The legacy of a notorious campaign


Historian and author Tom Devine explores the events of a complex and controversial period in Scottish history to unravel their significance for today’s society.

Professor Tom Devine addressed a packed audience in the Glasgow Newman Association’s new venue in the Ogilvie Centre in Rose St for the first talk of the new session. His topic was the nature, causes and legacy of the Church of Scotland’s campaign against Irish Catholics in the 1920s and 30s, and he drew on important and intriguing source material that had not been intended be read outside the circle of those involved. It included papers from the Home Office, police and intelligence services; Church of Scotland papers in New College, Edinburgh; and private papers of some of the main actors. In addition there was ‘the dog that didn’t bark in the night’ – the absence of a response to the campaign from the Catholic hierarchy.

The nature of the campaign was made clear in the notorious 1923 report of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Nation committee On the menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality. It was, Professor Devine pointed out, a racial, not an anti- Catholic crusade. Its target was not Catholics of Scottish descent or Irish Protestant Ulster Scots. It argued for the end of Irish Catholic immigration; those in hospital, prison or living off the poor law were to be deported. The message went to highest authority in the land, to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Cabinet in London. Records show that serious consideration was given to overtures from the Kirk between 1923 and 1927. It was in no sense a uniform attack by the Church of Scotland: the decision was taken by just a few votes thanks to the influence of Dr John White of the Barony Church, convenor of the Church and Nation Committee.

The campaign was, Professor Devine said, a conundrum that could not have been anticipated before or during the Great War when relationships between Irish immigrants and the Scottish people were improving. Before 1914 the Kirk was increasingly interested in Christian socialism and criticised bad housing and unemployment. The Catholic hierarchy blessed the conflict as a just war and the Scottish Catholic Observer supported it. The role of immigrants was recognised by the (then) Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman.

Since 1872, attendance at school had been compulsory in Scotland and the Catholic Church ran its own schools. By the 1918 Education Act it was argued that they should be brought into the public school system to avoid the creation of a pariah class that was less than adequate for the labour market. Section 18 of the 1918 Act was generous: priests were allowed free access to the schools, the church had a say in the faith and morals of the teachers, and faith was important. No other country, said Professor Devine, showed such generosity to an immigrant class. Yet what was to follow in the 1920s was very different.

The first reason for the campaign against Irish Catholics was political. Bolshevism was on the march, perceived as a threat to church and faith. The Irish Free State was emerging and the Irish could be seen as foreigners. The extent to which Scotland was engaged in IRA activities was exaggerated but there was a sense of threat – Ireland was not just trying to leave the empire, but had tried to stab Britain in the back in 1916. The Church of Scotland moved to the right between 1920 and 1922, concerned at the threat from bolshevism and communism. There were tanks in George Square in 1919. When the franchise was extended to all men, 10 out of 15 MPs in the first post war election were Labour. Those of Irish descent had helped vote them in.

The attack on the Irish was based on a kind of scientific racism that saw Anglo Saxon Germanic people as superior with Gaels near the bottom of the pile. Scotland was a centre of excellence for racist thought and many intellectuals led a movement based on American sociology and anthropology which held that the ascendant race could be destroyed by an inadequate race coming in.

There is no evidence from earlier years of the Church of Scotland leading a campaign against the Irish. People like Thomas Chalmers had promoted Catholic emancipation. Evidence shows that men who survived the war lost belief in churches and there was a loss of contact with the working classes. But the Catholic Church and its church halls, many of them built in the 1890s, were important places where Catholic boys and girls would meet. Roman Catholicism was on the march; outdoor processions were rampant, and a church with a whole range of activities was a church within a state. It closed ranks against mixed marriages, looked after the poor via the St Vincent de Paul Society and ran football teams and sodalities. From the 1860s it had become attached to the cause of Irish nationalism. It could be seen not as integrated, but alien.

Social and economic factors played a part. From 1919-21 shipbuilding collapsed. The sheer loss of life between 1914 and 1918 was considerable and many of the officer classes who died were sons of the manse. With emigration and a falling population between 1921 and 1931 there was a sense that Scots were a dying race. The impact of war, the economic crisis and emigration combined to create a situation where ‘the other’ became a target.

The crusade failed, but the legacy of the campaign, argued Professor Devine, lives on. The government of the day, concerned about the reaction of other countries such as the USA,
did not accede to the demands of those who wanted the Irish repatriated. Ireland was still a dominion. A brief period of attacks on Catholics during the 1930s, most notably the anti- Catholic riots at the Eucharistic Congress in Edinburgh in 1935, horrified many ministers and elders.

When the campaign for repatriation failed its emphasis shifted to denying employment to Irish Catholics. From 1931, the question of what school you went to became the norm in job interviews. And today Scotland is the only country where Irish people settled that has an anti-sectarian policy. Is sectarianism a reality or a perception? The latter, argued professor Devine; our sectarianism came late – it was experienced in the US in the 1850s and US descendants of Irish immigrants reached economic parity by 1900. In Scotland it was not until 2000. With its campaign the Kirk had inaugurated a period of discrimination in the labour market that was only abandoned between the 1960s and 1980s, and can still be seen in indices of mortality, low income and health.

Professor Devine pointed out that the Church of Scotland apologised in 2003 but the Scottish nation has not apologised for the impact discrimination had on life chances, illness and mortality. Although the effect is wearing away now, there are people still alive who have suffered. The absence of full acknowledgement and transparency, he argued, produces among some Catholics a sense of victimhood which is based not on evidence but on rhetoric.

What dynamic would independence introduce? Catholics were deeply suspicious of nationalism in the 1960s, he said, but recent data suggests they are more likely to vote for independence or more devolution. The old enemy of the 1920s has been replaced by abrasive secularism.

Professor Tom Devine is Senior Research Professor in History and Director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.