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Protestant and Irish

Protestant and Irish: The minority’s search for place in independent Ireland, Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne (eds), Cork University Press, 396 pp, €39, ISBN 978-1782052982

We asked three historians to respond to the recent publication of Ian D’Alton and Ida Milne’s Protestant and Irish. Each was asked to write a short initial response to the book and then, each having read the first tranche, to write a second longer one in which they were free to react to points brought up by the other contributors.

John Horgan: An Irish Times supplement on the Easter Rising, published on that event’s fiftieth anniversary in 1966, contained a combative article by Terence McCaughey, a Presbyterian minister, in which he described Irish Protestants generally as the most quiescent political minority in Europe. This book reads, at least in part, like an attempt to set the record straight.

It portrays, in effect, a small, subsidiary planetary system orbiting a dominant star. Two of its more substantial planets, or themes, offer the discovery or rediscovery of specifically Protestant nationalism, and a multi-layered examination of Southern unionism and its evolution into political acceptance of the national paradigm. The dominant star, of course, is that particular form of Irish nationalism which probably set some sort of cosmic record for the speed with which it degenerated from its spectacular arrival into an entity characterised by stasis and inertia, interrupted only occasionally by the rumbling of ancient volcanoes.

There is a lot of valuable setting the record straight in this collection of essays, as well as some fascinating “relics of ould decency”. Particularly valuable are the accounts of the somewhat patrician way in which the Protestant middle and upper middle classes, well-cushioned economically as many of them were, adapted to the new political realities. There are also a few windows opened into aspects not only of Protestant, but of Irish society as a whole, which allow fresh air into the corpus of historical scholarship: they include Felix Larkin on political cartoons, Caleb Wood Richardson on Patrick Campbell, Ida Milne on the GAA, and Tomas Irish’s disquisition on the calcified Britishness of TCD up to the 1940s.

It was probably a good idea to commission a pointilliste study of the effects of Ne Temere in Wexford (Catherine O’Connor) rather than rehearse well-worn tropes about the national role of the Catholic church, the state and the judiciary in the erosion of the Protestant polity. However, it might even be argued that the latter seems to have survived proportionately rather better than Catholicism in our present era, characterised, as that era is, by anomie and religious tokenism rather than by much denominational fervour.

However, the role of the educational system is, if anything, still more relevant than that papal decree. The irony here is that confessionalism, which radical citizens, including Christians of all denominations, rightly regard as the major obstacle to proper democratic accountability for public money and public policy, is still the dominant reality. This has led, seemingly intractably, to the anomalous situation in which the church of the majority defends its educational and other nominally public institutions (particularly their access to public funds) comfortably behind the redoubt defended by Protestant exceptionalism. Some, at least, of the Protestant revolutionaries evidenced in the early chapters of this book would have found this situation at best uncomfortable, at worst reprehensible. So, I am sure, would some elements of contemporary Protestantism, but our current politics, as ever, reflects a reality in which the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the most oil.

Isn’t that, after all, a good description of Irish society as a whole, and not just of its Protestant components?

Robbie Roulston: As editors of this volume, Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne set out their ambition to “uncover a southern Irish Protestant story more nuanced and complex than a Dostoyevskian dystopia of unhappiness and alienation”. To achieve this, histories that focus on instances of isolated persecution need to be widened to take in a fuller picture of shifting loyalties, negotiated engagement and strategic withdrawal. In this ambition, the book succeeds.

Oral history is deployed in several chapters to rescue certain Protestant experiences from oblivion. Ida Milne reflects on the participation in Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) sports by Protestants who attended local schools rather than Protestant secondary schools. A sense of greater marginalisation comes across from those interviewed by Deirdre Nuttall, who were more reluctant to participate in the GAA. Here the signature memory of attending Catholic schools was being “put out” when religion was taught. In a telling aside about the difficulties of navigating independent Ireland for those Protestants that did not fit the popular image, Nuttall cites a cleaner who feels invisible when her colleagues struggle to believe that she is Protestant. “They can’t even see that we are here at all; sometimes even I wonder.” This is the very essence of history: the opposite of forgetting.

Such complexity of the Protestant experience is presented in many forms throughout the collection. Frank Barry, in a comprehensive survey of Protestant businesses in revolutionary and independent Ireland, points to the ecumenical adaptability of capital in protecting its interests. The dialectical counterbalance is provided by Martin Maguire. His overview of Protestant republicans touches on several Protestant socialists and trade unionists. Joseph Ruane explores the extent of demographic, social, and cultural change in recent decades in an afterword, commenting that “The state remains supportive, but the once protected Protestant economic and social sector has been substantially eroded. This is a new situation, and it may demand a fresh approach.” Now that Protestant otherness is passé, the privileges negotiated and secured by this established minority will become more difficult to defend as other, newer minorities grow to comparable numerical strength, but without the network of schools and subsidies.

Ruane asserts that Irish Protestants have not publicly defined a clear and positive image of who they are, which I query. In his chapter, d’Alton refers to the 1,500th anniversary celebrations in 1932 of St Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. Here, the Church of Ireland forcefully contested the claims of the majority Roman Catholic church to be the successor to St Patrick’s church. While d’Alton stops to note the vigour of this claim, little explanation is offered in later chapters for why Protestants silenced themselves as Protestants (in the reformatory sense of protesting Rome) and instead reasserted their demands as a minority. As a minority, they might have discovered a new and powerful voice, but they also surrendered their former claim – once so proudly asserted – to possession of a universal truth. This was not an extension of confidence, but rather a strategic retreat to a position where victimhood carried currency. It also helps to explain the Protestant “misery literature” that this collection rightfully seeks to challenge.

Niall Meehan: Former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald “burst out laughing” in 1974 when Belfast loyalists he met named Dublin firms with a “No Protestants need apply” policy. FitzGerald, normally solicitous of the sensitivities of Northern Protestants, explained that the companies were Protestant-owned and that, “until recently”, papists were excluded from management.

FitzGerald was one of the few Southern politicians to address Protestant overrepresentation in business and the professions, as well as in ownership of larger farms. He wrote later that the plainly sectarian practice had “never been publicly challenged” as that would be “intolerably bigoted”. His disbelieving Belfast Protestant audience may have wondered what was a “Catholic state” for if it did not do, in reverse, what theirs had systematised.

Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne’s edited collection Protestant and Irish indicates how cosy Southern Protestants made themselves. Roman Catholics suffered the chill winds of their church’s moral austerity, before eventually revolting against its turpitude. The book succeeds in revising a false notion that reactionary aspects of the Southern state were anti-Protestant. It was more concerned with socially controlling its papists than its prods. Church control provided an ideal vehicle. Protestants got the same deal and more, with control of education and hospitals, combined with preferential hiring to create a superior form of separation. De Valera and Lemass’s policy of high tariffs reinforced Protestant preference in protected firms, until that fell apart prior to and after 1973 EEC entry. Frank Barry’s chapter outlines this quite well, though he, like FitzGerald, is slow to call out sectarian discrimination.

The Roman Catholic church’s Ne Temere decree, affecting “mixed marriages”, provided justification for deep-rooted practices. The system as a whole helped to maintain inequality in Irish society. Everyday separation from Romanists was not possible all of the time. However much it was normalised, segregation is not normal. The editors’ introduction, plus d’Alton’s chapter following, attempt to work through as many qualifications as possible.

Milne dispels many myths in her chapter on Protestant participation in the GAA. Her research was stimulated by commentaries intimating that Protestants were excluded. She wondered if her contrary Wexford experience was unique. It seems not, a subject in need of some revision. Martin Maguire’s chapter on another product of Fenian intrigue, the national struggle from 1916 to 1923, discusses Protestant republican and socialist participation. Miriam Moffitt’s survey of the Anglican “state prayers” controversy that arose when the Republic was declared in 1949, indicates ongoing political diversity. Once fashionable, though deluded, research into “ethnic cleansing” of Protestants by the IRA, raised tentatively in the book, seems now entirely discredited. It is another claim Northern unionists believed, as it was what they occasionally attempted with nationalists.

One absence I noticed: the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children in the Bethany Home and in the Church of Ireland Magdalen Home; plus the death of hundreds of Bethany children; systemic abuse in Mrs Smyly’s Church of Ireland children’s home; and a church cover-up of abuse in St Patrick’s Cathedral and in its grammar school. These are topics requiring ventilation. Whereas the majority community busily excavates dirt from under its carpet, this is not yet a Southern Protestant preference. The subject undermines a liberal self-image held by, and of, the community, a comforting stereotype in which “our people” did not perpetrate reactionary attitudes and practices.

Perhaps in Volume II.


Robbie Roulston: I wonder if John Horgan’s celestial metaphor for Protestant and Irish does the complexity of the book full justice. In likening Southern Irish Protestants to a “small, subsidiary planetary system orbiting a dominant star”, that star being “that particular form of Irish nationalism”, he assumes a heliocentric model. However, at times the orbits and oscillations described in the book defy the expectations of that model. For instance, while Frank Barry rounds up his survey of Irish Protestant businesses with Douglas Gageby as editor of The Irish Times determined to dislodge the newspaper from the fringes of the Kuiper belt and to move it closer to the sun, to “bury the memory of The Irish Times as a voice of Protestant Unionism”, Felix Larkin sees the sun hurtling towards The Irish Times. He recounts a cartoon mocking The Irish Times that “emphasises the ‘outsider status’ which that newspaper retained until “rescued by the ‘Protestantization’ of southern Irish society beginning in the 1970s”. Similarly, Joseph Ruane identifies a parallel in French society: “Like their French counterparts, Irish Catholics were finally ‘catching up’” with their Protestant fellow citizens. While the prominent theme of the book is Southern Irish Protestants attempting to acclimatise themselves to a new Ireland, there are several occasions when it seems the new Ireland is attempting to reorientate itself around its Protestant minority. It seems the precise centre of gravity has not yet been identified. There might not even be one.

Horgan’s tentative suggestion that the Protestant polity has withstood our present era, “characterised, as that era is, by anomie and religious tokenism rather than by much denominational fervour” better than its Catholic counterpart is interesting. One might think this obvious. The Catholic church in Ireland has been, after all, devastated by the crimes of clerical sex abuse and the associated cover-up by its own officials. If true, this is of considerable importance. Firstly, it would indicate further evidence of the Protestantisation of Irish society. Once again, the dominant star has veered off-course and is heading towards the smaller planetary system. Secondly, it would suggest a degree of Irish exceptionalism from Peter Berger’s thesis, which is not featured in the book.

In a 1999 essay, “The Desecularization of the World: a Global Overview”, Berger argued that hard-line, fundamentalist religion is better at replicating itself, mimetically (its adherents stick with it and pass it on) and demographically (they have more children as well). By contrast, more liberal variants go into decline. Therefore the more fundamental variants of the religion are inherently more durable. These trends were observable in the twentieth century and indicators are that the twenty-first century will be the same. This can be observed in Christianity, Islam, Judaism (the demographics of Israel are instructive), and Hinduism (consider the rise of the BJP in India).

What has in fact occurred is that, by and large, religious communities have survived and even flourished to the degree that they have not tried to adapt themselves to the alleged requirements of a secularised world. To put it simply, experiments with secularised religion have generally failed: religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism (the kind utterly beyond the pale at self-respecting faculty parties) have widely succeeded.

It might be too early to tell, but I would not assume that the future of Irish Protestantism will accord with its past. Bible study “cells”, “church plants” (the verbal proximity to “plantation” is presumably an unintended coincidence), house churches and congregations that assemble in industrial estate units can be seen within and without the traditional Protestant denominations. These congregations tend towards stricter, sometimes literal, interpretations of the Bible and are far removed from any stereotype of liberal Protestantism. Equivalent trends can be observed in Catholic circles. The clubs, fêtes, steepled churches, unassuming meeting halls, hymnals and prayer books – the whole infrastructure of genteel Protestantism – could one day be pushed aside by these more muscular creatures currently subsisting in the Irish Protestant ecosystem.

Horgan accurately diagnoses the anomalous situation in which the Catholic church in Ireland defends its material interests behind a Protestant rampart. The argument is made that Protestants need state subsidies to protect a vulnerable minority, and is then extended so that fairness demands that if a minority receive a benefit from the state the majority should receive something commensurate. United the churches stand – Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – when making demands on the Irish state and herding its citizens into discrete “flocks” for the purpose of education and healthcare. Surely the fetishisation of minorities, a tendency of the modern era explored well in Ruane’s afterword, has peaked when the Catholic church in Ireland frames its arguments as an appeal to minority rights.

Of this separation of Irish religious communities, Niall Meehan states that “segregation is not normal”. However it was all too normal for many Protestants. D’Alton framed this exceptionally well in an earlier essay, outside this collection, when describing the Protestant subculture in Cork.

In Cork city one could be born in the Victoria Hospital, attend the Cork Grammar or the Rochelle School, date in church-run (and vetted) dances and socials, be employed by the Lee Garage or Lester’s, the chemists, socialize among the freemasons and the choir of St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, play hockey with Church of Ireland Hockey Club and rugby with Cork Constitution rugby club, spend old age in the Home for Protestant Incurables, and be buried by Cross’s, the undertakers.

However, there were costs associated with this preservation, such as school and club fees, which were out of reach for many Irish Protestants. Hence the GAA-playing Protestants of Ida Milne’s chapter, whose parents could not afford to send them to boarding school. Therefore, Protestant privilege was protected tactically, but this was of little use to those Protestants who were not privileged. There was also a significant degree of strategic shortsightedness, even on behalf of those Protestants who were. The 1960s and 1970s were marked by an expanding state and semi-state sector, and such was the confidence in the Protestant economy, with its Protestant banks, companies, firms and landed estates, that many Protestants missed the boat of the state sector as it set sail. Some influential Protestants, such as Howard Robinson, father-in-law to former president Mary Robinson, identified this error and career guidance literature was produced to encourage Protestant youth to consider state careers, with illustrations of young Protestants in Garda uniforms and totting up the state’s balance sheet. The modernisation of management techniques and the increased importance of education also affected the private sector, and led to an environment where, as Barry states, “educational credentials came to displace personal as the main route though which new staff were recruited”. The chapters in this book reinforce the sense that these efforts did not entirely fail, but nor did they fully succeed. There was engagement, but the cloistered and parallel Protestant world, with the cultural, economic, physical, and social infrastructure required to maintain it, came first for many. Throughout the twentieth century, this self-imposed exile from mainstream Irish society by Protestants as a community had damaging effects on the individual. Miriam Moffit recalls a letter-writer to the Church of Ireland Gazette who lamented in 1915 that “It is a dreadful thing to be born into one country and educated as a citizen of another.” A century later, the Irish Independent published an interview with the comedian Graham Norton, reflecting on his 1970s Irish upbringing under the heading “My Protestant upbringing in Cork left me friendless and lonely”.

Meehan refers to the tentative references in the book to the “once fashionable, though deluded, research into ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Protestants by the IRA”. This research is approached from different angles by different contributors, including Brian Hughes, Niamh Dillon, and Ruane, who emphasise to varying degrees either a sense of intimidation among Southern Irish Protestants during the revolutionary period or criticism of the research advancing this case. This can be explained by the different methodologies employed by the contributors, which are so much the strength of the book. Oral history, which is employed so effectively, will approach the question of ethnic cleansing rather differently from military history. It is quite possible for someone to remember something and to act accordingly, whether or not that thing ever happened. D’Alton and Milne attempt to knit these conflicting interpretations together by explaining that “there is still within some elements of the Protestant community homage to a sensitivity to a presumed memory of murder, persecution and flight; whether real or imagined is beside the point.” However, for those with a more positivist bent it matters a great deal whether an event actually happened. And by this measure there is insufficient evidence for the charge of ethnic cleansing. However, Hughes’s chapter on the Irish Grants Committee highlights the difficulty of decoupling a person’s multiple identities and relationships when determining which elements led to them being targeted by revolutionary forces, and which were incidental.

Meehan refers to the “superior form of separation” afforded by the Irish state to Irish Protestants, but accurately picks up on the complication in this – what of the unmarried mothers and their children, those committed to the Bethany Home, the Church of Ireland Magdalen Home, and Mrs Smyly’s children’s home? While the book would no doubt have benefited from a chapter on these challenging and sensitive issues, it is an exploratory collection of essays rather than a comprehensive survey. Incidentally, the abuse case in St Patrick’s Cathedral, which featured in news bulletins in 2016, falls outside the time period addressed by this book.

There are many other aspects of the book worth highlighting. I offer only a couple. Within the niche subfield of agricultural history it was interesting to observe the divergent influence of three Protestants with relatively comparable backgrounds. Tony Varley’s overview of Col George O’Callaghan-Westropp and Robert Malachy Burke shows the former attempting to build a pan-farmer front via the Irish Farmer’s Union (IFU), brilliantly lampooned in one of the cartoons in Larkin’s chapter, and the latter attempting to build a more proletarian front, informed by Christian radical reformism. To these figures, Philip Bull adds a third: Edward Richard Orpen, who like “the Colonel” had an IFU background, but brought this into Fine Gael and injected Irish agricultural policy at the parliamentary level with state-supported developmental ideas.

The comparative dimension to the history of Irish Protestants receives a boost with Niamh Dillon’s history of Southern Irish Protestants and the British in India. To this I would add a note of interest. As well as a shared history of famine and partition, both countries share an amount of memorial architecture. Most obviously, Edwin Lutyens has left his imprint on the capital cities of both countries, which means that no matter how quiet the contemporary minority makes itself, its boastful legacy and imperial connections are rather difficult to ignore. One need only look up at the skyline.

Finally, I was struck by the categorisation of Tomás Irish’s chapter on Trinity College Dublin in the section of the book called “Engaging”, and the categorisation of Martin Maguire’s chapter on Protestant republicans during the revolutionary period in the section called “Otherness”. There are some whose conception of Ireland would lead them to think that the location of these chapters should be switched around. I suspect, therefore, that Irish identity was no more settled than Irish Protestant identity during the period being reviewed. This might help to explain why the “dominant star” appeared to occupy different positions in the sky.

John Horgan: There is an Indian fable about the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant based on their experiences when touching it. The one who touched its flank described it as “very like a wall”. The one who touched its ear described it as “very like a curtain”. The one who touched its trunk described it as “very like a snake”. Describing Irish Protestantism presents similar difficulties, as the earlier reviews published here demonstrate clearly. And these difficulties are enhanced by the length of the period of immense historical and political change covered in this book, a problem which is not adequately addressed by its sub-divisional structure.

It could be argued, I think, that the differences between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics (or agnostics, or atheists) could only be described meaningfully, especially after the exodus that took place in the 1920s and the complex issues raised by the Second World War, primarily in terms of religious adherence, education, and – of course – theology. Robbie Roulston’s contribution to this discussion usefully identifies the theology-shaped hole in this collection, which is certainly regrettable. Even marriage has now retreated into the shadows as an issue, although I suspect that the growth of civil marriage is a factor which has disproportionately affected Catholic marriages more than those celebrated between Protestants and Catholics, and especially those between Protestants. I would guess that the same is true for religious adherence and practice.

It seems likely that, after de Valera’s accession to power, the enthusiastic rendering of the British national anthem with which a large section of the attendance at the Dublin Horse Show greeted the British riders, was politically ineffectual, if vocally impressive. But in what ways, and for how long, were Irish Protestants still different, other than in relation to their religious adherence, from their Catholic contemporaries who were already in, or were moving rapidly into, the same socio-economic categories? And what, and how relevant, were the growing differences between Northern and Southern reformed Christians?

As an undergraduate in Dublin in the late 1950s, I had to go to lunch each Sunday with a distant relation by marriage, Donal O’Sullivan, a distinguished musicologist who had served as clerk of the first Irish Seanad. In that role, he told me, he had once privately congratulated Senator Jameson, a southern unionist appointee to that assembly, on a particularly constructive speech he had made, and wondered if he was contemplating uttering similar remarks in Belfast.

“My dear fellow,” Jameson replied mildly, “they’d throw me in the Lagan!”

This book justifies, in its concept and its title, its reluctance to discuss the gap between Northern Protestants and their co-religionists in the Republic. It is perhaps unfair therefore to make this part of my critique, but the gap could have been remedied by the addition of even a single chapter addressing this issue (although it is difficult to imagine who might have written it).

That gap was always critical, and widened inexorably (as did the gap between Catholics on either side of the border) in post-World War II Ireland. I still have a vivid memory of a year in the late 1960s when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland met in the RDS in Dublin rather than in Belfast. They were now confronted by their own tradition, which was to sing the British National Anthem at their annual meetings in Belfast, and forced to stand, mute, while a few of their number belted out Amhrán na bhFiann with irrepressible gusto.

Some years later a young Church of Ireland clergyman from Clontarf mentioned to me, in the era of Vatican II, when certain parts of Dublin could still be referred to jocosely by Leinster House insiders as “the Bible belt”, that some of his parishioners had Union Jacks under their beds. He added that he was not speaking figuratively. But the extent to which religious factors have been politically operative in any significant way over the past half a century or so can, I think, be put down to distinctions rather than to differences. For some years, for example, Dáil Éireann counted no fewer than three Jewish TDs among its members – representing three different political parties at that.

But how important are these distinctions today? Prior to 1921 it was probably the case that Irish Protestants were over-represented in the professions, particularly law and medicine, but this has not been the case for many decades. While Miriam Moffitt’s essay correctly points to a caesura. probably in the 1960s, the organisation of the book by theme rather than by period obscures the multiple effects that the passage of almost a century has had on those parts of national identity that were in the past closely associated with religious adherence but have now been almost weathered away, leaving only a few rocky outcrops.

It is certainly ironic, to put it mildly, that the continuing existence of Protestant schools (including the oddly-named “Protestant comprehensive schools”) still provides a redoubt behind which Catholic schools at every level in the modern Irish Republic continue gratefully to defend their own brand of religious privilege and exceptionalism. In that connection I have a vivid memory of the reaction from one of the most left-wing members of the Labour Party to a speech I made at a Labour Party conference in the early 1980s in which I attacked the primary school management system. “Why didn’t you mention the Church?” he grumbled. “The Protestant denominations have their schools too,” I replied mildly. He considered this for a moment, and then riposted triumphantly: “But the Protestants would be quite happy to give up their schools!” At that point, words failed me. Catholicism, as a number of these essays point out, was not the only enforcer of a combination of social and denominational differences, even though its role as religious policeman of the majority certainly attracted more attention and criticism than institutional Protestantism’s residual role as a defender of a minority tradition did after the 1960s.

It could well be argued that one of the greatest political losses after partition was the weakening of the Protestant tradition of civil libertarianism both North and South. Equally, the absence from the book of any attempt to address the issues raised by Niall Meehan’s review takes from, though without fatally compromising, its overall value and importance. That said, this is nonetheless a valuable book, not least as a bulwark against the still prevailing, usually unconscious, tendency to equate “Irish” with “Catholic” in public discourse and even in journalism. As Joseph Ruane remarks perceptively in relation to France (but it applies equally here) “defending the difference was more important than analysing what exactly it was”.

One of my most formative experiences as a young person (apart from having had a Methodist mother) was a fortuitous introduction in the late 1970s to the culture and personalities of the Cork Grammar School, where Rachel Burrows, the wife of the headmaster and herself a gifted teacher and theatrical mini-impresario, had many enthusiasms, including one for Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali seer. From her I learned one of Tagore’s more profound maxims, addressed to the religious differences on the Indian sub-continent and as relevant to Irleand today as it was to the Indian sub-continent then.

The important thing in divided societies, he used to say, was not to suppress differences, but learning how to unite while leaving those differences intact. Amen to that.

Niall Meehan: At the launch of Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne’s book, Heather Humphreys TD, the “Protestant republican” government minister, said it was “time to establish a Protestant cultural centre”. I felt queasy. Had a “Roman Catholic republican” minister proposed a Catholic centre, Fintan O’Toole might conceivably have sensed one, if not two, acerbic Irish Times columns coming on.

Religion is viewed as having exercised rather too much influence on Southern Irish society. Politicians today are expected to distance their responsibilities from association with “the Church”, assumed to be Roman Catholic. Protestant churches and preferences are considered, if at all, within a sort of benign haze. They are ignored when considering separation of church and state and, hence, so was Humphreys’s remark.

This absence of critical consideration has consequences. As Robbie Roulston and John Horgan pointed out in round one of this review exercise, significant (as distinct from piece-meal) reform of the education system is obstructed at the point where religious ‘minorities’ are considered. Thus Richard Bruton, when minister for education, told Roman Catholic schools (the vast majority) that they could not use baptism certificates as entry criteria. Church of Ireland schools, however, were exempt because the minister wanted minorities protected. This betrays, deep down, a refusal by the state to run the schools it funds, provides a curriculum for, and inspects. Dominant political parties are wedded to an unequal education system, with religious provision at its core.

The Irish state is adept at using religion to sidestep responsibilities. In my second response to Protestant and Irish I will address two issues that point up this truism and indicate a need for a social class analysis. They are: the origin of the demand for multi-denominational education; and the 1950 Mother and Child Scheme fiasco. I will then examine a third example, also discussed in the book, indicating limits on Roman Catholic power, the 1957 Fethard-on-Sea boycott.

In his essay “How the Catholics became Protestants” (in Luck and the Irish, 2007), Roy Foster discussed the first lay-led multi-denominational primary school, the 1978 Dalkey School Project. Foster’s conceit, that Roman Catholics had become lower case “p” Protestants, was based on an ideal-type link between liberal Catholics and Southern Irish Protestantism. He cited UCD sociologist Tom Inglis on Roman Catholics achieving the contradictory feat of becoming more Protestant and secular.

Foster failed to note that the Dalkey initiative arose after a Church of Ireland national school refused to accept a management role for Roman Catholic parents. While recording civil service resistance, Foster did not mention C of I opposition to the multi-denominational school movement. Among fears advanced, one concerned small children forming attachments which might lead to “mixed marriages”.

Foster detailed instead the “vigorous opposition of the [Roman Catholic] Church”. Its Episcopal Commission on Education was cited on “building ‘the bricks of a secularist agenda’”. In 2011, Bishop Paul Colton of Cork echoed the Episcopal Commission’s sentiment. Those who pursue “an aggressive secularist agenda” were, he said, mischievously caricaturing “our schools and their excellent work”. However, Colton’s was not the “Church” Foster capitalised. He was addressing his Church of Ireland diocesan synod. The Roman Catholic church cleverly hitched its anti-secularist campaign to that of the Anglicans. Foster’s observations form part of a mixed message that confuses the liberal intelligentsia. It is, for example, replicated in the textbook A Sociology of Ireland, whose reference to the Dalkey School Project noted “Catholic Church and state opposition … to … inter-denominational schools”.

Inequalities in Irish society, experienced separately and historically in both communities by marginalised women and children in particular, are based on class and reinforced by caste. It is an obscured aspect of the segregated schools controversy, noted astutely in Minority Report (1975) by West Cork Protestant Jack White. While “growing anticlericalism among educated Catholics” might be a reason for sending children to a Church of Ireland school,

the real reason is simply social. Protestants are fewer in number so their schools are smaller. Protestants are mainly middle class, so they are not likely to infect their classmates with a “gutty” accent. In a backhanded way, the Protestants had acquired a position of privilege; religious segregation gave them the right to class segregation within a state system. It is hardly surprising that some Catholics in the same bracket of affluence wanted to share the privilege of being a minority.

It is a question of property, propriety and status, not Protestantism or Popery.

A 1969 Irish Times article on Dalkey’s adjoining Shankill area, with a more socially diverse population, reinforces the point. It was observed that “wealthier Roman Catholics would rather see their children friendly with Protestants of their own class than with Roman Catholics who are less well off”. Indeed, the latter were “considered [by the wealthy Roman Catholics] a lot of layabouts”. These observations were from the husband of a Church of Ireland couple who became involved with a working class, mainly Roman Catholic, youth club. They successfully involved elements of their own parish structures, but also “met with some opposition”: “many Protestants are afraid that their daughters might marry Roman Catholics” and deliver “20 children”. Appropriately, the article opened with reference to “divisions caused by religious differences or by social snobbery or indifference”.

The residue of privileges that Protestants enjoyed and their perceived class position attracted well-to-do Roman Catholics, who thought that attending and helping fund Dalkey’s Church of Ireland school secured also, as White put it, a “say in school management”. Dalkey’s select vestry and rector were sufficiently alarmed to repulse the intruders. The Catholics and disaffected Anglican parents then set up their own multi-denominational primary school. While the Dalkey controversy led to the small but significant multi-denominational Educate Together system of provision, it is unlikely to become the dominant form. A secular non-denominational system of provision, under local democratic control, will possibly only be developed by a state prepared to take full responsibility for its obligation to educate, as well as to care equally for, its citizens.

Religious influence within the body politic erects a facade, behind which significant social forces are at work. Thus, when health minister Noël Browne lost his job over the ill-fated Mother and Child Scheme in 1951, the Dublin Roman Catholic archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, received most of the blame. While he deserved an ample proportion, responsibility should have been more equitably shared. The scheme, set to become the basis for free healthcare, was vigorously opposed by The Irish Times, on the grounds that it “invades privacy in the home” and “entails a threat to personal freedom”. It was fundamentally opposed by doctors, many of whom were Protestant, as well as by the Church of Ireland Gazette. The latter remarked that Protestant doctors might have been sorry for the manner of Browne’s going, but were not sorry to see him go. These Protestants kept their heads down while The Irish Times changed tack after Browne’s resignation and thundered loudly about Roman Catholic interference. The mother and child fiasco had negative long-term effects. It resulted in a dysfunctional two-tier health system that operates more in the financial interests of doctors and the better-off than in the objective interests of the generality of patients.

The Roman Catholic church faced obstacles in its attempt to sink ever-deeper roots into civil society. In April 1957 a priest in Fethard-on-Sea attempted to force a Church of Ireland mother in a “mixed marriage”, Sheila Cloney (née Kelly), to enter the elder of two daughters into the local Roman Catholic school. She left the village secretly on April 27th with her children. On May 12th, another local priest promoted a boycott of about twenty-five local Protestants, accused of complicity in kidnapping “Catholic children”. The Irish Times, noticing a fall in sales of its newspaper in the County Wexford village, found out why and reported the story. Support for the boycott from the bishop of Galway in July fed further, including international, attention.

There was significant lay Roman Catholic and republican opposition. The normally obedient Knights of St Columbanus refused, albeit narrowly, a request for support from the Roman Catholic bishop of Ferns. Taoiseach Eamon de Valera denounced the boycott in the Dáil as “ill-conceived, ill-considered and futile”. Sheila Cloney’s husband, Seán, opposed it in the press and protested articulation of his church’s position at Mass by walking out. He afterwards observed:

My main support in breaking the boycott came from Old IRA men who themselves had fallen out with the clergy during the War of Independence.

Seán Cloney was approached on April 30th by Desmond Boal, a Belfast barrister associated with the Reverend Ian Paisley. The Irish Church Missions, a Church of Ireland proselytising organisation, had put Sheila Cloney in touch with a solicitor in Belfast, who appointed Boal. Boal proposed to reunite the family in Canada or Australia. Mr Cloney was to consider becoming a Protestant, while his children were to be brought up in that denomination. The offer was declined. A Belfast High Court writ of habeas corpus failed as Sheila Cloney could not be found. It appears she may not have been aware of these and subsequent developments. The boycott collapsed in August-September and the Cloneys were reunited in Scotland in November, returning to Fethard at Easter 1958. The children were afterwards home-schooled in order, the Cloneys said, that neither denomination could claim victory.

According to Tim Fanning’s The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott, the dénouement represented “an unequivocal disaster” for the Roman Catholic Church. While characterised by unionists in Northern Ireland as an example of “Rome Rule”, the Fethard saga revealed the opposite: a church with over 90 per cent adherence, at the height of its apparent dominance, could not command the allegiance of its flock against an isolated family in a small rural community. It was a watershed moment for the Roman Catholic church, not so much in relations with the Protestant community, but with its own. Obedience was questioned, while opposition became more public. If the Roman Catholic church was attempting to create the actuality rather than the spectre of a dominant “Catholic nationalism”, its flock offered increasing evidence of resistance to the project.

Unlike later, the small Irish Labour Party did not play a progressive role. De Valera’s opposition to the boycott was on foot of a July 4th, 1957 Dáil question from Noël Browne. Brendan Corish, then a Wexford TD and from 1960 to 1977 Labour leader, intervened to ask, disingenuously, “whether there is, in fact, a boycott?” He wanted assurance, reflective of the boycotters’ perspective, that “certain people will not conspire … to kidnap Catholic children”. After joining Labour, the notoriously difficult Browne perennially thereafter muttered, audibly in his leader’s presence, that Corish was “the Bastard of Fethard”.

Religious interference increased lay resentment that today has swept away prohibitions on sexual identity, as well as on contraception, divorce and abortion. Association with this mood did not help the Labour Party. It began to approach these questions from a perspective of individual identity and not of social class, concentrating more on Catholicism than on capitalism.

My first analysis pointed to an absence of discussion of those marginalised within the community. Here, I suggest that social class is key to understanding social relations between the larger and smaller communities. On that, the book reports that a discernible Dublin Protestant working class disappeared during the late 1940s. The Reverend Kevin Dalton, who lived as a child in the Bethany Home and in other Protestant institutions, wrote about ministering to this group in Drumcondra during the 1960s. When one of Dalton’s parishioners spoke during a Radió Éireann religious broadcast, he was criticised afterwards for having a Dublin working class accent. The population dispersed when the protected firms that hired them were bought up or went out of business. Sectarian preference lost its material underpinning by the early 1970s. According to Kurt Bowen, the children of this population group used educational opportunities to enter the middle class.

In a memoir, That Could Never Be (2003), Dalton recounted speaking in 1966 on “Ireland Today” to Irish Americans in San Francisco. He addressed a new national self-confidence, which Dalton put down to the death of sixteen Irish soldiers on UN duty in the Congo, JFK’s visit in 1963, and “the recent commemoration of the 1916 Rising”. The Catholic church was still too dominant, he thought, though things were changing slowly for the better. A speaker following wished Dalton to “admit” that “Protestants … had been shown a great deal of tolerance by the nationalist majority”. He responded: “I refuse to thank anybody for tolerating me in my own country. I am every bit as Irish as anyone else in Ireland.” Dalton proceeded to reel off “all the great Irish leaders who were Protestants”. Having experienced a childhood in Protestant orphanages, Dalton’s is part of the diversity of Protestant and of Irish experience.

Ian d’Alton, editor along with Ida Milne of Protestant and Irish, reported at one stage during his civil service career being nonplussed by his boss enquiring if there was a “Protestant take” on that year’s budget. Reading the book suggests “which Protestant?” as an appropriate response. Its diversity of views on a diverse population indicates an absence of homogeneity. It indicates also a heritage and critical outlook handed down by the vicissitudes of history. Some of the analysis links back to Kurt Bowen’s 1983 analysis, subtitled “Ireland’s Privileged Minority”. It was subsequently ignored for reasons I have attempted to set out here. This fact-packed analytical volume will not suffer the same fate if the discussion it has opened up continues.


John Horgan has worked as a journalist, a politician, an academic and, finally, as press ombudsman, since 1963. He was The Irish Times‘s first religious affairs correspondent.
Dr Robbie Roulston’s research focuses on the relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Irish state. He has taught on the history of Protestants in twentieth century Ireland in the UCD School of History. He held the Albert Lovett Memorial Scholarship in the UCD School of History and was a scholar with the Irish Research Council. He works in higher education administration in the areas of strategy, governance, and policy.
Dr Niall Meehan is head of the journalism & media faculty in Griffith College, Dublin. He is the author of The Embers of Revisionism, 2017, and of ‘Examining Peter Hart’ (Field Day Review 10, 2014). His research interests include the neglected history of marginalised Protestant women and children and the integration of the Protestant business class into Southern Irish society after the 1921 Anglo Irish Treaty. 



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