- “A Vestigial Population”? Perspectives on Southern Irish Protestants in the Twentieth Century
The gods were not smiling on the Irish Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January 1966. The Jesuit organizer of an ecumenical meeting in Dublin’s Mansion House had unwisely promised that, for the first time since the Reformation, the two archbishops of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid for the Catholics and George Otto Simms for the Church of Ireland, would publicly say the Lord’s Prayer together. McQuaid was incandescent with fury at being railroaded into this event and took it out on the traumatized cleric. As a result, the meeting itself was chaotically disorganized. A free-for-all at the start resulted in McQuaid’s securing a seat at the top table, while Simms ended up in the audience, notwithstanding that there was an empty chair on the platform. That empty chair, together with a patronizing tribute by the main speaker to the Irish authorities for being so tolerant toward their minority, was seen by many as symbolizing the still seemingly marginal position of Irish Protestants in the southern state. So discomforting was it that one contemporary [End Page 9] commentator suggested that ecumenism was in danger of becoming Ireland’s number one blood sport. And exactly a year later, the incorrigible McQuaid was still calling for prayers for the return of Protestants to the One True Church.1
Until the 1960s at least, southern Irish Protestants often spent the time dancing around their own handbags. Yet within not much more than a decade, all had changed, changed utterly. Initially, the catalyst came from outside Ireland—the upheavals instituted by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and the disintegration of the authority of the Catholic church over sexual mores initiated by the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968)—and then internally, following a short-lived boost from the papal visit in 1979, with the painful emergence of corrosive scandals involving priests, brothers, and nuns in the 1990s. A loss of nerve, long thought to be a Protestant characteristic, was suddenly mirrored on the Catholic side.
At the same time, Protestantism was bedding down as “a confident minority.”2 The change of pace was startling. Extrapolating the population graph, as late as the 1980s observers could assert quite plausibly that southern Protestants appeared to be “dwindling . . . towards a painless extinction,” accepting “the need to live quietly and passively in their dying culture.”3 But by 2006—far from the fears of earnest ecumenists wondering if there would be enough to go around—Protestants appeared to be thriving, as evidenced by healthy census figures.4 Their social standing has become quite fashionable, [End Page 10] apparent in the enthusiastic colonization of fee-paying Protestant schools by the offspring of prosperous Catholics. Roy Foster’s contention that by the 1990s “Catholics became Protestants” is quite believable. Protestantness, if not Protestantism, is the flavor of the moment.5
But if Protestants were still perceived to possess outsider status nearly half a century after independence, it is perhaps worth asking why. Was it imposed on them by the insiders, the Catholics? Or was it self-determined, a cocoon created to ensure that difference was maintained? Edward Said’s argument is apposite—that “nations are themselves narrations. The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important.”6 Yet, despite a dominant plangent nationalism, a distinct Protestant narrative existed side-by-side right through to the 1970s. A Church of Ireland declaration in 1922 that “we are Irish and Ireland is our home” might seem unexceptional and could have been subscribed to by Sinn Féin.7 But Protestants and Catholics were divided by a common language; that simple declaration contained a minefield of differing interpretations of “we,” “Irish,” “Ireland,” and “home.”
“We cannot tell what political change lies before our country,” sermonized the newly elected archbishop of Dublin in July 1920, “but one thing is certain, the Church of Ireland must never let itself be a stranger in Ireland.”8 And southern Protestants, often perceiving Ireland as “a country rather than a nation,”9 were never strangers in [End Page 11] their...