(Editorial from current issue of Church & State Magazine, No. 77, Summer 2004)
Church of Ireland: Special Pleading

When, thirty years ago, this journal launched a campaign to diminish the power of the Catholic Church in the public life of the Republic, that campaign received no support whatever from the institutions of the Protestant minority as organised in the Church of Ireland. We did not expect support from Evangelicals, whose own vision is implicitly theocratic. But the formerly Established Church of Ireland, which took on a liberal facade after Disestablishment, might have been expected to support a liberal critique of the real, though informal, power of the Catholic Church in the state. However it did not do so. Individual Protestants, and individuals whose family background was Protestant, did. But they did so as individual citizens, and not in any sense as representatives. Insofar as Southern Protestants existed as a community within the State, that community would not be drawn into the liberal critique of the role of the Catholic Church in the state. We were therefore compelled to realise that our initial analysis of the situation was simplistic.

Protestants as a collective—whether that collective be regarded as religious or social—were not oppressed by the Irish national State, but held a privileged position within it. This became very evident when the matter of education was dealt with. When a strong secular movement for integrated education developed, the Church of Ireland did not see it as an opportunity for enhancing the liberal character of the state, but as a threat to the privileged position which the state had accorded it.

(We can only think that the leaders of Protestantism apparently feared that mixed education under democratic control—which this magazine campaigned for—would undermine their separate physical existence as a community within the Republic.)

In the matter of getting appropriate amenities provided for the civil marriage ceremony, our Campaign also had to make the going without any support from the Church of Ireland. David Alvey and Beryl Ryan got married in a poky solicitors' office in a transaction from which all ceremony to express a sense of great occasion had been deliberately excluded. The publicity given to the drab arrangements embarrassed the authorities into initiating a process of change.

It is entirely understandable why the Church of Ireland refused to support the demand for improved facilities for civil marriage. It had its own amenities, recognised by the State, and had no wish to have them dissolved into a general secular ceremony.

In the matter of abortion, there was active collaboration between Protestant and Catholic Pro-life groups against our position, and Protestants who dissented from the fundamentalist view were not eager to publicise their dissent—which in any case they found it difficult to specify, their attitude being that certain practices should be ignored rather than permitted.

On other matters, such as Army Chaplains and statues in public institutions, change was brought about by individuals forcing the issue by taking a public stand at some cost to themselves. We cannot recall that any of these individuals was a Protestant, with the exception of Dick Spicer who, as a member of the Campaign to Separate Church and State, brought a Court Case over the sale of Carysfort College.

The extensive reform of the past thirty years was achieved either without the support of the Church of Ireland, or against its support for the status quo. But now that the struggle is over, and the change has been accomplished, and the Catholic Church is in disarray, the Church Of Ireland Gazette has entered the fray.

Regrettably, it has done so in a spirit of racial bias.

This is from the Gazette (Crom Lyn column, 4th June):

"…there is the question of what happened in the Southern state in the early period of its history that could account for a sudden and then prolonged diminution of the protestant population. And I mean what really happened—not just the well-worn explanations constantly on offer—such as an initial but short burst of violence, the removal of the British garrison, Ne Temere, a whole generation of young men obliterated in the First World War, etc. etc. All that kind of thing I have heard ad nauseam… Surely there must have been something more—something we were not being told— Maybe— Prime Time on RTE will come up with something by way of an answer. I can hardly wait.

"Well, Prime Time has not come up to scratch… But what has indeed come on the market is a most informative piece in the Irish Times …contributed by Robin Bury… His key issue is the fact that according to the recent census returns "the protestant population of the Republic is rising for the first time since the State was founded…"—and… his signing-off clarion call: "Surely it is time for by far our largest minority to get up off its knees and celebrated its liberal, individualistic tradition in its own country…"

"Of course the man did begin by covering much of the old ground, noting that between 1911 and 1825 numbers fell by 34%, of whom circa 3,000 fell in the Great War, 24,000 were accounted for by withdrawal of the British forces and administration, 26,000 emigrated voluntarily. All fair enough, but then came the following: "This left about 53,000—50% of the total decline—who emigrated involuntarily". The italics are mine. And Mr Bury goes on: "They left largely because of widespread intimidation, something that is not fully understood nor accepted"—meaning, presumably, something that not everyone today is prepared to admit. In a word, they ran for their lives. There then comes a detailed analysis of the decline, county by county, but with a final summing up in one ominous phrase : "ethnic cleansing". And then, moving on from 1926 to 2002 (note change to the later period), we find that protestant numbers dropped by a further 30%, a fall which Bury attributes, inter alia, to the fact that "many protestants became alienated by the State that de Valera's 1937 Constitution created, a State built on the myth of a unique nation descended from the Celts." And he elaborates: "It was a Roman Catholic Gaelic State based on a narrow nationalism which placed anglophobia centrefold." And then Mr Bury turns our attention specifically to one major factor in this confessional State—the Roman Catholic Church's mixed-marriage regulations which not only created a persistent undercurrent of sectarianism within the community as a whole, but imperilled the existence of any significant protestant element within it… This long-standing ecclesiastical malpractice, which in our contemporary society would be castigated as nothing less than a denial of human rights, has left its mark (you will be told by people who know) on literally every village and small town in rural Ireland, with new nameplates over shops and business premises bearing witness to the change that has taken place over the years as a direct consequence of mixed-marriages and the promises extracted on the upbringing of children.

"But this, bad and all as it has been, was by no means the whole of the matter when we come to tracking down the reasons for protestant fears and the persistent sense of insecurity in this Southern state even up to a comparatively recent date. After all, it was well on in 1952 that a protestant of ability, Hubert Butler, could be publicly ostracised on an accusation of having dared to criticise the religious establishment. To find out more on this particular far-reaching scandal, refer to Victor Griffin's invaluable commentary on Southern life, Mark of Protest (1993). And it was in 1957 that we had the notorious eruption of anti-protestant threat and victimisation at Fethard-on-Sea. As recently as all this, in the history book the Southern ‘prods' were still getting sharp reminders of the famous first principle for protestant survival in the kind of community in which they found themselves:

"Keep your head down, and your mouth shut".

"I do not relate any of these things in a spirit of tit-for-tat or as a piece of what country people in Co. Down would describe as "casting up". I do it because there seems to me to be a strong tendency in current nationalist circles to be highly selective in the treatment of the recent history of our island, a shrewd omission of those aspects of it which do not suit the book—which is, of course, to put the blame for all the ills of the past thirty years upon the Northern majority, those who are seen as incorrigible bigots, thick-headed and obstinate beyond argument in their refusal to go willingly into a united Ireland. And, of course, they are! But do their critics ever pause to wonder why?"

Papism And The Irish

In an earlier issue of the Gazette, Robin Bury himself took issue with a review by Bishop Samuel Poyntz of Marcus Tanner's Ireland's Holy Wars, a review which is described as "rather defensive and carping". Bury continues:

"Having just read this excellent sweeping account of Irish history, which concentrates on the religious causes of the endless Irish feuds and "troubles", Mr Tanner's treatment of the Reformation and 1920-1926 periods is impressive.

"It is revealing that some of the strongest opposition to the imposition of Henry VIII's Reformation came from the old English of Norman stock in the towns, rather than from the Gaelic Irish in the countryside. We are not taught this in school and one of the potent myths of the proponents of a Gaelic, nationalist culture is that the Roman Catholic religion has been part of the Gaelic soul in opposition to the false beliefs of the Reformation.

"Until very recently, historians have not dealt with the causes of what Mr Tanner describes as the "collapsed" Protestant community in the south. In a fair amount of detail, Mr Tanner explains that from 1861 to 1936, Protestant numbers had fallen by "a stunning 61%. Almost two-thirds of the Protestants were gone", or by 227,000. The major cause was intimidation and murder by the old IRA in the period 1920 to 1924. Only some 20,000 are accounted for by the withdrawal of the British army and those Protestants who fell in World War 1 (most Protestant farmers were reluctant to enlist). Most fled to "safeguard their savings, their chances of employment and their children's future..." Apart from huge losses in Sligo, Leitrim, Tipperary and Cork, Dublin lost about 10,000 of its Protestant artisans.

"The Church of Ireland in the south has shown a reluctance to tell this story. It has a great deal of information to reveal to historians about a period when there was an exodus of some 90,000 Protestants, caused largely by murder and intimidation. However, it has, in Mr Tanner's words, shown a "tendency towards defeatism". Today, cultural self-confidence among southern Protestants in the island, but particularly in the south, is at a low ebb, largely caused by the collapse of their community by 1926. Thereafter a policy of "almost repressed tolerance" in the new State, in the words of F.S.L. Lyons in Culture and Anarchy, weakened their confidence further. There was a period of "attrition", of a "silent minority" which sensed itself as among what Yeats called "an unappeasable host", according to the paper The Silent Minority published by UCD Press in 2000.

"Yet the southern Protestant tradition produced the most culturally distinguished minority it has ever been the good fortune of any country to produce, with the possible exception of the Jews…" (Church of Ireland Gazette 12.4.2002)

Mr. Bury does not reveal what is demonstrated by the fact that "the Gaelic Irish in the countryside" took little interest in "Henry VIII's Reformation". But there is nothing new in the discovery. It formed the starting point of this magazine. It was launched with a series of articles on the subject of Papal Power In Ireland, which showed that the Christianity of Gaelic Ireland was a strand in the traditional culture—a subordinate strand. What is still called Papism in Ulster, and what was called Papism by the Anglo-Irish from the 17th to the 20th century, had no secure foothold in Gaelic Ireland. It was brought to Ireland by the English invasion.

Christianity in Ireland was pre-Roman. Ulster Presbyterian historians have, on this ground, represented it as Presbyterian. But that is a travesty of the matter. Presbyterianism is not pre-Roman. Geneva and Rome defined themselves against each other in the mid-16th century out of a general theological ground which until then Rome had seen no need to systematise. Calvinism is inconceivable without the centuries of theological elaboration which preceded it within the Roman Church. And, while Calvinism discarded the hierarchy of Bishops and Cardinals, and abolished most of the sacraments, it did not abolish theocracy If anything, it became more theocratic than Rome.

The Roman Church, being the means by which the Roman Empire preserved itself, always maintained a distinction between Church and State, and there was rarely a moment in the history of Europe when the State (the Empire) was not in conflict with the Church. Dante, the poet of Roman Catholic Europe in its prime, belonged to the party of the State and consigned many Popes to Hell.

The English Reformation was an accidental product of the conflict between Church and the Empire in Europe. Henry needed a divorce for reasons of state. The Pope would have given him one but for the fact that Henry's wife was the aunt of the Emperor, and Charles V—which exercised temporal power over the Papacy—forbade it.

The English invasion of Ireland in the 12th century was authorised by the Papacy for the purpose of bringing Christianity in Ireland within the Roman discipline. From the 12th to the 16th centuries the Papist church in Ireland existed only in the English area, the Pale. For those 400 years the Irish continued on their own sweet way. They were simply not part of the game from which Reformation and Counter-Reformation emerged in the 16th century. Theocracy was inconceivable to them. When a choice of theocracies was forced upon them by the conflict of England and Rome, they chose the less theocratic form—the one which allowed greater scope for the pagan element in Gaelic life.

Henry VIII's ragged, opportunistic Reformation was only opposed by "the old English of Norman stock in the towns" because those English were the only Papists in Ireland.
At that point the Irish began to become Roman Catholics. The process took about two centuries, and the Anglo/Norman "stock" blended with the Irish in the course of it.
The "religious causes of the endless Irish feuds", if they are to be dealt with in a "sweeping account of Irish history", can be summed up in one word, England. England brought to Ireland in the 12th century the form of religion which it set about eradicating from Ireland in the 16th century, and against which it operated a totalitarian and genocidal theocratic system of state from the 17th to the 19th centuries—the Penal Laws. It was as a means of asserting itself against that oppressive system that Catholic Ireland gradually became Roman.

The articles on The Rise Of Papal Power In Ireland (which dated it systematic accomplishment at 1850) were published in pamphlet form on the occasion of the Pope's visit. The Irish Times did not review it at all. Books Ireland disapproved of it as "unhelpful". We do not recall whether it was sent to the Church of Ireland Gazette.

The comment that The Rise Of Papal Power was "unhelpful" was made by a Catholic priest, a member of an Order, who saw things from the viewpoint t of the old regime when it still felt secure. The intervening quarter of a century has seen such a great change in the Catholic Church that the argument which was then hostile to it would now be favourable to it. Catholic theologians now admit that a great change was enacted within Irish Catholicism in the third quarter of the 19th century; that the systematic Roman discipline of the 20th century was only established in the mid-19th century. And the view is widespread amongst them that it would be better if the traditional Irish Christianity had been interfered with less.

Mr. Bury is a generation behind the times with his exposure of the "myth" that Irish Christianity was Papist. And he somehow misses the fact that Papism was brought to Ireland by the English invasion.

The assertion that the "Protestant tradition produced the most culturally distinguished minority it has ever been the good fortune of any country to produce, with the possible exception of the Jews" is a historical absurdity. The Protestants may have been a minority, but the socio-political system operative in Ireland had nothing to do with the counting of heads—not until the 1890s at the earliest. The minority which produced Congreve, Swift, Sheridan etc. etc. was a ruling caste placed in power and kept there by the British Army. The Jews were never a ruling caste from the first century until the middle of the 20th. And the country to whose culture the Protestant ruling caste in Ireland made a remarkable contribution was not Ireland—unless Ireland is equated with this ruling caste: as, of course, it was throughout the Williamite conquest—but Britain. The silent people in Ireland for centuries were not the minority but the majority. And the culture of the majority during those centuries, when it went beyond their own poetry, was Virgil and Homer rather than the literature of the Ascendancy.

It was ill-advised of Mr. Bury, when going in for a "sweeping account" of religious affairs in Ireland, to forget that the force which he is defending was, for most of the era of Ireland's Holy Wars, comparable with the Nazi regime in eastern Europe more than with anything else.

The usual approach these days is to take 1919, or 1921, as a Year Zero, before which nothing counts, and to describe the situation as if the Protestants in the Free State were simply people who happened to differ from the majority in religion and were actively discriminated against on the ground of religion—informally discriminated against, because official provision was made for them as a religious community.

But there was no Year Zero. There might have been if the Protestant community had entered the democratic era in its first year (1919), had shrugged off its history as an exclusive dominating caste, and had begin to "celebrate its liberal individualism" as free spirits within the polity forged by the first democratic election, that of 1918. But we all know that nothing like happened.


Special Pleading: Church Of Ireland.

Ethnic Cleansing

Vilification Of Noble Men And Women
Criostóir de Baróid (letter)

Walled Gardens: Scenes From An Anglo-Irish Childhood
Pat Muldowney (Review)

The Bells Of The Angelus.
Joe Keenan (Letter)

Eamon O'Kane On Integrated Education.

Protestant Ascendancy (a Young Ireland poem).
John O'Hagan

Memoirs Of Smyllie's Irish Times.
David Alvey

Aramaic Revival.
Seán McGouran

Hubert Butler's Racism (Part Two)
Brendan Clifford

American Church In Trouble
Seán McGouran

Behaving Like Protestants?
Stephen Richards

Justice Ryan Galvanises The Child Abuse Commission.
David Alvey

Ten Best Irish Novels?
Stephen Richards

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