The secret lives of Ireland’s Protestants

Posted By: February 12, 2017

UCD research project documents the cultural experiences of growing up Protestant

Peter McGuire . Irish Times. Dublin Thursday, February 9, 2017

Her friends were getting married. She made plans for the big day and imagined what she would wear. But her friends were Protestants, and she was Catholic. The priest said that her mortal soul would be at risk if she crossed the threshold of a Protestant church and he forbade her from attending. On the big day, she stood in the cold with the church door open and watched from outside. In later years, she told how hurtful it had been, and how it tainted her relationship with Catholicism. Still, the friendship survived.

This anonymous story from the 1940s is one of hundreds that are being gathered for a major folklore and oral history project that is being carried out by Dr Deirdre Nuttall for the National Folklore Collection in UCD. Faith is just one of the various aspects that make Protestants distinctive, she says. “Protestant and Catholic are cultural markers, not necessarily denominational ones. Protestants have a slightly different folklore, collective memory and experience of 1916, 1922 and other major historical periods.”

So far, Nuttall, who is of Protestant descent, has interviewed over 50 people. She has also been inundated with correspondence from Protestants who are keen to tell their stories and to record their history. In the NFC archives, a filing cabinet is quickly filling up; some of the responses are quite short, but others are 10,000 words or more. One correspondent seems to have written a small book. Their stories and recollections span include folk history, supernatural and medical traditions, relations with Catholic neighbours, social diversity and uniquely Protestant traditions.

“While Irish Protestants are well represented among Ireland’s earlier folklore collectors in the Republic of Ireland, Irish Protestant cultural history is not as well represented in the archives of the National Folklore Collection as that of the Catholic community,” says Dr Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, director of the National Folklore Collection at UCD. “The Protestant folk memory project helps to redress a significant gap in the collection.”


Nuttall has been surprised by the strength of emotion from people telling their stories. “There was a lot of sorrow and anguish. Statistically, Protestants do tend to be bigger farmers, but there are plenty from poorer or working-class backgrounds and many of them grew up being asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Where is your butler?’ ‘Aren’t you rich?’ Anyone with money tended to be shielded because they went to a private school, perhaps on to Trinity and then into the family business. You were cocooned by privilege. It was different if you weren’t comfortable.”

Perhaps the most infamous episode of the hardship and discrimination endured by some Irish Protestants occurred in 1957. Sheila Cloney, a Protestant woman from nearby Fethard-on-Sea who was married to a Catholic man, refused an order from the local priest to raise the children as Catholics in accordance with the Ne Temere decree. In response, the bishop called for Catholics to boycott local Protestants and their businesses; most duly complied.

“I remember hearing stories about this,” says Nuttall. “The Protestants in my family are from the New Ross area, and my grandparent’s generation felt that while they should support the businesses that were being boycotted, they didn’t want to ‘make a fuss’. So they drove down the back roads to Fethard. They were concerned that the boycott would spread to New Ross, and the Protestants there were not wealthy.”

Long before Fethard, the Scullabogue massacre during the 1798 rebellion is remembered by Protestants as a sectarian murder of at least 100 Protestants and farmers – by some estimates, there may have been 200 deaths – in a barn fire. “The folk record often overlooked or minimised this, or said it was a reprisal for something else,” says Nuttall. “My classmates in Wexford didn’t seem to know the story at all, though my family did.” Protestants also disproportionately sent their sons to fight in the first World War, and many died.”

Tough time

One man from the southwest of Ireland told Nuttall that he had a tough time growing up in the 1930s. “The other children were told not to play with him, that he was going to the devil. On his long walk home from school, he had to contend with other kids threatening him. His parents didn’t believe him. More than 80 years later, he was very upset as he spoke to me about it.”

Irish independence was a jolt for Protestants, most of whom, to some degree, had lent towards unionism. “They had to reinvent their lives and work with their neighbours,” says Nuttall. “They may not have seen themselves as British but as subjects of the British empire, so they had to come up with a new way of understanding their history and identity. In some cases, that took one or two generations.”

Nuttall says that, while there were rarely huge flare-ups between Catholics and Protestants, there could be underlying tensions. People in rural communities might thresh together, or share a plough, but observant Protestants did not take part in Sunday sports and this excluded them from many community events. “It was sometimes a polite way of not taking part, because there was some anxiety that if your children socialised with Catholics too much, they may marry out. They were already watching their community shrink, and one of the reasons was Ne Temere. It wasn’t just that they were preserving their religion; they were afraid their Catholic grandchildren could be subtly turned against them.”

Jean Daly was born in 1954. Her father was a member of the Church of Ireland and her mother was a Methodist. They lived in Cork though her mother’s family came from Monaghan. Daly’s family lived in Canada for the first seven years of her life, and she says she only realised she was Protestant and somehow different when she returned to Ireland.

Later, when she married a Catholic man, she had to sign the notorious Ne Temere decree. “I found it very difficult, not only because of its religious significance but also because I resented terms and conditions being imposed on me. So, on the form to Rome, I put down my signature and then the words ‘under duress.’ That left me free to make whatever decision I wanted to about the religious persuasion of any children I would have. We ultimately decided not to baptise our son and we were in complete accord on that.”

Unique traits

It’s not all misery: Nuttall’s work is also capturing some of the unique traits and traditions of Irish Protestant culture. “A lot of older people believe in the idea of the Protestant work ethic,” she says. “There are stereotypes: Protestants are good at growing daffodils and can make a meal out of barely any food.”

“Home baking is popular among Protestants, especially jam-making,” says David Thomas, who was born in 1959. “I was recently at a funeral and everything was home-baked. Someone brought along Aldi buns but they stood out like a sore thumb.”

Daly recalls that Harvest Thanksgiving, a fading custom, was celebrated in the Church of Ireland in early to mid-autumn. “The Zion church in Rathgar put a beautiful display of fruits and vegetables on the altar. There were always hymns and I loved them; they still remind me of my connection with Dad. Hymns bring people together. One memorable Christmas in Zion, we were surprised with trumpets during Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The whole church was filled with sound. It was magnificent. I turned to Mum and said: ‘Perhaps there are some compensations for being Protestant’.”

Some families passed on herbal cures, says Nuttall. “In some areas, cures were associated with the Protestant community. I interviewed one man whose family had practiced herbal cures until the late 80s when they stopped over insurance concerns. His family folklore says that they came over with Cromwell’s foot soldiers and helped sack the monasteries in the area, but had rescued the monastery’s manuscripts and saved them orally.”

Are there bigger differences? “There is an idea in Protestantism that you are responsible for yourself,” says Daly. “For all your faults – and it has legions of them including its prescriptive thinking – you are face-to-face with yourself because there is no intermediary to confess to.”

“In my family, people are defined by their work ethic,” says Thomas. “If they say ‘he’s a great guy’, it means he is a good worker. If they say ‘he is an eejit’, it means he’s a bad worker. It’s also considered a sin to waste money, time and resources. But this may be as much of a middle- class value as a Protestant one – and if you look at Irish history, you will see that people are divided by religion more so than by class.”


But Ireland’s story is not divided between Catholic and Protestant with nothing in between, says Thomas. “People have always been diverse. In my own family, there is elements of unionism and elements of Wolfe Tone’s republicanism.”

Like many Irish Protestants, his family believe they are descended from the English who arrived in Ireland with Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s. Another ancestor may have been a wealthy landlord. On his paternal grandmother’s side, the Mitchells – an Anglican family – were “extremely republican,” he says.

These divisions were exacerbated by the onset of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Before this, Orange picnics in the Republic – particularly in Donegal – were a day out for the whole community, regardless of religion.

Like non-Catholic children in Catholic schools today, Thomas sat out prayers; in his school, they occurred at the start of virtually every lesson. There was significantly less child sex abuse committed by Protestant clergy, although there are some cases, and over 200 babies died from abuse and neglect in the Protestant Bethany Home for unmarried mothers – a scandal that survivors struggled for years to have acknowledged.

Nuttall presents compelling evidence that while most Protestants in the Republic saw themselves as completely separate from those in Northern Ireland, this was not always the case for those in Border areas. “People in more northern parts tended to be descended from those who came from Scotland, but those around the rest of country were more diverse. People away from Border areas often stressed that they feel very different from northern Protestants, and these differences go back centuries.”

Never homogenous

Of course, the Protestant community, although comprising mainly Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians, was never homogenous. Today, immigration from Africa has helped swell the ranks on Protestant pews. One correspondent who filled out a questionnaire for the NFC said that Methodists were stricter with alcohol, gambling, card-playing, dancing and Sunday observance.

Daly’s Methodist mother, to her, embodied what the church was about. “The church has less of a hierarchy and is more individualistic. There is less formality and pomp than in Anglicanism. My mother was deeply unconventional and questioning and she always pushed you to be the best version of yourself that you could be. She leant towards rebellion and was a solid republican. I spent the first seven years of my life in Canada when they emigrated for work, and she had a real difficulty with the idea of swearing allegiance to the Queen of England.”

The majority of people interviewed by Nuttall – both Protestants and people of Protestant descent – chose to stay anonymous. When they talk of their family history they tend to focus on Quakers, Pallatines or Hugeunots; Cromwell remains taboo.

“One man told me that his ancestors came with Cromwell; then he asked me to delete it; then said I could include it but not to mention where he is from, as he didn’t want anyone to know,” 

she says. “Even though it was a long time ago, it is a heavy burden to bear. Another woman from the northwest of Ireland talks of her people coming from Scotland but does not want to be identified.”

Much has changed. The youngest people who responded to Nuttall’s survey are in their 20s and their experience of growing up in Ireland seems to be largely the same as anyone else’s. But, beyond them, there are stories that need to be saved and histories that must be told. This project may just fill a vital gap.

Do you have a story to tell? The National Folklore Collection wants to hear from you. Contributions can be anonymous. Email: or phone 017168216 for more details.

David Woods, 43: “When a nun got on the bus, everyone else moved”

“When I was a kid, I was in the Boys’ Brigade, and we were always taught to salute the tricolour. As far as I was concerned, I was Irish. But then I went to secondary school and got a terrible time. I was constantly told I was English and British.

“I grew up in Pembroke Gardens, Ballsbridge. The houses were originally built for poor Protestants and my upbringing was firmly working-class. My parents were staunch Church of Ireland members.

“Verbal abuse was common and I’d hear that, if you run backwards around a Protestant church seven times, you’d see the devil. It was horrible, but I had to get on with it. People thought that we didn’t believe that Mary was a virgin or we don’t believe in saints – all untrue. One neighbour used to say hello to us every day, but after he discovered we were Protestant, he never even looked at us again.

“That said, I think we had more freedom. I always got the impression from Catholic friends that there was a level of fear which I didn’t experience. As an outsider, I’d notice that when a nun got on the bus, everyone else moved up three or four seats. I respected the clergy, but there wasn’t that fear and deference. In referendums on issues like divorce, we were not instructed how to vote and our clergy reminded us that we had free will. I don’t believe in a Christian God but I read the bible and think Jesus gave good guidance. And I might go to a clergyman for advice: they can have relationships and we don’t have to call them ‘father’, so it’s a bit more down-to- earth.

“I don’t know much about my ancestry, but my grandad said he would salute the queen if he was in England, though my Protestant grandmother would definitely not. There’s a massive difference between us and Northern Irish Protestants: in church, we pray for the president, whereas they pray for the queen.

“The Dublin Conservative Club is a Protestant working-class association just off Camden St. Women attend but only men can be members, which is one of the reasons I’m not inclined to go there; I like to think of myself as more open-minded. But in 1988, Ireland scored a goal against England and everyone was celebrating. We are Irish.”

The Protestant folk memory questionnaire: a selection of questions • How much do you know about your family of origin?

• Did the Protestant community in your home district perceive themselves, or were they viewed by others, as being distinct or different in any way, or much the same as their neighbours?

• How socially diverse was the Protestant community in your home district?

• Within living memory, was there any noticeable segregation of Protestants and Catholics in the work place? Did Protestant and Catholic-owned businesses employ exclusively members of their own faith?

• Did such circumstances ever result in hostility or damage relations between the two communities?

• What interesting stories in relation to important historic events in your area are told? (i.e. the Cromwellian invasion, 1798 the Great Famine, etc.)

• History doesn’t have to be just about the “big,” “important” events. Do you know any stories about the way people lived in years gone by? Sometimes the stories of women and other groups that were once marginalized in society contain a lot of interesting historical information that is not reflected in the official record.

• Did your family have any special traditions associated with Easter, Christmas, Harvest Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, or any other particular times of the year?

• Did weddings, funerals and baptisms and other rites have any unique aspects, aside from the religious element?

• What (if any) sports did you play? Where and how did you start playing sports? Did you feel that there were some sports that you could not play because of religion? What influenced your choice of sport?