met anyone else.’

The ongoing impact of the decree on families is also mentioned frequently; in the following account, the informant describes the situation when his grandmother died and his aunt (her daughter) was told by her own daughter not to attend the funeral:

‘My aunt was saying “I’m not asking the priest for permission to go to my own mother’s funeral!” and the daughter was screaming back, saying things like, “You’re imperilling your immortal soul!” … It was a huge row and … I was aware that it was terribly intense.’

While relief and happiness are often expressed with respect to the relaxation of the rule and the current acceptability of ‘mixed marriages’, there is a sense that this particular dimension of Protestant social history is important and should be recorded and recognised.

Also commonly referenced is the fact that, in days gone by, Catholics were not allowed to attend Protestant funerals. While Douglas Hyde’s funeral is often mentioned (with the exception of Noel Browne TD, his Catholic colleagues did not attend or waited outside St Patrick’s Cathedral), many informants also record their own and their family’s experience:

‘… the saddest day for me, and the thing that underlined our differences, was when my tiny 38-year-old mum died tragically after having a stillborn baby at home in 1956. I was eleven and my sister was eight. Mum was loved by all the neighbours who came to our home when she was laid out in the parlour. On the day of the funeral as we followed the coffin … I can still see the neighbours in tears watching through the railings on the pavement. They were not allowed to come inside a Protestant church …’

Above: Many informants have provided detailed stories about their families of origin, in one case as part of Cromwell’s army—‘but we tend not to say it’. (NPG)

Family histories
The survey has yielded a substantial amount of material relating to Protestant family histories of the early twentieth century—1916, the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the ways in which Irish Protestants responded and reacted to the changes taking place. These stories are very diverse, ranging from accounts of inner-city Dublin Protestants displaying statues of white horses that, to their eyes, represented William of Orange, while to onlookers they appeared to be merely decorative items (thus allowing them to display important iconography after Independence without exposing them to problems with their Catholic neighbours) to accounts of suffering at the hands of the Black and Tans. Narratives of important historical events (e.g. the Second World War, or the Fethard Boycott) can display a dual function: as a way to discuss the past with reference to actual events, and as ready-made frames for folk narratives about broader trends affecting the Protestant community.

Above all, many of our correspondents have expressed delight at the work being carried out, and at the characterisation of Irish Protestants as a cultural, rather than simply a religious, group. The approach to this sector of Irish society by folklorists gives a voice to many informants who would otherwise remain unheard and provides abundant insights into the lived experience of Irish Protestants now and in the past.

Deirdre Nuttall is an independent researcher based in Dublin; Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh is the Director of the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

D.H. Akeson, Small differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants 1815–1922 (Dublin, 1988).
C.M. Arensberg & S.T. Kimball, Family and community in Ireland (Ennis, 2001).
E.F. Biagini, ‘The Protestant ninority in southern Ireland’, The Historical Journal 55 (2011).
M. Elliott, When God took sides: religion and identity in Ireland—unfinished history (Oxford, 2009).

Readers who might like to take part in the survey can contact the National Folklore Collection at bealoideas@ucd.ie or +353 (0)1 716 8216.


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