Mental relics

Mental relics
Buried lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland

by Robin Bury (History Press, €20.00)

In 1965, Michael Viney published an influential pamphlet, The Five Percent: A  Survey of Protestants in the Republic, reprinting a series of articles from The Irish Times. The title gave its name to a sociological anxiety: will the five percent shrink to four or even three; will the Masonic Five subvert the comfortable majority?

When Jack White’s book Minority Report appeared in 1975 (not 1987 as Robin Bury would have it), the political landscape had changed drastically. Considerations of the southern minority had merged with concern for Protestants living on the border and the fate of the Catholic minority in Belfast.


The IRA’s murder of Senator Billy Fox in Monaghan (March 1974) was only the most outstanding exception in a campaign of low-grade genocide aimed at five-per-center farmers in south-west Northern Ireland.

The Troubles scotched the sociological anxiety; its re-emergence in Robin Bury’s doleful meditation comes as a surprise.

The author commences his history (rather, selective memory) before the Civil War. In once-pastoral Cork, fourteen co-ordinated murders in April 1922 were indeed horrific and untypical; alongside post-Great-War Italy, Germany, the Baltic States, and elsewhere, they hardly registered. Efforts to turn the Bandon Valley killings into a latter-day 1641 do nothing for sustaining peace on this island.


Buried Lives uses well-tailored interviews to good effect. Chapter 7, ‘Some Donegal Voices’, provides a hearing for border Protestants; but the book’s true centre of gravity lies in the once-planted province of Munster. Tipperary features, and the Beamish family—though not the Cork Beamishes who paid court to Herman Goering in 1937.

In 1950s’ Cloyne, the author “mixed with our own faith [sic] at whist drives in the Deanery, parish fêtes, and private [sic] tennis parties”. He invokes a venerable bishop, but I fear the philosophical George Berkeley engaged more energetically and positively with his neighbours. A later Cork celebrity, Elizabeth Bowen, shrewdly noted differences between her sort of landed people and small-town protestants.

Unlike the Big House novelist Mr Bury rarely looks down. He as rarely distinguishes between the former established Church and other communions – the Presbyterian pharmacist, Methodist motor mechanic, the Dippers and the Swaddlers.

Nowadays, 50 years after Viney’s initiative, the percentages count for little. West African immigrants swell evangelical choirs. Mosques have their respected place in urban settings, one of them (at least) a former Presbyterian church; the old cinema in Sandymout is now a Sikh temple. And the “majority” is acutely racked with discomfort, with a sense of betrayal by its leadership, and outrage at the compact between State and Catholic Church.

Mr Bury’s scenario is a distressed mental relic he relies on more than he may realise. He writes of  “an apartheid I experienced as a child”,  but can cite no effort to break rank. The Fethard-on-Sea boycott of 1957 is meat and drink to him, of course, though that was snuffed out by Eamon de Valera, slowly.

“History is a nightmare which I am quite enjoying” might be the motto of a wimp tipping his bowler and tugging his sash – metaphorically of course. Yet an ever-wakeful project lurks behind all this flummery – Ireland should re-join the  Commonwealth. But which Ireland—that of 1957, or that of 2017; Mr Bury’s, or yours and mine? Emphatically, I am not one of the “buried lives”, though hand-reared in the CofI and puritan to a fault.

An authority on Le Fanu, historian and literary critic W. J. McCormack held a personal chair in Literary History at Goldsmiths College, University of London.