Irish history’s hidden threads

Irish history’s hidden threads

Micheál Martin’s remarks encourage a more nuanced approach to the historical and religious elements that have had long term consequences for both Ireland and the US. DECLAN McSWEENEY reports

COMMENTS BY Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin at the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen give food for thought on perceptions of Irish history.

The Tánaiste said that many in the Republic fail to include people from other traditions in the island when it comes to considering what it means to be truly Irish. “In fact, efforts to promote a distorted, sectarian and inflexible view of our history is a reality ... the fact is that there is growing evidence that we do not know each other well enough on this island ... we have many views about each other but they are not backed up by engagement or understanding,” he stated.

In my youth, for example, I sometimes heard suggestions that John F Kennedy was the first US President of Irish descent — when what people really meant was that he was the first Catholic.

In fact, previous holders of the office with Irish roots included Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant, Chester A Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Harry S Truman.

With the exception of Taft, whose forebears came from Louth, all of the above-named traced their ancestry to Ulster, either to what is now Northern Ireland or to Donegal.

Irish commentators at times lose sight of the extent of the Protestant and particularly ‘Scots-Irish’ link to the development of the United States, but if the Shared Island Initiative is to succeed, it’s important we remember that part of our history.

Since JFK, the only Catholic to lead the USA is the current incumbent of the office, Joe Biden, but others who have Irish ancestry included Lyndon B Johnson (whose ancestors came from Galway), Richard Nixon, whose Quaker ancestors came from Timahoe in Kildare, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter (both with roots in Ulster), Ronald Reagan (ancestors from both Antrim and Tipperary), George HW and George W Bush (ancestors from Down), and, of course, Barack Obama, who traces part of his ancestry to Moneygall in Offaly.

Another dimension to the issues raised by Micheál Martin is the fact that the Methodist tradition in the United States traces some of its roots to Ireland, while among the earliest, if not the earliest, Presbyterians there were migrants of ‘Scots-Irish’ background, though New England Puritans in some cases also opted for Presbyterianism in preference to Congregationalism.

Barbara Heck and Philip Embury are names remembered by American Methodists as among the founders of their tradition in what is now the USA. Both of them traced their ancestry to the Palatine refugees, German Lutherans who fled persecution by Catholic rulers and found sanctuary in Kerry and Limerick in the early 18th century.

William Penn, a Quaker from Cork, is remembered as founder of Pennsylvania, and it attracted many from persecuted religious minorities across Europe, including Catholics as well as Lutherans, Mennonites, Jews and Huguenots, an early example of religious tolerance.

At a later stage in history, churches founded in Ireland, which spread both to England and the United States, included the Plymouth Brethren (despite their name, founded in Dublin) and the Elim Pentecostal (founded in Monaghan).

Many Irish Catholics seem unaware that while their ancestors faced religious persecution, so also did those of many of ‘nonconformist’ Protestant groups, and that Ireland ended up providing sanctuary for those, like Palatines and Huguenots, who were themselves persecuted by Catholics in an era where religious freedom didn’t exist in Europe.

Perhaps, if the Republic is sincere in its commitment to the Shared Island idea, its educational system needs to foster a greater awareness of people and traditions like those referred to.

As far back as my own schooldays at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, a half century ago, my history teacher, the late John Cahill, once gave us an exercise to write out the names of 10 Protestant denominations, so that we would never think of people just as Catholic and Protestant but have an understanding of the difference between Church of Ireland and Presbyterian, or between Methodist and Baptist.

Of course, other minorities, such as Jews, also played their part in the Irish story, and we remember the alliance of Irish Catholic and Jewish workers in the ‘battle of Cable Street’ in London in 1936, and the role of the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Érin, founded by Michael Mann, a US trade union official who was originally from Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street.