Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland

Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland


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Ireland’s landscape is marked by fault lines of religious, ethnic, and political identity that have shaped its troubled history. Troubled Geographies maps this history by detailing the patterns of change in Ireland from 16th century attempts to "plant" areas of Ireland with loyal English Protestants to defend against threats posed by indigenous Catholics, through the violence of the latter part of the 20th century and the rise of the "Celtic Tiger." The book is concerned with how a geography laid down in the 16th and 17th centuries led to an amalgam based on religious belief, ethnic/national identity, and political conviction that continues to shape the geographies of modern Ireland. Troubled Geographies shows how changes in religious affiliation, identity, and territoriality have impacted Irish society during this period. It explores the response of society in general and religion in particular to major cultural shocks such as the Famine and to long term processes such as urbanization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253009739
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/01/2013
Series: The Spatial Humanities
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ian N. Gregory is Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of History at Lancaster University.

Niall A. Cunningham is Lecturer in Human Geography at Dunham University, UK.

C. D. Lloyd is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning, School of Environmental Sciences, at the University of Liverpool.

Ian G. Shuttleworth is Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at the Queen’s University Belfast.

Paul S. Ell is Director of the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis (CDDA) in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at the Queen’s University Belfast.

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Troubled Geographies

A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland

By Ian N. Gregory, Niall A. Cunningham, C. D. Lloyd, Ian G. Shuttleworth, Paul S. Ell

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00973-9


Geography, Religion, and Society in Ireland: A Spatial History

Even today, more than a decade after the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, which marked an end to the Troubles, the visitor to Northern Ireland cannot help but be struck by the interplay between religion, ethnonational identity, politics, history, and geography. Protestant areas are demarked by the Union Flag (the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, formerly the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), backed up by red, white, and blue curbstones and murals representing events such as the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry. Protestantism is seen as synonymous with the politics of unionism and loyalism, which have the union with Great Britain and loyalty to the British Crown as their core tenets. Orange parades further emphasize these links—Orangemen march to church in a symbolic way that makes explicit the links between their religion, politics, history, and, most controversially, territory. So too in Catholic areas, except the flags are those of the Republic of Ireland, the curbstones are green, white, and orange, and the murals tend to focus on the sufferings and tribulations of the Gaelic Irish population from the Norman Conquest all the way through to the recent Troubles. Catholicism is seen as synonymous with Irish nationalism and republicanism, which have sought to remove British influence from Ireland.

Religion and territory thus are explicitly linked, a link that has at worst led to killing, arson, and other forms of violence aimed at establishing or protecting territorial control. While these are the most overt and unpleasant expressions of the impact of religious geography on Ireland, spatioreligious processes—the way in which religion and geography become intertwined with each other and a range of broader factors within society—have a long tradition. Recent work by Alexandra Walsham has drawn attention to this link, seeing religious space in Ireland as a sort of theological palimpsest, constantly being written and overwritten by competing Catholic and Protestant imaginings of the past. The idea of a more substantive link between geography and religion underpins the political ideologies of nationalism and unionism, which have shaped the island of Ireland since the Famine. The ways in which religion, society, and geography have evolved to shape Ireland over the past two centuries are the major themes that this book will explore in detail. It is important, however, to establish what we mean by religion. In this context it does not refer to religious practice, including acts of worship, church attendance, and systems of belief; instead, it is primarily concerned with religious identity, a person's background and the community with which that person identifies. As the opening paragraph makes clear, religion is often tied up with a wide variety of other factors in society, particularly ethnonational identity and politics, but also economic opportunity and a range of other issues affecting almost every aspect of a person's life.

This intermingling of geography, religion, and the wider society is not new. Protestantism arrived in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the plantations, whose aim was to "plant" specific areas with English Protestants, loyal to the Crown, to defend English influence from the threats posed by indigenous Catholics. This took place against the backdrop of the wider European struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain and France. The plantations were focused on certain key strategic areas, including colonial Dublin and its historic sphere of influence known as the Pale, parts of Munster and the midlands, and west Ulster. Around the same time, Scottish Presbyterians arrived in large numbers in east Ulster, reflecting long-term economic and cultural links between southern Scotland and Ulster rather than the processes of large-scale, organized colonization.

The plantations laid the foundation for the fusing of religion, identity, politics, and geography, and, as chapter 2 will describe, many of the spatioreligious patterns that were laid down in this period have shaped, and been reshaped by, the processes that ran through nineteenth-and twentieth-century Ireland. These processes can be divided into two types. At one extreme there have been the short-term shocks—periods of intense violence or trauma that led to sudden upheavals. At the other there are the longer-term, more gradual processes associated with economic and social development.

The most obvious trauma was the period of violence from the Easter Rising in 1916 to Partition and the civil war in the early 1920s. The geographical legacy of this was the division of the island into the mainly Catholic Republic of Ireland—or the Irish Free State, as it was first called—and the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. As chapter 6 will identify, in this period religion, politics, and identity came together to tear the island in two. However, the resulting formal division of the island left both parts with significant populations of the "other" religion, and in some places in the north these minorities made up the majority of the population. In modern Northern Ireland this has had tragic consequences. The twentieth century's second period of violent trauma, described in the last chapters of the book, was the three decades of the Troubles, which have left Northern Ireland's two communities—defined by both religion and politics—as separated as they have ever been, emotionally as well as geographically. The so-called peace lines are the most obvious physical legacy of this period. These are high, ugly, concrete walls that scar Belfast's urban geography in their attempt to keep the two communities apart—a physical manifestation of a much deeper divide. In what is now the Republic, however, there have been fewer such problems, and the much smaller Protestant minority has generally coexisted in relative harmony with their Catholic neighbors.

These two periods of violence are not the only traumatic processes to have affected the geographies of Ireland over the past two centuries. The Great Famine of the late 1840s was the last major famine in western Europe, and its effects have been profound in both the short and long term. chapter 3 describes how, prior to the Famine, Ireland's population was increasing rapidly, as was typical of most nineteenth-century western countries. chapter 4 moves on to describe how the Famine caused the population to crash from over eight million to less than six million as a consequence of death and emigration. Stagnation followed such that the population recorded by the 1841 census is still the largest ever population of Ireland, a situation that is virtually unique in western countries, where populations have typically increased dramatically since the early nineteenth century. Geography, religion, and politics are also part of the story of the Famine. It was perceived to have disproportionately affected Catholic areas in the west of the island, and the British government's response, or lack of it, to the unfolding tragedy, combined with the indifference of absentee landlords, did much to stimulate movements for agrarian reform and Home Rule.

As well as these shocks, Ireland has been affected by the more gradual but nevertheless highly significant processes that affected other western European countries over these two centuries as the island developed from an agrarian society to a postindustrial one. Urbanization, industrialization, suburbanization, and deindustrialization have all played their parts in shaping modern Ireland. Again, these processes have had marked spatial patterns and have had impacts on—and been impacted by—religion, identity, and politics in ways that are distinct from other parts of Europe. chapter 5 describes how, during the nineteenth century, Belfast, located in the Protestant heartland of northeast Ulster, grew from almost nothing to become the largest city on the island. Its economy, based on shipbuilding, textiles, and other manufacturing industries, was firmly tied into the economy of Britain and the wider British Empire. Much of the rest of the island did not industrialize or urbanize. As a result, rural population pressures could not be absorbed by rapidly growing Irish cities and were instead absorbed by the cities of Britain and North America. The extent to which these trends have been shaped by religion is, at best, controversial, although the importance of the "Protestant work ethic" has been argued for. These trends have, however, undoubtedly shaped religious geographies and with them a host of related themes. The rapid growth of Belfast led to a large influx of both Catholic and Protestant migrants into the city, leading to its complex sectarian geography. Economic marginalization of Catholics and discrimination against them in the shipyards in particular helped to foster resentments. The linkage of Belfast into the wider British economy was important in promoting unionism and the opposition to Home Rule, particularly among the Protestant elite.

More generally, as identified in both chapters 5 and 7, long-term processes have resulted in the population becoming increasingly concentrated in the towns and cities of the east coast at the expense of the west and center of the island. This has led to Catholics and Protestants living in closer proximity, which has sometimes, but not always, led to conflict. For much of the twentieth century the economic success of Northern Ireland and the stagnation of the Free State/Republic's economy exacerbated this conflict, with Belfast being economically and demographically the dominant center for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The later twentieth century, however, saw a dramatic transition. As described in chapter 8, in the last decades of the twentieth century the Republic moved to open its economy and went through a period of rapid industrialization, followed by an even more rapid and spectacularly successful move to a service-based economy. By the end of the twentieth century the Celtic Tiger had become the fourth richest country in the world. Over the same period, as chapters 9 to 11 describe, Northern Ireland's traditional manufacturing industries went into steep decline. Efforts to replace them were undermined by the Troubles, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that erupted in the late 1960s. The resulting violence not only was a human tragedy but did much to undermine Northern Ireland's attempts to reinvent itself as a postindustrial society, meaning that by the end of the twentieth century the Republic had the strong economy, while the north stagnated and declined.

This book is thus concerned with how a geography laid down in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to an amalgamation of religious conviction, ethnonational identity, and political opinions that shaped the geographies of Ireland through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continues to shape it in the twenty-first century. We will explore how religious geographies have shaped and been shaped by broader changes in Ireland's economy and society in terms of both the short-term shocks and the long-term processes.

The Sources: Ireland's Censuses

The census is an excellent source for exploring socioeconomic geographies and how they change over time. As with many other countries, Ireland took censuses for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unlike most other countries, however, Ireland has included data on religion as part of its census since 1861, an indicator that religion was, and remains, of more interest in Ireland than elsewhere. The first census of Ireland was taken in 1821, and censuses were repeated decennially until 1911. After Partition, the pattern becomes slightly more complicated. The next census, in 1926, took place on both sides of the border. In 1936 there was a census in the Free State, while in Northern Ireland a comparable, but more limited, census took place in the following year. After World War II the Free State took a further census in 1946, while Northern Ireland held off until 1951, resulting in the largest discontinuity between the two. Fortunately, after this the dates of the two censuses merged again to take place in 1961, 1971, 1981, and 1991. The final census used in this book occurred in 2001 in Northern Ireland and 2002 in the Republic. Thus we have census data for the island covering most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries available for intervals of every ten to fifteen years and broadly comparable north and south. The bulk of these statistics from 1821 to 1971 have been digitized as the Database of Irish Historical Statistics, allowing a reexamination of the patterns that they contain.

Censuses contain a wealth of spatial information because they are organized using administrative units such as districts and counties. For the nineteenth century the barony was the principal administrative unit used in the Irish censuses. There were around 330 baronies (the exact number depends on the date), with an average population of around twenty thousand. From 1901 baronies were replaced by urban and rural districts, otherwise known as county districts. Although there were a similar number of these, their arrangement was significantly different from baronies, as they explicitly separated urban areas from their rural hinterlands. Data for urban and rural districts continued to be available throughout the twentieth century. Although more detailed data are sometimes available at, for example, the parish or townland level, these are rarely consistently available in digital form, so before 1971 the bulk of the sources for this book are used at the barony and urban and rural district levels. From 1971 for Northern Ireland data are available using a unique arrangement of grid squares. These squares have sides that are 1 km long in rural areas and 100 m long in urban centers such as Belfast. This allows us to explore this period in Northern Ireland in much more detail than in the remainder of the country. One problem, however, is that some data are only available for the thirty-two counties of Ireland, robbing them of much of their geographical detail. The counties, in turn, aggregate to four provinces—Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster—that are too aggregate for statistical reporting but are useful for geographical description. The main administrative geographies are shown in figure 1.1.

Although the details vary slightly, in general, census data on religion consist mainly of the total Catholic, Church of Ireland (part of the Anglican Communion), and Presbyterian populations. Data on minor religions such as other Protestant groups and Jews are sometimes also available; however, the three main groups provide the overwhelming proportion of Ireland's population. In 1911, for example, only 3 percent of the population did not profess to be either Catholic or from one of the two main Protestant denominations. Unfortunately, data on religion are not always available with the level of detail that would be desirable. Digital data from the censuses of 1871 to 1901 only provide statistics at the county level, and from 1971 censuses in the Republic stopped subdividing the Protestant population into Church of Ireland and Presbyterians at local levels, perhaps reflecting the declining demographic importance in the distinction between the Protestant groups in this part of Ireland. It is important to note that the census records the religion that individuals professed to. It is thus a measure of religious identity rather than religious practice.

A final problem is that the census did not start collecting data on religion until 1861, meaning that there is no information on the pre-Famine period. This problem is partly resolved through the use of the 1834 Commission, which examined "the state of religion and other instruction in Ireland." The Commission provides similar data to the later censuses but is only available in digital form using the Church of Ireland's dioceses, of which there were thirty-two but whose arrangement is significantly different from that of the thirty-two counties.


Excerpted from Troubled Geographies by Ian N. Gregory, Niall A. Cunningham, C. D. Lloyd, Ian G. Shuttleworth, Paul S. Ell. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
1. Geography, Religion, and Society in Ireland: A Spatial History
2. The Plantations: Sowing the Seeds of Ireland’s Religious Geographies
3. Religion and Society in Pre-Famine Ireland
4. The Famine and its Impacts, 1840s to 1860s
5. Towards Partition, 1860s to 1910s
6. Partition and Civil War, 1911 to 1926
7. Division and Continuity, 1920s to 1960s
8. Towards the Celtic Tiger: The Republic, 1961 to 2002
9. Stagnation and Segregation: Northern Ireland, 1971 to 2001
10. Communal Conflict and Death in Northern Ireland, 1969 to 2001
11. Belfast through the Troubles: Socio-economic Change, Segregation, and Violence
12. Conclusions: Ireland’s Religious Geographies—Stability or Change?
Notes on Methods and Literature: From Historical GIS Databases to Narrative Histories

What People are Saying About This

Carnegie Mellon University - David W. Miller

An ambitious and extremely interesting display of the value of the Centre's [CDDA, Queen's University Belfast] data and analysis for understanding a major topic in Irish history: religion.

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