Contribution of southern Protestants should be cause for celebration, not negativity

St Andrews Church of Ireland, Kilfinane, Limerick. Extant church records reflect the concern of rural CoI clergy at the impact of migration, usually for economic reasons, well before independence. Records also show that rates of baptism were declining
St Andrews Church of Ireland, Kilfinane, Limerick. Extant church records reflect the concern of rural CoI clergy at the impact of migration, usually for economic reasons, well before independence. Records also show that rates of baptism were declining

I am glad that Robin Bury agrees with me that there was no state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of Protestants in an independent Ireland (‘The Catholic nationalist Irish state alienated Protestants,’ May 22)

His assessment that the decline in the number and proportion of Protestants in the twenty-six counties between 1911 and 2011 was due to alienation from a Catholic nationalist state is contradicted by his own evidence. Mr Bury shows that this decline continued to 2011. To bring his figures up to date, the 2016 Irish census recorded a drop of 2 per cent in Church of Ireland membership.

Letters to Editor

Letters to Editor

This ongoing trend can hardly be attributed to a Catholic nationalist state; last Friday’s referendum result attests clearly to that. This suggests that other reasons must account for a demographic phenomenon that long pre-dates partition and the establishment of the bogey state identified by Mr Bury.

In a recent letter to your paper, Dr Richard O’Leary highlighted the detrimental impact of inter-marriage, which he rightly identified as a church, and not a state, issue (Church laws, not Irish language, behind decline in Protestants’, March 15).

Mr Bury refers to the forced migration of 40,000 Protestants across the border during and after the revolutionary period. There is no disagreement among historians that a number of southern Irish Protestants re-located to what would become Northern Ireland during these years, and many did so because of actual or threatened violence and intimidation.

However, not all of them did so for these reasons and to attribute compulsion to the migration of such a large number of Protestants ignores a long tradition of migration between the two Irish jurisdictions that long pre-dates partition. The recent digitisation of the 1901 and 1911 census provides ample evidence of this.

Extant church records reflect the concern of rural Church of Ireland clergy at the deleterious impact of migration and emigration, usually for economic reasons, from the early twentieth century and well before the revolution or Irish independence.

Church records also show that rates of baptism were declining, often not keeping pace with burials in some parishes, lending weight to arguments that the decline in Protestant numbers was self-inflicted.

For many Protestants, especially the numerically weaker Presbyterians and Methodists, whose numbers were low in many rural areas and often confined to a number of inter-related families, the desire to marry a partner of the same faith explains population movement. Many moved to Ulster where their co-religionists were more numerous and thence better marriage prospects were available.

Mr Bury’s letter is also selective, ignoring significant financial support offered by the Irish state to maintain important Protestant institutions, especially in the area of segregated education. The annual grant to Trinity, instituted in the 1940s, and the protection of fee-paying Protestant schools after the introduction of free post-primary education in 1967 are examples of such support.

The most disappointing aspect of Mr Bury’s letter is its unrelenting negativity. Protestants, although declining in numbers and proportion before and since independence, make a valuable contribution to political, economic, social and cultural life in the Republic which far out-weighs the influence that their size would suggest.

Southern Irish Protestants have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient and adaptable since partition. As the centenary of Irish independence approaches, these characteristics and the significance of the Protestant contribution to all walks of life in the Republic of Ireland, give cause for celebration and not for recrimination.

Dr Marie Coleman, School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast