Thursday 7 May 2009

Monaghan 1861-1911

One of the myths propagated by unionists is that the independence of the southern 26 counties led to an 'ethnic cleansing' of Protestants. It is certainly true that between the last 'British' census held in 1911 and the first 'Irish' census held in 1926 there was a significant drop in the number, and proportion, of Protestants in the 26 counties – but since this period included such events as the First World War, and the withdrawal of British military, administrative, customs and postal workers from the 26 counties it may be hard to separate those British-born returning to Britain from those Irish-born (if any) who might have felt compelled to flee. Nonetheless, the argument will continue to run, especially in the absence of any evidence.

It is enlightening, though, to look at the 50 year period between 1861 and 1911 – a period for which we have the statistics, and, more importantly, a period when British power was at its zenith. During this period the British colonisation of Ireland appeared to all extents and purposes to have been finally and fully achieved. The 1798 rebellion was a distant memory, and the disputes were more concerned with land reform and ensuring an equal place in the 'United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland' for Catholics. Irishmen were disproportionately represented in the British army that was carving out an empire upon which the sun never set. Attempts at a rising in 1848 had come to nothing, and although there were occasional attacks by the IRB, the movement was stronger amongst émigrés in America than in Ireland.

The period between the Famine and the First World War should have seen a flowering of Irish Protestantism. Free from any threats of violence, and watching their country becoming integrated with Britain, they should have had a confidence not seen before or since.

How, then, can we explain the reality? During this period of increasing prosperity and British power, the number of Protestants in many of the 26 counties tumbled. Why, with Queen Victoria on the throne, and the map coloured pink from Canada to New Zealand, were Protestants retreating from much of Ireland?

Monaghan, an Ulster county with a significant Protestant population in 1861 (26%) experienced a catastrophic decline in the numbers of the three main Protestant denominations during this heyday of the British Empire.

The number of members of the Church of Ireland, 17,721 in 1861 had declined to 8,725 only 50 years later – a drop of 50%. Presbyterian numbers dropped by 44%, from 15,149 to 8,512. Only the small Methodist population remained largely intact, dropping only 10% from 439 to 395.

Many other counties showed similar drops – in Roscommon between 1861 and 1911 the number of Church of Ireland members dropped by 67%, while in Monaghan's neighbouring county of Cavan the number of Methodists also tumbled by 40%. Even Protestant-rich Donegal saw drops of 40%, 42% and 28% respectively for members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church between 1861 and 1911.

By any reckoning these drops are dramatic. If they had happened in newly-independent Ireland there would have been cries of ethnic cleansing. But they didn't – they occurred under British rule, and at a time when that rule had never been stronger.

Is modern-day Northern Ireland experiencing the same thing? Protestant populations are aging and shrinking in many areas, especially west of the Bann. If this continues, areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone may face a future not dissimilar to their neighbour Monaghan, where Protestants now make up barely 8% of the population, compared with 26% in 1861. At present Protestants make up barely 30% of Tyrone's population.

Opponents of the demographic argument for Irish unification should look closely at what history can teach us. While no two contexts will be the same, it is interesting to compare Monaghan then with Tyrone now, and try to imagine Tyrone, and all of Northern Ireland, a generation or two down the line.


Anonymous said...

So, not content with predicting a Catholic majority with the tag of 'certainty', notwithstanding the fact that demographic predictions are notoriously hard to predestine, and linking that envisaged majority with a determination to end the Union, you are now insinuating that NI's Protestant population could fall to as low as 30%.

Hilarity and surreality in one article. Mmm, impressive.

I'll turn my attentions to blogs that are grounded in a vestige of reality in future.

Au revior.

Andrew McCann

PS. If you're going to give us history lessons, I need to point out that history also tells us that Ulster's Protestant and Unionist population will fight to keep themselves out of Dublin rule.

Anonymous said...

Have you taken the hump, Mr McCann?

Your post script just about sums you and your ilk up!

This is the 21st Century not the 19th, you would definitly have a problem with your (British) government never mind British and world public oppinion to further your violent aims.

Threatening violence is not the way forward--I suggest you take back the comment and apologise.

If you can not take the heat stay out of the kitchen or better still return to the back woods.


Anonymous said...

I never understood the claim that Protestansts where the victims in the south. Where I grew up the protestants for the most part were the ones doing well. I went to Church of Ireland school because it was closer to my house (I am sure that feels like some extradorinary claim to people like Andy who like to portray the Irish like the second reich) My best friend was the son of a Chruch of Ireland reverand and the only time I ever experienced even the slightest bit of discrimintion was from a Catholic priest that was so old that he made a big scene about my best friends father not receiving communion that everybody laughted at the sinile priest.

Hey Andy, the people in the South think you are all nuts, Republicans & Unionists....

Anonymous said...

What you are leaving out is that there was huge emigration - the Catholic population of Monaghan was also down 42%. In the 50 years between 1861 and 1911 the Protestant percentage in Monaghan hardly changed - it dropped from 26.6% to 25.3%. In the next 50 years to 1961 it had plummeted to 13.9%.

In the 26 counties the Protestant percentages were remarkably stable. In 1861 it was 10.6%, by 1911 it was bearly changed at 10.4%. But by 1961 it more than halved to 4.9%.

Seems to me that the arguement that independence didn't have a huge impact doesn't really stack up.

I can't see how NI Protestants will suffer a decline to that extent. Unlike the south there won't be the ne temere effect, and will probably be less emigration than happened from the south.

Horseman said...

Yes indeed, Anonymous, but my point is that the numerical drop began under good queen Vic, and was not a result of independence. Since the 1911-1926 exodus of civil servants, military, etc, was not yet a factor, the conclusion must be that economics lay behind the exodus. And that continued to be the case under indepenence. The idea of 'ethnic cleansing' (peddled by malicious unionists) does not hold up.

Anonymous said...

True Horseman, the numerical drop began during Vic's reign and as you say it was economic. But it impacted Catholics to a similiar extent. It wasn't until after independence that the drop became a collapse, and it continued for decades after the civil servants left.

Apart from the odd isolated incident, there wasn't any ethnic cleansing or Bombay streets. The reasons for the decline were more subtle than that.

I guess what I am saying is that I don't think the decline after independence was simply a continuation what went before.

Horseman said...


In fact there is no difference in the rate of decline before and after independence in County Monaghan. There is no evidence of a 'collapse'. If you look at a graph of the numbers of C of I, Presbyterian and Methodist people, all three groups decline at precisely the same rate from 1861 onward. In fact the decline is only brought to a halt after 1961, when it slows and then slightly reverses. There is no way you could identify the date of independence on the graph (except that the years are marked!)

Certainly the Catholic population recovered more strongly after 1961, but they always had a higher birth rate, so when emigration ceased there were simply many more Catholis who stayed, and not so many Protestants.

Play with the figures and the graphs that the site provides - they are very interesting, and challenge a lot of unionist prejudices.

Anonymous said...


Whether the figures show a collapse or no change depends on how you look at them. I agree if you are taking the Protestants in isolation, there is no noticable difference in the numbers declining. But this ignores the context of what is happening in the total population.

My point is that before independence the protestant population moved broadly in line with the total - if the total population dropped by 10%, the protestant population dropped by roughly the same percentage. This stops around the time of independence, and can be clearly seen if you look at the Protestant percentage of the total population.

In each of the census between 1861 and 1911 the COI, Presbyterian & Methodist percentages were : 26%, 26%, 26%, 26%, 26%, 25%.

Between 1926 and 2002 this became: 21%, 18%, 16%, 14%, 12%, 9%, 9%, 8%, 8%. If you put these figures on a chart the date of independence can be easily identified.

One other point, looking at the age breakdowns over the various census since 1926, the rate of emigraion of protestants seems to have been higher than Cathlics until at least 1991. As smaller family size would be one of the reasons for decline in numbers, I would have thought that this would have meant lower emigration, not higher.

Overall, I think that saying that there is no difference in the rate of decline by looking at the Protestant population in isolation, overlooks what was a decrease in Catholic emigration and acceleration in the proportion of Protestants emigrating.