Friday 18 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'As secularism takes hold, Protestants and Catholics are more aware of their common values. Perhaps St Patrick would approve!'

Irish Protestants, according to an academic study, had a struggle to forge their identity as part of the modern nation

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Can you be both Protestant and Irish? A new academic book published by Cork University Press, Protestant And Irish, stresses that of course, of course, you can. But the background context is, nevertheless, that it's been something of a struggle to establish that identity in the midst of what was a majority Catholic nation.

And still, not everyone is attuned. "Why don't Protestants celebrate St Patrick?" someone asked recently on Twitter. They do! The Church of Ireland has in the past laid claim to St Patrick as one of their own - describing Irish Anglicanism "the faith as taught by St Patrick". And St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin is C of I.

It's true that Nonconformists - Methodists and Presbyterians - are less keen on saints. It may comfort them to know that Patrick was never formally canonised: his holiness was just acknowledged as historical fact.

Protestant And Irish - the authors Ian d'Alton and Ida Milne stress the 'And' in the title. Indeed, some Protestants have been stronger Irish Nationalists than some Catholics; in history, if not in everyday experience.

I grew up in a Dublin community where Catholic and Protestant neighbours lived harmoniously together - Sandymount. Differences were accepted as normal: the Protestant kids couldn't go to the movies on a Sunday and the Catholic kids couldn't join the excellent YMCA tennis club. But if differences were accepted, they were also respected. We hadn't heard the phrase 'cultural diversity', but I think we practised it.

Catholic theology taught, at the time, that the reformed faith was "in error", but people often drew their own conclusions from life rather than theory. Irish Protestants had a reputation for moral honesty. My car-mad elder brother told me that "you should always buy a second-hand car from a Protestant because they won't wind back the mileage clock". It seems that he didn't trust a Catholic car salesman to the same degree.

I even heard it said that "Protestants never tell lies", although that was subsequently greeted with sardonic laughter by a Catholic Ulsterwoman: "You wouldn't say that if you'd grown up in Belfast!" I guessed Sandymount Prods and Sandy Row Prods were not in quite the same category, with all due respect.

I was very friendly with neighbouring children who were strict Presbyterians. They weren't allowed to play with their dolls or any other toys on a Sunday: the family went to church, I think, three times on the Sabbath. Their Sunday recreations consisted of reading the Bible and a quiet walk. And yet despite such restrictions, there was great gentleness, merriment and warmth in that family. The mother and father spoke with such sweetness to one another and showed such open affection. These were people who really lived up to their values.

One example is worth a thousand precepts.

There was no doubt that our neighbours were fully Irish. It was also accepted that there had been an attachment to the British crown, which still lingered. But that, too, was accepted as part of their heritage.

As the academic studies show, Irish Protestants had to find a way of adapting to the Irish State after 1923. Minister Heather Humphreys, growing up as a border Protestant, has spoken about having to stand against the assumption that "being Irish automatically meant you were Catholic".

But Catholics, too, had their struggles for status and respect. When the popular author Annie M.P. Smithson - her novels were often reprinted over 70 times in the 1930s and 40s - became a Catholic, one of her aunts refused to speak to her ever again, and even "cut" her socially at a public event, sending the author away sobbing. Smithson recalled in her autobiography that becoming a Roman Catholic, among the Sandymount Protestants of the 1900s, was akin to being "like the servants".

Minister Humphreys has pointed out that the Ne Temere decree of 1908 (which inhibited mixed marriages by insisting all children be raised as Catholic) robbed some of the chance to marry at all. Possibly so: but even before that, a Protestant who married an RC lost caste and social status.

Social development takes time. When the Catholic tribe got the upper hand after the establishment of the Free State, some wanted to show who ruled the roost now.

But none of that backstory seemed part of the Sandymount of my childhood, where good neighbourliness reigned. My recollection is that the women who were, in those days, classified as housewives, had particularly friendly relations with one another. They were at home with the children: they had time and opportunity to develop friendships within a community life, while the menfolk were off at work - Catholics to the civil service or teaching, Protestants to the big distillers and breweries, or, by contrast, to temperance-minded church ministry.

It's grand to see the 'Protestant and Irish' identity being properly endorsed, although there's a slightly rueful side to all this. The Christian faith, as a whole, is gradually being replaced by secularism, particularly by the generation in their 20s and 30s. Protestants and Catholics are perforce more aware of their common values. Perhaps St Patrick would approve!

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