Society of Ireland

History Church of Ireland

The Irish Church has its origins in the 5th Century and the work of two Bishops, St Palladius, who laboured in County Wicklow in the 420s and 430s, and the much more famous Patrick, who landed in Northern Ireland in 432AD. Unlike Palladius, who seems to have served the Christians living along the Southeast Coast, Patrick was a true missionary Bishop who went out to convert the Irish to Christianity. The most famous incident is his triumph over the priests of the Old Religion at Tara when he was the first to kindle the new fire following which he preached the Gospel before the King and his assembled court. It seems that the Irish Church was established quickly and peacefully, and by the time of Patrick's death c.455AD the Church in Ireland was fully organised. Ireland is still a largely rural country with few large towns and cities. In the 5th Century it was entirely rural. In the Roman world the local Churches were organised around the cities, but in rural Ireland you simply could not do this. Instead, St Patrick's successors organised the Irish Church around the great Irish Clans, with a Bishop, Abbot and Monastery for each clan. This was radically different to the territorial system that appertained in say England or France. This first period was one of great creativity and activity. Irish missionaries roamed far and wide in Europe even to distant Italy, and the great Swiss monastery of St Gall was an Irish foundation. There was also a great artistic tradition with manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells being created in praise of God, but this great age of creativity was brought to an end by the Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th Centuries. However, the Vikings were soon converted, but their bishops - in Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Limerick - didn't align themselves with the native Irish, but placed themselves under the Archbishop of Canterbury. By the 11th Century the Irish Church was a right mess. Not only were there two Churches, an Irish and a Danish Church, but the great Irish monasteries were in decline. Ireland's unique system of Church Government was looking increasingly weird, and it is therefore no surprise to learn that the Papacy granted the English permission not only to invade Ireland, but to reform what was seen in far away Rome as a corrupted Church. The Eleventh Century.

After Strongbow's invasion, the Irish Church was remodelled along the lines of the Church in England by the Synods of Kells-Mellifort, and Rathbresseil. Territorial dioceses were established along the boundaries of the Clan territories and the traditional superiority of Abbots over Bishops was ended. In those areas controlled by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, Irish clergy were displaced in favour of English or Welsh clerics, but in the remoter areas the Irish clergy retained control. Throughout Ireland clerics were gradually adopting the normal Western Usage in dress, liturgy, and ceremonial. In the Cistercian Abbeys, which gradually replaced the old Celtic houses, discipline remained a problem, and the annals of many a diocese are filled with the activities of renegade monks. However, the problem was not solely one of discipline, but of poverty, which often made claustral life impossible. By the 1250s the Irish Diocesan structure was firmly established, but the bishops were frequently absent, and so the process of consolidation was begun. By 1700, amalgamation had reduced the original 32 dioceses down to 22. A further reduction to 12 took place in 1833-46, and apart from the years 1945 to 1977 (when there were 13 Protestant dioceses), this has remained the figure ever since. However as the Anglican population of the Republic has decreased so the Southern diocese have been amalgamated, and Northern ones divided to reduce the workload of the Ulster Bishops. The Irish Reformation.

In 1534, the Irish Parliament passed a series of Parliamentary Acts, which ended the authority of the Pope over the Church in Ireland. The vast majority of bishops acquiesced to this and the Irish Church regained her autonomy, which she had given up to Rome in the 12th century. Very little changed in Irish (or for that matter English) Churches until 1549/50 when the First Prayer Book was published. Indeed Ireland's first printing press was established in 1550 to print the Prayer Book, which had just been authorised by the Irish Parliament. However, an English Language Prayer Book, in what was then a largely Gaelic speaking nation did not work out. The Church thus became divided between those who adhered to the Latin Mass, who were also Papist in sympathies, and those loyal to the Church of Ireland and the English Prayer Book. The second Edwardian Prayer Book of 1552 was not authorised in Ireland. So after the Marian Reaction, the Irish Parliament found itself adopting the Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559 as the second Irish Prayer Book, and essentially it is that Prayer Book that the Church of Ireland (Traditional Rite) uses today. The Theological Basis of the Reformation was reform of the Church using the Scriptures, as interpreted by the most ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church, as the witness to the oldest and most authentic doctrines of the Church. This meant that the Reformers took a pruning hook to the luxuriant growth of late mediaeval piety, and cleared away all that was contrary to Scripture. The Liturgy was said or sung in English (and eventually Irish) not Latin, the clergy were allowed to marry, and the Bible was made freely available to anyone who could afford the purchase price. Images were abolished, and the educational standards of the clergy improved dramatically, especially after the establishment of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1597. The works based system of justification was replaced by the doctrine of 'Justification by Grace through Faith, and the doctrines of Predestination and Election replaced the corrupted sacramental system of the Roman Church. Because of the relative weakness of the English Administration in Ireland, the life of the Reformed Church was chaotic. It was helped by the existence of pluralists like Archbishop Myler MacGrath of Cashel, who systemically plundered the Church of Ireland to enrich his (mainly Roman Catholic) relatives. On the other hand, Bishops like the great James Ussher, and John Bedell did much to commend the Reformed Church to the Irish people, but their kindliness and interest in producing an Irish Prayer Book, but it was all too late. However by 1600 most of the political establishment was at least outwardly loyal to Church of Ireland. The rebellions of 1598 and 1640 led to massacres of Protestant Planters, especially in Ulster, and increasingly attitudes hardened on both sides. 1688 and all that.

After the Cromwellian interregnum, the Church in Ireland was in a sorry state. Churches and Cathedrals were ruinous, and the Episcopate had dwindled to just a few elderly Bishops. To make good the Episcopate, a great service of Consecration was held at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 1661, presided over by one of the surviving bishops, Bramhall of Armagh. In all twelve Bishops, including Jeremy Taylor of Down and Connor, were consecrated. Over the next 25 years, the Church of Ireland enjoyed peace, and a modus vivendi was worked out with the RC majority. With the accession of the Roman Catholic James II in 1685 this position was undermined, and it was soon clear that James intended to Establish the RC Church in Ireland and also that this was unacceptable to the political establishment there. When James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Protestant heartland of Ulster declared for the new king, William III. Although James II's French financed Roman Catholic army were able to quash the Loyalists in the Ulster countryside, the towns of Londonderry, and Enniskillen were made of the same stern stuff and had the walls and the guns to defend themselves. Their heroic resistance to the pretensions of the deposed king has long been the stuff of Protestant legend. Contrary to what Sinn Fein rhetoric might suggest, the great parades of the 12th July and the 12th August merely celebrate the heroism of Londonderry and Enniskillen in maintaining the Irish Constitution and Religious Liberties of the Planters. They also celebrate William III's eventually victory over James II at the Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim. Sadly, for the Roman Catholic majority backing James II was a serious mistake, and led to penal laws which were based not so much on religion, but on their Jacobite sympathies. For the most part, they were a nuisance, and far less savage than the Penal Laws exercised against Protestants in pre-Revolutionary France. Most of the penal laws were repealed in the 1780s, and by 1830, the remaining legal restrictions had been repealed. The Eighteenth Century.

In the Eighteenth Century the Church of Ireland somewhat went to sleep. However it was not quite the era of sloth and corruption that the nineteenth century historian loved to portray it as. The Church of Ireland enjoyed a long peace in the 18th Century, and it produced, or at least succoured some illustrious men; Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, John Hervey, who whilst not always the most devout of clergymen, gave Anglo-Irish culture a tone and a character all its own. The Cathedrals at Clogher, Cashel, Cork, and Waterford were rebuilt, as was many a ruinous parish church. The Board of First-Fruits financed much of this work, and provided a series of plain and practical Gothic Churches to serve remoter parishes as the 18th Century passed into the 19th. By the end of the century, the Evangelical revival was revitalising the life of the Church. Although many Bishops were suspicious of the Evangelicals, they soon gained a toe-hold in the Proprietary Chapels of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Belfast, preparing the way for the Second Reformation of the first half of the 19th Century. Parallel to this was a renewed zeal on the part of the old fashioned High Churchmen who began a major Church building programme, through the First Fruits Board. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Church of Ireland was in far better shape than her English neighbour. Yet from the Union of 1800 through to Disestablishment in 1871, the Church of Ireland had many difficult challenges to face which tested her ability to survive, and grow even in adverse circumstances. We will look at this in part two of our historical survey of the Church of Ireland.



ESHSI, Department of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin, Republic of Ireland Contact: Membership Secretary