Article from Church & State, No. 81 (Summer 2005) Robin Bury's Strange Silence by Jack Lane
Robin Bury of the Reform Movement/Society is a keen letter writer to the papers. They usually have a sermon-like quality to them exhorting us all to be good and banish evil from our midst. The evil he sees everywhere in this society is the sectarianism of anti-Protestant bigotry. For him it is all-pervasive and dominates the past as well as the present. He is so preoccupied with it that he must by now consider himself an authority on the subject—self appointed of course. It was therefore a matter of some importance that in a recent letter published in a number of papers (The Sunday Independent, 6.2.05, The Irish Examiner, 8.2.05, The Irish Times, 8.2.05, and maybe others) he decided to get to the bottom of this issue and tell us of its origins. Sectarianism came to this country with the Reformation he said. Now this was a point worth exploring and so I encouraged him to do so by writing to the three papers concerned as follows:
Sectarianism And The Reformation
Robin Bury says, (letters 6/02/2005), that "This island has been cursed by religious sectarianism since the Reformation, all too often characterised by brutal violence and 'ethnic cleansing'". This is very true.
However, he does not say if he believes this was simply a coincidence or if there was a connection between the two phenomena—the Reformation and the emergence of sectarianism here. He goes on to say "That this sectarianism is very much alive in this country" today which his Reform Society aims to counter and wants "us to think about how we can work to overcome more than four-and-a-half centuries of sectarianism".
For this task I think it is rather important that he and his Reform Society clarify their position about the origin of the problem here. After all, one can hardly make sensible plans to eradicate such a long-standing problem without being very clear and unambiguous about the source of the problem.
The Irish were at ease with religion until the English invaded in the 12th century to impose Romanist Catholicism on them, and then four centuries later changed their mind and imposed Penal Laws on the Irish to stop them from being Roman Catholics.
Yours etc., Jack Lane
The Sunday Independent published the letter on 22nd March 2005 and the Southern Star did so on 10th March. The Examiner claimed that they were so overwhelmed with letters that they could never indicate whether they would ever publish any particular latter. Apparently this issue was not important enough to generate a single letter to the paper worth publishing as none appeared. The Examiner, like most of the media, will lecture us interminably on the evils of sectarianism but they passed up a chance to literally get to the bottom of the problem. The Irish Times took the trouble to assure me (14th February) that they were considering publication and apparently are still doing so.
But the most surprising aspect of the case is that Mr. Bury has not replied to the letter published in The Sunday Independent. I doubt if he has suddenly developed writer's block, or that the papers have begun to refuse his letters, as he has been sermonising in them since then. Why then the silence on this issue that he had raised? Did he blurt out an uncomfortable fact, i.e., that the Reformation did indeed introduce religious sectarianism to the island? As it is generally accepted that the cure for anything is the elimination of its cause this conclusion would pose some new issues for this society as a whole. And it would pose a new focus particularly for Mr. Bury's Reform Movement/Society in its struggle against the alleged sectarianism. The Reform Movement/Society might need to change its name, at the very least. Would it then be more properly called, for example, the New Reformation Society, the DeReformation Society or the Unreformed Society?
Gaelic Ireland did not generate religious enthusiasms. It had a myriad preoccupations for mind and body but theological disputation was not one of them. The guiding theme of its many preoccupations was how to increase the enjoyment of life; and the Gaels even developed a way to enjoy death in the form of the wakes developed for such occasions. And of course their other world was more complex, varied and interesting than any Christian model. Enjoyment was taken so seriously that a person could get killed over it. The Gaelic poet Eoghan Rua O'Súilleabháin was killed over a poem he wrote that was too effective in its purpose. It was accepted that something real like a poem was important enough to matter that much. But the idea that such a thing could happen over some point of theology, discoursing over something that nobody could experience, would have been considered the height of lunacy.
Gaelic society accepted Christianity and let those preoccupied with it get on with it. And if they produced wonderful works of art and educated people in the process they were admired and acclaimed, quite naturally. If Muslims had made their way up from the Iberian Peninsula I am sure they would have found their niche in the society. And there is a fairly convincing theory that they did pay many trading visits here, as it was only a short sea journey, and that we owe that distinctive nasally sean-nós singing and Irish dancing to their influence. The society was an absorbing type of society. Something like that of the Indian subcontinent which Mr. Bury should appreciate as he hails from there.
However, the Gaelic society saw no great reason to dispense with other views of life. By one of those curious coincidences the Sunday Independent of the same date as the above letter had a report of a talk by Dr. Maureen Concannon on Sheela-na-Gigs. A significant and interesting point she made was that:
"She believes that Sheela-na-gigs are representative of the more earthy strand of Celtic spirituality and were used as a pagan representation of birth, abundance and fertility. After the conquest of Ireland by the Normans, the settlers began to place the old carvings which they had found around the country in their new castles and churches. Sheela-na-gigs are generally found in the middle of the country. Dr. Concannon suggests the reason very few are found in Ulster is that they were probably destroyed during the plantation by incomers uncomfortable with the earthy representation. She disagrees with some academic opinion which dates Sheelas to the early medieval period. She claims they existed from early pre-Christian times."
There was clearly no 'live and let live' philosophy in Plantation country, the absence of which can only be described as a sectarian attitude towards the variety of life found there.
Another Gaelic poet, Aodhgán O'Rathaille, put all Christianity in its place after seeing the beginning of this sectarianism. He said on his deathbed that he and his people were around long before Christ himself and there was nothing he needed to learn from him or his followers. And he looked forward to rejoining his own people and getting away from these vulgar, violent, greedy, crude, specimens of humanity that were then flooding the country. This is putting his views as politely as possible as it would take a rare genius to do a proper translation of his feelings into English.
England by contrast had been the model Roman Catholic country and its Kings were the Popes' right hand men. The Pope even gave one of them a country to do with as he wished—Ireland. Henry VIII was such a Papist that he was made 'Defender of the Faith' by the Pope for his work against the Reformers. Then he had a problem with ensuring a legitimate male heir to secure the new Tudor monarchy—and because the Pope could not immediately oblige with a divorce, he decided to be Pope himself and bring the house down on all that had existed quite contentedly and enthusiastically in England for centuries.
And the religiously-indifferent Irish were expected to go along with this on pain of having their lands confiscated and their society destroyed. This is what began what we know as sectarianism in this island—the bible and the sword and the destruction of a society. Maybe Mr. Bury thinks it was sectarian to resist this? Maybe the only truly non-sectarian thing to have done was to have committed mass suicide?
If Mr. Bury has a better explanation as to the origins of sectarianism he should get his pen out and tell us as a matter of urgency. Sermonisers do not like to be interrupted and asked questions but, if Mr. Bury enters the public arena with accusations and allegations galore, he cannot be allowed to go silent when it suits him. The fact is that he stands as confirming that sectarianism came to us with the Reformation and he should justify what he says.
Of course, people who claim that progress was only possible for Ireland via the outcome of the English-style Reformation must accept that sectarianism as we know it was an indispensable part of this progress. As indeed was slavery, genocides and almost permanent warfare against enemies who conveniently materialise as regularly as clockwork to ensure that the wheels of war of this progress are always well-oiled.
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