“There used to be a Protestant at this school, sir, but he left.”
The remark seemed to encapsulate a working-class community’s perception of the Church of Ireland
I remember once going to attend a funeral in one of the vast 1950s Catholic churches on the north side of Dublin. The deceased was a sister of a member of the parish where I was clergyman at the time. The woman had gown up a member of the Church of Ireland and had remained so, but had been caretaker of a local Catholic primary school and had asked to have her funeral in the Catholic church because, “they’re my people.”
The parish priest came to me to apologize, he had tried to encourage the woman to have a Church of Ireland funeral. I told him that the funeral Mass had been her choice and that it was only proper that we all respect that choice.
Sean O’Casey, a working class man from the sort of north inner city community in which that woman had grown up, became embittered towards the church in which he had been baptized and raised.
The Church of Ireland had turned its back on working people. Protestants became people of the suburbs and the provincial towns and farms. The Church of Ireland bishops said nothing while the prospect of the sort of Ireland imagined by O’Casey, and those who had struggled for justice, disappeared without trace.
O’Casey eventually faced a situation himself where the influence of the Roman Catholic Church was such that it was not possible even for his plays to be performed. At one point, in frustration, he had penned lines to the letters column of the Irish Times:
There we go; the streets of Dublin echo with the drumbeats of footsteps running away. The Archbishop in his Palace and the Customs Officer on the quay viva watch to guard virtue and Eire; the other Archbishop (Barton) draws the curtains and sits close to his study fire, saying nothing; and so the Hidden Ireland becomes the Bidden Ireland, and all is swell.
A century on from the Ireland of the young Sean O’Casey and it might have been imagined that a church now with no reason to fear anything from anyone might manage some contribution of substance to the public discourse of the state.
Look at the Church of Ireland website and the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday is unremarked but there is a prayer to mark the seventieth anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth. The last comment on the situation faced by working people was in November, and it did not come from the bishops.
Unless it is a matter of the details of human sexuality, the Church of Ireland bishops have nothing to say to contemporary Ireland. Archbishop Barton closing his curtains and pulling his chair closer to the fire was positively outspoken compared to his successors today. O’Casey would despair of them.
It’s not a wonder that Protestants are not to be seen around here.