Role of this State’s Protestants will be crucial in post-Brexit Ireland

Douglas Hyde, who was Protestant, after being sworn in as the first President of Ireland. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images

The problem with Brexit is that it seems to restate the choice: are you Irish or are you British? says Victoria White

MY GRANDFATHER and grandmother married in Birmingham and emigrated to Cork in 1914.

They were young when they had my father, Jack, and he was old when he had me.

That’s why I can look back over the history of Protestants in the 26 counties, since the foundation of the State, through the lens of my own family.

I’m focusing on my father’s family, because it provides one answer to the burning question: did Protestants feel safe in the new State?

William and Pollie White had only been living in Cork for six years when the city was burned by Auxiliaries. Two years later, 13 Protestant men and boys were murdered over two nights in Dunmanway. Between those events there were numerous outrages on both sides.

The Whites had no family in Ireland. But they stayed in Cork.

My grandfather prospered as a chartered accountant and used to say that coming to Ireland had helped him escape his working-class background. He was joining a privileged minority; in Cork City, in 1916, Protestants comprised 7% of the population, but owned 60% of the cars.

While, by the 1960s, merit was largely replacing religion as the main asset in a job interview in this country, members of the Church of Ireland comprised 15% of business directors, managers, and company secretaries, but comprised only 4% of employed men.

Looking back, the Whites lived a wholly Protestant life in Cork City, between the Protestant accountancy firm, church, cricket club, and rotary club. My father went to Midleton College, won a scholarship to Trinity College, and joined the largely Protestant Irish Times as a journalist.

He was always an Irishman, however.

In his 1975 study of Protestants in the Republic, Minority Report, my father compared the separate, but harmonious, lives of Irish Protestants and Catholics to the markings on a tennis court. 

The game was played peacefully between these lines in a country which had, according to my father, accommodated the co-religionists of the former oppressors better than any country in recent history.

By contrast, in his 2017 book, Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland, Robin Bury describes the separation as “apartheid”.

Two sharply differing readings of the history of Irish Protestants since independence are opening up. 

The difference really matters and I’ll tell you why: because the “extinction” of Irish Protestants is one of Northern Unionism’s central arguments against further co-operation and its trump card against re-unification.

The “victim” narrative is the dominant one and has been gathering pace since Peter Hart’s excellent The IRA and its Enemies, Gerard Murphy’s compelling Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork 1921-1922 and, most recently, Robin Bury’s Buried Lives.

Bury goes the whole way, speaking of “ethnic cleansing”, of a “mini-pogrom”, and even cites Joseph O’Neill’s comparison of the plight of southern Protestants to that of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire; he agrees the numbers involved are a tad different, but adds “the trauma is comparable”.

There is furious debate about the demographics, but the overall number of Protestants in the 26 counties decreased by about a third between 1911 and 1926. There was a 46% decrease between 1926 and 1991, while there was a recovery between 1991 and 2016.

For Bury, the small numbers of frightened Protestants who were left in the Free State after independence were a “former people”, an expression the Bolsheviks used to describe former Tsarists.

These Protestants felt they had no place in this new country and the young people mostly emigrated; he cites the writer Samual Beckett as a classic example, though I think that Beckett’s religion of origin had nothing to do with his preferring Paris to Dublin.

So did Joyce. So do most of us.

Bury reserves his greatest ire for the Irish language, which he sees as an unfair imposition by the Irish State on Protestants.

My mother taught me the Irish she learned from a Gaelic League enthusiast in her Protestant boarding school in Co Sligo in the 1930s.

Among the Protestant Gaelic scholars of note have been our first President, Douglas Hyde, the Presbyterian minister, Terence MacCaughey, and David Greene, who was taught Irish by the writer Sean a’ Chota in my old secondary school.

It is extremely troubling that Bury describes Gaelic-speaking Protestants, such as Hyde, as “Catholic Protestants”, a phrase he ascribes to George Moore, as well as their description, “cunning, subtle, cajoling, superficial and affable”, which is a classic racist stereotype.

Bury’s book has been reprinted, while a book that takes a diametrically opposing angle, Protestant and Irish: the Minority’s Search for Place in Independent Ireland, edited by Ian d’Alton and Ida Milne, is being reprinted by Cork University Press. 

The counter-argument runs through the essays that Irish Protestants quickly adapted to the new State and were, by 1937, in the words of the historian Roy Foster, “more or less uncomplicatedly Irish”.

It is fascinating to read here how a Protestant institution such as Trinity College adapted to the new State. An editorial in a college publication in 1922 called for students to support the new State “without looking back”. Through the 1930s, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera visited and spoke at Trinity, though it flew the union flag until 1939.

According to Miriam Moffitt, by the mid-1940s most students were moderate nationalists. The college apologised to the government for its pro-British student protest in 1945; the government graciously accepted and TCD got a State grant in 1947.

Mutual trust had simply grown up between the parties. This acceptance of reality and ability to compromise is also evident in Moffitt’s discussion of the “State prayers controversy”. 

This involved the Church of Ireland replacing its prayers for the king as head of state — while not alienating its members in the Northern Ireland — by urging a prayer for King George VI, “in whose dominions we are not accounted strangers”, a reference to the Common Travel Area between the UK and the Free State.

This is exactly the kind of flexibility, allowing different interpretations of statehood to co-exist, which informed the Good Friday Agreement.

The problem with Brexit is that it seems to restate the choice: are you Irish or British?

Our perception of the history of Protestants in the Republic is informed by how we answer that question. Those of us Protestants who answer “Irish” have a crucial part to play in the post-Brexit debate on the political future of this island by restating our place in the Ireland of the past, present, and future.

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