The Protestants of Ireland are a complex community, made so by social, denominational, political, economic and geographical factors. Since the early seventeenth century, there have been tensions between, on the one hand, Church of Ireland Protestants in the south, the self-styled natural leaders of Ireland with their ties to the land and the state, and, on the other, Presbyterian-dominated Ulster with its tenant farmers, industrial character and often cantankerous disposition. Of course, this simplistic dichotomy obscures social and economic divisions within both communities and the numerically small but dynamic subculture of Protestant churches and sects that have contributed much to the development of the island. Given its often bewildering variety, historians have struggled to describe the complexity of this group.
Confessional State, Enlightenment and Rebellion, 1740–1800
Ireland in the 1740s, according to S. J. Connolly, was an ancien régime society in which religious inequalities were inseparable from social hierarchy and landownership. The dominance of the members of the established episcopal Church of Ireland was predicated on the rights of landed property, not the rights of numbers. The religious allegiance of the Irish population had been determined in the previous century by population movements rather than conversion. Three-quarters to four-fifths of the population were Catholic and though various Protestants were at certain times compelled to make common cause, Irish religious divisions were not simply binary – tensions between Protestants were as important and contributed to the remarkable events of 1798 when Presbyterian rebels in Ulster joined with Catholic insurgents in the south to overthrow in part the political, social and economic ascendancy of episcopal Protestants. The confessional divisions expressed during the Williamite wars had largely subsided by the 1740s. The Age of Reason had cooled somewhat the religious temperature of the previous century, though it was the ‘good behaviour’ of Irish Catholics during the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 that is perhaps more important. The penal laws played their part, but those against Catholic religious practice quickly entered abeyance whereas those concerned with landownership were rigorously enforced.