Patsy McGarry. . . In a Word

Most of us would happily have exchanged places with our classmate the Protestant

 

I’ve always had a soft spot for Protestants. It helped that one of our better-known neighbours in north Roscommon had been Douglas Hyde, first president of Ireland, founder of the Gaelic League and Protestant.

A hugely influential figure in cultural events that led to this State, he has been woefully neglected. However Forgotten Patriot, a new biography by historian Dr Brian Murphy, should help rectify that.

When I was growing up there were still a few Protestant small farmers in the area. All were “well got” with their Catholic neighbours. And, nearly everyone there at the time was Catholic.

One local Protestant man lived in the old Glebe house that had originally belonged to Hyde’s father. This man had been a Royal Air Force pilot during the second World War and seemed every bit as heroic as David Niven in The Guns of Navarone.

Protestants were so rare back then that there was just one such family in Ballaghaderreen: the local GP, his wife and kids. Their son used sit beside me in the De La Salle Brothers’ primary school.

He was quiet and studious and so mannerly I could not believe he was destined for hell no matter what he did in this life. In fact he was the best behaved of all of us in our class.

To add to this rare quality, he was excused all prayers and catechism classes. Most of us would happily have exchanged places with him even at the risk of hellfire but we knew none of us could be as pleasant and polite. Ever.

It was his good character, as with those other Protestants I got to know as a boy, that set me on the road to perdition. They sowed the first seeds of doubt in my young mind.

I could not believe such people were going to hell even as the most drunken, violent but Catholic layabout among us was knocking at heaven’s door, St Peter at the ready. I was not convinced.

On this day, the date of Martin Luther’s death in 1546, I salute those gentle Protestants of my childhood in the west.

Protestant from German or French protestant, from Latin protestantem, “to bear public witness”. Derived from a letter of protestantation by six German Lutheran princes in 1529 against an edict condemning the teachings of Luther.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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