Religion in Ireland – A Methodical Approach
here is a saying in Ireland - "Never talk about religion or politics in the pub" - it will only end in a fight. Religion in Ireland has come to signify a lot more than a person's spiritual beliefs or church-going habits. Over the centuries religion was the place where you made your stand - a place that stood for your culture, traditions and history.
This morning I sat down to write about “The 13 Pubs of Ballydehob“. As I pulled out my notes and started to write, I noticed something that took me on a completely different route to the one planned. So, the wonderful tales of Ballydehob and its 13 pubs will have to wait for another day. Instead, we’re going to chat (maybe for the first time) about religion in Ireland. At least one particular aspect.
Religion and Ireland – Where Do You Start?
There is a saying in Ireland – “Never talk about religion or politics in the pub” – it will only end in a fight. Religion in Ireland has come to signify a lot more than a person’s spiritual beliefs or church-going habits. Over the centuries religion was the place where you made your stand – a place that stood for your culture, traditions and history. It also became a badge that locked you in, or out, of opportunity, advancement and wealth.
By 1911, we had four primary religions in Ireland – Roman Catholicism for 85% of the population, and the three main Protestant religions of Church of Ireland, Presbyterianism and Methodism. I don’t know about you, but talking about religion never works for me unless we bring it down to a human level – the level of the story and the individual. So, let’s do just that. As part of my research into the “13 pubs of Ballydehob” (bear with me here!) – I examined the 1911 census for the Ballydehob area in County Cork (my own father’s family was born and reared in those parts).
I was drawn in by the religions noted against each of the names (click here to see for yourself) on the register. The majority were Roman Catholic as you might expect, next were Church of Ireland, most Presbyterians are up in Ulster – so none in these parts – and next were the Methodists. And it’s this last group we’ll concentrate on for the remainder of this letter.
The Methodists in Ireland.
Maybe you are already familiar with “Methodism”? The Methodists came out of the Church of England in the early 18th century, led by a one John Wesley. The focus of Methodism is to help the poor and average person – building relationships and social service is at the heart of all they do.
Their methodical observance of the rules of the Book of Common Prayer regarding works of charity earned them the derogatory nickname of “Methodists” – which they decided to keep! I do like that! The Methodists arrived in Ireland in 1747 and received most of their support, and converts, from the junior members of the British army garrisons spread throughout the country. So, most of the Methodist converts came from Protestant stock, and a smaller number from Roman Catholic. If you converted in those days – you crossed a great divide – and mixed marriages were not condoned by society or the established churches.
Looking at the Methodist surnames in Ballydehob in 1911 – you can see this mix coming through in the mostly English surnames and the smaller number of Irish Gaelic surnames:
Coy, Daly, Evans, Jennings, Johnson, Kingston, McDermott, Roycroft, Swanton, Willis, Wolfe, Woodhouse, Young
One Special Man.
Peter Wolfe was one member of the Methodist church whom I knew. He was also Carina’s (my wife) uncle. Peter married Carina’s aunt in one of Ireland’s first “condoned” mixed-marriages. And that was in the 1970s! I remember Peter as a busy man – with all the time in the world for the people around him. He ran a large business and had a young energetic family. Yet, if you needed help or assistance he gave you his full attention and enthusiastic support. He was a living embodiment of the stated intent of Methodism.
Peter died at the young age of 71 in January of this year. In all the time I have known Peter, I don’t think I ever heard him talking about religion. He just did it – he somehow married the best part of his beliefs to much of what we consider important in Irish tradition. Be there for your friends, your family and your community. Be accountable and let your actions speak for themselves.
Last year, his son, Mark – completed an Ironman Triathalon in Peter’s memory and to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society (you can see more about Mark here). He also managed to finish fourth (!!!) over a grueling 11 hours of swimming, running a marathon and cycling around ALL of the Ring of Kerry. Well done Mark – a great achievement in memory of a special man. And I’m sure he was at your side all the way.
I realise that when I look up those textbook explanations of the different religions – I really don’t get it. The descriptions rarely make sense to me. However, when I look at the attitude and actions of people like Peter Wolfe, I get it – the “explanation” is there for all to see. It’s all about using whatever religion you choose to let the best of your humanity shine through to others.
So, that’s it for today – and to finish with that famous Irish blessing for Peter and his family – and you and all the special people in your life:
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
As always, do comment below if you want to share a story, ask a question about your Irish surname or just to say hello!
Slán for now – Mike.