DIFFERENT AND THE SAME: a folk history of Protestants in independent Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

DEIRDRE NUTTALL
Eastwood Books
€25
ISBN 9781916137561

Reviewed by Ida Milne

Growing up in Wexford in the 1960s, children in our Church of Ireland family would have noticed little difference between Protestant and Catholic other than going to a different church on a Sunday. Apart from that, we were fully integrated into local life, like most other neighbouring Protestant families, part of the community in an unquestioned and unquestioning way. Our father, King Milne, was a keen follower of Wexford hurling—it was the 1960s after all, when Wexford hurling was coming to the end of its golden years, and the Rackards were stars and family friends. We had a hurling pitch on the farm, where Dad and the neighbours played at weekends. Our mother, Sheila, taught in the convent school in Bunclody and was an enthusiastic member of the local Irish Countrywomen’s Association branch, which met each month in Tombrack. As children, my sister and I did stepdancing in the parish hall in Ferns (rather clumsily in my case). We did all the normal things that Catholic families in the community did. We knew no different and thought that that was just normal.

It was only with the intrusion of the Northern troubles into our home through television and radio news that we began to realise that the integration that is normal for our community, Protestant and Catholic, was not necessarily other people’s experience, a feeling that became more concrete when I moved away from home to go to college in Dublin in the late 1970s. Meeting new people, it became increasingly evident that Protestant populations around the island are not homogeneous and that each local community has its own unique character, shaped by the reasons for settlement, the community in which they are located and ‘events’—tense periods and how they are handled locally.

And yet the broader society—and to some extent the historical research—held fast to an almost uniform image of the Southern Irish Protestant as being part of an élite, whether landowning or professional, but always educated and comfortably off, if not actually wealthy. This was not something that we Wexford Protestants identified with: some were educated to third level, some left school at fourteen and some had large farms, but some farm holdings were at subsistence level. Many worked in shops or as clerks in businesses; some worked in the professions. Brendan Behan’s apocryphal image of an Anglo-Irish person being a Protestant on a horse was not us—some Protestants in our community had only ever used horses for ploughing; in Wexford, anyhow, hunting tended to be a pastime of middle-class farming Catholics and Protestants rather than the preserve of the gentry.

Slowly, an underbelly of alternative historical narratives has been emerging, out of a perceived need to redress the record, showing a quieter sort of Protestant existence which contrasts acutely with the privileged upper-class world of the Anglo-Irish Somerville and Ross or the south Dublin urban professions pilloried in cartoons in Dublin Opinion in the early days of independent Ireland, and documented so elegantly by Felix Larkin in Protestant and Irish: the minority’s search for place in independent Ireland, edited by Ian d’Alton and myself (Cork University Press, 2019). Miriam Moffitt’s corpus of work on Irish Protestants has explored many different types of Protestant Irish, including Mayo missionaries. Martin Maguire has extensively researched Protestant working classes in Dublin and Protestant revolutionaries in the early twentieth century. Some of these emerging analyses have drawn on oral history to find stories not possible to access thoroughly from the written records. Catherine O’Connor’s seminal oral history work on the attitudes and experiences of Church of Ireland women in the diocese of Ferns challenged some perceived norms, including those of a society divided along a denominational chasm during the Fethard-on-Sea boycott. My own small project on Protestant attitudes to and engagement with the GAA was born out of an apparent silence on this topic in the historiography, but again all was not what it appeared, as some sports historians had indeed documented the involvement of Protestants in the national games but had opted not to draw attention to their religion; that would have defeated the purpose of their quiet engagement with community. Heather Crawford wrote up her Ph.D research on oral histories capturing the social attitudes of southern Irish Protestants in Outside the glow: Protestants and Irishness in independent Ireland (UCD Press, 2010). These and other emerging studies are helping to enable a more nuanced understanding of southern Irish Protestants in their many guises.

One particularly exciting new archival collection is the Irish Protestant Folk Memory Project pioneered by folklorist Deirdre Nuttall, who worked with UCD National Folklore Collection director Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh to capture the voices of ‘ordinary’ Protestants. When the project was announced in newspapers, there was a robust response from Protestants, clearly keen to document their experience as an aid to changing this overarching narrative. Between 2013 and 2017, 76 questionnaire responses and 98 oral history interviews were contributed to the project. While some discuss the remote past, most stories encompass the interviewees’ or their parents’ memories. Nuttall contributed an essay on her early analysis of this work to Protestant and Irish, and has now completed this volume on findings from the collection. Subtitled ‘a folk history’, the work is deeply reflective and engagingly written. It’s not, as Nuttall is swift to point out, a standard historian’s take, and reads like an ethnological study.

The human voice is strong throughout the work, and there is an emphasis on storytelling, or how we shape our understanding of our lives through narrative. What do we think important to tell when we go to the trouble of giving such interviews? It’s not easy extracting data from oral history interviews and boxing it into a structure: often snippets of testimony can be used for multiple purposes, so the dividing lines between sections can become blurred and confusing for the reader. Here, Nuttall makes determined divisions, adroitly sifting these stories into chapters on Irish Protestant past and future, identity and culture, love and marriage, environment, and difference. She sets the historical context—sometimes with a light hand more suited to a general reader—before retrieving material from the testimony to illustrate how Protestants felt about these events. This testimony is well balanced, drawing on several different views. Occasionally, the reader gets the impression that the author has a strong view herself, but nevertheless there is scholarly rigour in the use of testimony.

She gives a definition of what an Irish Protestant actually is—particularly beneficial for the international reader who might naively expect it to be about religion without this useful tool. The definition homes in on the complex question of identity and belonging that is central to this work. While most Protestants in the republic are Church of Ireland, kinships between all Protestant denominations were strengthened by their collectively being viewed as ‘the other’ in a country where Catholicism dominated religious, cultural and political life. The association with the former ruling élite clung like cow manure—one could not wash the whiff off easily, no matter how hard one tried or protested. So being Protestant was not so much about religious belief as about cultural identity. Nuttall cites an (unnamed) former dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral who told Lily Yeats that a mutual acquaintance had ‘no religion but is an out-and-out Protestant in everything else’. One of her interviewees, named as Archie, echoed this sentiment: ‘Although I have not had a religion or been religious ever since [the age of fourteen], I still see the Protestant background as being part of me’.

Each chapter has interesting vignettes carefully balancing perspectives on a given topic. In the chapter on the past, a focus on the First World War is predictable and safe, but the discussion of the Troubles of the 1970s is decidedly more meaty. Border Protestants reveal heated kitchen-table reactions to the violence, discussing intimidation within communities; those from further south often tried to put distance between themselves and Northern Protestants, often showing more empathy with the Catholic nationalist side, attributing the conflict to anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland. Some expressed resentment that Protestant unionist extremism in the Troubles changed local relationships in the Republic. Helen described local lads turning on her son, who attended a Protestant school in Dublin’s inner city, during the 1981 hunger strikes: her son, she claimed, was beaten up by other boys to chants of ‘Bobby Sands! Bobby Sands!’

One surprising underemphasis in the testimony is the respect that many ordinary Protestants had for priests and nuns, fostered by acts of kindness and sensitivity at difficult times, such as preparing for marriage, baptism or communion, or as a minority pupil or teacher in a Catholic school. Ecumenism does not feature much either, although it is mentioned. Over the last 40 years in Wexford, Catholic and Protestant clergy have fostered close personal friendships and pioneered an ecumenical movement at parish level which has had many positive results. The Ferns Ecumenical Society and the Byrne Perry Summer School pioneered by the late Fr Walter Forde have helped open up debate on contested history like the 1798 Rebellion in a useful way. Seán Cloney, a local historian whose family had been at the centre of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott, was also an important voice for tolerance. This is not to criticise but to suggest that there are further avenues for exploration raised by some of the strands in the work.

Every reader will have his or her own interests to explore in this compellingly readable volume, which, like earlier work on this topic, shows that all was not always as it seemed. Some will head for the sections on denominationally aligned hiring practices in business, others for the accounts of ordinary people rebelling when Protestant or Catholic clergy acted in a discriminatory way, the friendships that developed in a counterintuitive way during the Fethard-on-Sea boycott, the heartbreak or family support when one fell in love with the other. It is a fascinating and ready handbook to understand a key complexity in our society.

Ida Milne is co-editor (with Ian d’Alton) of Protestant and Irish: the minority’s search for place in independent Ireland (Cork University Press, 2019).       

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