The Contested Identities of Ulster Catholics

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Thomas Paul Burgess
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , July
     263 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Politics, rather than religion, dominates as an identifier of the people in the Irish North who are classified as Catholic. Regardless of their levels of piety, devotion, or fealty, in this province, and in the statelet examined here under British governance, the term Catholic is employed as an ethnic marker first, as with similar labeling in the Balkans or the Middle East. Often more a matter of real estate and schooling than catechetical fidelity, Catholic as a collective noun serves in this academic anthology as its norm. 

Fifteen chapters, with sixteen contributors, examine communities rather than a single voting or cultural or demographic bloc. The identities in the plural forms of this cohort include, not only standard classifications such as republicanism, constitutional nationalism, and civic aspirations, but also historical differences due to gender, partition of the border, perceptions of the Republic of Ireland on its brethren across this frontier, and education. No individual section investigates religion itself. The book tallies five references for rugby, which is the only r-word listed in its index.

However, references to religious identification speckle these pages. Editor Thomas Paul Burgess’s lively introduction blends his own experience with that of a professor, opening the treatment of these subjects promisingly. He quotes the Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937’s Irish Constitution). Its preamble invokes “the Most Holy Trinity” and acknowledges Jesus Christ (14). Burgess inserts this citation without comment, which may be an implicit criticism of an outmoded confessional stance in the twenty-six-county jurisdiction. The six counties under the Crown remain under-examined as to their observance of Catholicism then or now. Claire Pierson notes this absence in scholarship. She briefly compares the recent Latin American support for conservative Catholics opposing abortion, and the liberalization of sexual rights by “secular rights-based discourse” in passing, to a “backlash” by similar campaigns in Ireland (40). Niall Gilmartin continues this direction in his examination of the moral contexts entered into by women involved as activists and combatants in the republican cause.

Yet the Catholic religious approach per se is glimpsed in passing rather than as a site worth slowing down to examine in detail. Brian Hanley’s careful account of the reception of “refugees” burnt or driven out by Ulster Protestants during the beginning of the latest Troubles does list hosting by the Jewish and Protestant communities in Dublin of relief efforts, housing, and support for those affected by the Northern riots. 

Again, this remains in the background within what around 1969-1972 remained a very strong bond (or bondage) between the Republic and the Church. Malachi O’Doherty has chronicled his personal and communal predicament within the West Belfast equivalent of Catholic immersion as the standard rite of passage for his generation. He contrasts the upbringing he rejected with its current manifestation in his hometown. 

“A Catholic teenager of today, projected back into that culture, would be appalled by its strictures, not least by the corporal punishment in schools, the sexism and racism in popular humor, and the ubiquity of reverence for the clergy. Indeed, such a teenager would be amazed to see so many priests, nuns, and religious brothers passing on the street. That teenager now might wear a fashionable bangle with reproductions of holy icons on it. The Catholic teenager of the 1960s would be able to name all the saints. Paradoxically, a Catholic brought forward from that time would easily mistake the modern Catholic for a Protestant. In short, the changes are enormous” (84). 

Tony Gallagher takes another first-hand approach to look at the legacy of his grandfather, Paddy Devlin, who played a leading role in the Labour party of post-war West Belfast. The background of observance persists, if so common as not, to merit comment as Catholic by name. Tommy McKearney, a former republican prisoner, observes in his portion: “The term is not used here in a religious or a theological context but rather to identify a community” (171). Gareth Mulvenna, from this same milieu, formed his attitudes while raised in the 1980s informed by his Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist grand-parentage to create his “Catholic but not nationalist” family. 

His “mixed” antecedents remind readers of the diversity of many who live within conventionally Catholic districts, as family trees often feature such “cross-community,” one-on-one efforts to overcome divisions of creed and discrimination. Mulvenna documents the frequent result of prejudice among and between such sectors, living close by in crowded housing estates and urban streets. He condemns this continued “warped sense of social, political, and cultural superiority” (191). 

Pitched at a scholarly audience by its format, tone, and cost, this volume situates the vexed and evolving nature of what Catholic means in the Ulster senses. It complements a 2015 collection on the Protestant counterparts and neighbors in this region. One is left to speculate what the next generation will select as its contested identifier, in an era of rapid secularization, rabid suspicion, and resentful sentiment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Assistant Professor in Arts and Humanities at Westcliff University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Paul Burgess is Senior Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork, Ireland. He holds degrees from the universities of Oxford, Ulster and Cork. His most recent academic work is The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants (edited with Gareth Mulvenna, 2015).


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