Skip to main content

Protestants and the Irish Revolution


Protestants and the Irish Revolution      Gerry OShea

Who would you rate as the four most important nationalist leaders in modern Irish history, which can be dated from the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century? Who had the greatest impact on the drive for some kind of independence from Britain?

Certainly, Theobald Wolfe Tone from a Protestant family would have to be on that list. He led the United Irishmen in the 1798 Rebellion and, more important, set down the Republican philosophy of inclusion of all faiths as equal in the country that he wanted to liberate from England.

Then surely, we name the great Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who achieved Emancipation for Catholics and whose renowned oratorical gifts were used to uplift the dispossessed and the poor all over Europe and beyond. However, his monster rallies failed to move the British towards repeal of the Act of Union, which in 1801 dismantled the nascent Dublin parliament.

Charles Stuart Parnell, who shared with O’Connell the dubious distinction of being a landlord, was dubbed the uncrowned king of Ireland because of his hardball parliamentary skills and commitment to various important agrarian reforms for his country in Westminster. He won Home Rule in the House of Commons in the 1880’s only to see the Bill vetoed by the House of Lords.

The last in our quartet of Irish heroes is Michael Collins who masterminded the military revolution that led to Irish independence a hundred years ago.

Some readers will surely disagree with these choices and prefer naming others to this short list of outstanding leaders, but nobody can deny the heroic stature of each nominee and their right to a place on the nationalist pantheon.

All four had tragic endings to their lives. Tone died in jail at age thirty-five by his own hand to avoid the ignominy of a public execution. O’Connell was so shocked by the ravages of the Great Famine that it is said that he expired because of a broken heart on his way to Rome at the age of seventy-two.

Parnell passed on at fifty-one, a broken leader, after the bitter division caused by his turbulent affair and marriage to Kitty OShea. And Collins was only thirty-two when he was killed by a ricocheting bullet during the Civil War.

Two of these nationalist leaders came from the Catholic tradition and two – Tone and Parnell – were Anglicans.

Before his demise, Parnell faced what came to be known as the damnable question: how to accommodate more than a million Protestants in the north of the country who organized politically and militarily to oppose Home Rule from Dublin. Their opposition became even more emphatic after Parnell’s successor, John Redmond, successfully steered through a Westminster bill in 1912 that granted a Dublin parliament with limited powers over the whole island.

The message from the Protestants in Belfast and surrounding areas was that they would never be compelled to participate in an all-Ireland assembly where they would be in a minority. Home Rule would inevitably mean Rome rule and they would never accept that.

The sixteen men who were executed after the Easter Rising were all Catholics. There were a few Protestants playing important parts in Republican politics during the revolutionary years. People like the Countess Markiewicz, Ernest Blythe and Erskine Childers achieved prominent roles in articulating the new Irish demand for complete freedom from Britain.

Yet most Protestants in the South were wary of developments after the Sinn Fein victory in the 1918 election. They celebrated when the 1912 Home Rule bill was passed, viewing it as progress but with Ireland continuing under British rule. Their opposition to the radical changes proposed by Republicans led to heightened estrangement between the two communities.

Protestants in the south were seen and, indeed, self-identified as part of the ruling class. Appointments to positions of local judges, known as magistrates, nearly all came from their community. After their victory in the election, Sinn Fein set up alternative courts to hear and decide local differences and controversies, and most people in the south followed their rulings, sidelining the official procedures.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was comprised of a majority of Catholics, but the command structure was almost exclusively filled by Protestants or English men. The ordinary policemen resented being on the frontline fighting fellow-Irishmen whose political aspirations they often shared. Even when the British government almost doubled their salaries, morale remained low and there were many resignations and early retirements from the force.

 The Big Houses in every community were almost exclusively owned by Protestants, all members of the gentry. The domestic and farm workers came from surrounding mostly-Catholic communities. These places were well-stocked with guns because the owners were often involved in field sports and many had served in the British army.

In the early part of the war the IRA raided them for arms, and the inevitable resistance by the owners led to deaths and destruction of property with consequent alienation among members of the Church of Ireland.

One of the most spectacular measurable changes that took place between the census numbers of 1911 and 1926 showed a significant decline of the southern Protestant population.

 The exodus can be seen as an indication that the culture of the minority community was not in tune with the prevailing Gaelic ethos. For instance, the mandate of obligatory Irish in the schools annoyed many Protestants who didn’t identify with the required cultural nationalism.

During the revolutionary years, 1919-1922, there were some atrocious sectarian actions taken against Protestants in the south, usually planned at a local level. Three Anglican churches were burned in County Clare in 1920, and two years later a Church of Ireland community in Donegal was attacked while worshipping in church with many windows broken by the rioters.

The most notorious and reprehensible anti-Protestant event took place in west Cork in April 1922. Thirteen members of the local Church of Ireland were killed over a few days, allegedly in response to the previous death of an IRA officer.

This behavior was very untypical with volunteers well aware that a Protestant, Theobald Wolfe Tone, set forth the non-sectarian republican principles that would govern the new Ireland. The top leaders in Dublin pressed their followers to eschew any taint of sectarianism.

The Catholic Church enjoyed enormous power in every village and town. They mandated that in a mixed marriage involving a Catholic and a Protestant the children of that union had to be raised as Catholics. Under the pain of sin, a commitment to Rome precluded churchgoers from even entering an Anglican church.

Many members of the Church of Ireland saw themselves as superior to their Catholic neighbors whose clergy preached that outside the Roman umbrella there was no salvation. This was long before the ecumenical movement took hold in the late 1960’s.

Looking at the consequences of a divided island for the minority communities north and south, Catholics in one part and Protestants in the other, after the passage of the Government of Ireland Act in 1921, Winston Churchill said that each group would have to “stew in its own juices,” an aptly cynical metaphor for future relationships in the island.

Gerry OShea blogs at


Popular posts from this blog

    Unionist Isolation in Northern Ireland              Gerry OShea Joe Brolly, known as a fine footballer and lively commentator on big Gaelic matches on Irish television, writes a regular column in the Sunday Independent in Dublin. Recently, he penned an uncharacteristically bitter essay about the celebrations in Belfast following the victory of Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Football League. Joe had no problem with fans celebrating the win, their first in ten years, but the carry-on by Rangers supporters in the Shankill Road area left him in a foul mood. The old gutter anti-Catholic tropes were heard throughout the crowd. Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys   --- Up tae yer knees in Finian blood.   Surrender or ye’ll die. He noted that the following day the police superintendent responsible for the area, Nigel Henry, expressed his “disappointment” about a large crowd partying in clear breach of the Covid restrictions on gatherings in the city. A few weeks previously Mar


Neoliberalism                Gerry OShea The story is told that shortly after the great trade union leader Mike Quill arrived in New York, he inquired about what kind of government existed in America. After someone gave him a brief explanation, he replied “well we are against the government anyway.” Mike had just come from a family that fought the British in the Irish War of Independence and that was equally hostile to the Free State Government which took over in Dublin in 1922, four years before he left for the United states from his home in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. President Reagan’s oft-quoted statement that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I am here to help” always evokes   loud applause from conservative audiences. His words encapsulate the belief that the less state involvement in all aspects of life the better. They always make one exception for military spending, and so they endorse the present defense budget in the U

Anger in America

  Anger in America                     Gerry OShea Rage is dominating the American body politic. The culture has become so toxic that we can no longer just agree to disagree.   In April of this year, reputable pollsters revealed that 70% of Republicans declared that the presidential election was stolen and Donald Trump should be re-installed in the White House. A September gauge of opinion showed that the figure of Republican disbelievers in the Biden presidency has grown to a whopping 78%. It is important to explain that there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting this erroneous contention. Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ claims of electoral impropriety were considered by close to sixty judges, some of whom were appointed by the former president, and none of them even allowed the case to be heard because no evidence of wrongdoing was presented in court. The Supreme Court with a strong influence of Trump appointees refused even to consider the case. The Department of Justice under Wil