The secret lives of Irish Protestants throughout history

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A project being carried out at the University College Dublin is looking into the experiences of people who grew up as Protestants in Ireland.

Dr Deirdre Nuttall is carrying out the major folklore and oral history for the National Folklore Collection in UCD.

It involves collecting anonymous stories from all the way back to the 1940s about Catholics and Protestants and their experiences when they have encountered the other religion.

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One story was of a Catholic woman whose Protestant friends were getting married. She was desperate to go but her priest warned her that her soul would be in danger if she went into a Protestant church.

She watched the ceremony from the outside in the cold. Her friendship survived but she said it tainted her relationship with Catholicism.

So far Dr Nuttall has interviewed over 50 people and has received stories from several more Protestants who are keen to tell their stories. Some have been short responses, while others have written thousands of words.

One correspondent has written with experiences of many aspects the project including folk history, supernatural and medical traditions, relations with Catholic neighbours, social diversity and uniquely Protestant traditions.

Dr Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, who is director of the National Folklore Collection at UCD said: “While Irish Protestants are well represented among Ireland’s earlier folklore collectors in the Republic of Ireland, Irish Protestant cultural history is not as well represented in the archives of the National Folklore Collection as that of the Catholic community.

“The Protestant folk memory project helps to redress a significant gap in the collection.”

Dr Nuttall says that it has proved to be a very emotional process for the people who have taken part.

She said: “There was a lot of sorrow and anguish. Statistically, Protestants do tend to be bigger farmers, but there are plenty from poorer or working-class backgrounds and many of them grew up being asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Where is your butler?’ ‘Aren’t you rich?’

“Anyone with money tended to be shielded because they went to a private school, perhaps on to Trinity and then into the family business. You were cocooned by privilege. It was different if you weren’t comfortable.”

In 1957, in Fethard-on-Sea, a Protestant woman named Sheila Cloney, who was married to a Catholic man, refused a priest’s demands to raise their children as Catholics – in accordance with the Ne Temere decree.

The bishop responded by ordering the Catholics in the community to boycott Protestant businesses, and most complied.

Dr Nuttall said: “I remember hearing stories about this. The Protestants in my family are from the New Ross area, and my grandparent’s generation felt that while they should support the businesses that were being boycotted, they didn’t want to ‘make a fuss’.

“So they drove down the back roads to Fethard. They were concerned that the boycott would spread to New Ross, and the Protestants there were not wealthy.”

Discrimination against Protestants has gone on for centuries. The Scullabogue massacre took place during the 1798 Rebellion, and saw between 100 and 200 Protestants and farmers killed in a barn fire.

Dr Nuttall said: “The folk record often overlooked or minimised this, or said it was a reprisal for something else. My classmates in Wexford didn’t seem to know the story at all, though my family did.

“Protestants also disproportionately sent their sons to fight in the first World War, and many died.”

Dr Nuttall spoke about a man who told her about growing up in the 1930s. She said: “The other children were told not to play with him, that he was going to the devil. On his long walk home from school, he had to contend with other kids threatening him. His parents didn’t believe him. More than 80 years later, he was very upset as he spoke to me about it.”

When Ireland secured its independence, it came as a shock to many Protestants who had to reassess their place within their communities. While it was rare that there would be huge incidents of violence between Catholics and Protestants, Many Protestants felt their identity was at risk.

Dr Nuttall said: “They had to reinvent their lives and work with their neighbours. They may not have seen themselves as British but as subjects of the British empire, so they had to come up with a new way of understanding their history and identity. In some cases, that took one or two generations.”

Worries over their identity led to many Protestants deciding not to take part in Sunday sports and other community activities.

According to Dr Nuttall: “It was sometimes a polite way of not taking part, because there was some anxiety that if your children socialised with Catholics too much, they may marry out. They were already watching their community shrink, and one of the reasons was Ne Temere. It wasn’t just that they were preserving their religion; they were afraid their Catholic grandchildren could be subtly turned against them.”

Another Protestant woman who had to sign the Ne Temere decree was Jean Daly. Jean was a daughter of a Protestant and a Methodist. She lived in Canada until the age of seven but when she returned to Ireland she said she started to feel ‘different’.

She grew up and married a Catholic man and had to sign the decree. She said: “I found it very difficult, not only because of its religious significance but also because I resented terms and conditions being imposed on me. So, on the form to Rome, I put down my signature and then the words ‘under duress.’ That left me free to make whatever decision I wanted to about the religious persuasion of any children I would have. We ultimately decided not to baptise our son and we were in complete accord on that.”

Jean did say that she remained proud to be a Protestant and that sometimes she felt it ‘wasn’t all bad’.

She said: “The Zion church in Rathgar put a beautiful display of fruits and vegetables on the altar. There were always hymns and I loved them; they still remind me of my connection with Dad. Hymns bring people together. One memorable Christmas in Zion, we were surprised with trumpets during Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The whole church was filled with sound. It was magnificent. I turned to Mum and said: ‘Perhaps there are some compensations for being Protestant’.”

Dr Nuttall said that in some ways the Protestants were looked on favourably by their Catholic neighbours.

She said: “A lot of older people believe in the idea of the Protestant work ethic. There are stereotypes: Protestants are good at growing daffodils and can make a meal out of barely any food.

“In some areas, cures were associated with the Protestant community. I interviewed one man whose family had practiced herbal cures until the late 80s when they stopped over insurance concerns. His family folklore says that they came over with Cromwell’s foot soldiers and helped sack the monasteries in the area, but had rescued the monastery’s manuscripts and saved them orally.”

Protestant man David Thomas spoke of other characteristics that came to be associated with his religion.

He said: “In my family, people are defined by their work ethic. If they say ‘he’s a great guy’, it means he is a good worker. If they say ‘he is an eejit’, it means he’s a bad worker.

“It’s also considered a sin to waste money, time and resources. But this may be as much of a middle-class value as a Protestant one – and if you look at Irish history, you will see that people are divided by religion more so than by class. People have always been diverse. In my own family, there is elements of unionism and elements of Wolfe Tone’s republicanism.”

Thomas believes his family are descended from the English who arrived in Ireland at the time of Oliver Cromwell – although some branches of his family were always ‘extremely republican’.

Dr Nuttall says that many of the people she interviewed were very wary of their ancestry and that even centuries later, many people felt a link to Cromwell was a taboo they would rather not consider.

She said: “One man told me that his ancestors came with Cromwell; then he asked me to delete it; then said I could include it but not to mention where he is from, as he didn’t want anyone to know.

“Even though it was a long time ago, it is a heavy burden to bear. Another woman from the northwest of Ireland talks of her people coming from Scotland but does not want to be identified.”

The divide between the Protestant and Catholic communities grew wider during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, especially in counties near the border.

Before the Troubles, Orange picnics were enjoyed by the whole community, rather than exclusively Protestants.

Dr Nuttall said that Protestants in the Republic saw themselves as Irish rather than being strongly linked to Protestants in Northern Ireland.

She said: “People in more northern parts tended to be descended from those who came from Scotland, but those around the rest of country were more diverse. People away from Border areas often stressed that they feel very different from northern Protestants, and these differences go back centuries.”

The Protestant clergy committed significantly fewer acts of child sex abuse. However, there are still some harrowing examples of abuse within the Protestant church.

In one infamous case, over 200 babies died from abuse and neglect in the Protestant Bethany Home for unmarried mothers.

In recent times, it would seem that Irish Protestants feel far less ‘different’ to their Catholic neighbours than their parents or grandparents did.

People in their 20s who Dr Nuttall has spoken to have said that they didn’t have such worries when they were growing up.

If you would like to contribute to Dr Nuttall’s study you can email anonymously to [email protected] or phone 017168216 for more details.

Written by Michael Kehoe @michaelcalling