Mass Rocks (Dungeon, Fire & Sword?)

American academics who are interested in Civil Rights rarely understand that integrated education (Catholics and Protestants) was not a basic demand in Norn Iron. Educating black and white children together was a prime demand by Civil Rights activists in Alabama and Mississippi so why was it not an issue in Armagh and Fermanagh?

Well I think it is fair to say that in my lifetime, the Catholic grammar schools were just as good as the State (de facto Protestant) grammar schools.

Grammar schools might be perceived as elitist but the reality was that Catholic pupils were scholarship boys and girls, who had earned the right to attend thru passing the “11 plus” exam. I was one such pupil (1963-1969) and my only sister was one (circa 1966-1973). We were not elite.

But the education at grammar schools was the pathway to university, professions like Law or Medicine or at worst clerical and secretarial jobs.

Our schools run by Christian Brothers or nuns like the Dominicans and Sisters of Mercy were acutely aware that Education was our path out of the Ghetto and of course we were the pathfinders for subsequent generations.

So our schools were at least equal to the State system.

Of course “Integrated Education” has been a talking point for decades. More so since the Good Friday Agreement. Some see it as helpful to the long term future of Norn Iron. Some see themselves as outside the traditional Catholic and Protestant tribes.

Teaching History in Norn Iron

In any school, 1 plus 1 equals 2….and the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square on the other two sides. The real bug bear is History.

In my Christian Brothers grammar school in September 1963…that first year was the Tudor Years, beginning with the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and Henry VII and ending with the death of Elizabeth in 1603. So as we went thru those years learning about Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, the Reformation the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Pilgrimage of Grace, “Saint” Thomas More, “Saint John Fisher, Edward VI, Cranmer, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Spanish Armada….we were already taking sides. English History in Tudor Times is basically a century of Protestant versus Catholic.

The Reformation

The nuances of Martin Luther, the selling of Indulgences, the corruption at Papal courts was lost on us.

We were after all Catholic and the Reformation was a very bad thing…so the Christian Brothers said. And if Henry VIII and his son Edward VI went about cutting the heads off “Saint” Thomas More and others, then clearly that was a very bad thing. Mary Tudor (vaguely one of us)..well she was just as bad of course with a penchant for burning Protestant martyrs at the stake. But Elizabeth I…..Good Queen Bess…she was worst of all. It was our priests after all who were being drawn to Tyburn and other places, hanged and cut down before death, various body parts cut off, cut open entrails burned before their eyes and of course their limbs cut off and heads placed on a pike.

It was the barbaric fate that awaited political conspirators like Anthony Babington and religious missionaries like Saint Edmond Campion. And of course, there was a link between these types of martyrs.

Of course Elizabeth I was a heretic…we were told. But 16th century religious fanaticism has a very modern parallel.

Take Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshire Catholic at the centre of the Gunpowder Plot against James I. He fought in European religious wars, educated alongside Catholic emigrés who were educated at Catholic institutes in France and Flanders and came back to England to establish Catholic dominance. And he and others advocated the violent overthrow of Good Queen Bess.

Now that does not seem a lot different from 21st century men from Yorkshire who go to fight a religious war in the Middle East and are educated at a madras in Pakistan and come back to England to establish a caliphate and sharia law. Not always by peaceful means.

Protestant heretics. Christian infidels. Not a lot of difference. Does this mean that our Catholic martyrs are just the same as Islamist terrorists?

The Irish Dimension

But the curious thing about our first History book in 1963 was that English History was the main event. And Irish History was the second feature. So Silken Thomas, Hugh O’Neill were like the second theatre of the Culture Wars.

And of course that study of History continues in 1964, 1965, 1966 and so on. The pattern is that British History was mainstream and Irish History a very large footnote. There is ALWAYS an Irish Dimension. Whether it is the Spanish Armada in 1588 or the Brexit Disaster (2016 et seq), Britains Danger is Ireland’s Opportunity.

But when History overlaps with Politics or Nationality, it ceases to be Academic.

An academic might say that the Reformation was a good thing, long term for Europe. That it was the forerunner to Enlightenment, Democracy and Freedom.

The problem for 36 Catholic schoolboys in 1963 is that we were on the wrong side of History in terms of “religion” but were we on the wrong side of History in terms of national freedom.

English Catholics Are Not Friends of Ireland

Initially the 12th century Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland was not a Protestant-Catholic thing. And effectively in 1155, the Papal Bull “Laudabiliter” gives ownership of Ireland to England. The Pope had maybe a vested interest. He was Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pope. Whether this is a Papal Bull or Papal Bullshit as the late Cardinal O’Fiaich described it is problematic but to this day, the aristocratic English Catholics regard it as valid. In historic Catholic terms England OWNS Ireland.

In 1973, I was part of a SDLP delegation from SDLP in West Belfast who met the local Brits in a barracks. The officer we spoke to was a Catholic (Ampleforth-educated) and downright hostile to us. It was our duty to be loyal to the Crown.

And even in the mid 16th century, Mary Tudor was expanding the conquest of Ireland in the midland counties Queens County (modern Laois) and Kings County (modern Offally). So those Catholic martryrs who suffered under Elizabeth I were not overly sympathetic to the Irish.

Which brings me to the Victorian hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” originally written for an English audience. But later adopted in Ireland

1Faith of our fathers, living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword,
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!
2Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free;
And blest would be their children’s fate,
If they, like them should die for thee:
Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!
3Faith of our fathers, we will strive
To win all nations unto thee;
And through the truth that comes from God
Mankind shall then indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!
4Faith of our fathers, we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife,
And preach thee, too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life.
Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!

We learned this hymn in primary school, maybe at 9 years old. It is pretty graphic. At that age, I did not fully comprehend “forefathers” in historic terms but rather saw “father” as a contemporary family word…my own daddy chained up in a dungeon because he would not say Protestant prayers.

At the time of Confirmation (February 1961 in St Peters) denying “our Faith” was a big thing. In my understanding, if a Protestant jumped out from the very dark wall at the Dominican Convent (it was the darkest place I knew) and held a knife to my 8 year old throat and demanded “are you a Protestant or Catholic?” then the only reply I could give was “Catholic”. I was obliged to die for my faith, as my forefathers had done …… Drogheda, Wexford, Limerick etc during the Cromwellian and Penal Years

The video (if it works)…..shows images, St Patricks Cathedral, Armagh, holy well, Marian grotto, Penal Cross (shaped to be easily hidden), Mass Rock (where Mass was said in secret places), Knock Basilica, Matt Talbot, Irish saints…and the preserved skull of executed Archbishop Oliver Plunkett (hanged, drawn and quartered in 1681). Religion (Catholic) and Irish nationalism are connected.


Of course as the 1960s progressed and the Troubles were “before my time” and I was crossing Sandy Row and Shankill Road to play football in Botanic Gardens and Woodvale Park, it never dawned on me that the “Catholic or Protestant” thing would ever be relevant in my life.

The 1970s……I lived in fear of the likes of the Shankill Butchers and other nakedly sectarian murder gangs who would happily torture me to death.

“Denying Faith” is not uniquely Catholic. Or unique to Norn Iron. But it is not about Religion it itself. It is as much about the historic baggage that comes along with it.

It is perfectly reasonable for a person born into the Jewish faith in New York City to re-examine his or her committment as an adult. But at least part of him might be wary of turning his or her back on the history right thru to the Holocaust.

So it is perfectly reasonable for a 20 year old Catholic woman in Ballymurphy or a 30 year old Catholic man in Coalisland to say “ya know what…………I just don’t believe this any more.”. It might be because of a deep philosophy or it might be revulsion at 20th century scandals of Abuse, Magdalene laundries and Tuam babies.

So why then are these new athiests (Sinn Féin and SDLP voters mostly) not at the forefront of calling for Protestant and Catholic children to be educated together? Well in part it is historic. There was a time when the Catholic religion was banned and a time when Catholics were educated in “hedge schools”. It is hard to turn your back on History, especially the suffering of our forefathers.

Well the simplest answer is that integrated education is NOT about RELIGION. Integrated Education is about POLITICS.

Catholics may learn a lot about Religion at schools but we learn much more about Politics. I did not become a Catholic thru going to Catholic school. I became a Nationalist and a Republican and maybe even a Socialist.

Of course there are “State” schools which might be described as “neutral” but the reality is that in terms of the attendees and atmosphere, these are de facto “Protestant” schools.

The third block “Integrated Education” educates children from both backgrounds in what purports to be a more genuine neutral environment.

But in Norn Iron, neutrality……..the space between Nationalism and Unionism……is in itself a (unionist) political stance. A stance that says we can live together as a homogenous society. No wonder the Alliance Party endorse it.

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2 Responses to Mass Rocks (Dungeon, Fire & Sword?)

  1. hoboroad says:

    I see Sky News is running with the story that 27% of the population here in the Six Counties describe themselves as Non Religious.

    • I suppose its all about degrees.
      I have lost count of the number of funerals and weddings I have attended (various faiths) of people who claimed to be non religious.
      I think it will be at least two generations before the Christian faiths are marginal.

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