Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

What Wolfe Tone and the Ian Paisley of '69 have in common

I gather that one of the blessings which will befall us if the Assembly is restored will be a visit from the Pope. I wonder, is there anybody around who will speak to him after the manner of Wolfe Tone?

Ian Paisley won't. Nor Gerry Adams. That much is obvious from exchanges at Stormont on Monday.

Mr Adams had, reasonably, used the DUP crisis meeting at Templepatrick the previous Friday as a peg on which to hang mention of the Presbyterians who had rallied there for revolution in 1798. Naming six of the prominent Presbyterians involved, he commended their view, "That the weight of the English influence in the government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among the people of Ireland to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce".

The Rev Ian would have none of it. Adams's version was 'republican propaganda history,' he insisted. "The Presbyterian Synod - the Synod of Ulster - was totally opposed to the rebellion." McCracken, Hope, Munro, Robb, Kelburn and Dickson were not Presbyterians at all, but " Arians or Unitarians."

Some might consider it a mite presumptuous even of the elder Paisley retrospectively to expel the Templepatrick Six, including two ministers, from the communion of Presbyterianism. And he might have mentioned that, whatever about the Synod of Ulster, which was split on the matter, the Presbytery of Antrim, which covered Templepatrick, was on the Unitarian, and the United Irish, side.

But then, the history of the period tends not to bear out the position of either Mr Adams or Dr Paisley as indicated at Stormont.

Although the Ulster leadership of the United Irishmen was largely Presbyterian, and its support for republicanism reflected the dissident nature of Presbyterianism itself, the organisation was not definitively or exclusively so. Its chief theorist and ideologue, Theobald Wolfe Tone, came from a Church of Ireland background. Tone believed in a God, but was by no means devout and in adulthood associated himself with no denomination. The relevant point here is that none of the Templepatrick Six would have dissented from his attitude to the Papacy.

The notion that the United Irishmen were Protestant ecumenists of a sort, arguing for respect for Catholicism and the creation of a tolerant society in which "both communities" would live in genial amity is attractive, particularly to nationalists, including modern republicans, anxious to suggest a non-sectarian heritage. But it's far from the facts.

As Marianne Elliot noted in her biography, Tone saw the Pope as "the incarnation of evil". In this, he was in line with the Enlightened thinking of the day. Had he succeeded in his revolutionary enterprise, he would have cleansed the influence of the Catholic Church from the face of the Republic he had hoped to create.

Indeed, one of the chief reasons Tone and the United Irishmen wanted to end the oppression of Catholics was that they believed that, freed, the Catholics would slough off their religion. In his splendid Argument On Behalf Of The Catholics Of Ireland, written for the Dublin-based Catholic Committee in 1791, Tone put it plain: "Persecution will keep alive the foolish bigotry and superstition of any sect...Persecution bound the Irish Catholic to his priest and the priest to the Pope; the bond of union is drawn tighter by oppression; relaxation will undo it."

What would the response be today were an MLA publicly to describe Catholic teaching and ritual as "foolish bigotry and superstition?"

Or to characterise the Mass, as Tone did, as "abominable nonsense"?

Tone angrily rejected suggestions from the French Directory that he take two priests with him when he sailed to Ireland to foment revolution. "I will not have priests involved in the enterprise," he responded.

Compare and contrast the first Sinn Fein ard fheis after 1916, when 10% of the delegates were priests, one of whom was elected by acclamation as vice-president.

Tone and the United Irish leaders believed they were living in the last days of Catholic power in the world. They referred frequently and excitedly to the fact that it had been Catholics, or ex-Catholics, who had accomplished the French Revolution. Why should Irish Catholics, roused to liberate themselves, be any different?

When French forces drove the Pope from Rome in February 1798, Tone exultantly welcomed what he saw as the beginning of the end of Catholic influence in Europe. He regretted that Bonaparte had let the Pope live: " It was unwise to let slip so favourable an opportunity to destroy forever the Papal tyranny."

However, he consoled himself, at least the Pope had been deposed, and the Roman people had "declared themselves free and independent...Thus terminated the temporal reign of the Popes after an existence of above 1,000 years." A bit premature, as things turned out. But there's no mistaking his attitude, which in all essentials was the attitude of the Templepatrick Six.

Wolfe Tone's attitude to the Pope was closer to that of Ian Paisley circa 1969 than to the mellow musings of the Rev Ian on Monday.

It bears no resemblance of any kind to the attitude of Mr Adams.

Anybody for a Wolfe Tone Commemoration Committee to give Benedict a proper republican welcome at Aldergrove?

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