The Reformation in Ireland

A.) The Political Situation in Ireland prior to the Reformation

Christianity had been introduced to Ireland from Wales in the 5th/6th century A.D., a time when both Wales and Ireland were rather isolated from Rome. The organization of the Irish church was rather peculiar, at the head being lay abbots of monasteries (who married and had children). Many missionaries left Ireland, contributing to the conversion of pagan peoples elsewhere.
In the 12th century the English conquest began; England established her control over the island (nominal, and frequently challenged by revolts). The traditional Irish church was replaced by a Catholic church organisation with Archdioceses seated at Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Tuam (1152).
English rule in Ireland, except at certain places such as Dublin, over centuries had remained superficial, English institutions regarded with suspicion by the Irish. Rebellions against English rule were frequent.

B.) The Anglican Church in Ireland

The IRISH PARLIAMENT at Dublin (a body who could not act without royal approval) established the (Anglican) CHURCH OF IRELAND in 1536-1537, declaring the separation from Rome and recognizing King Henry VIII. as the head. Queen Mary (Bloody Mary) in 1553 declared the Church of Ireland dissolved and formally reintroduced Catholicism; Elizabeth in 1558 declared her intention to reestablish the Church of Ireland, decisions in the direction of which the Irish parliament took in 1560.
Documents which enacted these decisions can be found in archives; in reality, the reformation had little impact on the communities in Ireland, outside of English-controlled Dublin, where even Roman Catholicism was an only partially implemented structure, under which much of the old Irish church tradition (of pre 12th-century) survived. Rebellions against English rule continued; while English policy in pre-reformatoric times spent relatively little attention on Ireland, Irish resistance to English rule now was identified with Irish Catholicism, and measures of suppression were undertaken, which included the establishment of "plantations" of English settlers.
TRINITY COLLEGE was founded in 1591, intended to become the center of protestant education in Ireland.
After a Spanish force had landed in Ireland in 1601 to support an Irish rebel (the force was defeated by the English), in 1605 all Catholic priests were ordered to leave the country; all Irish had to become members of the Church of Ireland.

C.) Catholic Ireland

The Irish were accustomed to English repressive policies; the large majority rejected the Church of Ireland, which in substance was a carbon copy of the Church of England, using English language (there was no Gaelic bible translation; the church used both King James' version of the bible and King James' Book of Common Prayer).
The Catholic church underheld priests seminaries in France and the Spanish Netherlands, where Irish priests received their education (it was illegal for Irish Catholics to send their children abroad for education); these then returned to Ireland and, migrating from parish to parish, took care of an underground Catholic church. As they received their education outside of Ireland, in regions where the COUNTERREFORMATION had prevailed, the Roman Catholic church now gained increasing influence in Ireland.
After the short reign of JAMES II. (1685-1688) which had meant a brief hope for the restoration of the Catholic church, the GLORIOUS REVOLUTION stabilized Anglican control in England. Ireland again saw a major rebellion which was crushed in the BATTLE OF THE BOYNE. The Irish rebellion had been supported by the Irish underground church and, after the defeat, suffered; many old Irish monasteries, centers of Irish history and culture were destroyed.

The large majority of the Irish population continued to resent English rule and English protestantism - the Irish Catholics (the Irish traditional church identity received a crushing blow with the destruction of the monasteries; Irish Catholicism, which in 1537 had rather been defiance of Anglican protestantism, now quickly became Tridentine or Roman Catholicism). Then there were the protestants - those of English stock and a group of Irish which had accepted the Church of Ireland, and a group of Calvinists (Presbyterians) from Scotland who had emigrated to Ulster.
Catholics were emancipated in 1829. The Church of Ireland, a state church which never had gained majority support, was disestablished in 1869

Article Ireland, from Catholic Encyclopedia
Chronology of Catholic Dioceses : Ireland, from Kirken i Norge
REFERENCE Daniel Webster Hollis, The History of Ireland, Westport : Greenwood 2001, KLMA Lib.Sign. 941.6 H742h
Maire and Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ireland - a Concise History, London : Thames and Hudson (1972) 1994

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2001, last revised on November 15th 2004

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