The Huguenots in Ireland

The Huguenots had a substantial impact on Irish culture

The Huguenots were French Protestants or, to be more precise, French Calvinists or Presbyterians. Although the Reformation began in Germany after Martin Luther nailed his famous theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, the second major reformer Jean Calvin (usually referred to as John in English) was from northern France.

The form of strongly democratic church organisation developed by Calvin, based on the principle of electing elders to govern each flock, strengthened the independence of individual churches and helped them to survive in perilous times. The Calvinist churches spread widely, putting down strong roots in Scotland and later in Ireland, where the new religion was called ‘Presbyterian’ after its style of government.

Religious wars in France

Persecution of the Huguenots in France began in earnest after the 1560 conspiracy of Amboise. A considerable number of noble families converted from Catholicism and the country was torn apart by religious wars between Catholics and Protestants until 1598 and the Edict of Nantes. The edict was granted by King Henri IV (born a Protestant but strategically converted to Catholicism) to ensure freedom of worship and a legal existence for his Protestant subjects.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

Things changed inexorably after 1660 with the personal reign of Louis XIV, the most powerful of all French kings. Louis was determined to promote national unity by imposing Catholicism as the state’s single religion. More and more measures were taken to harass the Huguenots, culminating in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Thereafter, there was only one legal religion in France, and all former Protestants were deemed to be Catholics, liable to severe punishment if they did not observe the rites and ceremonies of that faith.

Thousands of Protestants preferred exile to abandoning their religion (modern estimates suggest around 200,000, though reliable statistics are not available for such an early period) and French Huguenots fled all over the world—to Prussia (now part of Germany), Switzerland, Holland, North America, South Africa and, of course, Britain and Ireland.

The persecution of the Huguenots in France in some ways mirrors the sufferings of Irish Catholics. This is not merely a modern perception as illustrated by Abbé Prevost’s novel, Le Doyen de Killerine (translated in 1741 as The Dean of Coleraine). In the book, two sets of families—one Catholic from the north of Ireland and one Huguenot from France—decide to go into exile, meeting by chance at Dunkirk. Deploring their respective fates, they end up exchanging their properties.

The Huguenots and the British Isles
Small waves of French Protestant immigrants had arrived in Ireland as early as the reign of Elizabeth I. Then in 1662, following the restoration of Charles II, the Irish Parliament passed a law to encourage the immigration of French Protestants. In 1674 they were also given the right of naturalisation and free entry for seven years into corporations (a mixture between professional organisations and trade unions).

However, there was a proviso that would later cause problems for some: to gain these advantages, French Huguenots had to accept the Oath of Supremacy, allying to the Church of Ireland. For Protestants who regarded bishops with suspicion, this was not always easy. In the first few decades of the eighteenth century in particular, the French Protestant community in Ireland was split between conforming and non-conforming congregations.

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 coincided, of course, with the accession to the British throne of James II, a Catholic determined to restore his religion in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. But James was ousted from the throne in 1688 and the Irish parliament abrogated the Oath of Supremacy, assuring that all Protestants would be able to practice their religion freely. Several thousand French Protestant refugees arrived in Ireland, mainly in Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford and Portarlington, but also in Lisburn.

The Huguenots in Ireland

The story of the Huguenots in eighteenth century Ireland is one of a group exercising influence beyond their numbers. To some extent, this influence was cultural. Just one example is that of the pastor Jean-Pierre Droz, who lived in Ireland from 1737 until his death in 1751, and who founded the first literary magazine, A Literary Journal. He was also an influential printer and importer of books.

In the north of Ireland, the Huguenots were mainly an economic influence and are above all credited with the development of the linen industry, having brought from France new skills and techniques. However, this interpretation, as explained in the ensuing ‘Huguenots in Lisburn’ essay, is probably quite wrong.

Like most exiled communities, the Huguenots in Ireland tried to maintain their traditions and language, but as time went on they became increasingly integrated and the language withered, its last speakers dying out in the early 1800s.

By Graham Gargett, professor of French culture and ideas at the University of Ulster, Coleraine campus.