Marianne Elliott Book Review: When God Took Sides

image Marianne Elliott’s latest book, provocatively titled When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland – Unfinished History, (Oxford University Press, 2009) describes how Catholics and Protestants in Ireland perceive each other – and explains why this matters so much today.

Elliott’s title conveys the idea that both Catholics and Protestants assumed that God was on their side throughout this island’s centuries-old religio-political conflict.

We are now in a time of relative peace, and the increased pace of secularisation has meant that religious dimensions of the conflict might be considered less important. Elliott’s book returns questions about religion in Ireland to the centre stage. She convincingly demonstrates how much religious ideas and practices continue to inform divisive and destructive attitudes and beliefs.

This continued animosity – though now played out mainly by the pouting politicians of Sinn Fein and the DUP – is part and parcel of the ‘unfinished history’ evoked in the subtitle.

Elliott is a distinguished historian, the director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, and a co-author of the important 1993 report of the Opsahl Peace Commission. When God Took Sides is based on her Ford Lectures in Oxford, which she delivered in 2005.

The chapters of the book are organised thematically rather than chronologically, most likely reflecting their genesis in the spoken word. While this is not the conventional method for historians, it makes for engaging reading.

This format also ensures that the reader grasps the relevance of the past not just to religion, but also to politics, in the present day.

Elliott’s eight chapters explore some familiar themes, such as ‘Protestantism and the Spectre of Popery’ (there is practically a cottage industry of literature on anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, perhaps deservedly so!), ‘The Poor are Always with us; the Poor are Always Catholic’, and ‘Beached: Religious Minorities in Partitioned Ireland’, amongst others.

Of these chapters, I think that there are three that bring into sharp focus issues that, while somewhat ignored today, continue to haunt us.

These include chapter 6, titled ‘Our Darkest Days: Religious Persecution and Catholic Identity.’ This chapter analyses the penal laws both in ‘Irish Imagination’ and ‘in Reality,’ arguing that in this case, it is the imagination that really matters. Elliott ties the impact of the penal laws to Catholics’ loss of the land through colonisation, exploring how this produced a somewhat proud victimhood that revels in suffering and shuns criticism. As she writes on pages 162-163,

‘Through suffering and endurance Irish Catholicism was portrayed as having attained a special purity. “Surely then, it is a miracle of the Providence of God,” states the Christian Brothers’ Irish History Reader, “that after a hundred years of this unexampled persecution, the Irish people should have retained their faith as pure and inviolate as they received it from St. Patrick.” In contrast to “pagan England” Catholics were told, “we kept the faith” – as I was reminded recently by an Irish-born academic in the United States, who thought in the paper I had just delivered that “I had let the Protestants off too lightly,” after “what they had done to us.” The Penal Laws thus became the prime symbol of past suffering, underpinning an entire national culture of religious conformity, complacency, and resistance to criticism.’

Elliott links this ‘national culture of religious conformity, complacency and resistance to criticism’ to the present scandals in the Irish Catholic Church. One might add that there are echoes of this culture in the structure of the largest national political party, Sinn Fein. It too has demonstrated patterns of authoritarianism, conformity and resistance to criticism in its own handling of recent accusations that it has covered up sexual abuse.

An important consequence of Elliott’s argument about the development of Irish Catholic/nationalist culture is that unless its religious roots are recognised and thoroughly interrogated, Ireland is unlikely to develop a national religio-political culture that is in fact open, self-critical, and engaged with the wider world.

The other two chapters deal with different aspects of Protestantism, namely chapter four, ‘The Church of Ireland as Establishment’ and chapter five on Presbyterians, ‘The Outlanders of Ulster.’

The temptation, especially south of the border, is to underestimate or misunderstand differences between the island’s two largest Protestant traditions, Anglicanism and Presbyterianism. These two chapters tease out some of those differences. Elliott describes the once privileged position of the Church of Ireland and its truculence and aloofness as it came to terms with its own decline. She also notes the widespread perceptions of Northern Ireland as dominated by Presbyterianism and evangelicalism, to the extent that all other religious traditions are seen to be ‘infected’ with this type of religion. On page 119 she writes,

‘Ulster then was seen to have contained a people with a peculiar accent, a blunt manner, a philistine outlook on life, an intransigent frame of mind, and, in the case of the religion which came to be most associated with it (Presbyterianism), a tendency to lace everyday speech with scriptural references.’

To illustrate this Elliott cites a Presbyterian character in William Carleton’s Valentine McClutchy, who,

‘… sings metrical psalms, gives religious tracts to the hungry, and tells evicted tenants that “God loveth whom he chastiseth”, and that he and the Orange yeomanry were simply God’s instruments.’

At the same time, Elliott reviews the ‘dissenting’ tradition of Ulster Presbyterianism, explaining how 17th, 18th and some 19th century Presbyterians (the Presbyterians of the United Irishmen being the most prominent example) had developed a rich culture of debate and protest against the perceived wrongs of established authorities, both religious and political.

Elliott also observes a ‘self-image of Presbyterians as a persecuted people and the Church of Ireland as past persecutor’ surviving ‘into the twentieth century, defying efforts at Protestant ecumenism’ (page 135). But she notes that Presbyterians’ dissenting culture was swallowed up as Protestants of various traditions became alarmed by the threat of the Catholic majority, permitting ‘the emergence of pan-Protestant traditions of Unionism’ (page 137).

Elliott’s analysis of the Anglican and Presbyterian traditions may explain, in part, the continued fracturing of contemporary unionism.

From the unionist political perspective, dis-unity can be perceived as dangerous – as evidenced by the recent panic that the unionist vote could split three ways in the next election, opening the door for Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness to become First Minister.

Such analyses, however, assume that Catholics and Protestants are still engaged in a deadly zero-sum game about Northern Ireland’s political future. An obvious question to ask is, do we – and our politicians – really think about Northern Ireland in this way? If so, is this really the best mindset to retain?

Indeed, there is ‘unfinished history’ on this island. Elliott’s book helps us to look back and see the religious forces that have played their part in getting us to where we are now. Without understanding this, there is little hope of transcending the legacies of history on either the religious or political fronts.

One Response to Marianne Elliott Book Review: When God Took Sides

  1. rodney neill February 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    This looks an interesting book- so many things to read!!

    I enjoy your blog ( I am the middle aged bald headed geek who visited Ikon around 5 years ago)

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