Catholic whisper enough to drown Calvin's legacy

Divorce referendum: Ireland awaits today's declaration of the people's verdict on a campaign to loosen marital ties
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The Independent Online
ALAN MURDOCH

Portarlington, County Laois

The electoral register in yesterday's divorce referendum was not alone in showing Portarlington has a past different to other provincial towns.

Gravestones and Great War plaques feature family names such as Blanc, Champ, LaCombre and Tabuteau, highlighting the legacy of an earlier conflict. French Huguenots and their descendants, refugees from persecution at home who fled to Holland and joined the army of William of Orange, settled here in the 1690s.

Their leader, the Marquis de Revignie, "went native" as "The Earl of Galway". Thus was born a curious enclave of French Calvinism in the heart of Catholic Ireland.

Inside "the French" church of St Paul's in the town, built first by Huguenots in 1696, Church of Ireland minister, the Reverend Scott Peoples, pauses before commenting on 5 per cent Protestant population in the vicinity.

He is wary of Irish party leaders' warnings this week that a "majoritarian" imposition of Catholic views on divorce on religious minorities in the Republic will send dangerous signals to Northern Ireland Unionists, at a time when Dublin is seeking the political accommodation of a Catholic nationalist minority there.

"I'm not so concerned by that, because the community we're in has to express the beliefs it holds ..."

Like many he recognises that arguments, while intense, have been more controlled than during the 1986 referendum. Religious affiliation locally, he suggests, is now less significant than social distinctions.

In the neat town centre with its 18th century stone houses, the referendum seems muted. What little propaganda is visible is all against divorce. In the main street is a solitary "scare" poster, warning "You Will Pay!" 10 per cent higher tax if the divorce ban is lifted. The opponents of divorce are speaking rather than shouting.

In her stationery shop Vera McLaughlin explains. "People here are very set in their ways. There are a lot of No voters around. What it is is people are afraid of an 'explosion'. But if it is not passed it will be another 20 or 30 years before it can be raised again."

"In a whispered voice, she adds ruefully, "we will seem awful backward if it is lost."

Ronnie and Jack Matthews, who run a busy cafe in the town, have Huguenot connections which include three Blancs married into the family. Despite expectations of a "No" victory, Ronnie suggests that polls being open until 10pm on a Friday could be significant in allowing Ireland's weekend migration of tens of thousands of students to be in home towns in time to cast their mainly liberal votes. "That was a clever stroke by someone," he says.

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