During the 1890s evangelical Protestants took to preaching on the streets in southern Irish towns and cities. They provoked an angry response, with large Catholic crowds gathering to protest at their activities. This created a difficult situation for the authorities. Obliged, on the one hand, to protect the rights and liberties of the preachers, they also looked to nurture behaviour appropriate to the sectarian realities in Ireland. At stake was the extent to which Ireland could be treated as an undifferentiated part of the United Kingdom, with W. E. H. Lecky increasingly recognizing the need for a different legal basis in Ireland. These events formed part of the wider evolution of ‘constructive unionism’. More broadly, respectable Irish Protestant and Catholic disapproval of preachers and the ‘mob’ revealed the way in which class attitudes cut across sectarian identities, suggesting that the political dividends paid the wider unionist movement by this exposure of the apparent realities of ‘Rome rule’ were little valued in the locale. Similarly, interventions by home rule politicians reinforced the sense that conciliating British public opinion was a central concern. Here was an example of how locally orientated sectarianism helped shape national political agendas.
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