I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Where did the Protestants go?


Speculative explanations have been offered for the decline of Ireland’s Protestant population in the period 1911-1926. It is one of those areas where the potential for dispute seems endless and where fixed opinion frequently dispenses with the need for evidence. The decline in Protestant numbers was certainly real and affected both rich and poor. A full evidence-based explanation will probably emerge in time and will, no doubt, be a welcome antidote to some of the wilder theories that have been advanced.

Martin Maguire has begun the process. He is a historian who has undertaken significant work in the history of Protestant working class Dublin and we should be grateful for his reasoned analysis, which is based on hard evidence. What we learn from his work is that the decline of the Protestant working class began in the nineteenth century; it did not originate in tandem with the nationalist upsurge of the early twentieth century. The overall explanation appears to be that the decline followed from the decline of manufacturing in Dublin and also from the decline of working class sectarianism as the nineteenth century progressed. The latter phenomenon allowed for increased intermarriage. Another factor was the large number of young working class Protestant women who married soldiers.

The skilled Protestant working class community was, it seems, extremely mobile. The 1911 census reveals that In Inchicore, one of the few areas where the Protestant population was growing, only 23 per cent of the Protestant households that had featured in the 1901 census were still in the area. Many of those working in Inchicore were employed in the railway engineering works. It is unlikely that in depressed Dublin very many of these skilled workers moved elsewhere in Dublin.

It is likely that many moved to pursue more attractive employment opportunities on the “mainland”. The same is probably true of Catholic skilled workers. But in the case of the Catholic population, unskilled workers continued to migrate into the city from the countryside, thus maintaining overall Catholic working class numbers.

Interestingly, Maguire reveals that social class was more important than religious affiliation where marriage partners were concerned and that the daughter of a skilled worker was more likely to marry a skilled worker than a co-religionist. In Dublin the pool of skilled workers of any denomination was shrinking. This may in part explain why a skilled worker in a good job in Inchicore might have felt that moving to the English midlands was a better bet in the long term for his family and that downward social mobility was a high risk in the crumbling former second city of the empire. The other option was nudging up into the lower middle class. But this was easier said than done, with stiff competition coming from newly educated Catholics. Entry to the civil service was by examination and open to all.

Skilled workers, of course, were a minority of the Protestant working class, the bulk being comprised of semi-skilled and unskilled workers. So, while the linked decline of employment and matrimonial possibilities suggest a possible explanation for the decline of the skilled Protestant working class, what was the situation for those down the social scale?

It seems likely that many lower working class elements moved to the mainland to take their chances. And this was probably also the case for Catholics, but once again Catholic losses would have been compensated for by migrants from the countryside. Protestant migrants from the countryside would have been fewer and would perhaps have been more middle class. Thus as a result overall Protestant working class numbers would have fallen whereas Catholic numbers would not.

Another interesting factor is that by the late nineteenth century the Protestant working class does not appear to have been especially sectarian. This is in contrast to cities such as Belfast and also contrasts with the situation in Dublin in the early decades of the nineteenth century, particularly the period 1820-50, when significant elements of the organised Dublin Protestant working class were militantly anti-Catholic.

In thinking about this it is worth remembering that, unlike the Catholic working class, which was almost wholly comprised of migrants from the countryside, the Protestant working class as a class had little organic connection with rural Ireland. Indeed the evidence suggests that the Protestant working class was substantially comprised of migrants from Britain and their descendants.

The culture of the Dublin Protestant working class would have shared many features with that of the British working class. When, during the relatively prosperous later eighteenth century, skilled Protestant workers arrived in Dublin they presumably would have brought with them the militant anti-Catholic attitudes found among the poor in Britain’s eighteenth century cities. And no doubt these fitted quite well with the prejudices of the local elite.

These attitudes eased considerably in England from the early nineteenth century as radical economic and social developments affected political culture. By the 1840s in British industrial cities there was a strong current of support and solidarity for Catholic political causes.

While sectarianism In Dublin never disappeared among working class people it appears to have gradually eased in the post-Famine decades. Several reasons can be extended for this. Continued movement between Britain and Ireland would have spread a more modern post-sectarian British working class culture. Continued social contact with the Catholic working class, with whom Protestants effectively comprised urban communities, would have had a similar effect . As Maguire points out, in contrast to Belfast, in Dublin the religions were not segregated by area. Bessy Burgess lived in the same building as Nora Clitheroe. And when push came to shove she sided with Nora. The fact that in the later nineteenth century nationalist politics was parliamentary and moderate in character for the most part would also have helped ease sectarian feeling on both sides. The surprise re-entry of militant nationalism in 1916 would presumably have had an opposite effect . Mrs Burgess’s loud discomfiture indicates this; it challenged her feelings of social solidarity which, however, in the end still triumphed.

With the failure of Dublin to develop into a modern economically thrusting nineteenth century city, there was no dynamic Catholic or Protestant bourgeois element at the centre of Irish economic life. Protestant privilege was represented by a class of extensive and, as it happened, doomed landowners. This caste was barely aware of the Protestant urban lower classes and conversely it seems improbable that urban Protestants felt any real solidarity with the landowners or anxiety about their fate as the various land acts dispossessing them were passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

So, to summarise, by the early twentieth century the Protestant working class was not particularly sectarian, was influenced by British working class culture, culturally remote from centres of Protestant power in Ireland and living cheek by jowl with the Catholic working class. These features contain the clues to its decline. In addition there was one external factor that was of great importance: the presence of the military.

Martin Maguire explains that for the Protestant working class the local barracks was the place to see and be seen. Having long and regular contacts with the British working classes as a result of long established migration in both directions, working class Dublin Protestants had no difficulty with the English working class accents and manners encountered in the barracks. Dublin Protestant girls met a large number of single Protestant males with a steady income and employment. They also had smart uniforms, ready money and – to the naked eye at least- were unemcumbered with family difficulties or poor job security. Naturally they were found attractive. Martin Maguire provides the surprising statistic that between 1871 and 1911, in surveyed Dublin Protestant working class parishes, in over a third of marriages the groom was in the military.

This significantly reduced the pool from which a young Protestant worker could find one of “his own kind” to marry. Happily Protestant males did not adopt the celibate culture which was becoming entrenched amongst the Catholic small farmer class. Instead it seems they choose Catholic wives, and for the most part, it seems, had no difficulty in nominally converting to keep the wife happy.

The net result of these factors was a sustained reduction in Protestant working class numbers from the late nineteenth century which continued into the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Martin Maguire concludes:

The Protestant working class of Dublin was being eroded not only by the decline in Dublin’s manufacturing economy but also by internal social processes. Marriage patterns show that, for women, soldiers were the preferred choice for marriage partners which in the vast majority of cases meant the loss of such couples and their offspring to the Protestant community of Dublin, as the soldier’s tour of duty ended. A significant number of men chose Catholic brides a choice which led to the majority of such marriages forming a Catholic household.

See Martin Maguire’s work at: