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'Protestants in a Catholic State: Ireland's Privileged Minority', by Kurt Bowen (1983)



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Text: Kurt Bowen ... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Kurt Bowen, with the permission of the publisher, McGill-Queen's University Press. The views expressed in these chapers do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Protestants
in a
Catholic State

Ireland's
Privileged
Minority

 

Kurt Bowen

McGill-Queen's University Press 1983
ISBN 0-7735-0412-5 (hardback) 237pp

 

This publication is copyright of Kurt Bowen (1983) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of McGill-Queen's University Press and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


 

Contents

Tables

Acknowledgement

1 Introduction

2 Demographic Trends
The Transitional Years
Population Trends
Emigration
Mixed Marriages

3 Ethnic Allegiance and Political Life
Political Representation: Extinction and Incorporation
Political Attitudes and Electoral Allegiances

4 Class Differences and Occupational Segregation
The Engulfment of Minority Privilege
The Decline of the Protestant Firm

5 Church and Faith
The Religious Divide before Vatican II
Organizational Problems: A Genteel Decline
Ecumenism
Secularization

6 Education
Primary Schools
Secondary Schools
Trinity College Dublin
The Curriculum and Protestant Identity

7 Community Life
Farmers and Rural townsmen
West Britons
The Urban Lower Classes
The Urban Middle Class

8 Conclusion

Notes

Bibliography

Index


 

Chapter 8 Conclusion

 

Above all else, I have argued that the two most striking trends of the post-independence era were the diminishing alienation and declining marginality of Protestants in relation to the rest of Irish society. It is true that prior to 1922 the institutionalized privileges of the minority had already been undermined by the demise of the penal laws, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the transfer of land from Protestant Ascendancy to Catholic tenantry, and the introduction of democratic principles of government. And yet, important as these developments were in eroding the minority’s self-confidence, they did not in themselves reduce the social and psychological isolation of Irish Anglicans. Indeed, in many respects, their sense of marginality was enhanced both by the events leading up to 1922 and by the activities of the newly ascendant Catholic majority during the first twenty-five years of independence. In the latter period, the character of the tensions between the two communities continued to change, but it was not until after World War II that the well-entrenched communal boundaries of the minority began to crumble. The clearest indication of this new development is to be found in the growing rate of mixed marriages after 1946. Of course, these statistics may also be interpreted to mean that some 60 to 70 per cent of the small Church of Ireland community still preferred to marry fellow Protestants in the 1970s. When viewed from this perspective, the mixed marriage data serve as a salutory reminder that there still existed a distinctive, though increasingly porous, community of Protestants at the end of the period dealt with in this study. Nevertheless, barring such unpredictable developments as the active involvement of the Republic in the violence of the North, the trends I have documented seem so well established that they are unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

Neither of these emerging trends seemed very likely in the early 1920s. After the violence of the previous years, many Protestants believed that their very right to remain in the country was in jeopardy. They were acutely conscious that their colonial heritage did little to endear them to the now ascendant Catholic majority, and some feared that they might suffer because of their still considerable wealth. With their new powers, both of the major political parties did much to strengthen Protestant alienation by enacting legislation which affirmed the Gaelic and Catholic character of the state. The animosities that flared within the remote western parish during the early 1950s, after Church of Ireland spokesmen criticized the Mother and Child scheme, were an indication of how enduring and close to the surface tensions could be. But by and large, the minority met with relatively little overt discrimination or open persecution. And on the few occasions when Protestants did encounter organized Catholic pressure, the Dunbar - Harrison case and the incidents at Fethard-on-Sea and the Meath hospital showed that the government was not prepared to countenance such behaviour.

There were, I believe, three major reasons for this policy. The first, as I have argued, was that the government wished to demonstrate that northern Protestants could expect fair and equitable treatment in a united Ireland. Second, the numerical and political dominance of Catholics was so overwhelming in the south that they had little reason to fear or to suppress the small and powerless Protestant minority. Hence toleration tame much more easily to southern Catholics than it did to northern Protestants whose obsessive fear of becoming a minority in a united Ireland led them to be much more restrictive and suspicious in their treatment of their own 35 per cent Catholic minority. Of course the other side of the equation was that the hope of a united Ireland made northern Catholics all the more intransigent in their opposition to Protestant dominance; whereas southern Protestants, who had no hope at altering their minority status, tended to be much more conciliatory in their dealings with Catholics. Third, despite the many economic advantages of Protestants, the major source of Catholic resentment had already been removed by the land acts which left Catholics in control of the dominant agricultural sector of the economy. Thereafter, the more prosperous supporters of Cumann na nGaedheal had little desire to interfere with Protestants. And Fianna Fail, which drew much of its support from small farmers in the west during its more radical early phase, was not under much electoral pressure to concern itself with the exclusivism of the old Protestant firms in the cities on the eastern seaboard.

However, the generally equitable treatment of the minority by the government did not in any way lessen the underlying tensions between the two communities. The Irish Times, the General Synod, and other Protestant spokesmen were sometimes openly critical of government policies, but their outspokenness at the national level was often deeply disturbing for the rank and file of the community. Away from the watchful eye of the central government, they were acutely aware that they were ill-equipped to deal with any confrontation or overt conflict. In large measure, the peaceful relations that normally prevailed were made possible only by social segregation, by avoiding all controversial topics when dealing with "the other side," and by the implicit understanding that the minority bow to the Gaelic and Catholic ethos of the country.

Given this initial state of affairs, even the partial erosion of community boundaries that has occurred in recent years becomes all the more remarkable. In examining the underlying causes and implications of this development, we are inevitably brought back to the question raised in the introduction as to whether we have been observing assimilation or integration. Assimilation, it may be remembered, implies that Protestants have been steadily losing and/or discarding their cultural heritage as they have been incorporated into the larger Catholic community. Integration, on the other hand, suggests that Protestants and Catholics have grown closer together by treating their differences as matters of private and individual choice. Empirically, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two trends, but they differ in two fundamental ways. First, assimilation implies that at some future point Protestants will disappear by being absorbed into the Catholic community; whereas integration suggests that they will survive, although this process would still entail a radical transformation in the relations between the two communities. Second, assimilation implies that it has been primarily Protestants who have changed; while integration suggests that both parties have changed. Unfortunately, the real world rarely fits neatly into the theoretical concepts we construct, and even cursory reflection suggests that we have seen signs of both assimilation and integration. No definite conclusion can be drawn at this early stage, but I believe that it is possible to go some way in clarifying which of the two trends is likely to prevail in the future. In order to do so, we must consider the nature of the forces that weakened the three original divisions of ethnicity, class, and religion.

The British loyalties of the minority were the first of its many differences with the Catholic majority to fall into decline. With the end of colonial rule in 1922, the minority was effectively cut off from the essential sustaining basis of its divergent ethnic allegiance. From this point on, there was considerable pressure from within the Church of Ireland community to suppress its British loyalties which were now regarded as an embarrassing anachronism that served no useful purpose. This development did not occur immediately or easily for few of those raised prior to independence could bring themselves to embrace the new nationalism which they so feared and despised. But under the persistent leadership of the Irish Times and the Church of Ireland, the rank and file were exhorted to recognize their Irish nationality, and with the passage of time these appeals slowly gained acceptance. The transformation was in part made possible by the fact that Protestants had long regarded themselves as in some way Irish, even though they were quick to deny any bond with the Gaelic tradition of the majority. Unlike many postcolonial minorities who were racially distinguishable, it was much easier for Protestants to mask, deny, and eventually discard their colonial heritage when independence made it a liability. Moreover, the costs in doing so were minimal, since religious differences enabled them to preserve their separateness and to justify their feelings of superiority without reference to their ethnic heritage.

Behind this partly voluntary shift of emphasis to their religious identity was strong external pressure from the Catholic majority, which was openly hostile to their British loyalties. Under both political parties, the remaining public symbols and rituals connected with Umpire and Commonwealth were ignored. decried, and then removed; and when the law allowed such displays, Protestants soon learned to tread carefully, especially after Albert Armstrong was murdered for giving evidence in court against men who had torn down a British flag in front of his place of work. Of much greater importance for the generation raised after 1922 was the new school curriculum, which effectively required the minority to neglect and to condemn its British heritage. Of course, the administrative independence of Protestant schools gave them a certain leeway in interpreting the states curriculum, and the prominence of the English language in their schools was never seriously threatened. It should be remembered that Protestant schools were not asked to do anything more than was required of Catholic schools. Nevertheless, it was only on the ethnic dimension that the state forced the minority to suppress its own traditions and take up those of the majority. While the governments legislation on divorce and contraception paid little heed to the minority’s sensibilities, there was certainly no pressure to convert its members to Catholicism. The constitutions of both 1922 and 1937 expressly prohibited any form of religious discrimination, and in the 1937 constitution the Church of Ireland was at least granted the status of being a "recognized" church. In practice, the state went out of its way to protect the minority’s religious rights by creating special rules intended to keep small Protestant schools open and by insisting that no child could be required to take religious instruction without parental agreement. In effect, toleration was extended to the minority as a religious group but not as an ethnic group.1 In so doing, the state played a major role in hastening the disappearance of ethnic differences between the two communities.

Yet as long as Catholics retained a strong consciousness of their colonial past, the minority could never escape the stigma of colonialism - no matter what changes it initiated or had imposed upon it. However, after the severing of the last of Ireland’s constitutional ties with Britain in 1949, there were no longer any political issues in the internal affairs of the Republic around which to organize either British or anti-British sentiments. Just as independence was the crucial blow to the minority’s British attachment, so was the Republic of Ireland Act the major turning point for the colonialist obsession of Catholics. With the passing of the revolutionary elite, a less backward-looking, and a less intensely nationalistic climate emerged; the exclusivist concerns of the Gaelic revival were pursued with less vigour; and apart from the current conflict in Northern Ireland, issues of social and economic reform came to dominate the secular side of public life. Throughout the 1960s in particular, the British allegiance and colonial heritage of the minority were neither sustained by nor relevant to the major concerns of Irish society. In this changed environment, members of the minority finally began to regard themselves as simply Irish: and they were now prepared to espouse the appropriately supportive attitudes towards the Irish language. There were, of course, changes on the Catholic side, and over the long haul it was the Gaelic tradition that was superseded by an English-speaking culture. But in the short term, the virtual disappearance of British loyalties among the minority, the radical decline in the number of Protestant politicians, and their early incorporation into the major political parties suggest that assimilation rather than integration best describes the decline in the ethnic division.

In 1969 the Republic’s twenty years of freedom from the issue of colonialism were brought to an abrupt halt by the eruption of violence in the North. Once again, public life was caught up in intense debate over the island’s relations with Britain and over the political implications of the religious divide. In this climate, the anti-British sentiments of some Catholics probably grew more marked, and the occasional outburst of hostility against Protestants inevitably added to their feelings of insecurity. On the other hand, as noted in chapter 3, the great majority of Catholics continued to distinguish between northern and southern Protestants and to regard the latter as integral members of the Republic. For obvious reasons, the conflict showed no signs of reviving the minority’s British loyalties. Nor did Protestants simply shrink back into their shell of embittered marginality. In fact, it was precisely during the 1970s that they grew more outspoken in their demand for recognition of their rights as Protestant Irishmen. As was most evident in the 1972 referendum decision to remove the reference to the "special position" of the Catholic church from the constitution, this greater sensitivity of Catholics to Protestant sensibilities was partly a response to events in the North. The horror felt by both Protestants and Catholics at the daily news of sectarian violence in the North may help to explain the popularity of ecumenical services and the many Catholic efforts to involve Protestants in local community life. Similarly, among Protestants the northern conflict may have been partly responsible for their greater unwillingness to exclude Catholics from their schools and secular associations. There is, believe, a danger in exaggerating the impact of the North, for as we shall see there were other, equally important reasons for the above developments. Moreover, mixed marriages and other signs of rapprochement were already on the increase before 1969. It does, however, seem clear that the violence in the North did more to foster than to hinder closer relations between Protestants and Catholics in the South.

The second communal division of class was never as absolute as those of religion and ethnicity, since Protestants came from a variety of class backgrounds which created internal divisions within their own community. But as a whole, Protestants were much better off than Catholics; a much smaller proportion of their community could be described as working or lower- class; and their influence at higher levels greatly exceeded their percentage of the total population. These advantages were then compounded and made all the more visible by the existence of separate Protestant firms which gave middle and lower-class Protestants many more opportunities for advancement than were available to Catholics with a similar class background. Initially, their resulting aloofness was reinforced by the colonialist conviction that their breeding and cultural traditions were superior to those of the "mere Irish." Since some Catholics were slow to cast off their ingrained habit of colonial deference, the minority often retained a local prestige and stature in excess of its economic standing - and in spite of the state’s hostility to its colonial past. All this put Protestants in a rather different position from that of most other minority groups, which usually found that they suffered from the double impediment of being both economically and culturally subordinate. But in southern Ireland these economic forces were essentially reversed. In fact, for economic reasons alone, Catholics have long been attracted to the privileged social world of the minority. Thus whereas ethnic and religious differences were expressed in mutually exclusive attitudes, the class boundary was rather more precarious because it was primarily sustained by the minority.

As political independence did not usher in any form of economic revolution, it is much more difficult to pin-point a date at which these status and class divisions fell into serious decline. From the beginning, the ever sparser representation of Protestants in public life undermined their traditional view of themselves as the natural leaders of the country; and their self-confidence was further eroded by the hostility of Catholics to their colonial heritage. But in order to explain diminishing class tensions, we must look primarily to the private sector, since it was here that most Protestants were employed. The significant developments were the expansion of the economy, industrialization, and urbanization. These trends were slow to emerge, but even the fitful and limited growth of the 1930s and 1940s brought about some improvement in the position of Catholics in the private sector. In conjunction with the opportunities available in the public sector, these outlets for Catholic aspirations may have helped to lessen their indignation over the tenacious exclusivism of so mans of the old Protestant firms. Then, with the introduction of new government policies in the late 1950s, the rate of economic growth accelerated and industry became the country’s principal source of employment. A huge increase in motor cars, sprawling suburbs, shopping malls, and new industrial estates were all indications of the magnitude of the change. In the 1970S Ireland was still relatively poor by European standards, and its economy has run into difficulties in the 1980s. However, it is not the degree of affluence that is the major issue here, although there can belittle doubt that it increased. What matters most of all is that the economy was transformed by the rapid growth of the last twenty years, and with this change there occurred a huge increase in the size of the middle and upper classes. Since Protestants were barely able to hold their own in view of their dwindling population, the vast majority of these new positions were filled by Catholics who swamped the minority in their upward surge.

In the process, Protestant influence at the higher levels of the economy was reduced; the visibility and hence the social significance of their remaining influence was further obscured by the demise of the segregated Protestant firm; and their competitive edge over Catholics of similar class backgrounds was weakened by the decline of preferential employment practices among Protestant employers. Faced with an increasingly powerful, established, and well-educated Catholic community, the minority’s sense of superiority and social exclusivity inevitably declined; and Catholics had less and less reason to feel either resentful or subservient. Many older Protestants regretted the passing of the old days, but neither they nor the younger generation appeared to feel embittered or personally threatened by the transformation. In fact, there was little reason for such feelings since economic growth enabled the rising Catholic majority to engulf - rather than to displace - the minority. Of course, Protestants did lose certain advantages with the decline of segregationist practices in their old firms, but any loss they might have felt was offset by the far greater employment opportunities and affluence of the 196os and 1970s. In stressing these developments, I do not wish to imply that Ireland was becoming a classless society. In many ways class distinctions now mattered more to Protestants, since their economic bonds with each other across class lines were no longer as strong as formerly. Although these had become somewhat more concentrated in the middle and upper classes, the growing Catholic proportion of these classes ensured that Protestants were now less likely to mix with one another for class reasons alone. All that had really changed was that class had become a less effective means of uniting Protestants and of separating them from Catholics. Under these conditions, neither Catholics nor Protestants were inclined to attach much importance to their remaining class differences.

The combination of economic growth, industrialization, and accompanying urbanization led to many other changes in the nature of Irish society and in the relations between Protestants and Catholics. It is in considering these broader ramifications that the issue of assimilation versus integration becomes more relevant. In the narrower contexts of diminishing class and occupational divisions, the signs of change within both communities suggest that integration best describes these developments. But these narrow economic trends can be regarded as no more than an intermediate stage in a process which may lead to either assimilation or integration. In pursuing this latter theme, we immediately confront the close connection between the social consequences of recent economic growth and the changing significance of religion - the third, the most fundamental, and the most enduring basis of communal division.

Before we consider the major theme of secularization, the ancillary and partly independent growth of the ecumenical movement deserves attention. Its importance lay in its undermining of the exclusivist, anti-Catholic message of the Church of Ireland and in its provision of a religious rationale for greater harmony, toleration, and cooperation between the two communities. Few Protestants had ever been eager for full church unity, and by the end of the 1970s many were disillusioned and angered by the reluctance of the Catholic church to compromise on such matters as mixed marriages. But by and large, they were not prepared to discard the rhetoric and public rituals of ecumenism. Their reasons were numerous, but this support for ecumenism may be best understood as a reflection of their desire to achieve integration and to avoid assimilation. Faced with a declining population, diminishing class and ethnic tensions, the shadow of the northern conflict, and a growing rate of mixed marriages, their old stance of embittered marginality seemed neither attractive nor feasible. At the same time, few Protestants relished the prospect of being absorbed by an unchanging and triumphant Catholicism. In other words, full assimilation was as distasteful as their previous isolation was now impossible. Under the banner of ecumenism, they sought a new and closer relationship with Catholics which might still allow them to preserve an identity and existence in some way separate from the Catholic majority. Thus it was that men like Archbishop McAdoo, who were strongly committed to their faith and community, were equally unprepared to discard the language and weapon of ecumenism. In large measure, the success of this new and dangerous course of integration depended on the nature and extent of secularization among Catholics as well as Protestants.

As previously noted, secularization refers to a contraction in the range of situations in which religious institutions, symbols, and precepts exert a socially binding influence.2 It does not necessarily imply, as in the everyday use of the term, the growth of religious indifference at the individual or personal level, although the experience of other European countries suggests that indifference is a common consequence.3 Observers elsewhere have usually attributed secularization to the growth of industrialization and urbanization.4 I would contend that the beginnings of a similar transformation were evident in Ireland. In education, in social service, in national values, and in communal living patterns, the emerging urban-industrial world subjected old denominational structures to increasing pressure; and new expectations and social arrangements were created which brought Protestants and Catholics together in many novel ways. As a useful though somewhat crude general rule, integration might now be said to depend on the growth of secularization among both Protestants and Catholics. Assimilation, on the other hand, would seem to be the likely result if secularization was primarily confined to one of the two parties - and to the minority in particular. The role of economic growth in bringing about integration and secularization within the occupational world has already been examined; there remain to be considered the three crucial areas of politics, education, and communal life.

For the first three decades after independence, Protestants wee virtually alone in their opposition to the increasingly Catholic tone evident in the laws of the state. Although their ire was dampened by the purely symbolic character of some of the legislation and by their own conservative views on divorce and contraception, they argued that such laws were discriminatory in their assumption that the entire nation was Catholic. As Protestants, they stressed that they were committed to the ideal of freedom of conscience, and hence they were opposed to any attempt by the state to reflect the views of any one religion. They were soon reduced to an occasional splutter by the futility of their protest, but in the 1970s various committees of the Church of Ireland again became more persistent in their demand that the state be deconfessionalized. Indeed, they were prepared to argue that divorce facilities should be made available, although their own church did not approve of the remarriage of divorced persons. As students of Protestantism in other parts of the world have noted, this long-standing demand for the separation of church and state reveals a deeply rooted secular propensity within Protestantism itself.5 However, its integrationist implications were not to be fulfilled until the 1970s. At the end of the decade, Ireland was not a fully secular state by international standards. But much had changed as was evident in the restructuring of the Censorship Board, the altering of "Article 44" the passing of contraceptive legislation, and the various surveys which showed that a majority of the population now favoured divorce as well as contraceptive legislation. In effect, it would appear that a majority of Catholics had come to accept the Protestant and secular notions of individualism and freedom of conscience. Such developments surely indicate the growth of integration far more than they do of assimilation.

This striking shift in public attitudes expressed by the opinion polls on contraception and divorce was obviously due to far more than simply a desire to seduce northern Protestants into a united Ireland. However, in the early 1980s there was a brief period when it seemed that the tensions created by the northern hunger strikers might prove to be the catalyst for further legislative changes. In September 1981 the New Taoiseach, Garrett FitzGerald, went on national radio to call upon the country to join him in a national crusade to seek reconciliation and eventual unity with the North by instituting a wide-ranging review of those parts of the constitution to which northern Protestants objected. Not long after, a motion supporting his proposal was hotly debated in the Senate for four days before being passed by a margin of thirty to seventeen.6 Much of the debate centred on his criticism of articles two and three, which affirmed the Republic’s claim to jurisdiction over the entire island and hence over Northern Ireland. But more than this was involved, for FitzGerald also emphasized the need to reform what he initially described as the "sectarian" character of the constitution. He claimed that he wanted to create a constitution that was no longer dominated by the views of any one religion, so that Protestants, as well as Catholics, would be able to give it their full allegiance. During the Senate debate, he conceded that he was speaking of only a small part of the constitution and that these elements might be better described as "confessional." His supporters went on to raise a host of issues, ranging from mixed marriages to the role of the churches in education, but it was the constitutional prohibition on divorce that emerged as the major issue. And though FitzGerald, as well as many of his supporters, was not yet prepared to sanction the implementation of legal divorce facilities, he later indicated that he was personally convinced of "the propriety and wisdom"7 of having the constitutional prohibition reviewed.

Protestant spokesman welcomed FitzGerald’s initiative. Archbishop McAdoo pointed out that the Taoiseach’s proposal reiterated what the Church of Ireland’s Role of the Church Committee had been saying for some time8, while the Protestant senators who took part in the debate stressed their particular wish to see some movement on divorce. However, there was strong opposition from other quarters, especially when it came to articles two and three. Led by Charles Haughey, Fianna Fail condemned FitzGerald for betraying the united Ireland aspirations of centuries of patriots, and it claimed that his charge of sectarianism was an unjustified slander which only served to strengthen intransigent unionism.9 On the divorce question, Fianna Fail appeared to be somewhat more open to change in that it agreed to set up a committee of its own to examine the issue; but it was not prepared to join the all-party committee proposed by the government.10 Indeed, with the government’s precarious majority in the Dail, it seemed likely that Fianna Fail would be tempted into complete opposition, as occurred in 1974 when it voted against the Coalition’s contraceptive bill. Then in January 1982 a budgetary proposal of the government led to its unexpected defeat in the Dail, and the prospect of immediate political movement on the divorce question appeared to have faded. The fact remains that the North had enabled the Taoiseach to provide a measure of cautious leadership for the approximately two-thirds of the population, if the polls are to be believed, that wished to see the removal of this last remaining symbol of Catholic influence in the constitutional realm. If the various efforts at contraceptive legislation over the previous decade are any indication, further Irish governments may find it difficult to resist these mounting pressures for a more secular state.

In the field of education, successive Irish governments showed no interest in tampering with the principle of denominational control, but here too the pressures of the new urban-industrial order were having their effect. As educational aspirations rose, some 40 per cent of Protestant secondary school children turned to Catholic schools because they were out of reach of a Protestant day school. With the parallel expansion of the Catholic school system, their proportion of lay teachers rose to 78 per cent in 1978, and there was every reason to believe that the trend would continue.11 At the same time, the new community school system demonstrated the Catholic church’s inability to meet the growing educational needs of its laity; and the resulting controversy over the powers granted to the clergy revealed a new opposition to the once unquestioned authority of the church in educational matters. Although the powers of the religious orders were untouched in other secondary schools, the resulting limitations placed on the promotion opportunities of the now preponderant body of lay teachers is also likely to create further pressure for change in the future. Finally, there has been the Dalkey School Project as well as other efforts to establish multidenominational schools in the suburbs around Dublin and in Cork. There organizers claimed that they had no intention of banning religion from their schools, but the demand for full lay control and the insistence that the views of no one religion should prevail were clearly moves in a secular direction. Significantly enough, this new struggle emerged within the heart of the new urban-industrial society. But for the moment these incipient secular developments have not yet altered the fundamentally denominational character of Catholic education. Thus most Protestant parents continued to opt for their own schools whenever possible, since the alternative was to place their children in an overwhelmingly Catholic environment with all the attendant risk of assimilation.

On the Protestant side, two developments stand out. First, the strong Protestant thrust to the religious education of previous generations was replaced by an ecumenical emphasis with far less concern for doctrinal instruction. Second, and more importantly, many schools in the late 1970s were admitting a substantial minority of Catholics who often took part in integrated religious education classes at the secondary level. Approximately 20 per cent were Catholics in Protestant secondary schools, while the average was probably somewhat lower at the primary level, although at one school it ranged as high as 30 per cent. Moreover, this was only the tip of the iceberg, for Catholic applicants greatly exceeded the number accepted. Without discounting the class-based attraction of Protestant schools, which has always existed, I would argue that the recent growth in the number of Catholic applicants reflected their desire for a more secular education than that available in their own schools. With their diminished emphasis on denominational instruction and their religious mixture among teachers and pupils, Protestant secondary schools went a long way to meet this demand. In turn the schools also reflected and fostered an integrationist and secular outlook within their own community. However, it was integration - and not assimilation - which Protestants sought, and hence most schools continued to give priority to Protestants by putting a quota on the admission of Catholic applicants.

Finally, we turn to the last and most crucial development of all - namely, the diminishing social segregation of the minority at the local community level. In rural areas and in the smaller towns, Protestants began to move outside their own communal boundaries by involving themselves in local secular associations which had once been almost exclusively Catholic in makeup. With the greater prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, there was also an increase in the number and activities of nonsectarian organizations which brought Protestants and Catholics together in many new ways. Similar trends were evident in urban areas, although they tended to be less common in all but the newer suburban areas where the minority's old institutional network was not so well established. By and large. a rather different pattern developed in that it was primarily Catholics who began to be admitted to the golf, rugby, and other recreational activities of the minority. Perhaps the most striking sign of this transformation was the recent revival and growth of the once predominantly Protestant Scouts Association of Ireland, which steadily reduced its links with Protestant parishes as the Catholic proportion of its enlarged membership rose to approximately 85 per cent by the second half of the 1970s. In short, in rural as well as urban areas, there seemed to be emerging among both Catholics and Protestants a new secular conviction that religious affiliation should not be a consideration in recreational and special interest activities not directly connected to their parish churches. At the same time, Protestants continued to mix primarily with one another in the more intimate areas of close friendships, visiting, dinner parties. and the like. Taken together, this combination of greater public intermingling and persisting segregation in the more private areas of social life again suggests the growth of integration rather than assimilation.

However, in the light of the minority’s growing rate of mixed marriages, this conclusion may well seem rather suspect. Clearly integration in other areas had its dangers. Whether it was at the office, the rugby club dance, or even the secondary school, young Protestants of a marriageable age were now encountering Catholics more often and in more intimate circumstances than did their parents. Young adults and teenagers were also predictably resistant to the dictum of their parents that "we may mix but you may not." Furthermore, falling rates of church attendance and a general decline in support for parochial activities both indicate that the religious commitment of the minority was not as strong as it had once been. This did not appreciably affect the friendship patterns of adult married Protestants whose outlook and social habits had been formed in earlier years. But for those of a younger age, their fading religious commitment undoubtedly helps to explain their increasing propensity to marry Catholics, and it may well have made them all the more acquiescent to the raising of their own children as Catholics. In contrast, the much higher rates of Catholic church attendance suggest that the personal religious commitment of the Catholic partner was likely to be stronger. In view of the added pressure of the Catholic church’s mixed marriage laws, the likelihood that Protestantism will survive at this crucial level would seem all the dimmer.

Nevertheless, I believe it would be equally mistaken to draw unduly pessimistic conclusions. Although the available evidence is slim, the aforementioned signs of secular and integrationist sentiments among Catholics cannot be ignored. This is not to say that all Catholics wished to send their children to Protestant schools or that they all believed that their Catholic faith should no longer shape their political and social life. Neither do I wish to imply that all who shared these views were necessarily indifferent Catholics. But these developments do suggest that some Catholics now viewed religion as a personal and private matter. It is this attitude which surely lies behind the recent indications of a new resistance among mixed marriage couples to the notion that the religion of the Catholic partner would inevitably prevail. Moreover, if there was justification for the fears of the clergy that an increasing number of couples were resolving the conflicting demands of their parents by not allying themselves with either religion, then this secular compromise might still lead them to favour the Protestant school system. Further research on the children of mixed marriages is obviously needed before any definite conclusion can be drawn. With some 6o to 70 per cent of the minority still marrying fellow Protestants, it is apparent that neither full assimilation nor total integration is likely to occur for some time. For the moment, all that can be safely said is that the recent growth of secular tendencies among some Catholics calls into question the assumption of earlier years that mixed marriages would inevitably lead to assimilation and the eventual extinction of Protestantism.

Speculation is always a risky business, but I believe that it is possible to go a little further. Since Catholics so greatly outnumber Protestants, the survival of the minority requires that a relatively small proportion of Catholics be willing to regard religion as a matter of individual choice. As the Dalkey School Project and the many Catholic applications to Protestant schools indicated, the very strength of traditional Catholicism made it all the more likely that Catholics with secular inclinations would be attracted to the Protestant world. Similarly, in the political arena, liberal Catholics and Protestants were often brought together by their shared opposition to the forces of conservative Catholicism. And for reasons of class and status, diminishing segregation in the now dominant urban sector was again characterized by Catholic entrance into the associational life of the minority. In short, I am suggesting that there may now be emerging a new and broader secular movement built on and around the Protestant community. In this alliance with the more secular Catholics, Protestants may find the environment they need to sustain a substantial mixed marriage rate and yet see their numbers stabilize and possibly grow. Such an alliance in opposition to the more conservative Catholics would not be as clearly drawn as the former division between Protestant and Catholic. However, in the light of the many changes that have occurred within the Catholic community over the last decade, there is good reason to believe that this alliance will grow in the future.

In looking ahead in this manner, it would be unwise to underestimate the current strength of traditional Catholicism and the still considerable desire of many Protestants to retain a measure of separation. Nor should it be forgotten that the minority had discarded its British allegiance and thereby assimilated on the ethnic dimension. But now that the last remaining communal division, based upon religion, has begun to be questioned by Catholics as well as Protestants, the prospects for integration and Protestant survival seem much brighter than at any time since 1922.


 

Notes

1 For a similar argument, see D. H. Akenson, A Mirror to Kathleen’s Face, pp. 118-19.

2 As used here, the terms secularization, integration, and assimilation are very similar. The key difference is that secularization refers to the declining social significance of religious differences - and only religious differences. In contrast, assimilation and integration are broader terms that encompass the declining social significance of all three dimensions of religion, class, and ethnicity associated with members of the Church of Ireland.

3 H. Mol, ed., Western Religion.

4 B.R. Wilson, "Aspects of Secularisation in the West, "Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 3 (1976): 259-69.

5 P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy.

6 Seanad Debates, 96: 16-426.

7 Irish Times, 11 Dec. 1981.

8 Ibid., 29 and 30 Sept. 1981.

9 Ibid., 29 Sept. and 12 Oct. 1981.

10 Ibid., 11 Dec. 1981.

11 J.H. Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland, p. 383.

 

 


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