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Protestants of Ulster and Protestantism in Ireland

Protestants of Ulster

Protestants of Ulster


Wolfe Tone and the Protestants of 1798 (Documentary)


The Protestants of Ulster are an ethnic or ethnonational group in the province of Ulster, Ireland.[1] They make up almost half the population of Ulster. Some Ulster Protestants are descendants of the Protestant settlers involved in the early 17th century Ulster Plantation, which introduced the first significant numbers of Protestants into the west and centre of the province. These settlers were mostly Lowland Scottish and Northern English people and predominantly from Galloway, the Scottish Borders and Northumberland.[2] Begun privately in 1606, the Plantation became government-sponsored in 1609. Colonising Ulster with loyal British settlers, the vast majority of whom were Protestant, was seen by London as a way to prevent further rebellion in the province, as it had been the region most resistant to English control during the preceding century. There was a total settler population of about 19,000 by 1622,[3] and possibly as many as 80,000 in the 1630s.

Ulster Protestants descend from a variety of lineages, including Scottish people (some of whose descendants consider themselves Ulster Scots people), English people, Irish people, and Huguenots.[4][5] Another influx of an estimated 20,000 Scottish Protestants was a result of the seven ill years in the 1690s.[6] While Presbyterians of Scottish descent and origin had already become the majority of Ulster Protestants by the 1660s (when Protestants still only made up a third of the population), they became an absolute majority in the province by the 1720s.[7]

Divisions between Ulster’s Protestants and Irish Catholics have played a major role in the history of Ulster from the 17th century to the present day, especially during the Plantation, the Cromwellian conquest, the Williamite War, the revolutionary period, and the Troubles. Most Ulster Protestants are Presbyterian or Anglican. Scottish colonists were mostly Presbyterian[8] and the English mostly members of the Church of England. Repression of Presbyterians by Anglicans (who followed the Church of Irelandstate religion) intensified after the Glorious Revolution (especially after the 1703 Test Act) and was one reason for heavy emigration to North America by Ulster Presbyterians during the 18th century (see Scotch-Irish American).[9]

Between 1717 and 1775, an estimated 200,000 migrated to what became the United States of America.[10] Some Presbyterians also returned to Scotland during this period. This repression largely ended after the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the relaxation of the Penal Laws.[11] As Belfast industrialised in the 19th century, it attracted yet more Protestant immigrants from Scotland.[12] After the 1920-22 partition of Ireland, the new government of Northern Ireland launched a campaign to entice Protestants from the rest of Ireland to relocate to the new polity with inducements of state jobs and housing, and “large numbers” accepted.[13] Because of these migrations, Ulster has a lower proportion of Catholics than the other provinces of Ireland.

Most Ulster Protestants speak Ulster English, and some speak one of the Ulster Scots dialects.[14][15][16] The vast majority live in Northern Ireland and tend to support its Union with the rest of the United Kingdom,[17] and are known as unionists. Unionism is a term that has been divided by some into two camps; “Ulster British” who are attached to the United Kingdom and primarily adhere to British values; and “Ulster loyalism“, whose attachment is primarily ethnic, prioritising Ulster Protestantism above British identity.[18][19][20] The Loyal Orders, which include the Orange Order, Royal Black Institution and Apprentice Boys of Derry, are fraternal organisations which originated in Ulster and still have most of their membership there.

About 2% of Ulster Protestants reside in the rest of Ulster in the Republic of Ireland (formed after the breakup of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland).[21] Some still retain a sense of Britishness, and a small number have difficulty identifying with the independent Irish state.[22][23][24]

Percentage of Protestants in each electoral division in Ulster, based on census figures from 2001 (UK) and 2006 (ROI).
0-10% dark green, 10-30% mid-green,
30-50% light green, 50-70% light orange,
70-90% mid-orange, 90-100% dark orange.

Changes in distribution of Irish Protestants, 1861–2011
Protestantism in Ireland
Protestantism is a minority Christian denominational family on the island of Ireland. In the 2011 census of the Republic of Ireland, 5% of the population described themselves as Church of Ireland (Anglican) or Presbyterian (93,056 and 14,348 people respectively).[1] In the 2011 census of Northern Ireland, 48% described themselves as Protestant, which was a decline of approximately 5% from the 2001 census.[2][3] Some forms of Protestant Christianity may have existed since the early 16th century. The Church of Ireland was established by King Henry VIII of England.
Inside The Court Of Henry VIII Documentary 2015


The Protestant Reformation in Ireland

During the English Reformation in the 1530s, the Irish parliament was successful in gaining the support of many bishops from across Ireland for royal supremacy, leading to the passing the Act of Supremacy in 1536 which declared Henry VIII as head of the Church of Ireland.[4] In 1539, Henry VIII had the monasteries of Ireland dissolved, of which only Christ Church in Dublin survived after changing from monasticism to a secular constitution based on that of St. Patrick‘s.[5] The introduction of the Reformation to Ireland is regarded as the end of the medieval period in Ireland.[5]

King Edward VI (1537-1553)

It would not be until the reign of Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, that attempts were made to introduce Protestant liturgy and bishops to Ireland.[4] These attempts were met with hostility from within the church, even by those who had previously conformed.[4] In 1551 during Edward VI’s reign, a printing press established in Dublin, printed a common book of prayer in English.[6]

A return of Catholic supremacy ensued during the reign of Henry VIIIs daughter, Mary in the 1550s, however in 1560, her half-sister and successor Elizabeth I would enact a religious settlement consisting of an Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity in an attempt impose Protestantism.[4] Elizabeth also had herself made supreme governor of the Church of Ireland.[4] During Elizabeth’s reign, the bulk of Protestants in Ireland were confined to the ranks of new settlers and government officials, who formed a small minority.[7] Amongst the native Irish and Old English Recusancy pre-dominated and was tolerated by Elizabeth for fear of alienating the Old English further.[7]

It was during Elizabeth’s reign that more attempts were made to boost the Reformation: Trinity College, Dublin was established in 1592 to help produce new ministers to preach the reformed faith;[7] in 1571 a Gaelic printing typeface was created to print documents in the Irish language for the purposes of evangelisation;[6] the first translation of the New Testament into Irish occurred in 1603.[7] Despite this the Reformation would ground to a halt in Ireland and ultimately fail, not helped by a dedicated and vigorous campaign by a plentiful number of Continentally-trained priests, which ensured that Irish heart-and-minds remained with the Catholic faith.[7]

The Reformation in Ireland made little progress due to two main factors: the Old English in Ireland felt increasingly alienated by political developments in regards to English rule in Ireland during Henry’s reign and became less likely to obey edicts that were issued;[8] secondly the native Irish saw the Reformation as just another attempt by the English at conquest and forced Anglicisation.[8]

The dissolution of the monasteries saw many parishes granted to lay people whose main concern was not their parishioners souls, this along with the wars that raged in Ireland throughout the 16th and 17th centuries left many parish churches—now the property of the established church—especially rural ones, in a ruinous state.[9]

17th century


During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, some Protestants who adhered to forms of Puritanism escaped persecution in England and Scotland by settling in Ireland.[10] Here they were openly welcomed by the state-sponsored Church of Ireland for their strong anti-Catholicism and dedication to preaching, which it highly sought.[10]

Early 17th century

During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, several plantations occurred seeing the arrival of British settlers, the majority of which were Protestant.

In 1604, the Scottish Catholic Randal MacDonnell, set about settling his lands in the the Route and Glynnes in County Antrim with Protestants from the Scottish Lowlands.[11] This was followed by the considerably determined private plantation of counties counties Antrim and Down by James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery, which saw English and Scottish Protestants settling in their estates.[12] In 1606, the notorious Border Reiver clan of the Grahams of Eskdale, Leven and Sark, where invited to settle in County Roscommon.[13]

By 1607 a steady supply of Scottish Protestants where migrating to eastern Ulster, settling in the estates of Hamilton, MacDonnell, and Montgomery.[12] Whilst many Presbyterian Lowlanders fled Kintyre in Scotland for MacDonnell’s lands, Hebridean Catholics migrated as well, ensuring that the Glens of Antrim would remain Catholic as the rest of the county became predominantly Protestant.[11]

That same year, the Flight of the Earls occurred,[14][15] which saw vast tracts of land in Ulster spanning the counties of Armagh, Cavan, Coleraine, Donegal, Fermanagh, and Tyrone, escheated to James I.[16] This was followed by the Plantation of Ulster, which saw Protestant[citation needed] British settlers colonise these counties.[16] In 1610, The Honourable The Irish Society was established to undertake and finance the plantation of the new county of Londonderry (made up of County Coleraine and parts of Antrim, Donegal, and Tyrone) with British Protestant subjects.[17][18] Whilst a substantial number of English and Scottish people did come over and settle during the Plantation of Ulster, they tended to disperse to other parts of the province resulting in those tasked with settling the land having to retain native Irish who remained predominantly Catholic.[18]

James I campaign to pacify the borders resulted in great numbers of Border Reiver families arriving in Ulster.[13] The Border Reiver families were not known for their religiousness and the Reformation had made little impact on them.[13] Once they had settled in Ulster they realised the advantages of becoming Protestants and conformed to the established church.[13]

Between 1615-1620, a policy of “discovery and regrant” was used in various parts of Ireland, however few settlers were attracted to these plantations, resulting basically in new landowners.[19] This policy was used in the counties of Leitrim, Longford, northern Wexford, as well as parts of King’s County and Queen’s County.[19][20]

By the 1630s, Protestant settlers from Great Britain were migrating to Ireland by their own initiative, and helped initiate a colonial spread from the ports they arrived and into the hinterlands of Ulster.[16]

Thomas Wentworth

The Church of Ireland by the 1630s was a broad church that accepted various different Protestant practices and beliefs. As the Presbyterian church was not yet established in Ireland, Presbyterians were more than happy to join the Church of Ireland.[21] Across the island, the predominant doctrine within the Church of Ireland was puritanism, which like Presbyterianism, favoured simple and plain forms of worship and clothing.[20] During the reign of Charles I however, Lord Deputy of Ireland Thomas Wentworth and Archbishop William Laud sought to bring the Irish church into line with that in England by stamping out puritanism,[10] and the anti-episcopal views of the Scottish ministers operating in Ulster.[18] They also sought to replace the preferred form of worship amongst Protestants in Ireland with the more elaborate and orthodox Anglican style favoured by Charles I.[18][20] In an attempt to achieve this, Wentworth and Laud introduced the English Thirty-Nine Articles along with stricter disciplinary canons in 1634.[10] This was followed by puritan ministers who held Presbyterian sympathies being dismissed from the church.[10]

In 1635, Wentworth proposed a plantation of Connacht, which would have seen all Catholic land confiscated and settled with only English Protestants, with the hope of converting the Gaelic and Old-English Catholics to the state religion.[20] This plantation would not see the light of day as Wentworth alienated Protestant and Catholic alike in Ireland,[18][20] and Charles I got into ever more trouble with parliament.[20]

Between 1640 and 1641, Protestants and Catholics alike in the Irish parliament united in opposition to Wentworth, and pushed for the Graces—first arranged in 1628—to be confirmed as well as filing lists of complaints about his behaviour and practices.[18] This union of cause survived until the common denominator, Wentworth, was executed by the English parliamentarians in May 1641.[18]

Rebellion and civil war

By the 1630s, more than a quarter of land in Ireland was owned by Protestants,[18] by the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, they held roughly three-fifths.[22]

Cromwellian land settlement

The Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 saw Catholics found guilty of disloyalty having their estates confiscated and granted to loyal Protestants.[23] Whilst Protestants also guilty of disloyalty were to lose some of their estates, they ended up been given fines, the majority of which were never paid.[23] The result of this land settlement saw a mass changing of land ownership as Catholic ownership almost disappeared completely east of the River Shannon[23][22] It also greatly increased the number of Protestants in Ireland,[22] and saw them come to dominate both the countryside and urban centers and have near absolute control over politics and trade.[22]

Restoration Ireland

By the 1660s, Catholics owned hardly more than one-fifth of land.[22] Protestant immigration to Ireland had started in earnest in the aftermath of the restoration of the monarchy in Ireland in 1660, helped by acts such as that “to Encourage Protestant Strangers to Settle in Ireland”, passed in 1662.[24] French Protestants, known as Huguenots, escaping persecution in France formed their own small community in Dublin where they became famous for developing poplin and handsome stone buildings called “Dutch Billy’s”.[24][25] Around the same time, Jews—regarded as “foreign Protestants”—settled in Dublin having originally sought refuge in Tenerife.[24] The Plantation of Ulster also finally swung into full motion as a constant stream of English and Scottish families made their way to the north of Ireland.[24]

The death of Charles I in 1649 saw puritanism reach its peak as the Church of Ireland became restricted allowing other Protestant denominations to freely expand.[10] Puritans also went about establishing non-conforming Protestant churches such as Baptist, Quaker, Congregational, as well as Presbyterian.[10] As puritanism refused to conform to the doctrines of the established church it became known as “nonconformity”,[10] with those not adhering to the Church of Ireland being classified as Dissenters.[26]

Williamite era

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 saw great numbers of Huguenots flee from France, with as many as 10,000 migrating to Ireland during the 1690s, including veterans from the Huguenot regiments in the army of William III.[25] In total twenty-one Huguenot communities were established the most notable of which was established at Portarlington, Queen’s County.[25] Some Huguenot congregations conformed to the Church of Ireland, though others maintained their own instilling some hostility from the established church.[25]

18th century

German Palatines

In 1709 German Palatines fled persecution to England from the Rhineland in the Holy Roman Empire.[27] Eight hundred and twenty-one families consisting of 3,073 people were resettled in Ireland that year.[27][28] Of 538 families initially taken on by as tenants, 352 are reported to have left their holdings, with many returning back to England.[29] By late 1711 only around 1,200 of the Palatines remained in Ireland.[28] The number of families dwindled to 162 by 1720.[27]

Areas where the Palatines settled included counties Cork, Dublin, Limerick, and Wexford.[27] Despite the exodus of Palatines in the years after their initial arrival in Ireland, a second relocation carried out in 1712 saw the establishment of two successful settlements, one being around Rathkeale, County Limerick, the other around Gorey, County Wexford.[29] Limerick Palatines, despite some conversions to Catholicism, largely remained religiously and culturally endogenous.[27]

The Palatines responded well to the teachings of Methodism, with John Wesley visiting them several times.[27] By the 1820s they became victims of sectarian grief at the hands of Catholic agrarian societies, which further encouraged Palatine emigration from Ireland, resulting in them ceasing to be a separate grouping.[27] Despite this, their distinctive way of life survived long into the 19th century.[29]

The Penal Laws and converts to Protestantism

From 1697 to 1728, various Penal Laws were enacted by the Irish parliament primarily targeting Catholics of the aristocracy, landed and learned classes.[26][30] Some of these laws however also targeted Protestant Dissenters.[26] Under one of these laws, Dissenters could only be married in the Church of Ireland otherwise it was not legal, making their children illegitimate in the eyes of the law.[26] Another law passed in 1704 sought to prevent anyone who did not have communion in the Church of Ireland from holding public office, however as Catholics had already been excluded from public office this primarily targeted Dissenters.[26] Despite being the target of various penal laws, Dissenters remained vocal advocates of those that targeted Catholics so kept their complaints to a courteous tone.[26] Indeed, penal laws similar to those passed by the Irish Parliament, were imposed against Protestants in France and Silesia, but in these cases it was by a majority against a minority, which was not the situation in Ireland.[26]

The Penal Laws did encourage 5,500 Catholics, almost exclusively from the aristocracy and landed gentry to convert to Protestantism.[26][30] In 1703, 14% of land in Ireland was owned by Catholics, however following the conforming of the majority of these landowners by 1780, Catholics only owned 5% despite making up three-quarters of the population of Ireland.[26][30]

Some of these converts were high profile, such as Alexander MacDonnell, 5th Earl of Antrim, whose conversion meant that in the province of Ulster there were no Catholic estates of any note.[26] Others were less so, however made the most of the opportunities that opened up for them, one example being William Conolly.[26] William Conolly was a Gaelic Catholic from Ballyshannon, County Donegal, however in the years following his conversion to Protestantism, he would became the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons as well as Ireland’s richest man despite being the son of an innkeeper.[26]

The Penal Laws ensured that for the next century, Ireland was to be dominated by an Anglican elite composed of members of the Church of Ireland.[26] This elite would become to be known as the Protestant Ascendancy.[26] Ironically, despite attempts by some,[30] the Ascendancy had no real desire to convert the mass of the Catholic population to Protestantism, fearing that it would dilute their own exclusive and highly privileged position,[26] and many of the penal laws were poorly enforced.[30]

Despite the Penal Laws and the domination of an Anglican minority over a country with an overwhelming Catholic majority, open religious violence seems to have been quite rare during most of the 18th century.[31] Not until the Armagh disturbances in the 1780s did sectarian divisions come back to the fore.[31]

19th Century

The Dublin area saw many churches like Saint Stephen’s, built in the Georgian style during the 18th century. When Ireland was incorporated in 1801 into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Church of Ireland was also united with the Church of England to form the United Church of England and Ireland. At the same time, one archbishop and three bishops from Ireland (selected by rotation) were given seats in the House of Lords at Westminster, joining the two archbishops and twenty-four bishops from the Church of England.

In 1833, the British Government proposed the Irish Church Measure to reduce the 22 archbishops and bishops who oversaw the Anglican minority in Ireland to a total of 12 by amalgamating sees and using the revenues saved for the use of parishes. This sparked the Oxford Movement[citation needed], which was to have wide repercussions for the Anglican Communion.

As the official established church, the Church of Ireland was funded partially by tithes imposed on all Irish landowners and tenant farmers, irrespective of the fact that it counted only a minority of the populace among its adherents; these tithes were a source of much resentment which occasionally boiled over, as in the Tithe War of 1831/36. Eventually, the tithes were ended, replaced with a lower levy called the tithe rent charge.

The Irish Church Act 1869 (which took effect in 1871) finally ended the role of the Church of Ireland as state church. This terminated both state support and parliament’s role in its governance, but also took into government ownership much church property. Compensation was provided to clergy, but many parishes faced great difficulty in local financing after the loss of rent-generating lands and buildings. The Church of Ireland made provision in 1870 for its own government, led by a General Synod, and with financial management by a Representative Church Body. With disestablishment, the last remnants of tithes were abolished and the Church’s representation in the House of Lords also ceased.

20th century decline to 21st century

Concentration of Protestants in Ireland per county.

In 1991, the population of the Republic of Ireland was approximately 3% Protestant. The figure in the same geographical area was over 10% in 1891, indicating a fall of 70% in the relative Protestant population over the past century.

The Protestant depopulation in the Republic of Ireland during this time was dramatic. In 1861 only the west coast and Kilkenny were less than 6% Protestant. Dublin and two of the border counties were over 20% Protestant. In 1991, however, all but four counties were less than 6% Protestant; the rest were less than 1%. There were no counties in the Republic of Ireland which had experienced a rise in the relative Protestant population over the period 1861 to 1991. Often, the counties which managed to retain the highest proportion of Protestants were the ones which started off with a large proportion. In Northern Ireland, only counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Armagh have experienced a significant loss of the relative Protestant population; in these cases, the change was not as dramatic as in the Republic.

The previous pattern of decline started to change during the 1990’s by the time of 2006 census of the Republic of Ireland, a little over 5% of the state was Protestant. The 2011 census of the Republic of Ireland found that the Protestant population in every county had grown. In 2012 the Irish Independent reported that “Irish Anglicanism is undergoing a quite remarkable period of growth” due to immigration and Irish Catholics converting.[32]


Prior to the Plantation of Ulster in the opening decades of the 17th century, the Parliament of Ireland consisted of Catholic Old-English and Gaelic Irish MPs.[33] Whilst these MPs had few ideological objections to making Henry VIII head of the Irish church as well as to the establishment of Anglicanism in Ireland under Elizabeth I in 1660, resistance to government policies started to grow.[33] To help tip the balance of power in the parliament in favour of Protestants, Lord-Deputy Chichester established sixteen new corporate towns in Ulster in the 1610s.[16] These towns where little more than villages or planned towns.[33] This resulted in Ulster alone returning 38 MPs to the Irish parliament with the three other provinces altogether contributing 36, giving the government a majority of 32.[33] This majority was reduced upon appeal by the Old-English to six, however under Lord-Deputy Wentworth in 1640, a further sixteen Old-English seats where removed.[33] During 1640 and 1641, the interests of the Old-English and New English combined to seek Wentworth’s removal.[18]

With the drastic decrease in Catholic landowners after the Cromwellian land settlement in the 1640s, by the time of the Restoration parliament in 1661, only one Catholic MP was returned to the Irish parliament, however his election was overturned.[33]

The Protestant interest in Ireland would be no less compliant to English authority than the Old-English had been.[33] The convention of 1660, called after the restoration of the monarchy, saw 137 parliamentary members elected, all of whom were Protestant.[34] It called Charles II to summon a parliament consisting of Protestant peers and commons, as well for the re-establishment of the Church of Ireland.[35] Despite backing the restoration, as well as the system of episcopacy, it also asserted the Irish parliaments legislative superiority over itself and its intent to set and collect its own taxes.[34]

Cultural and literature impact

The Church of Ireland undertook the first publication of the Bible in Irish. The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until his death in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Dr. Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam; it was finally completed by William O’Domhnuill. Their work was printed in 1602. The work of translating the Old Testament was undertaken by William Bedel (1571–1642), Bishop of Kilmore, who completed his translation within the reign of Charles I, although it was not published until 1680 in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713), Archbishop of Dublin. Bedell had also undertaken a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was effected by John Richardson (1664–1747) and published in 1712.