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History of Roman Catholicism in Ireland

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Title: History of Roman Catholicism in Ireland  
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Subject: History of Ireland, Religion in Ireland, Rock of Cashel, History of Catholicism in Ireland, Brendan of Birr
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History of Roman Catholicism in Ireland

History of Christianity
in the British Isles
Early Modern
18th Century to Present

This article details the history of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. Ireland is an island to the north-west of continental Europe. Politically, Ireland is divided between the Republic of Ireland, which covers just under five-sixths of the island, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, which covers the remainder and is located in the north-east of the island. Roman Catholicism is the largest religious denomination, representing over 73% for the island and about 87% of the Republic of Ireland.


  • Introduction of Christianity 1
  • Palladius and Patrick 2
  • Native ministry 3
  • Irish monasteries 4
  • Missionaries abroad 5
  • Arrival of the Vikings 6
  • Anglo-Normans 7
  • Reformation and beyond 8
    • Henry VIII 8.1
    • Elizabeth I 8.2
    • Translation of the Bible into Irish 8.3
  • Persecution and Penal Laws 9
  • Protestant ascendancy (1691–1801) 10
    • Oath of Allegiance 10.1
    • Irish Parliament and the Passing of Tolerance 10.2
    • Catholic Emancipation 10.3
  • Free State and Republic (1922–present) 11
  • Sexual abuse scandals 12
  • Influence on Irish society 13
    • Ireland 13.1
      • Politics 13.1.1
      • Education 13.1.2
      • Health care 13.1.3
      • Morality and censorship 13.1.4
    • Northern Ireland 13.2
    • Vatican II 13.3
  • See also 14
  • Notes 15
  • References 16
  • Further reading 17

Introduction of Christianity

The introduction of Christianity to Ireland dates to sometime before the 5th century, presumably in interactions with Roman Britain. Christian worship had reached pagan Ireland around 400 AD. It is often misstated that St. Patrick brought the faith to Ireland, but it was already present on the island long before Patrick arrived. Monasteries were built for monks who wanted permanent communion with God. The lengths they went to for tranquility are evident from the monastarie of Skellig Michael. Via Aidan, Christianity spread among the Picts and Northumbrians.

Scholars have long recognised that the term “Celtic Church” is simply inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples, since this would imply a notion of unity, or a self-identifying entity, that simply did not exist.[1] As Patrick Wormald explained, “One of the common misconceptions is that there was a ‘Roman Church’ to which the ‘Celtic’ was nationally opposed.”[2] Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin Christendom as a whole, wherein a significant degree of liturgical and structural variation existed, along with a collective veneration of the Bishop of Rome that was no less intense in Britain and Ireland areas.[3] Some scholars have chosen to apply the term ‘Insular Christianity’ to this Christian practice that arose around the Irish Sea.

Palladius and Patrick

According to Prosper of Aquitaine, Palladius was from a noble family in Gaul. In 429 he was serving as a deacon in Rome. The Pope commissioned him to send Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to investigate rumors of Pelagianism in Britain. In 431, Pope Celestine I consecrated Palladius a bishop and sent him to minister to the "Scots believing in Christ".[4] His mission mainly seems to have been to Irish Christians in the east midlands, Leinster, and perhaps east Munster. It is uncertain if he converted any Irish. What little is known of his mission appears to have been successful, though it was later downplayed by partisans of Patrick.

Saint Patrick's dates are uncertain. All that can be said is that he was alive sometime in the fifth century, and was a missionary bishop rather than ministering to Christians. His areas appear to have been Ulster and north Connacht, but very little can be said with certainty about him. Later tradition from the seventh-century onwards are known to be unreliable.

Native ministry

Monastic establishments arose in the sixth century, such as Clonard, founded by St. Finian, Clonfert by St. Brendan, Bangor by St. Comgall, Clonmacnoise by St. Kieran, Killeaney by St. Enda; and, in the seventh century, Lismore by St. Carthage and Glendalough by St. Kevin.

In 563 St. Columba, a native of Donegal, accompanied by a few companions, crossed the sea to Caledonia and founded a monastery on the desolate island of Iona.

Irish monasteries

Monastic schools in Ireland became centers of excellence for peoples from all over Europe. The historian Bede and an earlier English contemporary, Aldhelm, report that sizeable contingents of English students trained as missionaries in Ireland, specifically at Rath Melsigi, County Carlow, in Leinster. These English monks trained in Ireland in order to convert their pagan relatives on the continent. Several of them had successful ecclesiastical careers after their Irish training.

Bede and Aldhelm, being clerics, emphasized religious training, but both confirm that secular subjects were also taught at Irish monastic schools. Study of the scriptures was paramount, but they both make it clear that students often traveled from site to site seeking out teachers who had specialized knowledge in secular subjects as well.

During the early decades of the seventh century many Anglo-Saxon nobles were educated at Irish monasteries in northern Britain, specifically at Iona. Bede said that the Irish willingly welcomed the English students, gave them food, and provided them with books and instruction, without seeking any payment. When these Irish-educated English nobles returned to England, they invited Irish missionaries into their pagan kingdoms to evangelize. For example, the Anglo-Saxon King Oswald invited the Irish bishop Aidan from Iona into his kingdom, and Aidan founded the monastery at Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumberland around 635. The English historian Bede shows that Irish missionary activity in northern England was more successful at converting the pagan English than that started by Rome in 597 from Canterbury in the south of England.

Fresh arrivals came from Ireland; the monastery with Columba as its abbot was soon a flourishing institution, from which the Dalriadian Scots in the south and the Picts beyond the Grampians were evangelized. When Columba died in 597, Christianity had been preached and received in every district in Caledonia, and in every island along its west coast. In the next century Iona had so prospered that its abbot, St. Adamnan, wrote in excellent Latin the "Life of St. Columba". From Iona had gone south the Irish Aidan and his Irish companions to evangelize Northumbria, Mercia, and Essex.

The monastery of Iona, founded by Columba, encouraged literary production in both languages. For example, one of its more famous abbots, Adomnán (679–704), mentioned already as the author of the Latin "Life of Columba," wrote a description in Latin of the significant sites in the Holy Land called "On the Holy Places" (De Locis Sanctis). Abbot Adomnán also wrote and promulgated a law (Cáin Adomnáin, 697), written in Irish, which was intended to protect women, children, and clerics from the ravages of warfare.

Saint Columba, the founder of the monastery at Iona, has a Latin hymn, "Exalted Creator" (Altus Prosator), attributed to him, although not all critics accept the attribution. Three poems in praise of Columba rank among the oldest complete poems in the Irish language. One of them, the "Eulogy for Columba" (Amra Choluim Chille), has been dated on linguistic grounds to around 600, which coincides well with Columba's death date of 597.

The monastery at Bangor also produced learned religious texts in Latin beside a vibrant vernacular literature of Irish tales. In the late seventh century a collection of beautiful religious poems and hymns in Latin, the "Antiphonary of Bangor," was compiled there. Important vernacular literature also came from Bangor. "The Voyage of Bran" (Immram Brain), perhaps the earliest example of the Irish "otherworld voyage," was written at Bangor. It tells of Bran's voyage across the Western Ocean and recounts the wonders that he encountered in a sinless otherworld. It employs a motif whereby characters in a pre-Patrician context prophesy the coming of Christianity and the salvation of the Irish. Tales in Irish about the early cultural hero Mongán mac Fiachnai also originated at Bangor.

Missionaries abroad

A page from the Book of Kells that opens the Gospel of John

Missionaries from Ireland to England and Continental Europe spread news of the flowering of learning, and scholars from other nations came to Irish monasteries. The excellence and isolation of these monasteries helped preserve Latin learning during the Early Middle Ages. The period of Insular art, mainly in the fields of illuminated manuscripts, metalworking, and sculpture flourished and produced such treasures as the Book of Kells, the Ardagh Chalice, and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island.

These monasteries served as sanctuary to many of the continents great scholars and theologians. It was here that the lamp of Latin learning was preserved for the ages. During this age, the great illuminated manuscripts of Ireland were produced. Arguably the finest such work is The Book of Kells which may still be viewed at Trinity College, Dublin.

The first significant renewal of learning in the West came with the Carolingian Renaissance of the Early Middle Ages. Charlemagne, advised by Peter of Pisa and Alcuin of York, attracted the scholars of England and Ireland, and by decree in AD 787 established schools in every abbey in his empire. These schools, from which the name scholasticism is derived, became centres of medieval learning. During the early Scholastic period, knowledge of the Greek language had vanished in the west except in Ireland, where it was widely dispersed in the monastic schools.[5]

Irish scholars had a considerable presence in the Frankish court, where they were renowned for their learning.[6] Among them was Johannes Scotus Eriugena, one of the founders of scholasticism.[7] Eriugena was the most significant Irish intellectual of the early monastic period, and an outstanding philosopher in terms of originality.[6] He had considerable familiarity with the Greek language, and translated many works into Latin, affording access to the Cappadocian Fathers and the Greek theological tradition.[6]

Arrival of the Vikings

During the ninth and tenth centuries, waves of Norse warriors ransacked the countryside. The Vikings plundered everything in sight. The monasteries were favourite targets for their treasures of golden religious ornaments.

As the eighth century neared its close, religion and learning still flourished; but unexpected dangers approached and a new enemy came, before whose assaults monk and monastery and saint and scholar disappeared. These invaders were the Danes from the coasts of Scandinavia. Pagans and pirates, they loved plunder and war, and were formidable foes both on land and sea. Descending from their ships along the coast of western Europe, they murdered the inhabitants or made them captives and slaves.

In Ireland as elsewhere they attacked the monasteries and churches, desecrated the altars, carried away the gold and silver vessels, and smoking ruins and murdered monks attested the fury of their assaults. Armagh and Bangor, Kildare and Clonmacnoise, Iona and Lindisfarne thus fell before their fury. Under native and Christian chiefs churches were destroyed, church lands appropriated by laymen, monastic schools deserted, and lay abbots ruled at Armagh and elsewhere. Bishops were consecrated without sees and conferred orders for money, there was chaos in church government and corruption everywhere.

In a series of synods beginning with Rathbreasail (1118) and including Kells, at which the pope's legate presided, many salutary enactments were passed, and for the first time diocesan episcopacy was established. Meanwhile, St. Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, had done very remarkable work in his own diocese and elsewhere. His early death in 1148 was a heavy blow to the cause of church reform. Nor could so many evils be cured in a single life, or by the labours of a single man; and in spite of his efforts and the efforts of others the decrees of synods were often flouted, and the new diocesan boundaries ignored.


In December 1154, Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, by the Treaty of Wallingford and a large fleet, became in addition Henry II, King of England. In that same month an Englishman, Nicholas Breakspeare, was elected Pope Adrian IV. Henry intended, as shown by his later Constitutions of Clarendon, to establish the supremacy of the civil law and courts above the ecclesiastical law and courts. In the first full year of Henry's reign (1155) he procured the Papal Bull Laudabiliter from the Hertfordshire born Pope Adrian IV authorizing Henry to proceed to conquer Ireland "to check the torrent of wickedness to reform evil manners, to sow the seeds of virtue". The quid pro quo was the condition that a penny should be yearly paid from each house to the See of Rome (the still extant Peter's Pence). Henry and the Pope also had other reasons (see Henry II, section “Lordship over Ireland”). The invasion was put aside while Henry attended to other matters. Henry continued to battle the supreme power of the Church, and Thomas à Beckett in England. In 1166, Henry took the opportunity to accede to the request by displaced Irish of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada for assistance in regaining his Irish territory. A first contingent of the Norman Invasion of Ireland came to Ireland in 1169 under Maurice Fitzgerald, followed by a stronger force under Strongbow (Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke) in 1170, the year Thomas à Beckett was murdered. In 1171 Henry himself landed at Waterford and proceeded to Dublin, where he spent the winter, and received the submission of most of the Irish chiefs. This submission was outlined in the Treaty of Windsor 1175.

Reformation and beyond

It was not until the end of the 17th centuries that the Crown of England gained full control of Ireland by means of a series of military campaigns in the period 1534–1691. During this period, the island was progressively colonised by English and Scottish Protestant settlers. Most of the Irish remained Roman Catholic.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII decided to destroy the power of the Anglo-Norman kings and take control of Ireland. As he did so, he put English lords in charge of confiscated land and plundered the Catholic monasteries and churches, as he had done in England. In 1536 during the Reformation, Henry arranged to be declared head of the Church in Ireland through an act of the Irish Parliament. When the Church of England was reformed under Edward VI, so too was the Church of Ireland.

In the beginning of his reign, Henry VIII was preoccupied with more pressing matters in England and on the European Continent, and therefore paid little attention to Ireland. It was not until he had reigned for a quarter of a century on the throne that he turned his attention to Ireland and then it was primarily due his conflict with the Church over his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Then Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which invested Henry with spiritual jurisdiction over England and proclaimed him head of the Church of England rather than the Pope. When the proctors of the clergy refused to agree to this measure, the irate monarch deprived them of the right of voting, confiscated church lands and suppressed monasteries, in some cases shedding the blood of their inmates, in the remaining cases evicting them and making them homeless and poor.

Elizabeth I

Fearing Ireland's Catholicism and strategic value for her enemies, Elizabeth consolidated English power in Ireland.

The established church in Ireland underwent a period of more radical Calvinist doctrine than occurred in England. James Ussher (later Archbishop of Armagh) authored the Irish Articles, adopted in 1615. In 1634, the Irish Convocation adopted the English Thirty-Nine Articles alongside the Irish Articles. After the Restoration of 1660, it seems that the Thirty-Nine Articles took precedence; they remain the official doctrine of the Church of Ireland even after disestablishment.[8]

The English-speaking minority mostly adhered to the Church of Ireland or to Presbyterianism, while the Irish-speaking majority remained faithful to the Latin liturgy of Roman Catholicism. From this period on, sectarian conflict became a recurrent theme in Irish history.

Translation of the Bible into Irish

The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until he was murdered in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam; it was finally completed by William O'Domhnuill (William Daniell, Archbishop of Tuam in succession to Donellan). Their work was printed in 1602. The work of translating the Old Testament was undertaken by William Bedel (1571–1642), Bishop of Kilmore, who completed his translation within the reign of Charles I, although it was not published until 1680 in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713), Archbishop of Dublin. William Bedell had undertaken a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was effected by John Richardson (1664–1747) and published in 1712.

The first translation of the entire Bible that was approved by the church was An Bíobla Naofa, supervised by Pádraig Ó Fiannachta at Maynooth and published in 1981.

Persecution and Penal Laws

The Irish Confederate Wars resulted in much destruction of church property. Irish Catholics were severely persecuted under Oliver Cromwell, their situation only slightly improving under the Stuart kings. The land settlements in the aftermath of these wars, and the defeat of James II in 1691, reduced Irish Catholic freeholders to a fraction of their previous size. The introduction of the Penal Laws further proscribed the practise of Roman Catholicism, with many priests and bishops forced into hiding or exile. Not until the 1770s did the religious climate relax, somewhat.

Protestant ascendancy (1691–1801)

Before the Stuart accession, Ireland was divided into thirty-four boroughs. In 1613, forty new boroughs were created, all of them dominated by Protestants. The consequence of this was the reduction of the Catholic majority in the Irish parliament to a minority. By the end of the seventeenth century all Catholics, representing some 85% of Ireland's population then, were banned from the Irish parliament. As a result, political power rested entirely in the hands of a British settler-colonial, and more specifically Anglican, minority while the Catholic population suffered severe political and economic privations.

By the late 18th century, many of the Anglo-Irish ruling class had come to see Ireland as their native country. A Parliamentary faction led by Henry Grattan agitated for a more favourable trading relationship with England and for greater legislative independence for the Parliament of Ireland. However, reform in Ireland stalled over the more radical proposals to enfranchise Irish Catholics. This was enabled in 1793, but Catholics could not yet enter parliament or become government officials.

Oath of Allegiance

By the Treaty of Limerick the Catholic soldiers of King James were pardoned, protected against forfeiture of their estates, and were free to go abroad if they chose. All Catholics might substitute an oath of allegiance for the oath of supremacy, and were to have such privileges "as were consistent with the laws of Ireland, or as they did enjoy in the reign of Charles II". King William also promised to have the Irish Parliament grant a further relaxation of the penal laws in force. This treaty, however, was soon torn to shreds, and in spite of William's appeals the Irish Parliament refused to ratify it, and embarked on fresh penal legislation. Under these new laws Catholics were excluded from Parliament, from the bench and bar, from the army and navy, from all civil offices, from the corporations, and even from the corporate towns. They could not have Catholic schools at home or attend foreign schools, or inherit landed property, or hold land under lease, or act as executors or administrators, or have arms or ammunition, or a horse worth £5. Neither could they bury their dead in Catholic ruins, or make pilgrimages to holy wells, or observe Catholic holidays. They could not intermarry with the Protestants, the clergyman assisting at such marriages being liable to death. The wife of a Catholic landlord turning Protestant got separate maintenance; the son turning Protestant got the whole estate; and the Catholic landlord having only Catholic children was obliged at death to divide his estate among his children in equal shares. All the regular clergy, as well as bishops and vicars-general should quit the kingdom. The secular clergy might remain, but must be registered, nor could they have on their churches either steeple or bell.

In 1728, the Catholics were to the Protestants as five to one. A few Catholics managed to hold their estates with the collaboration of friendly Protestants; the remainder gradually sank to the level of cottiers and day-labourers, reduced to a standard of living far below what they had been used to. Many Catholics chose to emigrate in the hopes of finding a more congenial environment.

Irish Parliament and the Passing of Tolerance

In the Irish Parliament meanwhile a spirit of independence appeared. As the Parliament of the Pale it had been so often used for factious purposes that in 1496 Poynings' Law was passed, providing that henceforth no Irish Parliament could meet, and no law could be proposed, without the previous consent of both the Irish and English Privy Councils. Further, the English Parliament claimed the right to legislate for Ireland; and in the laws prohibiting the importation of Irish cattle (1665), and Irish woollen manufactures (1698), and that dealing with the Irish forfeited estates (1700), it asserted its supposed right.

When one member, Molyneux, protested, the English Parliament condemned him, and ordered his book to be burned by the common hangman. Moreover, it passed an Act in 1719 expressly declaring that it had power to legislate for Ireland, taking away also the appellate jurisdiction of the Irish House of Lords. The fight made by Swift against Wood's halfpence showed that, though Molyneux was dead, his spirit lived; Lucas continued the fight, and Grattan in 1782 obtained legislative independence.

In 1778 by an Act enabling Catholics to hold all lands under lease; and in 1782 by a further Act allowing them to erect Catholic schools, with the permission of the Protestant bishop of the diocese, to own a horse worth more than £5, and to assist at Mass without being compelled to accuse the officiating priest. Nor were Catholic bishops any longer compelled to quit the kingdom, nor Catholic children specially rewarded if they turned Protestant. Not for ten years was there any further concession, and then an Act was passed allowing Catholics to erect schools without seeking Protestant permission, admitting Catholics to the Bar, and legalizing marriages between Protestants and Catholics. Much more important was the Act of 1793 giving the Catholics the Parliamentary and municipal franchise, admitting them to the universities and to military and civil offices, and removing all restrictions in regard to the tenure of land. They were still excluded from Parliament, from the inner Bar, and from a few of the higher civil and military offices.

Always in favour of religious liberty, Grattan would have swept away every vestige of the Penal code. But, in 1782, he mistakenly thought that his work was done when legislative independence was conceded. He forgot that the executive was still left independent of Parliament, answerable only to the English ministry; and that, with rotten boroughs controlled by a few great families, with an extremely limited franchise in the counties, and with pensioners and placemen filling so many seats, the Irish Parliament was but a mockery of representation.

Like Grattan, the king, whom Fitzgibbon had mischievously convinced that to admit Catholics to Parliament would be to violate his coronation oath. Possibly, other causes concurred with these to bring about the sudden and disastrous change which filled Catholic Ireland with grief, and the whole nation with dismay.

The new viceroy, Lord Camden, was instructed to conciliate the Catholic bishops by setting up a Catholic college for the training of Irish priests; this was done by the establishment of Maynooth College. But he was to set his face against all Parliamentary reform and all Catholic concessions. These things he did with a will. He at once restored Beresford to office and Foster and Fitzgibbon to favour, the latter being made Earl of Clare. And he stirred up but too successfully the dying embers of sectarian hate, with the result that the Ulster factions, the Protestant "Peep-of-Day Boys" and the Catholic "Defenders", became embittered with a change of names. The latter, turning to republican and revolutionary ways, joined the United Irish Society; the former became merged in the recently formed Orange Society, taking its name from William of Orange and having Protestant ascendancy and hatred of Catholicism as its battle cries. Extending from Ulster, these rival societies brought into the other provinces the curse of sectarian strife. Instead of putting down both, the Government took sides with the Orangemen; and, while their lawless acts were condoned, the Catholics were hunted down. An Arms' Act, an Insurrection Act, an Indemnity Act, a suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act placed them outside the pale of law. An undisciplined soldiery, recruited from the Orange lodges, were than let loose among them. Martial law, free quarters, flogging, picketing, half-hanging, destruction of Catholic property and life, outrages on women followed, until at last Catholic blood was turned into flame. Then Wexford rose. Looking back, it now seems certain that, had Hoche landed at Bantry in 1796, had even a small force landed at Wexford in 1798, or a few other counties displayed the heroism of Wexford, English power in Ireland would, temporarily at least, have been destroyed. But one county could not fight the British Empire, and the rebellion was soon quenched in blood.

Camden's place was then given to Lord Cornwallis, who came to Ireland for the express purpose of carrying a Legislative Union. Foster refused to support him and joined the opposition. Fitzgibbon, however, aided Cornwallis, and so did Castlereagh, who for some time had discharged the duties of chief secretary in the absence of Mr. Pelham, and who was now formally appointed to the office. And then began one of the most shameful chapters in Irish history. Even the corrupt Irish Parliament was reluctant to vote away its existence, and in 1799 the opposition was too strong for Castlereagh. But Pitt directed him to persevere, and the great struggle went on. On one side were eloquence and debating power, patriotism, and public virtue, Grattan, Plunket, and Bushe, Foster, Fitzgerald, Ponsonby, and Moore, a truly formidable combination. On the other side were the baser elements of in Parliament, the needy, the spendthrift, the meanly ambitious, operated upon by Castlereagh, with the whole resources of the British Empire at his command. The pensioners and placemen who voted against him at once lost their places and pensions, the military officer was refused promotion, the magistrate was turned off the bench. And while anti-Unionists were unsparingly punished, the Unionists got lavish rewards. The impecunious got well-paid sinecures; the briefless barrister was made a judge or a commissioner; the rich man, ambitious of social distinction, got a peerage, and places and pensions for his friends; and the owners of rotten boroughs to large sums for their interests. The Catholics were promised emancipation in a united Parliament, and in consequence many bishops, some clergy, and a few of the laity supported the Union, not grudging to end an assembly so bigoted and corrupt as the Irish Parliament. By these means Castlereagh triumphed, and in 1801 the United Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland opened its doors.

Catholic Emancipation

The next quarter of a century was a period of unrequited hope. Fox presented the Catholic petition in 1805, Pitt opposed it. After 1806, when both Pitt and Fox died, the Catholic champion was Grattan, who had entered the British Parliament in 1805. In the vain hope of conciliating opponents he was willing, in 1808, to concede the veto. Dr. Troy and the higher Catholics acquiesced. The other bishops were unwilling, and rejected the offer of a state-paid clergy or state-appointed bishops. The agitation of the question, however, did not cease, and for many years it distracted Catholic plans and weakened Catholic effort. Further complications arose when, in 1814, the prefect of the Propaganda, Quarantotti, issued a rescript favouring the veto. He acted, however, beyond his powers in the absence of Pius VII, who was in France. When the Pope returned to Rome, after the fall of Napoleon, the rescript was disavowed.

In these years the Catholics badly needed a leader. Wellington and Peel, steered the passage of the Catholic Relief Bill of 1829. The forty-shilling freeholders, however, were temporarily disfranchised, and provisions excluding Catholics from some of the higher civil and military offices, prohibiting priests from wearing vestments outside their churches, bishops from assuming the titles of their sees, and clergy from obtaining charitable bequests. In other respects U.K. Roman Catholics were placed on a level with other denominations, and at last were fully admitted within to the benefits fruits of the constitution.

The Irish Catholics had several grievances still calling for redress: the established state Church, landlordism, and educational inequality. Mr. Gladstone commenced with the Church of Ireland. He introduced a Bill disendowing and disestablishing it. Commissioners were appointed to wind it up, taking charge of its property, then computed at more than £15,000,000. Of this sum, £11,000,000, was given to the disestablished Church, part to the holders of existing offices, part to enable the Church to continue its work. A further sum of nearly £1,000,000 was distributed between Maynooth College, deprived of its annual grant, and the Presbyterian Church deprived of the Regium Donum, the latter getting twice as much as the former. The surplus was to be disposed of by Parliament for such public objects as it might determine.

Free State and Republic (1922–present)

Political map of Ireland

The Roman Catholic Church has had a powerful influence over the Irish state since its inception in 1922 although that influence has diminished somewhat in recent decades. The clergy's influence meant that the Irish state had very conservative social policies, banning, for example, divorce, contraception, abortion and pornography as well as encouraging the censoring of many books and films. In addition the church largely controlled the state's hospitals, schools and remained the largest provider of many other social services.

With the partition of Ireland in 1922, 92.6% of the Free State's population were Catholic while 7.4% were Protestant.[9] By the 1960s, the Protestant population had fallen by half. Although emigration was high among all the population, due to a lack of economic opportunity, the rate of Protestant emigration was disproportionate in this period. Many Protestants left the country in the early 1920s, either because they felt unwelcome in a predominantly Catholic and nationalist state, because they were afraid due to the burning of Protestant homes (particularly of the old landed class) by republicans during the civil war, because they regarded themselves as British and did not wish to live in an independent Irish state, or because of the economic disruption caused by the recent violence. The Catholic Church had also issued a decree, known as Ne Temere, whereby the children of marriages between Catholics and Protestants had to be brought up as Catholics.

Sexual abuse scandals

Since the early 1990s, the church in Ireland has been rocked by many cases of sexual abuse. Enquiries established that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of children in previous decades. In many cases, the abusing priests were moved to other parishes to avoid embarrassment or a scandal, assisted by senior clergy. By 2010 a number of in-depth judicial reports had been published, but with relatively few prosecutions.

See Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in Ireland and Magdalene asylum

Influence on Irish society



In the Irish Free State, now Ireland, the church had a great influence on public opinion as it had supervised public education for about 90% of the population since at least the 1830s. Historically it was associated with the Jacobite movement until 1766, and with Irish nationalism after Catholic emancipation was secured in 1829. The church was resurgent between 1829 and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869-71, when its most significant leaders included Bishop James Doyle, Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop MacHale. The hierarchy supported the democratic and mainly non-violent Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s, and its offshoots, and the policy of Irish Home Rule in 1886-1920. It did not support the Irish republican movement until 1921, as it espoused violence, in spite of support from many individual priests, and opposed the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war. Despite this relative moderation, Irish Protestants were concerned that a self-governing Ireland would result in "Rome Rule" instead of home rule, and this became an element in (or an excuse for) the creation of Northern Ireland.

Major popular church events attended by the political world have included the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and the Papal Visit in 1979. The last prelate with strong social and political interests was Archbishop McQuaid, who retired in 1972.


After independence in 1922, the Church remained heavily involved in health care and education, raising money and running institutions which were staffed by Catholic religious institutes, largely because the new state remained impoverished. Its main political effect was to continue to run schools where religious education was a major element. The hierarchy opposed the free public secondary schools service introduced in 1968 by Donogh O'Malley, in part because they ran almost all such schools. Some have argued that the church's strong efforts since the 1830s to continue the control of Catholic education was primarily to guarantee a continuing source of candidates for the priesthood, as they would have years of training before entering a seminary.[10]

Health care

From 1930 hospitals were funded by a sweepstake (lottery) with tickets frequently distributed or sold by nuns or priests. On health matters it was seen as unsympathetic to women's needs and in 1950 it opposed the Mother and Child Scheme.

Morality and censorship

It helped reinforce public censorship and maintained its own list of banned literature which influenced the State's list. Divorce allowing remarriage was banned in 1924 (though it had been rare), and selling artificial contraception was made illegal. The Church's influence slipped somewhat after 1970, impacted partly by the media and the growing feminist movement. For instance the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 showed the ability of the Catholic Church to force the government into a compromise situation over artificial contraception, though unable to get the result it wanted; contraception could now be bought, but only with a prescription from a doctor and supplied only by registered chemists. In the 1983 Amendment to the constitution introduced the constitutional prohibition of abortion, which the Church supported, though abortion for social reasons remains illegal under Irish statute law. However the Church failed to influence the June, 1996, removal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce. While the church had opposed divorce allowing remarriage in civil law, its canon law allowed for a law of nullity and a limited divorce "a mensa et thoro", effectively a form of marital separation.

Northern Ireland

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 acted as the constitution of Northern Ireland, in which was enshrined freedom of religion for all of Northern Ireland's citizens.[11] Here Roman Catholics formed a minority of some 35% of the population, which had mostly supported Irish nationalism and was therefore historically opposed to the creation of Northern Ireland.

The Roman Catholic schools' council was at first resistant in accepting the role of the government of Northern Ireland, and initially accepted funding only from the government of the Irish Free State and admitting no school inspectors. Thus it was that the Lynn Committee presented a report to the government, from which an Education Bill was created to update the education system in Northern Ireland, without any co-operation from the Roman Catholic section in education. Instead, in regard to the Roman Catholic schools, the report relied on the guidance of a Roman Catholic who was to become the Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Education — A. N. Bonaparte Wyse.

Many commentators have suggested that the separate education systems in Northern Ireland after 1921 prolonged the sectarian divisions in that community. Cases of gerrymandering and preference in public services for non-Catholics led on to the need for a Civil Rights movement in 1967.

Vatican II

In both parts of Ireland Church policy and practice changed markedly after the Vatican II reforms of 1962. Probably the largest change was that Mass could be said in vernacular languages and not in Latin, and in 1981 the Church commissioned its first edition of the Bible in Irish.

See also


  1. ^ Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (London, 1995); T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christians Ireland (Cambridge, 2000); W. Davies, ‘The Myth of the Celtic Church’, in N. Edwards and A. Lane, The Early Church in Wales and the West (Oxbow Monograph 16, Oxford, 1992), pp. 12-21; Kathleen Hughes, ‘The Celtic Church: is this a valid concept?’, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 1 (1981), pp. 1-20; Kathleen Hughes, The Church in Early English Society (London, 1966); W. Davies and P. Wormald, The Celtic Church (Audio Learning Tapes, 1980).
  2. ^ Patrick Wormald, ‘Bede and the ‘Church of the English’’, in The Times of Bede, ed. Stephen Baxter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 207.
  3. ^ Richard Sharpe, ‘Some problems concerning the organization of the Church in early medieval Ireland’, Peritia 3 (1984), pp. 230-270; Patrick Wormald, ‘Bede and the ‘Church of the English’’, in The Times of Bede, ed. Stephen Baxter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 207-208, 220 n. 3
  4. ^ , Chapter VIIIAn Illustrated History of IrelandCusack, Margaret Anne, "Mission of St. Palladius",
  5. ^ MacManus, p 215
  6. ^ a b c "John Scottus Eriugena".  
  7. ^ Toman, p 10: "Abelard himself was… together with John Scotus Erigena (9th century), and Lanfranc and Anselm of Canterbury (both 11th century), one of the founders of scholasticism."
  8. ^ Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume I. The History of Creeds. | Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  9. ^ M.E.Collins, Ireland 1868-1966, (1993) p.431
  10. ^ E. Brian Titley "Church, State and the control of schooling in Ireland 1900-1944"; McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, New York 1983.
  11. ^ His Majesty's Government (23 December 1920). "The Constitution of Northern Ireland being the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, as amended (Clause 5)". Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1956. Retrieved 2007-02-13. 
  12. ^ Morrison, John (1993). "The Ulster Government and Internal Opposition". The Ulster Cover-Up.  


  • Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Volume IV:Mediavel christianity. AD 590-1073. 

Further reading

  • Anderson, Alan Orr, and Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson, eds. and trans. Adomnán's Life of Columba. 1961. Revised, 1991.
  • Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1995
  • Charles-Edwards, T. M. Early Christian Ireland. 2000.
  • Clancy, Thomas Owen, and Gilbert Márkus, OP. Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery. 1995.
  • Colgrave, Bertram, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 1969.
  • Curtis, Maurice. The Splendid Cause: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland. Dublin, 2008.
  • Curtis, Maurice. Influence and Control: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. USA, 2009.
  • De Paor, Liam. Saint Patrick's World: The Christian Culture of Ireland's Apostolic Age. 1993. Reprint, 1996.
  • Flower, Robin. The Irish Tradition. 1947. Reprint, 1994.
  • Hughes, Kathleen. The Church in Early Irish Society. 1966.
  • Hughes, Kathleen. Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources. 1972.
  • Kenney, James F. The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical, An Introduction and Guide. 1929. Reprinted, 1993.
  • Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Medieval Ireland, 400–1200. 1995.
  • O'Loughlin, Thomas. Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writing. 2000.
  • Richter, Michael. Medieval Ireland: The Enduring Tradition. 1988.
  • Ryan, John. Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development. 1931. 2d edition, 1972. Reprint, 1992.
  • Sharpe, Richard, trans. Life of St. Columba. 1995.
  • Walker, G. S. M., ed. Sancti Columbani Opera. 1957. Reprinted, 1970.
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