Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: WHEN GOD TOOK SIDES by Marianne Elliott [Vol. 3, #9]

“Deep Below the Surface
of the Tragic Violence

A Review of
When God Took Sides:
Religion and Identity in Ireland — Unfinished History.

by Marianne Elliott.

Reviewed by Mike Bowling.

When God Took Sides:
Religion and Identity in Ireland — Unfinished History.

Marianne Elliott.
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

WHEN GOD TOOK SIDES - Marianne ElliottPersonal identity dictates who our friends are in most cases, and who we think we are contributes in a powerful way to who we list as enemies. Our friends always seem better than they really are and our enemies are never as bad as we think them to be. Apply this rationale to the last 500 years of Ireland’s history and you have the essential premise of the recently released book written by Marianne Elliott entitled When God Took Sides. Elliott, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, teaches Irish Studies at Liverpool University. As co-author of the report from the Opsahl Peace Commission in Northern Ireland (1993), she brings a wealth of experience and understanding of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Although the foundation of the book is lectures she delivered at Oxford University in 2005, Elliott’s work flows more like detailed (and well-documented) storytelling than academic analysis. She ventures deep below the surface of the tragic violence which has appeared as an ugly scar on the face of an otherwise beautiful people and place. Elliott does not settle for a simple recounting of the seemingly endless story of action and reaction, murder and revenge or blame and defend; she offers the reader an explanation of how this cycle began in Ireland, how it was perpetuated and how it continues to this day. The results are not only important for those who hope to understand existing tensions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain or the more subtle tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the Republic of Ireland, Elliott’s work provides a model for understanding other conflicts throughout the world, especially those rooted in religion.

Elliott follows a thematic format instead of the typical chronological order. For those unfamiliar with Irish history and for those with only a cursory knowledge of “the Troubles” in Ireland, the book may be hard to follow. However, if the reader keeps in mind that the purpose is not a history of religion in Ireland, “Rather it is about politicized religion and how it came to shape the identities of people in Ireland.”, then the thematic plan makes much more sense. Again, the order of the chapters could provide a model for analysis of other critical historic conflicts (i.e. India and Pakistan, the civil war in Nigeria or the tensions between Burmese and Thais).

Chapter 1 plunges the reader into the deep waters of the cultural context of Ireland’s conflict, but immediately trains our vision to see through the murky waters of multiple perspectives to see the heart of the issue…”how negative stereotypes were developed in Ireland at a time of heightened religious conflict and political upheaval; how they were perpetuated and entrenched; and how they defined communal world-views and determined political outcomes.” (p.4) Elliott helps us to see the visible events of terrorism and highly publicized occasions of hate crimes as the culmination of thousands of invisible occurrences of small slights which fester and spread over time; her book is about “nastiness and pettiness, rather than murderousness” (p.18, 19).

The fusion of Irish nationalism and Catholicism dominates Chapter 2. The importance of this story of cultural evolution is made clear in the following quote: “I see Irish nationalism as another form of religion in disguise, one of the many ethno-religious nationalisms which have come to remind the modern world of the coming force of religious-based identities.” (p.21) To be truly Irish meant one had to be Catholic; the purity of this doctrine extended to even those who championed Ireland’s most important causes before her oppressor…England. Even Jonathan Swift, highly praised for his outspoken sermons against England and his scandalous prose was in the end just a sympathetic Englishman, because he was after all was said and done a Protestant. (p.45) One does not have to look far to see this type of cultural phenomenon at work in other troubled spots around the globe.

Chapters 3 and 4 outline Irish Protestant identity and its formation as defiance against the Roman Catholic Church and the system of “popery” and lays the historical groundwork for seeing Ireland’s push for Home Rule as nothing more than an example of the Catholics attempt to suppress Protestantism. (p.94) Elliott demonstrates how the internal conflicts within Protestantism (like the resentment of most denominations to the Church of Ireland’s claim to be “the Established Church of Ireland”) may have contributed to the intensity of the problems between Catholics and Protestants. These observations by the author may contribute to our understanding the ways internal divisions in Islam ramp up conflicts with other religious expressions.

Chapter 5 teases out the important differences between the Protestants of Northern Ireland and their southern counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. The chapter concentrates on the “Outlanders” of the north. Perhaps the most interesting story here is that concerning the enigmatic Protestant, Ian Paisley. He typifies the anti-Catholic sentiment inherent in fundamentalist Presbyterianism which dominates Ulster Protestantism.

The twin conditions of persecution and poverty are the subjects of chapters 6 and 7. These are the powerful forces which can shape an identity. The discussion of persecution revolves around the fair and unfair remembrance of the Penal Laws enacted by the British against Irish Catholics during the late 17th century until the middle of the 18th century. The Penal Laws prevented Catholics from purchasing land or acquiring leases longer than 31 years. (p.163) I must say the author’s attempt to minimize the real impact on Catholic people struck me as very suspicious. However, her treatment of Protestant and Catholic perspectives on the causes and the effects of poverty were captivating. Not only did the two differ on the causes, they differed greatly in their responses.

Chapter 8 brings the story up to date and profiles the two religious minorities of the divided and partitioned Ireland…the Protestants of the Republic and the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Their stories help the reader to see the present state of unresolved conflicts. From personal observation during multiple visits over the last 10 years and from conversations with friends who are there (both Protestant and Catholic), I find Elliott’s assessment to be reasonably even-handed.

The Afterword contains some not so veiled recriminations for Catholic clerics and recognition that the current situation remains in flux as both the power structures of Protestants and Catholics are in retreat. Only time will tell what effect secularization will have on Irish identity.

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities
and the life of the church." 

-Karen Swallow Prior

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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