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Protestants and Irishness in independent Ireland: an exploration.

This qualitative study enquires into the nature of the southern Irish Protestant relationship with Irishness since independence, in the light of the dominant construction of national identity as Catholic and nationalist, with iconic status attributed to the Irish language. It shows how 'outcroppings', irruptions into everyday communication of unconsciously held attitudes founded in confessional, ethnic and cultural differences, continue to reinforce a Protestant perception that Catholics unconsciously assume them to be incapable of possessing an authentic Irish identity. Analysis of oral testimony, supplemented by written memoir and set against the socio-historical background of the confessional divide and of the development of the state, demonstrates how an emotional legacy anchored in collective memory generates such 'outcroppings', and how that legacy sustains and perpetuates confessional and other differences within Irish society.

During 2004-05 100 people, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men, thirty-six Catholics and sixty-four Protestants, living in the Republic of Ireland, and from a wide range of backgrounds, were interviewed. The ages of interviewees ranged from seventeen to 102, with the mean and median ages being 63.8 and 64.5 years respectively. The cohort was assembled by the 'snowball' method and hence selection for interview was random. The interviews were recorded mainly in Counties Wicklow, Dublin, Tipperary, Sligo, Mayo and West Cork, but many interviewees resided in places other than those where they were born and brought up, so the territorial range encompasses most of the island.

The history of the confessional divide in Ireland is outlined, showing how the former governing elite had become, by independence, a diminished and disempowered minority, largely unionist in political sympathy, fearful of what lay in store in the new state. During the first decades the community remained isolated within strongly defined boundaries, watching as the Catholic ethos came to dominate Irish society, as the Catholic church and the state combined forces in the fields of education and health, and as the Catholic church's moral teaching on social issues was incorporated into the legal system. Though none of this was consciously directed against Protestants, it was a logical result of conditions in the devout Catholic society that developed in the state, and marginalisation of the Protestant, and other, minorities was an inevitable outcome.

This, in turn, meant that a stereotypical, reductive representation of 'Protestants', reliant on the confessional, cultural and ethnic difference epitomised in the emotional legacy, came to signify all that was antithetical to possession of an authentic Irish identity as defined by the majority. Despite the fact that, following the end of the Second World War, with the declaration of the republic, the Protestant community emerged from self-imposed isolation ready to participate fully in Irish society, it is shown how negative stereotypes prevailed to prevent its full integration. This process not only influenced Catholic perceptions of Protestants, but also, due to their former status as a ruling elite, had detrimental repercussions on how they saw themselves in relation to the society they inhabited and to the majority.

The personal testimony is analysed thematically in chapters dealing with educational, social and economic issues. The cultural and material impact on Protestants of the new state's curricular changes, designed to foster the dominant construction of national identity and to revive the Irish language, are examined. The place of history--the new curriculum, and the ways it was taught--in inculcating national identity is scrutinised. The premise underpinning the idea that Protestants were universally and automatically hostile to Irish language, culture and sport because of their purported allegiance to 'Anglo' culture is analysed and shown to be inaccurate. Protestant strategies to stave off the perceived threat of assimilation are examined and their propensity for social exclusivity, adopted in the face of the perceived threat presented by 'Irish Ireland' after independence, is shown to have diminished steadily from the mid-twentieth century to the point where it no longer is significant. The workings of segregation put in place by the education system--which was desired and effected by both confessions--and continued in social settings, with the ultimate aim of preventing inter-church marriage, are traced. The impact of the Catholic church's imposition of pre-nuptial promises relating to the raising as Catholics of children of inter-church marriages, exacted on foot of erroneous perceptions of the terms of the Ne temere decree, are examined, as are Protestant attitudes to it. Throughout, the ways in which the emotional legacy underpinned difference are demonstrated. Finally, having also traced the different constructions of national identity availed of by Irish Protestants over the centuries, contemporary Protestant constructions of 'Irishness' are examined, and discrepancies between them and the dominant construction are highlighted.

The findings demonstrate that the emotional legacy does continue to operate to perpetuate difference. 'Outcroppings' are shown to irrupt in social settings and in the workplace and to cause Protestant alienation. Unconscious modes of expression surfaced in Catholic definitions of 'Irishness' which, although containing some variations, show clear reliance on anachronistic, ambiguous and stereotypical assumptions relating both to the construction of 'Irishness' and to the associations triggered by the word 'Protestant'. Moreover, no allowance was made for the adaptations undergone by Protestants' sense of themselves in the context of national identity: they are demonstrated to have adapted to conditions in the new state and to have left behind all sense of connection with their previous ethno-cultural identity, but to little avail.

The conclusions are that, firstly, the continuing exclusion of Protestants operates at the ideological level of the imagined nation, and has alienating effects on the material plane. Although Protestants have constructed a form of Irishness that gives them a location within the nation as they imagine it, their exclusion from the dominant Catholic/nationalist version institutionalised by the combination of a state ethos with that of the Catholic church, is confirmed. Secondly, the thesis demonstrates how their 'established and outsider' status, containing elements of their former and of their current positions, is perpetuated, and that, despite changes on the confessional and social fronts, they continue to inhabit the margins of the imagined community of the Irish nation.

Heather Kathleen Crawford

Ph.D. thesis, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 2008
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Title Annotation:Thesis abstracts
Author:Crawford, Heather Kathleen
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Abstract
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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