In studying Irish history I am forcibly struck by the number of people born into the Protestant or Dissenter tradition who became involved in the campaign for Irish independence, many in leadership positions. This is rarely the focus of any attention and, when it is, it is suggested that they were a small, strange band of eccentrics, indicative of nothing.
In reality there were so many Protestants/Dissenters – given their percentage of the overall Irish population – that this cannot be dismissed as a tiny handful of eccentrics and misfits, but part of the norm i.e. many Protestants* wanted an all-island independent nation and actively worked collaboratively with their Catholic fellow countrymen and women to achieve such an outcome from the late eighteenth century until Partition. It was only after partition that Protestant participation greatly reduced.
[*Note: for reasons of brevity I will refer to Protestants (Anglicans) and Dissenters (Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers et al) as ‘Protestant’.]
It is clear that since the creation of the twenty-six county republic ‘Irishness’ became ‘Catholicised’ under the control of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Even the many Protestants who took part in the campaign for independence felt they were marginalised after the event. This may be one of the explanations of why currently so very few northern Protestants publicly declare their support for an all-island independent nation.
The other explanation is that a concerted northern Unionist and English Establishment campaign to support and confirm the view of the Irish Catholic theocracy that ‘Irishness’, nationalism and republicanism is a Catholic thing i.e. northern Protestants emerge from the womb strongly convinced monarchists, pro-British loyalists and opposed to all things Irish. They do not change these views throughout their lives. Similarly, Irish Catholics emerge from the womb with lifelong beliefs in Irish nationalism and republicanism.
Frightened by what happens when the Irish people unite, the ruling elites – – in both jurisdictions – manufactured this narrative to sectarianise Irish politics and to divide the Irish people against each other, so that there would not be a challenge to their hegemony – as there had been in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In short since partition our history has been re-written and all those brave and courageous people from the Irish Protestant tradition have been largely removed from the record and replaced by a fake history which denies their existence.
The success of this strategy is evidenced by how few Protestants in recent times have publicly declared their support for a united Ireland. I can only find a handful:
- Ivan Cooper – 1960’s civil rights leader and co-founder of SDLP.
- Ivor Bell – former Chief of Staff Provisional IRA.
- Claude Wilton – civil rights campaigner, member of Derry Citizens’ Action Committee and the SDLP.
- John McGuffin – anarchist, writer and co-founder of People’s Democracy .The only Protestant to be interned.
- John Turnly – Former British Army officer & founder of Irish Independence Party.
- Ronnie Bunting – member of the NICRA, the Official IRA and Leader of the INLA.
- Noel Lyttle – member of INLA
- John Robb – founder of New Ireland Movement
- Roy Johnston – Irish physicist, Communist, former Official IRA & Sinn Fein member.
- Billy Leonard – ex-RUC officer and former Sinn Fein member.
- Tom Paulin – radical poet.
- John Graham – 1915 – 1997 – OC Belfast IRA. Member of the Belfast IRAs ’Prod Squad’.
John Graham’s background was hardy typical for a prominent IRA volunteer. He was born in India in 1915, where his father had served as a British Army colonel. His family were Church of Ireland, and indeed he himself was studying to be a clergyman when the influence of Denis Ireland was brought to bear on the young Graham. He joined a group of Protestants in the IRA in Belfast in the mid 1930s.Unofficially, this group was known as the ‘Prod Squad’, and Graham quickly emerged as one of the most valuable assets in the Belfast Command structure and ended up OC of the Belfast Battalion. Graham was an Anglican divinity student in the 1930s and opposed to all things ‘popish’.
He was imprisoned in Crumlin Road Jail from 1942 to 1949 along with Joe Cahill. On his release he slipped into mainstream life and became a noted professional golfer. His past as an IRA man was never exposed. Presumably it did not suit the establishment to have it known that a Protestant had been a leading IRA man. He died in 1997.
- It is true that many of these Irish Protestants in leadership positions were from comfortable middle, even upper class, backgrounds. Their social positions gave them the time and resources to devote to the campaign. Perhaps they felt they had a karmic debt from their ancestors! But it is also true that many working class Protestants (many from the north) fought in the IRB and Irish Citizen Army in 1916.
There has been some shift in this categorisation of late. Many Protestants are now learning the Irish language and studying the ancient pagan belief systems and mythologies that are part of this island’s true history. However they seem to stop short of any suggestion that they are per se Irish nationalists. That remains a step too far – at least in public.
The true history of this island suggests that many Protestants in the past were able to break free of this false construct. This should encourage those Protestants wary of speaking out publicly today to do so. They are not ‘traitors’, but follow in a proud and popular tradition dating back over two hundred years.
In particular women should take encouragement from the number of Irish women – Protestant and Catholic – who held key positions of leadership and influence over one hundred years ago in the campaign for independence. This is in marked contrast to the role of women in unionism who, until quite recently, made cups of tea and licked stamps to support their unionist menfolk.
I publish below a list of eighty people born into the Protestant tradition who became advocates for Irish independence and unity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is by no means complete (maybe others can add people I have missed out).
It reveals many fascinating stories outside of the popular narrative of the United Irishmen, Roger Casement, Erskine Childers etc.
For example the first supporter of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association promoting Catholic emancipation to be elected to the British House of Commons in 1826 was a Protestant aristocrat, Villiers Stuart, from Waterford.
William Philip Allen was an Irish Protestant, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and a Fenian. He took part in the Fenian Uprising of 1867. He was executed in Manchester for the murder of a policeman.
Bulmer Hobson, was born a Quaker from Belfast, was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council. He masterminded the landing of the guns at Howth in 1914. He disagreed with the tactic of the Easter Rising and took no further part in Irish politics.
Sam Maguire was a Cork Protestant and leading member of the GAA in the early 1900s. He recruited Michael Collins into the IRB and became Collins’ intelligence officer in London. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and died penniless and brokenhearted in 1927. The Sam Maguire Cup is named in honour of him.
Charlotte Despard (nee French) was born of Anglo-Irish descent in 1844.
In 1908 Despard joined Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Margaret Cousins and other feminists to form the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Despard settled in Dublin after World War I and was bitterly critical of her brother, Sir John French, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant. During the Irish War of Independence, together with Maud Gonne and others, she formed the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League to support republican prisoners. As a member of Cumann na mBan she opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and was imprisoned by the Irish Free State government during the Irish Civil War.
Douglas Hyde was an Irish academic, linguist, scholar of the Irish language, politician and diplomat. He was a leading figure in the Gaelic revival, co-founding the Gaelic League with Eoin Mac Neill in 1892 to promote the Irish language and to ‘de-anglicise’ Ireland. He was the 1st President of Ireland from June 1938 to June 1945.
The Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was co-founded and for a time commanded by a northern Protestant from north Antrim, former British army officer and son of a Field Marshall, Jack White. White was not a republican or a nationalist, but an anarchist who believed the Irish working class needed their own protection to ‘put manners on the police’ after their treatment by the authorities during the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out. The ICA went on to play a major role in the Easter Rising.
Rory (Robert) Haskin, a Belfast Protestant, who spent six years in the British Army, then joined the Orange Order and the UVF, before undergoing a Damescene conversion to republicanism when he attended a Freedom Club meeting (IRB front).
The landing of guns at Howth in 1914 was largely enabled and managed by Irish Protestants. George Fitz-Hardinge Berkeley was a major donor. The boats belonged to Erskine Childers and Sir Thomas Myles . The plan was hatched by Roger Casement and Alice Stopford Green. Once landed, the safe transport and storage of the guns was supervised by Bulmer Hobson.
Many Protestants took part in the 1916 Rising. At least one was sentenced to be executed – George Irvine from Fermanagh. His sentence was commuted. A Protestant martyr did not fit the narrative being developed by both the British and the Catholic church. Irvine was later prevented from standing as a Sinn Fein candidate in 1918 by the AOH because ‘he was a Protestant’.
Elinor Dorothy Stopford Price was a medical doctor who administered first aid training and medical treatment to the West Cork IRA Brigade.
A Wicklow Protestant, Robert Barton, was a signatory to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 granting a form of independence to the twenty-six counties.
Organisations and events:
- Catholic Emancipation
- United Irish Movement (1798)
- Young Ireland Rebellion (1848)
- Fenian – Fenian Rising 1867
- IRB – Irish republican Brotherhood
- Land league – Irish national land League 1879
- Irish Literary revival 1880 – 1930
- Gaelic Revival/ Gaelic League
- IPP – Irish Parliamentary Party
- Howth – Landing of guns in Howth harbour, Co. Dublin July 1914
- IAOS – Irish Agricultural Organisation Society
- CNB – Cumann na mBan
- ICA – Irish Citizen Army
- SE – Seanad Eireann
Irish Protestant nationalists and rebels
(in chronological order)
Click on name for link
| Irish Parliament |Henry Grattan |1746 – 1820 |
|United Irishmen |William Drennan |1754 – 1820 |
|United Irishmen |Henry Munro |1758 – 1798 |
United Irishmen |Oliver Bond |1760 – 1798 |
|United Irishmen |Samuel Neilson |1761 – 1803 |
|United Irishmen |Lord Edward Fitzgerald |1763 – 1798 |
| United Irishmen |Theobald Wolfe Tone |1763 – 1798 |
| United Irishmen |James Hope |1764 – 1847 |
| United Irishmen |Thomas Russell |1767 – 1803|
|United Irishmen |Henry Joy McCracken |1767 – 1798 |
|United Irishmen |James Orr |1770 – 1816 |
|Catholic Emancipation |Henry Villiers-Stuart |1803 – 1874 |
|Young Ireland |William Smith O’Brien |1803 – 1864 |
| Young Ireland |Thomas Davis |1814 – 1845 |
| Young Ireland |John Mitchel |1815 – 1875 |
|Literary Revival |Samuel Ferguson |1810 – 1886 |
|IRB |Thomas Luby |1821 – 1901 |
|Gaelic League |Euseby Cleaver |1826 – 1894 |
|IPP |Isaac Butt |1815 – 1879 |
|CNB |Charlotte Despard |1844-1933 |
IPP |Charles Stuart Parnell |1845 – 1891 |
|Howth |Alice Stopford Green |1847 -1929 |
|Fenian | William Philip Allen |1848 – 1867 |
|Literary Revival |Augusta (Lady) Gregory |1852 – 1932 |
| Land League | Anna Parnell |1852 – 1911 |
| IAOS |Horace Plunkett |1854 – 1932 |
| Howth | Sir Thomas Myles |1857 – 1937 |
|Gaelic League | Douglas Hyde |1860 – 1949 |
|IRB | Fred Allan |1861 – 1937 |
|1916 |Roger Casement |1864 – 1916 |
|Literary Revival |William B Yeats |1865 – 1939 |
|Literary Revival |Alice Milligan |1865 – 1953 |
|Literary Revival | George Russell (AE) |1867 – 1935 |
|CNB | Ella Young |1867 – 1956 |
|Sinn Fein |Countess Markievicz |1868 – 1927 |
|ICA |Richard Brathwaite |1870 – ? |
|Howth |Erskine Childers |1870 – 1924 |
|CNB |Margaret Dobbs |1871 – 1962 |
|Literary Revival | James M Synge |1871 – 1909 |
CNB |Annie M.P. Smithson |1873 – 1948 |
|Sinn Fein | Kathleen Lynn |1874 – 1955 |
|Howth | Molly Childers |1875 – 1964 |
|Howth | James Creed Meredith |1875 – 1942 |
|ICA |Alfred Norgrove |1876 – 1937 |
|CNB |Elizabeth Bloxham |1877 – 1962 |
|ICA |Rev. Robert Gwynn |1877 – 1962 |
|ICA |Ellen Norgrove |1877 – 1934 |
|ICA |James McGowan |1877 – 1955 |
|IRB |George Irvine |1877 – 1954 |
|1916 | Dr Ella Webb |1877 – 1946
|ICA |Jack White |1879 – 1946 |
|ICA |Sean O’Casey | 1880 – 1964 |
|Howth |Mary Spring Rice | 1880 – 1924 |
|ICA |Helen Donnelly |1880 – 1971 |
|Howth |George O’Brien |1880 – 1952 |
|Howth |Darrel Figgis |1880 – 1925 |
|1916 |Robert Barton |1881 – 1975 |
|IRB |Bulmer Hobson |1883 – 1969 |
|CNB |Mabel Fitzgerald |1884 – 1958 |
|IRB |Sam Heron |1887 – 1937 |
|IRB |Ellett Elmes |1887 – 1958 |
|IRB |Sean Lester |1888 – 1959 |
|IRB |Henry Nichols |1889 – 1975 |
|IRB |Ernest Blythe |1889 – 1975 |
|CNB |Margo Trench |1889 – 1936 |
|IRA | Dr Elinor Price |1890 – 1954 |
|CNB | Frances Trench |1891 – 1918 |
|SE | Denis Ireland |1894 – 1974 |
Jones, V. (2014) ‘Rebel Prods’, Dublin, Ashfield Press.