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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Is It Religion in Ireland?

This is the 7th part of my journey to understand my Irish past, and in so doing, to understand Ireland.
“Is it really religion?”

This was a question that was posed to me when I recently returned from a trip to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The island had been divided into two separate countries as a result of Great Britain’s Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which became effective on May 3, 1921.

Ireland has had a long, varied and colorful history that could fill volumes. I’ll flash forward to the Norman invasion of the 12th century, after which settlers from England and Wales arrived in Ireland in great numbers. King Henry II sought to bring Catholicism to the Irish people, believing their Pagan religions to be invalid superstition. Over the next four hundred years, the Irish would convert in great numbers, eventually numbering more Catholics than almost anywhere else on earth.

When King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and established himself as Head of the Church of England, the Church of Ireland was established. Everyone who had been converted to Catholicism was ordered to renounce their faith and join the Church of Ireland. During the Reformation of the 16th century, Protestants under Henry VIII enjoyed the right to vote, the right to own land, the right to representation and were treated with respect as citizens. Catholics had their rights stripped from them. Unable to own land—even if it had been in their families for centuries—unable to vote, unable to have their voices heard, unable to pursue an education, they became second-class citizens.

For centuries, Irish land was given by the British monarchy to subjects in England, Scotland and Wales. My own ancestors came to Ireland from Scotland when more than a thousand acres was granted to them by the king. These settlers were Protestants; their tenants were predominantly Catholic. Most of the settlers moved into six northern counties, which are grouped together by the term “Ulster”.

However, despite their oppression, Catholics did educate themselves. They grew to become a formidable presence until their strength allowed them to fight against the religious persecution. They gradually won back their rights beginning in the 18th century. And as a result of the Easter Uprising (also known as the Easter Rising or Easter Rebellion of 1916), the British crown agreed to allow Ireland to break away if the population voted for it.

During the votes, six counties—those in Ulster—consistently voted against seceding from Great Britain. The votes were narrow in those counties, as the Catholic and Protestant voters were almost even. Catholics—those largely native Irish—voted to secede. Protestants—those largely from other countries who had settled in Ireland—voted to remain with Great Britain.

In 1920, it was decided that in order to allow Ireland to secede, the six dissenting counties in the north would break away. They would become known as Northern Ireland and would remain within the United Kingdom. The rest of Ireland would gain its complete independence and would eventually become known as the Republic of Ireland.

The rise of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland was due to the unhappiness and discontent of Catholics who wished to keep the country as one independent entity. And during the time of The Troubles, Catholics and Protestants were pitted against one another.

On July 13, 1983, the IRA used a land mine to kill three soldiers near Ballygawley and just a short distance from the lands at Glencull which were once owned by my ancestors, the Neely family. Though my ancestors were Protestant, they treated everyone fairly and even donated land for the Catholic Church and for a Catholic school. Ironically, one of the three soldiers killed in 1983 was Oswald Neely, just 20 years old.

At right is a roadside memorial for soldiers killed by the IRA in 1988 near Ballygawley, Northern Ireland. County Tyrone had an active unit of the IRA, which accounted for several attacks during the time of The Troubles.

But is it really religion that has torn apart Northern Ireland?

I have never lived in Northern Ireland and no doubt those who have spent their entire lives there can recite reasons upon reasons why the two religions cannot get along. However, from an outsider looking in, it seems to me that it is not so much a religious issue as a political one.

The Nationalists believe that Ireland should be one entity; that it should never have been divided and that it should return to an independent island, as it was before Great Britain invaded centuries ago. And when you consider that Great Britain was once in the business of colonizing the planet under their rule, what other countries still remain as a British colony today?

The Unionists believe that Ireland should remain divided and that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, governed by the British system of law and taxed by London.

The Nationalists are predominantly Catholic, as the native Irish have remained in overwhelming numbers.

The Unionists are predominantly Protestant, as they were under King Henry VIII when they began settling in Ireland centuries ago.

One man who wanted a divorce and created his own church because the Catholic pope would not grant him a divorce—one man created a religious environment that still divides people to this day.

Will Northern Ireland be allowed the same type of vote as Scotland had in 2014, on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom? And if so, would they vote to secede or would they vote to remain as they are?

Who would have thought during the days of William Wallace that Scotland would vote to remain part of Great Britain in 2014?

And would Northern Ireland follow suit, believing that the benefits Great Britain has to offer them far outweigh the negatives? Or would they be successful in reuniting Ireland?

What do you think?