The lives of Southern Irish Protestants are almost invisible to external observers. A new book of essays sets out to reveal something of them
Small in number and almost pathologically self-effacing, the lives of Southern Irish Protestants, beyond the Big House caricature, are almost invisible to external observers. This book sets out to reveal something of them. The phrase in my family, for the Methodist community from which we come in West Cork, is “thin on the ground, but hard to kill”. Sadly, some of the more empirically-minded among the members of the “Old” IRA put the proposition to the test in 1922. That spate of murders, while brief, has cast a very long shadow. The contention about these killings is one subject fleetingly touched on in this important and welcome collection of “exploratory” essays. It is, however, atypical. In the main, the focus here is on the less traumatic realities of Irish Protestant life in the 26 counties after independence.
One apparent motive for editors Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne in assembling these essays is to show the variety of Irish Protestant character and experience. The decline of the Anglo-Irish gentry into a state of decorative irrelevance, in the decades after the formation of the Irish Free State, is well known. Their fictional half-life has a durability which merits a distinct place on the Periodic Table. Far less adequately understood and discussed in Ireland, or elsewhere, are the lives and attitudes of the “little house” Protestant. The experience of those in small rural communities was of an entirely different character to those in and around Dublin and in both urban and agrarian contexts shades of denominational and class difference make for a community that is distinct from the majority, but far from homogenous. Also varied were the political attitudes of Irish Protestants in the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary periods. While most favoured the British connection, Irish Protestantism produced leading nationalist and republican thinkers. Their voices have been amplified (perhaps somewhat overamplified) in recent years, but their role here is important. The several anatomies under examination are well-represented here, although the contributors themselves display differing degrees of appreciation of that variety.
Another motive for the editors seems also to contest the “crisis and decline” gloom of the traditional accounts. While Protestant numbers fell markedly between 1911 and 1926 and a pattern of decline persisted thereafter, d’Alton highlights major regional variations. The gradual accommodation of Protestants to the new dispensation was made easier by the incremental nature of constitutional change in the decades after 1922. He writes convincingly, and building on his authoritative earlier work, about the minority parallelism that was possible. Leaders of this “Protestant Free State” were able to take solace from what he calls “cultural royalism” in the years before 1948 (when a republic was declared). Especially in the areas of the country where the minority was substantial, and social and professional networks insulated Protestants from dramatic change, a genteel “whatever you’re having yourself” approach to identity was possible. It is noteworthy that, by and large, this was not inhibited by the state.
This positive story of the Protestant political or constitutional experience is significant. It is facilitated by the sense that Ireland today, post-post-Celtic Tiger as it were, is richer, more socially liberal, and more plural than ever before. Even if we are not quite “all Protestants now” (as Roy Foster, who provides a preface here, once put it), runs the sub-text, we are not so very Roman Catholic any more. Readers in Britain would probably be baffled by the contemporary Irish meme on Protestants’ skill in making scones and habit of keeping jam in the fridge. Such drollery has now crept as far north as the latest series of Derry Girls. It may not be cool to be a Prod, but we are all like-totally-relaxed-about-it.
If there is a drawback to this approach, it is that it risks understating the uncomfortable, often in relation to the local variation it highlights at the outset. Dublin Protestants were relatively unmolested in the “troubles” of the 1920s. In Cork, as the late David Fitzpatrick illustrated, Protestants were killed in numbers vastly disproportionate to the size of the community. The most shocking episode, the Dunmanway killings, was the murders of 13 small farmers, shopkeepers, and other Protestants in the Bandon Valley, after the Anglo-Irish truce. This was widely acknowledged, at the time, as sectarian in nature. Brian Hughes rightly points out that in a small, self-consciously isolated community, the effect of these acts on what Protestants felt about their status was almost as important as the violence itself. At a national level, the assertion of a Roman Catholic and neo-Gaelic cultural norm, in which the two elements were assumed to be consubstantial, was bound to be excluding of Irish Protestants. The impact of Ne Temere was also significant.
This ignored a critical strand in Irish cultural history. The preservation and revival of the Irish language would have struggled without 19th-century Protestant scholars. Republicanism in Ireland was an artefact of Protestant endeavour in the 18th century. These were facts largely lost on the officials of the new order (though not, it should be said, on some of the “Rebel Prods” who did not achieve quite the revolution they had intended) and Protestant reticence was the result. “Whatever you say, say nothing,” can be uttered (or not) in a Southern accent, as well as a Northern one.
The accounts of the social lives of working-class and rural Protestants are also valuable and illuminating. Ida Milne uses her own family’s experience as Gaelic games-playing Protestants in Wexford as a way into an aspect of Irish cultural life which was far from exclusively Catholic. Miriam Moffatt and Deirdre Nuttall both use oral testimony to show the nuance with which some of the difficulties of being a Protestant in a Roman Catholic state were navigated. Nuttall, in particular, has recorded the previously little-heard voices of those who “kept the head down”.
As the editors state of Irish Protestants, “Most stayed [after independence] because they did not see themselves as belonging anywhere else.” This is certainly true: the clue is in the adjective. Not all of the contributors seem fully to recognise this. The conclusion by Niamh Dillon, in a comparison of Irish Protestants with the British in India, that the former “developed a firmer association with Ireland and in many instances considered it a home”, damns with faint praise. Joseph Ruane’s survey of the civic role, or lack of it, of Irish Protestants in the post-independence period is intriguing, even if his account of their core identity as outsiders seems a little too monolithic and unchanging. The essays elsewhere in the collection, for example on Bolton Waller and his advocacy of non-sectarian nationalism (and internationalism) and Robert Malachy Burke’s espousal of Christian Socialism, illustrate the ease with which independent thinkers from the minority could be dismissed. Such was the experience, for most of his life, of the scintillating essayist Hubert Butler. Ruane is, though, surely right in pointing to the tension between the “important part” Southern Protestants could play in the political geometry of an all-island state in Ireland and the apparent indifference to public life many have cultivated for almost a century. How that will be resolved is only one of the strands of this collection which merit further consideration.
Whatever about the scones and jam, if there is one impulse that is the incorrigible tendency of the Irish Protestant, it is the urge to tidy up. Historical tidiness is neither possible nor desirable, but this collection offers a valuable set of organising principles.
Protestant and Irish: The Minority’s Search for Place in Independent Ireland
Edited by Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne
Cork University Press, 396pp, €39