PROTESTANT AND IRISH: the minority’s search for place in independent Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Volume 27

Cork University Press
ISBN 9781782052982

Reviewed by Raymond Refaussé

Raymond Refaussé was Librarian and Archivist of the Church of Ireland until his retirement in 2016.

There can be little doubt that since the Reformation the issue of identity has been a major preoccupation for Irish Protestants. This has been particularly so at times of perceived crisis—1641, 1798, Catholic Emancipation, the First World War, the Easter Rising and, of course, partition. That such concerns still remain has been made all too obvious by the Unionist reaction in Northern Ireland to Brexit. In the Republic, Protestants seem, for the most part, to be more secure about their identity, and the mature and inclusive commemorations of the First World War and the Rising certainly contributed to that. And so the publication of a volume of essays that seeks to explore the place of Protestants in an independent Ireland is both timely and welcome.

A characteristically elegant preface by Roy Foster and a helpful introduction by the editors set the scene for sixteen ‘exploratory essays’, as they are described on the dust-jacket, arranged in three sections—‘Belonging’, ‘Engagement’ and ‘Otherness’.

The first essay in the ‘Belonging’ section, by Ian d’Alton, sets the tone for the volume. This is not to be the conventional story of loss, alienation, exclusion and discrimination, although these themes are, quite properly, explored. Well-known cases such as the Fethard-on-Sea boycott, the Tilson child custody case and the Mayo County Librarian controversary all get an outing but in a more subtle context, for while these were undoubtedly troubling matters for the minority, as d’Alton points out, ‘The important point … was there were not very many of them’. Through acceptance, obedience and a limited participation, the Protestant community began to make a life for themselves in a new environment that was not of their making and, largely, not to their liking. As ex-unionists many had nowhere to go, but as Protestants they could develop an identity that, over time, would secure a place in the new Ireland. In the early years of the Irish state they may have seemed to be a community under threat but, as d’Alton concludes, ‘The actuality was a lot fuzzier’.

This ‘fuzziness’ is also apparent in Brian Hughes’s discussion of the work of the Irish Grants Committee between 1926 and 1930 through which southern Irish loyalists could claim compensation for loss of trade. Applicants were required to define their loyalism and they did this in different ways—as supporters of British rule, as members of the Orange Order, as those who served the Crown forces. Nevertheless, from a sample of 66 non-Catholic applicants from County Cavan only nine specifically mentioned religion.

Two essays, which address specifically Church of Ireland topics, suggest exceptionalism and pragmatism. Conor Morrissey’s examination of the career of the Revd Bolton Waller reveals a man who, unlike most of the Church of Ireland clergy who chose to keep their heads down, actively sought the peaceful unification of Ireland and the revival of Protestant activity in public affairs. Miriam Moffitt’s discussion of the State prayers controversy in 1948–9 shows that, while there were still some who found change to the liturgy difficult, the bishops and many in the Church of Ireland simply accepted that they could not continue to pray for the king in the new republic.

Deirdre Nuttall’s essay, based on interviews with Protestants who were ‘ordinary folk’ in small, scattered communities, comes closest to that more generally understood Protestant experience of marginalisation—going away to boarding-school, the fear of inter-church marriage, watching the numerical decline of Protestant communities. This is an important corrective to the ‘big house’ and wealthy Protestant businessman narrative.

In the ‘Engagement’ section two essays deal with landlords. Tony Varley examines how two Protestants, George O’Callaghan-Westropp from east Clare and R.M. (Bobby) Burke from south Galway, sought to effect a transition from landlord to farmer through political activism. Whilst both enjoyed some success, that neither of them managed to fully integrate themselves into political life seems to have less to do with their Protestantism and more to do with what Varley describes as a ‘powerful mix of ethnic (as against civic) nationalism and “small man” agrarian populism’. Philip Bull’s discussion of Edward Richards-Orpen, who inherited the Monksgrange estate in County Wexford, reveals a more complex figure who was determined to have a role in the new Ireland of the 1920s. This he effected through activism in farming organisations and eventually in Fine Gael as a significant contributor to the formation of economic policy. Moreover, his involvement in a wide variety of social and cultural bodies showed how it was possible for involvement to lead to acceptance.

A different type of rural Ireland is explored by Ida Milne, who, arising from her family involvement with the GAA in County Wexford, began to talk to other local Protestants who had been similarly involved. The experiences that she charts are clearly not representative of southern Protestants as a whole but reveal a level of engagement that was possible at local level where there existed a degree of trust that overrode any element of suspicion. The GAA did not ask about religious affiliation and no particular emphasis seems to have been placed on Protestants who chose to be involved; nonetheless, their participation tended to be discreet.

While Protestants remained important in agricultural life, they were particularly well represented in business and commerce in the early years of the state. As Frank Barry demonstrates, this was largely a legacy issue which diminished with the passage of time. The dismantling of trade barriers led to larger-scale businesses in which little consideration was given to religious affiliations. Nonetheless, the idea of the Protestant firm that employed only, or largely, Protestants staggered on, with institutions such as the Bank of Ireland and the Irish Times being viewed as such.

Of all the institutions in the new state it was, perhaps, Trinity College, Dublin, that was perceived as the most ‘Protestant’. The college seemed to retreat into itself—a self that was seen as unionist, Protestant and culturally British, but, as Tomas Irish reveals, the reality was more complex. The four Trinity TDs, who replaced two Westminster MPs, worked quietly to build good relations with the State, although there were tensions over the prominence of British symbols in the college and the occasional outburst of outrageous student behaviour. The award of honorary degrees to nationalists, notably W.T. Cosgrave, suggested a willingness to engage with the new regime, and this bore fruit in 1947 when de Valera’s government gave a State grant to Trinity for the first time.

In the final section on ‘Otherness’, Martin Maguire writes about Protestant republicans—certainly a small minority within a minority—and identifies 68 men and 33 women who were Protestant activists and revolutionaries. Most were introduced to radical nationalism through the Gaelic League, most were young, and most conformed to Roy Foster’s suggestion of a generation revolting against class rather than religious affiliation.

More exotically, Niamh Dillon contrasts the experience of the British in India with southern Protestants. Both were discomfited by regime change, but whilst the British in India lived there they regarded Britain as home, whereas the southern Protestants had a stronger association with Ireland, which most of them thought of as home.

Two contributions introduce an element of humour. Felix Larkin’s discussion of Protestants as depicted in Irish cartoons concludes that the ‘paucity of cartoons depicting Irish Protestants after 1921 may … be the most significant thing about them’. Dublin Opinion, Ireland’s most celebrated satirical magazine, had little to say about Irish Protestant society. Caleb Richardson sees in the insouciant Anglo-Irish humour of Patrick Campbell an example of southern Protestants living with contradictions, which, he concludes, was ‘the existential condition of southern Irish Protestants after independence’.

Perhaps, however, the most significant essay in the ‘Otherness’ section is Catherine O’Connor’s discussion of mixed marriages, based largely on an oral history project among women in County Wexford. More than anything else, it was the enforcement of the Ne Temere decree that made Irish Protestants fearful for their place in the new state. It was this that encouraged segregated schooling, separate social activity and the creation of a partially parallel existence—put bluntly, if young Protestant children did not meet young Catholics they were unlikely to marry Catholics. But of course they did, and the results were often the sundering of families, divisions in local communities and, although rarely discussed, the fear of land passing from Protestant to Catholic ownership.

The volume concludes with a stimulating discussion by Joseph Ruane of the contrast between the Protestant minority in Ireland and its counterpart in France. Most tellingly, French Protestants were undeniably French and were not viewed as aliens by their Catholic adversaries. In contrast, Protestantism in Ireland was seen as something that had been introduced and enforced by a colonial power and therefore was foreign. And that goes to the heart of the matter, for seeking to be both Irish and Protestant was seen by many as a contradiction in terms.

The essays in this volume suggest that Irish Protestantism was more complex than is generally supposed, with no single narrative but a variety of sometimes conflicting perspectives largely unified only by a veil of discretion. It is surprising that there is not more consideration of Protestants and the Irish language or any attempt to articulate, theologically, what made Protestants distinctive, and it would have been interesting to discover how Irish, or otherwise, those who fled to the north and Great Britain felt. Nonetheless, these essays are a valuable contribution to the understanding of a complicated part of Irish society.

The articulation of this more nuanced picture owes much to the passing of time. Many of those who experienced at first hand the early years of the state did feel out of place, and those who were subject to terror and abuse were often reluctant to talk about their experiences outside their immediate circle. In recent years, however, there has been a growing willingness to confront the past, especially by a younger generation who have known no fear. In addition, the gradual development since the 1970s of a professional archives structure in Ireland has preserved and made accessible for research a wide variety of written and oral sources that were not available to earlier scholars.


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