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Protestants in Ireland

  • Profile 

    Followers of the Church of Ireland (Anglicans) number 126,400, Presbyterians 24,200, Apostolic or Pentecostals 13,400, and other Christians 37,400 (2016 Census). 

    The Protestants live throughout Ireland but they are more numerous in the counties immediately bordering Northern Ireland: Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Leitrim, the first three once part of Ulster. There are also Protestant communities in Wicklow, Laoighis and Carlow near Dublin, with others based in Dublin itself. 

    Historical context 

    In 1536 King Henry VIII of England persuaded the Irish Parliament to declare him head of the Irish Church. The Anglican Church remained the state church until 1871 when it was disestablished in Ireland. The Irish rebelled against Protestantism in the sixteenth century and from the 1590s Protestant English and Scottish armies took land from the Roman Catholic Irish. 

    Scottish Presbyterians emigrated to Ireland, especially Ulster, in the seventeenth century and created the Presbytery of Ulster in 1642. 

    A Protestant aristocracy was created. However, most Irish remained Roman Catholic with the exception of Ulster, where people of all classes were converted to Protestantism. In 1800 the Dublin government was abolished and Ireland was ruled from London. Roman Catholics were allowed to vote in 1829. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic Irish campaigned for home rule or independence from England in the rest of the nineteenth century. 

    In the early twentieth century, as the idea of Home Rule became more acceptable in the Westminster Parliament, the Protestants in Ulster built up a separatist Unionist movement against rule from Dublin. The paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed in 1912 funded partly by the British Conservative Party, which was renamed the Conservative and Unionist Party. 

    Some Protestants in the rest of Ireland planned to leave in order not to be ruled by a Roman Catholic government in Dublin with a legacy of bitterness against Protestant landowners and Protestant rule. Some moved to Ulster, but only six of the nine historic counties of Ulster were included in the 1920 Unionist province that was governed from Belfast. 

    The Irish Republican Army (IRA) attacked the Royal Irish Constabulary at the same time as Sinn Féin declared the Irish Republic in 1919. The British administration declared martial law and the violence escalated. While the IRA attacked police and military targets and prominent British administrators, reprisals by the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary affected the general Roman Catholic population. In Ulster the UVF attacked the Roman Catholic community. 

    Some Roman Catholics took revenge on Protestants or intimidated them, especially in the border counties with Northern Ireland: Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. The bitterness between Protestants and Roman Catholics was so great that one-third of the Protestant community had left the Irish Republic by 1926. After 1926 intermarriage led to a further decline in the Protestant community, since the Roman Catholic Church requires the children of mixed marriages to be raised as Roman Catholics. 

    Article 44 of the 1937 Irish Constitution was discriminatory against Protestants – declaring that ‘the State recognizes the special position of the Roman Catholic Church as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens’. However, the Constitution also guaranteed freedom of religious faith. The special position of the Roman Catholic Church was removed from the Constitution in 1972 after a referendum in which 88 per cent of the poll voted to abolish it. 

    Current issues 

    Protestants still include a number of large landowners and they hold a disproportionate number of high-status jobs. The affluence and social status of some Protestants leaves them unaffected or less affected by the indirect discrimination against Protestants in employment, education and housing. 

    Trinity College, Dublin, the oldest university in Ireland, is still a largely Protestant institution with an international reputation of long standing. It is regarded as an elite university but not the flagship of learning, a role accorded to the Roman Catholic University College Dublin. 

    There are Protestant schools in the main cities and some receive public funding.
    Because they are few in number, because of the bitterness of the past, continuing prejudice and inter-denominational strife in Northern Ireland, Protestants have kept a low profile generally. Intermarriage with Roman Catholics and the requirement of the Roman Catholic Church that the children of such marriages should be raised in the Roman Catholic faith has dispersed the community. 

    The culture of Ireland is heterogeneously Roman Catholic, although the majority of Roman Catholics no longer attend Mass. The Roman Catholic Church traditionally had a large influence over education, the media, health care and social services. 

    The number of Irish Anglicans has increased since the late 1990s on account of African Anglican immigrants. The Anglican dioceses cover all of Ireland. The Presbyterian Church has presbyteries in Carlow, Cavan, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Kildare, Limerick and Monaghan. There are approximately 100 Methodist congregations in the Republic of Ireland. 

    In 2002 the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland signed a covenant to share resources and encourage joint worship and chaplaincy.

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