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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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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