Protestants in Ireland their impact on society and the family

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Carol Burdick Holderby
Born in Idaho. Resides in Montpelier, Idaho. Professional genealogist. (English), Utah State University. Genealogist, author, lecturer.

A Brazilian once observed, "In Ireland even the cattle in the fields are either Catholic or Protestant. You can tell which by looking at them." Catholic or Protestant? When one speaks of Ireland, little is said before the inevitable question arises. Historically, was an Irish Catholic really different from an Irish Protestant? How were their lives different? How were they similar? How did the Protestants influence the life¬styles of the Catholics? Following is a brief exercise in comparing and con¬trasting a few aspects of their life styles .
First, who were the Catholics? Prior to the Stuart plantation of Ulster, both Anglo-Norman and Tudor settlements had been made in Ireland. Over the centuries most of the settlers outside the Pale had assimilated with the native Irish so thoroughly that they were essentially Irish. Their manner of dress, their foods, their mores were Irish. Even their language was Irish rather than the French or English of the original settlers. In this paper they will be included with the native Irish, the Catholics.

Who were the Protestants? Most came to Ireland as settlers in the various plantations, or settlements. During the early seventeenth century King James I (VI), a Stuart, initiated the massive plantation of Ulster, the northernmost province of Ireland. Settlers were primarily Lowland Scots. Their descendants were mostly Presbyterians. Others settled in Ulster by James were English and Welsh, who were generally Anglican. The native Irish of Ulster were either annihilated or moved south and west of their original homes. Later, in the mid-seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell came to Ireland. For the most part, the Ulster settlements were unaffected by his march through Ireland. However, the other provinces were drastically changed. As was the custom then, Cromwell paid his war debts with conquered lands. Those adventurers in England who had financed the campaigns in Ireland and England were given tracts of lands in Ireland. The "backpay" owed his officers and soldiers was paid with land grants. Those Irish already occupying the lands were given the choice to move to Connaught Province or be killed. Many Baptists, Inde¬pendents or Congregationalists, and Anglicans became settlers in the newly confiscated lands. When the English monarchy was restored, some of the native Irish were restored to their original lands, or to portions of them; some returned as laborers or skilled craftsmen; most remained in Connaught. In the eighteenth century, Germanic Protestants, Palatines, were given lands in Ireland. Most of these eventually affiliated with the Church of Ireland (Anglican) parishes in their localities. The settlers in the various groups and their descendants were Protestants.

The most obvious dividing line between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants was religion. In many areas of the world the conquerors have married the conquered and made one people of the two. However, in Ireland intermarriage was forbidden by law. A Cromwellian soldier marrying an Irish Catholic girl was reduced in rank. If he were a dragoon, he was reduced in rank to foot soldier; if a foot soldier, to a pioneer. He had no hope of future promotion. In most cases he was not al¬lowed to retain his wife. If he refused to leave her, he was sent with her to Connaught to live in poverty and misery. If he did not marry the girl but did par¬ticipate in "amours" with her, he was subject to severe flogging. For example, in 1655 Hugh Powell, a Cromwellian soldier, was tried and convicted for fornication with an Irish woman. He was sentenced "to be whipped on the bare back with whipcord lash, and have forty stripes while he is led through the four companies of the Irish forces before Whitehall, at the time of the parade on Monday next, and twenty stripes more after that at Putney, while hee (sic) is led through those of the Irish party that quarter there, neer (sic the Widow Nashe's house there . . . .
The Catholic girl too was not without punishment. She was likely to be ostracized by her family and friends. She was cast out with no means of pro¬viding for herself. She might resort to "work, begging, prostitution." Since no respectable employer would hire her to work, the begging and subsequent prosti¬tution were more likely her only means of ragged survival.
With heavy social and legal restrictions to marriage and "amours," intermarriage of Catholics and Protestants was not likely to happen often. Remarkably, there were some "mixed" marriages, mostly during the nineteenth and twentieth cen¬turies when restrictions eased. However, it is not difficult to understand why Protestants remained Protestant and Catholics remained Catholic. Although the two groups differed on doctrinal issues, the primary reasons for continued division seem to have been political, economic, and social rather than religious.

During most of the past four hundred years, the right of Catholics to parti¬cipate in governmental decisions was negligible. Legislation was passed in Protestant parliaments which effectively limited Catholic political power. For example, the act requiring the Oath of Supremacy (1560) stated that the English monarch, not the Pope, was the supreme governor on earth. To be mayor, to hold any church or state office, to receive a university degree, or to be a tenant-in-chief on Crown lands, one was required to take the oath. In 1704 the Test "Act against Popery" was returned. It required that anyone holding any public office take the sacrament of the Church of Ireland. Not only Catholics but Presbyterians, Baptists, and other dissenting groups were affected. The result of these and other restrictive acts was that members of the Church of Ireland held the political offices in Ireland both nationally and locally. They became the Ascendency. For the most part, they passed laws favorable to their minority. Since Catholics and some dissenting Protestant groups were not represented, their needs were often not met. Decisions affecting the entire country were made by a select few.
The economic condition of Ireland was frequently determined by legislation of both the Irish Parliament and the English Parliament. Following the Restoration in the mid-seventeenth century, the soldiers and adventurers granted lands in Ireland by Cromwell reestablished the cattle and sheep industries. There was a short period of prosperity as the Protestant settlers using hired Catholic laborers sold cattle and sheep in England and elsewhere. Because breeders and dealers in England were threatened by the Irish competition, England's Parliament passed restrictive legislation, the Cattle Act of 1663, which prohibited the importing of Irish cattle to England from 1 July through 20 December of any year. The Cattle Act of 1666 prohibited importation of all cattle, sheep, and swine along with all beef, pork, and bacon. Pros¬perity from sale of cattle and sheep was doomed. The precedent was set that Ireland was not longer considered part of the mother country but was a colony whose duty it was to supply and not to compete.

After the Cattle Acts and Navigation Acts, Ireland began to enjoy some prosperity in the mercantile trade, primarily of wool and woollens to France, Spain, and the Low Countries. Again the owners were usually Protestant, the laborers, Catholic. Despite heavy duties imposed, Ireland was competing successfully with the woollen dealers and manufacturers of England. In 1699 the English Parliament passed an act forbidding exportation of wool or woollens from Ireland except to England. Prohibitive duties and licensing were imposed upon exportation to England.
After the wool disasters, the linen industry was encouraged. It was not in direct competition with England. Soon a world-wide reputation for fine linen was established. Most of the linen was produced in the north in Ulster and in Counties Cork and Waterford in the south. Small farmers were usually also weavers. The entire family could participate in the linen process. However, in 1771-2 the linen market dropped by half. Dutch, German, and Russian linen merchants could produce and market their linen less expensively since they were not subject to the same exportation taxes. In Ireland the farm family engaged in flax production and linen weaving could not compete effectively with the bleacher-draper establishments which could hire more journeymen and often use more modern equipment. Gradually the industry changed from cottage production to fac¬tories. Most of the cottage production had been done by Catholics and Presbyterians. The bleacher-drapers who instituted the factory system were primarily Anglican or wealthier Presbyterians.

Meanwhile the economic division between Catholic and Protestant widened. Tenant farmers complained of rack-renting. That is, leases traditionally renewed by the tenant farmers upon expiration were sold to the highest bidder. Rents increased drastically. Rent per acre in the Stewart lands of County Down rose from 4s. 5d. in 1740 to 13s. 6d. in 1770. Land tenure laws in Ireland had gradually decreased the size of farms. For example, a small farm in County Clare was leased in 1793 to one tenant farmer for three lives or sixty-one years. It was subdivided under Irish common law until in 1841 it had to support ninety-six tenants — all legal heirs — plus forty-eight undertenants, a total of 700-800 people! In 1815 the average farm was eight acres or less. Population density was greater than in any other country in Europe. Ulster had 368 people per square mile of arable land. Land¬lords, often living in England, were generally Protestant. Tenants were usually Catholic or Presbyterian.
The dichotomy also existed in education. In 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII an elementary school system was established in Ireland. Clergymen of the Established Church were required to take an oath that they would "keep or cause to be kept ... a school for to learn English." Both Catholic and Protestant children were to be taught with emphasis on teaching Catholic children the English language. During this time period local priests licensed and often directed Catholic schools. Edmund Spenser observed toward the end of the sixteenth century: "There is in every parish a Popish schoolmaster ... licensed by the Mass priest ... These are a great hindrance to the Gospel and the ministers thereof ... Many of the Popish schoolmasters having 100 scholars and some more . . . "
To combat the situation, in 1611 all schoolmasters and private teachers were required to take the Oath of Supremacy. Essentially, the Oath required they deny the authority of the Pope. By the seventeenth century the Catholic schools had been suppressed, but few of the intended Anglican schools had been established. One official observed to Sir J. Perceval in 1703 that:
From my observation I can say that many dioceses in Ireland have not the schools intended by the Acts; that Popish schoolmasters have been suppressed, and none to instruct the youth in their room, who now suck in wild airy notions, the fitter tools for the crafty and subtle priest to work his subtle designs by; therefore, if this be the case, it were better that Act had not been made, for with humble submission he that has learning, though rude and unpolished, may sooner be weaned from his super¬stition and bigotry ... than he that lives all day with the goat, or on lower ground in a potato garden.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts to establish Protestant schools, char¬tered charity schools were begun. Funded by government grants and private sub¬scription, they were free schools for children of the lower classes. Nursery schools were established for children aged four to six years. Children from six years through ten years old attended the regular school. At age ten children were apprenticed. At the regular school children were to have been taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and Protestant catechism. Only Protestant religion was taught. They were also to have been prepared to be apprenticed in a useful trade or occupation. Through 1775 both Protestant and Catholic children were students at the schools. Since one of the primary objectives of the charter schools was the conversion of the Catholic children to the Anglican Church, Protestants were excluded in 1775.
Unfortunately, the educational intents upon which the schools were established were frightfully abused. In 1784 the philanthropist and reformer John Howard visited several charter schools in Ireland. He reported that in Clonmel children were "half-starved and almost naked." At Mill town Road in Dublin there was "an excessive parsimony in soap and other things necessary for cleanliness and health." At Inniscara he reported "the house out of repair, very dirty and full of fleas." At Franckfort he found "the house, schoolroom and store-room very offensive. Fowls, ducks and pigs in the kitchen ..."

Howard's description of the charter schools he visited resulted in a parlimentary investigation in 1785. Below is a description of the Kilkenny school from the report:
The house is situated a mile from the city. There were thirty-two children, many of them very small, and almost all looked miserable, and their wretched appearance was enhanced by their being barefooted and ragged. Though boys, they were employed in carding and spinning, and sat on stools and stone-seats in a cold workshop. On the morning of the day of my visit it snowed heavily, yet the room in which they were at work was without a fire, although it was ready for lighting. I asked, why it was not lighted? A person who superintended the labour of the children, demanded of them (with an angry tone of voice) why they had not lighted it before? Two of them, with a look of terror, arose and instantly obeyed. After having examined the situation of the house, where I found the beds abominably filthy, education most culpably neglected and many of the children afflicted with itch and scald, I rode off; but suspecting, from what I had seen, that the children would not long enjoy the benefit of the fire, I returned on foot through the fields and found that they had already extinguished it by pouring water on it.

In 1788 Howard testified again to a parliamentary committee that "The children, in general, were sickly, pale and such miserable objects, that they were a disgrace to all society; and their reading had been neglected for the pur¬pose of making them work for the mas¬ters." " The reports included examples for the schools at Stradbally and Castle-Carberry. At Stradbally boys aged six to ten had "without adult help, cleared, plowed, and planted five acres of land to flax, and, cut and sorted forty carloads of hay." "At the Castle-Carberry school there were twenty-four ragged shirts and shifts in stock, though fourteen boys and eighteen girls were in the school. The window was partially stuffed with dung. Only two of the children could read."
Concurrent with and in contrast to the charter schools were those established by the Society of Friends. At Mountmellick school, for example, students were to "appear washed and combed in the morn¬ing," to "observe sobriety and decorum at all meals," and "were issued with a detailed list of clothes, all of which were to be marked with their number." They ate porridge, potatoes, milk, and butter. Each child received clean under¬clothes each Sunday.
From the passage of the Penal Laws in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth cen¬turies, although there were no schools, itinerant schoolmasters conducted classes for Catholics. Under threat of exile or death, the schoolmasters continued to teach, sometimes in ditches or hedge¬rows, usually in the open air. They were paid a meager salary by the childrens’ parents, who also usually kept the schoolmaster hidden from authorities. As enforcement of the Penal Laws diminished, the "hedge schools" were moved indoors, usually to a small sod hut. In 1808 Lord Palmerston wrote of his tenants in County Sligo:
The thirst for education is so great that there are now three or four schools upon the estate. The people join in engaging some itin¬erant master; they run him up a miserable mud hut on the road side, and the boys pay him a half-a-crown, or some five shillings a quarter. They are taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and what, from the appearance of the estab¬lishment, no one would imagine, Latin and even Greek."

Eventually, during the 1830s, the na¬tional school system emerged. It was intended that national schools be nondenominational with religious instruction given provided the parents agreed. A list of scriptures acceptable to both Anglican and Catholic clergymen was produced. Declaring that the scriptures chosen were too few, the Presbyterians generally opposed the schools. In 1867 the vast majority of teachers in the provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connaught were Catholic. In Ulster there were 152 Catholic teachers, 147 Presby¬terian teachers, 80 Anglican teachers, and 26 dissenting teachers. Never¬theless, the system struggled on with great variation in religious instruction from one area to another. Boys and girls aged six through ten or twelve were taught spelling, reading, writing on a slate, writing on paper, geography, grammar, geometry, arithmetic, and bookkeeping. Girls were also taught needlework. During the winter, school was in session Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; during the summer, from 9:30 a.m. through 5:00 p.m. In most areas Saturdays were devoted to religious instruction for the students.
Attendance of students at national schools was poor, averaging about 25 percent enrollment. On any given day only 40 percent of those enrolled were in attendance. In 1870 legislative motivation for improving attendance was passed — the "results" system in which teachers salaries were to be based in part upon student attendance. Attendance improved but the school system was not yet completely satisfactory to both Catholics and Protestants. Indeed, the following verse was to be hung in every national school:
"I thank the goodness and the grace
That on my birth have smiled,
And made me in these Christian days
A happy English child."

Over the years there has also been con¬siderable variation in daily lifestyle. For example, there are reports that the following arangement was the custom for sleeping among the Catholics living in small houses: Father was first. To his right was mother. Beside her was the youngest child or baby. Next was the eldest daughter, followed by the other daughters in descending order according to age. Beside the youngest daughter was the youngest son, followed by other sons in ascending order according to age. The last was the eldest son. Sleeping was normally done in the one main room of the house or in a loft added above the room for that purpose. The only mattress was a layer of straw, usually dirty and infested with insects. Family members usually wore to bed the same clothes worn in the day.
No such arrangement has been noted for Protestants who normally had several rooms per dwelling. As Catholics got larger houses, their sleeping arangement became more like that of the Protestants.
Not only did sleeping habits vary, but time of arising is also different. On his evangelical journeys through Ireland, John Wesley preached at Portarlington "at four o'clock in the morning, and again at ten for the gentry; but it was too early they could not rise so soon." Methodism meetings were routinely scheduled for Catholic laborers at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. They generally started work at 6:00 a.m.
There were vast differences in the diet of the Catholic peasantry and that of their Protestant landlords. Following is a description of food of the typical Irish Catholic family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:
The poor people depended entirely for their food on the lumper, a large potato. It grew plentifully and was very nutritious. The potatoes were eaten four times a day, roasted, boiled, made into potato cakes and boxty bread, or flavoured with salt or herrings if these were available. Their drink was always milk. During the summer months when the old potatoes were finished and the new potatoes not yet ready, the people ate cabbage or even sorrel and cresses. Shell-fish and dillisk, and edible seaweed, provided extra food for people who lived along the sea coast. Meat was rarely eaten and when it was they were very careful not to tell the landlord's agent, in case he raised the rent. One boy, when asked by the agent, said he ate a piece of goose a long time ago, so suggesting the scarcity of meat in his home. The traditional pig kept by most families and fat¬tened on the surplus potatoes was used to pay the rent debts. In remote areas, any surplus grain that could not be taken to market because of the lack of roads, was made into illegal whiskey or poteen.
Even the manner of eating the food was different. Of the Catholic Irish it was said: "Without knives or forks, the people expertly skinned the jackets from the boiled potatoes with a thumbnail overgrown for the purpose, ate them from the hand, and washed them down with skimmed milk or buttermilk, savoring the "lumpers," the inferior potato in common usage, with a little salt — ‘the bit and the sup,’ the meal was called. When times were hard (and always among the poorest), water was the drink with unsalted potatoes."
Although not all Protestants were wealthy, landed Protestants were eating on carved mahogany tables.
Silverware and Delft earthenware were very important items in a rich household. Irish silversmiths provided the table of a landowner with the following items — a pear-shaped teapot with four legs, an oval tray, spoons, tongs, a tea cannister, a sugar bowl with a lid, a jug with a lid, and candlesticks. Decorative country scenes were engraved on the sliver. Blue, sepia, purple or white Irish pottery with a Chinese flower design made the range of Delft in the mansion. Cut-glass decanters and claret jugs moulded in Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Newry or Water ford added to the splendour of the tables of the wealthy.

After the famine in the mid-1800s there was more variety in the Catholics’ diet. Porridge became a regular part of each day's food. Like the Protestants the Catholics began to eat more meat. Since American bacon was inexpensive, it became available to peasants as well as landlords. Although Protestants had drunk tea regularly, only after the famine did Catholic peasants use it. Even then it was said "to weaken the workmen's muscles." Both Catholics and Protestants used sugar, butter, milk, poultry, eggs, vegetables, and tobacco which could be purchased from the "gombeen man."
During the late eighteenth and early nineteeth centuries, illegal distillation and sale of liquor had increased dramati¬cally. Grain was readily available, and the increasing population had more money to spend. It seemed their inclination was to spend it on booze. Poteen, Irish "moon-shine" whiskey, was plentiful despite the illegality of distilling or marketing it. Some distillers had large operations in which they illegally produced and sold large quantities of poteen. Although they sold primarily to the owners of public houses, occasionally they brazenly exported their "fine Irish whiskey." Most, however, had private stills in which they produced poteen for use solely in their own households. Among the Protestants even the gentry and the clergy were known to distill "a wee drop" of poteen. For both Protestant and Catholic it cheered at christenings, marriages, and funerals; on feast days and market days; on weekdays and on the Sabbath. For the most part it was an integral part of daily living despite, or perhaps partially because of, its illegality!

Protestants greatly influenced hair and clothing styles in Ireland. At first changes were legislated. In 1537 it was enacted "that no person or persons, the king's subjects within this land . . . shall be shorn or shaven above the ears, or use the wearing of hair upon their heads, like unto long locks called 'glibes', or have or use any hair growing upon their upper lip, called or named a 'crommeal' . . . " They were also for¬bidden "to wear any mantiles, coat or hood made after the Irish fashion." Below is a description of the Irish styles at the time:
The dress of the people in this period varied, as always, according to wealth or rank. The poorer inhabitants of the bogs and moun¬tains usually went bareheaded, with little other covering than an Irish cloak. More prosperous men favoured a mantil or frieze or cloth and a wide linen tunic gathered into numerous pleats with widehanging sleeves, generally dyed saffron colour. On their heads were conical caps of frieze and their legs were encased in close-fitting hose called 'trews.' The women were fond of brightly-coloured skirts, tucked up at the bottom and embroidered with silk, and many ornaments, while on their heads they wore a hood or folded linen.
Despite repeated efforts to legislate clothing styles, the bulk of the Catholic population made few changes during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Meanwhile, Protestant dress styles changed often, mainly determined by those by England, whose styles were set by those of France. Although laws requiring dress change were relaxed during the nineteenth century, it was during this century that most of the Catholic Irish began to dress in the English fashion.
From the times of Henry II the English and the English settlers have influenced the family and community in Ireland. Often the changes were required by law — the changing of language from Irish to English, the changing of the law from Brehon to English common law, the changing of dress from cloaks and trews to coats and trousers, the changing of land tenure laws. Changes in food, drink, clothing, and housing were effected. The native Irishman of today is far different from his ancestors who lived before the English conquered Ireland. Yet he stubbornly retains many of his native mores despite Protestant influence. Today’s Irishman is still markedly Catholic or Protestant.