Irish people who have followed Protestant churches have contributed massively to the cause of Irish self-determination, a historical fact which is all too often dismissed by many nationalists and republicans. Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians and others have played a real, meaningful part, in numerous, sometimes conflicting ways, on the journey to nationhood and sovereignty, North and South. It is vitally important for us to crush the misconception that Protestant equates unionist, for this sectarian, divisive attitude has been purposefully cultivated by the British government in the past to serve their selfish interests. Today, we look back on just some of the countless ways Irish Protestants have helped nationalism, both culturally and politically.
Henry Grattan, a Dublin-born adherent to the Church of Ireland, stood in the Irish House of Commons at the end of the eighteenth century and was leader of the Irish Patriot Party from 1775 to the Act of Union in 1801. The party pushed for legislative independence and the lifting of the archaic and discriminatory Penal Laws which hindered the lives of Ireland’s majority Catholic population. Grattan proved to be instrumental in the legal processes of 1782 which saw the rescindment of the infamous Poyning’s Law (Statute of Drogheda): “An Act that no parliament be holden in this land until the Acts be certified into England.” The inter-period of 1782 to the Act of Union became known as ‘Grattan’s Parliament.’ Though Grattan was neither a republican nor a supporter of complete independence, his input was nonetheless significant.
It was around this time that the Society of United Irishmen, a political organisation, was set up by a group of liberals in the Protestant Ascendancy – the restrictive ruling class over Ireland at the time. The organisation initially sought parliamentary reform, but later steered its focus on a more ‘radical’ aim – a democratic, egalitarian Irish republic separate from Britain and its governance. The concessions made by King Louis XVI to the revolutionaries in France, coupled with the remarkable success of the American Revolution, the United Irishmen were inspired to pursue a similar endeavour in Ireland. The organisation strove to see religious and denominational tolerance, reinforced by their staunch support for Catholic emancipation. Although it was set up entirely by Protestants in Belfast, the Society quickly spread across different communities across Ireland and a strong secondary branch was birthed in Dublin. An alliance with the so-called ‘Defenders,’ an agrarian Catholic resistance movement, increased Catholic support. Of the most prominent members of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell were Anglican, while Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, William Sinclair, William Drennan, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and James Napper Tandy were Presbyterian.
In 1796, the Society were aided by a fleet of 15,000 French soldiers under the command of General Louis Lazare Hoche; however, a sea storm prevented the effective landing of the troops and they were forced to return to Brittany. Two years later, on 24 May, the rebellion was launched in the region in and around Dublin, but due to last-minute intel delivered to the British by informants, the insurrection was not off to a flying start. The rebellion spread to Co. Antrim under McCracken, and the county was almost entirely rebel-held for a brief duration of time. The United Irishmen were most successful in Co. Wexford, but after the defeat at Vinegar Hill on 21 June, the situation dramatically deteriorated for the republicans. On 22 August, another French fleet arrived – this time consisting of 1,000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Joseph Amable Humbert – large swathes of Connacht were briefly taken over by the rebels, but were defeated. Two months later, 3,000 French soldiers, alongside Wolfe Tone, attempted to land near Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal but were met by a much larger British Royal Navy squadron and fought for three hours in an event known as the Battle of Tory Island. The French/Irish were defeated and Wolfe Tone was captured. He requested death by firing squad but was denied, so committed suicide by slitting his throat. The United Irishmen gradually disbanded after this and the Act of Union was enacted as a result in 1801, which saw Ireland unified with Britain.
In the eighteenth century, following the Act of Union and dissolution of the Irish parliament, the Protestant Ascendancy experienced an identity crisis and many of whom left Ireland for London. Public opinion shifted after a massacre occurred at Scullabogue, Co. Wexford during the 1798 Rebellion. The atrocity was carried out by Defenders against 100-200 (mostly Protestant) unarmed men, women and children who were perceived as loyal to the crown. The event has rightly gone down in history as a shameful, disheartening one, but the way in which the British government used the massacre to reconvert republican Protestants was a major point in Ireland’s story. Those Protestant Irishmen and Irishwomen of Ulster who rebelled lost the desire to secede, primarily due to sentiments of bitterness and resentment towards Catholics. Many Catholics, on the other hand, harboured parallel feelings towards Protestants. The failed 1803 Rebellion in Dublin was led by a Protestant nationalist named Robert Emmet, who was executed after his capture by British forces.
In the nineteenth century, Anglican Isaac Butt from Co. Donegal founded the Irish Parliamentary Party and campaigned for the reintroduction of an Irish parliament. The party was launched as a moderate one, and towards the end of his political career, Butt was opposed to fellow Protestant and party member Charles Stewart Parnell’s advocacy of obstructionism in the House of Commons. Parnell, his indirect successor, also acted as President of the Irish Land League, which called for an end to landlordism and discrimination of tenants. Parnell’s fortitude and defiance, on top of his alleged impressive oratory skills, provided him with the necessary characteristics to stand up for Ireland’s rights.
Culturally, the contributions of Irish Protestants in the literary revival was profound, the participation of W.B. Yeats from Co. Sligo and Lady Gregory from Co. Galway has undoubtedly changed Irish culture forever. Whereas Protestant nationalist Douglas Hyde from Co. Roscommon, who was fluent in Irish and was affectionately known as ‘An Craobhín Aoibhinn,’ stood at the forefront of the Gaelic revival and was the first leader of the Gaelic League. Hyde was also, notably, the first President of Ireland from 1938-1945. Hyde acts as a perfect example of how Irish is not just a language for Catholics, as is absurdly stated by many unionists today. Protecting and embracing the language is not misusing it as a political weapon, opponents are simply making excuses, and rather ludicrous excuses at that. The feminist activism of Protestant-born suffragette Maud Gonne-MacBride and the integral, indispensable involvement of Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz in the 1916 Easter Rising are also certainly noteworthy.
The ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the British Empire, no different to what was observed on the Indian subcontinent between Hindus and Muslims, cast a diverging rift between the Christian denominations on this island. It is particularly interesting that most Protestants in the North, if not all, can trace some familial connection or another to rebels and activists who fought for Irish nationhood in the 1798 Rebellion. The rift still exists today, but there is hope that reconciliation and mutual understanding will heal the wounds felt on both sides. We, as Irishmen and Irishwomen, regardless of our faith, have plenty to thank the aforementioned Protestant patriots for. Sectarianism is the detriment to Irish unity and should never be utilised by any sane individual, now is the time to eradicate hate – we are all Irish. Make no mistake, Protestants can very well be nationalists, and influential ones at that.