The history of Ulster's Catholics points to a troublesome future

Catholicism in Ulster 1603-1983, by Oliver Rafferty (1994)
The Catholics of Ulster, by Marianne Elliott (2000)

The results of Northern Ireland’s local government elections were yet another landmark in the political changes afoot there. Sinn Féin is now the largest party at local government level for the first time, easily surpassing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Nationalists of all stripes outnumber unionists in council seats. These results follow on from last year’s Stormont elections, in which Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party and therefore claimed the right to nominate the North’s First Minister.

In the meantime, the 2021 Census results revealed that Catholics now slightly outnumber Protestants. Clearly, a major shift is taking place. Yet this seismic change goes far beyond the political battles and religious head counts. In light of their growing ascendance, and to get a better sense of where the North may be heading, it is worth examining in detail the history of Northern Ireland’s Catholics.

Two insightful books which are of particular value are Catholicism in Ulster 1603-1983 by a Jesuit professor at Boston College, Fr Oliver Rafferty, and Professor Marianne Elliott’s The Catholics of Ulster, which came out in the wake of the ending of the Troubles. Both authors are themselves Ulster Catholics, and lived through the worst violence which has occurred in this troubled landscape in the modern era.

While their books cover similar ground overall, it is hardly surprising that the cleric is more focused on Catholicism itself, whereas Elliott looks at the overall experience of the Ulster Catholics as a community. (Indeed, writing elsewhere in his 2008 book The Catholic Church and the Protestant State, Rafferty laments the tendency of Elliott and other historians to look at Catholicism merely as a social phenomenon while insisting that “transcendental realities” cannot be ignored.)

The distant past

Long before the arrival of the first Protestant settlers, Ulster stood out as the last bastion of Gaelic Ireland where neither the British rule nor counter-Reformation Catholicism had made serious inroads. Both Rafferty and Elliott make clear how disorganised Ulster Catholicism was, with the presence of married clergy going hand-in-hand with liberal mores when it came to sex and divorce, although this clearly did not mean that the population were not sincerely devout.

They also draw attention to the popularity of the Observant Franciscan friars whose simple lifestyle and unquestioned holiness compensated for the shortage of secular clergy and the lack of a strong diocesan structure. The example of these Franciscans was to have a lasting effect in ensuring Ulster’s Catholics did not convert to Protestantism in any large numbers subsequently, in spite of being subjected to more pressure than those living elsewhere in Ireland, where Catholics had an overwhelming numerical dominance which provided greater security.

Northern Ireland’s never-ending national dispute is often seen as being a battle between descendants of the planters of the early 17th century and the descendants of the native Gael. This ignores the facts presented here by Elliott which show that the initial plantation was much more limited in scale than is often thought to be the case, and the great westerly movement of British Protestants across the Irish Sea actually unfolded gradually in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Nor have community relations been static. During the 19th century, as legal restrictions on Catholicism were eased, Irish Catholics gradually developed a physical infrastructure worthy of their community’s size. In Ulster, the financial and other assistance provided by benevolent Protestants was an important part of this process. Another similarity in the respective approaches of the historians lies in how far both historians go to challenge popular preconceptions. For instance, rebelliousness is a term which many attach to Ulster Catholics, and Rafferty includes both “a sense of inferiority” and “alienation from the state” within his list of community characteristics.

Despite this, Ulster Catholics have sometimes tended to be more conciliatory than their co-religionists to the south. A good example of this lies in the area of state-funded education as begun in the early 19th century, where Ulster bishops were inclined to support a non-denominational model of schooling which some of their Southern counterparts fiercely denounced.

The issue of leadership - or the lack thereof - resonates within each historical account and is of particular interest given recent developments. What has traditionally set Ulster Catholicism apart since the Flight of the Earls has been the absence of political leadership and the resultant inability of the Ulster Catholic community to control their destinies. Deprived of any political clout, the Catholic elite post-plantation suffered materially as state persecution and economic decline became interwoven.

Elliott observes that by the 1660s, while overall land ownership levels were about equal between the native Irish and the Protestant planters, “the tendency for marginal land to be occupied almost exclusively by Irish was already far advanced.” By the latter half of the 19th century, one analysis showed that 72.5 percent of the land was in Protestant hands, and Catholics were a majority of agricultural labourers and an overwhelming majority of farm servants. Land dispossession went hand-in-hand with political disempowerment.

Those chieftains who remained in Ulster gradually lost land and wealth to the Protestant arrivals throughout the 17th century, with the result that the future martyr Archbishop Oliver Plunkett wrote in 1671 that while Ulster’s peasants were in an adequate condition, “the gentlemen are completely ruined.”

A remnant of the old Catholic nobility survived elsewhere in Ireland, but not in Ulster, and after partition the new Irish nationalist leadership class would concentrate on developing the southern state. This dynamic had a clear impact when it came to religion also as the Catholic Church came to provide what Elliott describes as a “much-needed leadership in the absence of a secular one in past centuries.” Without politicians to look up to, the Catholics of Ulster looked to their priests instead, and the Church-State conflict which has played out in the ever-more liberal Republic over the last half century has been delayed significantly in the North as a result.

Modern times in Ulster

Unquestionably, Ulster’s Catholics struggled in many areas including education, and Rafferty and Elliott each devote considerable attention to the issue of schooling. One example of educational disadvantage can be seen in the 1901 census, which found that 19.1% of Ulster Catholics were illiterate, compared to 9.8% of Anglicans and 5% of Presbyterians. Naturally, this had a knock-on effect professionally. “By 1901,” Rafferty writes, “there were 100 Catholic doctors out of a total of 724, 10 per cent of chemists were Catholics, and Catholic barristers numbered 136 out of 595.”

After partition, conflict with the Unionist-controlled Stormont government meant that Catholic schools remained somewhat detached from the state education system and received less funding than Protestant state schools. Here too, the effects of this different experience were not what the designers of the policy may have had in mind. The funding discrepancy merely strengthened the Ulster Catholics’ resolve to raise their own funds to make up the shortfall. “The northern state’s ‘penalisation’ and ‘persecution’ of Catholic education was a recurrent theme in the nationalist press and in clerical sermons and homilies, particularly during school renovation ceremonies or fund-raising events. Such fund-raising was woven into the pattern of everyday life for generations of Catholics, binding their identity ever more closely to that of an apparently embattled church,” Elliott writes.

Contemporary trends

What does all of this mean today, in a secularising North in which religious bonds are less strong, but where the two communities remain so divided about their past, present and future? Numerical strength counts for a great deal in contested spaces, and last year’s Census findings on religion provoked much discussion, but little reflection. In all, 42.3% of the North’s people declare themselves to be Catholic, up from 40.7% a decade previous. When factoring in those who were raised Catholic, the community forms 45.7% of the population, compared to the 43.5% who are Protestant or Protestant-raised.

Interestingly, these figures clearly show that the Catholic Church is far more effective at retaining membership. Only 7.4% of the 870,000 Northerners raised Catholic no longer identify as such, compared to the Protestant community in which 14% of those raised as Protestants are now completely lapsed.

Few have asked why this is. Is it all down to the importance of Catholic education which the great majority of Catholic children receive, or is it the sacramental and communal nature of Catholicism, as it compares to more individualistic and de-institutionalised Protestant creeds?

The massive upsurge in people declaring themselves to be of “No religion” (17.4%, up from 10.1% in 2011) is far more prevalent among those from traditionally Protestant areas, where a crisis of identity is clearly underway. The old Paisleyite sneer was that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin,” but differences in family size are not the key issue when it comes to the changing Census findings: disaffiliation and emigration are.

In the past, Catholics were more likely to leave an Ulster which was often inhospitable, and Elliott points to the province-wide decline in the Catholic population from 50.5% in 1861 to 43.7% in 1901 as an example of the fluctuations which have taken place.

But in recent times, Protestants have been more likely to go, particularly Protestant youths who choose to pursue third-level studies in Britain and often never return. This is depriving Ulster Protestantism of its natural intelligentsia and – worryingly – leaving increasingly unchurched and unschooled young loyalists more vulnerable to demagoguery of various kinds, not least of which has been the rabid encouragement of a self-destructive Brexit policy.

When it comes to education, the accomplishments seen within the North’s Catholic school sector in recent times are all the more remarkable in light of the historical educational underachievement highlighted by Rafferty and Elliott. Catholic schools have vastly outperformed their non-Catholic equivalents in league tables in recent years, and appetite for Catholic education is not likely to decline as the Catholic numerical advantage is particularly strong among school goers (50.7% of whom were Catholic in 2019, compared with the 33% who were Protestant). Professional success follows academic success as night follows day, and history is again repeating itself here to the benefit of what was previously the disadvantaged community. Catholic employment levels are reaching parity with those of Protestants and will surely surpass them soon.

Naturally, it needs to be said that the “Catholic” community as it is defined in Northern terms is unique, as here “Catholic” can serve as an interchangeable term for “Irish” or “Nationalist”. Religious practice has declined as it has elsewhere in Ireland. More importantly, the leadership function which the Catholic clergy used to perform within the Catholic community has been assumed by the ever more secularist Sinn Féin: a challenge which Rafferty saw emerging in the early 1980s where his analysis of Ulster Catholicism ends. This carries with it a threat of further advances down the road of liberal abortion and euthanasia legislation, although Catholic education appears to be safe for now, if only because the Catholic community will not allow the anti-clerical Sinn Féin party to abolish it for fear of injuring their own children’s prospects.

Looking to the future

The coming years are uncertain, but some things can be easily predicted. The Catholic community will keep growing as the Protestant community contracts, and economic dominance by Catholics across the key professions will become as obvious as educational dominance already is. Having become the largest party at local and Stormont level, Sinn Féin will eventually get to install a First Minister committed to Irish unity. A referendum on Irish unity will take place this decade and be defeated, but the imbalance between pro-unity younger voters (disproportionately Catholic) and pro-union older voters (disproportionately Protestant) will fuel calls for another vote in the not too distant future.

Much of what is happening will not be spoken about; as Elliott explains, the Northern social code limits the discussion of contentious issues among mixed company. But it will be noticed by almost everyone on both sides of the divide. Ulster memories are deeper than most, and Ulster sensitivities more obvious too.

In the past, periods of social change in which the relative standing of Protestants and Catholics have changed have sometimes preceded sharp outbreaks of violence (like the easing of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws in the 1790s and the concurrent birth of the Orange Order, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, which sparked off the conflagration of the Troubles).

Professor Rafferty was perceptive in identifying the central problem of Irish and British conflict as being “the absolute refusal of the Protestant population to accept their minority status, coupled with their consistent demand for a controlling role in the country’s affairs far beyond their numerical strength.” In the coming years, we will see if this declining community can adapt to the new realities of today and tomorrow.

In the meantime, reading the history of Ulster’s Catholic tribe provides the best means to understand this people’s complexities.


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