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Religious Orders: Men

Religious Orders: Men

Though the nineteenth century opened with some of the penal laws still on the statute books, and though Catholic Emancipation did not become law until 1829, in fact the "emancipation" of Catholics in Ireland had been substantially achieved by the turn of the century. Traditional religious orders, such as the Jesuits, re-emerged after the persecution, and by the middle of the century they were joined by many new orders, both native and from continental Europe.

Possibly the most significant of such new orders was that founded by Edmund Ignatius Rice in 1802, when he set up a school to educate the sons of poor families. This was the beginning of the Irish Christian Brothers, a congregation which came to have immense influence in Ireland for nearly two hundred years. With other groups, such as the Presentation and Franciscan Brothers, they gradually provided both primary and secondary schools for the sons of the poor. Similar development occurred among women's orders to provide for the needs of girls.

Around the middle of the century a number of male religious orders came to Ireland from the Continent. The Passionists (1848) and the Redemptorists (1853) brought with them many of the devotional practices of Italy. Along with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (1851) and a group of native priests who eventually came under the umbrella of the Vincentians, they began an intense period of missions around the country. These missions were enormously popular and led to an upsurge in religious practice and devotional exercises. Confraternities and sodalities were set up in parish churches. The Redemptorist Archconfraternity of the Holy Family, a confraternity for men in Limerick city, was the largest of its type in the world for many years. The Passionists had a similar one for boys at Mount Argus in Dublin that at its peak had a membership of close to 2,500. Devotion to the Miraculous Medal and the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread widely. These movements in popular piety changed the face of Irish Catholicism and led to a significant increase in the power and influence of the church. In fact, by the 1880s Catholic life and practice was dominated by its clergy to a greater degree than ever before, and this continued for almost one hundred years.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century Ireland had become a fertile ground for vocations, and other religious orders from the Continent, especially France, began to arrive. The Holy Ghost Fathers (1859) and the Society of African Missions (1877) were two of the most important. Their coming coincided with a period of great nationalist fervor, leading up to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The clergy had been closely associated with the nationalist movement, and they benefited from this development. They had considerable status in the emerging society, religious orders thrived, and a period of enormous missionary expansion began. In the minds of many Irish people the mission of the "Island of Saints and Scholars," which had restored the faith to Europe in the eighth century, was being reenacted with great pride. Maynooth, the national seminary, was overflowing with candidates for the priesthood, and out of this abundance two new missionary institutes were founded, the Columbans in 1916 and the Kiltegan Fathers in 1932. A society that had become very religious and church-centered sent thousands of Irish missionaries to Africa, the Far East, and South and North America. To be a priest, and especially a missionary, was presented as a life of great service and idealism, superior to married life. In a poor Ireland with little opportunity for its young, becoming a priest or female religious was for many the best way of obtaining an education and having a chance to travel, living an interesting life, and stepping up the social ladder.

This period of growth for religious orders lasted until the 1960s, when a sudden change occurred. Vocations quickly dried up, and within a few years only a handful were joining. The Catholic Church was changing as Ireland became prosperous and economic opportunities abounded. The traditional power of the church began to be resented, and church attendance eventually fell sharply. People became more materially minded, the notion of service was no longer so attractive to the young, and scandals, particularly involving child abuse, further eroded the church's influence. By the end of the twentieth century nearly all male religious orders in Ireland were in serious decline, with some already dying out.

SEE ALSO Devotional Revolution; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Overseas Missions; Religion: Since 1690; Rice, Edmund; Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Sodalities and Confraternities; Temperance Movements; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704)


Corish, Patrick. The Irish Catholic Experience. 1985.

Keenan, Desmond. The Catholic Church in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. 1983.

Sharp, John. Reapers of the Harvest. 1989.

Whyte, J. H. Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923–1979. New edition, 1980.

Tony Flannery

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