On Protestant Life Expectancy and Lazy Journalism.


Thoughts on the pathological resistance to discussions of class inequality in Ireland.

So an article has been doing the rounds in the past few days with a pretty eye-catching title. A new study from the CSO, it tells us, has supported the view that Irish Protestants live longer, or at least die less often, than their Catholic countrymen. Reading on, we are informed that for every 100,000 Protestants 563 will die in a given year, whereas 660 Catholics will pass on in the same period. Given that there are only about a 150,000 Protestants in the state, we can presumably assume that 563 is pretty close to the actual number who died, not a bad statistic for a group with a traditionally lower birth rate and higher average age than the general population, and more evidence that the stale old decline narrative is fast becoming obsolete. It could easily be a statistical anomaly given the hugely disproportionate populations under study, but basically good news I suppose?

But then things take a strange turn.

Experts, we are informed, have a few explanations for this. Perhaps, muses highly respected historian Roy Foster, it is because of Protestants’ famous expertise at ‘keeping themselves warm in cold houses’. Because, presumably, we all live in draughty ancestral piles, tending the fire with bundles of estate records and wrapping ourselves up in mildewy curtains torn from our four poster beds. Interesting. Or, as equally eminent historian Ida Milne speculates, it is because of our famous frugality and our tendency not to overeat. The famous Protestant tray bake, she assures us, is not a common cause of early death because we tend not to eat them all by ourselves. Perhaps it is also because of our famous love of Badminton. Or maybe it has something to do with keeping toasters in cupboards.


So far, so stereotypical. To be clear, I am not complaining about what either of these excellent historians managed to come up with off the top of their heads in reply to an e-mail from someone at the IT in a quick break from much more important work. I can imagine that they are well used to getting called into comment on anything categorised as within their wheelhouse at this point and probably just have a stock reply in a word document somewhere that they copy-paste in. ‘Probably something about work ethic, no I don’t know why we’re not fat from eating so many cakes, no I don’t know if it’s true that we tend to be honest, yes we are usually very modest, kind regards, a chara etc.’ It is, honestly, strange to me that Ireland’s supposed paper of record couldn’t really come up with anything more substantial to say about this issue than a reiteration of tired, albeit positive, clichés. All the same, what else is there to say? Is there any deeper meaning behind what, as I said, could easily be just a statistical anomaly? The difference is so small, after all, that an unfortunate fire in a Freemason Hall could easily have tipped the balance the other way, and it’s perfectly likely that the statistics would not bear out over a longer period of time.

But then we come to the section of the article where it answers its own question.

Because the other strong indicator of life expectancy in Ireland is, surprise surprise, class. People in the professions and those living in affluent areas can expect a full five further years of life than those in the most deprived areas of the country. Your economic situation is a strong determinant of how long you will live, and most shockingly of all those living in council homes have a mortality rate a full 59% higher than those who own their own homes. Now to be clear, there are now and have always been Protestants among every social class in Ireland, from the poorest to the richest. The traditional image may still be the middle class suburb or the fading country mansion, but Protestants live all over this country in the widest possible variety of circumstances. However, it is an undeniable fact that a lower proportion of Protestants in the Republic are poor. This can partly be blamed on the mass exodus, for a variety of reasons, of Dublin’s historic Protestant working class in the decades before and after independence. It must also be acknowledged that this is rooted in the historic advantages that Protestants experienced under British rule in both legal rights and in their ability to access charity which was so often organised along sectarian lines. This is all part of the colonial legacy, and while those forms of discrimination have thankfully passed into history their long term effect is that proportionally less Protestants are poor, which means that proportionally Protestants will have a longer life expectancy because the poor have a lower one. It really is that simple, and I can guarantee that a study of Protestants and Catholics that was controlled for economic circumstances would illustrate that no amount of frugality or tray bakes will protect anyone from the harmful effects of poverty in a state that continues to suffer from severe shortfall in both compassion and vision when it comes to issues of social justice.

So why, when the real determinant of mortality rate is so obvious from the data, would the writer of this article choose to lead with a misleading, BuzzFeed-esque non-point about one kind of Christian living longer than another? Why do bland observations about frugality and tray bakes from people with better things to be doing take up most of this article when the real story is buried in the last paragraph? There is a wealth of scholarly research out there on the correlation between poverty and life expectancy. In the midst of the housing crisis when the government appears to have nothing better to offer than more rentals in smaller spaces, the clear connection between security of tenure (which doesn’t always have to mean home ownership) and a person’s health is surely worth highlighting.

It has long been observed that Irish people tend to characterise their society as in some way classless, even as it is demonstrated time and again that class is the single greatest determinant of outcome in our state, and one that we still have so much trouble talking about seriously. When Senator Lynne Ruane, one of the most eloquent and coherent speakers on the issue of class in the country, questioned Leo Varadkar about the issue of class as a determinant of outcome, he started talking about the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge (it’s almost as if he has no understanding of how class effects the lives of those who are not born into privilege, I wonder why). When our politicians are primarily private school educated children of immense privilege (the previous Fine Gael leadership contest pitted a son of King’s Hospital against a product of that salt-of-the earth stronghold Clongowes) who seem utterly flabbergasted by the mere suggestion that their success might have something to do with the huge amounts of financial and social capital put into ensuring their success by others, it is vital that journalists take every opportunity to highlight the determining effect of the accidents that are our births on so much of what occurs after. It is too easy to fall back on talking about religion as a code for social class, which is really what this article does. We have to move past speaking in metaphors and codes.

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