Changing distribution of Protestants in Ireland, 1861 - 1991 BACK

The population dynamics of Ireland are extremely complex and interesting, and the distribution of Protestants on the island is certainly no exception. Here we will look at the changing distribution of Protestants in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland between the years 1861 and 1991.

Protestant Decline in the Republic of Ireland
Future Protestant Recovery in the Irish Republic
Protestant Distribution in Northern Ireland


The Protestant Decline in the Republic of Ireland

In 1991, the population of the Republic of Ireland was approximately 3% Protestant, but the figure was over 10% in 1891, indicating a fall of 70% in the relative Protestant population over the past century. This trend is depicted by the following graph [see Appendix A for figures and source]:

Declining Irish Republic Protestant Population, 1891 - 1991 [7kB]

A number of observations can be made from these figures concerning the Protestant population in the Irish Republic:

  • The relative Protestant population was more or less constant in the period 1891 to 1911.
  • The relative Protestant population fell sharply (by over 30%) between 1911 to 1926.
  • The relative Protestant population has been declining at a more or less constant rate since 1926.

These effects have a number of causes:

  • In the period 1911 to 1921, the Home Rule movement was gaining momentum, and it began to be clear to Irish people that Home Rule was indeed going to be granted and that the resulting country would have a Republican government. Many of the Protestants living far from Ulster decided to remain, but in border areas many Protestants decided that it was worth moving house so that when Home Rule took place they would be in part which did not get Home Rule (today's Northern Ireland). This is what the majority of the Protestant reduction between 1911 and 1926 can be attributed to. This movement of Protestants out of the Irish Free State (as the Republic was known in 1921) continued after the independence also.
  • In the border counties (Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth), there were instances of Protestants being intimidated by more extreme neighbours and groups, most notably the IRA. There are records of Protestant farmers in these areas being attacked. Many of these Protestants responded by leaving their homes and moving across the border into Northern Ireland. This also contributed to the Protestant decline between 1911 and 1926.
  • In the Republic of Ireland, since 1926, there has been a constant pattern of Protestants marrying Catholics. In most counties (exceptions being Cork, Dublin and the border counties) there were insufficent Protestants to enable most Protestants to realistically marry another Protestant, so most married Catholics. Until recently, the Roman Catholic church had a rule that the children of mixed-marriages had to be brought up Catholic. Therefore, in Catholic-Protestant marriages the Protestant faith would die out after one generation. This is the main cause of the constantly declining Protestant populationsince 1926. (Historically, the action in Irish Catholic-Protestant marriages was for the girls to be brought up with the mother's religion, and the boys with the father's. This traditional Irish pattern was destroyed when the Vatican introduced the aforementioned rule early in the 20th century causing all children to be brought up Catholic.)
  • Until recently, there was discrimination against Protestants in the labour market of the Republic of Ireland. For example, Trinity College, although a Dublin University, was mainly attended by Protestants. (Even today it is a stronghold of Irish Unionism.) In many jobs, Trinity College was not accepted as a source of education, so applicants who had attended Trinity were automatically rejected. This had the effect of preventing most Protestants from applying for the jobs. There are other, more specific, cases of discrimination. For example county Clare library service was told by the Irish President, Eamonn de Valera, that it should employ a Catholic chief librarian. This discrimination meant that many Irish Protestants had to migrate to Northern Ireland or Britain to seek employment. This also contributed to the trend between 1926 and 1991.

The following map shows how the distribution of Ireland's Protestants changed in the 130 year period from 1861. The effect of Protestant depopulation in the Republic of Ireland is dramatic. In 1861 only the west coast and Kilkenny had less than 6% Protestant. Dublin and 2 of the border counties had over 20% Protestant. In 1991, however, all but 4 counties have less than 6% Protestant, the rest having less than 11%. There are no counties in the Irish Republic which have experienced a rise in the relative Protestant population over the period 1861 to 1991. Often, the counties which have managed to retain the highest proportion of Protestants are the ones which started off with a large proportion. In Northern Ireland, only counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Armagh have experienced a significant loss of relative Protestant population - and int hese cases the change is not as dramatic as in the Republic. See below for a detailed treatment of Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Protestants in Ireland 1861 and 1991: Map [14kB]

If you wish to see exact figures, the table below shows the proportion of Protestants in selected counties in 1861 and 1991 and the change that this represents in the period.

COUNTY 1861 1991 Change
Dublin 27.2% 3.2% Down 82%
Monaghan 26.6% 8.6% Down 68%
Donegal 24.9% 9.5% Down 62%
Cork 8.2% 2.6% Down 68%
Kilkenny 5.1% 2.5% Down 51%
Kerry 3.3% 1.4% Down 58%
Mayo 3.2% 1.0% Down 69%


Future Protestant Recovery in the Irish Republic

If the current trend were to continue at the same rate, there would be no Protestants in the Republic of Ireland by 2042. However there is evidence from the decade following the last census in 1991 that Protestantism in the Irish Republic may finally be making a recovery. This is based on several observations:

  • The Catholic church recently dropped the requirement that the children of Catholic-Protestant marriages be brought up Catholic. Since much of the Protestant decline has been attributed to this rule, this abolition may well stem the Protestant decline.
  • The Republic of Ireland is becoming much more liberal, and has recently been removing the Catholic church from the special position it once enjoyed in the country. This will inevitably reduce discrimination against Protestants, helping to stem the flow of Irish Protestants out of the Republic to the United Kingdom.
  • In the past decade, the Methodist church [a Protestant denomination] has reported that its membership in county Dublin has increased for the first time in over a century. This is apparently due mainly to Catholics converting to Protestantism.
  • The Irish Catholic church has recently been plagued by scandals involving the abuse of children, and this caused a significant backlash against the church by some of its members who either stopped attending church or began attending Protestant churches. This has been a catalyst to the recent growth of Protestantism in the Dublin area.

The conclusion would seem to be, therefore, that the Protestant population decline in the Republic of Ireland may halt within a decade or two.


Protestant Distribution in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is home to the vast majority of Irish Protestants - around 90%. In fact, that is the reason Northern Ireland exists in the first place. The map below shows the distribution of Protestants in Northern Ireland in 1991.

Protestants in Northern Ireland 1991: Map [11kB]

Although it seems that about 2/3 of the province is Catholic, most of the blue areas are rural areas with a low population density, the only significant exception being Derry city in the northwest. Most of the population is concentrated in south county Antrim, Belfast, the Lagan valley and northern county Down. It is also in these areas that most Protestants are concentrated, explaining why almost a million of Northern Ireland's 1.5 million people are Protestant. The most heavily Protestant areas are the area north of Belfast Lough, east Belfast, North Down, central Antrim and the Ards Peninsula. Today, only counties Antrim and Down have a majority Protestant population (71% and 67% respectively) although it is worth noting that these counties also house 2/3 of Northern Ireland's population. County Tyrone is the least Protestant, at 38.7%, although this is still far in excess of the 9.5% in nearby county Donegal.

We can study the population level in much more detail by looking at the 26 Local Government Districts rather than counties. We have included below some of the figures for selected districts: (The full list of figures can be found in Appendix B.)

Derry 27.4%
Omagh 33.2%
Fermanagh 43.3%
Limavady 44.9%
Belfast 58.0%
Lisburn 71.4%
Ballymena 80.9%
North Down 90.3%
Carrickfergus 92.4%

The map in the previous section, comparing the Protestant population in Ireland in 1861 and 1991, can also be used to show approximate traits in Northern Ireland. It indicates that Protestants have been leaving counties Tyrone, Londonderry and Armagh. However, the level in Antrim, Down and Fermanagh has remained much more constant. Fermanagh is unusual in that it is a relative stronghold of Protestantism surrounded by less Protestant areas. This is one reason why Fermanagh always returns a Unionist MP to Parliament despite being the most westerly county in Northern Ireland. Also note that no county has actually gained a relative Protestant population, although the level in some of the Local Government Districts in north Down and south Antrim may have increased.

Here we compare the proportion of Protestants in Northern Ireland counties in 1861 and 1991. The 1861 figures are official Census figures, whereas the 1991 figures are derived from district council Census figures and are thus not quite as accurate. However, the expectation is that they are not more than 1 point away from the true value.

COUNTY 1861 1991
Antrim 75.2% 71.4%
Armagh 51.2% 44.4%
Down 67.5% 67.3%
Fermanagh 43.5% 43.3%
Londonderry 54.7% 43.4%
Tyrone 43.5% 38.7%

The future of the demographics of Northern Ireland are the subject of ongoing debate,made more difficult by the fact that many people have political interests in the subject. Around 1990, indications strongly suggested that the Catholic population was rising at a higher rate than the Protestant population, and that the two would be equal within a few decades. This was attributed to the Catholic church's misgivings about contraceptives. However, a study of primary schools in Tyrone around 1998 indicated that the Protestant population there was rising at least as fast as the Catholic population, indicating that the Catholic-Protestant ratio would stay as it is now.

The 2001 census is eagerly awaited.


Appendix A: Figures for the Catholic and Protestant population in the Republic of Ireland, 1891 to 1991. For dates prior to 1926, the figures are derived from the figures for the 26 counties that later constituted the Republic of Ireland. Source: 1991 Census for the Republic of Ireland, book 5: Religion.
Year Total Catholics Protestants Others* % Catholic % Protestant
1891 3,468,694 3,099,003 356,786 12,905 89.34% 10.29%
1901 3,221,823 2,878,271 328,850 14,702 89.34% 10.21%
1911 3,139,688 2,812,509 311,461 15,718 89.58% 9.92%
1926 2,971,992 2,751,269 207,307 13,416 92.57% 6.98%
1936 2,968,420 2,773,920 182,746 11,754 93.45% 6.16%
1946 2,955,107 2,786,033 157,054 12,020 94.28% 5.31%
1961 2,818,341 2,673,473 129,644 15,224 94.86% 4.60%
1971 2,978,248 2,795,666 119,437 63,145 93.87% 4.01%
1981 3,443,405 3,204,476 115,411 123,518 93.06% 3.35%
1991 3,525,719 3,228,327 107,423 189,969 91.57% 3.05%

*'Others' includes Jews, Athiests, other religions and those who did not answer the census question. Approximately 40% of the 'Others' figure is made up of Athiests. The 'others' figure seems to rise so much, because people were historically not prepared to state Athiesm as their religion, whereas they are more inclined to do so now.

Appendix B: Figures for the Catholic and Protestant population in Northern Ireland Local Government Districts, 1991. Source: "Demographic Review Northern Ireland 1995", Compton, ISBN 1-897614-187.
Name Total Catholics Protestants Protestant %
Antrim 44500 15300 29200 65.62%
Ards 64800 7900 56900 87.81%
Armagh 51800 24500 27300 52.70%
Ballymena 56600 10800 45800 80.92%
Ballymoney 24200 7600 16600 68.60%
Banbridge 33500 9900 23600 70.45%
Belfast 279200 117200 162000 58.02%
Carrickfergus 32700 2500 30200 92.35%
Castlereagh 60800 6200 54600 89.80%
Coleraine 50400 12000 38400 76.19%
Cookstown 31100 17200 13900 44.69%
Craigavon 75000 32500 42500 56.67%
Derry 95400 69300 26100 27.36%
Down 58000 35000 23000 39.66%
Dungannon 45400 26300 19100 42.07%
Fermanagh 54000 30600 23400 43.33%
Larne 29400 7000 22400 76.19%
Limavady 29600 16300 13300 44.93%
Lisburn 99500 28500 71000 71.36%
Magherafelt 36300 22300 14000 38.57%
Moyle 14800 8100 6700 45.27%
Newry & Mourne 83000 63900 19100 23.01%
Newtownabbey 74000 10400 63600 85.95%
North Down 71900 7000 64900 90.26%
Omagh 45800 30600 15200 33.19%
Strabane 36100 23000 13100 36.29%

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