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W B Yeats and the Protestant phoenix

Blog | By Roy Foster | Jan 16, 2020


W B Yeats, who died just over 80 years ago in Cannes on 28th January 1939, was highly conscious of being an Irish Protestant. In his early career, he saw this as a rather awkward identification, getting in the way of the Gaelic authenticity essential to the Celtic Revival – which he rather brilliantly accessed by identifying with fairies instead of clerics.

As his life went on, he got keener and keener on his Protestant descent, culminating in his great 1925 speech in the Irish Senate against a bill prohibiting divorce.

Out and proud, Yeats boasted that his tradition represented ‘no petty people’ but ‘one of the great stocks of Europe’.

‘If we have not lost our stamina,’ he informed the conservative Catholic proponents of the bill, ‘then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final; and when it comes, this nation may be transformed.’

However, due to partition, emigration and intermarriage, the Protestants of independent Ireland were already dwindling fast. In the 1940s, another poet, John Betjeman, during his Irish sojourns as a Dublin-based junior diplomat, or a house guest of the Longfords in County Westmeath, became a connoisseur of decaying Protestant churches:

Has it held, the warm June

weather?

Draining shallow sea-pools dry,

When we bicycled together

Down the bohreens fuchsia-high.

Till there rose, abrupt and lonely,

A ruined abbey, chancel only,

Lichen-crusted, time-befriended,

Soared the arches, splayed and

splendid,

Romanesque against the sky.

There in pinnacled protection,

One extinguished family waits

A Church of Ireland resurrection

By the broken, rusty gates.

Sheepswool, straw and droppings

cover,

Graves of spinster, rake and lover,

Whose fantastic mausoleum,

Sings its own seablown Te Deum,

In and out the slipping slates.

From Ireland With Emily

A decade later, the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler (1900-91) quizzically meditated upon his fellow Protestants, often to their detriment. Butler liked to rock boats, and he found his co-religionists irritatingly diffident and acquiescent in the face of Catholic triumphalism. In the 1950s, he described the Church of Ireland as ‘a poor old phoenix, moulting and blind and bedraggled, gazing mesmerised into the fire, but unable to summon up the courage to take the last leap’.

Yet, he continued, ‘I still think it has the power to lay a very fine egg.’

To concentrate on decline and Anglo-Irishry leaves out the Protestant menu peuple, who characterised 19th-century Irish life all over the island. The historical profile of Protestantism should include small tenant farmers, tradespeople, commercial travellers, schoolteachers and policemen, though they make less gripping copy than the louche eccentrics invoked by Betjeman – as well as by Somerville and Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, Jennifer Johnston and Molly Keane.

Partition concentrated the idea of Protestant Ireland into the blinkered assertiveness of the north-eastern corner, while the identification faded throughout the rest of the island.

To grow up, as I did, as a Protestant in provincial Waterford during the 1950s and 1960s was to see the variety of Irish Protestant churches and meeting houses contract, amalgamate and disappear, along with many of their denizens. The fine Georgian cathedral in that city has been magnificently restored, and – with other distinguished buildings around it – has been incorporated into a museum quarter. Is this emblematic?

As a matter of fact, no. The extraordinary turnaround of Irish economic fortunes at the end of the 20th century, and the liberalisation of Irish social mores, had knock-on effects in the religious sphere that have not been enough noted.

One was the simple effect of immigration, when Ireland began importing people instead of exporting them. It struck me forcibly on a Christmas Day in the mid-1990s, when my father and I went to Church of Ireland worship in Killorglin, County Kerry. On previous visits, we had got used to a huddled, minuscule congregation, shamefacedly singing carols in unison with the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, thoughtfully relayed by cassette-player.

Not this time: all around us were cheerful African faces, lustily belting out the hymns for all they were worth. The ‘New Irish’ had arrived, and many of them were Protestant. My father took some time to get used to it.

And in the same era, though not precipitated by the Celtic Tiger, the Catholic Church in Ireland entered on its via dolorosa of exposed scandals, hushed-up horrors breaking the surface, and a loss of social as well as moral authority from which it has not yet recovered.

The striking advance of Irish feminism accentuated the process, along with the bitter political wars fought over the issues of contraception, divorce and (especially latterly) abortion: not to mention equal marriage. On all of these issues, the Catholic Church’s strictures were subjected to bruising defeats. Increasingly, liberal middle-class Irish Catholics turned to a kind of à la carte version of their faith which to some eyes verged distinctly on Protestantism.

While priestly vocations declined drastically in the Catholic Church, and nuns more or less disappeared off the face of the earth, the Church of Ireland recruited more and more energetically. In the 21st century, the real growth has been in the lively Humanist Association of Ireland, which can barely keep up with the demand to officiate at non-religious weddings and funerals. Protestants and Catholics are meeting on a secular middle ground. The transformation that Yeats forecast might seem to have arrived at last.

But hold the cigar. Here, as in other connections, things are different up north. The ascendancy of the DUP, the prevalence of fundamentalist attitudes reflected in causes célèbres such as the gay-wedding-cake stand-off, and the underlying divisions symbolised by Orwellian ‘peace walls’, remind us that religion north of the border has not gone through the changes characteristic of ‘the South’.

This might be borne in mind when speculation turns towards one possible outcome of the unholy mess that is Brexit. The flat-earthers of the DUP are wedded to the shibboleth that Northern Ireland must be exactly the same as every other part of the UK, whereas the salient truth is that it patently isn’t.

Faced with this intransigence, there is evidence that liberal Northern Unionists, looking rationally at the catastrophic implications for their agricultural and industrial economy under a policy opposed by the majority in the province, will consider the options of moving closer to the Republic within a continuing European framework.

If ‘reunification by stealth’ ever happens, what will it mean for the liberalised ‘Cathestants and Protholics’ of the South? A jaundiced friend suggested to me that the result would be as disruptive as the fate of liberal Israelis following the influx of a million Russians after 1989.

Meanwhile, we may still await the hatching of the phoenix’s egg invoked by Hubert Butler. The nest is warmer than it used to be, but there is not much sign of it yet.