Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, 1600-1998: the Mote and the Beam, John D. Brewer and Gareth I. Higgins. (Macmillan Press, £16.99 ISBN 0333746341

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

Apart from the postscript, which in my view is the weakest section of the book owing to its pious, unctuous and preaching tone, Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, was written by Brewer who generously acknowledges Higgins’s collaboration as research assistance by declaring co-authorship of the work. Brewer and Higgins maintain that anti-Catholicism in the North of Ireland is not just a dispute about doctrine; hostility to Catholics must be seen in terms of an ethnic boundary marker in group identity. This somewhat anachronistically entitled work is divided into two parts which deal with the history of anti-Catholicism from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the present, and with what the authors call the ‘Sociological features of Contemporary Anti-Catholicism’.
Antipathy to Catholicism is perhaps the most important single factor in Ulster Protestant identity. Of course anti-Catholicism per se is not peculiar to Northern Ireland as the authors readily concede: following Linda Colley’s work we know how crucial anti-Catholicism was for defining British national identity in the eighteenth century. Brewer and Higgins also point to the widespread hostility to Catholicism prevalent in the USA (which incidentally is the source for much of the anti-Catholic literature which circulates in Northern Ireland). The point, however, is that in Britain and America anti-Catholicism survives, if at all, at the level of ideas and rarely transmutes into acts of violence or discrimination against Catholics, whereas in Northern Ireland it is used as a ‘proxy’ for other forms of conflict which have their roots in economics, politics and social control.
There are some grounds for thinking that conservative evangelicalism provides a canopy uniting diverse stands of anti-Catholicism which emphasises Protestantism as the only source of identity for Northern Ireland unionists. However the picture is inevitably more complex and the authors provide a helpful classification of contemporary anti-Catholicism which identifies three groups, which although distinct do nonetheless overlap. The groups are distinguished as Covenantal, Secular and Pharisaic based as they are respectively on the ideas of Covenant, defence of the Union, and biblical truth and Catholic error. The secular anti-Catholics are not especially interested in religion and are concerned to emphasis the benefits of the Union and the decadence of the Irish Republic, they are moreover prepared to work at a political compromise with Catholics. Pharisaic anti-Catholics by and large have no political ambitions and see their duty in terms of trying to convert Catholics to Protestantism. The Covenanters are opposed to Catholics both religiously and politically and want nothing to do with them at either level.
The authors point to the alignment in extreme Protestant mentality between the Catholic Church and the IRA and how this outlook is used as a means of demonising Catholicism to the extent that anti-Catholicism is cloaked as a law and order issue. They also show how important the influence of covenantal theology was at the early stages of the recent troubles in the development of secular loyalist thinking. With complete candour, however, Brewer and Higgins state that there are problems ahead for the peace process unless ‘there is a decommissioning of Protestant mind-sets as well as of republican arms’ (p.134). It is also worth pondering, in the light of substantial devolution as a result of the Good Friday agreement, their assertion that direct rule has limited the extent to which anti-Catholicism permeates Northern Ireland’s social structure ‘because Protestants no longer control the local state’ (p.122).
Brewer and Higgins are at their best in analysing and expounding the significance of anti-Catholicism for Protestant group identity and the sociological impact this has had on the construction of culture and societal structure in what became the Northern Ireland state. Thus their assertion that anti-Catholicism survives in Northern Ireland because it helps to define group boundaries and plays a major sociological role in perpetuating and rationalising political and economic inequality, will pose a major challenge to politicians and clergy seeking to bring about a more just and stable society.
The book is less useful, however, when it tackles theological and historical issues. The discussion for example on eucharistic presence is at best too dependant on modern ecumenical agreement between theologians, which does not necessarily reflect the official doctrinal positions of the various churches, and at worst is  misleading and inaccurate. To contrast the Catholic view of ‘bodily presence’ with ‘the Reformed view of substantial but not bodily presence’ (p.188), is to confuse the argument over scholastic notions of sub-stratum substance (substantia) and ignores the wide difference between Luther, Calvin and Zwingli on the question of the manner in which Christ was present in the eucharist. The authors also seem to be unaware of the fact that the Septuagint is the Greek text only of the Old Testament (p.199). Nor is it true to say that Bishop Cornelius Jansen derived his views on justification from Calvin, in fact Augustine was the common source for both men, and to say that the Catholic Church in the past taught the idea that salvation could be attained on the basis of ‘merits alone’ (p.38) is simply a travesty of Catholic teaching.
There are a number of inaccuracies in their historical analysis. Their treatment of the state of Catholicism in seventeenth century Ireland is too unnuanced, as is the use in an undifferentiated way of the term ‘Gallican’ as applied to the Catholic bishops in the early nineteenth century and the repetition of the caricature of Cardinal Cullen as an ‘anti-Protestant’ bigot is much too simpliste. More alarmingly they say that in my Catholicism in Ulster I maintain that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church supported the Reverend Professor R. Corkey’s view that Catholics ought to be fined for having large families (p.100), whereas in fact I say the exact opposite. Considerations of space prohibits an indication of other misattributions, but their assertion that ‘Cullen thought that the actions of the government during the famine were intended to eliminate the Catholic faith in Ireland by genocide while profligate members of every bankrupt Orange family were protected, a view now fashionable in nationalist historiography’ (p.61), cannot go unchallenged. Absenting from the question of whether or not this represents Cullen’s actual views, I know of no serious ‘nationalist’ historian who propagates such a view.
The book is therefore not without its blemishes. It is, however, a fascinating survey of a neglected topic with much well researched and enlightening material which deserves to be widely read. It also cries out for a companion volume on anti-Protestantism in Ireland.

Oliver P. Rafferty


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