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A loyal subject of King George at home in the Free State

Laois Local Studies > Articles > A loyal subject of King George at home in the Free State

Canon and Mrs. Dudley Fletcher & group 1931 from RCB Library St Canice’s Lantern Slides. Courtesy of the RCB Library. See RCB Library Archive of the Month May 2020

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

From 1907 to 1927 the Rev. Dudley Fletcher was the Church of Ireland rector of Coolbanagher (near Emo and Portarlington), later moving his clerical attentions to Old Leighlin, and later still to Kilkenny.[1] Fletcher has two bit parts in the big stories of Irish history —one he enters Seán O’Casey’s autobiography by dint of his support for the Transport Union workers in the Dublin Lock Out of 1913; and two he was at the centre of controversy in May 1914 when he addressed a meeting of the Mountmellick Irish Volunteers.[2] But a lot of social and cultural change happens away from the big headline events, and Fletcher gives us a window into the world of southern Unionism, and allows us to say something of Protestants, the Revolution and the Irish Free State. Of course, Protestants and Unionists were in fact not synonymous, Seán O’Casey, for one, would not have shared Dudley Fletcher’s political views, excepting the brief alignment at the time of the Lock Out. For another Laois Protestant perspective see the earlier article on Methodist County Councillor Ernest Mercier. By David Fitzpatrick’s calculations Laois was the third most Protestant county in Ireland, outside of Ulster, after Dublin and Wicklow. There were less Protestants in 1926 by comparison with 1911, but, in Laois, the Church of Ireland population in 1926 was 79% of what it had been in 1911, a reduction in numbers but not a precipitous collapse.[3] We will come back to that reduction in the conclusion.   

Exploring ‘The Future of Ireland’ in Portarlington in 1926.

The Rev. Dudley Fletcher was a highly-educated man and he seems to have been something of a contrarian controversialist, or at least not afraid to speak his mind, often in the columns of the press, and on occasion at events where his speeches were reported on. So while now obscure in his lifetime he was a reasonably well-known public figure. It is hard to know how representative his views were, but sometimes they do seem to chime with what we know of the evolution of southern Unionism. In any case they open up a very different vista on the years of revolution, which culminated, in Fletcher’s view, with “the most treacherous act England ever committed” namely the Treaty and the hand-over of Dublin Castle.[4] So he said in a lecture on ‘The Future of Ireland’ in Portarlington in 1926.[5]

Fletcher certainly did not pull his punches in his address – aiming, in the first instance, at the Easter Rising:  

There was never such a union of classes and creeds as at the out-break of the war, and anything like disloyalty was swept away. The first thing that changed the situation was the execution of the rebel leaders. They might regret it, but it was unavoidable. No country in the world, when engaged in a terrible war, could pardon men who plotted with the enemy for her defeat. When they had a rebellion against the established Free State they had far more executions. The people who were executed in 1916 were soon made martyrs, and the feeling swung round that they died for Ireland. He could never see how men who shot down Irishmen in the streets of Dublin were fighting for Ireland.

His case against separation was that the part of Ireland that became the Irish Free State went from being, as we might put it now, a rule maker to a rule taker:

Another serious thing was that the twenty-six counties lost their representation in the Imperial Parliament. The Irish Party in the Imperial Parliament, when there was a division on, held the balance and could dictate their terms to whatever Government was in. As long as they had representatives in the Imperial Parliament they were able to use considerable influence on legislation. For instance, the Irish Party were able to have considerable influence on the importation of Canadian cattle [the possible importation of beef or cattle from the Americas into Ireland’s markets was a live-issue then as it is now].

Likewise, the Irish Free State had lost its access to what we might call the structural funds:

Another point was that the English Treasury was lost to them. They heard that the Barrow was going to be drained and that it would cost a million pounds. Where was the money to come from? Out of their own pockets.

More positively, he thought some measure of self-government a good thing, and felt that:

Under the Irish Constitution they all enjoyed the fullest measure of liberty, political, civil, and religious. As a convinced Protestant, and as a convinced Imperialist, as loyal subject of King George, he considered he had as much liberty under the present Government as under the old regime. What was more, he felt more at home.

That is a quote which would make one question some of the ways the Protestant experience of the aftermath of revolution is presented today, leaving aside the question as to if there was one common Protestant experience. I think it is fair to say that Fletcher, who took on, in public debate, the Easter Rising, the doctrine of the virginal status of Mary and attempts to revive the Irish language, would have no hesitation in saying what was what if a persecuting zeal was leading to a Protestant decline under the new regime.[6] 

No Peace with Rome.

While Fletcher made his peace with the Irish Free State, he made no concessions to Rome. He was again at the centre of controversy in 1930 when he addressed members of the Royal Black Institution and the Orange Order in Clogher Cathedral, Co. Tyrone.[7]  On that occasion he was quoted as saying that he believed “in due time there would be a native revolution in the South and West of Ireland, as he had noticed during the last twenty years a great change come over their Catholic fellow-countrymen in regard to religious matters” and that there was “no country in the world in which Rome got a footing where there had not been ructions sooner or later. Mexico and Malta were the most recent examples.”[8]  Mexico had just gone through the Cristero War featuring a Catholic opposition to the secularisation and agrarian reform policies of the country’s post-revolutionary government; while the Maltese constitution had earlier in the year been suspended after Church authorities declared voting for the Constitutional or Labour parties to be a mortal sin.

One of the people responding to Fletcher on his visit to Clogher was Mary MacSwiney, leader of the remainder of Sinn Féin after the 1926 Fianna Fáil split. MacSwiney predicted that when Ireland is free the country “will once again take her place as a great Catholic nation”.[9] A response which surely underlines how for some separatism was bound up with Catholicism. Earlier Fletcher would surely have seized on that as an example of how Home Rule would mean Rome Rule – his stance at the time of the Home Rule Crisis, but, as we have seen, he seems to have adjusted comfortably to the Free State.

While back in 1914 he was the only Protestant clergyman to address a Volunteer meeting, this, it appears, was to share his point of view in reasoned debate as someone who disagreed with them, not as an act of support for the movement (he was certainly opposed to Home Rule in 1913, though like many southern Unionists he later felt it was the least bad option).[10]

Nonetheless his presence provoked controversy —including among some of his parishioners, who withdrew financial support from the parish.[11]  He was later banned from attending meetings outside his parish, it is unclear by whom, but this was perhaps an episcopal intervention, something that another outspoken Midlands Church of Ireland clergyman, though one of very different political views to Fletcher, Henry A. D. Barbor of Castledermot, was also subjected to.[12] This meant Fletcher could not attend meetings of the Queen’s County Committee of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, a layer of local administration which was, to a degree, the then equivalent of today’s Teagasc and Education & Training Boards.[13]

Prior to all this Fletcher was most well-known for his opposition to Ne Temere,the Vatican ruling of 1908 that made it that the children of mixed marriages be raised in the Roman Catholic Church (paternal supremacy was the standard in Common Law jurisdictions i.e. that in the event of a separation the children would be raised in the father’s church, something which I suppose would seem no more liberal to us today than Ne Temere).

While Dudley Fletcher may have been adept at deflating some of the sacred cows of Catholic, Nationalist Ireland, in other respects he seems even wilfully blind — claiming to have found no evidence of bigotry on a trip to the North in the early 1920s, and getting the notion that the Abdication Crisis of 1936 showed the Royal Family to be “the solid rock” enabling the Empire to “weather the storm”.[14]

Fletcher was not the only nationally prominent Unionist with Laois connections. Abbeyleix-born Venie (Sarah) Barr was a founder in 1911 of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council and later, in 1914, first chief of the Post House Staff of the Ulster Volunteer Force, while Edward Caron spent his schooldays in Portarlington.[15] 

At Home in the Free State.

In his 1926 lecture in Portarlington Fletcher spoke of feeling more at home in the Free State — something which he ascribed to political questions no longer dividing on confessional lines and the role played in economic development by the likes of A. Odlum, one of the attendees of the meeting, part of the prominent milling family.[16] That is just it, the Free State’s foundations were structures of social and economic power inherited from the old regime — excepting the significant changes made by agrarian reform as discussed in an earlier article. Those structures disproportionately empowered Protestants (if not necessarily all Protestants). So while the non-Catholic proportion of the population of the 26 counties declined to 8.4% by the 1926 census, at the same time 28% of all farmers with over 200 acres were Protestants, 18% of all persons with professional occupations, and 20‒25% of business employers and upper tier of management.[17]

In any case the long-term reduction in Protestant numbers in the three southern Irish provinces long predates 1922 and goes back at least to the early 1800s. There were many reasons for that decline. They include the negative impact on the disproportionately Protestant textile industry when it was incorporated into a free-trade zone with the new factories of Manchester, something which left a profound impression locally on the likes of Mountrath and Mountmellick. Another reason of the same era was landlord’s rationalisation of estate management and the downfall of the minor gentry known as middlemen, who held long leases and sub-let lands. By no means all of these were Protestant but those who were would have had little communities of Protestant employees around them — stewards, domestic servants, coachmen etc..  Moreover, while there were clearly some controversial killings in the south of Ireland in the early 1920s — which have been ascribed motives of confessional bias — it is undoubtedly the case that Irish Catholics were much more given to sectarianism before they adopted the doctrines of Tone and Davis than after. In broad-strokes it really is the early 1800s, not the early 1900s, when the state of confessional relations in the South can someways compare with those in the North.            

[1] The Irish Times, 8 April 1948.

[2] Sean O’Casey, Autobiographies Volume 1 (New York, Carroll & Graf, 1984), p. 595.

[3] David Fitzpatrick, ‘Protestant Depopulation and the Irish Revolution’ in Irish Historical Studies 38:152 (2013): 643–670. This is calculated on the basis of female non-Catholics – in order to avoid some of the statistically distorting impact made by disproportionately Protestant military units temporarily based in Ireland — even still in 1911 (but not 1926) Kildare is actually in third place over Laois — but that is likely down to soldiers’ families. Locally there was a greater rate of decline among smaller Methodist and Presbyterian congregations.  

[4] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 30 January 1926.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Derry Journal, 15 December 1924; Irish Independent, 27 August 1929.

[7] The Portadown Times, 8 August 1930; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 9 August 1930.

[8] Irish Independent, 5 August 1930; The Portadown Times, 8 August 1930.

[9] Irish Independent, 12 August 1930.

[10] Strabane Weekly News, 12 April 1913; Irish Independent, 10 August 1916.

[11] Freemans Journal, 29 January 1915; Leinster Express, 30 May 1914.

[12] Conor Morrissey, ‘Protestant Nationalists and the Irish Conscription Crisis, 1918’ in Gearóid Barry, Enrico Dal Lago and Róisín Healy (eds) Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War I (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p. 67; The Irish Times, 14 February 1920.

[13] The Irish Times, 14 February 1920.

[14] Sligo Champion, 16 August 1924; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 19 December 1936.

[15] Helen Andrews, ‘Barr, (Sarah) Venie’, Directory of Irish Biography, ; Alvin Jackson, ‘Carson, Edward Henry’, Directory of Irish Biography,

[16] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 30 January 1926.

[17] E. Rumpf and A.C. Hepburn, Nationalism and Socialism in Twentieth-Century Ireland (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1977) p. 72.