Religion: Since 1690

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Religion: Since 1690

The Irish Republic has been widely regarded, until recently, as a Catholic confessional state founded on a nationalism mainly confined to its Catholic community; Northern Ireland remains bitterly divided into two ethnic communities defined largely by religious affiliation. Many observers therefore regard group identity in ethnic communities as the key to understanding the role of religion in modern Ireland.

Religion and Community

Those who link religion to community formation in Ireland usually have in mind a special type of community called the "nation." The nation, a modern construct that became politically important in Ireland and elsewhere in the nineteenth century, is an "imagined" community. It posits that each individual enjoys relationships with millions of fellow-countryfolk whom he or she has never met, comparable to relationships experienced in a traditional local community in which all relationships are personal and face-to-face. Most of the population of late seventeenth-century Ireland identified primarily with the latter sort of community—for example, a village or kin group—and not with the modern imagined community of the nation.

There was, however, another type of community present in early modern Ireland that was different from both the traditional local community and the modern imagined community. Every landed gentleman in seventeenth-century Ireland belonged to one of the two elite confessional communities—Catholic or Protestant—contending for power at the national level. When the Protestant landed elite decisively won this contest at the end of that century, they set about excluding not only Catholics but also Protestant Dissenters from power. There were relatively few Dissenters who owned enough land to be serious contenders for power in any event, but during the course of the eighteenth century they too developed an elite which formed a third confessional community.

There was therefore a well-understood tripartite division of Irish society into three religious systems known to contemporaries as Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenting. This use of the term Protestant can confuse modern readers because what it really connoted was the Anglican Church of Ireland, the established church until 1869. The term Dissenter also obscures the true situation. A scattering of English Protestant Dissenting groups—Quakers, Independents, Baptists, and so on—had survived from Cromwellian times, but the Presbyterians were by far the most numerous Dissenters by the mid-eighteenth century, when approximately twothirds of the population were Catholic, and the remaining one-third were divided appoximately equally between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism. Apart from a few exceptions—notably some Old English elite families that had remained Catholic—the tripartite system delineated three ethnic groups: native Irish Catholics, New English members of the Protestant Established Church, and Ulster-Scot Presbyterians.

The Williamite victory of 1691 confirmed the huge transfers of land from Catholic to Protestant ownership that had occurred during the preceding century, ensuring that there would be an Anglican presence in virtually every part of the Irish countryside, though in many localities it consisted of little more than the families of the landlord (or his agent) and the Church of Ireland minister. In most areas the great majority of the rural population was Catholic, but in Ulster there was a substantial Protestant population engaged in agricultural and protoindustrial pursuits. Anglicans were most numerous in a swath of rural territory across south Ulster, and Presbyterians dominated the countryside in the north and east of the province.

Though a primary objective of the Anglican elite was to deprive Catholics of landownership and thus exclude them from access to political power, some Catholics managed to maintain gentry status and even to exercise modest political influence in eighteenth-century Ireland. Moreover, a number of Catholics in the towns became quite prosperous merchants, sometimes taking advantage of relationships with kinsmen who had migrated to continental Europe following the Williamite victory. In Belfast and Derry the Presbyterians made up somewhat for their almost total lack of landed property by similar mercantile success.

So each of the three religious systems—Anglican, Catholic, and Presbyterian—was led by a confessional community of clergy and elite laity. In the Anglican case this community came to be called the "Ascendancy," and it used its victory in the contests of the previous century to make its central religious ritual—taking communion "according to the usage of the Church of Ireland"—a test for full membership in the civil polity. In 1760 the Catholic elite community founded an organization known as the Catholic Committee to agitate for their own admission to that polity. The Presbyterian elite developed a principled aversion (not necessarily shared by country Presbyterians) to confessional politics, so when they set up an analogous organization in Belfast in 1791, they called it the "Society of United Irishmen" rather than the "Presbyterian Committee."

During the 1790s the revolution in France generated high hopes among the proponents of change in Ireland and alarm among the defenders of the status quo. Radicals from both the Catholic and Presbyterian elites were pitted against the government and the Anglican Ascendancy. The confrontation culminated in an insurrection in 1798 for which the elite radicals mobilized both Catholic and Presbyterian foot soldiers. The rebels were soundly defeated, and in the aftermath of the rebellion the government sought to craft policies that would win the adherence of the Catholic and Presbyterian confessional communities to a new civil polity—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland—in which the Irish Ascendancy would be a permanent minority.

The government's policy was frustrated in one important particular by the king, George III, who refused to consent to the prompt admission of Catholics into the new united Parliament. The resulting delay of Catholic Emancipation for nearly three decades contributed to a crucial change in the structure of community in Ireland. During the 1820s Daniel O'Connell developed a daring political strategy by replacing the old elite Catholic Committee with a new Catholic Association with dues of one penny a month, collected at the gates of Catholic chapels throughout the country. This strategy transformed the elite Catholic confessional community into an "imagined" nationwide community, an empty vessel into which modern nationalism flowed as soon as the (essentially elite) issue of admission to Parliament was resolved in 1829. From 1832, when O'Connell proposed the repeal of the Act of Union, the attainment of some sort of national autonomy would be the consensus goal of a Catholic community that now transcended class lines.

In a sense the Ascendancy was also well on the way to reinventing itself as a confessional community transcending class lines. The Loyal Orange Order, which emerged in 1795 out of a squalid sectarian conflict in County Armagh, had promptly been taken over by landlords throughout the country as a means of mobilizing their reliable Protestant tenants in opposition to radicalism. Although the Order opposed the Act of Union in 1800, the admission of Catholics to Parliament in 1829 made it plain that any repeal of the Union would result in a Catholic-dominated parliament in Dublin and ensured that the expanded Anglican confessional community would oppose Repeal as strongly as its Catholic counterpart demanded it.

The position of the Presbyterian community around 1840 is less clear. Most Presbyterians certainly opposed Repeal, but respectable Presbyterians continued to view the Orange Order with contempt. As late as the 1870s there were a few constituencies in which Presbyterian and Catholic voters cooperated to elect reformist candidates. The espousal of Home Rule for Ireland by the Liberal Party in 1886 made a Catholic-dominated government in Dublin a realistic eventuality and terminated the last vestiges of Presbyterian political independence. The tripartite array of confessional communities had been transformed into a bipolar arrangement in which virtually all Catholics were nationalists and virtually all Protestants were unionists.

Religion and Society

While the process of ethnic-community formation certainly helps us to understand how the political alignments of religious groups emerged, it is not as helpful in explaining the character and depth of religious devotion. We must look not only at the differences between the ethnoreligious groups but also at the divisions within them. The most important of these divisions is social class, which, insofar as the clergy are seldom drawn from the poorest classes, is closely related to (but not identical with) the division between clergy and laity.

In a rural society religion is a commodity which, like whiskey, can easily be manufactured by the consumers; the licensed purveyor, when he cannot rely upon the government to stamp out illicit competition, must persuade consumers to buy his product and perhaps to modify it to accommodate their tastes. In early modern Catholic Europe the official product was Tridentine Catholicism as promulgated by the Council of Trent (1545–1563). A uniform hierarchical structure based on the territorial parish was imposed upon Catholic Europe, making the parish church the exclusive venue for the central acts of religion, especially for regular mass attendance and Easter communion.

Late medieval Ireland, where feuding might militate against the peaceable gathering of a parish population for mass and where church resources were often controlled by kinship groups, presented especially egregious examples of the noncanonical practices that Trent was trying to supplant (Bossy 1971). Outside the towns the official rituals of confession and communion may well have been less central to religious life than the seasonal or occasional pilgrimage to sites associated with local religious figures. In such observances the clergy were dispensable. Indeed, if later folk tradition can be trusted, a clergyman in good standing may have been regarded as a less reliable conduit to the supernatural than one who had distanced himself from the church by misconduct (Taylor 1995). Religion in early modern Ireland, as Raymond Gillespie (Donnelly and Miller 1998, pp. 30–49) has suggested, was the product of dialogue between the systems on offer from the religious professionals and the religious needs and practices of ordinary folk.

By 1690 the heroic efforts of missionaries and of clergy trained in continental seminaries had effected some progress toward the establishment of a parish system that could function at least at a minimal level when not prevented from doing so by persecution or warfare. It appears unlikely, however, that many individual Catholics in the countryside had yet adjusted their behavior very far toward compliance with the Tridentine norms by this time. From then until the third quarter of the twentieth century, when social scientists found that almost 100 percent of Catholics who were canonically obligated to attend mass were doing so each week, we have nationwide data on mass attendance for only one year: In 1834 the government collected data on religious practice which enables us to estimate that about 40 percent of the Catholic population (or, arguably, a somewhat higher percentage of Catholic adults) attended mass on a typical Sunday. Attendance varied from more than 80 percent in parts of the southeast to less than 30 percent in some areas of the northwest (Brown and Miller 2000, pp. 158–179).

Between 1690 and about 1775 Irish Catholicism did make some progress toward compliance with Tridentine norms, but during the population explosion from that period until the 1840s canonical practice seems to have declined to the levels reflected in the 1834 census (Corish 1985, p. 167). During this decline the church was obliged to compromise the Tridentine ideal of a parish chapel-based set of rituals by admitting the household-based piety reflected in the practice of "stations"—confession and communion held on a rotating basis at the homes of various Catholic farmers throughout the parish. Certainly there were local efforts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to implement Tridentine reforms, but it was the Great Famine of the late 1840s which, by dramatically reducing the ratio of layfolk to priests, made possible a "devotional revolution" throughout the country. From about 1850, disciplinary reforms introduced by Paul Cardinal Cullen, the conduct of parish missions by members of religious orders, and the introduction of a variety of continental devotional practices led to a sustained rise in compliance with canonical norms (Larkin 1984).

The linkage of long-term change in canonical practice with demographic change raises further questions. It is fairly clear that members of the huge rural under-class of the landless and near-landless were disproportionately represented among the lax mass attenders before the famine. The elimination of much of this underclass by the famine and its aftermath may account for a significant share of any rise in formal religious practice (Hynes 1978). So should we see those who failed to attend mass prior to the famine as deterred more by their poverty or by their class? Were remote residences, bad roads, and lack of energy owing to austere diet their principal obstacles to attending mass? Or did ragged clothes and the stench and vermin of a destitute rural existence render them out of place in the chapels erected by their better-off neighbors? These questions remain unanswered, but recent studies of postfamine Catholicism make plain its predominantly middle-class character (Rafferty 1999; Murphy 1997) and suggest that the interaction between class formation and religious behaviors is a promising area for further investigation. Certainly, there continued to be tension between official and popular Catholicism, but the postfamine Church found it much easier to coopt popular devotional movements—notably the flowering of Marian devotions between about 1860 and 1960 (Brown and Miller 2000, pp. 252–283).

Indeed, changes in class structure affected the relationship between popular and official religion in all three systems—Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian. Although ordinary Protestants had shown interest during the seventeenth century in some of the same sorts of "magical" folk practices that Tridentine reformers tried to eliminate or coopt in Catholic peasant life, in eighteenth-century Protestantism we should look in a different domain for the popular side of the ongoing dialogue between ordinary folk and religious professionals. Both English and Scottish settler communities manifested vocabularies and ritual repertoires for challenging local elite dominance in their respective ethnic religions, thereby defending the communal rather than class character of their religious systems.

The prime challengers of elite hegemony within Anglicanism were the Methodist preachers who offered a generous religion of the heart as an alternative to the cold and self-interested outlook of many established clergy. Although a separate Methodist denomination was erected in 1816, a more significant development for the Church of Ireland was the adoption of evangelical attitudes promoted by Methodism on the part of numerous landlords and ministers in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. This development together with the elite patronage of the Orange Order—an organization that enabled working-class Anglicans to proclaim loudly their Protestantism without the inconvenience of regular church attendance—helped Anglicanism to retain its communal character. The Church of Ireland managed to remain a church for rich and poor, devout and indifferent, for perhaps two centuries of dizzying changes in class structure.

Methodism made few inroads in Ulster-Scot settlements because Presbyterians had their own ritual repertoire for challenging their elite. Presbyterian polity provided a more or less democratic process for selection of a local minister, which offered ample opportunities for literate but unreflective folk to tax the candidate and their betters more generally with defection from the seventeenth-century standards of orthodoxy. Moreover, from the 1740s the Secession Synods, imported from Scotland, facilitated such challenges to the dominance of the well-heeled and the well-read. In open-air communions, drawing both the godly and the worldly from a wide area, Seceders celebrated a vision of Presbyterian solidarity reminiscent of the covenanting days of the seventeenth century and unconstrained by the tidy respectability of the mainstream meeting houses.

So Presbyterianism, despite its institutionally divisive tendencies (indeed, because of them) was socially comprehensive within the Ulster-Scot settlements of the eighteenth century. The mechanisms that enabled Presbyterianism to function as a communal religion, however, were dismantled between 1829 and 1840. By requiring unqualified subscription to the Westminster Confession from all its ministers and then by merging with the Seceding Synod, the General Synod removed the question of doctrinal orthodoxy from the arena of congregational politics. It thereby facilitated the conversion of a religious system in which the unwashed and the unlettered had once had their say into a system that primarily addressed the needs of the respectable. This was happening just as Belfast, the recipient of considerable migration from Presbyterian country districts, became aware that, like many British cities, it faced a serious problem of unchurched workers. Furthermore, deindustrialization of the countryside would create an underclass of unemployed linen weavers comparable to the Catholic underclass whose miseries became so evident during the Great Famine.

Presbyterian leaders groped for a strategy to cope with this reality, and in 1859 some thought that Providence had provided a solution in the form of a huge revival that dominated the life of Ulster for some months. Suddenly, young working-class converts, female and male, were perceived as more in touch with the supernatural than were the ministers. Clergy moved decisively to gain control of the movement and give it a satisfactory spin. Although very few Presbyterians spoke ill of the revival in public, over the succeeding generation those who preferred the emotional style of religiosity that it represented tended to drift into Methodism and a number of smaller evangelical sects that arose in the north. The transformation of Ulster Presbyterianism from a communal religion to a class religion was virtually complete by the end of the century—a development that confirmed the transformation of the tripartite system of religious communities into the bipolar system with which we are so familiar in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Church and State

The extraordinarily high levels of religious observance that prevailed among Catholics in the southern Irish state (compared with other European countries) until the 1980s, and the sectarian character of the Northern Ireland state from 1921 to 1972, have led observers to use the term confessional state in discussions of twentieth-century Ireland. Recently, historians have been using the same term to characterize eighteenth-century political structures throughout the British Isles. Like England and Scotland, eighteenth-century Ireland was a confessional state; to avoid confusion, we should perhaps refer to it more specifically as an "Erastian" state. In other words, the Church of Ireland, like its counterparts the Church of England and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, was expected to act as the religion department of the state. The prime function of a state church, in the eyes of the government and the governing classes, was to sacralize the civil polity and instill in the lower orders obedience to the Lord's commandments, especially the one that forbade coveting the goods of one's neighbor. In principle an Erastian state church was supposed to minister to the whole population, not just to the devout.

Since more than 80 percent of the population were either Catholics or Presbyterians, the Church of Ireland was in no position to fulfill this function. In one respect the government acknowledged this fact by paying modest stipends (the regium donum) to Presbyterian clergy, who took this gesture as a recognition, albeit an imperfect one, of their status as ministers of an established church, to the great annoyance of Anglican ecclesiastics. One reason for a controversy among Presbyterians in the 1720s over subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith was a desire on the part of the "subscribers" to demonstrate their institution's fitness to play the role of an established church.

In the early eighteenth century, of course, there could be no thought of an Erastian role for the Catholic clergy, whose bishops were appointed on nomination of the Jacobite Pretender until the death of "James III" in 1766. Indeed, certain penal laws, if enforced, would have eliminated the Catholic clergy in one generation and left their Anglican counterparts as the sole Christian ministers in most parts of Ireland. Moreover, early in the century some Anglican churchmen tried to launch a program to convert the Catholics through the medium of the Irish language. In general, however, the Ascendancy had little zeal for enforcing the laws against the Catholic clergy and ritual system (as opposed to those designed to limit the property and power of Catholic gentry) and little interest in providing the resources to convert the Catholics.

Predictably, the Church of Ireland was a dismal failure in the role of sacralizing the polity assigned to it by Erastianism. Among the lower orders only the Anglican minority could be relied upon to oppose rebellion in the 1790s. Government policy reflected an understanding of this dysfunctionality and showed a determination to enlist the other churches in the duty on which the state church had defaulted. Both the establishment of a state-funded Catholic theological seminary at Maynooth in 1795 and an increase and restructuring of the regium donum to Presbyterian clergy after the 1798 rebellion were prompted by that determination. The threat of disorder from the Presbyterians faded in succeeding decades, but the same cannot be said of the Catholics. Throughout the nineteenth century the government regularly sought to encourage the appointment of "loyal" bishops by the Holy See and to persuade bishops to constrain the behavior of priests suspected of "agitation."

In the eighteenth century none of the three religious systems had tried very hard to make converts from the other two. This pattern was changing dramatically by the 1820s, when Anglicans, inspired by evangelicalism and probably prompted also by liberal criticism of their church for its failure to serve more than a minority, launched a movement to convert Catholics known as the Second Reformation. At the same time, Anglican-dominated, government-subsidized societies were actively establishing schools for poor children. Some Catholic clergy, generally lacking the resources to provide schools for their parishioners' children, were initially willing to sanction such schools, but the Catholic hierarchy was increasingly wary of them.

A Liberal government responded in 1831 to the resulting tensions by establishing the National Education Board (composed of prominent members of all three religious communities) to make grants to local interdenominational committees of clergy and laity who would undertake to establish mixed schools under the inspection of the board's staff. Catholic clergy generally welcomed the plan, and Anglican clergy largely refused to participate in what they saw, rightly, as a major attack on their Erastian entitlements. At the time of the initiative the General Synod of Ulster was under the demagogic influence of the Reverend Henry Cooke, who cherished a vision of a reconfigured Irish Protestant establishment that would somehow embrace Presbyterians as well as Anglicans. Cooke was counting on Sir Robert Peel and the Tory Party to implement this vision. In the early 1840s, however, the Tory government adopted policies toward the established Church of Scotland (as well as the Irish Presbyterian Church) that were interpreted as deliberately anti-Presbyterian. Peel was blamed for the dramatic 1843 schism in the Church of Scotland known as the Great Disruption. Cooke's vision was discredited and his grip on Irish Presbyterianism was broken. Meanwhile, however, Cooke had kept the General Synod from sanctioning the national schools until 1840, when they extracted from the board concessions that seriously compromised its original goal of nonsectarian education. These concessions made it difficult for the board and the government to resist further demands over succeeding decades—notably from the Catholic Church—to compromise the original nonsectarian ideal. By the end of the century the system basically consisted of a separate clerically controlled, government-funded, de facto denominational school wherever there were enough children of a given denomination to warrant it.

In 1869 a Liberal government enacted legislation disestablishing the Church of Ireland and replacing the regium donum and the annual grant to Maynooth with lump-sum payments to the Presbyterian and Catholic churches respectively. This action formally ended the Erastian system, but the continued heavy involvement of the churches in state-financed education means that we should think of the resulting arrangement less as a secular state than as a multiconfessional polity. By imposing order and discipline upon a previously fractious hierarchy, Paul Cullen was rendering the Catholic Church an increasingly capable contender for influence within the civil polity.

In the years following Cullen's death in 1878, that polity came to include not only a government at Westminster but a government-in-waiting for a new civil polity to be based in Dublin—the Home Rule Party. In 1884 the hierarchy struck a deal with Charles Stewart Parnell in which the bishops agreed to support the party and the party promised to defer to the bishops in the vital matter of education. This arrangement set the conventions followed by Parnell's generation of nationalist leaders, and these conventions were instilled in key leaders of the next political generation who supplanted the Home Rule Party in 1916 to 1921.

Both of the new polities created from 1920 to 1922—the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland—are sometimes described as "confessional" states. Whatever this label may have meant in twentieth-century Ireland, it definitely did not connote the Erastianism of the eighteenth-century confessional state. It might make more sense to refer to Northern Ireland as a confessional "society"—the dysfunctional product of the bipolar division of Irish society in the nineteenth century in which religion, far from sacralizing the civil polity, became the principal obstacle to the emergence of such a polity capable of enjoying support in both confessional communities.

Those who describe the post-1921 southern Irish state as "confessional" do not have in mind a church which, like the Church of Ireland two centuries earlier, exists to buttress the authority of the state. Rather, they tend to envisage the Roman Catholic Church as dictating policy to the state. A better-supported formulation is that until the 1980s southern Ireland was certainly not a theocracy, but the church did have more influence on policy than an ordinary interest group, particularly in those domains such as education, which the church claimed as within her sphere (Whyte 1971). In recent years that influence, and the devotional commitment that underlay it, have diminished significantly, and the Catholic Church has begun to share the concern of other Irish churches for recovering their traditional constituencies.

SEE ALSO Ancient Order of Hibernians; Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Ecumenism and Interchurch Relations; Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: Secondary Education, Female; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Education: University Education; Gaelic Catholic State, Making of; Marianism; Maynooth; Methodism; Mother and Child Crisis; Overseas Missions; Penal Laws; Presbyterianism; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930;Protestant Community in Southern Ireland since 1922; Religious Orders: Men; Religious Orders: Women; Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Secularization; Sodalities and Confraternities; Temperance Movements; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704); The Catholic Relief Act (1778); The Catholic Relief Act (1782); The Catholic Relief Act (1793); On Presbyterian Communities in Ulster (1810, 1812); From the 1937 Constitution; Letter to John A. Costello, the Taoiseach (5 April 1951)


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David W. Miller

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Religion: Since 1690

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