Jack White, Minority Report: The Anatomy of the Southern Irish Protestant (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1975), Chap. 8: “Part and Parcel”.

[Epigraph:]‘These people are part and parcel of the country, and we being the majority and strength of the country […I]t comes well from us to make a generous adjustment to show that these people are regarded, not as alien enemies, not as planters, but that we regard them as part and parcel of the nation, and that we wish them to take their share of its responsibilities.’ Kevin O’Higgins (1922).

Over fifty years have passed since Kevin O’Higgins, in these words, sketched the policy of the new government towards the Protestant minority: fifty years of independence, under the name of Free State or Republic. In that time their numbers have run down by something between forty and fifty per cent, so that they now make up a good deal less than the traditional five per cent of the community. Although their stake in the country, in terms of property and employment, is still substantial, their voice is rarely heard. Their approach to public life is tentative and wary. It is time therefore to ask whether the fine words of Kevin O’Higgins really mean what they said. Has the Irish state given the religious minority a fair opportunity to participate on an equal footing in the life of the nation? Is the minority at fault for failing to embrace the opportunity offered?

In approaching these questions we shall find ourselves caught up in a dichotomy which dates back at least as far as O’Connell - the dichotomy between the state and the nation. The state is an institution constructed on liberal democratic principles committed to cherishing all the children of the nation equally. The nation is a mass of people bound together by some sense of spiritual identity; and the great majority of these people have [91] been moulded by the Roman Catholic faith and by an ethos which is rural and (however distantly) Gaelic. Nations which have enjoyed a long period of statehood have had the opportunity, so to speak, to grow institutions suited to their own climates. In Ireland , where institutions to a great extent have been borrowed from another society, the problem of the state has been to strike a balance between instinctive beliefs and rational convictions.

It is no harm to begin by stating the obvious, because it is only against the background of the obvious that one can begin to make fine distinctions. Protestants were accepted as equal citizens in the new state; and the law reflected the will and demeanour of the people. There were individual cases of outrage or discrimination, but these are remarkable mainly as exceptions to a general pattern of conduct. Protestants kept their jobs, their homes, their property, their savings. They kept their own institutions - their schools, their hospitals and the like and these institutions received perfect parity of treatment from the state and its servants. The Protestant churches and their property were handled with kid gloves; it is amusing, in retrospect, to look back on the dire warnings of oppression and expropriation that were sounded throughout the Home Rule debates. Fifty years after independence the Church of Ireland still has two cathedrals in Dublin , and the Roman Catholic Church has none. It is not easy to think of another case in which a defeated ascendancy has been treated with such exemplary generosity by a victorious people. An Irish democracy converted a privileged minority into an equal minority, not into an underprivileged or subservient minority. Most of its problems - real and imagined - arose from the fact that the minority itself was too tiny and too scattered to exercise any influence through the normal machinery of democratic government.

O’Higgins had called upon the Protestant minority to ‘take its share of the responsibilities’ of running the country; and it is not unfair, perhaps, to say that it still had a somewhat exalted view of what its share ought to be. The habits of a ruling class die hard. William T. Cosgrave, the first President of the Executive Council, did his best to meet its expectations. He had the power to nominate thirty members-one-half of the chamber to the first Senate. Of his thirty names, more than half were [92] Protestant. Taking nominated and elected members together, there were twenty-four non-Roman Catholics on the roll of sixty. With a few exceptions-such as J. G. Douglas, a Quaker businessman, who had been a trusted friend of Michael Collins, and W. B. Yeats, the nation’s most distinguished man of letters -they all came from the Unionist camp. Lord Glenavy (formerly [sic] James Campbell ), who had been a Unionist MP for fifteen years, was elected Chairman. Among the most active members were Douglas (who was elected Vice-Chairman) and Andrew Jameson, the distiller, who had been an associate of Lord Midleton’s in the Irish Convention, and had worked consistently for a decent settlement. The confidence which these men inspired by their personal qualities is illustrated by the fact that, when Mr de Valera wanted to negotiate a cease-fire in the civil war, he invited Douglas and Jameson to act as his intermediaries with the government. Lord Midleton himself had refused a nomination; but the Senate included seven peers, two baronets and a knight. If the President’s choice tended to over-represent the gentry, it is hard to blame him: these were the people on whom the Protestants themselves had depended as their spokesmen.

The Senate gave the Protestants a voice, but it had little or no real power. In the Dáil, where the power lay, they had to win their seats by the normal process of democratic election. Proportional representation, which had been seen as one of the safeguards for a minority, might have made a difference in Northern constituencies; but in the South, in general, the Protestant population was so scattered that it could not register as a voting force. In the event nine Protestants were elected on a roll of 153. One of them was a former Unionist MP, Bryan Cooper, elected for South County Dublin - one of the few areas where the Protestant vote was significant. Dublin University elected two members who tended to be regarded, ex officio, as spokesmen for the minority. [See Ftn]. In the absence of the Ulstermen there was never any prospect of a Protestant bloc in the Dáil, and in fact there was never any attempt to form a front or faction representing the minority. In the constituencies some effort was [93] made to mobilise Protestant votes for Protestant candidates, but the Protestant Association in Monaghan was the only formal organisation with this objective. On the whole, the leaders of Protestant opinion felt that no step should be taken which would tend to polarise political life on sectarian lines.

Within a few years both the administration and the parliamentary organs of the state had given a lesson to those who said that the Irish were unfit for self-government. The Cosgrave administration may be criticised on many grounds, from timidity to ruthlessness; but it managed to lift the machine of the state out of the ditch and put it back on the road with the new driver at the wheel. In the new situation the support of the Protestants went overwhelmingly to President Cosgrave. The substance of government policy was to restore law and order, to build an administration and to reconstruct an economy crippled by years of wax. Its financial principles were as orthodox as those of the Bank of Ireland, and it had no very revolutionary social ideas. With such a programme, essentially pragmatic, the members of a mainly conservative minority were unlikely to quarrel. They set at that time a pattern of political attitudes which has remained constant almost down to the present day: a pattern of voting for the status quo lest worse befall. If this policy seems excessively timid, it should be remembered that a minority is rarely in a position to be adventurous. It seeks security, not change.

* * *

While it would be wrong to underestimate the magnanimity of the government’s policy, it was not, of course, formed without calculation. In the first place it was deemed important to win back as quickly as possible the confidence of investors; and nobody was unaware that Protestants still occupied a dominant position in the world of commerce and finance. It was well worth while, therefore, to secure the trust of men like Jameson, whose judgment would influence not only Irish but British business interests in regard to their investment in Ireland . There was, besides, the consideration of the North. At the time when O’Higgins spoke, nobody-certainly nobody in the South supposed that there would still be a border in Ireland in another fifty years. By behaving generously to the Protestants of the South, it was thought, the government would win the confidence [94] of the Northern Protestants, and bring a speedy end to partition. Some members of the Southern minority were themselves anxious to work towards this solution. In 1925 J. G. Douglas joined a group of Protestant senators - mainly ex-Unionists - on a mission to Belfast, with the object of interesting Northern businessmen in a form of federal unity. But so far as the Northern Protestants were concerned, they had now secured a scaled-off majority, and partition was for ever. The resulting deadlock over the border issue and the breakdown of the Boundary Commission of 1925 ended any hopes of a major adjustment. Only by an act of faith, hereafter, could Protestants in the South see themselves, or be seen by their fellow-citizens, as representatives of a twenty-five per cent minority of the Irish nation. They spoke - if they uttered at all - with the voice of five per cent.

The minority, moreover, had been desperately weakened by the war and its aftermath. The census of 1926 showed that the Protestant population had fallen by one-third in fifteen years; and the crude figure by no means represents the nature of the loss. The war had taken almost a whole generation of young men. After the war there had come the exodus from the country and the country towns. Those who went were not only the old and frightened: often they were the remnant of those who were young and confident enough to think of making a new life in another country. The people left behind were ‘the old, the cautious, and the conservative.... There was little clear leadership, and the general policy adopted was “Lie low and say nothing.”’ [Stanford, A Recognised Church, 1944, p.16.]

John Gregg, who had become Archbishop of Dublin in 1920. represents in himself the dilemma of many Protestants confronted with the fact of the new state. By origins, by education, by conviction he was an establishment man to the core. When the Treaty separated Ireland from Britain he felt (in his daughter’s words) ‘as if he had been banished from the Garden of Eden.’ Yet he had to make an attempt to assert some moral leadership of a community whose political leadership had evaporated. A week before the Treaty he had stated the claim of Southern Protestants to take some part in the negotiations (he was ignored by Lloyd George, who took a godly view of small battalions). Gregg argued: [95]

As a minority we differ from the majority in ethos, and although we are as truly Irish as many in the other camp, the differences are so marked as to cause us to seem alien in sympathy from the more extreme of our fellow-countrymen. ... Singularity is never popular. It arouses a certain jealousy, and very small occasions are sufficient to provoke antagonism. [...] Whatever our religious or political outlook may be, here is our home, and we have every right to be here. [Seaver, J. A. G. Gregg, 116.]

What Gregg had foreseen was that, while the official policies of the state might be beyond reproach, they might not be altogether consistent with the sentiment of the nation. By the 1920s Ireland was already weaving her national myth, using three main threads - the republican, the Catholic and the Gaelic. To each of these the Protestant ethos was alien. As the myth gained in strength it became more and more difficult to believe in a Protestant identity which was also Irish.

For people who, under the old régime, had been impeccably orthodox, it came as a shock to find orthodoxy changed. They had no training in resistance. Instead they tended to step back from public fife and expend their energy in exclusively Protestant charitable works, where they could feel a sense of community. The public face indeed expressed a dignified acceptance of the new order. Bishops urged their flocks to be good citizens of the Free State ; the Fellows of Trinity College declared their allegiance. But private opinion still hankered for the old days. Anglo-Ireland, Lennox Robinson wrote, ‘brought to bear on the young Government every prejudice that, snobbery and religion could evoke. … It sneered at their wives, at their clothes and at their manners.’ Lionel Fleming said of the mass of his co-religionists:

They did not regard the Irish nation as having anything to do with them. It had to be accepted, of course, as the system to which one must pay one’s income tax, but they would never, until the end of their lives, speak of its government as our government. In spite of the supposed treachery of Britain, their flag remained the Union jack, and their anthem ‘God Save the King’. [Head or Harp, p.93.]

In the context of myth, symbols like these mattered more than [96] substance. The new state, busily weaving its own myth, had chosen for its national anthem a brassy ballad which extolled the victory over the ancient enemy:

Soldiers are we, whose lives are pledged to Ireland;
Some have come from a land beyond the wave.

Sworn to be free, no more our ancient sireland
Shall shelter the despot or the slave. …

A minority still predominantly loyalist could hardly be expected to share these sentiments. Their characteristic rite was the annual celebration of Armistice Day, when the service of commemoration for the dead became a grand rededication to King and Empire. Ironically, the poppies which were sold in aid of disabled ex-servicemen were themselves the focus of a petty war. Poppies were worn not only to aid the cause or to commemorate the fallen, but as a gesture of defiance. Trinity lads set a razor-blade in the lapel behind the poppy, so that anyone who tried to snatch it would slash his fingers.

* * *

The clash of symbols was capable of producing violence throughout the decade. Shops or offices which displayed the Union Jack-even among the flags of the League of Nations were liable to be invaded by bands of young men who felt it their national duty to tear down the imperial emblem; and in 1928 a harmless insurance official named Armstrong, who had given evidence against such a group, was murdered by gunmen. Intimidation of juries and witnesses made it almost impossible to enforce the law. Protestants in general accepted that the government was trying in good faith to give them the protection to which they were entitled; but they would have been exceptionally stupid or exceptionally brave if they had failed to take the hint. People who did not embrace republican orthodoxy found it healthier to keep their mouths shut.

The pressure of Catholic orthodoxy was exercised, as we shall see in a later chapter, to mould the law itself in a manner which would make it conform with the official Catholic conscience. The champions of the Gaelic orthodoxy had to be content with certain ritual steps taken to establish the place of the Irish language in the national life. The state called itself Saorstát Éireann; it declared Irish its official language, it printed [97] its documents bilingually, and it put a word or two of Irish on the new stamps. Most Protestants found this procedure faintly ridiculous: men who would have been ashamed to boggle over zeitgeist or wagon-lit made strangulated noises when confronted with Dún Laoghaire. When the Senate debated whether its opening prayer should be said in English or in Irish, Yeats, who had drawn so much of his early inspiration from O’Grady’s versions of the Irish sagas, protested at ‘the histrionics which have crept into the language movement. People pretend to know a thing which they do not know, and which they have not the smallest intention of ever learning.” The Senate was not unique: only a few words of Irish were used in either House, and not many of the members would have understood it anyway. As for the Protestants, they were firmly wedded to their English-language heritage. Few had the imagination to see that the gestures, ineffectual as they might be, did represent a kind of hunger in people who felt that they had been robbed of their birthright and who were anxious to make up that loss to their children.

In 1926 the Cosgrave government introduced Irish as a compulsory subject in national schools, and made a pass in Irish a requirement for success in the higher school examinations and for entry to the public service. Since most Protestants thought of education in practical terms as a passport to a good job, they saw in this policy a form of disguised discrimination. There was indeed no very good reason why the Irish language should be easier for a Catholic than for a Protestant. But there was a feeling that it ‘belonged’ to Catholics; it was taught with missionary zeal by the Christian Brothers, while in Protestant schools, in general, it was taught badly and was resented equally by pupils, teachers and parents. Certainly it acted as a barrier, psychological or actual - against the entry of Protestant youths into the public service, and in this way it contributed to their sense of alienation and to the continuing emigration of young Protestants in search of jobs.

In the substance of domestic administration there was little cause for complaint. The guarantees of religious liberty embodied in the constitution were amply fulfilled. But domestic administration was one thing and long-term constitutional objectives were another. At the time, the anti-Treaty side zealously [98] promoted the idea that the Free Staters were lackeys of the Empire and had sold out the Republic. This is not at all the picture that emerges from a study of the Treaty debates and the events that followed. While the government took pains to behave correctly under the Treaty, its view of that document differed fundamentally from the view held by the remnant of the loyalists. For the loyalists the Treaty was a terminus. For the new rulers it was merely a stage on a journey. It was not the best agreement that could be imagined, but it was the best that could be secured. The freedom which it conferred was, in Collins’s words, ‘not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.’

The new leaders -even those who pressed the case for the Treaty most forcefully - therefore looked forward to using it as a lever to loosen the link with the Grown and the Empire. For the loyalists, on the other hand, its major compensation was the forging of a new and, it was hoped, more durable link. Nobody, said the Irish Times, would welcome the Treaty more gladly than the Southern loyalists:

For them Ireland does not exist, and never will exist, apart from the Empire which the blood of their sires and sons has cemented. If Ireland accepts the Empire with her heart, and not merely in the cautious wording of an oath, if she accepts them as Imperial Irishmen, they will come joyfully to her side. The Southern loyalists’ gifts of education, character and experience are essential to the building up of a new nationhood. They will rejoice to put these gifts into the common stock. [Irish Times, 7 Dec.1921]

Between those who accepted the Crown conditionally, and those who would not accept it at all, the choice of loyalists was clear. But conditional acceptance fell a long way short of loyalty. This difference of understanding underlay all the civilities that marked the opening of the new era.

In the first ten years of self-government, under President Cosgrave, the Protestant minority developed a considerable degree of confidence in the goodwill and good faith of the Free State government. This was, however, tempered by a general caution, for they were by no means certain how far the government [99] represented the attitude of the people, and there was always a certain fear that the wind might change. In this sense they remained a foreign body embedded in the tissue of the nation - a foreign body which might at any time set up local inflamation.

Prejudice, in short, was not dead. A practical demonstration was given in 1931 in the celebrated case of the Mayo librarian.

The Local Appointments Board (a body set up to remove all suspicion of jobbery from local appointments) advertised the post of librarian for Co. Mayo. The advertisement stated, as was customary, that a competent knowledge of Irish was required for the post. Following the usual competition the board appointed Miss Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, who was a Protestant and a graduate of Trinity College. The local library committee refused, however, to accept Miss Dunbar-Harrison, giving as its reason the fact that she did not have the required knowledge of Irish. The county council passed a resolution to the same effect. The Minister for Local Government (General Mulcahy) ordered an inquiry. When he established to his satisfaction that the council was improperly refusing to implement the appointment, he accordingly dissolved it and appointed a commissioner to exercise its powers.

The debate which ensued in the Dáil forms a connoisseur’s guide to prejudice in Ireland. It is characteristic of it that books were spoken of throughout as if they were dangerous drugs; and the central issue really had nothing to do with Miss Dunbar Harrison’s competence in Irish, but turned quite simply on one question-could a Protestant be trusted to, hand out books to Catholics? It is worth noting, moreover, that this question was canvassed most actively by the members of Fianna Fáil (Mr de Valera’s party), who had entered the Dáil four years earlier under the republican banner and declared their faith by making an annual pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown. Thus Mr P. J. Ruttledge (later Minister for justice) argued that

It has to be recognised that in the Co. Mayo, where practically 99 per cent of the people are of a certain religious persuasion, a person in the position of librarian must feel, as any person who holds definite religious views must, that these views must be portrayed in some way in the distribution of [100] books. What may appear to a member of one religion as being perfectly all right may appear to a member of another religion as being completely wrong.

Mr Richard Walsh wanted to disavow any suggestion that his party was anti-Protestant:

We are not a party of bigots. But neither I nor any member of the Fianna Fáil party in the Co. Mayo or in this Dáil apologise to anybody for being Catholics or for taking up a Catholic attitude on a question of vital importance to Catholic interests. If the Minister thinks he is going to cow the people and the priests of Mayo in this matter he is making a great mistake.

Mr Michael Clery sought for ‘the hidden hand’ behind the minister and found it in ‘the Irish Times and the Masons and Unionists, the people with the purse be-hind the Minister’.

Mr de Valera himself (who was to become President of the Executive Council in the following year) did nothing to discountenance these attitudes:

I say that if I had a vote on a local body, and there were two qualified people who had to deal with a Catholic community, and if one was a Catholic and the other a Protestant, I would unhesitatingly vote for the Catholic.

Other things, of course, being equal. If the work, Mr de Valera went on, was to he considered as ‘active work of a propagandist educational character’, then the people of a county where over 98 per cent of the population was Catholic were justified in insisting upon a Catholic librarian.

‘The Deputy’, said the minister, ‘has gone as near saying as constitutionally he can that no Protestant librarian should be appointed to county libraries in this country.’ The minister had the votes to carry the day, but it was a hollow victory. Miss Dunbar-Harrison was appointed but met with organised local hostility, and it was not long before she was transferred to a less sensitive post.

What is most remarkable, perhaps, at a range of over forty years, is that the government of the day was prepared to face such pressures, political and clerical, in order to assert the equal [101] rights of the minority. Nevertheless, as the shadow of Mr de Valera loomed larger, Protestants found themselves increasingly hemmed in by the three orthodoxies - the republican orthodoxy, the Gaelic orthodoxy, and now the Catholic orthodoxy. It is all the more remarkable that, within twenty years, they found themselves in the position of supporting Mr de Valera, because he was seen as the only man strong enough to take a stand against the bishops. [End]

[Ftn.: It is of some interest, as an index of changed times, to note that, of the three senators elected for Dublin University in the present Senate, two are Catholics.]

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