Felix M Larkin



Protestant & Irish

Remarks by FELIX M LARKIN at the forum on ‘Being Protestant and Irish’

(panel discussion on the book Protestant and Irish, eds. Ian d’Alton & Ida Milne)


 2019 Kennedy Summer School (New Ross, Co. Wexford), 5 September 2019


I am the ‘odd one out’ on this panel – not a Protestant, and not a scholar of Irish Protestantism. Indeed, most of what I know about the history of Irish Protestantism I have learned from Ian d’Alton – and I would like to pay tribute here to the wonderful, seminal work that he has done in this area over so many years. The reason I am on this panel – and in this book (Protestant and Irish) – is that I am a historian of cartoons (though not, I hope, a cartoon historian – there is a subtle difference!).

Cartoons are a valuable, but under-used, historical source – for as Steve Bell, The Guardian’s brilliant cartoonist, has observed, ‘cartoons can say things that are perhaps less easy to say in a more straightforward journalistic context’. Good journalism – like good history – has to be nuanced, reflecting the complexity of the situation or issue under consideration; a cartoon, by contrast, cuts through the verbiage with a simple truth that overrides complexity – and, through humour or irony, appeals to instincts within us that are visceral rather than rational. I would argue that historians cannot afford to ignore the insights of cartoonists: how and what they have chosen to examine, parody and challenge should always be of interest to historians. So the editors of this book and I agreed that it might be worthwhile to examine how southern Irish Protestants were depicted in cartoons in Irish newspapers and magazines after independence, and that is what I have done in my chapter.

Satire, whether in literary form or in cartoons, is regarded as something that mainly ‘punches up’ – in other words, a weapon of the powerless against dominant groups and people. The perception of southern Irish Protestants as a powerful elite makes them an obvious target for cartoonists. From the late 1870s onwards, vivid and colourful cartoons were published as supplements by the Weekly Freeman and by United Ireland, both nationalist newspapers. When southern Irish Protestants featured in these cartoons – and they featured a lot – it was almost invariably in the guise of rapacious landlords guilty of abusing vulnerable tenants, and they were demonised. I have reproduced in this book a typical example, from the Weekly Freeman of 18 December 1886, in which the plight of an evicted family at Christmastime is juxtaposed with the good fortune of their former landlord enjoying the festive season snug inside the Big House in the distance.

Images such as that inevitably informed how the southern Protestants were presented in cartoons in Irish newspapers and periodicals after 1922. They are almost always gentry – an elite, and so fair game for satire – even though, as Ian d'Alton is always at pains to remind us, the gentry were only a small part of the Protestant population. A good example of a cartoon from the post-independence period is 'Ceilidhe in the Kildare Street Club' by C.E. Kelly, published in Dublin Opinion in 1934. Its humour lies in the incongruity of what was still a bastion of the Anglo-Irish gentry and the Protestant professional classes hosting an event redolent of the Irish-Ireland cultural revival. We see blimpish men in formal evening dress – white tie and tails – and with monocles whizzing round in jigs and reels with their stout ladies. The cartoon includes clever word play with names and titles, and the use of the Irish language alongside these names and titles adds greatly to the incongruity. This is gentle mockery, tempered by social envy.

For Protestants, on the receiving end of such humour, being treated as ridiculous ‘relics of oul’ decency’ was infinitely preferable to being portrayed as a people to be feared and hated, as the landlords were in the 1880s. In this respect, this cartoon mirrors a movement in the perception of southern Protestants as no longer a threat to Irish independence or to the social and economic aspirations of the majority population. Nevertheless, it brings the ‘outsider status’ of Protestants into sharp focus and demonstrates just how much of a chasm separated them from mainstream Irish society.

Likewise, the well-known cartoon of the newsroom in the Irish Times, published by Dublin Opinion in 1930, emphasises the ‘outsider status’ which that newspaper retained until the 1960s – a defiantly Protestant institution, like the Kildare Street Club. This cartoon is also by C.E. Kelly, and much of its humour derives from the anachronistic atmosphere of the newsroom as portrayed by him – staff in top hats or mortarboards, a porter with medals from ancient wars, Burke’s Peerage and Debrett’s on the bookshelves (described as ‘works of deference’), and references to Sackville Street and Kingstown. The cartoon’s pièce de résistance – inverting marginality – is the depiction of the ‘Irishman’s diary’, corralled off from the rest of the newsroom and occupied by a peasant and his pig. It demonstrates that, whereas the Protestant minority may be ‘outsiders’ in Irish society, the majority population is marginal within the world of the Irish Protestant.

Less gentle – and less humorous – was the cartoon published in the inaugural issue of the Irish Press on 5 September 1931. It shows a line of men and a woman in chains en route to the guillotine, and the first two are dubbed ‘old order’ and ‘social pretension’. Their imagined fate is absurd fantasy, but there is a serious message: Protestants, and others who do not subscribe to Fianna Fáil’s version of Irishness, will be in trouble when Fianna Fáil comes to power. The caption on the cartoon, slightly misquoting the song of the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, reads: ‘We’ve got them on the list, and they’ll none of them be missed’.

The cartoons that I have mentioned above are reproduced in all their glory in the book Protestant and Irish. In fairness, however, Irish newspapers and magazines post-independence did not concern themselves very much with Protestants – and I found relatively few cartoons targeting southern Irish Protestant society, institutions or individuals after 1921. While those that did highlighted the ‘outsider status’ of Protestants, the most significant thing about the cartoons is, in fact, their paucity. This indicates that, despite the many advantages Protestants continued to enjoy, they were largely invisible in Irish society post-independence. That was probably by choice; they wished to be ignored. Invisibility was part of their strategy for survival – a point made repeatedly in this book. Caleb Richardson, another contributor to the book, has commented elsewhere on ‘how little Protestants mattered in independent Ireland’ – and my chapter confirms precisely that
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