Say hello to cousin Boris

Emigration has long been a sore spot for the Irish. A favourite lame excuse was the one the late Brian Lenihan came up with in the 1980s: “Sure isn’t it a small island? We can’t all live on it.”

My own moment of shame from that era happened when I was returning from Italy to Ireland for Christmas 1980. I had to pass through London and on the Underground between Gatwick and Euston a grizzled, freckled, oul’ fella with a nearly empty bottle of whiskey came up to me:

“Yer Irish, arnchya? Have a dhrink.”
“No, no, no.  You’re mistaken. I’m not Irish at all.”

Peter denying Christ can’t have felt guiltier. Though maybe responding:
“Yes, yes, I am Irish but I don’t want any of your whiskey. That bottle looks dirty” might not have been sensible.

Since then we’ve got much more comfortable with our emigrants and their descendants, celebrating our cousins the Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, Irish-Argentinians, even British-Irish. But there’s one step we still can’t take, any more than I could on that Tube train in 1980.

England’s green and pleasant land

“English-Irish” still sounds impossible, a logical contradiction, like describing a colour as “Black-White”, even though over the past four centuries more Irish have migrated to England than to any other destination.

A major reason is that we’re far closer than we like to admit, and not just geographically. For more than 1000 years, we’ve been marrying them and fighting them and fighting for them and writing masterpieces in their language. In return, they’ve been marrying us, stealing our land and, above all, misunderstanding us.

Wave to cousin Boris, children

But they are our cousins. One thing that 1980s teaching stint in Italy showed me was the extraordinary cultural overlap between the English and the Irish. We understood their sense of humour, their politics, their accents, their class problems (though they still didn’t understand us, which we kind of liked). They were (are) almost us.

What sparked these thoughts was my growing realisation of the importance of English records for Irish research. Now that those records are easily searchable online, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that they hold  solutions to many of the gaps created by the gaping holes left by the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922. Quite simply our extended families were there and are listed.

Finding them in English records is another thing. I’ve just put up a video that dips a toe in their censuses. Enjoy.


Black Prods, Beige Prods and little Papes

I grew up in Castlerea in north Roscommon in the 1950s and 1960s. It was mono-culturally Irish Catholic to an extant almost impossible to imagine now.

Fourth class. St Paul’s boys National School, Castlerea, 1963. Chilblains.

We were very tolerant of Protestants, though, because there weren’t any. In their absence we had to dream them up. As I recall, in the Irish Catholic mind of that era there were basically two templates, the harmless ones, usually on horseback, and Black Prods, generally found Up North. Only the Black ones were liable to bite.

What brought this all to mind is a book I’ve just finished, Reformation: Europe‘s House Divided 1490-1700 (Penguin 2004), by Diarmud McCulloch. It’s an astonishing work, a detailed region-by-region, controversy-by-controversy account of how Europe (and Castlerea) divided into Papists, Beige Prods and Black Prods. The depth of my ignorance about the Reformation was jaw-dropping. I suspect that was one of the aims of a traditional Irish Catholic education.

As McCulloch tells it, Martin Luther’s original rebellion had as much to do with local German politics and questions of political authority as with theology. Lutheranism became rooted in German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia, in states where local kings or prince-bishops supported it and made the clergy state employees. It retained much of the liturgical tradition of the pre-Reformation Church.

John Calvin

The “Reformed” Church was very different. Following such leaders as John Calvin, it broke much more completely with the existing Church. In particular it stressed predestination, the idea that redemption is purely the gift of God and He (always a “He”) has chosen from the beginning of time those who will be saved. The “elect” can only contaminate themselves by contact with the pre-damned majority, a notion that sits uneasily with the injunction to love thy neighbour, unless of course you redefine “neighbour” to mean only other members of the elect. To put it another way, the Black ones were liable to bite.

In England, the split from Rome was originally entirely about political authority. Under the Tudors and the Stuarts, the Church of England (and Ireland) evolved into a hybrid state church, retaining some aspects of Rome, bishops in particular. Hence “Episcopalianism”, from episcopus, a bishop. Ultimate power derived from the monarch, though. To the Reformed, such a mash-up was anathema: Cromwell and the wars of the 1640s were the outcome. The ultimate victory of the hybrid Anglican state church in the 1690s (after William of Orange invaded England) was defeat for the Reformed, whatever the marching bands in Larne on July 12th might proclaim.

Like all great books, Reformation casts light in all sorts of unexpected areas. Negotiating with Northern Irish Unionists, mostly Reformed Presbyterians, is bound to be difficult. How can they compromise with the infectious damned? The same tradition of the elect closing themselves off with other like-minded elect might explain some at least of Trump’s appeal to US evangelical Christians, as well as their impermeability to political argument. Salvation trumps Democracy.

Anyway. A more mundane reason for bringing all this up is to point you to a video on my YouTube channel outlining ways of accessing historic Irish Presbyterian records. As you might expect, difficult and awkward. But no biting.