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Niall Meehan

The Irish Establishment 1879-1914, by Fergus Campbell, Oxford University Press, 320 pp, £55, ISBN: 978-0199233229

Fergus Campbell’s new book builds on and extends his 2005 study Land and Revolution. In the latter, agrarian conflict leading to land reform is seen as a movement from below, in which mainly landless tenant farmers wrenched control, slowly, frustratingly, achingly, often violently, over many years, from extremely wealthy landlords. By 1918, almost two-thirds of previously tenanted land had been purchased (the remaining third took another fifty years to obtain and disperse). Land Acts between 1870 and 1909 compelled landlords to sell and “undermined the economic power of the Irish landlord class”. This from a starting point in 1881 in which two hundred and ninety-one people owned 7,213,310 acres, or about a third of Irish land. More, but not too many more, owned most of the rest. These “were among the wealthiest individuals in the United Kingdom”, and also owned land in Britain itself.

The removal of this significant political deadweight may have contributed as much to the modernisation of Britain as it did to the development of Irish society. Campbell shows, however, not as much as we might like to think or may have been led to believe. He examines the people who ruled Ireland in the years prior to the achievement of partial independence and how they ruled it. He supplies reasoned socio-economic investigation of what led to the 1916 Rising, a significant advance over the out-of-the-blue-cathartic-shock explanation beloved of supporters and detractors alike. The book contains seven chapters, entitled simply, Land, Administration, Policing, Politics, Business, Religion and Conclusion. In each, he applies himself directly to describing “what it says on the tin”. In some ways the book’s deceptively simple and direct prose style and extraction of facts from figures is reminiscent of the standard British sociological text Who Rules Britain (1994), by John Scott. Whether this book becomes the standard Irish historical text on the subject depends on factors peculiar to historical inquiry in or about Ireland.

Campbell examines, analyses and explains the evidence unencumbered by the “still, small voice” that has been peering over the shoulder of Irish historians since IRA violence erupted in the North in the 1970s. While this is refreshing, it is wise to instruct the reader on the nature of a missing subtext.

Chapter five, “Business”, begins: “In the course of 1902 and 1903, the Leader newspaper published a series of investigative articles and letters which aimed to expose the allegedly sectarian recruiting practices of a number of prominent Irish businesses.” Now, DP Moran’s The Leader has historical baggage. Alarm bells are ringing in the heads of readers versed in currently dominant versions of Irish history. Those who may wish to criticise Campbell (who ignores commentary on the editor) may start and quickly finish a critique at this point. They would be wiser to ignore Campbell altogether as the weight of his evidence will not be shifted by a dismissive flick of the academic wrist. That, indeed seems to be the sensible course revisionist historians have adopted. There is no engagement. Irish historians do not debate significant differences. Generally, they congratulate each other on levels of respective scholarship and perhaps worry a difference or two over some peripheral detail. Enforced assimilation is usually enough to prevent too much excitement in the academic undergrowth. Though in the public domain since August 2009, this book has yet to receive a significant critical engagement from historians holding alternative views. Significant works of history are usually reviewed in The Irish Times. This one was not. Perhaps time will rectify these deficiencies.

The problem is a variation on Conor Cruise O’Brien’s disapproving answer to Yeats’s poetic question on the 1916 executions, “Did that play of mine send certain men the English shot?”: “Yes it did.” Irish nationalist historiography, perhaps more worryingly according to O’Brien, has stimulated shooting ever since. This Jiminy Cricket has been whispering in the ear of academic historians since the 1970s. It has created a state-centred history whose imperatives are second-guessed over and above that of the evidence.

However, the writing of Irish history since the 1970s was also initially a movement toward comprehension of socio-economic complexity, in reaction to nationalist simplicities. There was quite a lot of the latter after the state encouraged the Catholic Church to act as its ideological and institutional linchpin. Revolutionary leaders became plaster saints as the vibrancy of the revolutionary period gradually dimmed in memory. Irishness and Catholicism were assumed to be as unchanging an aspect of nationalist consciousness as Mass-going on Sunday. It was as unfulfilling ultimately as the intellectual and actual poverty that was the increasingly perceived reality of Irish life by the 1960s.

Marianne Elliott was on comparatively safe ground, therefore, when she wrote in When God Took Sides, “Conor Cruise O’Brien had a point when he described [DP] Moran’s [Leader] newspaper as providing the ‘opportunity to look at Catholic nationalism with the lid off’.” Similarly, in his biography Conor, Donald Akenson, declared that Moran “spewed forth a stream of the most narrow-minded and hate-filled Irish nationalism”. Indeed, suggested O’Brien in Ancestral Voices, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (1995), “it would not be quite fair to say that Moran hated Protestants, but it would be very near the truth”. Furthermore, Moran “wanted to tap anti-Semitism for anti-Protestant and Anti-British purposes”. Here be revealed Irish nationalism’s hidden underbelly: “the Christian Brothers and The Leader are much nearer to the truth than the official version is”.

To cite Moran’s newspaper on sectarianism, on this evidence, may appear like seeking guidance from Joseph Goebbels on Jewish employment practices in pre-Nazi Germany. There are, however, unavoidable and confusing facts yet to be distilled in the mix. After a seven-page segue into James Joyce’s resistance to “ancestral” nationalism and his (O’Brien’s) mother’s resemblance (or otherwise) to a character in Joyce’s “The Dead”, the author returns to the point and wonders: “my father’s contributions to DP Moran’s Leader are something of a puzzle”. Francis Cruise O’Brien,

was much more at home with liberal Protestants (and post-Protestants) and “lapsed” Catholics, like himself, than he was with strongly-believing Catholics, such as my Aunt Mary, Tom Kettle’s widow, and my father’s bête noire.

How to explain? The answer to the puzzle lies in the power

fierce Catholic-nationalists tend to have over the milder kind … in thrall to those who hear [ancestral voices] loud and clear, calling for vengeance.

We come then to the climax:

The IRA draws on the same source of authority.

Despite the assertion’s definitive finality, enough usually to deflate further enquiry, the preceding explanation seems a tad mystical, mystical anti-Catholic nationalism perhaps. Who to consult on unravelling the mystery? A Protestant perhaps.

In a volume edited by O’Brien in 1960, The Shaping of Modern Ireland, based on the 1956 Radio Éireann Thomas Davis lectures, Brian Inglis, a historian of Irish newspapers and Irish Times journalist, reveals that DP Moran was indeed very Catholic in his religious outlook but also Catholic in another sense in his distastes, particularly toward those “who were travelling the same road”. The Fenians were “a Masonic-type secret society”, Sinn Féin, a “green Hungarian band”. As for “the republican ideal of martyrdom”, Inglis described Moran’s view as being that “had the British authorities not acted in so lunatic a fashion to the 1916 rising” by shooting the leaders, “it might have been regarded as cant to this day”. Moran was the enemy of “cant” in all its forms. He was

so refreshingly outspoken that he could be forgiven by his targets – the Protestants say, whom he assailed as “sourfaces”.

The reason being that “often his abuse was directed at people who deserved it”. The fair-minded generosity of Inglis’s observation aside, should we be uneasy that Protestants were assailed on the basis of an unfortunate physiognomy?

To return to Campbell, the truth is they were not and, indeed, have not been. “Sourface” was simply Moran’s journalese for those who practised anti-Catholic discrimination. He popularised further insulting terminology that still resonates, “West Briton” and “Shoneen” for example. However, Moran was too idiosyncratic to bear the weight of a critique of Irish nationalism and his paper’s journalism too interesting, for all its faults, to be classed as simply the outpourings of a bigot. As a straw target, however, he does fit the bill nicely. In a process of reverse historical psychology Moran, who complained of religious bigotry, becomes the bigot. Few bother to question the verdict for fear of being classed as sectarian. Nationalists fear most the accusation of sectarianism. The historians have committed the fundamental methodological error of not considering Moran in his historical context. Rather, too often they have cherry-picked suitably offensive quotations and advanced them as evidence of anti-Protestant bigotry. This may make for a useful historian in the present, but it does not make that argument historical.

But enough of this ‑ and luckily for us Campbell simply ignores the “problem” (though I thought I should mention it).

When “MILITANT” wrote to The Leader on January 11th, 1902 to complain about “religious intolerance” on the Great Southern and Western Railway he reflected the actual situation. As in the Great Northern Railway, “Catholics tended to occupy the lower status position of clerk and messenger, with a smaller number of Catholic engineers, inspectors, and station masters”. This was also true of the Great Southern and Western and of the Midland and Western railways, which also contained “both catholic directors and shareholders”, albeit a minority.

Some historians, noted by Campbell, claim that prior to the attainment of political independence aforementioned Catholic nationalists were achieving their rightful place in business, administrative, political and other sectors of society. In effect, 1916 and the War of Independence were, not to put too fine a point on it, overkill. Not so, argues Campbell, who marshals an array of statistical information in each chapter in a clear and methodical manner to indicate why not. Take again the business elite. In 1883, 17 per cent were Catholic, in 1911, 19 per cent. The leadership of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) became less Catholic, 27.5 per cent in 1881 and 14 per cent in 1911, the eve of the false dawn of Home Rule. Unlike in the rest of the UK, there was little or no recruitment from the ranks. Officers were nominated externally, based on family loyalty to the British state. The force was paramilitary, it was the Irish garrison, but its ranks, 70 per cent Catholic, were not to be trusted to run the force. Of course the minority of Catholics who did become senior officers were, like their Protestant counterparts, rich in both loyalty and land. Appropriately so, since the RIC spent much of its time evicting tenants on behalf of landlords. And this leads to another finding: senior positions in the administration were the preserve mainly of Protestants and the rich landed elite. Those who had or retained ownership of significant acreage also morphed quite easily into the business elite. Far from a “greening” of Irish society prior to 1916, there was, says Campbell, a significant amount of “oranging”.

An inverted pyramid described a society that was a sort of Northern Ireland pre-1968 writ large. The process continued up north for a long time after 1922 because Catholics were a successfully subdued minority. In the South they were the majority. Therefore, it occurs that a connection between the nationalist revolt post-1968 in Northern Ireland and that of 1916-22 may derive from ethnic discrimination and structural inequality being present on both occasions.

It might have been quite easy, in these circumstances, for the nationalist majority to have become aggressively anti-Protestant, to have become the DP Morans of historical imagination. That they did not tells us something about the nature of nationalist opposition to British rule and also support for it.


In an intriguing memoir, Alex Findlater, a member and historian of the Dublin merchant family of the same name, notes the role of a family member, Captain Harry de Courcy Wheeler, “Staff Captain to General Lowe for the duration of the [1916] rising, [who] took the surrender of various leaders, including from his wife’s first cousin, Countess Markievicz”. Findlater notes that de Courcy Wheeler’s “subsequent friendship with Éamon de Valera and Sean T O’Kelly may therefore seem a bit surprising”. It may not seem so strange when we note Findlater’s account of the emerging rift between southern Irish and northern Irish (or “Ulster”) unionism. This was not simply a rejection of northern unionism’s more virulent sectarianism.

At the Irish Convention on November 26th, 1917 Lord Midleton, Chairman of the Irish Unionist Alliance, on behalf of “Unionists of the South and East”, conceded the demand for Home Rule “with fair representation for the [Protestant] minority and other effective safeguards”. On January 19th, 1919 the Irish Unionist Alliance replaced Midleton and his supporters for “making a complete surrender to Home rule under pressure”. Midleton’s group resigned. The unionist monolith was formally broken on an all-Ireland basis. Unionists who thought like Midleton were free to seek alliances within the broader community. This had been coming once the Ulster Unionists began arguing for Ulster separation from Home Rule, which they later reduced, in what was seen as compounding the betrayal, to six of its nine counties. While certainly viewed as a ruse to thwart the entire scheme of Irish self-government by the Dublin-born Edward Carson, it became an end in itself. Southern unionists’ “refus[al] to believe that the Ulster Unionists are prepared to desert a quarter of a million of their fellow countrymen, whose cause they formerly believe to the sacred” had to confront the reality. Many southern Protestants become traitors to their assumed caste, while others simply adapted their economic interests to political changes, changes that were part of a continuity of interest. Many Protestants, of course, were already convinced nationalists or republicans. A minority significantly large and evident to undermine a unionist and British imposition of sectarian labels.

Alex Findlater refers to Adam Findlater, “a southern Irish unionist businessman”, and the demand for a separate economic and fiscal regime from Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. These demands were in tune with the new Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) economic policies of Arthur Griffith in 1905, and with the semi-Keynesian and protectionist policies initiated by de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government in the 1930s. Such policies protected and promoted indigenous economic activity, which was often under the control of a Protestant business class who quickly reconciled themselves to life in the new state, as did most of their co-religionists, who were never persecuted on the basis of their religion or perceived nationality. Sectarianism in Ireland has to be seen in its political and economic context. It is not merely an isolated or mystical aspect of religious “culture”. That is one of the main strengths of The Irish Establishment.

There were those, however, who remained loyal to their ascribed caste.

The rescinding of legal and political handicaps affecting Roman Catholics during the nineteenth century and the demand for Irish self-rule were portrayed as a dangerous reversal of sectarian fortune. Catholics still failed to attain the same levels of industrious productivity as Protestants, who had a considerable head start. Poverty was seen as a justification of inequality, of reinforcing it and of resistance to democratic imperatives. An alternative religious imperative called forth street-preaching Protestant evangelicals in the 1890s, who used public reaction to their denunciations of Romanism to argue that Irish Home Rule would indeed be an intolerant Rome Rule. Even in the absence of the desired hostility, the incongruously named but very well-resourced Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM) complained in 1914 that nationalist “party leaders ... in order to impress English voters” had “pressure brought to bear on Romanists” to abstain from confrontation and thus appear “no longer intolerant”. Conor Cruise O’Brien would later echo this (heads I win, tails you lose) point by suggesting that in order to “appeal, in tone and form, to liberal opinion”, “political Catholicism in the South … generally … discreet, pervasive, sly” had to “learn the liberal language” during the nineteenth century. This was the previously mentioned “official” version of nationalism.

These efforts associated the Church of Ireland in the public mind with an anti-democratic outlook, a view exacerbated by formal opposition to Home Rule. This, in fact, is what encouraged an association of ethnic and religious identity. Campbell makes the point that “The British state’s attempt to build an alliance with the Catholic middle class” in the nineteenth century was an inevitable consequence of the decision in 1829 to allow Catholics to vote, gradually allowing more people to vote and the 1872 secret ballot. The percentage of adults (men) permitted to vote rose from 4.4 per cent in 1881 to a dizzying 15.7 per cent in 1911. More voting, however, meant more Catholics allowed to vote, since, while a minority at the top, they outnumbered everyone else at the bottom. It caused an “increased polarisation between Catholic and Protestant”.

For many Protestants, “it was a betrayal of their years of service to the Crown”. The ICM, an evangelical Protestant society, was one of a number within the Church of Ireland. It spent most of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century adjusting with difficulty to a relentless decline in status, numbers, income and influence. Numbers fell from 853,160 Anglicans in 1834 to 693,357 in 1861 – though the percentage in the population increased as the Famine of 1845-47 killed comparatively more Catholics. Two thousand two hundred and twenty-one Anglican priests in 1871 reduced to 1,828 in 1881. Power to appoint bishops was transferred from the British state to a combination of clergy and laity, with evangelical fundamentalists taking the reins. So much so that “the Church of Ireland became more like the Presbyterian church as the 19th Century progressed”. At the same time Catholics were building bigger churches and growing institutionally all the while. The Maynooth grant of 1845, in effect a British subsidy for the production of priests, was especially galling.

An ultimately futile attempt of the Established Church, post-Catholic emancipation in 1829, to insist on control of the newly established national school system in 1832 set the tone for much that was to follow. It subverted the initially multi-denominational status of that education system, one the Catholic hierarchy was prepared then to accept. The Ecclesiastical Temporalities Act of 1833 reduced the Church of Ireland’s thirty-five dioceses to twelve with ten bishops.

The largely English-funded ICM arrived mid-century and fought a spirited rearguard action aimed at reversing inexorable forces. As Miriam Moffitt, author of Soupers and Jumpers: the Protestant Missions in Connemara, pointed out, the ICM saw the Famine as “not only ... an opportunity to convert the Romanists of Ireland but also ... a judgment from God on Irish Roman Catholics for having stubbornly clung to their religion: The truth of the Scriptures was verified in the groans of the dying, and their wails for the dead”, which the ICM saw as a fulfilment of biblical prophecy.

Its object was:

To adopt any measure that may tend to the conversion of the Roman Catholic population of Ireland by means consistent with the principles of the Church of Ireland and England, and to maintain friendly communication with all Protestant societies seeking the spiritual welfare of Ireland.

Its founder, the English millenarian clergyman Alexander Dallas, explained: “It is a war of extermination; and so it ought to be, for the contest is between truth and error.” How to stop the contagion: “the best method is to carry the war into the enemy’s country”. Instead of illiterate and idle papists, “an enlightened people will supply their place; and instead of demoralising the inhabitants of England, by the vices and deceptions of Romanism, and feeding the cravings of a vulture like priesthood, [they] will disseminate (if they are educated in Ireland in the truths and doctrines of vital Christianity) peace and goodwill amongst men”.

The 1861 census demonstrated the futility (but not to the ICM) of spending hundreds of thousands of pounds (millions in today’s terms) trying to turn impoverished and disloyal Catholics into Protestants. Its failure was the precursor of inevitable disestablishment and formal separation from the Church of England at the end of the 1860s. There was a reactive shift into low churchmanship and the invention of a mythological Irishness traced to St Patrick: Anglo-Norman Romanists invaded Ireland in 1169 on orders from a perfidious English Pope, only for the status quo to be re-established post reformation. According to Kurt Bowen, these ideas lasted well into the 1960s and helped insulate church members in the South from ideological contamination by the said Romanists. The Catholic Church’s cruel 1908 Ne Temere decree, applied worldwide and requiring Protestants marrying Catholics to agree to bring up children as Catholics, encouraged almost complete social separation.

Little was done to tackle structural discrimination prior to independence. After the violence of 1916, cosmetic measures, such as the novelty of a Catholic head of the RIC, were attempted. While Campbell does not peer past 1922, his work suggests pathways toward linking in with later developments.

The steady and also relative decline of Protestant numbers in the nineteenth century, which continued until 1960, can be substantially traced to the loss of pre-democratic and colonially based privileges. When the state was set up in 1922, aside from hostility faced by ardent loyalists, it may be assumed that prospects in the remaining parts of the Empire or in Britain itself seemed preferable to life alongside people British propagandists assured them during 1919-21would shoot them if allowed to rule them.

What is perhaps surprising is that Protestants, less than 4 per cent of the southern population, remained disproportionately represented within the socio-economic elite. For example, as late as 1972 and 1973, 25 per cent of senior executives in banking and industry, respectively, were Protestants. Between 1926 and 1991 the proportion of the Protestant population within the three highest socio-economic occupational groups rose from 32.5 per cent to 39.5 per cent, twice the Roman Catholic proportion on both occasions. The author of this observation, former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, noted in Reflections on the Irish State that “the advantages thus enjoyed by Protestants … [have] never been publicly challenged, so far as I am aware they have never even been publicly adverted to”. Not only that, as I pointed out recently, employment discrimination against Catholics continued until the 1970s, with little if any publicly expressed antipathy. This is probably because this glass ceiling on Catholics in managerial positions affected aspirational professional Catholics who had lost touch with the language and politics of equality. They had no trade union in which it could be expressed as a grievance. In addition, to reinforce the point, in their residual nationalist consciousness, complaining about Protestants would sound sectarian.

Both main parties had Protestant support. Fianna Fail’s protectionist policy protected Protestant-owned business which might have gone to the wall if subject to competition, and British companies setting up fictitious subsidiaries to get around tariff barriers gave employment to many Irish Protestant directors representing the company as in beneficial Irish ownership, a legal requirement. As FitzGerald again notes, Protestants were mostly unionists in 1922, but gradually ceased to be as time wore on. While he sees this structural privilege as a beckoning call to northern unionists, they see it quite rightly as a sign that loss of the British connection is a gradual loss of that identity. Why give up a sectarian identification of religion and identity that guarantees privilege for merely the privileges, which, like everything else, will erode in time.

Protestants at different points along the socio-economic scale in the South ended up with interests to protect little different from Roman Catholic comparators. It was just that there were more at the higher end, a factor interacting with inequalities produced by sectarian health, education and welfare provision. While ideological Catholicism was irritating and occasionally directly sectarian, in the main it controlled the majority and their subordination in an unequal society.

The two main Christian traditions in Ireland ended up with separate, though parallel, priorities in their relationship to the new Irish state. The activities of the dominant Roman Catholic Church institutions have been subject to extensive critical scrutiny, those from the Protestant community in the historical context of their emergence during the nineteenth century. The decline of Roman Catholic influence in Ireland today is seen as central to the emergence of a more secular and pluralist polity, to the extent that it is viewed as a case of cause and effect, a view put forward by Roy Foster in Luck and the Irish (2007).

In the widest sense the transformation of attitudes to authority, which found its way into the mainstream of politics with surprising speed, suggests a reassertion of attitudes in some areas of life in the [Irish] Republic that are ‑ with a lower case p at least – protestant.

Foster linked authoritarianism in politics to a nexus of Catholicism and nationalism. The Irish state was thought demonstrably conservative because it was Catholic, DP Moran’s inevitable legacy.

In fact, institutional Protestantism shared many concerns often associated with Irish Catholicism. In 1938, for example, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry warned in Dublin of the effects of “toney wine” and “young women in a good social position being ruined by cocktails”. That same year, the Dublin Presbyterian synod was exercised by “young people of both sexes becoming addicted to what might be termed the ‘cock-tail habit’”. The Rev JC Breakey continued, “such selfish irresponsible empty headed pagans were preparing the way for communism”. He noted “a large measure of agreement” between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches “and a certain amount of co-operation” on the need for sobriety. The Rev RK Hanna, who sat on the managing committee of the mainly Church of Ireland-associated Bethany Home, was concerned also to “give the devil his due”, since “the government here had a censorship of films which was quite effective”. However, said another, censorship of “evil literature” was undermined by cross-Border smuggling.

Attitudes among the religiously committed in both communities differed mainly in how they regarded each other, little in terms of those targeted for attention. In both communities self-appointed religiously influenced bodies regulated sexual activity outside marriage. Single mothers and their “illegitimate” children were separated from their families and community, before being separated from each other. At the 1928 annual meeting of the Bethany Home the Rev H Watson said, “if they had not the home, the children would be sent out into the world with the brand of Cain”. The Bethany Home (sometimes “House”) in Dublin appeared to cater solely for Protestant single pregnant women and their “unwanted” children. It was, according to Kurt Bowen’s definitive study of the Church of Ireland in southern Ireland, “the major facility for Protestant women in need of institutional care”. It was a residual product of the efforts of the ICM to evangelise Ireland, but served also to illustrate how, post-independence, the religiously committed in both communities were permitted to define the boundaries of sexual activity and then to police “offending” women, who were left to cope with the consequences. If Roman Catholics became more liberal, tolerant and ‘lower case p’ protestant, during the 1960s and 1970s, southern Protestants may have too.

Fergus Campbell has set a standard of historical explanation and has consolidated a body of evidence that will stimulate debate and fresh insights. There is one problem. At £55, the book is too expensive, though, if I thought like Conor Cruise O’Brien, I would view it as dangerous and suggest that the price of too many encountering it might be too high.

Niall Meehan is Head of the Journalism and Media Faculty in Griffith College Dublin. He is researching attempts to re-frame the War of Independence as a pre-enactment of the Northern Ireland conflict post 1968.