Culture and Tradition and the Protestants of Independent Ireland

The Protestant ascendancy, and members of the wealthy upper middle classes, have tended to dominate in discussions of the Protestants of independent Ireland, with little knowledge of the cultural or folk aspects of Protestants’ identity and behaviour or of the socio-economic diversity of Irish Protestants. In particular, the experiences of rural and urban working-class Protestants in independent Ireland have been overlooked. A new book, Different and the Same, the Folk History of the Protestants of Independent Ireland, addresses the comparative dearth of knowledge of the lived experience of non-elite Protestants.

While Protestant national schools contributed to the successful Schools’ Collection of 1937-8, now housed in the National Folklore Collection at UCD, as informants Protestants themselves are generally poorly represented in archives and publications with a focus on Irish folklore and folkways. Certainly, in the early decades of independent Ireland, the English-speaking culture to which most of them belonged was often discussed as the antithesis of Irishness, or even as a contaminant of “true” Irish culture, which should be expunged or minimised as part of the nation-building process. Protestants themselves, in those decades, tended to be increasingly introspective, and sometimes rejected elements of Irish culture identified as “Gaelic” as irrelevant, or even hostile, to them.

In the nineteenth century, educated Protestants such as “Speranza” Wilde, Lady Gregory and Crofton Croker had been deeply involved in collecting and studying folklore, but post-independence the academic study of this subject developed at a time when all the focus was on the crucial work of preserving the culture and tradition of the Gaeltacht communities, which were being devastated by poverty and emigration. This was clearly understandable, in the context of the time.

However, excluding Protestants from ethnological research also applied to other cultural research in the early decades of independent Ireland. For example, when the researchers of the Harvard Irish Study conducted anthropological work in Ireland in the 1930s, Eamon De Valera helped them by, among other things, arranging for the scholars, Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, to carry out their work with the collaboration and support of religious authority figures in the Catholic church, and encouraging them to produce a study of Irish country life that represented it as essentially homogenous and ahistorical. While the researchers’ diaries reveal a more nuanced understanding of Irish life, the resulting book must have pleased De Valera greatly.

The research carried out in the writing of Different and the Same uncovers Protestants’ experience of Irishness, the stories they relate of their origins and identity, and narratives about the past that can challenge formally accepted versions of history. Interviewees stressed the importance of socio-economic diversity in the Protestant community and discussed broad-ranging topics including the matter of their relationship with folk tradition and culture, which could be quite ambivalent: on the one hand, some Protestants felt that they were excluded, or should exclude themselves, from this area of life, while others described active engagement with a wide range of traditions and beliefs. The widespread view (among Protestants themselves) of Protestants as being “less superstitious” did not prevent active and enthusiastic engagement with traditional culture in many diverse ways.

In fact, Protestants could be described as particularly reliable informants on matters of culture and tradition precisely because they are “not superstitious” and therefore any information they have about the supernatural or other difficult to explain views and experiences can be taken more seriously.

For example, a woman in her seventies who grew up in the west of Ireland was speaking of traditional practices in area. She explained that the Catholic farmers used to sprinkle the boundaries of their fields with holy water to keep away the pishogues. The Protestant farmers, she said, not being superstitious, used salt for the same purpose.

A man in his sixties from a border area told me that traditional cures are often known to Protestants in his area. A woman he knows had a cure for a sick animal in the form of a herbal drench. Whereas he could accept this from a Catholic, he found it appalling that a Protestant would engage in what he considered superstition and described her as a disgrace to her religion. As he did not want to hurt her feelings, he took the bottle home and treated his sick animal with it.

A woman in her sixties described attending local rites at a holy well, stating that the Protestants remained at the back and did their own thing rather than engaging in the prayers of the Catholics.

A woman from the west of Ireland describes her family’s fear and upset every year during the midsummer bonfire, which they believed were a ritual “burning out” of the Protestants.  

Fascinating narratives about history, identity, and traditions relating to work and marriage, give us further insights into this minority group.

In order to understand any given society, we need to explore the experiences of all sectors of it: the majority population, and the minorities. We also need to question assumptions that we may hold about the experiences, views and beliefs of all of this groups. By listening to their stories, we gain a more complete, more insightful understanding of culture, of history, and of lived experience.

  • This guest blog post was kindly contributed by Deirdre Nuttall, a writer, ethnologist and researcher. She studied folklore and archaeology at UCD and took a Master’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Durham, before returning to UCD to complete a Ph.D in folkore/ethnology.

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