Buried lives: the Protestants of southern Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

ROBIN BURY
History Press of Ireland
€18
ISBN 9781845888800

Reviewed by: Niall Meehan

This survey of twentieth-century southern Protestant experience notes that it began badly for Protestant landlords. Their huge estates were subdivided for purchase by unappreciative, mainly Romanist, tenants. Then things went further downhill. Bury’s narrative asserts that IRA attacks on individual Protestants during the 1919–23 War of Independence and Civil War were sectarian. Southern Protestant testimony rejecting this perception is ignored, alongside other contrary evidence. Bury’s ‘personal stories’ themselves indicate persecution of individuals acting in concert with and also giving information to Crown forces. In retaliation for what Bury terms ‘Black and Tan activities’, the systematic burning of the modest homes of republicans, the IRA burned substantial properties belonging to those perceived as active loyalists. Houses of supporters of the new Free State regime were also burned during the later Civil War. Bury cites sympathetically a ‘revealing and touching’ letter in 1923 to a Mrs Clarke, essayist Hubert Butler’s mother-in-law. It describes the efforts of ‘Nolan’, a Clarke family retainer who sought beforehand to salvage as much as possible: ‘he worked like a nigger but he could do no more’.

After it expired in Irish smoke, dedicated servitude was sought elsewhere. Many loyalists departed the impoverished 1920s Irish state. They settled in far-flung parts of the Empire until a ‘wind of change’, noted by British Prime Minster Harold Macmillan in 1959, blew there too. Some exiles returned and were available to challenge the new Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement during the 1960s. Reasons for departure, but not return, interest Bury. After the conflagrations of the early 1920s Bury notes some redistribution of Protestant crockery but of little else.

Protestants retained control of the commanding heights of the southern Irish economy, in banking, insurance, manufacturing, retail and the building trade. This is largely because no one thought too much about taking it from them. Had that happened the author would have had more to complain about. Despite what the author intimates, there were never more than ineffectual efforts at questioning this sectarian system of ownership, control and discrimination, which lasted into the 1960s. It was undermined in the end by the demise of protectionism and the advent of foreign competition.

Bury is curiously insensitive to the origin of the relative largess enjoyed by a small proportion of southern Ireland’s population. A ‘Ruairí Bruirigh’ surveying the plight of Roman Catholics during the seventeenth century, from the vantage point of the eighteenth, might have noted a dispossessed population on the verge of extirpation.
Elements of the majority recommenced efforts to challenge triumphant overlords under conditions of considerable disadvantage, dismissed by Bury as ineffective anti-Catholic penal laws. When their political descendants clawed their way to power (of a sort) in 1922, they did not do what had been done to their antecedents. The remnants of the old Ascendancy were welcomed into the national community, whether or not they wished to join.

Bury points to an alternative path: 40,000 or so United Empire Loyalists, unloved in the post-revolution USA, are credited after arrival with helping to create Canada’s ‘multi-faith, multi-race’ society. A version of that could have been attempted here, if Bury’s forebears had effected a Canadian-style suppression of this island’s aboriginal inhabitants. An all-island Protestant nirvana might have emerged from that blank slate, though Northern Ireland does not seem a positive example. Instead, the new Irish dispensation contained disagreeable, to the author, elements that included failed attempts at fully reviving a suppressed culture and language, through compulsory Irish in school. Protestants who espoused the merits of the ancient tongue and its attendant customs complicated unified opposition. Among these were ‘Catholic Protestants’, of whom Bury deems Dr Martin Mansergh a live specimen. He has, apparently, excluded himself from the author’s ‘tribe’. Perhaps they rejected a ‘stifling atmosphere’ in what F.S.L. Lyons in 1967 called ‘a kind of [Protestant] ghetto’.

While the new rulers infused society with the irritabilities of their peasant religion, they also used it to control and to dampen the revolutionary ardour of the majority. Social controls conducive to preserving Protestant prosperity were thus instituted. Conservatism ruled, more so than Catholicism, a distinction which the author might have difficulty accepting.

Within a sacrosanct socio-economic status quo, two Christian communities ordered their affairs separately, in education, health, welfare and detention. In this they did the same things in parallel, in particular locking away unmarried mothers and neglecting their abandoned offspring. This feature of what Bury terms southern Irish ‘apartheid’ is unexplored in Buried lives—that is, apart from one unsourced reference to 219 unmarked Bethany Home children’s graves in Mount Jerome Cemetery (discovered by this reviewer). Bury then abandons the topic, though not before noting vaguely that ‘other [unnamed] Protestant homes also had [unspecified] scandals’.

In the end, it was the Roman Catholics, mainly, who reversed out of Catholic Ireland, and did so as citizens of the republic they assumed themselves to inhabit. Protestants joined them, also as citizens. Bury is discomfited by this abandonment of a cherished separatism. He mirrors in this the forlorn vista of those who lost control of Catholic Ireland.

The author’s absorbing interviews with a diverse group of border Protestants illustrates difficulties in creating a unified Protestant outlook, no more so than in creating a Catholic version. The refusal of the Church of Ireland in 2000 to associate with a failed Orange Order parade in Dublin’s Dawson Street, a saga recounted in detail, confirms the problem with pluralism, if problem it be. Finally, Bury objects to mysterious anonymous persons asserting that Protestants are not ‘Irish’. Yet he compares the comparative good fortune of Irish descendants of 1709 Protestant Palatine refugees to that of ‘the Irish’ during the 1845–8 Famine. This is a fascinating book of interesting contradictions, in need of a proofreader.

Niall Meehan is head of the Journalism & Media Faculty in Griffith College.

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