Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829

views updated

Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829

From the sixteenth century until 1800, Ireland was singular among European states in that the greater part of the population adhered to a religion that was regarded with intense hostility by the ruling elite and the organs of government. The position of the Catholic Church, embraced by this majority, was rendered even more difficult in the wake of the defeat in 1691 of the cause of the dethroned Catholic monarch James II. The Irish parliament's relevant legislation of this period was, ostensibly, largely directed toward securing the Protestant character of the establishment, by destroying the economic, political, and military capacity of the surviving Catholic part of the elite. However, legislation was also directed against the Catholic Church itself. Further, the assumptions of the age about the ability of the elite to determine the religion of the inferior ranks of society allow it to be said that the penal code, as it came to be known, sought the destruction of the Catholic religion.

The anti-Catholic legislation proved impossible to enforce in its entirety, and disruption of fundamental Catholic practice was restricted to the decades around the turn of the century. As the eighteenth century wore on, conversions from Catholicism were numerous; but the weakness of the established religion and the poverty and distinct culture of most Catholics served as barriers to any major change in affiliation. In the long term, this experience assisted Catholicism in adapting to the changing circumstances of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Catholic Ireland was largely immune to the contagion of the Enlightenment—always an elite affair—but was enthusiastic in embracing its notions of religious toleration, propagated by Charles O'Conor of Belanagare and later publicists in the Catholic cause. The way was paved for the turbulent religious pluralism of the nineteenth century. The hostility of an essentially Protestant ancien régime, which survived well into the nineteenth century, had the singular effect of ensuring that Catholicism was the firm ally of the liberalism of the period.

The government of the Irish church was singularly constituted. Though Ireland fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman congregation (Propaganda) responsible for non-Catholic countries, it continued to possess a national hierarchy. It was the exiled Stuart sovereign who nominated its members until 1766. Thereafter, Irish bishops were, in effect, very often able to nominate their own successors. From about 1780 the question of the nomination of bishops was central to a conflict, which lasted some fifty years, about who was to exercise the greatest influence over the church as it emerged from its repressed condition. From 1808 attempts by politicians to gain influence for the state were firmly resisted by the bishops; but their clerical and lay subjects also entered the fray. Substantially, victory went to the bishops, and the nineteenth-century Irish church was free of both excessive political influence and internal factionalism.

The Banishment Act of 1697 did come close to obliterating its targets, the episcopal bench and the regular clergy. However, both bodies recovered quickly. By the middle of the century friars had become numerous enough to be seen as undermining the diocesan and parochial structures of the church, and Roman decrees of 1743 and 1751 restricted their activities and reduced their numbers. The episode is indicative of the reasonably healthy condition and satisfactory circumstances of the clerical body as a whole by this time. Certainly, clerical numbers did not constitute a serious problem; but despite the establishment of seminaries within Ireland, notably at Maynooth, toward the end of the century, they did not manage to match the population growth in the famous gap between the famines (1740s to 1840s). The penal legislation did not advert to religious women; but life was in fact difficult for them, and for most of the eighteenth century there were not more than about a dozen convents in the country. They generally presented themselves as girls' boarding schools. New, indigenous foundations, beginning with Nano Nagle's Presentation Sisters, marked the beginnings of spectacular growth thereafter.

The history of Irish Catholic practice in the period conforms to a general European picture: There was a diffusion of Tridentine patterns of religious behavior, which were particularly slow to reach poorer rural regions. As elsewhere, this regional variation was magnified by linguistic difference. The oral and scribal culture of Gaelic Ireland certainly produced a distinctive religious life, albeit that this too was nourished by the religion of the Counter-Reformation. However, the chief local variations were simply the consequences of relative prosperity and poverty. In some places the parish gathered in a chapel rather than around a Mass rock and possessed a well-educated priest, a fixed residence for him, and a parish school. Here the Tridentine vision of the parish as the focus of the sacramentally based Catholic life of a well-instructed laity was clearly much easier to realize. The provision of this plant and personnel seems to have been normal by the middle of the eighteenth century in the more prosperous agricultural regions of Leinster and Munster, as well as in the towns. Here Catholic life, though conducted with the minimum of ostentation, differed very little from the norms aspired to anywhere else in the western church.

The emergence of O'Connellite politics has been taken as the chief sign that the era of Catholic self-effacement was at an end. However, other signs, such as the provision of capacious new Dublin churches, might have been observed (and certainly were by an anxious Protestant community) well before the O'Connellite agitation of the 1820s. Such change had much to do with the general Catholic revival in postrevolutionary Europe and the increasing frequency with which the population was taken into account in political calculations in the era. However, it was also a reflection of very considerable growth and advance in many areas of the life of the Irish church, notably in education at all levels and in religious life among women. And these were but the consolidation and expansion of Irish Catholicism's remarkable achievement in the face of its penal-era adversity.

SEE ALSO Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Doyle, James Warren; MacHale, John; Maynooth; Murray, Daniel; Nagle, Honora (Nano); Penal Laws; Religion: Since 1690; Religion: Traditional Popular Religion; Religious Orders: Men; Religious Orders: Women; Rice, Edmund; Troy, John; 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); Origin of the "Catholic Rent" (18 February 1824); The Catholic Relief Act (1829)


Brady, John, and Patrick J. Corish. The Church under the Penal Code. Vol. 4, fasc. 2, of A History of Irish Catholicism. 1971.

Connolly, Sean. Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1780–1845. 1982.

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

Leighton, Cadoc D. A. Catholicism in a Protestant Kingdom: A Study of the Irish Ancien Régime. 1994.

C. D. A. Leighton