From Church & State: Summer 2008, No. 93

Animosities In A Vacuum
The Lord On The Protestant/Catholic Divide

Oxford University was appealed to by Raymond Crotty (founder of the Irish Sovereignty Movement) to take Ireland in hand intellectually, because the Irish were unable to think for themselves. It has now published a volume on Ireland as part of its Oxford History Of Modern Europe. But, alas, it farmed out the work of writing it to a Stickie academic, who was a political adviser to David Trimble during the years when Trimble was leading the Ulster Unionist Party to disaster, and who has now joined his leader in the House of Lords.

Lord Professor Bew's book is called Ireland: The Politics Of Enmity 1789-2006. The Preface tells us that—

"…animosity is the theme of this book. The book is about the conflict between the Protestant British—both on the British “mainland” and the Catholic Irish".

"At the heart of this relationship [between the Protestant British and the Catholic Irish] is the problem of the management of enmity" (p viii).

Does this enmity which, we are told, constitutes Irish history, have an origin and a cause? I cannot find one in the book.

It is ambiguously stated to be between two terms or designations on each side. If only one term was allowed on each side, which would it be: British versus Irish, or Protestant versus Catholic? Does one term in each pair have priority over the other, or are they not real pairs at all, but integral entities: Protestantbritish and Catholicirish?

If each is a single coherent entity, not divisible into the two terms used to describe it, I cannot see how the word "sectarian" can reasonably be used in describing the conflict. But it is used extensively by Lord Professor Bew. Its use suggests that the two terms are separable and describe component parts of each side of the conflict, and that the conflict might be conducted in a way that was not sectarian. (I take it that sectarian describes something that is specifically religious.)

The book does not say what Lord Professor Bew is. That is strange (and even stranger is the fact that it does not have a Bibliography). But I seem to recall that 'Political Science' was his thing. And, even if Politics is not a subject capable of being reduced to a science, one would expect academics in that line of business to at least go through the motions of defining their terms.

It seems to me that the religious term must have priority in the causing of the enmity. Britain, as far as I recall, came into being when the Stuarts became the Kings of England and Ireland as well as of Scotland. The Stuarts were accepted by the Irish as their authentic Kings. Jacobite culture, in which most of the population of Ireland lived for over 200 years, was the culture of the Stuart monarchy of the Three Kingdoms. In Ireland after 1692 it took the form of a lament for the the Stuarts overthrown by English sectarians.

The British state which had meaning for the Irish was got rid of by Protestant England (and was replaced by a state which, being German, was without British meaning). And it was got rid of for specifically Protestant reasons—as must be obvious to anybody who looks at what was said at the time, and not merely at political apologetics written long after the event.

Perhaps it is a proof of inveterate Irish backwardness that the British state proper—the Stuart state of the Three Kingdoms—was acceptable to the Irish because of the genealogy of the Stuarts. But backwardness is usually an element in the unconditional loyalty which is a necessary ballast in durable states.

The state which connected Ireland up with ancient British loyalties was overthrown by fundamentalist Protestantism in England—or by a gentry manipulating Protestant fundamentalist sentiment. And the new state set about exterminating Catholicism in Ireland by means of Penal Laws.

Lord Professor Bew's book begins a century later, when the Penal Laws were being eased but were far from being repealed. The politics of the situation with which he begins has to do with the repeal of the Penal Law system. He provides no summary of the state of affairs which is being acted upon—by reformers wanting to de-sectarianise public life in Ireland, and by conservatives defending the system, but driven to do so by methods which were destabilising. (The mass mobilisation of Protestant militants in support of the institution that is ludicrously known as Grattan's Parliament was not going to leave things as they were before 1789.)

Lord Professor Bew is much given to the use of the qualifying words "moderate" and "extreme" as if they were substantive nouns. I suppose the ultimate 'moderate' is the "ordinary decent citizen" who was often appealed to in the North during the 1970s and 1980s but who never responded to the appeal because their distinguishing characteristic was that they did not interfere in what did not concern them, and hardly anything in public life concerns them. They accept whatever comes along—whatever is brought along by others who are not so moderate—and concentrate on making a living, and perhaps pursuing a hobby. It is vain to appeal to them to bring about a solution because what distinguishes them is that they are inactive in public affairs—and if they were active they would be part of the problem.

Lord Professor Bew thinks there was a substantial stratum of non-agricultural unskilled labour that "was excluded not only from political life but from the rising standard of living enjoyed by other classes"—in a bygone era when he was a strict Marxist he would have said all this in two words, "a lumpenproletariat". And:

"In the context of inflamed sectarian passions, this sector constituted an immense reservoir of opposition to unionism and indifference to moderation" (p488).

Moderation is the adjective moderate made into an abstract noun. It is therefore something—if it is a thing—which it is very easy to be indifferent to in the context of inflamed sectarian passion.

If moderation is not what moderates are doing very vigorously, it is had to see how in a live situation it can evoke anything but indifference. And the thing about moderates is that they do not assert themselves forcibly.

But, assuming that Lord Professor Bew has some idea of moderates as active citizens—and not mere shadows of an abstract noun—then Denys Scully must be described as a moderate. And Scully in 1812 published an account of the Penal Laws still in force after a quarter century of reform. And what could be more moderate than to make people acquainted with the law? Yet that is not how it was seen by the lawful authorities of the time.

Since there is no Bibliography, and footnotes are not Indexed, and there is no indexed reference to Scully's book, or to Penal Laws, I cannot say for certain that neither is even mentioned. But it must be close to it.

The first major History of Ireland published after the Union was written by Dennis Taaffe. Taaffe was a Catholic priest who gave up the priesthood and declared himself a Protestant around 1790 for the purpose of demonstrating that denomination should not be a matter of hostility among Christians. The Government was anxious to keep up the enmity of religious denominations. The "management of enmity" was certainly the case in Ireland, but not in the way the Lord Professor suggests. During the forceful re-assertion of Protestant Ascendancy in the mid-1790s Taaffe reverted to Catholicism to demonstrate that it was not ambition that had caused him to change.

Around the time of the Union he was commissioned by the Bishop of Cork—a moderate—to write a History of Ireland and was provided with an income for that purpose. It was published in 1810. There were at least two editions. If the Irish were pre-occupied with history, it would never have been let out of print. It influenced a generation and it is a pity it did not influence many more. It is not even mentioned in this Oxford History.

How might the word sectarian apply to the Taaffe case? Was it sectarian of Taaffe to revert to Catholicism under Protestant persecution?

James Connolly did something similar over a century later, and the Lord Professor carries on about it. He says that "Connolly, the Marxist, made his peace with the Church" (p379).

I don't know if he did or not. Thirty years ago I said he made a cultural gesture, and soon after that he wasn't there any more to say what it meant—he was strapped in a chair and shot.

There are things which must not be said about Connolly—things he himself proclaimed as loudly as he could but which authority has prohibited from being repeated. From September 1914 until his death he supported Germany in the War. In the Workers' Republic, which he relaunched in 1915, he explained at length why he did so. In 1898 he had declared his affinity with the nationalist socialism of Pilsudski in Poland, and he did so again in 1915. Pilsudski went to war with the Entente in 1914 in alliance with Germany, and the restoration of the Polish state began under German auspices. And Connolly went to war with Britain in 1916 as a declared ally of Germany. He had explained at length why he supported Germany on socialist grounds. He published report of the mainstream German Social Democrats who supported the German war effort, but did not support the would-be revolutionaries who condemned the Government—before going on in 1918-19 to show what a dead loss they were as revolutionaries. And he carried German philosophy in the Workers' Republic, including even praise of Nietzsche. But none of this must be said—and the Lord Professor obediently does not even hint at it. (Is that because of the Stickie party line, or the OUP* party line?)

Certain events in 1914 demonstrated that it was still far from being the case that religion had become a matter of indifference in the conduct of the state.

An illegal army was raised and armed in 1913-14 for the purpose of preventing the implementation of an Act of Parliament. It was bonded by a Covenant, in the manner of the mid-17th century when Britain was intent on becoming a Protestant theocracy. The Government delayed the enactment of the Home Rule Bill in the face of this threat from a Covenanted Army that was backed by almost half of the representation of Britain in Parliament. Then in 1915 the leaders of the Covenanting rebellion were brought into the Government.

A Volunteer Army to support the Home Rule Act was raised in response to the Covenanted UVF. The body of people in Ireland that supported Home Rule was made up of Catholics for the most part—as of course Ireland was. But I never heard that the Irish Volunteers were pledged to some Catholic equivalent of the Covenant. And it is certain that they were supported by many Protestants and that Protestant gentry played a prominent part in bringing in arms for them.

Then came the war on Germany and raising of mass armies to fight it. The Covenanted rebellion against the Home Rule Bill was enrolled in the new British Army as a distinct division with its own officers—the Ulster Division. A large part of the Home Rule Volunteers also enlisted in the British Army but were refused the kind of arrangement made for the Covenanters. It is said that this was because of a rooted prejudice of Kitchener, who became War Minister in August 1914. His view was that the Irish, or the Catholics, or the Catholic Irish, were inherently and fundamentally disloyal to England regardless of how loyal they might seem, or pretend, to be on particular occasions. But Kitchener was not eccentric in holding this view. It was the view of the most durable part of the English governing stratum—the part which had supported the Covenanters in 1913-14, that took control of the state in the war on Germany, and that won the war and the post-War election while both the Liberals and the Home Rulers fell apart.

One might say that Kitchener's assumptions about the Irish were sectarian, in the sense that the assumptions behind the greatness achieved by the English state over the centuries were sectarian. English rule in Ireland in the late 19th century might be described as a kind of alleviated sectarianism. However George Moore, the Irish Catholic gentleman who founded the English working class novel, predicted that if England ever ceased to be Protestant it would cease to be England. And in 1914-15 England re-discovered itself as fundamentally Protestant. And it was the English state which over the centuries had made politics out of religion in Ireland. That is why I considered that what Connolly did with regard to religion in 1916 was of a kind with what Taaffe did in the mid-1790s. It was a cultural action having to do with the particularities of the here and now. And remember that the Pope was on Connolly's side in the overwhelming event of those times. If he did not quite support Germany in the Great War, he did his best to have the War called off before Germany could be destroyed. (The outstanding Italian supporter of the British war on Germany was Mussolini.)

Lord Professor Bew in his diligent but discriminating search for sectarianism in Ireland misses in the elephant in the room, the British state. It is too big for him to see. It forms the horizons within which he sees. But there is a smaller elephant which he cannot have failed to see but which he does not mention.

He has three pages about the apparitions at Knock:

"The outbreak of the land war in Mayo was accompanied by a dramatic eruption of Catholic religious passions; these passions were not autonomous but intimately linked to the political crisis. On 21 August 1879… a vision appeared on the church gable at Knock" (p314); and "intensive and combined religious, national, and agrarian passions had been unleashed" (p316).

Academic historians are meticulous in the investigation of detail and in the phrasing of their account of it. So I have been told. So here we have authoritative confirmation that what some people saw at Knock was there to be seen: "a vision appeared on the church gable". I grew up in a rural community where some people, chiefly the small urban element, went on pilgrimages to Knock, while most wouldn't have dreamt of doing so. But my understanding was that neither the believers nor the sceptics took the "vision" seen by the children as having actually been there on the gable. I understood that, like Lourdes, it was an 'apparition', an appearance that was present to the minds of a few, but was not there as a picture on a wall for anybody to see. I must have misunderstood. Anyhow I will not dispute the Lord Professor's authoritative statement that it was there on the wall.

Rural Ireland in my youth was rich in superstitions which were widely respected, even though few people believed in them earnestly. At an early age I made a point of affronting them, whether they were Christian or Pagan, and found that they were held in a medium point between scepticism and earnest belief.

I knew a small farmer, of industrious habits, who complied with the required minimum of religious practice and no more, and whose head contained a wealth of Irish music transmitted to him orally. In the middle of one of his fields was what we called a Fairy Fort. There were three of these Forts within half a mile of where I lived. They were spaces enclosed by circular walls of earth. Some had double walls. The superstition was that, if they were removed, the farmer's cattle would start to die. They were left severely alone. In Summer they were delightful places, thick with foxgloves and bluebells, and I often spent time in them reading.

Well this industrious and reasonably sceptical farmer decided to remove his Fort, which was awkwardly placed in the middle of a not very big field. He set to work, carted a few butt-loads of soil from the wall, and then thought the better of it, and he left it there with a nibble taken out of it. His reasoning was, at least in part, that the mind was a strange thing and was quite capable, under the influence of an idea taken in when it was forming, of causing him despite himself to bring about the bad luck that was supposed to follow the removal of the Fort.

I left the area in the late 1950s. When I saw it again after a quarter of a century, not a single one of the Forts remained. As far as I could gather this was a result of Vatican 2 combined with the arrival of the J C B. Vatican 2 abolished Irish Saints wholesale as pagan hangovers, and a J C B with driver could be hired from a distant town where the culture relating to Forts was unknown.

Back in the mid-fifties I read some of the Catholic weeklies, which had a stronger intellectual content than any present-day publications, and dealt with much more than religion. One idea I got from them was that, if the world was apprehended by means of organised doctrine in which reason and belief were interwoven, the mind would be less of a prey to superstition. A dash of superstition in it would inoculate against superstition. Now, fifty years later, with organised doctrine collapsed, I would say that view of things has been borne out. I suppose there were astrological charts in the papers then as now, but I do not recall anybody ever reading them. And I do not know that there is any thought content in astrology which engages the mind in an understanding of the world as the organised doctrine did.

So much for Knock and the frame of mind with which, in my experience, it was considered by most people.

There was another religious phenomenon in Ireland twenty years before Knock—an astonishing, overwhelming event with ongoing consequences—the Ulster Revival of 1859, which the Lord Professor does not even mention.

Protestant Ulster was one thing before 1859 and was something quite different after. 1859 was a watershed. The Ulster which gave rise to the United Irish movement began to be eroded politically by the Act of Union, which in fact many United Irishmen supported. Theological disputes, some with political implications, persisted for a couple of generations. The Academical Institution, set up 200 years ago to be the Ulster University, failed to become so,but its establishment broke the intimate Ulster connection with Glasgow University. The failure of Inst, combined with the break with Glasgow, left Ulster without the influential centre of intellectual life that Glasgow had been in the 18th century. The rift between the old liberal culture and the new evangelical enthusiasm played some part in the aborting of Inst. It then continued in a wider sphere in the dispute between the Revs. Cook and Montgomery over whether Christianity was necessarily Trinitarian. But all dispute was rendered obsolete by the shifting of ground in the great popular upsurge of enthusiasm in 1859, which was beyond all denominational control.

Church of Ireland clergymen in the South, who were themselves fundamentalist in their understanding of Christianity, were astonished and bewildered by it. Some of them went to look at it at close quarters. They found it incomprehensible, and could only explain it as mass hysteria. But that was no explanation. The great mass of people who participated in the Revival did not become wayward in social and economic life. They were the people of the disciplined and purposeful industrial revolution of the North East, and the "hysteria" of the Revival became their basic culture.

When I first went to Belfast it took me a while to realise that the operative centre of intellectual life was not the Queen's University, or the aborted University of Inst: it lay across the road from Inst in the Evangelical bookshop.

When we began to publish historical material about Protestant Ulster we offered it to the bookshop. But the people running it knew instantly that they did not want it. That Ulster was not their Ulster. Modern Ulster began in 1859, and their only interest before that was in the prophets who prepared the way for 1859.
I passed the bookshop every day. It is only around the corner from Athol Street. One day the Collected Works Of Spurgeon appeared in the window, and I understood. Spurgeon was the amazing orator of the final outburst of Christianity in the English mainstream just before the collapse of English Christianity in the late 19th century. I knew of him because I had traced that collapse, and because Samuel Butler wrote a poem about his brother-in-law. Spurgeon was forgotten in London, where his preaching to vast congregations at the Elephant & Castle had aroused fleeting enthusiasm, but there was a market for his Collected Works in Belfast, where a comparable enthusiasm generated by the people themselves was a stable medium in which normal life was lived.

The outstanding political fact about Ireland in the era of the Home Rule conflict is the apolitical character of Protestant Ulster. And it was still apolitical in the 1970s. Political activity of any kind, other than Covenanting, was problematical for it. Through Covenanting in 1914-15, it established a place for itself as an attachment to Britain and the Empire, and that was enough for it. It was given a semblance of a state in 1921. It did not ask for it, but it agreed to run it. Its secular imagination had exhausted itself through intense vicarious participation in the French Revolution in the 1790s, climaxing in the reign of Robespierre, and it never recuperated thereafter. (I tried to give an idea of this in Belfast In The French Revolution.)

It operated the semblance of a state which Britain conferred on it without any understanding of the effect it necessarily had on 40% of the population, and it responded to suggestions of reform to alleviate feelings of the 40% with uncomprehending hostility. It had its perfect world, and it instinctively felt that any change would be the work of the serpent. Paisley was not a sectarian aberration, but was its representative public figure.

It shows how far the Lord Professor is from being a historian that he doesn't even mention 1859. His critical faculties (so to speak) are all directed at the other community—the political one.

With regard to the Famine he criticises O'Connell and Young Ireland for persisting with national politics, instead of giving up that nonsense and presenting themselves as suppliants for British alms by adopting some mode that would appeal to British charitable sentiment. But the O'Connell Tribute was kept up, and "the blame game" was played, and English philanthropy responded with "compassion fatigue".

A number of pages are spent in rebutting "the genocide thesis". One ground of rebuttal is that—

"…there were definite limits to the state's role. The problem of Irish society was that somehow it lacked the springs of self-activity… The English in general could not quite fathom how the disordered political and social relations within a society might leave it unable to unite to fight a human disaster" (p211).

It is often unclear whether the Lord Professor is summarising the views of others or expressing a view of his own. I assume this is deliberate.

That Ireland "lacked the springs of self-activity" is obvious. It should be the primary business of a historian of the century and three-quarters following the Williamite conquest to explain how that had come about. I could find no explanation but the systematic and sustained application of English power to the destruction of Irish society. And, if those who did it were later to unable to fathom it, that was a case of purposeful amnesia. Nietzsche would have explained it as an expression of a healthy will-to-power.

While rejecting "the genocide thesis", the Lord Professor, apparently in his own voice, says that "there is evidence from the summer of 1847 onwards of heartlessness" (p212), I suppose heartlessness is the characteristic of a strong heart. At any rate the rulers of the Empire were during the following generations the prudent overseers of many other famines in the cause of progress around the world.

There would be, for an authentic historian of human affairs in the era of the British Empire, a crushing refutation of "the genocide thesis" that was not merely juggling with words. Genocide is a crime now, but the extermination of peoples was not a crime then. The Oxford Dictionary lists the first use of the word in 1944. A century before, the extermination of peoples in the cause of Progress was proceeding merrily. And two generations after the Irish Famine a leading member of the British Liberal Party (Dilke) boasted, in a book that enjoyed mass circulation (Greater Britain), that the Anglo-Saxons were the greatest exterminating force in history. So why be so coy, or squeamish, when it comes to the English handling of the potato blight in Ireland which made it into a Famine?

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