Sunday 17 December 2017

What we really think of our Protestant neighbours

John Spain looks at the findings in an explosive new book

You'd have thought that in 21st-century Ireland all traces of the historic antipathy shown by Catholics to Protestants would have disappeared. Surely today, it no longer matters "which foot you dig with"?

But it does. Despite the fact that we are now a modern country, many of the attitudes of the 1950s towards religious difference persist. Research carried out by the UCD historian Dr Heather Crawford shows that:

  • Protestants are still seen as 'Anglo' and their religion is seen as inferior.
  • They are perceived to be rich, snobbish and elitist, irrespective of their actual circumstances.
  • They are thought to be universally hostile to Irish culture and sport.
  • They are viewed as being antagonistic to the Irish language.

The disturbing findings will appear in a new book by Dr Crawford to be published this month by UCD Press entitled Outside the Glow: Protestants and Irishness in Independent Ireland.

The research shows that Protestants are not perceived to have 'Irishness', that certain something that says you belong; instead they are seen as somehow less than authentically Irish.

The research also shows, not surprisingly, that this is resented by Protestants born, brought up and educated in the state they call home.

According to Dr Crawford, the misapprehensions many Catholics have about Protestants are "apparent in the ways people perceive and talk about each other, often without realising what is going on".

"Stereotypes based on the emotional legacy of the historic enmity surface unconsciously, reinforcing the notion that Irish national identity is unequivocally Catholic, nationalist and Gaelic," she says.

Dr Crawford says she is not that surprised by what her research has uncovered. "The sheer size of the majority community and the weight of history account for it," she says.

"What is arresting is the evidence of how much being Protestant or being Catholic matters to some young interviewees, and how religious difference can feature in their daily lives in the playground, on social occasions and in the workplace.

"Confessional consciousness, even a degree of polarisation, is back: they are very aware of which foot does the digging."

Dr Crawford is herself a Protestant from south Co Dublin and has returned to Ireland after working and studying abroad for a number of years.

"I came back expecting to find that things had changed and that I would get more of a sense of belonging. On the surface it does seem better, but underneath the old antipathy and suspicion is still there.

There was a general relaxation between the two communities in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr Crawford says, in tune with the spirit of the time.

"Things definitely improved then, but, if anything, there appears to have been a return to the old attitudes in recent years and I notice that since I came back. In some cases, it's so ingrained it's unconscious. And I found the gulf between younger people from the two backgrounds these days particularly surprising."

Overall, the research shows that attitudes change very slowly. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution in the early 1970s may have ended the special position of the Catholic Church and given equal recognition to other religions, but the fact is that Protestants are still viewed with suspicion and regarded as somehow alien.

Outside the Glow, by Dr Heather Crawford, is published by UCD Press this month at €28

Irish Independent

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