In my last post I argued that religion was a major cause of war. Now I want to discuss this in an Irish context. In fact the history of Ireland is basically the history of Protestants and Catholics warring among each other. There are numerous incidents where Catholics or Protestants were killed solely because of their religion.
There is a serious problem in separating actions based on religion from those based on nationality. In fact Daniel O’Connell went as far as to claim that being Catholic and being Irish was the one thing. This presents a serious problem in decoding conflict and classifying them as nationalist or religious wars. Some even argue that class was the driving force, with the poor Catholic Irish rising up against the rich British. However I feel that an examination of the main rebellions and wars reveal religion as the major (though not exclusive) factor.
Almost as soon as England became Protestant there was a rebellion. In 1534 Silken Thomas hoped to gain the support of Catholics in his rebellion, but was unsuccessful. In 1579, the Pope and the Spanish sent troops to help the Catholics in the Second Desmond Rebellion. The O’Neill’s also received aid from Catholic Spain during the Nine Years War (1594-1603).
During the 1641 rebellion, thousands of Protestants were massacred by Catholics because of their religion. While it is true that the dispossession of Catholics was also a factor, they were dispossessed because they were Catholics and given to people on condition they were Protestants. In response Oliver Cromwell massacred thousands of Catholics.
The War Of The Two Kings (1689-1691) was fought over whether the King would be a Catholic or a Protestant. This culminated in The Battle of the Boyne which is celebrated to this day a victory of Protestants over Catholics. The Catholics received aid from France because both countries were Catholic. Following the war there were laws (known as The Penal Laws) discriminating against Catholics solely because of their religion. These denied Catholics the right to vote and own land among other things. This was a clear attempt to divide the population based on religion.
While the United Irishmen has noble ideas about uniting religions, it was more an alliance of Presbyterians and Catholics against Anglicans. Still a religious war, just with the sides switched a little. In fact, it soon broke out into sectarian strife such as in Scullabogue where 200 Protestants were locked in a barn which was then set on fire. The rebels in Wexford were led by a Catholic priest, Father Murphy, which makes it hard to deny the role of religion. Also, the Yeomanry which suppressed the uprising was comprised of Protestant Irishmen which shows it wasn’t an entirely nationalist rebellion. In fact civil war would probably be more applicable.
1916 and the War of Independence are claimed as nationalist wars, yet few Protestant Irishmen fought in the IRA. In fact the divide between the two armed groups at the time, The Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers was that one was Catholic while the other was Protestant. The War Of Independence was Belfast was blatantly sectarian with thousands of Catholics burnt out of their homes. Note that they were persecuted based on religion not political ideology.
There is wide debate over whether Northern Ireland was a religious war, with some arguing instead that its motivations were political. While this is true to an extent, it ignores the fact that people did not choose which side they were on, they were simply born into groups. You could not decide whether you were a Nationalist or a Unionist, rather this decision was already made for you. It depended on what religion you born into. This is explained in the video above far better than I ever could.
Most of the killing was done by sectarian paramilitaries who choose their victims based on religion not political beliefs. For example, in Kingsmill in 1976, a bus was stopped by the IRA. They did not ask the political opinions of the passengers, just whether they were Catholic or Protestant. The Protestants were then lined up and gunned down. The UVF would kill random Catholics on the street of Belfast. Bombs were planted in pubs based on the religion of its customers. Not their political opinions.
The paramilitaries claimed religion was not important, but then again they claimed they did not target innocent civilians, something they blatantly did. They should be judged on their actions not on their words, regardless of how noble they may sound. Likewise, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP and the DUP all claim to be non-sectarian even though they receive almost no votes from the other community. It is almost unheard of for a Catholic to be a Unionist or a Protestant to be a Nationalist (there are one or two exceptions but the rule holds in the overwhelming number of cases).
Religion has hugely affected Irish history. It has caused war, violence and the deaths of thousands. It has been a source of hatred and the prime divider of Irish society. We would have been far better off without it.