How Deep Down Does Religion Go?

Word has it that the polls on Scottish independence are narrowing, with the yes vote gaining momentum. Sorting out all the angles of relations among the Brits and Irish can get really complicated, especially if we remember what Fintan O’Toole reminded us a few decades ago:

In ethnic terms, Ireland is far less complex than many European societies, and infinitely less so than the United States. The biggest inward migration in the last five hundred years came from Scotland in the eighteenth century, and its descendants still form the largest single minority group. But Scotland itself had been settled by the Irish many centuries before. The very name Scotland means “land of the Irish,” “Scotus” being the Latin for an Irishman. The west of Scotland even today is called Argyll, from Ar-Gael, the eastern Irish. In the long view, the Scottish influx in the seventeenth century to the northern Irish province of Ulster is part of a pattern of back-and-forth migration between two places that are, after all, separated at their nearest point by less than forty miles of water.

O’Toole used that feature of Irish and Scottish history to make a two-kingdom point about “the troubles,” namely, that they had far less to do with Protestant-Roman Catholic conflicts than meets the eye:

Only a fool would deny that the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the sporadic episodes of rebellion and repression in the previous five centuries can be understood without taking account of the division between Catholics and Protestants. What can be denied, I think, is that religion itself has ever been the primary source of those conflicts. In Tanner’s eyes, religion is the wound that has caused Irish people to bleed over the centuries. It makes more sense, however, to think of religion as the weapon that has been used to cause the wound. Religion, like its secular counterpart history, has been wielded at different times and in different ways in the pursuit of economic and political advantage.; “Take away the religious factor and you still have enough economic, political, and national divisions to fuel a great deal of nastiness and a few wars.”

The broad shape of modern Irish history certainly forces the issue of religion to the forefront. From the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century, the Irish ruling class was Protestant and imperial, deriving its power from its origins in the slow conquest of the island by England. Those over whom it ruled were for the most part Catholics. Indeed, Ireland stands out as one of the few European countries in which the religion of the masses was not simply determined by the choice of their masters. The Catholic population stubbornly resisted the Protestant Reformation. The state church, the Episcopalian Church of Ireland, treated the Gaelic-speaking masses as a subject people rather than a flock to be protected and served. As a consequence, Catholicism became by and large the faith of those whose politics could, after the French Revolution, be called nationalist; and Protestantism was the religion of those who were loyal to Britain.

This is what happened; and give or take some important nuances, it is not in dispute. Still, an interesting set of questions can be promoted by a little counterfactual speculation. What if Henry VIII had remained happy with Catherine of Aragon and true to his papal title of Defender of the Faith? What if the English Reformation had failed, or had been reversed by the Stuart dynasty? With England and Ireland still loyal to the pope, would there have been no oppression and resistance, no haughty land-owning aristocracy and resentful dirt-poor peasantry, no eventual nationalist revolution? The answer to those questions, surely, is no. Take away the religious factor and you still have enough economic, political, and national divisions to fuel a great deal of nastiness and a few wars.

O’Toole could well have used the factual of England’s relationship to Scotland in the seventeenth century to make his point. Even though both kingdoms were Protestant, that “common” faith hardly provided a smooth ride to the Union of 1707. Charles I’s head is proof.


2 thoughts on “How Deep Down Does Religion Go?

  1. Before 1798 there was hope for a united Ireland. The beginnings of the United Irish rebellion began the sealing of that dream never happening in the near future.


  2. @ Trent: Though had the rebellion succeeded, it might well have been a united Ireland, and not just physically united, as many Presbyterians joined Roman Catholics in that rebellion, finding common cause against Anglicans who oppressed them both.


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