Keeping your head down – Protestant identity in 20th century Ireland. By Sylvia Turner

Ethel Kerin was born on 11 January 1922 in Clara, County Offaly. Her mantra in life was to ‘keep your head down’ learned from her parents who worked as servants on the estates of affluent Protestants. Ethel kept her head down in terms of her parents’ employers as she depended on them for food and shelter. When she came to live in England in the 1940s, she kept her head down as she was Irish.

Ethel Kerin was my mother. She was born into a family of Protestants who worked in service. Little I have read or seen in Ireland relates to the type of life she and her family led. It was a hand to mouth existence, of feeling inferior and beholden to her father’s employers who were Protestant business families or landed gentry. In the post Partition decades of the 1920s and 30s, the lives of the family were frequently interrupted by termination of service and relocation. Apart from the Quaker families they worked for, their employers treated them with little regard, deciding to close down their houses and leave Ireland at short notice, returning to properties they held in England. My grandmother kept in touch by letter with the many friends she made, both Catholic and Protestant, across the Midlands and east of the country till the end of her life. The correspondence gives a sense of sadness of having to move and set up home again as well as the vagaries of their employers. However, simple pleasures of going out for picnics and evenings with neighbours that involved laughter and fiddle playing were clearly high points in their lives. Overall, there is a sense of making the best of things under difficult circumstances. Despite church and school attendance at the Church of Ireland, the family’s lives were more related to their neighbours, regardless of religion, than they were to that of their Protestant employers.

The Church of Ireland, Clara

My mother wrote a memoir towards the end of her life and in it recalled schools she attended. They were often very small and the lady of the Big House would play a part in the running of the school. My mother wrote:

The school was small- only 2 small classrooms and one very strict teacher. My one long abiding memory of that school was of Mrs. X coming down on Armistice Day, November 11th, with the Union Jack which she would unfurl in the classroom and we would all sing the hymn “O God our help in Ages past” with our poppies firmly pinned to our jumpers/jerseys.

Speaking to my mother about this event, she said that this was something she would not have talked about to the Catholic family they were particularly close to. What this incident does indicate is that the family in the Big House saw themselves as British as much or more than Irish. Yet my mother and her family saw themselves as Irish, having no family links to Britain at all. She loved learning Irish and often used the Irish version of her name, Eithne Ni Ceirin. As children, she and her sisters used to speak in Irish much to the frustration of her mother who had never learnt the language at school.

The idea of what it was to be Irish raised challenges for the Protestant minority despite many individual Protestants having made important contributions to key events in Irish nationalist history, such as Wolfe Tone in the 1798 rebellion and Charles Stewart Parnell in the Home Rule movement. A Protestant Irish identity has been a contradiction in terms over the centuries. Protestants were seen as the descendants of settlers who invaded Ireland and formed plantations. Both my great-grandparents had mixed marriages. My great grandfather Kerin, the son of a Protestant clergyman from Ardfert, Kerry married a Catholic O’Connor from Rosstemple, Limerick. My great-grandfather Evans of Ballinagar, Offaly married a Catholic Byrne from Geashill, Offaly.  A name like Evans may indicate that my great-grandfather could have descended from Welsh settlers who arrived during the early Leix-Offaly plantation or maybe from Welsh soldiers garrisoned in Offaly. My great-grandfather Kerin’s ancestors originated from a Catholic family in Kerry, who had converted to Protestantism in the 18th century,  probably due to the Penal Laws. The restrictions on the lives of Catholics including not being able to inherit land led to a number of conversions. The story goes that although my grandparents felt part of the community of fellow families on the estates where they lived, my grandfather was resentful towards his Protestant employers as he felt he was as good as them due to his family’s clerical background. However, his employers did not make him feel that he belonged to their strata of society.

This theme of not belonging was expressed by my mother later in life when living in England. During her time in the British Army in Northern Ireland she made many friends, the majority being Catholic, who, like her, came to England after WW2. She married into a family who were nominally members of the Church of England but were not church-goers. She regularly attended the local Church of England on her own or with me as I became older. It was very different to the Church of Ireland being a ‘high’ church which stressed continuity with Catholic Christendom, the authority of bishops and the importance of sacraments and rituals such as the use of incense, something my mother particularly hated. Although people at the church were not actively unfriendly, my mother did not feel particularly welcome. This was at a time when it was fairly common to see signs like ‘No blacks, no Irish’ outside guest and boarding houses. She mentioned how much easier it was for her Catholic friends in Birmingham and Liverpool to settle in England as they had a community of Irish people around them.

My mother’s story of being Irish, Protestant and poor is not apparent in much literature about 20th century Irish history, maybe because its position does not fit neatly into an Irish narrative of Catholic oppression by its Protestant neighbour. Of course,  a disproportionate number of Protestants did own more land  and had a more privileged position under British rule, yet evidence of the lower strata of Protestants is evident in Census records, newspaper archives and birth, death and marriage records. Like their Catholic counterparts, they worked the land, supplied trades and serviced the Big Houses.

A Geashill C of I Parish Tea at the former rectory about 1911. Everyrone in their Sunday best in what was an exceptional parish in Offaly, the entire of which was from 1619 vested in Lady Offaly and the Digby family [ed.]

Although the Protestant experience of Ireland has been written about by such writers as Patrick Comerford and Ian D’Alton for many years. In this Decade of Centenaries more literature has been published such as Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland by Robin Bury (2017), Protestant and Irish 2019: The minority’s search for place in independent Ireland edited by D’Alton and Milne, Protestant Depopulation in County Longford during the Irish Revolution, 1911-1926. Marie Coleman (2020), Different and the Same: A Folk History of Protestants of Independent Ireland by Deidre Nuttall (2020). They have looked at a broad range of Protestant socio-economic groups, frequently using oral history accounts as I have about my mother’s family.

History has portrayed the lives of the more affluent members of society, regardless of religion,  captured through such sources as written diaries, newspaper articles, announcements of births and marriages and on gravestones. However, the lives of the lower strata of society frequently leave little mark due to lack of documentation. The Irish government was aware of this lack of evidence and in 1937 initiated a programme with the Irish Folklore Commission. The aim was to capture the lives and customs of Irish people, collecting songs and  stories, crafts particularly those of Irish speakers. They worked in  collaboration with the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and used children to collect and document folklore and local history. The result is a wonderful archive of material . Protestant children were not excluded from contributing but they were not seen as having Irish customs of note. Today a major collecting project  is being undertaken by the National Folklore Collection to address the imbalance of Catholic and Protestant accounts.

Although caution must be brought to bear on drawing conclusions from oral history alone, detailed exploration of records that are available can yield significant data to corroborate oral history accounts. The existence of working Protestant servants is evident in the announcement below in the Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail on Saturday 23 November 1844. It is interesting on many counts but particularly in noting many of those employed  were in financial straits and could have ended up in the workhouse but had  also seen ‘days of affluence’.

My great-grandfather, the son of a Protestant clergyman, worked on the railway as a signalman in Cork. Despite his job, he called himself a ‘gentleman’ in an announcement he put in the newspaper. His family may not have been affluent but they once had status. Below is more evidence of the existence of Protestant servants Dublin Daily Express – Monday 05 April 1909 .

The 1911 digitised Census returns provide an excellent source of information and can be searched through religious classification. Looking at the returns for Geashill Town, reveals data such as the following:

The example above from the returns is interesting as the residents lived in a grade 2 house made of perishable materials and worked in manual jobs. The head of family, William, shared his family home with his mother-in-law and a Church of Ireland couple, the husband employed as a gardener. Additionally, it would seem that William and his wife had a mixed marriage as her mother was  a member of the Church of Ireland. 

The Irish genealogical site www.irishgenealogy.ie holds a number of transcripts of births deaths and marriages. Below is the record of my grandparent’s marriage showing employment of my grandfather, a gardener, his father, an engineer (although this seemed an exaggerated name for a railway signalman, there is an Institution of Railway Signal Engineers) and my grandmother’s father, an ex-postman.

Church records, not just for the Church of Ireland but other Protestant faiths such as Methodists and Presbyterians hold significant information. Those that are online are available through the Irish genealogy site but others are available in search rooms of each Church Body.

Today, there is access to rich seams of information to bring to the fore the lives of minority groups. Such information coupled with oral accounts can create a broader understanding of the lives of our ancestors and how they were affected by momentous events around them during the twentieth century.

Sylvia Turner March 2021

Offaly History will be publishing upwards of twenty five blogs to mark the Decade of Centenaries in 2021. If you too would like to contribute a story email us, info@offalyhistory.com