Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland

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Ireland's landscape is marked by fault lines of religious, ethnic, and political identity that have shaped its troubled history. Troubled Geographies maps this history by detailing the patterns of change in Ireland from 16th century attempts to "plant" areas of Ireland with loyal English Protestants to defend against threats posed by indigenous Catholics, through the violence of the latter part of the 20th century and the rise of the "Celtic Tiger." The book is concerned with how a geography laid down in the 16th and 17th centuries led to an amalgam based on religious belief, ethnic/national identity, and political conviction that continues to shape the geographies of modern Ireland. Troubled Geographies shows how changes in religious affiliation, identity, and territoriality have impacted Irish society during this period. It explores the response of society in general and religion in particular to major cultural shocks such as the Famine and to long term processes such as urbanization.

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1 Geography, Religion, and Society in Ireland: A Spatial History

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Even today, more than a decade after the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, which marked an end to the Troubles, the visitor to Northern Ireland cannot help but be struck by the interplay between religion, ethnonational identity, politics, history, and geography. Protestant areas are demarked by the Union Flag (the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, formerly the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), backed up by red, white, and blue curbstones and murals representing events such as the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry. Protestantism is seen as synonymous with the politics of unionism and loyalism, which have the union with Great Britain and loyalty to the British Crown as their core tenets. Orange parades further emphasize these links—Orangemen march to church in a symbolic way that makes explicit the links between their religion, politics, history, and, most controversially, territory. So too in Catholic areas, except the flags are those of the Republic of Ireland, the curbstones are green, white, and orange, and the murals tend to focus on the sufferings and tribulations of the Gaelic Irish population from the Norman Conquest all the way through to the recent Troubles.1 Catholicism is seen as synonymous with Irish nationalism and republicanism, which have sought to remove British influence from Ireland.

 

2 The Plantations: Sowing the Seeds of Ireland's Religious Geographies

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The major plantations of Ireland, which were put in place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were an attempt, or a series of attempts, to establish a Protestant population from England and Scotland in Ireland. This occurred for both political reasons—Protestant England was worried about the threat that Catholic France and Spain could pose through Ireland—and economic ones, in particular due to the close trading ties between southwestern Scotland and northeastern Ireland. The plantation period is outside the temporal range of this book, and the sources on which much of the remainder of the book is based do not exist for this time. We have, however, included a brief description of the events that occurred and the geographies that they established, since, as chapter 3 will describe, their legacies lasted until the early nineteenth century and therefore provide the foundations of much of what was to follow. Indeed, the events of this period left spatioreligious patterns that continue to have an influence to this day.

 

3 Religion and Society in Pre-Famine Ireland

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The first population censuses were taken in Ireland in 1821, 1831, and 1841, but while they contain geographically detailed information about the distribution of the population, they did not include any information on religion. The Commission of Public Instruction, Ireland, taken in 1834, does, however provide us with data on religion for this period. The Commission was instigated by the nonconformist Whig government in London, which sought to use its results to assail the privileged position of the established Church of Ireland.1 Prior to this survey the extent of the Catholic majority in Ireland had been grossly underestimated, and the desire to uncover the demographic strengths of Ireland’s religions was fueled by a strong desire among Protestant evangelicals to proselytize the majority group.2 This chapter uses the Commission and the early censuses to explore the geographies of religion and society immediately before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They show that Ireland had both similarities with and differences from the rest of Europe. As with other European countries, the population was starting to grow rapidly; however, in Ireland a lack of industrialization meant that rural population pressures were growing. The island also already had clear and polarized spatioreligious patterns that still closely followed those laid down during the plantations. Presbyterians, primarily the descendants of private Scottish planters and ad hoc migrants, were concentrated in the northeast of the island. The Church of Ireland had a much more fragmented pattern, being spread along south Ulster and east Leinster and reflecting the relative lack of success of the plantations in many of these areas. The rest of the island was overwhelmingly Catholic.

 

4 The Famine and Its Impacts, 1840s to 1860s

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It has almost become a cliché to argue that Ireland’s population development over the last 150 years has been unique. It is the only developed nation in the world with a current population below that in the mid-nineteenth century and the only European country to have suffered a century of demographic decline in its recent history.1 However, spatiopolitical qualifications must be applied to this assertion. The population decline of the area that is now the Republic has been remarkable, but the area that is now Northern Ireland was able to arrest its population decline at a much earlier stage. Furthermore, at the time of the Great Famine all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and what might be described as a long-term regional population decline seems less spectacular when it is considered within the context of the U.K.’s rapid urban population growth, to which Irish migrants made a significant contribution.2 Still, the impact of the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century on the shaping of modern Ireland cannot be trivialized. More than any other event it has defined both the literal and the metaphysical places of the Irish in the world. It has sent shock waves down through the centuries that are not only demographic but also socioeconomic, cultural, and political.

 

5 Toward Partition, 1860s to 1910s

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It is clear that the Great Famine of 1845–51 had a profound effect on Ireland, leaving its mark on a significantly altered and diminished society. It is also clear that the Famine’s impact was not uniform across the entire island. The death and dispersal it caused were catastrophic, but the processes it set in train were just part of an ongoing demographic tragedy for Ireland. The extent to which the Famine was a watershed in these events, or simply acted to accelerate preexisting trends, remains controversial. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the second half of the nineteenth century—the post-Famine period—significantly different paths were followed by the northern and southern parts of Ireland. This led to a divide that encompassed economic, political, ethnonational, and religious aspects, and all of these had distinct and interrelated geographies. This mix would explode in the early twentieth century.

Mary Daly’s book The Slow Failure deals with independent Ireland’s continued population decline in the twentieth century.1 The fall in population that she discusses was a continuation of an ongoing trend that had been set in place by the Great Famine and that gathered pace during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Despite the virulence of the demographic hemorrhage, it soon became apparent that the differing spatial impacts of the Famine earlier noted were leading to lasting differences in the event’s historical footprint.

 

6 Partition and Civil War, 1911 to 1926

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By the beginning of the twentieth century, division had emerged as the primary motif of Irish society. There were many reasons, both economic and social, for this, but their impact was to divide Catholic from Protestant both psychologically and geographically. The last all-Ireland census occurred in 1911, as Partition was to follow in 1921. The next census took place in both parts of the newly divided island in 1926. From a census perspective, however, 1911 can be regarded as a new beginning, as, despite the fact that since then there have been two separate censuses, sometimes taken in different years, these enumerations provide a number of advantages over those that preceded 1911. The main advantage is that more spatial detail is provided on the geographies of religion that, along with many other variables, are reported at the urban and rural district levels. As described in chapter 1, this provides more districts and also shows the difference between urban areas and their rural counterparts.

 

7 Division and Continuity, 1920s to 1960s

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The Boundary Commission of 1925 confirmed the territorial settlement of Partition. Ireland would remain divided. In many ways Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State had the same central problem at the start of this period: the 1921 treaty had created two states, but it had not created two nations.1 Religious geographies had determined the spatial extents of both jurisdictions, but the choice for both the north and south was how to forge their own identities and the extent to which these identities would be defined by the sectarianism of their geneses. The new formalized division of Ireland was, as we have seen, about more than just religion—it closely reflected the social and economic divisions of the island as well. A second challenge was thus to develop their separate economies. A final question was whether Partition would mark a new beginning for Ireland or whether it would simply continue the trends that had been developing since the mid-nineteenth century.

 

8 Toward the Celtic Tiger: The Republic, 1961 to 2002

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Up to this point the story of the south of Ireland’s economic fortunes has been characterized by an agricultural economy blighted by stagnation and failure. From the beginning of the 1960s a series of policy changes would occur in the Republic that would have profound consequences for the state not simply in the economic sphere but in the social, political, demographic, and even religious realms. It may, at first glance, be tempting to view the period from 1961 to 2002 in terms of a linear path toward economic and social maturity, but such a simplistic teleological interpretation bears little resemblance to what was an extremely turbulent period in the state’s short history.

The 1950s in the Republic of Ireland has come to be seen as a time of economic and social stagnation. By that time people could reflect on the bitter reality that over the thirty years since independence, the state had failed in its primary obligation—to provide the economic means for people to remain living in their own country. De Valera’s 1943 dream of a land of cozy homesteads was instead a place of empty homesteads, much of the “sturdy youth” having departed for New York, London, or Manchester.1 More than four hundred thousand people left the south of Ireland between 1951 and 1961, most of them because of economic necessity.2 Yet it was the sense of failure that crystallized in this decade that led to a renewed determination to resolve the Republic’s ongoing population crisis.3

 

9 Stagnation and Segregation: Northern Ireland, 1971 to 2001

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The late twentieth century saw a stark contrast between the experiences of the Republic of Ireland, described in the previous chapter, and those of Northern Ireland over the same period. While the Republic saw rapid economic progress and a decline in religious divisions, the situation in Northern Ireland was almost the reverse. Between 1971 and 2001 Northern Ireland saw rapid economic change as its traditional industries declined. At the same time it experienced a prolonged sectarian conflict in the form of the Troubles, during which more than three thousand people died. The complexity of the situation means that the next three chapters will be devoted to covering Northern Ireland over this period. chapter 9 looks at demographic, economic, and social change, stressing that in many ways Northern Ireland’s experience was typical of declining heavy industrial regions, albeit with a unique spatioreligious undertone. chapter 10 then moves to exploring the patterns of violence that occurred during the Troubles, which started in the late 1960s and ended with the various ceasefires of the late 1990s. chapter 11 draws these two threads together, focusing on Belfast, the area in which these themes had their largest impacts.

 

10 Communal Conflict and Death in Northern Ireland, 1969 to 2001

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The conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles started in the late 1960s and largely ended following the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 1998, although a decade later violence continued to occur, albeit at a much reduced level. The violence led to over 3,500 deaths. This could be argued to be a small figure, far outweighed in importance by other causes of death such as cancer and heart disease. Even as a percentage of the population it may seem small, coming to only 0.23 percent of Northern Ireland’s population. If this seems like a small figure, however, its numerical significance can be shown by calculating what this would mean if it were applied to British or U.S. populations. A similar death rate in Britain would lead to approximately 130,000 deaths, which equates to the loss of a town like Brighton or Peterborough. In the United States, with its larger population, the equivalent would be approximately 500,000 deaths, comparable to total U.S. military deaths in World War II. From this perspective, it is clear that conflict and violence have led to significant numbers of deaths in Northern Ireland. Moreover, as we will demonstrate, conflict-related killings were geographically concentrated in certain places, including parts of Belfast, some sections of mid-Ulster, and rural areas near the border such as south Armagh. This meant that the direct traumatic impact of the conflict was disproportionately felt by a relatively few communities.

 

11 Belfast through the Troubles: Socioeconomic Change, Segregation, and Violence

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The city of Belfast provides an illustration of much of the division and interdependence that have taken place in Ireland over the last two centuries. Belfast’s success as an industrial city did much to separate the economy and outlook of the Protestant northeast of Ulster from the rest of Ireland. That success had much to do with developing strong links between this part of Ireland and Britain, but it also brought many Catholics from elsewhere in Ireland to the city in search of jobs. This left Belfast with complex spatioreligious patterns that, when the Troubles started in the late 1960s, were particularly contested, resulting, as chapter 10 identified, in the city being the focus for much of the ensuing violence. Over the same period, as described in chapter 9, Belfast went through a period of rapid deindustrialization. Against this background, this chapter first examines the evolving religious geography of the city and related developments in residential segregation. Second, it considers how Belfast has changed socially and economically over the thirty-year period between 1971 and 2001. Third, it looks at the patterns of violence within the city. Finally, the chapter draws these themes together to show how changing spatioreligious patterns and levels of residential segregation are related to wider socioeconomic trends, thereby trying to set Belfast’s experience within the broader context of urban change as observed in other societies.

 

12 Conclusions: Ireland's Religious Geographies— Stability or Change?

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Figure 12.1 shows the distribution of Catholics in 1834 and compares this with their distribution in 2001/2002 as interpolated onto 1834 Church of Ireland dioceses. In many ways very little has changed: Catholics make up the vast majority of the population over much of the island with the exception of Ulster, especially east Ulster, where they are often a minority, Dublin and the Pale, and parts of the south, especially around Cork. In these areas there are significant Protestant populations. These two maps actually understate the degree of long-term spatioreligious stability—while 1834 gives us the first detailed head counts, these geographies were actually laid down in the plantation period over two centuries earlier. This period of emigration and colonization from Britain into Ulster, Dublin and the Pale, and Munster left the geographies that are still clearly apparent today. It also left a legacy of economic and social division and interdependence between the two groups and an intertwining of religion, ethnonational identity, and political opinion that has periodically flared into violence. Conversely, these maps may also overstate the degree of stability, because dioceses are very aggregate units. The maps can and do conceal patterns of concentration and more localized change that more detailed geographies, were they available, might reveal. Nevertheless, this degree of stability appears remarkable. From 1834 to 2001/2002 only three dioceses containing approximately 7.5 percent of the population at both dates saw the Catholic proportion of their population change by more than ten percentage points. Of these, Raphoe and Derry in west Ulster saw their Catholic populations rise from 70 percent to 86 percent and 54 percent to 65 percent, respectively, while the tiny diocese of Kilfenora on the southern shore of the west coast’s Galway Bay saw its Catholic population decline from 99 percent to 84 percent.

 

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