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Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Seven


Chapter Summary, This chapter describes the place of religion in Ireland, and the principal Churches and denominations. The temperance movement was strongly promoted by the Churches. The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.


Church of Ireland





Religion in Ireland

          Like Great Britain, the United States and most of the Protestant countries of northern Europe, Ireland was a very religious country, at least as far as external practices went. It was not affected by the irreligious and anti-clerical movements which were so conspicuous in France and Italy.

There was tremendous activity in all the Churches and intense rivalry between them, though the Government frowned on poaching from each other as it was liable to lead to public disturbances. All the major and minor Churches were engaged in the same kinds of activity. New churches were built and old ones repaired. Education was given the highest priority in the three major Churches, who wished to have exclusive control over the education of their own children. Lay movements abounded, the chief of which was the temperance movement, which was always trying to get the Government to restrict the sale of alcohol. There was enthusiasm too for establishing missions among the pagans, not only in the British Empire, but also in China. The growth of religious orders among the Catholics was conspicuous, but lay Protestant men and women were equally dedicated to good works.

Every effort was made to ensure that adherents attended their local church at least weekly, and took the Sacrament of Communion at least once a year. The three major Churches regarded the failure to take the Sacrament at Easter as a sign that the individual had lapsed from the faith, so strong social pressure was applied to make people conform in order to not let the side down. Not only was the Sabbath strictly observed but in many places people went to church three times on Sunday. As Protestants observed the Sabbath rest strictly there was little else to do. Catholics interpreted the obligation of abstaining from work on the Sabbath more liberally. All unnecessary servile work was prohibited, therefore any work which was necessary could be done, and also any work not servile, which was interpreted as work commonly done by slaves. It allowed intellectual work such as study and reasonable recreation like playing games. Protestants regarded such lax interpretations as typical of the evils of Popery. It was an age when great social pressures could be brought on individuals. A man could be dismissed from his job for not attending church. But the passing of the various Factory and Shop Acts removed the responsibility of masters to look after the morals of their servants.

All members of parliament and of the courts had to display their practice of religion. Irreligion would not be tolerated in public life. The members of the armed forces were marched to church services on a Sunday morning, though Catholics were not compelled. The political careers of Sir Charles Dilke and Charles Stuart Parnell were ruined by allegations of adulterous liaisons (DNB, Dilke, Parnell). Religious bigots like Cardinal Cullen engaged in a constant warfare against Protestant orphanages, because, like all religious institutions at the time they inculcated their own brand of Christianity.

Nowadays, the Republic of Ireland is considered a very Catholic country, but in the 19th century it looked very like a Protestant country. Numerically Catholics formed more than three quarters of the population but the vast majority of them were working class, who participated little in public life either in Ireland or in Britain. They left school aged about 12 or 13, took manual jobs, and got on with their own affairs. With regard to the middle and upper classes, Protestants were more fully represented, and the further up the social, political, educational, economic or professional ladders one went the more likely it was to find Protestants. Ireland could be described as largely a Protestant country in all but numbers (MacDowell, Church of Ireland, 1-6). Middle class Catholics often felt that they should have more power and influence. But this was hard to achieve for those already in positions of importance had all the advantages. Hence the attractiveness of a violent solution.[Top] 


There was one significant difference between the Catholic Church up to 1850 and after 1850. The Synod of Thurles (1850) was ostensibly about finding a common policy for the Irish bishops to agree on with regard to the new secular Queen’s Colleges. But it really was a struggle for power between two factions among the clergy. One party, led by Archbishop Daniel Murray, wished that priests should take no part in politics, which should be left to Catholic laymen. The other party, led by Archbishop Cullen of Dublin and Archbishop MacHale of Tuam believed that Catholic priests should give a lead to Catholic laymen. Cullen’s party, the political priests, won.

Before that date, the Catholic clergy and laity just sought the freedom of religious worship such as was to be found in the United States. After that date, whenever possible, they backed movements for an independent Irish parliament, in which most of the MPs would be Catholics and the Catholic Church would be supported by the state and support the state as was the case in royalist France and Spain. The Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX of 8 December 1864 condemned the thesis that Church and State should be separated. This suited the party of Cullen and MacHale for in an independent Ireland the Catholic Church would be the Established Church. Up until 1916 the Catholic clergyled by Cardinal Cullen and his successors, took a strong line against the armed revolutionary movement of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) or Fenians which they considered inspired by anti-clerical movements on the Continent. The Home Rule or Nationalist Party was not established as a Catholic party, but as one open to men of all religions. However the Catholic clergy involved themselves in its political organisation, in the collection of funds, in the direction of policy, the selection of candidates, and in the organisation of elections. It became a Catholic Party in all but name, and between 1850 and 1921 Catholic clergymen were at the core of political life in Ireland.

There no persecution of Catholics, nor was it illegal to celebrate Catholic rites. Some minor restrictions imposed by the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) like those concerning religious orders were ignored from the start. Others, like exclusion from the office of Lord Chancellor and Lord Lieutenant, were removed when occasion arose. However, the political priests professed to see every advantage given to other Churches as an oppression of themselves. They objected to the fact that the Government refused to countenance sectarian education. The Synod of Thurles was made the touchstone of orthodoxy. If you had any doubt about the wisdom of the decrees you never got promotion. Nowadays, nobody would even attempt to defend the decrees. Cullen in addition was violently anti-Protestant and could see no good in them at all. It was even made a reserved sin to enter a Protestant church during times of service, i.e. the bishop reserved the giving of absolution to himself. This policy was carried to extremes. At the funeral of a respected Protestant neighbour, Catholic men had to wait outside the gates to the grounds of the church, follow the cortege beside the others along the public road until they came to the gates of the cemetery, and then wait outside.

The Catholic Church lost all its property at the Reformation when most of the bishops, clergy, and leaders of the laity submitted to the king. Because of this submission, the Established Church maintained it was the true heir of the early and medieval Church in Ireland, always referred to the Catholics as Roman Catholics, and considered that Roman Catholic Church in Ireland was merely an Italian mission (Church of Ireland Gazette 31 July 1903). Catholics like Cullen maintained that doctrinally, the Protestants had defected from the faith, and consequently had no right to the church property which they were alleged to have stolen. There is no doubt however that the Protestants were legally in the right with regard to the property, and theological niceties had no place in a court of common law. New churches had to be built in each parish, but in this the Catholic Church was not in different position from the Catholic Church in the United States, or from the Presbyterians who also had to build their own churches.

Yet the nationalism of the Catholic clergy was often very moderate. They wanted a degree of Home Rule where a Catholic Parliament would support Catholic education and Catholic institutions, but they did not object to the Government as such. In Cardinal Cullen’s time all contact with the Irish Government was shunned, but earlier and later archbishops were more relaxed. When the new king, Edward VII, came to Ireland in 1903 he was welcomed in Maynooth by the hierarchy. Cardinal Logue dined with the Lord Lieutenant, with Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and George V. The Irish Government valued their assistance against agrarian crime. When the Liberals began to try to introduce Home Rule contacts with the Government became very close.

The Catholic Church in Ireland consisted of about 1,000 local parishes under parish priests organised into about 28 dioceses under bishops, which were in turn organised in four provinces under archbishops. (Some dioceses were combined under the same bishop.) The Archbishop of Armagh was called the Primate of all Ireland and the Archbishop of Dublin was called the Primate of Ireland, but apart from chairing meetings of bishops there were few rights attached to the title which was one of honour (Keenan, Catholic Church 48-57). As all the endowment lands and church buildings remained with the Established Church, the Catholic clergy after the Reformation had to subsist on the contributions of their parishioners. Collections for the support of the priests were made twice a year, and were called ‘the dues’. The priests had other sources of income, the most important of which was the payment of sums to a priest to say masses. Priests could receive charitable bequests. Small sums too could be charged for copies of birth and marriage certificates, and for the witnessing of a wedding. The other sacraments were administered gratis. A separate collection, the penny collection, was taken up every Sunday for the maintenance of the parish churches.

The Royal College of Maynooth was built by the British Government and was supported by an annual grant from Parliament. In Maynooth candidates, who had received a full classical education at grammar school level, followed a three or four year course in philosophy and theology. Though the standard of Maynooth was regarded as below university standard, its alumni were regarded as the cream of the clergy as far as education went. At other theological colleges called seminaries the standard of education was lower, and might last for only two years of theology, or even less, if a vacancy in the diocese occurred. The Council of Trent had enacted that parish priests had to know a single volume, the Roman catechism, and to be able to perform the rites in a dignified manner. Many Continental priests studied at a university. Even if the standard in rural parishes was not high it was far from being the minimum. The best students were sent to study for doctorates in universities on the Continent to provide an adequately-equipped senior cadre of clergy. From the ranks of the latter bishops were usually drawn.

Bishops were called ‘Doctor’ whether or not they had a degree, were referred to as ‘Most Reverend’ instead of Right Reverend, and addressed as ‘My lord’ though if fact no claim to nobility was being made. These were merely customary forms. Cardinal and Monsignor were papal titles, ostensibly with duties at the papal court, but for the most part titles of honour. The honour of cardinal was respected by the Crown and the Government like any other distinguished foreign honour. Bishops had duties outside Ireland only if called to an ecumenical council. One of these, the First Vatican Council, sat in 1869-70. Cardinals were summoned to conclaves in Rome to elect a new pope. Conclaves were held in 1878, 1903, and 1914. Cardinal Cullen of Dublin was the first Irish cardinal, but afterwards to honour was usually conferred on the Archbishop of Armagh as the more senior.

Socially, the priests came from the ranks of the strong farmers and richer merchants, who were able to afford the fees, and politically were closely allied with the interests of that class. They backed the richer middle class and parliamentary methods, and opposed those who advocated revolutionary or criminal methods. Too exact a distinction cannot be made, as in the case of the Land League, when they supported the objectives but did not condone some of the methods. Many Protestants felt that their condemnations of terrorists were at best half-hearted, especially as they believed that the income of the clergy came entirely from those they had to condemn.

At times, their anti-Protestant, anti-landlord, anti-British rhetoric could be extreme, and nowadays would be condemned as exciting religious and racial hatred. Nor were they noted for checking their facts as they could have easily done if they had been on speaking-terms with the Protestant clergy. The Articles in the Catholic Encyclopaedia regarding Ireland make astonishing reading nowadays with a style reminiscent of Dr Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.

The Catholic clergy were resolute that the Protestant minority had no rights against the Catholic majority and that they would just have to accept domination by a Catholic Parliament. Some Protestants accepted this but the majority of them did not. No attempts were made to mediate a solution satisfactory to both sides. The orders of Protestant clergy were not recognised as valid, so Protestant clergymen were considered to be laymen. Some Presbyterians might have been persuaded to join them had the Catholic clergy supported them in their crusade against alcohol. Nor were the Irish Catholic clergy more anxious to investigate violence or corruption than their American counterparts were to look too closely at Tammany Hall. With Catholic bishops and cardinals in such close contact with the Government, especially after Asquith announced that he would bring in a Home Rule Bill, Irish Protestants had good reason to be alarmed. They all knew what Tammany Hall in Dublin signified. After 1916, Sinn Fein emerged as a front for the IRB, but did not mention the use of violence. Over 100 Catholic priests attended a Sinn Fein convention in 1917, and thereafter members of the IRA had no difficulty in getting priests to give them absolution before going out on a terrorist mission which they called a ‘war for independence’. Nor had the Catholic clergy any difficulty in reconciling themselves to Sinn Fein and the IRA when the latter won. The struggle to control education is described under education.

Politics apart, the Catholic clergy were as diligent in the discharge of their religious duties as the Protestant clergy. It was a time when it was felt to be the duty of every clergyman to denounce sin and to try to force wayward members of their flocks back onto the narrow path to salvation. One of their sanctions was to read out the names of sinful persons from the altar if the person’s behaviour was a public scandal. They were bound to celibacy and led irreproachable lives apart from their besetting sin alcoholism which caused the most concern to bishops. If there was any other complaint against the Catholic clergy it was that they were too fond of money. As noted elsewhere, in rural areas, crime, apart from agrarian or politically-motivated was rare. Drunkenness was quite common with the resulting distress caused to wives and families.

A sympathetic account of a priest’s life in a rural parish on the west coast was written by a priest in 1898 and became a deserved classic. It is My New Curate, by Canon Sheehan. In it (pp 164-5) he describes his own generation of priests. Like most of the priests of his generation he disliked the attitudes of the previous generation who sought to engage with Protestants and the Protestant Government rather than confront them. They took their politics from Daniel O’Connell and their theology from St Alphonsus, who was a rather strict moralist. He notes their zeal and energy, and said they often spent ten hours a day in the saddle. They confronted sin with vigour, and denounced sinners. They were rigorists who did not believe in making repentance easy, and might defer absolution for months, until they were sure the sinner had really repented. They did not shirk from reading out the names of sinners from the altar. (The clergy of the other denominations acted in the same manner). In rural dioceses, especially in the West, these priests were opposed to the new devotions, considering communion at Christmas and Easter, and wearing the brown scapular, the strict observance of the Lenten fast, and abstinence from meat on a Friday were sufficient. The Lenten fast was relaxed by the Synod of Maynooth (1927).

The gross national product per capita in Ireland rose steadily, so there was more money available to spend on religious and charitable objects. About 3,000 churches were built, re-built, or enlarged, about three for every parish (Keenan, Catholic Church, 237-9). The number of girls becoming nuns and devoting the lives to good works rose steadily. 8,031 were recorded in the census of 1901. Young men became priests or religious brothers. Many of these priests had to seek parishes in England, the United States, Australia, and in most parts of the British Empire. The number of charitable institutions grew. Almost every one of the 100 towns in Ireland had a convent  where the nuns managed a school, a hospital, an orphanage or other institution, or worked in the local prisons, lunatic asylums, or hospitals.

The whole period was not an irenic or ecumenical one. Cardinal Cullen hated Protestants, regarding them only as heretics. Some ecumenically-inclined persons in England tried to get Rome to regard Anglican orders as valid. But Leo XIII in his Bull “Apostolicae Curae on the 18th of September 1896 wrote “Wherefore, strictly adhering in this matter to the decrees of the Pontiffs Our Predecessors, and confirming them most fully, and, as it were, renewing them by Our authority, of Our own motion and certain knowledge We pronounce and declare that ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been and are absolutely null and void” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). This decision was based on actions of the English bishops in the reign of Edward VI, and did not decide on the validity of orders in the Church of Ireland which had a completely different history. But Irish Catholics applied the decision to the Irish Church as well. The two Churches were content to ignore each other.

 Though it originated in Rome, and was concerned with Catholic marriages everywhere in the world, the decree Ne temere  issued in 1907 by the Roman Congregation of the Council with regard to marriage was regarded by most Protestants as an attack on their faith. The relevant point was that all Catholic marriages, including mixed marriages, in order to be valid religious marriages, had to be celebrated before an accredited Catholic priest, normally the parish priest of the bride’s parish. This changed the existing canon law in Ireland dating from a dispensation given in 1785 which recognised as valid those marriages in conformity with civil law. British law had by the Marriage Act (1753) been brought into close conformity with Catholic canon law as far as legal requirements were concerned. Sacramentally there was no difference. Though the effects were more social than religious, Protestants felt their religion was being attacked.

There was very little of the medieval about the Catholic Church. In the centuries of the penal laws against popery, Catholics kept a low profile with little external display while adopting the Tridentine reforms. The clergy were educated on the Continent so within the churches, especially in towns, there was a rather garish watered-down baroque display. The singing of the mass had been discontinued, and was just read in a low voice by the priest. Apart from the fact that Latin was used instead of English and coloured vestments used the general appearance of the worship was little different from that in Protestant churches. The fact that part of the service, the sermon, was in English gave it a prominence similar to that in Protestant churches. Nevertheless, the belief of Catholics that Jesus was present in every church in a physical way impressed on their minds that their local church or chapel really was the House of God. (‘This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven’ Genesis 28.17.) The dress of the clergy outside their churches was almost identical. As the nineteenth century advanced, Catholics became bolder about displaying their religion, and outdoor processions with hymns, lights, incense, and banners in the Italian manner, became common. This was true in the United States as well where the Catholic churches became known as the most colourful. In the second half of the nineteenth century, under the growing influence of ultramontanism, an enthusiasm for all things papal and Roman and the baroque spectacle increased. In addition, in Ireland, as elsewhere, there was a great development of personal ‘devotions’ which became known as the ‘Devotional Revolution’. Nearly every Catholic cultivated a devotion to a particular saint, or to a particular aspect of religion, like the ‘Precious Blood’ or the ‘Five Wounds’, or the brown scapular promoted by the Carmelite Order. By far the most popular devotions were to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to Mary, the Mother of God under various aspects (Corish, Irish Catholic Experience, 210-12).

During this period, religious and political beliefs became fused. The beliefs of Romantic Nationalism and the traditional Catholic teaching were melded into a single belief summed up in the phrase ‘Catholic Ireland’. To strive for Home Rule under Catholic politicians was the same as advancing the kingdom of God. There was another point where a common belief of the period was adopted without questioning it, and that was the alleged world-wide conspiracy of the Jews and Freemasons to take over the world and to corrupt it. They believed that all the great newspapers on the Continent were owned by Freemasons and Jews who were waging an unremitting war on the Catholic Church. They also got into Ireland, and their anti-clerical Articles from newspapers also run by Freemasons and Jews were being read by the light of the fire at the forge (Sheehan, My New Curate, 96). Adolf Hitler was not original in his belief. There was only one recorded pogrom against the Jews in Ireland, who were usually just treated with contempt. Though underlying Irish culture anti-semitism was not prominent.

Many Irish priests followed the diaspora of the Irish to England, the United States, and every country in the Empire, and built up the Catholic Church in those countries from the readymade congregations. It was not until the last decade of the 19th century that attempts were made from Ireland to preach to the pagans, first into Nigeria, and then into China. Gradually, the Irish provinces of most of the religious orders undertook missionary work in prefectures apostolic in most parts of the world. [Top] 

Church of Ireland

          The Church of Ireland (Church by law established) was an Episcopal Church. At the Reformation it followed the edicts of the King, Henry VIII, in his attempts to reform the Church and remove any accretions of superstition. Unlike the rigidly logical Presbyterians who took as their motto, Salvation by Faith Alone, and stripped away everything except the preaching of the Word of God as written in the Bible, Anglicans accepted many traditional customs and practices. They accepted the decisions of the first five ecumenical councils and sought to justify their interpretation of Christianity by studying the early Fathers of the Church. They believed in a visible Church, a hierarchy, sacraments, fasts and so on. As one bishop put it, when celebrating Communion, he intended doing what Saint Augustine did in the 4th century, though he rejected later interpretations of what that might be. They allowed a married clergy.

            After the decline in religion in Europe in 18th century, a revival commenced towards the middle of that century, and the Established Church was the first of the three main Churches in Ireland to commence reforming itself. All through the 19th century the clergy of the Church of Ireland were of a higher social status, somewhat wealthier, and better educated than the clergy of the other two Churches. They were equal in zeal, and noted for their charity towards the poor. In Trinity College, Dublin, they had a university where theology could be studied to the highest level. Indeed in all the sciences Trinity College was among the world’s leading universities. The lay members of the Established Church filled the most important posts in all spheres and professions. The other two Churches were in a position of poor relations.

            The great problem was that it was a state-established Church in a country where the bulk of the population did not belong to it, but had to contribute to its support. Up to 1829 when Robert Peel got the Catholic Relief Act (1829) passed Irish Protestants were more or less evenly divided into pro-ascendancy and pro-Catholic factions. Ascendancy meant retaining the privileges of the Protestant religion. After 1829 the division remained as High Tories and Peelites and Whigs. After 1886 the chief division was with regard to Home Rule. The Whigs long conceded that the position of the Established Church was unsustainable, and that they would have to give up some of their privileges. The established clergy resisted fiercely until that strange figure, William Gladstone, decided to disestablish and disendow the Church of Ireland. Disestablishment would mean that the Church of Ireland would be stripped of its privileges; disendowment meant that all its wealth would be confiscated without compensation. As at the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century individual clergymen would be given a modest pension for life, but all their lands would be seized by the Government. There was no protest from the Catholic Church which always protested when socialists or communists wanted to seize property without compensation. The Catholics believed that it was only money which maintained the Established Church and when it was gone, they would submit to Rome. The Presbyterians believed that when the clergy were forced to depend on the voluntary contributions of the laity, the laymen would seize control and establish a Presbyterian form of Government.

            The members of the Church of Ireland reacted strongly and positively to disestablishment and disendowment. They called a convocation of the clergy and expanded it into a General Convention which included laymen, which adjusted the Church to its new status. A whole new administrative structure or constitution for the Irish Church had to be devised as the queen was no longer its supreme governor. It was agreed that a general synod of the Irish dioceses would be the supreme authority, and it remained in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, recognising his honorary primacy. The synod met as two ‘houses’ the house of bishops and the house of representatives. The representatives of the clergy and laity normally vote as a body, but can vote separately. The representatives are elected by diocesan synods (Milne, Church of Ireland, 50).There was a prolonged debate over a new version of the Prayer Book because some from the evangelical wing wanted the wording changed so as to express their belief that Christ was present in the Sacrament by faith only and not otherwise. This was expressly aimed at those clergy who wished for an open interpretation in line with those of the Oxford Movement. Some of the bishops resolutely disapproved of such a change, saying that they should not try to make clear what was not clear in the Scriptures, and that their practice was to be that of the ancient Church. The bishops won.

The Irish Church Act (1869) specified that a Representative Church Body consisting of the bishops, two lay and one clerical representative from each diocese, plus 14 co-opted members, should receive from the Government and manage the sum of nearly £8 million as a Commutation Fund in lieu of individual annuities. It also had to replace the lost revenues of the Church. This they did, not by direct support from the laity but by re-building the endowments. In this they were fortunate, for revenues from land at that date were high. Actuaries for the Government calculated that to provide an income for incumbents in parishes for 10½ years and curates for 16 years a sum of £7,581, 075 would have to be invested at 3% to buy out their interest. The sum actually made available came to just over £5 million because some annuitants did not commute, or received part of what was due to them as capital. The plan adopted was to persuade as many as possible of the clergy to hand over their income to the finance committee who would then re-invest it at 4% or 4½% while paying the original annual income to the clergyman. In this way, and also by contributions from the people in the parishes an endowment fund was built up. The people contributed around £13 million. There was a shortfall, and by 1903 another appeal had to be made to the people for more funds (Church of Ireland Gazette 16 Oct., 18 Dec. 1903; MacDowell, Church of Ireland 65-70, Milne, Church of Ireland, 51). Again, after the inflation caused by the First World War a further appeal had to be made.

The confiscation of the Church lands, tithes, etc. was assigned by the Government to a Board of Church Commissioners who had to dispose of the land, which could not be done immediately. They therefore had to borrow the sums that were to be paid over. The total value of the Church lands probably came to £32 million of which about half was paid out in annuities, compensation, and interest on loans. The remainder provided a fund out of which money could be paid for projects of public interest. About £13 million was thus paid out. Strangely, tithes over which there had been such great disputes were not abolished, but paid to the state. They had long since been included in the rent (Beckett, Modern Ireland, 368-9).They were at first paid to the Church Temporalities Commissioners and then to the Land Commission. Tithe payers could buy out the tithes by means of instalments spread over 52 years or by a capital payment.

            Irish bishops had formerly been appointed by the Lord Lieutenant, but now got the right to choose their own bishops. Unlike in the Catholic Church in Ireland, the new German ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Bible was accepted and taught in the universities and clergy training colleges. (By analysing the text of the Bible, German philologists concluded that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, but that it was assembled from four distinct sources. This is accepted almost everywhere nowadays.) The canons and decrees of the Council of Trent were studied by students of divinity. Trinity College kept up instruction in the Irish language, for there were many parts of Ireland where it was necessary for preaching.

            The Irish Church leaned strongly towards the evangelical or ‘Low Church’ side, stressing the Bible and personal piety in contrast to the High Church side which stressed liturgical worship, the conferring of the sacraments, and the role of bishops. In England, there arose what was called the Oxford or Tractarian Movement which stressed public worship, the celebration of the sacraments, and the ornamentation of churches. Some of its leaders became Catholics, but two of them in particular, the Rev. John Keble and the Rev. Edward Pusey remained in the Church of England. Their followers became known as Tractarians, Puseyites or Ritualists. A few churches in Dublin, notably St Bartholomew’s in Grangegorman outside Dublin, aroused much controversy by following Tractarian trends. The rector placed a coloured cloth in front of the communion table, and placed flowers on it. The church glowed with stained glass and on festival days floral decorations were added. All seats were free and open, and none were reserved for high or low, rich or poor. The congregation faithfully observed the rubrics, all kneeling and rising together. All rose to sing the hymns. The responses were uttered heartily, not muttered. During the processions in and out from the services the whole congregation stood, and remained standing until the end of the procession disappeared. This description in the Church of Ireland Gazette (26 April 1901) also indicates by their opposites what the practice was in other churches. Tractarianism had increasing, powerful, and long-lasting effects on the whole Anglican Communion

            There was a tradition of antiquarian studies dating back to Sir James Ware in the 17th century when the monastic tradition of the annalists was coming to an end. In the nineteenth century scholars from Trinity College Dublin were in the forefront of studies of Irish antiquities, especially ecclesiastical antiquities and the mission of St. Patrick whose true heirs they claimed to be. They were in the forefront too of efforts to revive the Irish language which had almost died out. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, but it was hijacked by extreme republican elements who wished to treat all Protestants as enemies. There was a long correspondence in the Church of Ireland Gazette in 1904, where a clergyman, the Rev. James Owen Hannay (George Birmingham), tried to maintain that the Gaelic League was not hostile to Protestants, but the editor disagreed (Church of Ireland Gazette 17 June 1904). It should be noted that Irish Protestants celebrated St Patrick’s Day. For a long time the only version of the Bible in Irish was a Protestant translation of the 17th century (Church of Ireland Gazette 22 Feb. 1900). An updated version of the New Testament removing obsolete words and inflections not used in Munster was prepared in the 19th century.

The Irish Church, like those in England, devoted considerable effort and money towards the foreign missions. Up to the beginning of the 19th century, foreign missions were the preserve of the Catholics, especially of the religious orders. The founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804 in London with the aim of translating the Bible into various languages and distributing it all around the world marked the beginning of missionary endeavour. This was made easier by the spread of the British Empire, but it also spread to China. The Catholics had an advantage, for they always sent out celibate priests, brothers, and nuns, while the Protestants had usually to support the missionary’s family. Dublin University maintained a mission and hospital in China. Since 1884 the Church set aside a Mission Day to pray for the missions, and it also contributed liberally in men, women and money (Church of Ireland Gazette 7 Aug, 20 Nov 1903).The Church had a mission to the Jews to try to convert them to Christianity.

            Though not favoured by the Government, or by many of the bishops, Protestant missionary societies persisted in their attempts to rescue, as they saw it, the poorer Catholics from their supposed superstition and idolatry. They were met largely with abuse and ridicule. [[Top]


          Though the Presbyterians had congregations thinly scattered all over Ireland, their great strength was in the North East around Belfast. However there were 11 Presbyterian churches in Dublin. Although Dublin is nowadays considered a very Catholic city, in those days it was in everything except numbers in the working classes a very Protestant city. In Belfast in 1920 there were 33 Presbyterian churches against 20 of the Church of Ireland, 5 of the Methodists, and 6 of the Catholics. In the 19th century most Presbyterians, except those of the Remonstrant or Non-Subscribing Synod, had banded together in a General Assembly. It was understood that the Queen’s College in Belfast would be used mostly by Presbyterian students and its first two presidents were Presbyterian clergymen. Divinity could not be taught in the College. But the Assembly’s College was built beside the Queen’s College, so that divinity students could attend lectures in both. The Assembly’s College received an annual grant until the disestablishment of the Irish Church when it was given a lump sum. The Non-Subscribing clergy held sway in the Belfast Academical Institution which was originally open to all Presbyterians and even Catholics. The Belfast Presbyterians, unlike those in Scotland, did not oppose established Churches in principle. Individual professors got involved in disputes with regard to the German Higher Criticism and Darwin’s theory of evolution, but in general the ministers were against the new theories (Brooke, in Beckett, The Making of the City, 111-128).

Most of the great businesses in Belfast were owned by Presbyterians whose wealth flowed into their churches. In rural areas Presbyterians were stronger in some parts than in others. In theory, all local Presbyterian churches were self-supporting, and the elders (presbyters) called a qualified clergyman to be their minister, and paid him a salary. Nevertheless, since a grant was given by William III as a royal gift, regium donum, in 1691, and later augmented at the time of the French Revolution, ministers were not entirely dependent on their congregations. The grant was discontinued in 1869, and in 1870 the Rev. Richard Smyth was re-elected moderator, and took an active part in settling the financial affairs of the church in connection with the commutation of the regium donum into a lump sum. He was one of the trustees incorporated by royal charter under the Presbyterian Church Act for administering the commutation fund (DNB Smyth). Like the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterians set up a Sustentation Fund from which a more or less equal income would be paid to the ministers in the various churches. Like the Church of Ireland, it had to approach the laity more than once to get the Fund increased.

Politically, though the Presbyterians became resolutely opposed to Home Rule as it was agreed between David Lloyd George and the Catholic leader John Redmond, they, like many other Protestants, were not opposed to it in principle. Nonetheless the Nationalist Party was ideologically incapable of entering into dialogue with them. The Presbyterians had no great love for the Tory Party especially with regard to its attitudes towards temperance, nor was the Tory Party helping the English Nonconformists with regard to the education question (Irish Presbyterian, July 1900). It would seem however that the condition that the Presbyterians would require of the nationalists was adhesion to the temperance movement. It was alleged that the Nationalist Party was largely financed by publicans (Church of Ireland Gazette 24 Mar. 1904). In the event they became solidly against Home Rule and pro-Tory.

In this period Presbyterianism was free from the schisms and bitter feuds that normally marked it. The benchmark for orthodoxy was subscription (adhesion) to the Westminster Confession of 1648. There was a minority of non-subscribing presbyteries. Instrumental music was banned from Scottish Presbyterian churches and Ireland followed suit. No hymns were sung, but only the psalms. However in 1835 the rule was relaxed and a hymn book with 100 hymns was introduced. There was no missal or common Prayer Book and each individual minister could in theory devise his own form of public worship, provided it was clearly based on the Bible. But he would have to get it accepted by the congregation, who were always inclined to be conservative. No instruction on how services should be conducted was given to young ministers, but older ministers had usually devised their own routines for the communion, baptismal, marriage, and burial services. Congregations were often passive and silent (Irish Presbyterian Jan. 1920). Unlike the order and enthusiasm of the congregations in the Tractarian churches, Presbyterians made no ceremony about entering or leaving, and devoted no time to private prayer. This was largely the result of the fact that nobody knew what to do or say in churches, though where hymns were sung the people often joined enthusiastically. The preaching of a sermon to enliven faith in the Bible was the central point of Presbyterian worship, and little else was regarded as important. Their churches were closed every day except Sunday. The laity were noted for their strict morality, their dislike of anything they considered frivolous, their strict honesty and truthfulness, and for many of them their antipathy to the manufacture and consumption of alcohol. The Presbyterians had a mission in Nigeria late in the 19th century, and like the other Churches contributed towards the foreign missions. [Top]


          Methodism was introduced into Ireland by John Wesley himself, and as in Britain divided into two main branches. The Wesleyan Methodists and the Primitive Methodists united in Ireland in 1878. Though sprung from the Anglican Church their worship and organisation resembled that of the Presbyterians. The core of their organisation was not the individual church but a body of preachers called the Legal Hundred, with the preachers attached to circuits. The governing body was the annual Methodist conference. Their devotion was much warmer and emotional, and they were noted for their hymn-singing. A true Methodist had to experience a ‘warming of the heart’ following the Pietists of Germany. The Methodists had 20 churches in Dublin in 1900 against 11 Presbyterian. In the province of Connaught there were 1,600 Methodists, 2,200 Presbyterians and 22,000 Church of Ireland. Emigration was high among Protestants in rural areas. It was noted that the only groups showing an increase in the 1901 census were lunatics and Methodists! (Church of Ireland Gazette 16 Aug 1901). The increase of the Methodists was in Ulster; in the other provinces they declined.

            The Methodist College in Belfast was founded in 1865 as a school that would be equal to the English public schools. (Most of the pupils at English public schools are fee-paying.) It was aimed at providing the best education for children of any religion. After 1868 it prepared young ladies who wished to take the external examinations of the Royal University. It became the largest school in Ireland. Its sister in Dublin was Wesley College.

            The Quakers had a long history in Ireland and may indeed have largely originated in Ireland (DNB William Penn). They were famous as pacifists, and if called to serve in the militia they were allowed to provide substitutes. The Richardson family of south Armagh was famous in the linen industry, and also in the temperance movement. They built a model village at Bessbrook which had no public houses, being thus unique in Ireland. Nor had it a police station or a pawnbroker’s shop. It had however cricket and football pitches, and an institute with reading and writing rooms, and a billiards room (James Nicholson Richardson, in David, Business Biography Vol. 3). More famous though was the Jacob’s family which manufactured biscuits. They were model employers and their factory in Dublin had every possible amenity for its staff. Conditions in it were denounced by an ill-informed James Larkin who never visited it, so his credibility as a labour leader suffered (Weekly Irish Times 29 Nov. 1913). At a time when most of the large businesses in Ireland were controlled by Protestants, these examples of good practice were important. The Quakers were always famous for education in Ireland, and Cardinal Cullen was educated at their school at Ballitore, Co. Kildare. The Friend’s school in Lisburn, Co. Antrim was probably the most famous of these.

The Jews were not numerous in Ireland, but like many immigrants were industrious and thrifty and worked their way up in society, many becoming doctors. One Jewish doctor, Bethel Solomons played rugby for Ireland, and a Catholic nationalist described the Irish XV as being 14 Protestants and 1 Jew (Lyons, Irish Doctors, 147). A Jew, Sir Otto Jaffe, became Lord Mayor of Belfast. In the 19th century Irish MPs were divided on the admission of Jews to Parliament. Many of the immigrants were Russian Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. Like many other immigrant groups they started off as pedlars. The census in 1861 recorded only 341 Jews, but by 1901 there were 1,500 and by 1911 nearly 4,000 (Encyclopaedia of Ireland). The Warder in 1900 commented that there were more people in Dublin speaking Yiddish than Irish. They congregated in an area in south Dublin called Portobello near Portobello army barracks. The Jewish immigrants in that year were coming from Rumania. The Irish Truth described the Russian pedlars travelling widely despite the prejudice of men against their race, and selling coloured pictures and packets of needles to women after their men had left to work in the fields. As the pedlar had to carry his goods in a pack, they had to be sufficiently small and light. Packets of pins, needles, hairpins, reels of black and white cotton thread, could always be sold. It is likely that the pictures were Catholic holy pictures. ‘The humble packman, who never replies to the jeers he receives on the road, earns only a few shillings a week’ (Irish Truth 14 July 1900). But most Jews were regarded as prosperous. Though the prejudice against Jews was carefully fostered by the Catholic clergy it was never very deep. Only in an isolated incident in Limerick in 1904 did a priest succeed in stirring up a pogrom. The Catholic bishop of Limerick in 1919 denounced Irish women who followed English fashions for ‘the principal designers of women’s indecent dresses are Jews or Freemasons (Weekly Irish Times 15 Nov. 1919). In Cork in 1918 supporters of Sinn Fein denounced a Unionist as a ‘capitalist agent’ and a ‘Jews’ tout’ (Weekly Irish Times 27 July 1918). Gustav Wolff of Harland and Wolff was Jewish by origin but his family joined the Church of England. His Jewish connections were extremely useful to his firm. [Top]


          The temperance movement was closely connected with the evangelical churches, but the Catholic Church in Ireland also got involved. After a brief flare in the 1840s during the campaign for total abstinence from alcohol of Fr Theobald Mathew, the total abstinence movement among Catholics did not revive until 1898 when the Jesuit priest, Fr James Cullen, started the Pioneer Total Abstinence Society of the Sacred Heart. In the 20th century it became one of the most successful Catholic lay movements. Most of the Catholic priests and bishops were not in favour of total abstinence except by the young. They argued that if young men could be kept out of public houses or drinking at funerals or weddings in their first years of work and until they settled down and married they would be temperate drinkers for the rest of their lives. Instruction on temperance also had a prominent part in religious instruction, and temperance was a frequent theme in Lenten pastoral letters.

            Nevertheless it is with the Protestant Churches that the temperance movementis chiefly associated. There was also a strong temperance movement in England, and as in America, was always badgering the legislature to restrict the sale of alcohol. The movement promoted the spread of temperance hotels, tea-houses and coffee houses. As total abstinence spread among Protestant farmers and businessmen these became very popular on fair days. Margaret Byers, the campaigner for women’s education and women’s franchise was also a leading figure in the temperance movement. The manufacture of soft drinks made the firm of Cantrell and Cochrane very prosperous. Those who opposed the consumption of alcohol usually also opposed gambling. In 1900 the Irish Women’s Temperance Union had 87 branches in Ireland. Mrs Byers was its first President. The Church of Ireland Temperance Society became a normal feature of church parishes (Church of Ireland Gazette 22 Feb. 1901). It was claimed that excessive drinking by the better classes was cut down. Many Orange lodges became completely teetotal. The Liberal Government with Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer began to tax beer and spirits for temperance reasons. Temperance processions were as much part of the scene as political or trade union processions.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.