Divided Loyalties – Protestant Nationalism in Ireland

Over the centuries, Protestants in Ireland have played a major role in the cause of separation from Britain, not only supporting nationalist movements but in many cases leading them. These movements ranged from campaigning for the legislative independence of the parliament of Ireland (styled the Kingdom of Ireland by Britain), to a form of home rule within the United Kingdom, to an independent Irish Republic and, in more recent decades, a united Ireland.

Chief among those Protestant revolutionaries are names such as Theobold Wolfe Tone in the 1798 Rebellion, Charles Stewart Parnell with his Home Rule movement and Robert Erskine Childers in the 1916 Rising. Protestant Henry Grattan led the Irish Patriot Party in the 1770s and 80s to seek more independent rule of Ireland by Ireland. Grattan was inspired by another Anglo-Irish Protestant, Jonathan Swift.

Bulmer Hobson. IMAGE: National Library of Ireland

Protestants such as Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell and Henry Joy McCracken led the United Irishmen, whose members included Lord Edward Fitzgerald and many others. At its first meeting on October 14, 1791, all the attendees were Presbyterians except for Tone and Russell, who were Anglican. Presbyterians, like the Catholic majority in Ireland, were discriminated against under the Crown, and were not allowed to sit in parliament. Presbyterians under McCracken, James Napper Tandy and Samuel Neilson would go on to lead the 1798 Rebellion against British rule in Ireland. The rebellion failed and led to the 1800 Act of Union.

In 1803, Protestant Robert Emmet led another failed rebellion and was executed. In the 1840s, Protestant Thomas Davis, nationalist poet and one of the founders of the Nation newspaper, and John Mitchel, son of a Presbyterian minister, were involved in the Young Ireland movement. William Smith O’Brien, Protestant and son of Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, led the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848.

Daniel O’Connell’s Land Reform movement in the 1830s and 40s was supported by many Protestants including MP Sir John Gray, who later supported Isaac Butt and Parnell in the drive for home rule.

Butt, son of a Church of Ireland rector, founded the Home Government Association in 1870, but died in 1873. William Shaw was chairman of its successor, the Home Rule League, followed by Parnell who founded the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Parnell was considered a formidable politician by the British establishment, but at the height of his fame as leader of the Home Rule movement, he was involved in a scandal arising from his relationship with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea.

In 1908 former Quaker Bulmer Hobson and Anglican Constance Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth) set up Fianna Eireann, a nationalist boy scout movement.

Casement Daily Mirror 16 July 1916

Newspaper “Daily Mirror”, 16 July 1916 with photographs of Roger Casement’s trial (IMAGE: Daily Mirror Picture Library)

A few years later, in 1913, Irish nationalists including Protestants Roger Casement, Hobson and Robert Erskine Childers set up the Irish Volunteers, a paramilitary organisation formed in response to the founding by Edward Carson and James Craig of the Ulster Volunteers, a Unionist paramilitary group who feared that ‘Home Rule was Rome Rule’. Casement converted to Catholicism just before he was hanged for treason in 1916.

One of the founders of the Irish Citizen Army in 1913 was Protestant Jack White, son of General George White. The Citizen Army were involved in the Easter Rising and most of the arms and ammunition they used had been imported from Germany on Childers’ yacht the Asgard in July 1914.

Dorothy Stopford Price’s aunt, Alice Stopford Green, was involved in this importation, which was planned at her house at Grosvenor Rd, Rathmines, along with Childers himself, Hobson, Conor O’Brien and Darrell Figgis Other rifles were imported into Kilcoole, Co Wicklow in 1914 by Colonel Sir Thomas Myles. Myles was a much-decorated former President of the Royal College of Surgeons and surgeon to the King in Ireland.

Count M

Countess Markievicz. IMAGE: ‘The Illustrated London News’, 6th May 1916

The Celtic Twilight movement, which saw the revival of old Irish myths, legends and themes in art and literature, was largely the work of wealthy Protestants in Ireland, such as George Russell (AE), W.B.Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and Constance Markievicz, among many others. The Catholic writers who were part of the movement included signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic Patrick Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett, Some of the movement’s work, with its glorification of blood sacrifice of the movement, is credited with radicalising its audiences, and Yeats wondered after 1916 if his work had ‘sent out, certain men the English shot.’