JONATHAN SWIFT once remarked that Ireland has enough religion to make its citizens hate, but not enough to make them love one another. Others have put it differently. "Out of Ireland I come;/ Great hatred, little room/ Maimed me from the start./ I carry from my mother's womb/ A fanatic's heart," wrote Yeats. Shaw claimed that if you "put two Irishmen in a room", you would "always be able to persuade one to roast the other on a spit".
That a gospel of love can so easily be used to legitimise political injustice or social enmity is the paradox which has torn the tattered canvas of Irish history into shreds. Familiar though we are with the biblical analogy of motes and beams, the practice of Christianity in Northern Ireland - as often perceived from mainland Britain - is something we are often tempted to condemn.
John D Brewer's excellent study on the sociological implications of four centuries of anti-Catholicism in Ireland does, however, remind the English of their historical responsibility. Similar sentiments have forged our constitutional settlement (the impossibility of a Catholic monarch, despite the claim of blood), our cultural mythology (burning the Guy on 5 November), and our national identity. Indeed, at the close of the 19th century, Britain proudly stood for three things: Protestantism, free trade and Empire. And God - as the old joke goes - was an Englishman. Surely acknowledgement of our own impaired vision is necessary before attempting to correct that of others. Professor Brewer realises this, in the spirit of the mote and the beam. It is as a (Protestant) "Christian sociologist" that he writes. Not denying the existence of anti-Protestantism, Brewer suggests persuasively that it has never "permeated the social and cultural structures of Northern Ireland so systematically". His purpose is to challenge a community's perception of itself, and thereby of their neighbours, not simply to repeat the familiar two-sided tragedy. As such, it is a partisan book - necessarily so, as it confronts ideological preconceptions on their own terms. Yet the work is infused throughout by a reticence to judge, and a firm view on the past as a prologue to future possibility rather than a window on suffered wrong. In the nervous climate of Northern Ireland's new start in 1999, such research is refreshing. Her prophets have usually been the Paisleys, unable to see the future but "through the prism of the past" and little more than the second-hand salesmen of historical myth. Brewer knows the same history, but reads it with an understand- ing that the perpetuation of "socio-ethnic tribalism" offers no future. …