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.
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.
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.