‘Memories of southern ‘terror’ against Protestants burnt very deep’

Author Robin Bury found that children of mixed marriages were 'grabbed' by the Catholic Church in southern Ireland.
Author Robin Bury found that children of mixed marriages were 'grabbed' by the Catholic Church in southern Ireland.

Throughout his life Co Cork Anglican Robin Bury felt like an ‘outsider’. When he decided to find out why, he discovered a previously unknown mass exodus of Protestants under a hail of sectarian intimidation and murder. The following are a series of extracts from his recently published book, ‘Buried Lives, The Protestants of Southern Ireland’ (published by The History Press Ireland).

The Ne Temere decree played a major role in reducing Protestant numbers for a large part of the 20th century. In fact, it was the most important factor in reducing Protestant numbers post-independence in 1922.

The Church of Ireland church at Tourmakeady, Co Mayo was abandoned in 1961 and now lies in ruins, emblematic of the findings Robin made in his research. It features as the cover photograph on his recently published book.

The Church of Ireland church at Tourmakeady, Co Mayo was abandoned in 1961 and now lies in ruins, emblematic of the findings Robin made in his research. It features as the cover photograph on his recently published book.

What was Ne Temere? Pope Pius X issued it, and to quote historian Don Akenson: “Henceforth, no mixed-marriage would be valid under Catholic canon law (even if valid in civil law) unless a Catholic priest presided and the non-Catholic partner signed a legal form that was imperious in tone and humbling in detail.

“The non-Catholic affirmed that he or she would not intervene of the religion of the Catholic partner; the Catholic partner affirmed that he or she would endeavor in every way to bring the non-Catholic to the True Faith.

“They both swore and signed that all children of the marriage would be baptised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools ... it is in fact one of the most inflammatory pieces of prose in twentieth-century Irish history... they [Protestants] understand that the children of any mixed marriage will be ‘grabbed’ – that is the most common term – by the Roman Catholics.”

By 1971, some 30% of Protestants were marrying Roman Catholics. Today the figure is closer to 50%. Few Protestant leaders spoke up to defend their faith and the effect on the arrogant rapaciousness of the Roman Catholic Church on Protestant numbers over generations.

“Over a large part of the country the already sparse congregations are being reduced to vanishing point – memories of the ‘terror’ have burnt very deep – anyone who knows Southern Ireland knows also the undercurrent of feeling urging the elimination of Protestantism ... the fact remains that a migration of younger clergy has begun.” - The Church of Ireland Gazette, 1921

Dr Kenneth Milne of the Church of Ireland wrote: “The regulations of the Catholic Church governing mixed marriages, particularly as expressed in the Ne Temere of 1908, played a key role in the Church of Ireland’s demographic decline.”

In effect, the southern Protestant people suffered a very serious decline in numbers from 1919 to 1923. There was exceptional emigration, particularly during the civil war in 1922. [Patrick Buckland said:] “Although no reliable figures are available the tendency is clear … unionists of all shapes and sizes were leaving the south of Ireland in 1922 because of the troubles”. Also, their “political strength and unity evaporated in the south in 1922” and “the renewed violence of Irish life completed this disintegration ... it is reasonable to assume that the quality of life for southern unionists before and after the Treaty increased the ordinary rate of emigration and accounts largely for the decline of the Protestant population.”

The total decline between 1911 and 1926 was 41,856 Protestants who were exceptional emigrants. In Northern Ireland as a whole, the 1926 census ‘estimated that roughly 24,000 immigrants from the Irish Free State had taken up residence in the preceding fifteen years’.

The [Church of Ireland] Gazette reported on October 7 1921 that the Church of Ireland congregations were “vanishing” and that: “Over a large part of the country the already sparse congregations are being reduced to vanishing point – memories of the ‘terror’ have burnt very deep – anyone who knows Southern Ireland knows also the undercurrent of feeling urging the elimination of Protestantism ... the fact remains that a migration of younger clergy has begun.”

In 1920, there were 911 clergy in the Church of Ireland in the 26 counties but by 1930 the number had reduced by almost a third, to 647.

It is, however, a tribute to their inner strength and resilience that those who stayed on quietly survived against the odds, retaining both their sense of Irishness and patriotism. The signs are that their long winter of isolation, and even suppression, is now ending. The ice is melting. From 1977 until the early 1990s there was only one Protestant TD in the Dáil. Today two members of the Cabinet are Protestants, there is one other Protestant TD and the Chief Justice is a Protestant. There is a sea change in attitude towards those who fought in two world wars. There is still much room to go, as we have seen, but recent improvements serve to underline how narrow the situation was before.

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