Devotional Revolution

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Devotional Revolution

In a 1972 article the historian Emmet Larkin argued that in the third quarter of the nineteenth century Irish Catholicism underwent a "devotional revolution" that made "practicing Catholics of the Irish people." Prior to the Great Famine, he maintained, the church lacked the human and material resources to address the spiritual needs of the swollen, nominally Catholic population. Adverse ratios f clergy to laity were complicated by scandalous lapses of clerical discipline in some dioceses, and in many districts there was seriously deficient lay compliance with canonical obligations. Analysis of an 1834 religious census by David Miller corroborates this picture by demonstrating that virtually universal weekly mass attendance, which would be the norm in Ireland in 1972 when Larkin wrote, was largely confined before the famine to the relatively affluent southeastern countryside and a few towns. Larkin attributed the reversal of this situation to the determined efforts of Paul Cullen, archbishop of Armagh (1850–1852) and of Dublin (1852–1878); Cullen used his influence in Rome to ensure the appointment of reform-minded bishops, promote parish missions (the Catholic version of what Protestants called "revivals"), and introduce a variety of new devotional practices from the Continent. Those efforts were facilitated by the reduction of population to more manageable levels as a result of the famine, Larkin suggests, and perhaps also by direct psychological effects of the famine and by the key role of Catholicism in the formation of Irish national identity.

Critics of the devotional-revolution thesis have taken issue both with its factual claims (including those made by Miller in his analysis of the 1834 mass-attendance data) and with Larkin's interpretation of those facts. Some of the initial questions about levels of prefamine religious observance reflect simple misunderstandings of quantitative methods. There is now little doubt that prefamine levels of religious practice were remarkably low by mid-twentieth-century standards, especially in the north and west; in some areas as few as 20 percent of Catholics attended mass on a typical Sunday. Whether this situation dated to the remote past or was specifically an artifact of the population explosion that began in the late eighteenth century is unresolved.

Critics have also suggested that devotional changes may have begun earlier than 1850. Some scholars have identified prefamine devotional innovations in towns and in the relatively affluent southeastern agricultural districts. It was during the archepiscopate of Cullen, however, that such changes had their initial impact on most Irish Catholics. The changes included more frequent confessions and communions than canonically required, as well as special rites such as the forty-hours devotion and the "perpetual adoration" and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Devotion to the Sacred Heart became much more widespread, and Marian exercises (above all, the praying of the rosary) flourished, increasingly taking on forms that originated in continental Catholicism, such as devotion to the Immaculate Conception and to Our Lady of Lourdes. The spread of various lay confraternities introduced many Catholics to more earnest and purposeful practice of their faith.

Criticisms of Larkin's interpretation of the facts are also interesting. Sociologist Eugene Hynes (1978) offered the intriguing hypothesis that canonical religious practice was a class-specific behavior, and that the famine eliminated much of the nonpracticing underclass while leaving largely unscathed an already observant class of better-off farmers. Hynes's explanation has been taken up by another sociologist, Michael Carroll, who sees the devotional revolution as a late-eighteenth-century initiative by wealthy Catholics whose effects were obscured by the presence of the huge underclass until after the famine. Carroll calls this initiative the "second" devotional revolution and theorizes that there was an earlier "devotional revolution" in the seventeenth century. In this "first" devotional revolution, he argues, the lay elite of seventeenth-century Irish Catholicism resisted clerical efforts to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent and instead promoted folk religious practices, such as patterns (festive outdoor observances of patron saints' days) and pilgrimages to holy wells, which would later be misunderstood as survivals of pagan Celtic religion. This initiative ensured that antagonistic kin groups would not have to interrupt their feuds in order to gather peaceably together for mass every Sunday. Both Hynes and Carroll offer important insights into devotional change in the nineteenth century, but on the issue of Carroll's thesis of a "first" devotional revolution, the jury of early modern Irish historians is still out.

The most sweeping critique of Larkin's interpretation has been offered by Thomas McGrath (1990), who argues that what Larkin calls a "devotional revolution" was actually the final stage of a "tridentine evolution." The fact that for about a century after 1875 Irish Catholics almost universally complied with canonical norms is attributed to the decision of the Council of Trent in 1563 that it should be so. Lack of compliance during much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is blamed on the restrictions placed upon Catholic clergy, who longed to implement the tridentine standards but were only able to do so effectively as the penal laws were gradually relaxed. Though McGrath is right to criticize proponents of the devotional-revolution hypothesis for failing to situate the religious changes of the nineteenth century in a longer temporal perspective, his placement of the cause as far back as 300 years before the effect has found little support.

Some of the initial negative reaction to Larkin's argument was probably due to his provocative—and ahistorical—suggestion that "the Irish people" were not "practicing Catholics" before the famine. It is sometimes suggested—equally ahistorically—that at the end of the twentieth century Ireland has become a "post-Catholic society." It is historically accurate to say that the nearly universal religious observance whose erosion prompts the latter claim is no older than a century and a half.

SEE ALSO Marianism; Religion: Traditional Popular Religion; Religious Orders: Men; Religious Orders: Women; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Sodalities and Confraternities


Carroll, Michael P. Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion. 1999.

Corish, Patrick. The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey. 1985

Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Peak of Marianism in Ireland, 1930–60." In Piety and Power in Ireland, 1760–1960, edited by S. J. Brown and D. W. Miller. 2000.

Hynes, Eugene. "The Great Hunger and Irish Catholicism." Societas 8 (spring 1978): 137–156.

Larkin, Emmet. "The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850–75." The American Historical Review 77 (June 1972): 625–652.

McGrath, Thomas G. "The Tridentine Evolution of Modern Irish Catholicism, 1563–1962: A Re-Examination of the 'Devotional Revolution' Thesis." Irish Church History Today: Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha Seminar 10 March 1990, edited by Réamonn Ó Muirí. 1990.

Miller, David W. "Irish Catholicism and the Great Famine." Journal of Social History 9 (fall 1975): 81–98.

Miller, David W. "Mass Attendance in Ireland in 1834." In Piety and Power in Ireland, 1760–1960, edited by S. J. Brown and D. W. Miller. 2000.

Taylor, Lawrence J. Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics. 1995.

David W. Miller

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Devotional Revolution

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