The Life and Death of Protestant Businesses

I’ve been asked to take this post down for copyright reasons, though the draft is not the version that will eventually be published. It has in fact been changed to reflect a number of the points made here and in other discussions.

8 replies on “The Life and Death of Protestant Businesses”

Frank we never had that coffee! Very interesting paper, which brought me back to my days as an articled clerk in Stokes Bros. & Pim in the 1950s. Two comments: Craig Gardner (where I later became a partner) wasn’t taken over by Price Waterhouse but rather joined the worldwide PW network– a kind of franchise operation–and the Irish firm remained in the ownership of the Irish partners.
Also, though not directly relevant to your story, it’s interesting that Stokes Bros. & Pim in Dublin carried out the audit of the main Dunlop operations in the U.K., not just the Cork company. Every year a lucky group of my colleagues set off from Dublin to Manchester (Trafford Park I think) and came back after several weeks, their pockets bulging with per diems.

A fascinating article to me who grew up knowing very many Protestant families as close neighbours but being very aware that they were quite different in an indefinable way from us Catholics. I grew up in a town where a disproportionate number of businesses were also owned by Protestant families but this did not affect our shopping or business habits. I know many Protestants now and Mrs E worked in a rural Church of Ireland school for several years in the very recent past and got to know children and their parents very well. I’m afraid that in my direct experience of rural Protestants there is still a form of voluntary apartheid where children largely socialise and are educated among their co-religionists. We also constantly remark on the extreme thrift practised among quite well-off Protestant families or, as a friend remarked less kindly and more bluntly “leading miserable lives”. Perhaps this is a legacy cultural factor where Protestants would, in many cases, have seen themselves as superior and more disciplined than “feckless Catholics” but has been taken to an extreme. I fear that the rural Protestant population will eventually die out because many are leading such separate lives and we are aware of a lot of intermarriage in the small rural gene pool. Mrs E also worked in an Educate Together school where many parents were immigrants and in which she had a much more enjoyable, welcoming and open experience. In her experience the immigrant families were much more culturally confident and open to participating in wider Irish society. As a simple example, at GAA summer camps in rural areas there will be wide participation from immigrant children but Irish born-and-bred Protestant children will largely keep to the rugby summer camps. These are merely disinterested anthropological observations.

I worked in recruitment in the late 1980s and was asked to recruit an accountant for a company. After giving me the specification, they told me that they would prefer someone who “kicked with the other foot”. I had absolutely no idea what they meant and had to ask. Needless to say I ignored it and the Catholic who got the job is now running the company.

On another occasion, a woman noted on her CV that she was Catholic. I hadn’t seen this before and haven’t seen it since. So I wrote back to her telling her that we only recruited Protestants. She didn’t see the joke and threatened to report me to the authorities for discrimination.


I’m intrigued by this apparent significantly increased interest in the Protestant expereince in Independent Ireland. When is this forthcoming book expected to be published?

What I find remarkable (and have always found remarkable) is the patience of the majority of ordinary (mainly Roman Catholic) voters with the continuing, but continuously declining, Protestant ownership and control of so much economic activity – and of other influential institutions. It indicates that the independence movement was never really a mass transformative entity. It simply replaced an existing, grudgingly accepting of continued if declining British governance, Roman Catholic elite, with a new more thrusting Roman Catholic elite that broadly accepted the existing processes of administration and of economic and social control, but totally rejected any effective form of British governance. In many respects this patience and, in effect, implicit subservience of the majority of mainly Roman Catholic voters paralleled their acceptance of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in health, education and social provision.

The relatively small numbers of Protestants on small holdings and pursuing labouring or other typically working class occupations – especially ouside the major unban centres (which understandably attract most attention) – kept their heads down in their limited relations with the new Roman Catholic elite. However, they were more effectively subdued and kept in their places by the continuation of the power relations and class and sect structures within Protestantism. They shared an economic and political subjugation with their Roman Catholic neighbours and it generated friendly relations and considerable solidarity accompanied by mutual respect of religious practices and places.

Most people with a Roman Cathilic background have no appreciation of this. The relatively few who have the skills and resources to inquire and examine certainly seem to lack it. Nor do they seem to appreciate the relatively limited change in the economic and political power structures at Independence or the limited extent to which these structures have mutated since then. They, of course, have no incentive to do so – and every incentive not to.

Thanks to everyone for their comments.

@Peter, the correction re Craig Gardner is much appreciated. Text will be amended before publication.

@Elia, the Homan Potterton memoir that I reference discusses the perceptions around fecklessness versus thrift and confirms exactly what you say. One of the chapters in the forthcoming book discusses perceptions of and participation in the GAA.

@Brendan, risky joke! (Though I recognise your sense of humour from the time we met at the DEW). A pal told me last night of working for one of the Catholic banks in Dun Laoghaire and being brought around the area on his first day and having the Protestant shops pointed out to him, the implication being that these were places to avoid. I’m surprised that this lasted into the 1980s, though (now that I think about it) I recall Seanie Fitz’s diatribe against ‘Protestant banks’ when he was on the up.

@Paul, the book is just about to go to Cork University Press. I think the increased interest has to do with the forthcoming centenary of the establishment of the Free State. On your point re “plus ça change…” this is one of the themes of Mary E. Daly’s 2016 book on “Sixties Ireland”.

Thank you. But I would caution against the promotion of another example of this psuedo-Marxist analysis that infects so much of Irish academia – and politicial actvities beyond academia. In a perverse way, and mainly because it advances a system of governance that has been proven to be deeply flawed both in theory and practice, it supports and gives sustenance to the existing power structures and arrangements. And those who dominate the exercise of economic and political power are more than happy to foster this flawed critique of their antics as it will never lead to effective restraints on their abuse of political and economic power. This has nothing to do, of course, with the fact that those who peddle this left-wing claptrap are well-embedded in the existing system and doing quite nicely, thank you.

Colonial powers have their elites but also their infantry such as the Irish in America and Australia.

In the US the Irish in the main supported the slave-owning Democratic Party as emancipation of the slaves would result in competition for labour at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Paul Hunt who like myself is a native of West Cork refers to Protestants who weren’t in the elite and Bandon my hometown, dubbed the “Londonderry of the South” or where “even the pigs were Protestant,” was from the early 1600’s developed by a few individuals.

Henry Ford’s family originally from Somerset, living in Ballinascarthy, near Clonakilty, were tenant farmers even though in the history the narrative has always been the Gaelic Irish as tenants and the owner of the land typically living in London.

I remember when Henry’s grandson, Henry Ford II, used to visit the Cork plant, but it was later that I discovered the family was Protestant.

So in 1919 the year of the beginning of the War of Independence, the son of a West Cork Protestant would open a tractor plant in his ancestral homeland, providing thousands of jobs, mainly because of his interest in his Irish heritage.

Colonial rule perpetuates a caste system and it can still be seen in the US in respect of the treatment of African-American and Native-Americans.

In Bandon in the early years of the 20th century, one prominent business family was the Brennans, They had a milling and bakery operation and supplied electricity to the town. Joseph Brennan (1887–1976) graduated from UCD and Cambridge University and became the first head of the Department of Finance and later the Central Bank.

So while Catholics could be entrepreneurs, Protestant families dominated business and after the Guinness family became immensely wealthy after the flotation on the London Stock Exchange in 1886, they did fund several projects in Dublin.

In Guinness most executive positions were reserved for Protestants.

Here is a 1999 Indo article on the mergers of Catholic and Unionist leaning banks:

Maybe the tragedy is that when more Catholics graduated from school and university they aspired to become doctors and solicitors or investors in land rather than developing a manufacturing base – Ireland today is second last in the EU for the number of manufacturing firms.

Finally on a Catholic-Protestant divide, when Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes which guaranteed rights to Protestants (Huguenots) he triggered a loss of intellectual capital because most of the Huguenots were urban dwellers who were skilled craftsmen, silversmiths, watchmakers and the like, and professional people – clergy, doctors, merchants soldiers, teachers. An estimated 10,000 came to Ireland.

Thanks. I found the link to the Irish Independent article particularly useful. It forced me to go back and look at the number of branches the various banks had in the 1920s. Bank of Ireland was by far the largest bank based on deposits but both the National and the Munster & Leinster had more branches at the time.

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