“I hated being a Protestant when I was young. My friends used to say to me, ‘Sure, Tom, you must have money — you’re a Protestant’. ”
They could not see him as someone who had as little as they had. Being Protestant meant he was somehow mysteriously wealthy. He would tell of being at school in the late 1960s when he was given ten shillings one Saturday to go into the city and buy a pair of shoes. Ten shillings was not enough to buy anything new and the second-hand pair he bought was ill fitting. His mother told him he must go to the rector of the local parish and ask for money for a new pair. He duly went along to the rectory and was granted an audience. “Let me think about it”, said the clergyman.
The following week the clergyman called at the school. Tom was made to come to the front of the classroom and sit on the edge of the master’s desk while the master and the cleric discussed the state of Tom’s shoes and the wisdom of having spent ten shillings on them. It seemed a humiliating experience. “That didn’t matter”, said Tom, “I got a new pair of shoes”.
Of course, such stories come from a long time ago and a galaxy far away, but Tom, and many like him who lived in parishes in Dublin, did contradict a narrative that suggested poor Protestants had disappeared in the 1920s, and could only still be found in the pages of Sean O’Casey. And it wasn’t just in Dublin. Visiting a remote Mayo town in the 1980s, there was an encounter with Tildie, one of the last two remaining Protestants in the town. Tildie sat at the fireside on a wooden chair, the chairs and a wooden table being the furnishings of the room. To the rear there was a kitchen, upstairs a bedroom, not the stuff of the “big house” stories.
In the new Ireland, the persistent image of Protestants is of a community that is predominantly suburban middle class or farmers with substantial holdings; poor people have no part in the story. Even learned members of the establishment think that being a Protestant is synonymous with being middle class. In 2009 there was a Dublin murder trial, where the defence counsel stated his client was a “decent, hardworking, ordinary, middle-class man and a member of the Church of Ireland”.
“And a member of the Church of Ireland” — what did that mean? Was it a suggestion that there were people “don’t do that sort of thing”? Why was it relevant? Why would a leading barrister have made mention of a person’s denominational background if it were not for the fact that he believed that the label “Church of Ireland” would have prompted certain thoughts amongst the jury? It was presumably intended to conjure up thoughts of garden fetes, and men in suits and women in floral prints, and businessmen and professionals, and country farmhouses, and soft accents and old money, and nice cakes and home-made jam. Is it meant to elicit thoughts of wholesomeness and trustworthiness? One assumes so.
It would have been difficult to imagine the outrage that would have ensued if a defence counsel in Belfast had suggested that being a member of the Church of Ireland was a reason why a jury should see things differently, or if a barrister at the Old Bailey in London had stood up and said his client came from a community that was perceived as being “nice” or “good sorts” or “a better class of people”. At the time, it seemed odd that the judge had not intervened and asked his learned friend how reference to his client’s denomination was relevant to the matter, other than to play on stereotypes the jury might hold in their minds.
If your community is perceived in such a way, then it is doubly hard to be a member of that community and to be poor, for there is a struggle both with economic reality and with the perceptions of other people who are struggling that your reality is different from the one they encounter.
One of the problems of being a member of a small community is not being statistically significant, not showing up in government figures. However, Table CD 762, Population Aged 15 Years and Over by Sex, Religion, Principal Economic Status, from Census 2011 does give a picture of the Church of Ireland community at variance with popular perceptions.
|Church of Ireland, England, Anglican, Episcopalian|
|All persons aged 15 years and over||103,381|
|All persons aged 15 years and over in labour force||60,847|
|Persons at work||49,422|
|Employer or own account worker||12,599|
|Unemployed looking for first regular job||1,000|
|Unemployed having lost or given up previous job||10,425|
|All persons aged 15 years and over not in labour force||42,534|
|Student or pupil||9,868|
|Looking after home/family||10,857|
|Unable to work due to permanent sickness or disability||3,677|
|Other economic status||429|
In a population of 103,381 aged 15 or over, 11,425 were unemployed and 3,677 were unable to work due to permanent sickness or disability, if one adds those who were still at school, but living in homes where the wage earners were unemployed, at least a sixth of the Church of Ireland community was dependent upon social welfare provision, not the stuff of flowery frocks and garden fetes.
Should one be still of the Dublin barrister’s frame of mind, then the 2011 statistics for members of the Travelling Community from Table CD721 should be noted.
|Church of Ireland, England, Anglican, Episcopalian||976|
|Orthodox (Greek, Coptic, Russian)||..|
|Other Christian religion, n.e.s.||26|
|Apostolic or Pentecostal||..|
|Other stated religions (5)||40|
At 3.3% of the total, one person in thirty, the percentage of Travellers registered as Church of Ireland is larger than the Church of Ireland percentage of the overall population, which is just 2.9%. It is a figure which must be one of the most surprising statistics of all.
Tom belonged to a much bigger community than anyone had imagined.
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