Archive of the Month
The Birth of Partition: the Southern Experience Through the Eyes of the Church of Ireland Gazette
By Dr Ian d’Alton
The Church of Ireland Gazette in 1920 proclaimed itself as ‘A Church paper for Church people’. It had shed its earlier image as ‘a clerical paper for clergy’ and in 1921 denied that ‘the trail of clericalism is visible in our Editorial notes’. It was not the official mouthpiece of the Church but, inevitably, was often seen in that light.
Founded as the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette in 1856, it had reported on the vicissitudes and turbulences that had rocked the Church since then – institutional, political and theological. In particular, disestablishment of the Church in 1871 had been traumatic and challenging but ultimately rejuvenating, and the Gazette’s own fortunes mirrored that. It expanded to become a weekly paper in the 1880s and became much more a conduit of information for the laity. Fifty years later, the Church was faced with another potential crisis as the island was split into two political jurisdictions. Threequarters of the Church’s membership and clergy were in the new Northern Ireland. This Archive of the Month looks at how partition – established a century ago by the Government of Ireland Act which came into force on 3 May 1921 – emerged, and was seen through the prism and pages of the Gazette’s southern orientation at the time.
In his book Rendering to God and Caesar: the Irish churches and the two states in Ireland, 1949–73, historian Daithí Ó Corráin has written of the churches in Ireland that ‘…the advent of the border did not occasion ecclesiastical partition, or make obligatory a new organisational beginning, or compel a sharp break with the past’. However, that masked the subterranean partitionism that already existed in the Church of Ireland long before the parcelling of the island into two states formally in May 1921. It was recognised in the nineteenth century that the Church in the north–east of the island was always more literal, more biblical, with a strong evangelical and anti–Roman Catholic streak. Archbishop Charles D’Arcy of Armagh averred in 1934 that the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland reflected ‘…a community with a character and history of its own’. Southern churchmen often struggled with the northern psyche.
In 1938 Archbishop John Gregg of Dublin was elected to the see of Armagh, a position which he refused; when Godfrey Day died unexpectedly later that year, he was elected again, and accepted on that occasion. On his first election, though, he had confided to his diary:
…nor did I think that at age 65 I should ever be able to find N. Ireland anything but a strange land spiritually and politically
As the Gazette put it in a reflective editorial in December 1920 after the passage of the Government of Ireland Act:
The principle of partition is now permanent, not because it is on the Statute Book, but because it is engraven on the tables of the heart
In particular, the ‘prosperity and Protestantism’ that the writer of ‘Belfast Notes’ in the Gazette proudly noted in 1920 posed challenges of a missionary and pastoral nature that were barely felt in the isolated rural communities and comfortable suburban neighbourhoods of the south and west. In addition, the Church’s main opponent in Ulster was Presbyterianism – a rivalry that could, and did, include poaching and proselytising. In the south and west, it was a different situation. There, Anglicans and Presbyterians were on the same side, huddled together, warily keeping their distance from a resurgent, political and dominant Roman Catholicism.
Although almost politically irrelevant by the early twentieth century, Anglicans and unionists outside Ulster were as vociferous in their anti–Home Rule rhetoric as those inside it – in 1912, John Henry Bernard, bishop of Ossory, spoke for many in the southern church when he stated that ‘loyalty is not a monopoly of Ulster’. That seeming unity between north and south was covered for a long time by the veneer of all–Ireland loyalism in organisations such as the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (founded in 1885; later in 1891 becoming the Irish Unionist Alliance) and the Unionist Clubs. But the truth was that, politically powerless in the face of the democratisation of politics (local and national) southern unionists relied on the Ulster card to stymie Home Rule for the whole island.
It was a risky and unstable investment which ultimately did not pay off. Increasingly, Ulster unionism began to find its own regional voice and political structures separate from southern loyalism – the Ulster Unionist Council’s foundation in 1904–5 was a seminal moment in the split between the two unionisms. The 1912–14 crisis over the third Home Rule Bill furthered demonstrated Ulster unionism’s go–it–alone tendencies.
The Irish Convention in 1917 and 1918 – that last attempt to bring together a representative body to try and hammer out a common political destiny for the island – exemplified the political dilemma faced by the Church of Ireland in holding itself together in the face of Ulster unionist exceptionalism.
The Convention’s membership included John Henry Bernard, now archbishop of Dublin, and John Baptist Crozier, the archbishop of Armagh. Each symbolized his ‘Church of Ireland’ – Crozier the northern version, Bernard the southern. (For the Library’s online study of the Convention, see this link.
Crozier was, on the surface, an unreconstructed northern unionist first and foremost, having, as Wells and Marlowe put it rather unsympathetically in their 1918 book The Irish Convention and Sinn Féin, ‘…joined the No–Surrender campaign before the War.’ The bulk of his archdiocese and all of his political sympathies lay in and with Ulster.
But his position as head of an all–Ireland church meant riding two horses – ‘he has preserved in the Convention his independence of action’ wrote Horace Plunkett, the chairman, to the King in October 1917. He ‘…resisted firm alignment with any of the parties’, as David Miller put it in Church, state and nation in Ireland, 1898–1921.
All that did not go down well with die–hard partitionist Ulster unionists. Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery brusquely warned Crozier in September 1917 that they were becoming ‘uneasy and suspicious’ of the archbishop. They may not have been wrong. In March 1918 he made an impassioned speech declaring his own ‘absolute independence’ and he abstained on the majority vote in favour of a form of all–Ireland home rule. He opted to sign a politically illogical and contradictory note stating that the majority view of the Convention was unacceptable because it involved either ‘…the coercion of Ulster, which is unthinkable’ or ‘the partition of Ireland, which would be disastrous.’
Archbishop Bernard on the other hand was more typical of the southern Anglican elite. Apart from the obvious interests of the southern Church of Ireland, he mainly represented the metropolitan academic and professional worlds in which he moved. While seemingly having had more freedom to manoeuvre than the hapless Crozier even he came under severe criticism at the standing committee of the Church of Ireland’s General Synod in January 1918 for allegedly diluting the pure spirit of unionism – not just from northern churchmen, but from southern ones as well, presaging the split that would eventually occur in southern unionism in 1919.
The Convention was an important catalyst – post the 1916 rebellion and the traumas of the Great War – in crystallising the deep splits within nationalism and unionism. Recognising the weakness of the southern unionist position, Bernard and Lord Midleton had tried to broker a scheme of all–Ireland self–government with the nationalist Redmondites. It failed; the Ulster delegates insisted on exclusion from the compromise. Southern Irish unionism sundered, with the ‘accommodationists’, led by Midleton, setting up the Unionist Anti–Partition League in January 1919, focussing on the benefits for the southern minority in having Ulster in an all–Ireland settlement. But that was going nowhere. In March 1920 the scales at last fell from southern unionist eyes. The Ulster Unionist Council decided not to oppose the Government of Ireland Bill, which effectively admitted a partitionist solution to the ‘Irish Question’. On 27 May 1920, the final betrayal took place – the Council declared support for a six–county parliament, not nine counties. Unionists from Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan resigned from the Council in protest.
Yet if southern Anglicans were to be thrown to the wolves of a nationalist and Catholic state, the institutional Church of Ireland at least offered a haven, a sense of continuity and connectivity with the ancien regime and their religious compatriots in an all–island body. It might be held that in any case, with disestablishment, the Church already had undergone its own ‘Home Rule’ moment. Its governance was an all–Ireland one, with comfortably–recognisable British parliamentary procedures and governance (in 1921, for instance, the Primate at the General Synod referred to the Secretary of the Representative Church Body as ‘our Chancellor of the Exchequer’), as well as a (little–used) legal and court system. That was not to be jettisoned lightly, no matter what separatist tendencies might lie dormant in the breasts of some northern Church members.
One such who exhibited a strong Ulster exceptionalism was Charles D’Arcy, briefly archbishop of Dublin in 1919–20 and archbishop of Armagh in the period of partition from 1920 to 1938. He was a very ‘political’ bishop, the fourth signatory to the Ulster Covenant in 1912, and later an unashamed partitionist and partisan for Northern Ireland as against the Free State. D’Arcy said prayers at the first session of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and its State Opening by King George V on 22 June 1921 – marking, he wrote, ‘…the triumphant close of a long struggle’, giving ‘…to Ulstermen a position secure from the ceaseless agitations of the past and with power to live in peace, protected by their own lawful guardians…’. In his 1934 autobiography The Adventures of a Bishop he went further, suggesting that partition had actually strengthened the overall position of the Church on the island – ‘It would give to the Protestants of Ireland a secure foothold in their country’, and evidencing this by reference to the spate of church–building in Belfast.
A sense of the Church standing apart from temporal politics was articulated by Archbishop Gregg on the occasion of his first election to Armagh in 1938 – he wrote in his diary that ‘…his main concern was not with forms of government but with the welfare of the Church’. That may have stemmed from Gregg’s public foray into anti–partitionism in May 1917, which didn’t end well. He blotted his copy–book by signing an anti–partition manifesto got up by various Catholic bishops – unlike Archbishop Bernard, who tersely annotated his invitation to sign (from the Catholic bishop of Derry) ‘I refused’. Gregg, together with his fellow–signatory bishops of Tuam and Killaloe, provoked Primate Crozier to comment that ‘…much injury has been done by this political move of the three bishops’.
The result of a determination to keep the Church united no matter what politics threw up is the key to the public reaction in Church circles to looming partition in 1920 and 1921. Despite its strong editorial line in favour of Irish political unity, there was already a partitionist ‘feel’ to the Gazette’s content, with a special section, ‘Belfast Notes’, usually across two or three pages, contrasting with the relative paucity of news from the southern dioceses.
It was often the most punchy part of the paper. Occasionally the overtly political overlay on the northern Church rose to the surface – for example, a Belfast Empire Day service in May 1921 just before the first elections for the new northern parliament turned into a unionist election rally, with a message read from Sir Edward Carson stating that every vote for the opponents of unionism was for the breakup of Empire, the Union and Ulster. The Gazette’s southern–based editor could not resist pointing out that that was a bit rich, ‘seeing that the Belfast Parliament stands on a broken up Union, and a broken up Ulster’.
That editor was Dublin–based Revd George Ashton Chamberlain, rector of Clondalkin. He took a strongly anti–partition editorial line, reflecting the paper’s southern–centric emphasis on violence in the south, and rumours of truces and outside interventions. To many northern readers, remote from violence of any significance, that ‘Ireland’ must have seemed a somewhat strange and alien land, only reinforcing their notions of separateness.
Under Chamberlain’s editorship we can identify a number of consistent lines in the Gazette on the relationship between partition, the Church and the southern minority. From its perspective of what would be in the best interests of the minority outside Ulster, in December 1920 the journal excoriated partition as ‘…an irrevocable calamity’. It pointed out that ‘We have always opposed the [Government of Ireland] Bill, on the ground that any measures which postulates the partition of Ireland is rotten at its core’. The Gazette’s argument was that ‘…it places Southern Unionists in a hopeless position from the start’.
The paper maintained that ‘…the vital fact of the Irish problem’ was ‘that Ireland is a unit, politically and economically, and that any artificial attempt to divide it must in the long run lead to a disastrous failure.’ Ulster had accepted it…
…because it is feared that, if it rejected this chance to get out from under a Dublin Parliament, it might not get such a favourable opportunity in a hurry again
The Gazette felt that ‘Nobody in Ireland thinks that it is a good Bill…Ulster will get its Parliament, and make a success of self–government, while Southern Ireland will enjoy the blessings of Crown Colony administration for the next twenty years.’ That mirrored the views of the other Protestant–unionist newspaper in southern Ireland, the Irish Times: the Bill, it wrote in February 1920, did not have ‘…a single friend in either hemisphere, outside Downing Street’.
On 24 December 1920, the day after the Bill became law, the Gazette continued its crusade. What is striking is the tone of its editorials, almost as if the north already was a foreign country – ‘Here we are in Southern Ireland. Ireland is our home. An Act of Parliament is about to separate us from the great Northern province for ever…’. How this may have gone down with its northern readership can only be imagined – most Anglicans there would almost certainly have been perfectly happy with the prospect of partition. The Gazette on the last day of the year was in bitter mode: ‘It would be silly to act like a dog in the manger and begrudge Ulster the Parliament that her ceaseless efforts have won for her’; but ‘For us in the South of Ireland the outlook is very bleak’.
The Gazette’s optimistic take on partition was to see both Church and state as living, developing organisms. Thus, in the dark days at the end of 1920, its editorial ‘Transition’ looked forward to parallel change for the better in both Church and State. It couldn’t do much about the State; but it noted how, fifty years after disestablishment, ‘…the conscience of the Church awoke to the fact that she must change in a changing world’. That was a reference to a significant reshaping of Church finance, organisation and administration that had been approved by a Special General Synod in 1920 in response to demographic shifts and economic fallout from the Great War.
Another way of dealing with the potential perils of partition for Irish Anglicanism was, in the words of the Gazette on 14 January 1921, to hope that even if ‘Partition, against which we, in common with all other Southern Unionists, have protested all along the line, is now an accomplished fact’ it might, with goodwill on all sides, be temporary. The paper argued that partition should not be seen as set in unchanging and unbreakable stone, and that the way to get rid of it was by way of the Council of Ireland. (The framers of the 1920 Act, while recognising the reality of the here–and–now, actually saw it as a step towards unity in the provisions for a transfer of powers to the Council.) The suggestion of a ‘constituent assembly’ (deriving from the Irish Convention, it would appear) was mooted from time to time by the journal. The Gazette in this period took the line of unity between north and south as being ultimately best for the country – and the Church. On 10 June 1921, reporting on the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Parliament, it had a startlingly modern take on how partition could be ended:
If we want ‘Ulster’ to throw in her lot with the rest of the country; in other words, if we want to avoid the permanent partition of Ireland, we must win her over, not by bombs, bullets, or boycotts, but by convincing her of our desire to share the blessings of peace and our genuine intention to work for the future good of the country which is dear to her as well as to us
Challenging Sinn Féin, the Gazette suggested that only by precept – southern Ireland working the Act – would there be any chance of Ulster ever deciding to throw in its lot with the rest of Ireland. But with the elections for the Northern Irish Parliament completed in May 1921, on 3 June the paper had to admit that ‘ “Ulster” is definitely out of it, so far as the British Government is concerned’; ‘the fait accompli in Belfast has completely changed the whole political problem of Ireland’s future’. It is doubtful, though, that the Gazette’s lament – southern–centric to the last – that ‘the barrier of partition will become permanent and Ireland’s ruin will become complete’ would have caused the Church’s northern unionist members many sleepless nights. Elsewhere in the paper, its ‘Belfast Notes’ section was blatantly political, crowing over unionist victories and triumphant that ‘Socialism and Sinn Féinism were so completely spurned’.
It has to be said that the overwhelming impression given by the Gazette’s coverage of, and comment on, the process of partition in late 1920 and through 1921 is how little there was. Apart from the editorial and comment pieces mentioned above, letters on the question of Ulster and partition generally from southern readers accepted the principle that, if nationalist Ireland could claim self–determination, so could Ulster. But they were few and far between – none were published in the months following the passage of the Act in December 1920. Partition is not mentioned in the weekly ‘Diocesan News’ section from those dioceses which were split by the new border – Armagh, Derry and Raphoe, Clogher, Kilmore. In its ‘The Week’ comment on 6 May 1921, just after the Government of Ireland Act came into force, the Gazette, using its favourite French phrase, contented itself with the simple reportage that ‘ ‘The Home Rule Act is on the Statute Book, and whether we like it or not, partition is a fait accompli’. Its principal editorial in that issue was on ‘Germany in default’. There were no letters published on the topic of the Act, or its consequences. Of course, the extent to which the lack of both diocesan and correspondent comments on partition was due to editorial and self–censorship is unknown.
The Church’s governing body, the General Synod, was equally publicly quiet; Primate D’Arcy’s address in May 1921 detailed acts of violence against the minority (two members of the Synod had been murdered), but did not mention partition. At the 1922 General Synod, with a strong affirmation of his belief in unionism he conferred equal validity on each constitutional entity (‘Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland’) by asserting that the clergy and laity would ‘obey the law of the State to which they belong’. In the face of partition the Church of Ireland safeguarded its religious unity by not making the political legitimacy of either jurisdiction an issue, quietly keeping its head down while, as Ó Corráin shows for a later period, adjusting its administration and procedures to life in two states rather than one.
While in hindsight Archbishop D’Arcy could maintain that ‘…our Church of Ireland was strong enough and united enough to hold her own in spite of change’ Archbishop Bernard of Dublin, according to D’Arcy’s autobiography, feared at the time that ‘…a very grave division in the ecclesiastical sphere might follow the political separation’. In February 1921 the Gazette was concerned about this too; ‘…it is important that the Church should be kept from drifting apart across the secular frontiers…’. The paper noted that ‘With the establishment of two Legislatures in our country, many regard with apprehension the possibility of interest and organisation tending to revolve around two centres, and a consequent drifting apart of two sections of our Church.’ Despite its strong anti–partitionist line, and its integrationist approach to southern politics, the Gazette in February 1921 had hoped that it might itself be seen as a unifying force, as a sort of demilitarised zone – ‘…it is a meeting place where Northern and Southern Churchmen may exchange views, strengthen sympathy and feel that they are one in the cause they have at heart’. It continued to be based in Dublin until 1963; that was an element in helping to maintain a political balance in a demographically– imbalanced Church.
Dr Ian d’Alton is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Trinity College, Dublin and co–editor (with Dr Ida Milne) of Protestant and Irish: the minority’s search for place in independent Ireland (Cork University Press, 2019)