Ireland: culture & religion, 1912-49

Contributors: Mary N. Harris & Brian Fallon.

1. Introduction

The few decades following independence are sometimes painted as a kind of Dark Age dominated by literary censorship, insularity, sexual puritanism, and provincial insularism. There is good reason for all these charges, but they are only one side of the picture—the negative side. A closer and more sympathetic study reveals remarkable variety in beliefs and attitudes, a high degree of literary and artistic vitality, and a much more “European” view of culture and contemporary events than it has been customary to believe. During this period belief in the Catholic Church, was almost unquestioned and largely uncritical. The scandals and divisions of the present had not yet emerged to weaken this monolithic faith and bring doubt among ordinary people. Religion guaranteed moral and hence social stability; and quite simply, the mass of people could scarcely have got through life without it. Rural life, in particular, was largely built around it and religious ritual was part of the very texture of everyday existence; it was often the only gleam of spirituality in lives which were hard and very basic. However, there were also thinking, liberal-minded Catholics who were sincere believers but reserved the right to judge for themselves on certain matters. Irish Catholicism between 1920 and 1950 had a good deal more intellectual vitality and sophistication than it is fashionable to admit today. The writings of Kate O’Brien, Seán Ó Faoláin, and many more are not wholly comprehensible without an appreciation of it.

2. How nationalistic?

The nationalism which carried over from the War of Independence has similarly been attacked in our day as obsessive and monolithic. Its strength and virulence were hardly surprising, however, since the issue of independence, or at least Home Rule, had dominated Irish life for several generations, and the first half of the twentieth century finally gave the people the opportunity to square aspiration with reality. Irish nationalism was in no way unique; it was something shared with nations such as Hungary, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries which had thrown off the dominance of a powerful neighbour. Great powers such as Britain and France could afford to take their nationality more or less for granted, since it had been shaped and confirmed by centuries of history. Ireland, however, was raw, unfledged and unsure, lacking self-definition, since its traditional language almost dying and its cultural institutions had been created largely by England or else by the Anglo-Irish minority. The “official” culture of pre-independence Ireland was geared largely to making people good citizens of the British Empire. The so-called Gaelic Revival was nominally supported by the State and was given verbal support by the people, but in practice it lacked real popular following.

3. Changes in the Irish Education System

In 1878 the government passed the Intermediate Education Act. It introduced a system of ‘payment by results’. Payments of between £3 and £10 were made to schools for each student who passed the Intermediate examinations. As a result of a campaign by girls’ schools, it was decided that girls were to be allowed enter for the examinations. This opened secondary education to many more students. By 1921 12,000 students had taken the examinations, and girls accounted for 36 per cent of that figure. The great emphasis on examinations meant that much of the teaching in schools was focussed on passing them. In 1912, Padraig Pearse, who set up his own school, described the education system as a ‘murder machine’ which destroyed students’ minds and failed to teach them about Irish history or culture. By 1920, Ireland had an educational system which met its basic needs.

A large majority got a basic education which enabled them to claim to be literate. A small proportion could get a higher education, though access to that depended mainly on a family’s ability to pay, In 1909, Queen’s College, Belfast became a separate Queen’s University, while Cork, Galway and the Catholic University in Dublin were combined into a new National University. Scholarships had been introduced by the local councils in 1900 but they remained few in number until the 1960s. In fact, Irish Free State would change very little about its inherited educational system until the 1960s.

In 1924 the Intermediate Education Act combined the old Boards and Commissions into a single Department of Education under a single minister, Eoin MacNeill. The new Department oversaw a network of national schools which covered the country. Most of them were run by the various Churches on a parish basis, with the Department paying some of the building costs and the teachers’ salaries. The Churches guarded their control of education jealously and this made it difficult for governments to interfere. The primary curriculum was widened to take in more subjects, and much stress was laid on encouraging nationalism, particularly in the teaching of history. Irish was made compulsory. Around the country there were many one-teacher schools with only a few pupils. This system was expensive to run and the department tried to amalgamate them into bigger units. Many of the buildings were old and in a poor state of repair and were slowly replaced. In the cities many classes were badly overcrowded due to lack of space

In 1922 attendance at school was not compulsory and only 75 per cent of children went regularly. In 1926, compulsory attendance between the ages of six and fourteen was introduced despite the protest of farmers who wanted cheap labour during the harvest time. Nevertheless many children left before they were fourteen. Only about 10 per cent of students went beyond primary school. Secondary schools were privately owned, mostly by religious bodies. They charged fees and even though these were low, most families could not afford them. In 1921 and 1923 local authorities were allowed to levy a rate of one penny in the pound to fund scholarships to secondary schools and universities. These enabled a few clever children to get further education but the number was small. The old system of ‘payments by results’ was abolished and replaced by a grant for each pupil. The state agreed to pay a share of teachers’ salaries, provided they were properly qualified. This raised the quality of teaching in schools. The old annual examinations were replaced by two new examinations, the Intermediate, taken after three years and the Leaving, taken two years later. The Department set the syllabus for these examinations and this gave them some control over what was taught in the schools.

In 1899 ‘technical schools’ had been set up to provide more practical vocational training. By 1929 there were sixty-nine in existence, with 2,500 students. This low attendance probably reflected the low demand for technically-trained people in Ireland. The 1930 Vocational Education Act gave local councils the job of developing technical education. Thirty-eight Vocational Education Committees (VEC) were set up to provide free post-primary education with an emphasis on vocational skills, such as woodwork, metalwork, domestic economy and commercial subjects. The vocational schools badly funded and were not allowed to prepare students for the Leaving Certificate. As a result, parents did not regard them highly and they would remain the poor relations of the education system for most of this period.

In Northern Ireland the 1947 Education Act proposed a new system of primary, secondary and third level education. Primary schooling was to end at twelve. The year before that, pupils were to take an examination called the ‘Eleven Plus’. The 25 per cent who passed got free places in grammar schools and could go on to third level education, for which there were generous scholarships. The pupils who failed went to secondary modern schools. They got a non-academic education and most of them left at fourteen or fifteen. State schools, under the control of local councils, got full grants for building and maintenance and their pupils did not have to pay fees. Catholics would not send their children to these schools which as a result were almost exclusively Protestant. Catholic-owned schools, which refused to join the State system, got 65 per cent of building grants, up from 50 per cent before the war, in spite of protests from some sections of the unionists community. Up to 80 per cent of their pupils would receive scholarships but the rest had to pay fees. These reforms came into effect in 1948. Though the Catholic community resented the lower grants, they gained a lot from them. Many Catholics were too poor to afford much education for their children. The new system opened the chance of secondary and university education for bright boys an girls who would not otherwise have had the chance.

4. Reviving the Irish language

Most of the founding fathers aimed to create an Independent Ireland which would be, in the words of Padraig Pearse, ‘not free merely, but Gaelic as well’. Reviving the Irish language was one of the first things tackled by the new Free State government. An extensive and expensive programme of training primary teachers in Irish began. The Department of Education set up preparatory colleges where Irish was the school language. Students from these schools got priority in admissions to teacher training colleges. All infant classes had to be taught through Irish and the language was to be used extensively in higher classes. The teaching of other subjects like drawing, nature study, elementary science and domestic subjects had to give way to Irish. In secondary schools Irish became compulsory in 1928 and from 1934 students had to pass Irish in order to pass the Certificate examinations. This was already a necessary requirement for admission to the National University. Extra grants were given to schools where all teaching was through Irish, and, in examinations, extra marks were given to those who answered through that language. These measures were continued and intensified under Fianna Fáil which, in the 1937 Constitution, made Irish the ‘first official language’ of the state. The revival policy did achieve some results. By the 1940s the number of primary teachers qualified to teach through Irish had risen from 10 per cent in 1922 to over 70 per cent and 10 per cent of primary schools used only Irish in class. At secondary level nearly 64 per cent of secondary students studied other subjects through Irish.

While on paper the number of people with a knowledge of Irish rose, the reality was that few of them used Irish in their everyday lives. Even in Gaeltacht areas, the number of Irish speakers continued to shrink in spite of government grants to each Irish-speaking household. In 1926 238,000 out of a Gaeltacht population of 427,000 were Irish speakers; by 1946 there were only 193,000 Irish speakers out of 398,000. The attempt to revive the Irish language through the schools alone contributed to this failure. The compulsory teaching of Irish destroyed much of the good-will towards the language which the early revival movement had generated. The time spent on teaching Irish in schools left less time to develop basic reading and writing skills in students. Parents resented this and transferred their resentment to Irish. In schools most emphasis was put on written work so that children were often able to write Irish but not to speak it. Irish was not used in government departments, law, courts, business or in the media. Therefore even those who enjoyed Irish and learnt it well had few chances to use it once they left school.

Criticism of government policies towards Irish emerged during the war. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), the primary teachers’ union, published a report in 1941 which exposed the damage the policy was doing both to the education system and to the language. In the 1940s many of those who loved the language realised that compulsion was damaging Irish. They tried to recover the enthusiasm of the early revival through a number of voluntary organisations. In 1943 An Club Leabhar was set up to publish books in Irish. A number of new magazines also appeared, including Comhar. Literature in modern Irish was emerging from the 1940s on. Novelists like Máirtín Ó Cadháin and poets like Seán Ó Riordáin were producing fine works that could stand comparison with any in English. One of the most popular books was an Béal Bocht by the satirist, Brian O’Nolan (alias Myles na gCopaleen). It was a savage attack on the stupidities of the revival movement. These people took a more realistic approach to Irish than had been common in the 1920s and 1930s. Through them Irish and the Gaelic culture associated with it, took their place alongside other influences as part of the common inheritance of all the people of Ireland.

5. The Irish émigré

In practice, most people by the 1940s continued to read and speak English, listen to English radio programmes, sing English or American popular songs, buy imported English products, even emigrate to England when the going got tough economically. Irish writers relied overwhelmingly on London publishers and London-based critics to further their reputations. Irish actors placed high importance on a success in any of the better London theatres, and many professional people —particularly doctors—settled in England. Talented Irish people made careers in British newspapers, in broadcasting (the now-vanished Third Programme had a very large Irish contingent), even in the civil service. The reason for this was in most cases perfectly straightforward; there were not enough career opportunities at home. Many saw emigration as a constant brain-drain on Ireland’s resources, or the continuous loss of her brightest and best overseas. Recent research has shown this to be largely untrue. Emigration, whether to England, America or various parts of the British Empire, was never really quite the cultural blood-loss which pessimistic analysts have claimed it to be. The bulk of emigrants, both men and women, were in fact from underprivileged and poorly educated backgrounds. This made their positions overseas even harder, since they were unskilled.

Though the myth of the émigré Irish writer has become an established one, the number of writers and painters who actually left the country for good is much smaller than is generally claimed. In this sense, James Joyce is far less typical a figure than he seems—and in any case he had left Dublin, and Ireland, long before Irish Independence. The queue for the emigrant boats was a harsh, undeniable fact and a living reproach to a country which seemingly could not find jobs or roles for all its small population (for decades the number of people in Ireland, excluding the North, did not rise much above three and a quarter million). The effect on national morale was confidence-sapping and goes far to explain the often embittered tone of Irish intellectuals during the so-called de Valera Age. The refrain was almost always the same: “Can we never stand on our own feet?” Naturally, this enhanced the appeal of other cultures, especially France which was often seen as the homeland of artistic freedom and intellectual emancipation.

Nevertheless, culturally Ireland did stand on her own feet to an extent which, in retrospect, is often quite surprising. Much, of course, was inherited from the recent past—the National Museum, the National Library, the Royal Dublin Society, the National Gallery, the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (founded by Hugh Lane and now bearing his name), the Royal Hibernian Academy etc. There were also the universities—Trinity College Dublin, then regarded as the stronghold of the Protestant Ascendancy, and the various constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland, in Dublin, Cork and Galway respectively. Some of these institutions were rather shamefully neglected, notably the National Museum which has only been adequately funded in recent decades; the National Gallery, too, led virtually a subsistence life until the 1960s. This was less the outcome of public philistinism than of sheer poverty. Ireland was a very poor country by West European standards, which also explains the aforementioned phenomenon of emigration. But neglected or not, these institutions continued to exist and often exercised a potent influence.

6. The new writers and censorship

However a body which in many ways was much more expressive of the new Ireland was the Irish Academy of Letters, founded by the poet W. B. Yeats in 1932. After all, Ireland at this stage was known to the world primarily for its writers, who were widely and inseparably identified with its whole history and culture, its national soul. It included figures from at least two generations—Yeats himself, Edith Somerville the co-author of the Irish R.M. stories, George Bernard Shaw (who served as its first president) were among the older figures, while Seán Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty and Frank O’Connor represented the new generation of Irish short-story writers. The poets (apart from Yeats, that is) included Austin Clarke, F. R. Higgins, Padraic Colum, Seamus O’Sullivan; and the dramatists were represented by Lennox Robinson, T. C. Murray, and Sir John Ervine. The most obvious absentee was James Joyce, then living in Paris, who had cold-shouldered the entire project from the start. Sean O’Casey, Ireland’s leading playwright, also declined membership—he was already living in England and had been particularly disenchanted with Ireland since the Abbey Theatre had rejected his First World War play “The Silver Tassie”. In spite of these notable absences, however, the roll-call of the new body was a formidable one and showed conclusively the depth of talent in contemporary Irish writing.

The rejection of O’Casey’s play, which raised much dust at the time, was an ominous indicator that the generation of Yeats and his patroness-friend Lady Gregory was ageing and beginning to lose contact with a younger generation—though O’Casey himself was by no means a young man and did not make his mark as a playwright before middle age. The Abbey had been virtually the flagship for the whole Literary Revival early in the century; its gradual hardening into an official and increasingly conservative institution was a sign of the times. Yeats’s mythic themes and philosophy no longer commanded the readership or audience they had earlier in the century, even if Yeats’s personal and artistic prestige was undiminished. A drier, more realistic and social-minded mentality was beginning to take shape, typified by the new school of fiction-writers. These writers saw around them not an Island of Saints and Scholars, nor one populated by spiritual presences and the ghosts of legendary heroes, but a rather prosaic small country bogged down in local politics and class tensions and the hard necessity to scrape a living.

And politics and economics apart, there was a new (though not entirely new) and unpleasant factor of increasing power in cultural life—official literary censorship. The Censorship of Publications Act had been passed by the Oireachtas in 1929 and for rather more than three decades was to play a big role in national cultural life. Yeats himself had anticipated it and his Academy of Letters was to some extent an attempt to fight censorship along organised lines and with professional solidarity. In fact, it achieved little in that field and the long-drawn war against the literary censors was fight mainly by lonely and isolated figures. Irish censorship is probably the most harped-upon feature of the first forty years of national independence—in fact, many intelligent people base, or at least used to base, their whole view of the period on it.

In fact, literary censorship was much more a feature of life in most Western countries than we think—the liberation which came with the 1960s has changed our perspectives radically on this matter. There was active literary censorship in Britain and America—D. H. Lawrence suffered badly under it in his homeland and even long after he had left it. Other American novelists such as Sinclair Lewis were frequently denounced as immoral, or, what was worse in the eyes of the common man, amoral. Continental nations tended to be freer in their approach, yet the writings of Colette shocked large sectors of contemporary France, and several leading German writers between the two world wars were involved in furious controversy over their “decadent” views. Otto Dix, a leading German painter of the period, was twice in court to answer pornography charges. Ireland, then, was by no means unique in having legal censorship; what was special was the virulence with which the laws were applied. There was a kind of moral fundamentalism in the national mind which grew paranoid at the thought of “letting in foreign filth”. Irish writers who offended in a similar way were officially regarded as agents of decadence and social disintegration. They were seen as striking at the roots of family life and moral decency. In 1942 the book The Tailor and Ansty was banned. It was a collection of stories and sayings which an English writer, Eric Cross, had recorded from a country tailor and his wife. They were exactly the kind of people romanticised by de Valera, but in real life their language was too broad and racy for the tender sensibilities of the censors. After the banning, their book was burned in their home village and the old couple humiliated.

It is a curious aspect of the censorial mind that the writings of Joyce escaped its net, at least in Ireland; in Britain copies of his work were seized and burnt by Customs, while in America his best-known book, “Ulysses,” was banned for several years. Joyce, safe in his Continental exile, was relatively little affected by any of this. The real sufferers were the courageous Irish writers who remained at home and tried to fight obscurantism and stupidity on their own ground, often risking public opprobrium and financial loss. Kate O’Brien, Austin Clarke, Benedict Kiely, Seán Ó Faoláin and his writer-in-arms Frank O’Connor, all fell foul of the censor at some time in their careers. Many “foreign” writers were banned too, of course, including Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, John Cowper Powys, even Somerset Maugham. This did not, of course, prevent those who really cared about literature—particularly contemporary literature—from getting and reading the books they wanted. Nevertheless it was a deprivation for many ordinary readers who were excluded from discovering, in their own right, much of the significant writing of their age.

7. Literary magazines and the press

There was little or no censorship of ideas and debate on topical issues—including that of censorship—was often keen and outspoken. The period of censorship coincided with the peak years of the great Irish literary magazines: the long-lived Dublin Magazine edited by the poet-critic-scholar Seamus O’Sullivan, the very influential Bell launched by Seán Ó Faoláin who was its first editor, Envoy edited by John Ryan, and Irish Writing which was largely Cork-based. These were organs of opinion which were read and mulled over—though not necessarily agreed with— by thinking or well-informed people. These publications sometimes angered or offended political or clerical reactionaries, but they were not as a rule interfered with. Much of this controversy is hopelessly dated for contemporary readers, but its intellectual sharpness and verbal style is undeniable. Irish newspapers, too, often carried articles and letters by the university and literary intelligentsia which pulled no punches and were erudite and elegantly written, with no “talking down”.

Newspapers, too, were aware of their cultural duties, even if their definitions of these tended to vary a good deal. The Irish Times, sometimes called “the Old Lady of Westmoreland Street” because its front office was on that street, assumed a special role from the 1930s onwards. Previously it had been very much the organ of the Protestant and Anglo-Irish Establishment and its long-time editor, John Healy, was a confirmed Unionist. A major shift occurred when R. M. Smyllie, generally called “Bertie” Smyllie, succeeded him as editor and began to give his newspaper a totally different character and reputation. He consciously courted the Dublin intelligentsia, particularly the writers, who in turn were flattered to be noticed and many of them became his personal friends. Poets, in particular, came into his circle and Austin Clarke, F. R. Higgins, Padraic Fallon were all regular contributors—not merely of poems, but of articles and book reviews. The Irish Times, once the reading of foxhunting or racegoing Anglo-Irish county types, became to a great extent the organ of the Irish intellectual. Its star columnist, however, was the civil servant who wrote under the aforementioned pen-name Myles na Gopaleen, and published novels under the name Flann O’Brien, but in private life was simply Brian O’Nolan. His comic/satiric touch made him probably the greatest Irish journalist of the mid-century and his unique column, Cruiskeen Lawn, was read as avidly by ordinary Dubliners as it was by literary folk. It was also read, sometimes with fear or anger, by the various public figures who came under the sting of Myles’s satire.

The other Dublin-based daily newspapers, the de Valera-owned Irish Press and the neo-Redmondite Irish Independent, did not have any equivalent to him, nor indeed did any newspaper in the British Isles—though the writings of “Beachcomber” (in private life J. B. Morton , who incidentally was a lover of things Irish and had an Irish wife) offer a parallel and may indeed have supplied Myles with some of his ideas. The Irish Independent never found—or possibly did not seek—any equivalent to Myles na gCopaleen. Nevertheless, in John D. Sheridan it had a humorous columnist on a rather lower level, but by no means a contemptible one. He was in fact something of a national institution for entire decades, and collections of his articles were published regularly and were bought and read in England and America as well as his homeland.

8. Regionalism and culture

The centre of cultural and intellectual activity was of course Dublin, but it did not possess a monopoly. Cork, in particular, had a flourishing intellectual life and Radio Éireann maintained a separate studio there which was widely listened to in the South. The short-story school of O’Connor and Ó Faoláin was essentially a Cork phenomenon—following in the footsteps of their mentor, the writer and academic Daniel Corkery—and proved a valuable counter-thrust to Dublin intellectual egocentricity. While both men were cosmopolitan in outlook and influenced by Russian and French models, they were also strongly regional in their subject matter and social thinking. Cork always possessed a small but committed cultural elite, who included personalities such as the sculptor Seamus Murphy, the scholar/poet/academic Sean Ó Tuama, and the important Gaelic poet Seán Ó Riordáin. University life, too, had plenty of vitality and Cork produced its own respected newspaper, the Cork Examiner. Cork, in fact, proved to be in fact what it had always claimed to be—the capital of the South, independent of Dublin or even London. Without this regional vitality, Ireland would have much the poorer in almost every respect. Though the contribution of Galway and Limerick has been largely ignored, the former produced two outstanding Gaelic writers in the poet Máirtin Ó Direáin and the fiction-writer Máirtin Ó Cadháin, as well as various distinguished scholars and academics. Limerick, however, did not acquire university status until much later and its intellectual life probably suffered from its intermediate position between Cork and Galway.

9. Cultural isolationism

In the early years of the century the so-called Literary Revival or Irish Renaissance had produced such European figures as Yeats in poetry, George Moore in fiction, Shaw, Synge and O’Casey in the drama, as well as a whole cluster of lesser but respected writers such as Padraic Colum, James Stephens, and others whose reputations have rather faded but were strong at the time. However, O’Casey went into exile in England only a few years after independence, while James Joyce, easily the most considerable figure of the generation after Yeats, had left Dublin years before for the Continent and never came back. Both Moore and Shaw had lived abroad for many years. This was a considerable emigration-drain, which has helped to shape the widespread belief that the cream of Ireland’s writers and intellectuals were forced into exile by philistinism and narrow-mindedness in their homeland.

There is obviously a solid core of truth in this, but what is often overlooked is that many or most of these distinguished literary emigrants left before the foundation of the new State. O’Casey is an obvious exception, but he was motivated less by censorship or chauvinism than by Yeats’s rejection of “The Silver Tassie” for production at the Abbey Theatre. It was a deep, personal hurt, almost a sense of betrayal, since O’Casey greatly respected Yeats and regarded him as a protector and almost a father-figure. In due course, he transferred his allegiance to Shaw, who had preceded him to voluntary exile in England decades before. The episode is a complicated one, and too much may have been made of it; nevertheless it has helped to solidify the worldwide impression that after the great days of the Literary Revival, Ireland became too small and narrow—too provincial—for any major writer or artist to feel at ease in. Those authors who stayed at home are generally regarded as essentially second-rate figures of little more than local interest. This belief has grown to the stature of a myth and is still common in literary textbooks, especially those written by English or American academics and critics. The playwright novelist Samuel Beckett’s departure from Ireland during the Thirties has helped to strengthen it, and like his master Joyce, Beckett wrote his most significant works on foreign soil.

10. Shrinking literary prestige

As a result of this myth, or rather distortion, fine poets such as Austin Clarke (even though he had spent a lengthy period in London), Patrick Kavanagh, Padraic Fallon, Patrick MacDonogh, found it hard to obtain a hearing outside their own frontiers, even if they were sporadically included in English anthologies. Much the same is true of various talented dramatists and novelists, though not of the short-story writers who obtained a strong foothold in America—Benedict, Lavin and others. At the beginning of the century Irish literature had commanded world attention. In the decades after independence it more or less slid out of the reckoning internationally, with certain exceptions who were not, in any case, necessarily the most significant talents.

It seems an inescapable fact that the slow alienation of England, in particular, from Irish writing of the new generation had a good deal to do with the fact that the Anglo-Irish period of literature was past or passing. Somerville and Ross, for instance, represented the type of so-called Ascendancy writers with whom British readers were perfectly at home, but they were much less attracted to the school of “peasant” writing which succeeded it. This is, of course, a very broad generalisation and is subject to many qualifications. However, the fact remains that the Literary Revival had been largely the creation of Irish Protestants with an upper-middle-class or “county” background—Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Moore, Synge. Anglo-Ireland, however, went into slow decline after 1923, for reasons which were social and economic rather than political or cultural. A new, raw, often socially insecure Ireland was succeeding them, even in professions which previously they had dominated such as business, medicine and the law. Much so-called Irish nationalism, in fact, was really a class struggle, and after independence a new “native” middle class quite rapidly emerged, most of them the children of rural smallholders or of small-town shopkeepers and tradesmen. Similarly, many of the old country estates were broken up into small holdings on which a new type of farmer eked out a subsistence living—the family background of Patrick Kavanagh in Monaghan, for instance, forms a typical part of this picture. The Big House celebrated by Somerville and Ross, and by George Moore, was in eclipse and a new type of novel or play depicting small-town or peasant life was increasingly prominent. Those readers in England and elsewhere who still expected Irish writers to produce sophisticated, ultra-witty stage comedies a la Wilde or Shaw, or dashing novels of the hunting field, or delicately musical, Celtic Twilight lyricism, were to be disappointed.

The world depicted by O’Connor and Ó Faoláin in their fiction, and by T. C. Murray was low-keyed and regional, petit-bourgeois, often dully respectable and morally inhibited. Its humour, too, was generally homespun or laboured and for the most part did not export well—the typical Abbey Theatre rural farce would have cut no ice with a West End audience in London, or with the average Broadway theatregoer in New York. Not surprisingly, foreign readership often baulked at the literature of post-independent Irish society, or simply left it alone. Ireland had no Evelyn Waugh, no Noel Coward, no W. H. Auden or John Betjeman, nor indeed any real equivalent to the new school of urban sophistication which had emerged both in Britain and in America. Apparently now solidly rural and monolithically Catholic, it already seemed to most cultivated Englishmen to be an alien culture, even a backward-looking one. England became increasingly dominated by the so-called “Thirties Poets” and by the new American literature, both in prose and verse.

11. The case of James Joyce

James Joyce in many ways stands outside this discussion, since he had been an exile from the age of twenty and made only one brief return visit to Dublin, in 1912. He showed little interest in the contemporary English literary scene and was almost entirely geared towards Latin Europe. The greater part of Joyce’s life was divided between France and Italy, and his death in Switzerland in 1941 was rather fortuitous, since he went there basically as a refugee from the second World War. Though invited several times to America, he never went there—which seems rather ironic when we consider his enormous prestige there and the number of Americans who have studied and written about his work—including his biographer, Richard Ellmann.

Joyce is often spoken of as the outstanding victim of Irish cultural chauvinism and censorship. His works, in fact, were never banned in Ireland and his early books, the short-story collection Dubliners and the autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, were read enthusiastically by two generations of Irish people. Ulysses, by contrast, was considered scandalous and immoral, yet it was ignored by the Censorship Board and could—though with some difficulty and circumspection be bought in the better bookshops. The tradition that he was virtually ignored by literary Dublin for most of his later career is almost a travesty of the facts—he had a considerable influence on younger writers including not only Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, but on figures as far apart as the dramatist Dennis Johnston and the poet Austin Clarke. In turn, Joyce followed developments in his homeland from afar, including literary and intellectual trends, and he relied on friends to feed him information, press cuttings, anecdotes and other materials which might be fed into the witch’s cauldron of his style. In 1951—by which time, of course, he was long dead—the magazine Envoy devoted an entire issue to him, and in the same decade the Martello Tower in Sandycove, where the first chapter of “Ulysses” opens, began to be a place of artistic pilgrimage. Contrary to what is so often said, his fellow-countrymen, or at least an educated minority of them, were fully cognisant of his world stature as a novelist and innovator.

Joyce, in short, became an organic part of Irish literature from the 1920s onwards, and in the decade after his death he became almost a symbol of revolt for younger writers in reaction against the Celtic Twilight on the one hand, and the rural school(s) of writing on the other. This new generation consciously sought an “international” tone, in contrast to the self-conscious nationalism of much Irish writing between the world wars, and in opposition to the still-powerful rural writers it laid stress on urban themes and a big-city sensibility. In this, of course, they were in line with their contemporaries in Britain - where the Georgian poets with their rural subjects were in eclipse - and in America, where folksy writers such as Willa Cather were now out of fashion and New York called the tune. However. Joyceanism was something special and unique - it never really took root in England, for instance, and many of Joyce’s keenest followers and admirers were either French, or Russian like Andrey Bely, or German like Doblin. (On the other hand, he made a strong appeal to Welsh writers such as David Jones and John Cowper Powys, and to Scots such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid).

12. The visual arts

For many years indeed, for many decades—there was a belief that Ireland’s contribution to the visual arts was far inferior to her literature, in fact not remotely comparable to it. Irish painting and sculpture were seen as belonging in a provincial British context, or else as third-rate and third-hand borrowings from France, then the most prestigious country in Europe (and the world) in the visual arts. It is only in the past two decades that this negative, even patronising attitude has been effectively challenged.

In fact, the Literary Revival or Renaissance was paralleled by a very vigorous school of Irish painters and sculptors—though the term “school” might be rather misleading, since these artists were all individual figures who pursued separate paths and never banded together as the Impressionists had done in France. For instance, John Butler Yeats, father of the poet, was a portrait painter of genius, as is now generally acknowledged, who has left us an unequalled gallery of the literary talent of his time including his son W. B. Yeats, George Moore, Synge, Padraic Colum, George Russell and many more. His painter-contemporaries included the great landscapist Nathaniel Hone, who had trained in France, the sensitive genre artist Walter Osborne, and John Lavery, who had grown up in Scotland and spent his formative years as a painter in France. A little later, William Orpen showed himself to be immensely skilled, versatile and prolific in about every genre from portraiture to still life. By the Twenties, however, Hone and Osborne were dead, John Butler Yeats had for years been an exile in New York, and Orpen had settled in England. Irish art had lost many or most of its outstanding figures and Hugh Lane, the great dealer, patron and founder of the gallery in Dublin that now bears his name, had been lost on board the Lusitania in 1915.

There can be little doubt that the dominant figure in Irish painting of the twentieth century is Jack B. Yeats (1869-1957). The son of an outstanding painter and the brother of Ireland’s pre-eminent poet, he would have had every excuse if he had felt overwhelmed by their combined gifts and as a result had failed to realise his full potential as an artist. And in fact Jack Yeats was a very modest, man, private and unassuming where his poet-brother was very much a public figure His rise as a painter was slow and though his early work has plenty of vitality, his great period as a colourist did not begin until the late 1920s, when he was already middle-aged. His work is a unique fusion of realism and imagination, of the everyday and the visionary, and his nervous brushstrokes and broken, irridescent colour were far in advance of their time particularly in relatively provincial Ireland. However, Yeats also had a strong following in England, he was known to American buyers, and France thought highly enough of him to award him the Legion of Honour. Today his fame is worldwide and he ranks with the great figures of his generation in France and Germany.

The Royal Hibernian Academy, under the presidency of Dermod O’Brien, had been very much under the influence of William Orpen, who even after his voluntary exile from Ireland had continued to be powerful as a teacher and personality. His followers and pupils included artists of genuine calibre such as Leo Whelan, James Sleator, and Frank Tuohy; another, more contentious one was Sean Keating. This meant, in effect, that the RHA came to stand more and more for a turn-of-the-century Realist style which twentieth-century Modernism had made look increasingly outmoded. O’Brien himself , though an able painter, was a rather backward-looking figure who was largely hostile to the new trends, with the result that the Academy became equated in the eyes of a younger, more rebellious generation with head-in-the sand reaction. In 1943, in the very depths of the second World War, a number of independent-minded people got together and formed the Irish Exhibition of Living Art which was mildly Modernist and was strongly influenced by the hugely prestigious School of Paris. Figures associated with it included Louis le Brocquy, Norah McGuinness, the sculptor Oisin Kelly and others. This generation, if it can be called that, was able to combine the formal and other advances of European Modernism with a strongly Irish quality of imagination.

Much or most of the activity outlined above took place against the background of financial stringency and in a country with a small population with relatively few cultural traditions outside folk ones. It is therefore hard to sustain the charge that Ireland during the two world wars was a cultural and intellectual backwater, taking refuge behind tariff walls and a stringent, unimaginative censorship. No doubt there were many disappointments and frustrations, particularly on a personal level, yet there was always a core of committed, disinterested people who were able to keep the flag of Irish culture flying. Contrary to the hostile myths, Ireland’s creative nerve did not desert it, nor did philistinism and reaction crush the energy which the Literary Renaissance had first set in train. Literature continued to produce remarkable talents, the theatre was vital if not hugely creative, a new generation emerged in the visual arts, it was the golden age of the Irish literary magazine, journalism and broadcasting (on radio—television did not come until the Sixties) maintained a high level. From being little more than a province in the multi-lingual British Empire, Ireland became fully a nation with a culture of its own.

13. Religion—North and South

Amid the political turmoil of 1912-22, Irish Catholics and Protestants shared one concern: a fear of being a religious minority. The partition of Ireland in the early 1920s led to the formation of two states in which majorities triumphed: the Irish Free State with its strong Catholic identity and Northern Ireland with an equally strong Protestant identity. Although the Government of Ireland Act  (1920) which established the Northern Ireland state and the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) which led to the Irish Free State included similar articles prohibiting discrimination on the basis if religion, the reality was less than ideal.

Protestants had voiced their fears very clearly during the Home Rule debate of 1912. One of the highlights of the Unionist campaign was the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant on 28 September 1912; this was a pledge to resist Home Rule which, it argued, would be ‘subversive of our civil and religious freedom.’ The Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches issued strong statements against Home Rule. In addition to expressing political and economic concerns, they objected to the Catholic Church’s influence on Irish politics and feared that a Dublin government would promote Catholic beliefs. They resented the Catholic Church's demand that the children of mixed marriages be brought up as Catholics.

On the Catholic side, proposals to exclude the North-East from Home Rule met with considerable opposition. The Catholic Church raised strong objections to the British Government’s proposal for Home Rule with partition in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising: Cardinal Logue declared it would be better to wait fifty years than to accept the proposal. Bishops and priests expressed their objections in letters to the press. The bishops feared that Catholic schools would suffer financially under a Belfast administration. They also feared that Catholics would be treated as second class citizens. John Redmond’s willingness to contemplate partition even as a temporary measure contributed to the bishops’ disillusion with his party.  When partition loomed again in 1920, Bishop Charles McHugh of Derry declared, ‘to become serfs in an Orange Free State carved out to meet the wishes of an intolerant minority, to this we will never submit.’

14. Revolution in Ireland

The outbreak of political violence in Ireland raised questions regarding the morality of armed struggles for independence. The Catholic Church had traditionally condemned armed rebellion as immoral and opposed membership of secret oathbound organisations. The 1916 Rising clearly challenged these views and a number of individual priests and bishops spoke out against it. The bishops considered a joint statement of condemnation but in the end issued none.  Some of their private correspondence indicates considerable soul searching. Despite the Church’s traditional hostility to political violence, some of the rebels themselves were openly quite devout. In the run up to the Rising, Patrick Pearse presented commitment to the armed struggle in religious terms: at the graveside of Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 he had declared that ‘splendid and holy causes are served by men who are themselves splendid and holy’. During the Rising rebels recited the Rosary on the roof of the General Post Officer (GPO). Those condemned to death seem to have been satisfied that they were about to enter into eternal glory and were depicted as martyrs subsequently. In fact, the rebels’ piety motivated Countess Markievizc to convert to Catholicism after the Rising. Further religious  fervour  was evident at the end of Thomas Ashe’s life in 1917; Ashe, president of the IRB supreme council, died as a result of botched forced feeding in Lewes jail. Before his death he wrote ‘Let me carry your cross for Ireland, Lord’. The attendance of large numbers of clergy at his funeral reinforced the image of his martyrdom.

By 1918 the Catholic Church had come to accept Sinn Féin as representing the majority.  Faced with the prospect of unionist victory in eight northern constituencies if the Catholic majority vote were split between the Irish Party and Sinn Féin, Cardinal Logue allocated four constituencies to each of the parties to contest. The War of Independence raised serious issues; some bishops and priests condemned acts of violence strongly, but the policies of the government and the actions of the Black and Tans were also denounced. Only one bishop – Daniel Coholan, bishop of Cork – went so far as to excommunicate those involved in ambushes, kidnapping and murders; this was in the context of intense IRA activity and severe reprisals in his area. The death of Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney on hunger strike aroused widespread sympathy; like Ashe, he was perceived as a martyr. When the conflict ended and the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, the bishops in general were relieved, though the northern bishops were disappointed that the newly formed Northern Ireland parliament could opt out of the Free State. The Catholic Church supported the new Dublin government, and prompted by the government, issued a strong condemnation of those who fought against the state in the civil war. Thereafter the Catholic Church’s overt involvement in party politics declined, but in 1931 the bishops issued a statement  condemning the IRA and Saor Éire, a left-wing republican organisation.  This statement, like the bishops’ condemnation during the civil war, was prompted by the government. 

15. A Catholic State

The Irish Free State celebrated its Catholic identity. The centenary of Catholic Emancipation in 1929 was marked by a sense of religious and political achievement. About 300,000 people attended a  pontifical Mass in the Phoenix Park. The Catholic Emancipation Centenary Record, edited by Myles Ronan, presented essays on church history; one declared that relations between Ireland and the Papacy had remained unbroken for almost 1,500 years.  In the same year the Irish government established diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Religious and political leaders participated in the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, held in Dublin to mark the presumed fifteenth centenary of St Patrick’s arrival in Ireland; this was the first major international event to be held in the Irish Free State. The Irish Army also played an important ceremonial role at the event. About one million people attended Mass in Phoenix Park, after which thousands processed along the quays to benediction at a specially constructed altar on O’Connell Bridge.

Early political leaders of the Irish Free State were committed Catholics. Successive governments legislated to protect the moral values of the time. In 1925 the Cumann na nGaedheal government led by W.T. Cosgrave decided against permitting divorce through a private bill in parliament, as had been the case before independence. This followed consultation with the archbishop of Dublin and a statement from the hierarchy. The government passed an Intoxicating Liquor Act in 1924 to reduce the opening hours of public houses; another act in 1927  further regulated opening hours and addressed issues regarding liquor licences. Sexual immorality was another issue of concern: a Censorship of Films Act was passed in 1923 and  the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 banned indecent and obscene literature, as well as literature advocating contraception. This Act tackled a longstanding Irish Catholic concern regarding ‘evil literature’. Legislation to protect public morality continued when Fianna Fáil, led by Eamon de Valera, came to power in 1932. A Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 1935 banned the importation of contraceptives. Under the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935, a licence was required to hold a public dance. As historian Dermot Keogh has noted, de Valera did not follow the bishops’ suggestion that girls should not be permitted to go to dances unless accompanied by parents! Nevertheless, a more alarming though less publicised issue was the high rate of sexual offending, particularly against young girls, as indicated in the evidence of garda commissioner Eoin O’Duffy and others to the Carrigan Committee, which deliberated in 1930-31 on sexual offences and possible legislative remedies. In their desire to avoid ‘unsavoury’ public debates on the report the government may have unwittingly reinforced the culture of secrecy that facilitated sexual offences.

Catholic moral values and beliefs received further protection when a new constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, was introduced in 1937. In preparing the constitution, de Valera consulted Fr John Charles McQuaid (soon to become archbishop of Dublin), and received proposals from Fr Edward Cahill S.J. and fellow Jesuits. De Valera used this advice selectively.  The constitution included strong protection for the family and a ban on divorce. It recognised the ‘the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens’ as well as other churches in Ireland at that time. This fell short of recognition of the Catholic Church as the one true church, as some would have preferred. Its emphasis on women’s work in the home also generated controversy at the time and later.

The Catholic Church ran schools, hospitals, orphanages, and industrial schools. Given the Church’s long running campaign in the nineteenth century for influence if not control over education for Catholics at every level, it is not surprising that the successive Free State governments avoided interfering with the Church’s control in this period.  The ‘deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education’ to congregations running reformatories and industrial schools was later found to have compromised its ability to inspect and monitor such institutions. At that time the Catholic provided a wide range of social services.  John Charles McQuaid, on becoming Archbishop of Dublin 1940, embarked on a series of measures to extend and coordinate Catholic social services in areas such as assistance for Irish emigrants to Britain, homes for the disabled, care of sick children and VD clinics. Archbishop McQuaid’s considerable influence continued when an interparty government replaced Fianna Fáil in 1948. Furthermore, at an early stage the cabinet sent a telegram to the Pope assuring him of their loyalty and ther determination to promote a social order based on Christian principles.

16. Popular piety

Catholic organisations and religious activities had a widespread appeal during this period. The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association attracted thousands of members and promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. Sodalities and confraternities, such as the Sacred Heart Confraternity, the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin and the Children of Mary were popular. The Legion of Mary, founded in Dublin 1921 and led by Frank Duff, combined devotion to Mary with social concern, initially focusing on counteracting Protestant attempts to convert Catholics, persuading prostitutes to lead more meaningful lives and helping the homeless. Devotion to our Lady of Lourdes grew during the 1930s, reflecting international attention to Lourdes in this decade when the 75th anniversary of the Virgin’s apparition in Lourdes was celebrated. This period also witnessed considerable interest in pilgrimages to Lourdes and Rome. Contingents from the Garda Síochána visited Rome in 1928 and Lourdes in 1930.  In the same decade pilgrimages to Knock increased.

As the economic depression of the 1930s led to hardship in Ireland and elsewhere, attention turned to social problems. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, which had spread to Ireland from France in the nineteenth century, played an important role in providing assistance to the poor. In 1931 The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931) presented Pope Pius XI’s views on social issues. Rejecting both communism and capitalism, the Pope called for vocational organisations to represent particular industries and occupations, and hoped that employers and workers would work in harmony in these organisations. Irish study groups examined the Pope's ideas and religious journals discussed social problems. Vocationalism attracted such attention that the government set up a commission to consider it but proved unenthusiastic about its recommendations.

17. Ireland and the Catholic World

The national press and religious publications kept the Irish public informed of the problems facing Catholics in the wider Catholic World. Irish Catholics heard with concern of hostility towards Catholics in Mexico, Spain and the Soviet Union and were quick to compare the difficulties facing Catholics abroad with those endured by their forefathers in Ireland. Events in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 attracted particular attention. The Irish Christian Front was formed to combat communism in Ireland and sent aid to the soldiers of General Franco who had ousted the left-wing government. About 700 men led by Eoin O’Duffy travelled to Spain to fight for General Franco. A smaller group of about 200, led by Frank Ryan went to fight on the Republican side.

The early decades of Irish independence also witnessed increasing missionary activity. From the mid nineteenth century the Irish Catholic Church had sent large numbers of priests abroad, mainly to minister to Catholics in the English-speaking world. By the early twentieth century the Irish diaspora was better able to provide its own clergy and the focus of Irish Catholic missionary activity switched to the  developing world. New missionary organisations emerged. The first of these, the Maynooth Mission to China (later known as St Columban’s Foreign Mission Society) was formed in 1916.  In the 1920s and 1930s Bishop Joseph Shanahan played in key role in Irish missionary expansion in Nigeria, establishing the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary, based in Killashandra and St Patrick’s Missionary Society, based in Kiltegan as well as influencing Mother Mary Martin who founded the Medical Missionaries of Mary. Nor was missionary work restricted to religious orders: Edel Quinn worked to extend the Legion of Mary in East Africa. Missionary magazines, often distributed through schools increased Irish awareness of the work of missionaries abroad.

18. The Protestant Minority in the Irish Free State

The Protestant Minority in the Irish Free State


Church of Ireland















The Protestant population of southern Ireland declined sharply during the period between the  1911 and 1926 censuses. This was partly due to Protestant casualties in the First World War and the exodus of the British armed forces after independence. Other protestants left on account of intimidation. The motivation for attacks on Protestants has been the subject of considerable debate since the publication of Peter Hart’s The IRA & its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (1998). Undoubtedly, attacks increased in early 1922 in retaliation for violence against Catholics in Belfast. Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin J.A.F. Gregg led a delegation to meet representatives of the Provisional Government, and asked if Protestants were to be permitted to remain in the country. The government although sympathetic, was unable to prevent further attacks. During the civil war a number of Protestants whom W.T. Cosgrave had appointed senators had their houses burned to the ground. A further wave of intimidation and attacks on Protestant property was to occur in 1935 in response to an outbreak of sectarian violence in Belfast.

Such attacks were exceptional and met with government disapproval in 1922 and in 1935. Protestants  who were on average better off than Catholics, had a certain standing in society. The Irish Times represented the Irish Protestant unionist perspective, though this was to change over the next few decades. Trinity College, Dublin, remained a Protestant institution as the Catholic Church disapproved of Catholics attending it. Southern Protestants maintained close links with Protestants in Northern Ireland as the main Protestant churches continued to function on an all-Ireland basis. Neveretheless, they had causes for concern, exacerbated by their dwindling numbers. The Catholic Church’s requirement that children of mixed marriages be brought up as Catholics encouraged Protestants to remain apart, but it proved difficult to maintain separate schools where Protestant communities were shrinking. The Church of Ireland’s Board of Education repeatedly criticised the state’s emphasis on Irish language in the education system. A further grievance was the fact that Irish language texts reflected Catholic beliefs.  In any case, the Irish language had little appeal for  Protestants, though there were notable exceptions such as Ernest Blythe, government minister from 1922-1932 who authored a number of books in Irish, and Douglas Hyde, founder member of the Gaelic League and first president following the creation of that position as head of state under the 1937 constitution. The formation of Coláiste Moibhí as a preparatory school for the Church of Ireland teacher training college helped to reduce the cultural gap.

Protestant Churches shared some of the the Catholic Church’s concerns for the protection of moral values, particularly in regard to the influence of the cinema.  Opposition to issues like censorship was limited, coming mainly from liberal literary figures of both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. On some moral issues, however, divisions along religious lines did appear. As a senator, W.B. Yeats protested strongly against measures to prevent divorce. Many Protestants disapproved of gambling and were unhappy with the introduction of the Hospital Sweepstakes. A further controversy arose in 1931 when a Protestant graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, was appointed as county librarian for Mayo. Objections to her lack of proficiency in Irish were soon followed by concern about the type of books that she, as a Protestant, might make available. She was transferred to the Department of Defence. This, however, was an exceptional case.

19. The Jewish minority

Ireland’s small Jewish community began to grow in the late nineteenth century as Jews arrived from Russia and Lithuania. The 1926 census recorded 3,686 Jews in the Irish Free State; this was to rise 3,907 by 1946. Thereafter the number declined, largely due to a high rate of emigration. The Jewish congregation was recognised formally in the 1937 Constitution. The Irish Free State’s first Chief Rabbi was Isaac Herzog, whose eldest son Chaim later became president of Israel. Herzog was on friendly terms with Cardinal MacRory and Eamon de Valera, and was honoured by representatives of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party before leaving to become chief rabbi in Palestine in 1937.

Nevertheless, while Irish Jews were generally tolerated, they were not fully accepted. During the 1930s, a decade of increasing anti-semitism in Europe, some prominent Irish figures expressed hostility to Jews. These included Charles Bewley, Ireland’s envoy in Berlin from 1933 to 1939. Anti-semitic views also appeared in a number of Catholic journals. Fr Denis Fahey and Fr Edward Cahill were particularly outspoken, representing Jews as a threat to the Catholic Church and linking Jews with socialism. In the context of increasing anti-semitism in Europe, civil servants Leon Ó Broin and Frank Duff (leader of the Legion of Mary) founded the Pillar of Fire Society in 1941 to promote dialogue between Christians and Jews. However, their attempts foundered when John Charles McQuaid, then Archbishop of Dublin, objected to talks by Jews at the society’s meetings.

During World War II the Department of Justice was reluctant to allow many Jews enter the country, fearing that they would not assimilate. After the war Robert Briscoe, Ireland’s first Jewish TD, helped secure visas for a few Jewish refugees. The government also agreed to a plan to bring 100 Jewish refugee children to Clonyn Castle in Delvin, Co. Westmeath.   In 1948 a contingent Jewish children from various parts of Central Europe arrived in Ireland and stayed for over a year before moving on; they had been admitted on the understanding that their stay would be limited.

19. Northern Ireland, 1921-49

From the very outset it was clear that overlapping religious and political loyalties would lead to antagonism in the new northern state. Cardinal Logue declined an invitation to attend the opening of the Belfast parliament in June 1921 and shortly afterwards refused to nominate Catholic representatives to an educational committee. Like most of his fellow Catholics, he hoped a more favourable political settlement might be reached. The northern state emerged against a background of inter-communal violence that lasted from the summer of 1920 to the summer of 1922. While violence against Catholics was undoubtedly a response to events during the struggle for independence, attacks on Catholic Church property and on Mass goers gave it a sectarian character. Bishop Joseph MacRory and the Catholic Protection Committee sought to highlight anti-Catholic violence, described by some as a ‘pogrom’. Others, however, argued that the Catholic Church was not doing enough to curb the activities of republican gunmen. Catholic nationalism was identified with disloyalty.

Religious denominations in Northern Ireland in 1926

Roman Catholics

Church of Ireland




420, 428





Protestants constituted about two thirds of the population of Northern Ireland at the time of partition. While most were united in their unionism, in religious matters they differed widely. They included Presbyterians, the Church of Ireland, Methodists, Moravians, Lutheran churches, the Society of Friends, and a range of other groups. Their liturgies differed, as did their church buildings: many Methodist and Presbyterian churches had simple interiors contrasting with the more ornate buildings of the Church of Ireland. These churches had wider religious contexts: the Church of Ireland was part of the wider Anglican communion. Evangelicals were aware of their American counterparts: W.P. Nicholson, an Ulster Presbyterian influenced by fundamentalism in America, where he was ordained, proved an influential evangelist in Northern Ireland and increased the numbers turning to religion in the 1920s.

The Orange Order provided an opportunity for Protestants of different denominations and social classes to celebrate a common Protestant heritage. Many of the banners carried on Orange parades bore illustrations of biblical scenes or Protestant churches in Northern Ireland. The Order, which had been involved in campaigns against Home Rule since the 1880s, had significant political influence. The Ulster Unionist Council, which governs the Ulster Unionist Party, included representatives of the Orange Order from its inception in 1905 up to 2005. Most Unionist members of parliament between 1921 and 1972 were members of the Order.

The new northern government, like the Free State government, sought to curb alcohol abuse. An intoxicating liquor act passed in 1923 prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays and brought an end to ‘spirit groceries’, i.e. shops that sold both alcohol and groceries. Debates on compensation for spirit groceries sometimes took a sectarian turn as many spirit groceries were run by Catholics and such premises had been targets during the violence of the previous few years.  Disapproval of Sunday drinking was part of a wider Protestant interest in keeping the Sabbath. This was also reflected in the closure of public parks on Sundays and Protestant disapproval of the GAA’s Sunday games.

Education was a futher cause of antagonism. At the time of partition school accommodation was seriously inadequate. The government moved quickly to introduce reforms but the changes proposed proved very controversial. The first two ministers of education, Lord Londonderry (1921-26) and Lord Charlemont (1926-37), both of old Ulster families, were born and educated in England and did not share or understand the the intense religious fervour they found in Northern Ireland. The 1923 Education Act provided for three classes of schools, linking the degree of public funding to public control. What aroused particular concern was the fact that religious instruction was to be excluded from regular school hours in schools fully financed by public funds. In response to this provision, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland clerics formed a United Education Committee, which, with the support of the  Orange Order, campaigned successfully for bible instruction in schools. A further campaign for Protestant clerical representation on regional education committees was also successful.  Meanwhile, the Catholic Church maintained its traditional view that only schools under the control of the Catholic Church were suitable for Catholic children. As a result it received less financial assistance for schools than before partition and faced considerable financial difficulties. While the government’s educational reforms resulted in great improvements in school accommodation, education was to prove a thorny issue for decades to come. Catholic clerics expected nationalist politicians to promote Catholic education. Separate schooling along with residential segregation (particularly in Belfast and Derry), and endogamy, (the custom of marrying within one’s own group) contributed to maintaining divisions.

These divisions hardened during the 1930s. Cardinal MacRory offended many Protestants when he stated that the Church of Ireland was not part of the Christian Church. The Ulster Protestant League expressed much opposition to the Catholic Church and opposed the use of the Ulster Hall for Catholic events. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church flourished in the face of adversity, a matter of great pride to northern nationalist leader T.J. Campbell.  The 1930s witnessed various open-air events to mark the fifteenth centenary of St Patrick in Ulster. Many northern Catholics travelled to Dublin in June 1932 to participate in the Eucharistic Congress.  Nationalist members of the northern parliament had the honour of carrying  the canopy at the event. However, trains were stoned on the return journey. 

Catholic grievances in this period were highlighted in a lengthy article entitled ‘The Real Case Against Partition’, published in the Capuchin Annual in 1943. When reprinted in pamphlet form with the title Orange Terror, the northern government banned its circulation in Northern Ireland.  The incident exemplified Catholic sense of victimhood since the formation of the state and Protestant fears of Catholic subversion. Undoubtedly the Catholic Church’s sense of deprivation was all the more acute as the Church’s position in the southern state was exceptionally favourable. Meanwhile, on looking at developments south of the border, Protestants felt their earlier fears that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule had been justified. The situation was well summed up by Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Craig when he told parliament in 1934, ‘… in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state.’



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Mary N. Harris (NUI Galway)