"We ... are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence."
- William Butler Yeats, in a speech to the Irish Senate, 1925
Someone I work with noticed recently that I was eating meat on Friday and asked, "what kind of Catholic are you?" (I get asked questions like this every year during Lent, when Catholics are forbidden to eat meat on Fridays.) I said, "I'm not Catholic."
"You're not?," came back the confused reply.
"Protestant," I said.
"But you're Irish."
Yes, I am. But I'm not a Roman Catholic and haven't been for almost all of my adult life. I'm an Episcopalian (Anglican). And I'm Irish. And the one does not reduce or contradict the other. And I am hardly the first or only person of Irish ancestry not to be a Roman Catholic, whether by birth or by choice. Ireland has sizable numbers of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other Protestants, as well as small numbers of Jews, Muslims, and other groups.
It is always baffling to me when people seem never to have heard of such a thing as an Irish Protestant. Do you watch or read the news? Ever heard of some troubles in Northern Ireland? So every year I find myself explaining to people that being Irish and being Catholic do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
Protestants have had a powerful influence on Ireland since the early 1600s. Those who live in what is now called Northern Ireland are mainly of Scottish ancestry, tend to be Presbyterians, and are known as Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish. In the Republic of Ireland, most Protestants are Anglicans. The Church of Ireland, an Anglican church, is the second largest religious group in the Republic and is the only church in Ireland that is currently growing, both as a percentage of the population and in actual numbers. Irish Anglicans have historically been known as the Anglo-Irish. Some are of mixed English and Irish ancestry. Some are fully of English ancestry but their families have been in Ireland for hundreds of years. Some are fully Gaelic Irish by ancestry but have an ancestor or ancestors who converted to the Anglican religion any number of generations back. Some are simply anglicised Irish who have themselves adopted the Anglican faith and some other English ways. In any event, many of the most notable Irish people in history, including some current celebrities, are Anglo-Irish Protestants.
Many of Ireland's most famous writers have been Protestants. Poet/playwright William Butler Yeats, playwright George Bernard Shaw, playwright Sean O'Casey, novelist Bram Stoker (Dracula), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), and poet Samuel Beckett were all Anglo-Irish.
Two members of the band U2 -- Bono and Larry Mullen -- are Irish Protestants. So is singer Van Morrisson.
Arthur Guinness, the businessman who founded the world-famous Guinness brewery and brought us that much-celebrated black beer of the same name, was an Anglo-Irishman. In fact, the original ale made by Guinness, a precursor to the modern Guinness Stout, was called "Guinness Black Protestant Porter" and Guinness is still sometimes referred to by its "Protestant Porter" moniker. Yes, every time you lift a pint of Guinness, you are drinking a product invented by one of Ireland's most prominent Protestant families.
The first president of the Republic of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (a founder of the Gaelic League), and a subsequent president, Erskine Childers, were Protestants. The aforementioned poet/playwright William Butler Yeats was a prominent member of the Irish Senate in its early years and, in a 1925 speech opposing a law banning divorce (quoted above in part) vociferously defended the dignity of his fellow Anglo-Irish Protestants after southern Ireland achieved Home Rule and a Catholic majority came to power.
Famous Irish liberators Theobald Wolfe Tone, Roger Casement, Charles Stewart Parnell, Robert Emmet, and Lord Edward Fitzgerald were all Protestants who fought for Ireland's independence from Britain.
Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, an Anglo-Irish general who later became a British Prime Minister.
Actor Barry Fitzgerald, who played Michaeleen Flynn in The Quiet Man, was an Irish Protestant, as was his brother who played the Rev. Mr. Playfair, a Church of Ireland minister, in the same film. For those who know the movie, the chapel at which Sean attends Mass and meets Mary Kate Danagher was, in reality, a Protestant church.
The most noteworthy churches in Dublin (St. Patrick's Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral) and Cork (St. Finbar's Cathedral) are Anglican, not Catholic.
Several presidents of the United States were of Irish Protestant heritage, including Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Of the thirty-odd million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, fully half are Protestant. The Scotch-Irish are particularly well-represented in the Appalachian states, particularly West Virginia.
So please don't assume that being Irish is synonymous with being Catholic just because that big Vatican flag is marched up Fifth Avenue alongside the Irish flag on St. Patrick's Day and because the parade starts in front of the Roman Catholic St. Pat's Cathedral. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish fraternal organisation that restricts its membership to Catholics, has controlled that parade for many, many years and the AOH has done its utmost to foster the notion that one cannot be truly Irish if one is not an adherent of the Roman Church. But look up the history of the New York St. Patrick's Day parade, which stretches back to about 1762, and you will find that the parade was founded by whom? Irish Protestants. Sea, sin ceart. (Yeah, that's right.)
Beannachtai na Feile Padraig! (Happy St. Patrick's Day!)