On 17 March every year many millions of people all over the world recall their family or ancestral links with Ireland. Members of the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland number under 400,000 but they relate to a much greater number among the Irish diaspora.
In the United States of America some 35 million claim Irish ancestry, and of these a majority are Protestant or from a Protestant background. This is largely because of emigration of large numbers from Ulster in the eighteenth century and the consequent multiplication of their descendants.
Most of these early immigrants were Presbyterian but some were Church of Ireland. In the nineteenth century, however, we find emigration of many more members of the Church of Ireland from both the north and south of Ireland.
One such example was Alexander Stewart from Lisburn, a Trinity graduate, who went to America in 1818 and became one of the wealthiest citizens in New York, thanks to the success of his department stores. On his death his widow paid for the construction of the Episcopalian Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, New York, in his memory.
Another example, and more typical of the background of a majority of these nineteenth century emigrants, was the Kearney family, including Fulmouth Kearney, from Moneygall, Co.Offaly. Members of this family of small farmers and shoemakers, all baptised in Templeharry parish church, went to America in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Fulmouth Kearney’s direct descendant, Barack Obama, U.S. President, made a state visit to Ireland in 2011.
My great uncle, David Walker, was a surgeon who went to Canada in 1863 and then to the U.S. in 1865, where he joined the American cavalry. He served for 14 years in the army in the West, including time on Alcatraz Island, California, then a military base and prison. He finally settled as a resident doctor in Portland, Oregon.
A 2006 survey from the University of Chicago showed that of those in America who described themselves as Irish, 48 per cent were Protestant, 29 per cent Roman Catholic and 23 per cent of other or no religion.
Canada was another important destination for emigrants from Ireland. In 1991 around 3.8 million Canadians claimed full or partial Irish ancestry. It has been established that approximately 55 per cent of Irish settlers in Canada were Protestant. Among the Protestants, more were from an Anglican than a Presbyterian background. While a majority came from Ulster, significant numbers also arrived from the rest of Ireland. Ontario was a favourite region for these emigrants from Ireland.
By the early twentieth century it was estimated that up to a third of the Australian population had some Irish ancestry. It is reckoned that Protestants made up about 20 per cent of total Irish immigration. Among the Protestant Irish in Australia, Anglicans were the major single element. Many came from Ulster, but also from other parts of Ireland.
Emigration from Ireland, north and south, to Great Britain has been very extensive over the last two centuries. The greater number of these emigrants came to England and Wales rather than to Scotland, although emigrants from Ireland and their descendants make up a higher proportion of the current population in the latter. It has been estimated that probably around 25 per cent of Irish emigrants to Britain in the twentieth century has been protestant.
My grandfather Samuel Mercer, second son of a farmer from Tartaraghan parish, Co.Armagh, went with my grandmother to Glasgow in the early 1900s. He worked in a department store, eventually becoming manager. My mother was born in Glasgow in 1917. She and her family worshipped in All Saints Episcopal Church, Jordanhill, Glasgow. Unusually, they returned to Northern Ireland when my grandparents retired to Bangor, Co. Down, in the 1930s.
The number of people in Britain born in Ireland peaked at 952,000 in 1971, but still stood at 753,000 in 2001. Many come from a Church of Ireland background. Two well known examples today are Graham Norton, the television personality, originally from Bandon, West Cork, and Bishop David Chillingworth, former Primus of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, born in Dublin but brought up in Northern Ireland.
It is fair to say that most if not all readers of the Gazette will have relatives in many places outside Ireland. The examples I have given of my family could be replicated easily by others. Today, there are only some 400,000 members of the Church of Ireland in Ireland. At the same time they are part of a diaspora of members and descendants of members of their church and community world wide which numbers many millions.
Brian M.Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast. He is author of the recently published History of St George’s Church Belfast: faith, worship and music.
This article first appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette and is used with permission.