Family background: Protestant evangelicals and socialists

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Volume 16

Virtually no Irish or even Ulster history was taught at the school I attended on Belfast’s Shankill Road. Thus when I left school at the age of fourteen I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I grew up in a devoutly evangelical Protestant home, where I was told stories of our suffering and persecution at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church over generations. I learned that one of my ancestors was a founder member of the Orange Order that defended our hard-won civil and religious liberties. On my mother’s side things were different. Her father was a socialist. One of her brothers claimed to be a Connolly socialist, another supported the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), while a third was a shop steward who claimed to be a communist and took part in the 1930s Outdoor Relief demonstrations. All changed when both parents became evangelical Christians in the 1920s. They left the Church of Ireland and my father moved to an evangelical Christian Orange Lodge, and finally left the Order completely by the 1950s. My parents’ new-found faith was radical. They joined an evangelical movement (the Church of God) that rejected elevated clergy and disapproved of all clerical garb, including ‘collars back to front’. Their church building—a wooden hut beside Divis Street on the Shankill side—was physically built, paid for and run by working-class people in their spare time. Dad, who left school at the tender age of twelve, taught himself to read and write so that he could preach.

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