Saturday 28 July 2012

What's God got to do with it: Religion, Ireland and the Troubles

The Irish are always particularly hostile to outsiders' "interference." Woe betide the first foreign national who tries to pontificate upon an internal Irish matter. I was once at a party in America where someone informed me that Northern Ireland was nothing more than an imperialist occupation. Blood nearly streamed out of my eye-balls and I nearly couldn't finish my tequila. (That's how serious it was.) The northern Irish, in particular, are prone to getting especially antsy about it. Nothing irks them more than being told that their country is either a glorified warzone (entirely untrue) or that the troubles of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were the result of religion (debatable). As far as most northerners are concerned, it's got absolutely nothing to do with religion and only an ill-informed idiot could possibly assume that it had. 

I mean, when was the last time someone chucked a petrol bomb over the stigmata of Padre Pio or bricked a policeman because they didn't agree with justification by faith alone?

The Troubles in Ireland were political, not religious. They arose from a desire by one-third of the northern population to unite with the independent south and a conflicting desire by the other two-thirds to stay united with Britain. Over time, the demographics have shifted, but the issue remains the same. Shared sovereignty would be equally unpalatable to both sides of the debate. What it all comes down to is Ireland's relationship with Britain, not Jesus. Even some historians agree. In his recent book The Elizabethans, A.N. Wilson painted a brilliant and very witty portrait of everyday life under Elizabeth I (looking blingtastic, I might add. Me loves me some sceptres.) Wilson's book begins by looking at life in sixteenth-century Ireland; he argues that it was the Tudors who messed Ireland up for centuries to come, but that nationalism's cosy links with Catholicism only arose because of how much everyone hated the English, not how much they loved Catholicism. As Wilson points out, when the Reformation first occurred in the 1530s, the Irish went along with it far more easily than the English did: "It was not, initially at least, a specifically religious matter, though by the end of the sixteenth century the rebels Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell, could see themselves as champions of 'Christ's Catholic religion' against the English heretics. The fundamental point of contention, though, was English interference in Irish affairs: English attempts to make Ireland less Irish. As a matter of fact, in the early stages of the Reformation, the Irish went along with Henry VIII's religious revolution more peaceably than the English did. There was no Pilgrimage of Grace, there were no Irish martyrs for the faith, no Irish Thomas More or Bishop Fisher. More than 400 Irish monasteries and abbeys were sold to Irish laymen during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Irish did not protest when Henry VIII made George Browne the Archbishop of Dublin - that was, the former Augustinian friar who performed the marriage ceremony between the King and Anne Boleyn. Perhaps, if a Gaelic Bible and Gaelic Prayer Book had been available in Ireland, as a Welsh Bible and Prayer Book were in Wales by 1567, Ireland might have remained Protestant." It didn't, of course.

What is frustrating from an historian's point of view is how little people in Northern Ireland actually know about history, but how much they use history to shape their views. (The phrase 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing' springs to mind and has never been more applicable.) In 1641, when thousands of Irish Protestants were massacred by their Catholic neighbours, hundreds of Catholics joined a Catholic confederacy that pledged to stop further massacres and to support the rule of King Charles I in Ireland. Cromwell's infamous attack on Drogheda and Dundalk in 1649 was as much an attack on Irish royalists, who continued supporting Cromwell's fallen enemy, the King, as it was an attack on Irish Catholics. William of Orange won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 with the help of the Pope. When the first serious rebellions against British rule broke out in 1798, most of its leaders were Presbyterian-Protestants. It was not until the early 19th century that a clear link between one religion and a corresponding political side could be seen in Irish politics. (Some people still blame Daniel O'Connell for this, but the lad needed to get himself some votes and we shouldn't be too nasty to the man who won Catholic Emancipation.) 

Anyway, the defenders of the idea that religion has nothing to do with Ireland's bullet-and-the-ballot-box history point out that at no moment has a theological debate formed the nexus for an outburst of violence. On the surface, it therefore seems very clear that what caused the Troubles (and lingering sectarian resentment today) was not faith, but instead questions of identity, culture, nationality and politics. 

But is it as clear cut as that? Anyone from Northern Ireland will know that the words "Protestant" or "Catholic" are used far more often in conversation than more accurate terms like "unionist" or "nationalist." It's a short-hand and instantly-recognisable way to convey what someone's political opinions are. And what their view of history is. Anything that can prove the other side wrong is met with metaphorical dances of joy. (Literal ones would be totes undignified.) For instance, recently, when I was tutoring a friend about Ireland's medieval past, his face lit up with a euphoric glow at the revelation that the English invasion of Ireland had actually been blessed by Pope Adrian IV. "So, let me get this straight: the Pope that they all adore actually ordered the English to invade?" (I didn't know that there were many "Pope Adrian IV fan clubs" around, but whatever. That's nice for him. Frankly, more 12th century personalities should have fan clubs. Eleanor of Aquitaine, for instance. Maybe he just meant popes, in general? I don't know. Oh, those crazy Catholics. Still, though - the Eleanor of Aquitaine thing should be considered.) 

You see, it's my contention that religion actually does matter in Ireland's troubles. And that it matters, a lot. Just because no-one ever started a fight over the perpetual virginity of Mary or the existence of Purgatory does not mean that faith doesn't influence us. Religion, in a strange way, is still everything in the north of Ireland. For most people, whether they like to admit it (and usually they don't), it establishes all the essential elements of someone's personality. It may reveal what school you went to, who you're likely to vote for, what sports you play, what national anthem you'll stand for, what you're likely to get offended by and what your world-view will be. Religion flows, subtly, beneath the surface, shaping everything above it.

How, though? Well, to put it in a nutshell - and I'm being reductive here, so I apologise - Catholics tend to think they're better at being Irish and Protestants think they're better Christians. And in both cases, it's annoying.

Northern Irish Protestants are brought up to believe that Catholicism is nonsense. Even if that phrase is never specifically said, there are numerous tiny influences in an Ulster Protestant's childhood that lead them to the inescapable conclusion that Catholicism is not "real" Christianity. That it's all superstition, Mary, saints, statues, priestcraft, paedophile priests and spiritual idiocy. Even if you get older and you claim to respect Catholicism because "we're all Christians," most Protestants are still utterly convinced, in their heart of hearts, that Protestantism is "real" Christianity. Okay, maybe Catholics aren't bad, but they're certainly wrong. Because of Protestantism's assertion of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and its belief that the Bible is literally true (i.e. what you see is what you get), it's impossible for many of them to appreciate that Catholicism is, in fact, an enormously complex system of beliefs that happens to be based on the Bible just as much as Protestantism is, but through a different set of textual interpretations. 

This belief gives most Protestants a sense of rather irritating spiritual superiority. Even "bad" Protestants who go to church twice a year, who leave the service early, who shag all around them, swear, drink and generally have a good time, can still feel better about themselves, because no matter how shaky their own faith is, they're still automatically better Christians than every single Catholic they know. ("Bad" Protestants who are smug, nasty and self-righteous feel this all the time, but I digress.) For most Protestants, Catholicism is the "fan fiction" of Christianity; it's the unofficial spin-off. It's not quite real. At a recent table quiz, half the Protestants in the room did not know the name of the last book in the Bible. Had you pushed them though, they would still have sworn blind that they were more authentic Christians than the most devout of Catholics. (Btw, seriously? Revelation, guys. Isn't that general common knowledge?)

Northern Irish Catholicism breeds its cultural superiority in a different way to Protestantism. What happens in Sunday Schools, youth groups and Scripture Unions for Protestants, often happens in the school system for many Catholics. Whilst there are some schools that are nearly 100% Protestant, it is illegal for any school to have a purely Protestant ethos. There are, however, numerous Catholic-only schools - many of whom have excellent exams results. Mercifully (or hopefully) few of these schools teach a sectarian message; although many do teach a rather one-sided version of Irish history ("Protestant" schools often fail to teach it, at all.) The major point, however, is that in a school (or any social organisation) where there is no risk of offending anyone, it is permissible for ribald sectarian banter to run un-checked. What Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics say when they're in mixed company is a world-apart from what they say when they know that only their own "kind" is in the room. What they say to foreigners (including the English) is often outright, politically-correct, rose-tinted lies. For seven years, thousands of Catholics spend most of their time in an environment in which there is zero need for them to moderate what they say about politics or religion and they have zero daily interaction with Protestants. I am in favour of faith schools, but in Northern Ireland specifically, I do sometimes worry about them. That kind of environment can breed both a casual sectarianism and an innate, unconscious attitude that Protestants are "foreigners"; that they're somehow not really Irish and, as a result, that they don't belong here. Far too many Catholics think that Protestants all behave like mini-Ian Paisleys; too many Protestants think that all Catholics had a childhood that was basically a cross between The Magdalene Sisters, Titanic Town and Angela's Ashes.

In a recent survey conducted of Ireland's Catholic population, 80% stated that they did not believe in Transubstantiation - one of the core tenets of the Catholic faith. Few Protestants can name all the books of the Bible; even fewer know the relevant history, context and textual debate about what they emphatically believe to be the revealed Word of God. Ireland's relationship with faith is therefore a troubled one - to put it mildly. No wonder outsiders get it wrong so often. Sometimes, I don't even particularly understand it myself. We get angry about how religion is misused in our communities, but then we feel guilty about criticising people from our own "side" when they behave in a sectarian manner. We feel as if we're letting the side down; as if condemning an individual's actions is somehow condemning the whole community. It's stupid and it's spineless. And I've been guilty of doing it myself.

There are many other causes that keep sectarianism alive in Northern Ireland; just as there are also many factors which are, mercifully, slowly beginning to strangle it and starve it of oxygen. Religion is not the cause of the Troubles, but I can't help but think that it is still one of the reasons. If it doesn't cause the tensions, it certainly re-enforces them. And if that is the case, then the verse that springs to mind is the shortest in the Bible and one worth remembering for all believers: "Et lacrimatus est Iesus." (John 11:35 - "And Jesus wept.")


  1. Most excellent! Thanks Gareth, for many on this side of the pond have no idea of the history of your area.

  2. So true . . . And still He weeps


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