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The Religious Affiliation of Irish Playwright and Novelist
Samuel Beckett


Influential novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett was a Protestant. He was a member of the Church of Ireland, which is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion. Technically, Beckett was indeed an Anglican, although it was common for members of the Church of Ireland to be called "Protestants" rather than Anglicans - thus distinguishing them from the Catholics of Ireland and also from the Anglicans of England.

From: Tim Conley, "Beckett Biography", written 15 March 2001, posted on "The Modern World" website (http://www.themodernword.com/beckett/beckett_biography.html; viewed 24 October 2005):

...a case of pneumonia... afflicted, William (Bill) Beckett, Jr. was sent to Adelaide Hospital, Dublin, at the turn of the century and was nursed there by a strong-minded woman named Maria (May) Roe. They married in a Protestant ceremony in 1901, and would together raise two sons with four years between them, Frank and Sam [Samuel Beckett]...
From: Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, HarperCollins (1997); chapter 1 posted on the The New York Times website, (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/c/cronin-beckett.html; viewed 24 October 2005):
...Samuel Beckett [claimed] to have been born on Good Friday, 13 April 1906...

The idea that he had been born on Good Friday, the day of the Saviour's crucifixion, pleased him, more especially since Good Friday happened in 1906 to have been Friday the thirteenth. What better birth-date could there be for someone so conscious of the suffering which underlies human existence; and conscious also that misfortune, in comic or tragic guise, awaited every venture and departure? In a late work, Company, which is highly autobiographical, the coincidence of his birth-date with the day of the Saviour's death is emphasized. 'You were born on an Easter Friday after long labour...' And: 'You first saw the light and cried at the close of the day when in darkness Christ at the ninth hour cried and died.' Not only was Beckett pleased with the Christ connection involved in having been born on a Good Friday, but he was never averse to introducing analogies and comparisons between Christ's life-story and those of his degraded characters.

...In later life Beckett was fond of the verse in the Book of Job, verse 3, chapter 3, 'Let the day perish in which I was born and the night in which it was said, there is a man child conceived.' Mr Tyler in the radio play All That Fall apologizes for cursing, in the presence of a lady, God and man and 'the wet Saturday afternoon' of his conception, while Neary, in the novel Murphy, curses first the day he was born, 'and then, in a bold flashback, the night he was conceived'.

...The Becketts were prosperous people and the house in which the birth took place reflected that prosperity... The Becketts vaguely supposed themselves to be descended from Huguenot refugees who had come to Ireland from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, fleeing their homeland to escape persecution as Protestants and settling in a country where persecution of Catholics was just about to begin on a systematic scale. The Huguenots had supplied Ireland with much of its industrial and business energy, bringing with them a knowledge of the linen and poplin trades as well as of banking; and they fitted in easily enough in a country which was in process of transition after the Williamite Wars a place where much was in the melting-pot and most business activity represented a new departure. Within a generation or two the Huguenots generally were as happy to forget their French origins as many other members of the land-owning and business classes were to forget their English; and by the early twentieth century no trace or definite knowledge of a former French connection remained. Samuel Beckett's adoption of France as his homeland would have nothing to do with the French origins of his family: and in fact there is doubt that the Becketts really were Huguenots. The name does not occur in early listings of Huguenot refugees and is not commonly regarded by historians of the Huguenot influx as a likely Huguenot one. The suggestion has therefore also been made that the Irish Becketts were of Norman origin, and those who like aristocratic lineages for their heroes have even claimed that Samuel Beckett's family were descended from the family of Thomas a Becket, the turbulent priest who was Henry II's Archbishop of Canterbury. What makes the Huguenot connection the more likely is that originally the Becketts were silk- and poplin-weavers, a form of manufacture in which Huguenots certainly engaged, and in fact William Beckett senior's father, Samuel's great-grandfather, James Beckett, had been in the silk-weaving business. By the time his son entered the building trade, Irish silk-weaving, which had once been important, was dying out...

...[William Beckett (or "Willie"), who would become the father of Samuel Beckett] fell in love; and unfortunately with a Catholic -- the seventeen-year-old daughter of William Martin Murphy, the most successful Catholic businessman in Dublin, owner of newspapers, the tramway company and much else, whom he had met at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, one of the few places where Catholics and Protestants could meet socially. There was talk of marriage and both sides were appalled, the Catholic Murphys even more than the Protestant Becketts. The girl was forbidden to see any more of him and was forced to make a solemn renunciation at her mother's death-bed, the death itself occurring at just the right moment to induce a sense of guilt and transgression. Then, apparently almost before she had time to breathe, let alone weep, she was married off to a distinguished Dublin surgeon, Sir Arthur Chance, a widower with children who happened to be a knight as well as a Catholic and was not only much older than her, but considerably older than Bill Beckett as well: in short, a good match...

[Later William Beckett married Marie Roe ("May"), a nurse he met when he was laid up in the hospital.]

The Roes had been in Ireland since 1641, before the Cromwellian invasion, and had once been considerable land-owners in County Tipperary... She [May Roe] had been educated at the Moravian Mission School, Gracehill, outside Ballymena, County Antrim, which does not mean that either the Roes or the Belases were necessarily of the Moravian persuasion. Gracehill had been the first boarding school for girls in Ireland. The Moravians were known as good, thorough-going educators. Low Church Protestantism -- which virtually all Irish Protestantism was -- would have little difficulty with their non-doctrinal approach. And in any case their doctrines, such as they are, conform to the mayor Protestant confessions... Bill Beckett and May Roe were married according to the rites of the Church of Ireland on 31 August 1901.

Bill's degree of prosperity as a young man of thirty is indicated by the fact that he immediately set about building a substantial new home in the most fashionable suburb of Dublin. Obviously he was good at his job, but he also had family connections; and in truth it was not easy for a Protestant with a good start to fail in business or the professions at the time.

At the turn of the century the grip of the Protestant element on business and professional activity in Dublin was still very strong, though for a long while now they had been conscious of a challenge from upwardly mobile Catholics. This supremacy was largely maintained through the Freemasons and other mutual aid societies. An approach from one mason to another was a recognized way of landing a contract or getting a job or even a bank loan and it was utilized to the full. The Catholics too had their mutual aid societies, such as the Knights of Columbanus, but the masons, with headquarters in a splendid building in Molesworth Street, not far from Bill Beckett's office, still reigned supreme. Both Bill Beckett and his father were masons; and Bill made use of his membership of the order to an extent which his old master Pannister considered to be scandalous, refusing to speak to him because of it.

Like the aristocracy, the Protestant business community of the towns and cities looked down on Catholics as, in general, rather feckless, lazy and dishonest. A sort of right to ownership and control of business as a prerogative of greater thrift and industry, never mind the favour of Providence, was widely assumed. Except perhaps perforce as employers, and to some extent as manufacturers or shopkeepers, they took care to have very little contact with Catholics; and the aim of many Protestant business people as employers was as far as possible to recruit their clerical staff and work force from among their co-religionists. There were then many thousands of lower-middle-class Protestants from among whom to recruit and even a relatively smaller number of working class, of which number John Casey, or Sean O'Casey, was one. Socially too they kept their distance as far as possible. It was a boast among the denizens of Foxrock, the suburb in which the newly married couple were about to live, that one could pass one's day without speaking to any Catholic other than the railway company's employees. As Vivian Mercier has put it:

The males and some of the females of the typical Protestant family took the train every weekday to office, school or university in Dublin. In all these places they were likely to be associating almost exclusively with fellow Protestants. The females who stayed at home spent their leisure time with other Protestant ladies, though their maids and gardeners were usually Catholic. If one preferred to think of oneself as English there was really no reason not to.

But to call this class Anglo-Irish and to lump it in with the Protestant land-owning aristocracy -- the class to which Yeats affected to belong and to which J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory actually did -- is to create considerable confusions. Of course, the two sometimes overlapped: Bernard Shaw's father was, rather in the pattern of Samuel Roe, an unsuccessful Dublin corn merchant who had a bit of land with tenants on it -- as John Butler Yeats, a member of the Protestant professional middle class, also had -- and therefore had pretensions to gentility... Anglo-Irish is a misnomer also because in fact the Protestant Dublin middle classes probably looked to England less often and with less social anxieties than did their landed co-religionists... As befitted a bourgeoisie the outlook of the Protestant middle class was far more scrupulous, honest and industrious, less eccentric and also less centred on the Vice Regal Court in Dublin Castle with its multifarious snobberies and its petty pretensions...

And there was another reason why the term Anglo-Irish for members of the Protestant middle class is misleading. By comparison with Anglicanism the Church of Ireland was a Low Church and had been since Cromwell. But the incumbents of city parishes were expected to be even lower in their practices and their disdain for ritual than their country colleagues and were more jealously examined for traces of Romanism in their ritual or dogma. O'Casey has brilliantly described the violence and obloquy that was visited on the incumbent of an East Wall parish who was adjudged too Anglican in his practices. For the middle class the Bible was the supreme guide and test of religious belief; and in many middle-class homes it was the only reading matter encouraged...

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Webpage created 24 October 2005. Last modified 24 October 2005.
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