Churches and Communal Violence in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: a Comparison of Ireland and Scotland

Stewart J. Brown

Between the 1880s and the 1930s, the churches of Ireland and Scotland were all too prominent in the sectarian violence that divided and scarred their societies. In the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland and Ireland, members of the clergy and lay leadership supported the exclusive claims of their respective communities, and were muted in condemning acts of violence by their members. They promoted a religious sense of national or communal identity, a discourse of religion and race, of faith and fatherland, and sometimes employed the language of holy war. Indeed, the churches could appear to sanction religious and communal violence, and subordinate Christian charity to national or communal loyalties.

This chapter will explore how the ideal of national religion, or the belief that national culture is elevated and enriched through a national church, contributed to the communal violence in Ireland and Scotland during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were, to be sure, many attractive aspects in the idea of national religion. A single national church provided moral and religious instruction to all the inhabitants of a nation through a system of parish churches and schools. A national church offered the rites of passage - baptism, first communion, marriage and burial - that defined individual lives within a larger communal context. A national church helped unite communities around a shared set of values and beliefs; it educated children in those values and beliefs; and it contributed to the policing of public morals through its system of ecclesiastical discipline. It represented a set of higher communal ideals that encouraged individuals and groups to rise above selfish interests and embrace a sense of responsibility for the larger national community. The idea of national religion was usually represented by an established church: the nation-state aligned itself with a particular church, and provided that church with certain legal privileges and responsibilities.

The communal violence that afflicted late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland and Scotland resulted in large part from conflicting versions of national religion. In Ireland, the Catholic Church was perceived by the large majority of the population to be the national church. This perception was enhanced through the alignment of the Catholic Church with the Irish nationalist movement from the 1880s and then with the growth of the Irish-Ireland movement after 1900 - through which the discourse of national religion became closely connected with racial conceptions of Irish nationality. Included in the Catholic discourse of national religion was a sense that Irish Protestants were aliens and oppressors, who could never be fully 'national'.

In Scotland during this period, the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland also sought to reassert its role as the national church and the spiritual expression of Scottish identity. From the 1890s, the Church of Scotland revived its social and cultural influence, embracing ideas of the social gospel and kingdom of God. After 1908, it worked with increasing success for reunion of all the Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, a movement that would culminate in the church union of 1929. Then, after the First World War, the Church of Scotland took up the language of racial nationalism, and from 1923, it led a national Presbyterian campaign directed against the large Catholic minority in Scotland, portraying them as an alien, essentially Irish element that was corrupting the purity of the Scottish 'race'.

In Ulster, the situation was complicated by the presence of two large Protestant communities, each of which maintained its own notions of national religion, existing alongside the Irish Catholic community. Members of the Protestant Church of Ireland perceived themselves as the sister church of the established Church of England, and as participants in a British imperial Christianity. Members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland perceived themselves as a daughter church of the established Church of Scotland, and thus as heirs both to a seventeenth- century Scottish covenanting tradition and also to a post-Union Scottish national religion that was British and imperial. The conflicting versions of national religion, Protestant and Catholic, contributed significantly to the communal violence that continues to afflict both Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, the west of Scotland.

The churches of Ireland and Scotland were not unique in embracing the language of religion and national identity during these years. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed close connections between religion, nationalism and imperialism across the Western world. Amid the terrible bloodletting of the Great War, churches sought to exercise national leadership, sanctioning their respective national causes, proclaiming God to be on their side and Christ to be blessing their soldiers, and insisting that the glorious dead had fallen in God's service. The involvement of the churches in the communal violence in Ireland and Scotland must be seen against this larger background of religious nationalism. This chapter will consist of two main parts. In the first part, it will consider the growing alignment of religion and nationalism in Ireland from the 1870s onwards, and the subsequent sectarian tensions in Ulster. In the second part, it will explore, more briefly, the later efforts of some within the Church of Scotland to align Presbyterianism and a Scottish national identity during the 1920s and 1930s.

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