Poor Irish Protestants don’t fit the stereotype

“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”.

big house

“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
Both sexes
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
Employee 36,542
Assisting relative 281
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
Retired 17,703
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.

Both sexes
Roman Catholic 27,927
Church of Ireland, England, Anglican, Episcopalian 976
Muslim (Islamic) ..
Orthodox (Greek, Coptic, Russian) ..
Other Christian religion, n.e.s. 26
Presbyterian 6
Apostolic or Pentecostal ..
Other stated religions (5) 40
No religion 102
Not stated 496
All religions 29,573


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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18 thoughts on “Poor Irish Protestants don’t fit the stereotype

  1. Thought provoking article. The statistic on Protestant Travellers is especially interesting.

    Speaking of Irish Protestants and stereotypes, I’ve been thinking recently about the stereotypical view of the Irish as punching above their weight in modern world literature.

    The reality seems to be that it’s not the Irish as a nation who have punched above their weight in that respect but Irish Protestants. Apart from Joyce and Heaney, the other internationally recognised ‘great’ Irish writers – Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Synge, O’Casey, Wilde to name those I can think of – have all been Protestant.

  2. Sorry Bock, just can’t resist it… ” lies, damned lies & statistics ” ….. The amount of times I thought about answering truthfully or not when stopped on the street or at my door…. Also like thousands of Aussies & canadians, under the heading of religion I delightedly identified myself as a “jedi knight ” on the last census form …. Might have brought a smirk to Mr Twains face.
    ps I believe it is now regarded officially as a minority religion in Australia ! ! !

  3. @ Ian.
    My father very craftily repaired all the shoes in our household of 10 people using a steel last and salvaged bits of car tyres, I’m 68 yrs of age & I still have my fathers last. We were all happy out, especially when it snowed, my nickname in the winter was dunlop. Its not about poverty, its about statiistics & what you learn from them.

  4. What I learn from statistics is that a large number of the community in which I work are ill served by popular perceptions.

  5. My family name (wallace) might give you a clue as to my ancestors religous persuasions, and I would’nt rely too much on statistics when working with people with whom you know are ” ill served by popular perceptions “

  6. I simply don’t believe those Protestant Traveller stats. They’re not credible. Has anyone here ever across one? I certainly haven’t & my work often brings me into contact with Travellers. Not only have I never met one but I’ve never heard tell of one & moreover I think a traveller heading off to the local C of I would be ostracised by the community. I think either some of our Protestant or Traveller fellow citizens are taking the piss here.

    You’ll be telling us that Catholics make home made jam next.

  7. Jim,

    Are Travellers not allowed to express their own identity? I know of one Church of Ireland parish which has five Traveller families.

    I also know a Traveller whose uncle is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

  8. Interesting. Especially since you have personal experience of this.

    We tend to have very fixed views of what Travellers should be, and I suppose that’s our fault, not theirs.

    (I’m fully aware, incidentally, that some PC Nazi will accuse me of using non-inclusive language. They can fuck off).

  9. Coming from an English working-class background, I have long believed that it suits the powerful for poorer people to be divided, by religion, race, whatever, rather than realize they had common cause.

    There was poverty in Protestant East Belfast as well as in Catholic West Belfast, but it suited the political elite to play the sectarian tunes.

  10. naw, still not buying it…
    If a group of travellers move into a locality/parish that is predominantly c of i or for that matter, muslim, they will use the survival method of adapting of apeing/mimicking the existing populations social mores to gain acceptance to the area. and another thing, I know a traveller who’s granny believes in leprechauns, happy st patricks day to one and all !

  11. statistics are just numbers. invariably used to bolster weak arguements or sell something … ..
    . ” your more than a number in my little red book ” ….

    And, statistically speaking there there is less than a 1% of me wasting my time on your protestant travellers or, the JEHOVAH WITNESS one either. amen.

  12. Actually, Norman, statistics are not numbers. Statistics isn’t usually even a plural noun, though the word is often erroneously used to mean numbers, in the same way that people often misuse the word “theory” to mean what they want it to mean.

  13. Fine bock,
    I should have qualified my understanding of stats in as much that they are actually counted to help people understand their implications…. are we splitting hairs here ?

  14. sorry, yes copied & pasted :Statistics are used to describe groups of numbers. The methods and techniques used to collect, analyze and present a set of numbers are also called statistics…you may have heard people call this “number crunching.” In research, statistics may be used to determine if a new drug or treatment is useful.
    this Helps me to understand this thread, hope it helps others.

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