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Yes, Protestants had to adapt to Irish state after 1923, but Catholics faced their own fight for respect

Common ground: Thousands of people line the streets in Dublin for the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the 1960s
Common ground: Thousands of people line the streets in Dublin for the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the 1960s

By Mary Kenny

Can you be both Protestant and Irish? A new academic book, published by Cork University Press, Protestant and Irish, stresses that, of course, you can. But the background context is, nevertheless, that it's been something of a struggle to establish that identity in the midst of what was a majority Catholic nation.

And, still, not everyone is attuned. "Why don't Protestants celebrate St Patrick?" someone asked recently on Twitter. They do.

The Church of Ireland has in the past laid claim to St Patrick as one of their own - describing Irish Anglicanism "the faith as taught by St Patrick". And St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin is Church of Ireland.

Protestant and Irish - the authors Ian d'Alton and Ida Milne stress the "and" in the title. Indeed, some Protestants have been stronger Irish nationalists than some Catholics.

I grew up in a Dublin community, Sandymount, where Catholic and Protestant neighbours lived harmoniously together. Differences were accepted as normal: the Protestant kids couldn't go to the movies on a Sunday and the Catholic kids couldn't join the excellent YMCA tennis club.

But if differences were accepted, they were also respected. We hadn't heard the phrase "cultural diversity", but I think we practised it.

I was very friendly with neighbouring children who were strict Presbyterians. They weren't allowed to play with their dolls, or any other toys, on a Sunday: the family went to church, I think, three times on the Sabbath. Their Sunday recreations consisted of reading the Bible and a quiet walk.

And yet, despite such restrictions, there was great gentleness, merriment and warmth in that family. The mother and father spoke with such sweetness to one another and showed such open affection. These were people who really lived up to their values.

There was no doubt that our neighbours were fully Irish.

It was also accepted that there had been an attachment to the British Crown, which still lingered. But that, too, was accepted as part of their heritage.

As academic studies show, Irish Protestants had to find a way of adapting to the Irish state following its inception. Current Irish Business Minister, Heather Humphreys, having grown up as a border Protestant, has spoken about having to stand against the assumption that "being Irish automatically meant you were Catholic".

But Catholics, too, had their struggles for status and respect.

When the popular author Annie M P Smithson became a Catholic, one of her aunts refused to speak to her ever again. Smithson recalled in her autobiography that becoming a Catholic, among the Sandymount Protestants of the 1900s, was akin to being "like the servants".

Minister Humphreys has pointed out that the Ne Temere decree of 1908 (which inhibited mixed marriages by insisting all children be raised as Catholic) robbed some of the chance to marry at all. Possibly so, but even before that a Protestant who married a Catholic lost caste and social status.

Social development takes time. When the Catholic tribe got the upper hand after the establishment of the Free State, some wanted to show who ruled the roost now.

But none of that back story seemed part of the Sandymount of my childhood, where good neighbourliness reigned.

My recollection is that the women who were, in those days, classified as housewives had particularly friendly relations with one another. They were at home with the children, they had time and opportunity to develop friendships within a community life while the menfolk were off at work.

It's grand to see the "Protestant and Irish" identity being properly endorsed, although there's a slightly rueful side to all this.

The Christian faith, as a whole, is gradually being replaced by secularism, particularly by the generation in their twenties and thirties. Protestants and Catholics are, perforce, more aware of their common values. Perhaps St Patrick would approve.

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