Failing to Define a Protestant Ethos

Mr Bock asked that I might type a few words on Protestant ‘ethos’. Having spent most of my life as a Church of Ireland clergyman, it should be something that comes easily, describing what made us what we are, what shaped our view of the world; except it doesn’t.

Looking for ethos in doctrinal statements or authoritative expressions offers few insights. Church of Ireland doctrine is expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, a sixteen century statement that sought to follow a middle line between Roman Catholicism on one hand, and a more thorough Protestantism on the other. The articles are a brief outline of beliefs to which clergy ‘assent’, and of which most of the laity have little knowledge. Authority is dispersed, the only body competent to speak for the church as a whole is the general synod, the church’s annual three day parliament. Bishops have little power, even within their own dioceses their decisions must be approved by diocesan councils.
Protestant ethos is something more local, more personal. The perception of the Church of Ireland as being a gathering of tweed and corduroy with English accents endured because people could (and, occasionally, still can) cite examples of landed families who sent their children off to boarding schools in England. Parishes with big house families are less and less common. A typical Church of Ireland parish might have 150 families; even when there is a landed family, there are at least a hundred other families that are, for the most part indistinguishable from the local population.

Protestants in the Republic of Ireland are more likely to be rural dwellers than members of other communities – farmers and small town business people are probably typical. Look at Census 2006 and there is an indication of how much more likely Protestants are to work in the private rather than the public sector.  Having once lived in a small, parallel world, they now play a full part in local community life; they take part in local politics, even stand in general elections. There are even Protestants in the Traveller community, though their numbers fell from 646 out of a community of 23,681 in the 2002 Census to 529 from a total of 22,435 in the 2006 Census.

If ethos is shaped by beliefs, by upbringing and by economic status, there can be no single Protestant ethos; at most, one might identify certain traits. From my own experience, there is a dislike and, usually, a disregard, for anything that smacks of the authoritarian; there is a confidence, sometimes over-optimistic, in the capacity for people to ‘improve’ themselves; and there is a perception, which is unfair to people who have had hard lives, that you are what you have made yourself. The traits, in part, reflect the old catechism in the Book of Common Prayer:

My duty towards my Neighbour, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey all that are put in authority over me: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors, and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all who are set over me: To hurt no body by word or deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my bands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil speaking, lying, and slandering.  To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.

The Protestant vision of the country might be different, but they love it as much. There are lines in William Trevor’s short story  ‘Of the cloth’, written against the background of the Brendan Smyth case, that are presumptuous in attempting to articulate a Catholic view, but present a beautiful Protestant perspective:

‘I never left Ireland,’ Father Leahy said. ‘I have never been outside it.’

‘Nor I.’ The silence after that was part of the dark, easily there, not awkward. And Grattan said, ‘I love Ireland.’

They loved it in different ways: unspoken in the dark, that was another intimation. For Grattan there was history’s tale, regrets and sorrows and distress, the voices of unconquered men, the spirit of women as proud as empresses. For Grattan there were the rivers he knew, the mountains he had never climbed, wild fuchsia by a seashore and the swallows that came back, turf smoke on the air of little towns, the quiet in long glens. The sound, the look, the shape of Ireland, and Ireland’s rain and Ireland’s sunshine, and Ireland’s living and Ireland’s dead: all that.

On Sundays, when Mass was said and had been said again, Father Leahy stood in a crowd watching the men of Kildare and Kerry, of Offaly and Meath, yelling out encour­agement, deploring some lack of skill. And afterwards he took his pint as any man might, talking the game through. For Father Leahy there was the memory of the cars going by, his bare feet on the cobbles of the yard, the sacrifice he had made, and his faithful coming to him, the cross emblazoned on a holy robe. Good Catholic Ireland, a golden age.

None of which really answers Bock’s question, but which has put in time while waiting to go to pay my respects at a funeral.



Ian Poulton is a Church of Ireland rector in rural Leinster.  He writes at For The Fainthearted

40 thoughts on “Failing to Define a Protestant Ethos

  1. I have to ask, given the image attached to this post(which I’m aware may be Bocks doing), and given that I have been thinking a lot about protestants in the republic recently (ever since learning of the apparent protestant/catholic origins of BoI/AIB).

    What is the orange order to protestants in the republic? Is it anything? When I think of the orange order, I think: parades, paisley, northern ireland, i-don’t-want-to-know. It’s not something I connect in any way to anything here. For me, things in Northern Ireland exist “over there”, somewhere else, not here.

    But, is the orange order something which is or was a part of the protestant ethos for people in the republic? Is there more to it than what’s on display in Northern Ireland? Has it become disreputable, or an embarrassment, or is it still important anyway? Was it ever important? I don’t know.


    The Protestant vision of the country might be different, but they love it as much.

    I don’t understand what you mean by a different vision? Do you mean in terms of culture and religion? The type of society we should have? People’s values? Or do you mean the direction of the country–its future? Its place in the world? Is this about England? Again, I don’t know.

    But, the most important question of all: Does the protestant ethos give a different perspective on the banks, the developers, the deficit, and the state of the country? Can it offer windows to alternative ways of thinking, or is greed and gombeen incompetence blind to ethos and religion? Can the protestant ethos save the country?

    (I feel uncertain about whether or not it may be a taboo to ask these kinds of questions. All I know about the interplays of religion, culture, ethos, politics, and conflict in Ireland comes from history books. I’ve never heard anyone ever talk about them in the modern world, except in relation to Northern Ireland. I’m conscious that I may have put my foot in something, but I still want to understand what the object is.)

  2. ObsessiveMathsFreak » Guilty. The image is my doing and it might not be too appropriate but I thought it was funny. Nothing at all to do with the contributor of the piece.

  3. I think ‘protest’ could come into the ethos somewhere, although it would be erroneous to protest too much. Sorry about that one folks.

    OMF is right when he alludes to a taboo on public discussion about the internal affairs of minority christian denominations in the media of the republic. In an essay in his scholarly book, Reflections on the Irish State, retired taoiseach Garret FitzGerald alluded to the share (10 per cent) of agricultural land owned by members of minority denomination farm families and noted that there had never been any public discussion about the matter. I suppose a self imposed taboo of this sort indicates polite social deference among the general public. Probably it is a healthy politeness, and if matters such as ‘protestant ethos’ regarding schools and hospitals are to be discussed constructively and without risks of misunderstanding, it might be better to leave such public discussions to articulate people closely concerned.

  4. The Protestant ethos revolves around (the value of) work, achievement and personal responsibility.

  5. OMF,

    The Ireland loved by the Protestant in William Trevor’s piece is the Ireland of natural history and culture. There is no sense of a need that the place be imbued with a religious ethos. Whereas within traditional Catholicism there is a feeling that religion need imbue everything, an attitude embodied in the desire to control schools, hospitals, etc.

    There is a need to talk about what Protestant identity means because explicit conversations about our place in the Republic have been all too rare and the lack of such a debate from 1922 onwards led to the character of the state being shaped by John Charles McQuaid in the 1940s and 1950s. .

    I raise stuff on my blog from time to time, particularly about our silence on issues like the morality of the bank bailout, but in response there is silence. A Dublin friend, a retired senior civil servant, commented to me that he did not know how I got away with excoriating our bishops, but I pointed out that as they have remained silent on the big stuff, they are hardly going to speak about tiny stuff. Sean O’Casey, a working class Protestant from Dublin’s north inner city used to characterise the response of the Church of Ireland leadership as ‘the sound of footsteps running away’

  6. Ian. Thank you for this thread, it has really made me think about aspects which i had previously shelved.

    Regarding the ” Morality of Bank bailout ” I don’t know how, if any relevance there is historically, but to the best of my very limited knowledge, sometime back in the ’20’s the Bank of Ireland foreclosed on all loans held by the Flower family in Durrow, Co Laoise, as this was an ” Estate Village ” the Title Deeds of the entire Village were very possibly in the name of the loan holder, however, the entire Village of Durrow was owned by Bank of Ireland. The Catholic church subsequently bought Castle Durrow and ran it as a school for many years, thereafter all properties purchased in Durrow were purchased from B of I.

    I only make reference to this as to the potential historical precedent of Banks, their influence and clout in this Country, such behaviour by Banks is not a new phenomonen it is possibly an ingrained criteria devoid of any human or moral aspect and as such, the time for extreme change is upon us.

  7. Norma,

    I think the 1920s were a time of frequent foreclosures, but I also think I would want to ask questions as to how the Flower family owned the entire village in the first place.

    If a Protestant ethos includes the work ethic expressed in the catechism, ‘to learn and labour truly to get mine own living’, living on rents from huge estates doesn’t sit well with it.

  8. Ian. Agreed.
    The History of I reland, Landlords, Banks etc is complex to say the least, heres a link to some of the Durrow past.

    Its a bit off topic but i find it very ironic that the Irish were so willing to take on the role of ” Landlord ” in their excessive buying of property over the past 15 years, enslave themselves to Banks.

    Your comment @ 6 and ” Protestant Identity ” is certainly one to be explored and redefined. The ” Work etchic ethos ” is something akin, in my mind to the ” Catholic guilt ” except that its benefits can be measured but its a damn burden to be honest, I would consider myself not brainwashed as such by either, but the ” work ethic ” indoctrination is one that presents a huge struggle, it has become something of a joke to my kids but i am constantly on the lookout for something that needs to be done, really need to put that in perspective !

  9. Ian

    I raise stuff on my blog from time to time, particularly about our silence on issues like the morality of the bank bailout, but in response there is silence. A Dublin friend, a retired senior civil servant, commented to me that he did not know how I got away with excoriating our bishops, but I pointed out that as they have remained silent on the big stuff, they are hardly going to speak about tiny stuff.

    This is particularly important, as the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK some months ago really kick-started the (admittedly glacially slow) process of reform and debate about reform of the banks over there. Given the current disrepute of the catholic hierarchy in this country, the protestant bishops are the only equivalent bodies in this country in a position to speak out.


    The Protestant ethos revolves around (the value of) work, achievement and personal responsibility.

    So, there’s no longer a protestant ethos at BoI then.

    I’m derailing this discussion into one about the banks when it’s really about something else. Nevertheless, I’m interested in state of the protestant ethos in contemporary Ireland today and whether it has something to say about where we find ourselves today.

  10. Norma,

    The Protestant ‘work ethic’, combined with a selective reading of the Old Testament, provides an ideological undergirding for the individualism of American economics – its logical corollary is that if you are poor it is your own fault.


    Unlike the Catholic bishops, who can produce Catholic doctrine on almost any subject, there is no worked out Anglican position and, even if there were, I think they would be reluctant to say anything.

    I wasn’t aware of until recently that the BoI had been dominated by Protestants.

  11. My Church of Ireland mother firmly believed the banks were corrupted as soon as Protestants lost control of them. She felt that Catholics were less honest, partly because they could just go to confession and all would be forgiven, but also because in Ireland penal laws had forced Catholics to lie about their religion – hence lying was OK. Sounds a bit prejudiced to me, but I don’t think she was the only one with this theory.

  12. Not only were Catholics dishonest, they were dirty and lazy as well – the sort of line I would have heard peddled in loyalist communities in the North. It encouraged working class Protestants not to question the conditions they endured and to blame all the ills in the country on a community that had been demonised. Caricatures became a tool of social control.

  13. I don’t know if the Bank of Ireland was top-heavy with members of protestant denominations during the 19th century and until after independence. Daniel O’Connell was a leading founder-member of the B of I, believing that the Catholic middle class should have a financial institution to facilitate their business interests. There was throughout the 19th century a considerable Catholic middle class in the farming sector, especially in Leinster and Munster. Town shopkeepers and others were also widespread. Their money would have circulated in the growing banking system. This social fact is often obscured by the emphasis on the famine and the land war, which vital historical topics give the inaccurate impression that the Catholic Irish were all ground down by illiteracy and poverty. From among the Catholic bourgeoisie in the 19th century there emerged social and educational reformers. Mary Aikenhead and Edmund Rice emerged from this class, and in the early 20th century Mary Martin, the founder of a medical missionary organization, came from a well-to-do Catholic urban family. I cannot imagine the Bank of Ireland as an institution ‘controlled’ by Protestants that later fell under the control of Catholics.

    The venal behaviour of banking decision makers internationally in recent decades was not confined to members of any creed or colour. The casino capitalist ethos polluted the moral sensibilities and business judgement of many kinds of people.

  14. I don’t know about ethos either Catholic or Protestant.
    But I do know that when there is a fascist regime the
    Catholic church is all in favour. Portugal,Spain,Italy,Argentina,……………………..
    The bravest people on my horizon are Hans and Sophie Scholl whereas the planets greatest moral coward is that protector of paedophiles and their activities claiming to be Christ’s vicar – closely followed by various papophilic regimes here.

  15. SS, Protestants didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 1930s. The German Lutheran Church, a body that constituted the majority of the German population failed to take a stand, driving people like Niemoller and Bonhoeffer to join a grouping known as the Confessing Church.

    The theological approach taken by the German Lutherans was that faith was a private matter and that it was not for the church to engage in politics. Had the Church of Ireland been in a similar position, it would have taken a similar stance – look at its failure for so long to engage with issues of sectarianism.

  16. The Agricultural Credit Corp was established in 1926 by the Free State government.This was because the banks largely refused to advance credit to catholic farmers.The Industrial Credit corp was also formed in 1926 for the same reasons.No bank was keen on lending to catholics,notoriously Bank of Ireland.
    Anti-catholic,pro-protestant,pro-British sentiment prevailed in the banking world long after the departure of the British in 1922.

  17. Have you ever really tried to look at Catholic Ireland from the Protestant perspective. I started when i was still at school, learning about the abuses of the church and the reformation. I was amazed to find that we Catholics remained ‘unreformed’, still stuck in the middle ages. As atheists we naturally sent our son to the Church of Ireland National School to keep him away from the ‘Catholic Ethos’ indoctrination. Historically we are a pseudo-republic, ruled by conservative bishops and gombeen men, dutifully fellating the princes of Rome. I’ve often thought that protestants in Ireland must have felt like the Christians living in modern-day Pakistan or Indonesia, harassed by Mullahs and wondering if it will ever get any better. McQuaid and the Catholic Taliban. Well, finally we’re getting free of them, and hopefully soon we’ll get our schools back and maybe a sense of true secularism. Then we might eventually get around to incorporating that protestant viewpoint, that unique outsiders view from within. We have a lot to learn from them, especially those of a religious persuasion among us. I think Irish Catholics are disgustingly hypocritical about their religion and it’s observances, and i would be very surprised if protestants don’t see it the same way. imagine if you could knock that Roman self righteous piousness out of the Irish Catholic and make him see it all with a fresh eye. Imagine a Celtic Catholic church that had more in common with the ‘Protestant Ethos’ and less with a Roman one, An Irish church without a Bishops hand down its pants.

    Ah, even an atheist can live in hope.

  18. I am wary about taking for truth mad dog’s above assertions about the background to the 1926 establishment of the ACC and the Industrial Credit corporation.

  19. From a Norn perspective I’d say that Protestant ethos, or Protestant “culture ” as it’s referred to – sneeringly mostly – consists of a desire to be bloody well left alone. To not have to sing dirges; dress the kids up in 2 foot wigs , hallucinagenic dresses and a slightly more refined version of the hobnailed boot to do tapdancing; not to have to play anything on a flute that you can’t march to; and generally to be allowed to shrink away in fear from anything that could in any way be labelled as ” culture “. Oh aye..and they’d like to be left alone.

  20. In times of conflict yes. After all The OO has ” I am not a Catholic ” as part of its intro. The more of a minority a minority feels the more they define themselves as what they are not, presumably to effect social cohesion in societies where class would otherwise splinter resistance to being overrun.

  21. ‘Protestant’ means different things in the Republic than in Northern Ireland.

    ‘Protestant’ equates with Church of Ireland in the Republic – even the Census compilers classify ‘Protestant’ and ‘Church of Ireland’ under a single heading. If one is Methodist, or Presbyterian or from another reformed tradition, then that denominational loyalty. I think it arises from the fact that the Church of Ireland was the Protestant Church at the time of the Reformation, the other traditions emerging in later centuries.

    ‘Protestant’ in Northern Ireland equates to many and different things.

  22. However I had a neighbour in the Midlands who was quite indignant at being termed a Protestant. She said she was Church of Ireland, not Protestant.

  23. In that case, lapsedmethodist, does the word ‘protest’ have any nuanced bearing on the term the lady neighbour objected to?

  24. lapsedmethodist,

    I think there was a shift away from the term ‘Protestant’ among some within the Church of Ireland community. There were those who did not like what they saw in the North and wished to distinguish themselves from it; and there were those who did not like Roman Catholic teaching, which said that churches not in communion with the Pope were not churches at all, and wanted to affirm that they were a church and that they were Irish. Some are also uncomfortable with the label ‘Anglican’.

  25. Benno : Don’t think so.

    Ian: I take your point on the North ; however there’s an Anglican monk who is reputed to have said that Roman Catholics are welcome to return to the Church any time they like !! I feel that the ladies sentiments might have been more along these lines.

  26. Protestantism in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland, with its Orange Orders and Loyalism and bitter anti-Catholic stance, SEEMS for me to have a strong element of Freemasonry. Now, I do not know what is wrong with Freemasonry — I am not qualified to critique them — but I do know that it is a silent and very influential political power.
    I leave it at that.

  27. Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I stopped at a hotel in Clare. That evening, we asked if we could have dinner, and were politely refused, the apologetic receptionist whispering to us that the whole place (apart from our room) had been booked for a “Mason’s meeting”. We found this strange, as there were no other cars but ours in the car-park. When we returned later that evening from eating at a local pub, the car-park was stuffed with high-end expensive vehicles.
    Every one carried a Northern Ireland registration number.

  28. I should have added that breakfast the following morning was an interesting experience. The dining room was full of suited blokes (no women), the conversation loud and the NI accents absolutely unmistakeable. When we walked in, conversation stopped and we were completely ignored for the remainder of breakfast. You could have cut the sinister atmosphere with a knife. Not one of them bid us “Good morning”, either on entering or leaving, which, in my experience of Irish hotels, is utterly unheard of.
    We spoke to each other during our breakfast, exposing the fact we were English, and our car was the only one in the car-park to display English plates. We were completely ignored by every single one of those gentlemen.

  29. It was a big Victorian Gothic pile, somewhere between Mountshannon and Killaloe, on Derg. Just had the single one word name on a sign at the head of a long tree-lined drive but, with the passage of time I can’t remember its name, something like Kinvara, Kildara? It had only just been taken over by a doctor of some sort, and he was intent on running it as a cross between a hotel, retreat and meditation centre I seem to remember.
    I’ve looked for it since in the area, but it seems to have gone. Someone told me it was now something to do with horses. It was a grand spot, and the suite we were in was magnificent. You could lie in the bath and watch the boats on the lake.

  30. Regretfully no, but then I was fully intent on pandering to every whim and need of my child-bride. Seem to remember we also drank a bottle of Laphroaig.

  31. It was idyllic but, regretfully, we were not invited by our fellow guests to roll up our trouser-legs. I seem to remember we made do with a bottle of Laphroaig instead.

  32. Kincora?

    If so you can have the whole place to yourself – it’s bust according to CBRE. The masons can’t have been good for business.

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