Death by doughnuts not to blame for Catholics hitting early graves

Some experts suggest overindulgence leads Catholics to early graves, and some have suggested the Famine led to genetic changes, writes Victoria White

Death by doughnuts not to blame for Catholics hitting early graves

Some experts suggest overindulgence leads Catholics to early graves, and some have suggested the Famine led to genetic changes, writes Victoria White

I’m going to live a longer life than most of you and it’s all because I’m a Protestant. It’s a fact. The CSO figures which came out this week confirm we Prods live longer than Catholics.

Experts have studied the figures and have come up with the theory that it’s because Protestants are “thrifty”. “They would see thrift and not living a luxurious life-style as a virtue so that might mean they might be more sparing with the doughnuts”, opined Dr Ida Milne of Carlow College.

Death by doughnut must be a horrible end to come to but I thought death by traybake was more of a problem in the Protestant community? Except no, Dr Milne suggests we make them but we don’t eat them, a bit like Bill Clinton and that cannabis which he didn’t inhale.

The historian Roy Foster has called Protestants “experts at keeping themselves warm in cold houses”. My mother was an expert in keeping us cold in a cold house; but a cold house is better than no house at all.

What drives me completely mad about this week’s analysis of the CSO statistics on death and religious persuasion is that the radically different prosperity histories of Protestants and Catholics in this State have not been taken into account.

Yes, I know this is proper research which controls for a range of factors, including economic status. Except there is no exact way of controlling for economic history. I feel certain that the reason Protestants still outlive Catholics in this State is because Protestants have a history of wealth while Catholics do not.

I finally tracked down Kurt Bowen’s Protestants in a Catholic State: Ireland’s Privileged Minority (1983) thanks to our wonderful public library at Ballyroan, Rathfarnham. This forensic analysis compares Protestant and Catholic economic fortunes in Ireland since the foundation of the State.

It does this against a historical background which includes the penal laws which followed the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Catholics were denied the vote, access to public office, the right to bear arms, the right to lease land for more than 31 years and the right to pass their land entirely to the eldest son rather than to divide it among all their sons.

If the eldest son converted to Anglicanism in which case he got the entire estate and that is probably why my mother’s surname split into Protestant and Catholic branches in the late 1600s. Catholics could not inherit from Protestants.

Catholic schools were banned and their bishops and clergy were banished. It interests Bowen that Catholic worship was not prohibited which he sees as an indication that the Crown was interested in “political, economic and social subordination”, rather than conversion.

He writes, “The penal laws represented an Irish form of apartheid in which religion served as the fundamental determinant of all privileges — and hence of colonist and colonised.” It’s been a few years since those laws were in effect.

They dominated the 1700s but were mostly abolished by the time Daniel O’Connell won the right to Catholic representation in parliament in 1829. You might argue that this is ancient history. It isn’t, though. Look back at your own family history and you will likely see the impacts of this era on their fortunes or misfortunes.

A woman begging at Clonakilty.
A woman begging at Clonakilty.

The TCD professor of psychiatry, Dr Brendan Kelly, has recently come up with the theory that the genetic changes caused in many babies born during the Famine as the result of their mothers’ appalling stress and malnutrition may still be with us. He says Irish peoples’ increased risk of heart disease, caused by obesity, may in turn be caused by inherited genetic impacts on the Irish appetite and ability to process food.

By contrast, I don’t believe any of my family suffered during the Famine. My mother’s family carries forward the heroic tale of the ancestor who took a child from his pleading mother on the side of the road and brought him up as a Catholic.

This was indeed virtuous but the real hero of the tale is surely the mother who gave her son to a stranger because she knew that otherwise he would starve. Bowen suggests that Protestant fears at the time of Irish independence were grounded in the idea that what they visited on Catholics would be visited on them, in turn. It wasn’t.

Times had changed. The Land Acts had already been passed and there was no sectarian revolution. Privilege, once established, is difficult to erode. Bowen’s statistics show the astonishing degree to which Protestant privilege was maintained and even grew during independent Ireland’s first 50 years.

The percentage of Church of Ireland farmers with farms of 200 acres or more barely changed in those years and was still five times greater than the percentage of Catholic farmers with that much land in 1971.

When it comes to land, property rights are often inherited. What’s more interesting is that the percentage of Church of Ireland male workers in business and commerce who were owners/ managers actually increased between 1926 and 1971, from 40% to 49%.

Bowen quotes figures collated by my father, Jack White, in 1972, which showed that roughly 25% of senior bank managers and 36% of bank directors were Protestants. That year it was also calculated that 24% of the captains of industry were Protestant, despite the fact that Anglicans made up 3% of the population.

There are clearly many reasons why this happened. The Protestant working-class hugely reduced in these years meaning that the Protestant class system was “top-heavy”.

Privilege begat privilege as many Protestant firms continued to favour their own when it came to employment. Bowen spoke to one insurance executive who recalled the pile on which Catholic applications were placed and rarely touched again.

This privileged minority policed its boundaries in many ways, attempting to marry off its young through Protestant-only socials and limiting the number of Catholics at Protestant schools. Protestant teachers were hard to hire because the wages often didn’t meet Protestant expectations.

Catholics developed their own career ladders in professions such as teaching and the civil service and the increasing globalisation of industry was doing away with sectarian, rather than meritocratic, promotion by the time Bowen was writing. We are talking about the recent past, however: our parents and grand-parents’ time.

The French economist Tomas Piketty has found that the distribution of privilege in France is not much different now to what is was before their Revolution and he puts most of this down to the power of inheritance.

Let’s not pretend that Ireland is any different or that people who come from poverty die earlier because aren’t thrifty and can’t resist a doughnut. Many Protestant firms continued to favour their own when it came to employment.

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