No petty people

THE Irish Republic is cautiously commemorating the revolutionary period of 1916-1922. It is a painful subject which has the potential to open many old wounds on both sides of the Irish Sea. Soon there will be much discussion about the proper way to mark the centenary of partition and the creation of the Free State and Northern Ireland.

The partition era is often depicted as a crude division of the island along religious lines with Protestants in the north and Catholics in the south given their own self-governing states under the British Crown. It is forgotten that the Crown hoped the two traditions could put aside their differences and in time come together for the common good. However the south broke the last link with the Crown in 1949 when it became a republic and the north imploded in violence in 1969 leading to direct rule from Westminster.

There is of course much hard evidence to support the view that what followed partition was institutional discrimination toward religious minorities on either side of the border. The discrimination faced by Catholics in the north is a matter of historical record and led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967. Protestants in the south also faced open discrimination, others were made uncomfortable by a ‘chill factor’ and some became economic migrants in search of a better life. The Protestant population in the 26 counties dwindled and now numbers some five per cent of the total at around 200,000.

But that is only part of the story. The significant contribution of Protestants to the creation and development of the modern Irish Republic is now being recognised by the state. Members of the minority religious community were a driving force for change over 200 years and have filled some of the highest offices in the new nation including president, government minister, chief justice and director of public prosecutions.

Unionists are slow to acknowledge that many of the leading figures in Irish nationalism shared their religious affiliation. These include the fathers of Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett and Thomas Davis, chief organiser of the Young Ireland movement. Leaders of the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, included Thomas Clarke Luby who was the son of a Church of Ireland minister and James Deakin who became president of the organisation’s supreme council. Home Rule leaders Isaac Butt, William Shaw and Charles Stewart Parnell were Protestants and the revolutionary generation that created the mood music for the Easter Rising and Anglo-Irish War included many Protestants who held key roles in the Irish language movement, the arts and sport.

Douglas Hyde and Alice Milligan were influential figures in the Gaelic League which sought to promote the Irish language and Hyde became Ireland’s fist president in 1937. William Butler Yeats, George Russell, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey are regarded as important Irish writers and opinion makers. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932. Sam Maguire was a leading figure in the Gaelic Athletic Association and football’s All-Ireland trophy is named after him. He is also credited with the role of swearing-in Michael Collins to the IRB in 1909 and he became Collins’ intelligence chief in London during the Anglo-Irish War.

The Howth and Kilcoole gun running in 1914 was organised, funded and undertaken by Protestants including Bulmer Hobson and Erskine Childers. Roger Casement, from Ballycastle county Antrim, travelled to Berlin in 1914 to seek German support for the Rising but was captured along with a cargo of arms off the coast of Kerry and hanged as a traitor in London in 1916. Ernest Blythe, from Maghaberry in county Antrim, was an organizer for the Irish Volunteers and became Minister of Finance in 1923. Robert Barton was part of the negotiating team that signed the treaty creating the Free State in 1922.

Protestants in the Irish Volunteers and Citizen’s Army took part in some of the fiercest fighting during the Easter Rising in 1916. George Irvine, from Enniskillen, was a member of the Irish Volunteers and involved in intense gun battles at the South Dublin Union. He became vice commandant of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence but was jailed for his opposition to the treaty. Albert Cotton was a full-time organiser for the Irish Volunteers in Kerry, deeply involved in gun running and fought in the GPO. Sam Heron and his brother Archie were also a member of the Irish Volunteers.

The founders of the Citizen Army included reverend Robin Gwynn, a member of the Church of Ireland from Ramelton in Donegal; Jack White, a former British Army officer from Broughshane in county Antrim and Richard Braithwaite an Orangeman from Lisburn. Protestant women also played significant roles in the Army including Katherine Lynn, Nellie Gifford, Ellet Elmes and Constance Gore-Booth and played significant roles in the Rising.

An Irish government proposal to build a Protestant Cultural Centre, in the village of Drum county Monaghan, was revealed by Minister for Business Heather Humphreys in March 2019. She said, “I grew up in an Ireland where Protestants lived alongside their Catholic neighbours in relative harmony, but we were always mindful that we were part of a minority tradition who in difficult times kept our heads down. Ireland is now a very changed country and we must not shy away from confronting the past without fear. The truth is Protestants experienced some real suffering.”

She paid tribute to the ‘achievement and remarkable contribution’ of Protestants to the state. Her words echo those of the Nobel Prize poet William Butler Yeats who spoke out and opposed the ban on divorce introduced in 1937. “We are no petty people. We are of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

© Maurice Neill 2019