A guest blog post from Philip McKinley as we look towards marking the centenary of 1916. To mark this a conference is being held on 14 Nov - 'Silenced Stories: The Protestant Experience of 1916'. Philip McKinley is Church of Ireland Chaplain in Dublin City University.
Although small and seemingly politically insignificant at this stage, Southern Protestants hold a fascinating key to the Irish Question. In the midst of Ireland’s great political dualism between Nationalism and Unionism, lies an overlooked community, which has rich insights into both traditions and has also uniquely created a more fluid approach to the divide, with distinct results.
Republic of Ireland or Southern Protestants can perhaps be understood in three categories; Border Protestants, Rural Protestants and Dublin Protestants (who are fairly representative of all Urban Protestants). I am not qualified to speak about Border Protestants (some of whom for example are still Unionist and have retained a certain sense of pre-Independence identity). I do have some insights into Rural Protestants (with a Tipperary father), but I feel most comfortable talking about Dublin Protestants, and more specifically South County Dublin, Middle-Class, Suburban, Hockey-playing Protestants! Some would even argue, that the cosy-confines of the leafy suburbs, renders me too sheltered to even comment authoritatively on the experiences of other Protestants in the Republic.
The 2011 Census is not clear, but it suggests that the Dublin Protestant population is approximately 40,000 from a total approximate population of 1,200,000. When compared to other cities, this is a very sizeable number (as Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Sligo cities are served by no more than 2 Church of Ireland churches each).
When also compared to the fact that Dublin was at one point majority Protestant, today it has become a much smaller and scattered community. Indeed, the sad remnant of its Victorian and Edwardian heydays, lies in the numerous inner city closed churches now converted into community centres, Tourist Centres or pubs.
These buildings also serve as a reminder of a great demographic shift in the Dublin Protestant population 50 years ago, from urban to suburban. This shift coincided with the then Minister of Education, Donogh O’Malley’s Reforms in the 1960’s, which saw a number of Protestant Secondary Schools amalgamate and relocate from inner city sites to new suburban locations, which also mirrored the urban sprawl of a growing 1960’s Irish economy. The only inner city Secondary School that resisted the mass exodus was St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School (perhaps because it would have had to taken the Cathedral along with it!).
Indeed the shift was so rapid and so dramatic, that in 1950 St George’s Church on Hardwicke Place was the largest Protestant Church in the Republic of Ireland. By the mid-1970s, that accolade had been awarded to Taney Church in Dundrum and by 1991 St George’s Church has closed its doors, only to then become the Temple Theatre Nightclub.
The net result was a Protestant population squeezed into the suburban, middle-classes. Today Protestant media and forums are largely reflective of and passionate about middle-class issues; private schools and denominational education, Nursing Homes, Parish Fêtes, etc… For example, there is now no dedicated Church of Ireland ministry to Injecting Drug-Users, to the Homeless or to the victims of human trafficking. Because the indigenous inner-city, working-class Protestant population has virtually disappeared, it means that a vital component of urban connectivity has been lost within Dublin Protestantism.
This shift has been true across the Protestant denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc…), not just the Church of Ireland.
Therefore how do Dublin’s Protestant’s approach their citizenship today, 100 years after the Uprising that led to Irish Independence?
There are three basic responses to all forms of change; reject, adopt or adapt. These three narratives are reflective of three self-understandings of the Protestant narrative since Irish Independence.
There is one school of thought, which suggests that broad Irish society has rejected Southern Protestants. It cites the dramatic and continuous population decline, that lasted all the way from Irish Independence in 1922 until 2001. It also cites examples like the ‘Special Position’ of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1937 Irish Constitution, the Fethard-on-Sea Boycott and Dr Noel Browne’s ‘Mother and Child’ scandal. Recently a group of Protestant Fine Gael Councilors wrote to An Taoiseach claiming that Protestant Schools are the victims of ‘discrimination’, due to budget cuts.
Education and healthcare, which are the two main interactive and contested points in Irish Church-State relations, are also the two main barometers used to assess the State’s treatment of Protestants. Speaking in the Irish Times in relation to Tallaght Hospital in May 2006, the then Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Dr John Neill said, ”Our ethos is very dear to us. It is inclusive and patient-centred, with no ethics committee imposing standards. I can see this ethos being eroded with the removal of many specialities, including paediatric medicine, from Tallaght”.
There is however a counter-argument that says Protestants in fact are the ones that have rejected wider Irish society, by forming hermetically-sealed sporting and cultural clubs and preserving denominational admissions policies in Schools and Nursing Homes. In 2002, the UCD Sociologist Professor Stephen Mennell, described Southern Protestants as a ‘Bubbled Community’. One permutation of this is a lack of political and civic engagement. For example only 0.25% of members of the Church of Ireland belong to the Gardai and members of Defence Forces, compared to the national average which is 1%. 1.44% of the Church of Ireland are involved in central or local Government, compared to a national average of 2.97%.
Indeed, in his Diocesan Synod Address in October 2013, the Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Dr Michael Jackson said, “Sectarianism itself is alive and well not least in the Church of Ireland community. There us a deeply dug-in antagonism to difference on the part of those who trumpet pluralism”.
There is also another school of thought that argues that Ireland has in fact whole-heartedly adopted and embraced its Protestant minority. In 1983, Kurt Bowen titled his book ‘Protestants in a Catholic State; Ireland’s Privileged Minority’. Although just over 3% of the population, Protestants are included disproportionately in almost all major State functions with religious involvement. Protestant Cathedrals are the iconic images used to advertise Ireland’s Tourist appeal. Indeed some commentators like David McWilliams, argue that Ireland has in fact become ‘Protestant’ in its thinking, especially with regard to economics.
Others though feel that Ireland’s Protestants have instead adopted the majority culture and have lost their distinctiveness. For example the GAA has a growing support within Southern Protestant communities. However much more than that, statistics suggest that wider Western secularisation is affecting Protestants, just as much as Roman Catholics, with a whole generation no longer engaging in religious practice.
There is however a further school, which I ultimately would belong to, that suggests Protestants have adapted themselves, in the context of wider Irish societal adaptations.
Protestant identity was historically formed in opposition to Roman Catholic identity. However there has been a dramatic decline in the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, since these days. In April 1951, the then Taoiseach John A Costello said, ;I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong’.
However in July 2011, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, ‘The Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day….The delinquency and arrogance of a particular version . . . of a particular kind of ‘morality’ . . . will no longer be tolerated or ignored . . . Today, that church needs to be a penitent church, a church truly and deeply penitent for the horrors it perpetrated, hid and denied’.
There has also been a dramatic shift in religious practice and identity, whereby Protestants are no longer the dominant minority. As a result of this shift, has also been a significant rise in the number of members who have come from Roman Catholicism. This is a major factor in the lifeblood and innovation of many Protestant Parishes and Church organisations.
As we approach the Centenary Commemorations, perhaps Southern Protestants can highlight their experiences, in adapting from a Unionist-majority tradition in 1916 (albeit with a rich and historic cultural nationalist and constitutional republican tradition) into a flourishing community in a modern, pluralist democracy in 2016. They are perhaps the only community in Ireland to have successfully made that shift and still to have held both of Ireland’s great political traditions in their midst. Perhaps they hold a vital key to Ireland’s future?