Four Nations…and counting…

Four Nations…and counting…

This week, Dr Ian d’Alton (University of Cambridge) examines the possibility of a Fifth Nation of Protestants in the Republic of Ireland. 

Can I be a little untidy? ‘Four Nations’ has a neatness and symmetry about it. It speaks to a comfortable ordering of the archipelago, much like the attempt to rebrand it as the WISE Islands – Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England – in the early 1970s. We live in less simply categorised times, though. According to the 2011 census, there were eleven ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, ten of which constituted some 13% of the population; and while we can argue as to whether they can be considered ‘nations’, there is little doubt that many have – and see themselves as having – many of the characteristics of ‘national’ groupings – language, religion, separate social and marriage development, and so on. Even in the Republic of Ireland, the 2011 census identifies some six ethnic groups, five of which comprised, perhaps surprisingly, some 16% of the total population, a higher proportion than in the UK (this raises all sorts of interesting issues which we can’t go into here).

Moving back a bit, to the early years of the twentieth century, I’d like to hear it for a fifth (or ‘four-and-a-halfth”) nation that was located in that part of Ireland which became independent from Britain in 1922. These are the southern Protestants. Seeing themselves as distinct from their Northern Irish, Orange-oriented co-religionists, these people found themselves politically beached after independence. There was a period of trauma around the years 1919-1923 when, still loyal to Crown and Empire, they found themselves on the receiving end of intimidation, arson and even murder. But compared to what happened to other dominant minorities in Europe after the Great War – for instance, Swedish Finns in Finland, the Baltic Germans in Estonia and Latvia, or the German minority in Prussian Poland between 1918 and 1923 – in the cool judgment of historian R B McDowell, ‘hardships sustained by the southern loyalists were on the whole not excessively severe nor long-lasting.’ Some fled, but the vast bulk stayed – not least because of their relative prosperity and stake in the country.

A snapshot, then of these southern Protestants? In 1926 the indigenous tribe numbered about 207,000 in the Irish Free State (there had been considerable numbers of British Protestant soldiers, policemen and civil servants also, but most of these had left in 1922). Mostly Anglican, their spread throughout the general population was uneven, with a proportion of about 17% in Dublin but only three per cent in the west. Few in number (about seven per cent of the population), this was a prosperous people. Four years after independence, they comprised well over 50 percent of the bankers, 40 percent of the lawyers, and 20 percent of the doctors. More than a fifth of large farms were still in Protestant hands in 1926. Of the managerial classes, nearly one-fifth was Protestant. In short, southern Protestants had a lot to lose; the curious thing is, well into independence, they hadn’t actually lost it.

One problem with this prosperity was that it carried the danger of excessive prominence. Political irrelevance may have had little value, but social and economic visibility was likely to carry a price. Southern Protestants quickly adopted a workable modus operandi to cope with this. If they had learned to stay below the parapet in the First World War trenches, this lesson held good for the civilian decades that followed. ‘Keep your head down’ was a constant refrain during my childhood in suburban Dublin and Cork, summed up by the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Victor Griffin’s comment about the contrarian essayist Hubert Butler, who didn’t: ‘God, he’ll get us into trouble!’

In April 1898, Rev. Michael Kennedy, an über-nationalist Roman Catholic curate, in the course of a philosophical diatribe against Irish Protestants, said ‘They are not born from our race…the Irish Unionists have no country…’. Precisely. Faced after 1922 with having to continue to live in an Irish Free State that was, in their eyes, anything but free, southern Protestants had perforce to forge some sort of identity for themselves that kept them upwind from the rather noxious odours of specifically Catholic nationalism. They had to create a country for themselves. I contend that they did this by imagining a ‘Protestant Free State’ that paralleled the official one, a patria that operated using the considerable resources at Protestants’ disposal – schools, hospitals, churches, a network of large firms and professions, a tight and integrated social interconnectivity. Sometimes difficult to spot in the period 1922 to 1960, it nevertheless emerges from hiding now and again, blinking in the light, with its own flag and anthem (not the Union Jack or God Save The King, by the way) and its own view of what Irishness was. It adopted a mechanism of interpreting the contemporary political and social geography that was congenial and comfortable, utilising a shared communal psychology. An innate conservatism on economic and many social matters (for instance on state fiscal policy and issues like birth control and divorce) meant that the official Free State was not always Lucifer in the Pope’s clothes. That helped; and a process of the ‘gradualness of inevitability’ (to invert Sidney Webb) brought the Protestant pilot ship alongside the much larger Catholic craft that itself was becoming more liberal and ‘secular’ from the 1960s.

I’ll deal with all this in more detail in a paper at the eagerly-awaited at the London Four Nations conference in February 2015. I hope that this taster may have whetted some appetites….

Ian d’Alton is the author of Protestant Society and Politics in Cork, 1812-1844 (Cork University Press, 1980), and of numerous papers, chapters in books and essays on southern Irish Protestantism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.  In late 2014, he was a Visiting Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, and a Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, both University of Cambridge.

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