0400-2000: Northern Ireland - Is it a religious conflict?

Submitted by libcom on May 29, 2006

Author's note; this is
an expanded version of a talk given to the Brecon Political and Theological
Discussion Group on Thursday 28th October, 2004. Alternatively it may
be read as a greatly condensed version of my book, Ulster Presbyterianism.

Though not a 'professional
historian', (and probably as a consequence) Brendan Clifford is one
of the more original voices in Irish historical writing.

He describes this
essay as "...a bird's eye view of the history of Church-state relations
in Ireland."


Americans in Afghanistan:
Normans in Ireland

The Tudors: An Experiment in Genocide

Birth and Death of the Catholic Nation

The Reformed tradition in England and Scotland

The Presbyterians in Ulster

The United Irishmen

The Rise of the Catholic Nation

Northern Ireland and the Decline of the Presbyterians

Decline of the Catholic Nation



Is it a religious
conflict? (1

Brendan Clifford

'7 years is enough'

Government posters
put up in Belfast around 1974/5.

'700 is too much'

Graffiti added
in areas under the control of the Provisional IRA.


My project is to give a bird's
eye view of the history of Church-state relations in Ireland. This is
obviously an absurdly ambitious thing to attempt in the time we have
available and doubtless it will seem even more absurd if I begin with
something that is, apparently at least, quite irrelevant. But I want
to say a few words about Afghanistan.

The United States and its allies
sometimes speak as if they have done in a few weeks what the Soviet
Union and, before them, the British failed to do over many years. They
have conquered Afghanistan.

But, given overwhelming firepower,
the job of conquering Afghanistan is not that difficult. The problem
is to hold it and to remodel it along the lines desired by the conqueror.
In this respect, the Americans are probably not much further advanced
than the Soviet Union were at the same stage of their intervention.

The difficulty lies in the fact
that Afghanistan is not a unified nation but a conglomeration of different
peoples bound not so much by a common system of law as by ties of personal
allegiance. This facilitates invasion, since it is relatively easy to
exploit quarrels among the different peoples. But it contributes to
the difficulty of securing the conquest. There is no central mechanism
on which everyone is dependent. The alliances are unstable and the periphery
is continually slipping out of control. The work of conquest has to
be continually repeated.

The same problem was faced by
the Normans in Ireland, as it was in Wales, in the conquest of the twelfth
century. Like the Americans in Afghanistan, the Normans in Ireland represented
the forces of progress and civilisation. For the purposes of this talk
progress and civilisation can be understood as the development of a
legal system based on a coherent system of landholding. The Irish, like
the Afghans, had an elaborate system of law based on an ideal of personal
allegiance. The Normans combined a system of personal allegiance with
an impersonal doctrine of property relations chiefly to do with the
possession of land. The land was held in the first instance by the King
then parcelled out to big landholders who parcelled it out to smaller
landholders. The areas of land in question were clearly defined. The
ideal was that everyone would know exactly who owned what.

Like the Americans in Afghanistan,
the Normans had the approval of the guarantor of international order
- the United Nations Security Council in the case of the Americans,
the Pope in the case of the Normans. In both cases the guarantor of
international order was largely dependent on the most powerful of the
nations supposedly willing to recognise their authority. If we compare
the independence of the Security Council from the US and that of the
Pope from the Normans the advantage unquestionably lies with the Pope.

The papacy was engaged in a great,
long term project of building a new international order, a commonwealth
or Empire, equivalent in authority to the old Roman Empire. The territory
which was being organised in this way did not correspond to the Roman
Empire, even to its western part, but it did correspond quite closely
to 'Europe' as we know it today. With the exception of Greece, the present
day EEC is made up of those peoples who at one time or other in their
history had acknowledged the sovereignty of the Pope. (2)

The Norman conquest had been preceded
by a reorganisation of the Irish church along approved - Roman - lines.
At the time of its conversion in the fifth century, the only Christian
countries outside the Roman Empire were Ireland and Armenia. (3) The
Irish had accepted Christianity - apparently with little difficulty
(there are no Irish martyrs and tradition has it that the whole island
was converted in the lifetime of St Patrick). But they accepted it on
their own terms. The Christian clerical class shared their standing
with another intellectual class - the poets, or filidh. John Minahane
has argued that the filidh were the successors of the pre-Christian
religious orders who had, he suggests, accepted Christianity fully as
a legitimate perfection of their own religious idea. There are hardly
any signs of serious dissension between the two clerisies, and this
despite the notoriously quarrelsome nature of the filidh (not to mention
the Christian clergy). (4) The Christian organisation of the country
was centred on monasteries rather than on Bishops with clearly assigned
territorial sees. The authority of Pope and, later, Emperor, were acknowledged,
but these were remote powers with little direct influence in the country.
A considerable difference between Roman and Irish practise was discovered
when the two sides - the Romans converting England from the South and
the Irish from the North - met at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The authority
of Rome was sufficient to persuade the Angles, but not the Irish. (5)

I have long felt that the place
to go for some feel for Celtic Christianity - monastic, with an intense
emphasis on asceticism and on local traditions evolved in isolation
from the great metropolitan centres (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople)
- would be Ethiopia.

Bernard of Clairvaux, widely regarded
as one of the greatest churchmen of the twelfth century, wrote a manifesto
of the reform of the Irish Church in his Life of Malachy, (6) a biography
of his friend, Malachy of Armagh, leader of the reforming party. Bernard
also preached the second crusade and was the theorist both of the Cistercian
order and of the Knights Templars. I read him as a prototype of Dostoyevsky's
'Grand Inquisitor' - who sees the Christian Church mainly as an instrument
for maintaining the social order. Bernard understood Malachy's work
as very much a struggle between civilisation and barbarism: 'from the
barbarism of his birth he contracted no taint, any more than the fishes
of the sea from their natural salt.' (p.6) Describing Malachy's arrival
in Connor, in the North of Ireland, he says:

'Never before had he known the
like, in whatever depth of barbarism; never had he found men so shameless
in regard of morals, so dead in regard of rites, so impious in regard
of faith, so barbarous in regard of laws, so stubborn in regard of discipline,
so unclean in regard of life. They were Christians in name, in fact
pagans. There was no giving of tithes or firstfruits; no entry into
lawful marriages, no making confessions. Nowhere could be found any
who would either seek penance or impose it ...' (p.37)

Malachy's work of church reform
was completed, after his death, at the Synod of Kells in 1152. There
was now a hierarchy, and each of the Bishops had oversight over a clearly
defined territory. The Norman invasions which began informally in 1169
may be seen as a political/legal complement to the ecclesiastical reform.
Ireland was granted by the Pope to the Norman King of England, Henry
II. It happens that the Pope in question, Hadrian IV, was himself an
Englishman - Nicholas Brakespeare, the only Englishman ever to hold
the office. But he was also an important figure in the overall Roman
European project and it seems to me that his motives are better understood
as an attempt to incorporate Ireland into the European system than simply
as an expression of Anglo-Norman imperialism.

In the event, however, the Norman
invasion did not 'take'. Although the whole island was subjugated very
quickly, the Normans progressively lost control of it. The Irish chiefs
returned and asserted their authority, though, under the internationally
recognised system of law this was now usually illegitimate since it
was not held from the King. More ominously still for the interests of
civilisation and progress, many of the Norman barons who did succeed
in holding their properties began to adopt native ways. The Church itself,
theoretically a unified structure, increasingly functioned as two churches
- a more or less respectable and modern Anglo Norman church and a more
or less disapproved of, but increasingly powerful Gaelic church. (7)
By the sixteenth century, the period of the Tudors and of the English
Reformation, 'civilisation' was reduced to a small area round Dublin,
the 'Pale', while most of the country was in the hands of a multitude
of more or less independent chieftains mostly Gaelic and without legal
title to their land but some of them, with recognised titles and of
Anglo-Norman descent but otherwise barely distinguishable from the Gaels.

The point is made by Patrick Corish:

'In 1500 an Irish nation seemed
far to seek. For a variety of reasons, all stemming ultimately from
the partial nature of the English conquest, Ireland had missed the developments
which had built the nation-states of Europe. The authority of the central
government did not reach beyond the shrunken bounds of the Pale and,
with qualifications, the walled towns. Outside these English speaking
enclaves the Gaelic and Gaelicised Norman lordships presented a chaos
of feudal and pre-feudal institutions which had survived in Ireland
long after they had disappeared elsewhere.' (8)

Corish goes on to stress that
Ireland was open to and receiving influences from Renaissance Europe,
but what is more interesting and important is the obvious strength and
attractiveness of the old Irish system. It is not obvious that a foreign
ruling elite, vanguard of international civilisation, should adopt the
ways of the people they have conquered. Ireland may not have been a
nation but it was a system, or culture, that clearly commanded the loyalty
and affection of those who knew it. In a period of a thousand years
there were many wars and skirmishes but I know of no real revolt against
the system itself. There were not many Irishmen who looked to the more
advance system of their neighbour with envy (England under the Wars
of the Roses may not have appeared very enviable) and even when eventually
Ireland came under total English domination it took two centuries before
nostalgia for the old system was finally rooted out of the popular imagination.


With the Tudors, and especially
under Elizabeth (r.1558-1603), the Irish faced a danger that was much
more ominous than the Normans had been. I quote from J.A.Froude's History
of England - a passage that is also interesting for what it says about
attitudes that were possible in the nineteenth century. As author of
The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century and of the novel, The
Two Chiefs of Dunboy, Froude (1818-1894) was a player in the intellectual
history of Ireland in the nineteenth century. In particular his challenge
- that the Irish could not be considered to be a nation since they had
never united in their own defense - was one of the elements that influenced
the thinking of the 1916 rising.

'Excited by the difficulties of
the Government, or perhaps directly invited to come forward, a number
of gentlemen of this kind ['young English rovers'], chiefly from Somersetshire
and Devonshire - Gilberts, Chichesters, Carews, Grenvilles, Courtenays
- twenty seven in all, volunteered to relieve Elizabeth of her trouble
with Ireland. Some of them had already tried their fortunes there; most
of them in command of pirates and privateers, had made acquaintance
with the harbours of Cork and Kerry. They were prepared to migrate there
altogether on conditions that would open their way to permanent greatness.

'The surrender of the Desmond
estates created the opportunity. They desired that it should be followed
up by the despatch of a Commission to Munster to examine into the titles
of the chiefs, and where the chiefs had no charters to produce, to claim
the estates for the Crown. The whole of the immense territory which
would thus be acquired these ambitious gentlemen undertook at their
own charges to occupy, in the teeth of their Irish owners, to cultivate
the land, to build towns, forts and castles, to fish the seas and rivers,
to make roads and establish harbours, and to pay a fixed revenue to
the Queen after the third year of their tenure. They proposed to transport
from their own neighbourhoods a sufficient number of craftsmen, artificers,
and labourers to enable them to make good their ground. The chiefs they
would drive away or kill: the poor Irish, even 'the wildest and idlest',
they hoped to compel into 'obedience and civility'. If the Irish nature
proved incorrigible, 'they would through idleness offend to die.' The
scandal and burden of the Southern provinces would then be brought to
an end. Priests would no longer haunt the churches, the countries possessed
by rebels would be inhabited by natural Englishmen; and Kinsale, Valentia,
Dingle, through which the Spaniards and the French supplied the insurgents
with arms, would be closed against them and their machinations.


'Wild as their project may appear
at first acquaintance with it, nevertheless, if to extinguish an entire
people be to solve the problem of governing them, it promised better
for the settlement of Ireland than any plan which had as yet been suggested.
The action of the crown was hesitating, embarrassed by a sense of responsibility,
and hampered by considerations of humanity. The adventurers, it is plain,
understood the problem which they were undertaking, and meant to hesitate
at no measures, however severe, which would assist them in dealing with
it. The Irish people were to become 'civil' and industrious or else
'through idleness would offend to die'. These Western gentlemen had
been trained in the French wars, in the privateer fleets, or on the
coast of Africa, and the lives of a few thousand savages were infinitely
unimportant to them. In collision with such men as these, the Irish
would have shared the fate of all creatures who will neither make themselves
useful to civilisation, nor have strength enough to defend themselves
in barbarism. Their extinction was contemplated with as much indifference
as the destruction of the Red Indians of North America by the politicians
of Washington, and their titles to their lands as not more deserving
of respect. The Irish, it is true, were not wholly savage; they belonged,
as much as the English themselves, to the Arian race; they had a history,
a literature, laws, and traditions of their own, and a religion which
gave half Europe an interest in their preservation; but it is no less
certain that to these intending colonists they were of no more value
than their own wolves, and would have been exterminated with equal indifference.'

This was progress and civilisation
red in tooth and claw.

The project of the plantation
of Munster (the extreme South of Ireland including counties Cork and
Kerry) was attempted with the encouragement of the then Lord Deputy,
Sir Henry Sidney (1529-1586). He was the father of the poet Sir Philip
Sidney (1554-1586), centre of a circle of poets which also included
Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). All
of these 'silver poets of the sixteenth century' were involved in the
Irish project which, though it did not succeed - at least not in Munster
- nonetheless resulted in a scale of massacre that had previously been

I said that the Norman invasion
of Ireland was part of the process by which Europe had been constructed
as a new political order with the papacy as its moral centre. The Elizabethan
conquest of Ireland was part of the English Reformation by which England
separated itself from this European order and set itself up as it anti-type.
In the context, this meant England was repudiating the then generally
admitted system of international law. It had become a 'rogue state';
and the invasion of the Spanish armada can perhaps be compared to the
United Nations assault on Iraq in 1991, except of course that it failed.

This repudiation of Europe and
of any law above the level of the nation was associated with an astonishing
outpouring of intellectual energy. The 'silver poets' were part of it,
as was the huge intellectual achievement of William Shakespeare or Francis
Bacon, the seizure of the slave trade, the establishment of colonies
laying the foundations of the future Empire, and the astonishing work
of the English religious imagination of the seventeenth century, creating
a flowering of new ideas which, in the different varieties of Protestantism,
are still reverberating through the world at the present time. Without
in any way suggesting this as a complete explanation it may be remarked
that this English energy had greater freedom to express itself than
that of the Reformation on the continent, hemmed in as it was on all
sides by states still loyal to the papacy.


The Protestant aggression produced
among the Roman Catholics in Ireland a rapid process of what might be
called 'modernisation'. Which took two contradictory forms. In Ireland
itself there was the formation of a unified nation attached to the Stuart
dynasty. This might almost be described as having been the programme
of another colonialist poet, Sir John Davies (1569-1626), author of
two major works - Orchestra, a Poem of Dancing, describing the harmony
and delight of all things including political society; and Nosce Teipsum,
an introspective exposition of Platonic philosophy. (10) Davies was
also a lawyer, attached to the new school of Absolute Monarchy. The
main tenets of this school had been developed in France in the context
of the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Both sides - Protestant
and Catholic - had argued that the church was a power above the King
and that faithful Christians had a right and duty to rebel against an
unfaithful monarch. The Absolute Monarchy school, wanting to preserve
the nation from civil war, argued that there were no circumstances under
which subjects could rebel against their monarchs, who could only be
judged by their peers - their fellow monarchs.

Davies, who had been one of the
party who had invited James VI of Scotland to take the throne of England
as James I, was appointed Attorney-General for Ireland and in this role
he remodelled the Irish Parliament, proclaiming it as the representative
centre of the whole island. Previously the Parliament had only met occasionally
on the demand of the King and it consisted only of a handful of Anglo-Norman
Lords whom the King was able to bully into attending it. Now for the
first time Gaelic Ireland was represented - grotesquely under-represented,
but represented nonetheless. Catholic Ireland was represented, even
if Protestant Ireland was grotesquely over-represented. Davies wrote
a theoretical defence of his project, the Discovery of the True causes
why Ireland was never entirely subdued - which gives an account of the
legal history of Anglo-Norman Ireland and argues for the creation of
a unified nation under the King. And in the terrible years of the English
Civil War, Catholic Ireland, through the Confederation of Kilkenny,
did achieve a unity that had hitherto been unknown, in loyalty - though
not unqualified obedience - to Charles I. And the achievement was repeated
in an even more impressive manner in the support given to James II in

The other tendency, more typical
of the rapidly growing Irish diaspora in mainland Europe, argued for
Ireland's separation from England and for unconditional loyalty to the
papacy. Its organising centre was probably the Franciscan Order (performing
a role similar to the role it played as the organising centre for nationalist
consciousness in Croatia). In the person of the soldier Owen Roe O'Neill
its intransigence was probably responsible for the failure of the Confederation
of Kilkenny, which might have achieved a degree of freedom for Catholic
Ireland by holding it for the King. (11)

The Jacobite tendency was dominant
in Ireland until the end of the eighteenth century and the Catholic
Nationalism that took hold in the nineteenth century and triumphed in
the twentieth resembles the seventeenth century separatist movement.
Nonetheless, there is very little personal or intellectual continuity
between them. Both the modernising trends of the seventeenth century,
despite some impressive intellectual achievements, were, in the event,


Now I would like to say something
about the Protestants.

I have already indicated that
Protestantism in the sixteenth century was much more than a revolution
in personal opinions or personal spiritual life. It had profound political
implications. It was a rejection of the then current system of international
law and of the only authority that claimed to stand above the nations,
above the authority of the particular prince or civil magistrate.

Although there were many different
currents of thought two principle ones can be identified - the Lutheran
and the Reformed. The Reformation in its Lutheran form was, generally,
the work of existing political authorities asserting their independence
from the papacy. The Prince would himself take responsibility for the
Church which was to be wholly subordinated to the civil order.

In the Reformed tradition (usually
identified with 'Calvinism'), however, the work of Reformation was generally
done in opposition to the existing political authorities. In these circumstances
the Church claims its own authority, independent of, and in some respects
superior to, that of the civil authority. Its claims resemble those
of the Roman Catholic Church itself, and the tension between church
and state is not resolved. Unlike the Catholic Church, however, the
Reformed churches did not claim any authority transcending national

The Reformation in Scotland followed
the reformed model. It took the form of a revolt by a section of the
Scottish nobility against the Queen (Mary Queen of Scots). It was in
a state of continual tension with her son, James VI. In England - whatever
influence Luther himself may have had - it took what I have called a
'Lutheran' form. It was a revolution from above.

In Northern Ireland at the present
time the term 'Protestant' covers a large variety of different religious
groupings but for the purposes of this simplified account they can be
reduced, historically, to two: Anglican and Presbyterian. I shall mainly
be talking about the Presbyterians, who belonged to the Reformed tradition.

But before I do so, there is a
distinction that I think needs to be made. The term 'Protestant ascendancy'
has been widely used especially in the early days of our recent 'troubles',
in the late sixties and early seventies. The term, however, has a very
specific meaning. It refers to the class that replaced the Irish Catholic
aristocracy as a result of the Elizabethan, Cromwellian and Williamite
invasions. It was a class of landowners, all of them Anglican, scattered
throughout the island. After the Williamite revolution, which overturned
the work of Sir John Davies, they monopolised the Irish Parliament.
Outside Ulster they had in general nothing in common with the people
living on their land - they were separated by religion, culture, language.
(12) Often they were in a state of covert war with their tenants. Attempts
at 'improvement' on the English model (conversion of estates into commercially
viable enterprises through the expulsion of the tenantry) were resisted
with often very effective acts of agrarian terrorism. The tendency was
for the landholding class, then, to become purely parasitic, living
off whatever rents it could extract from tenants mainly reduced to subsistence
farming. In its idleness, however, the ascendancy produced a certain
culture which can be seen in the loveliness of some of the big Irish
houses and in the grace of Dublin.

The Presbyterians, concentrated
in the North east corner of Ireland, had a very different character.
I have already mentioned what is from the point of view of this presentation
their most important characteristic: a doctrine of the church that resembles
the Catholic doctrine in that the church has its own sovereignty independent
of the King. This was formalised in the idea of the 'two kingdoms' developed
in the sixteenth century by Andrew Melville, John Knox's successor as
leading theorist of the Scottish church in opposition to the Absolute
monarchy argued for by James VI. Wherever the Reformed tradition won
- in the Netherlands, in Geneva and in Scotland - its triumph was followed
by severe tensions between the Church and the civil authorities, usually,
eventually, resulting in victory for the civil authorities and the elaboration
of a more liberal doctrine within the Church.

There was a Presbyterian tendency
within the Church of England. It was characterised by a greater emphasis
on church discipline and a more radical rejection of the characteristics
of Roman Catholicism - sacred imagery, sacraments other than baptism
and communion, kneeling in church, the use of musical instruments in
church, the use of any fixed words other than those taken directly from
Scripture, hierarchy. It is this last point that gave them their name
- the church is ruled by the ministers, or presbyters, meeting together
in local 'presbyteries' or larger 'synods'. In fact, some form of episcopacy
was allowed in John Knox's 'First Book of Discipline', though possibly
only as a temporary legal device, since the property of the pre-Reformation
Scottish Church was vested in the Bishops. The Church of Scotland had
Bishops throughout most of the seventeenth century and many of its ministers
still thought they were loyal to the Reformed tradition. A section of
the English Presbyterian tradition was also willing to consider some
compromise with 'moderate episcopacy'.

The English Parliament whose quarrel
with Charles I led to the English Civil War was Presbyterian in its
sympathies. It was repeating the sixteenth century continental and Scottish
reformed pattern that a society in revolt against its monarch justifies
itself by appealing to the independent authority of the church. It allied
with a Scottish Presbyterian invasion. The 'Westminster Confession'
- still used as a standard of doctrine among Presbyterians in Scotland,
America and Ireland - was drawn up by a joint assembly of Scottish and
English 'divines', or ministers, or theologians, with a view to developing
a common constitution for both the Church of Scotland and the Church
of England.

In the event it was aborted in
England by the ascendancy of the army under Cromwell, which had been
taken by the idea of 'independency'. The 'independents' or 'congregationalists'
argued that there could be no authority in church matters above the
level of the individual congregation. This represented a substantial
shift in initiative from the hands of the ministers to those of the
laity. A layman who disliked the teaching in one congregation could
move to another. In effect it meant there was to be no authority in
the church at all. The Independents complained that the Presbyterian
system developed in Westminster was a worse tyranny than the Anglican
one. As John Milton, who had argued for Presbyterianism at the beginning
of the war, famously put it: 'new presbyter is but old priest writ large.'

Under the Independent idea, the
church remains independent of the civil order but it does not establish
itself as a rival polity, a rival centre for the organisation of society.
This was undoubtedly a large part of its appeal for Cromwell - the churches
can accommodate the huge variety of religious ideas that had broken
free in England in the seventeenth century, but the civil magistrate
retained his monopoly of state power. This doctrine remained typically
English. It did not take in Scotland or Ulster or in Wales until the
nineteenth century - but it was of of absolutely central importance
in North America where it had full freedom to develop.

On the face of it Independency
is eminently favourable to freedom of religion, to variety in religion,
but it was faced immediately with the problem that faces all movements
arguing for freedom of conscience - what to do about those tendencies
that, freely and conscientiously, do not believe in freedom of conscience?
Patrick Corish quotes Cromwell speaking in October 1649, demanding the
surrender of New Ross, in Ireland:

'I meddle not with any man's conscience
but if by liberty of conscience you mean a liberty to exercise the Mass,
I judge it best to use plain dealing and let you know, Where the parliament
of England have power, that will not be allowed of.' (13)

Corish then goes on to describe
the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland - remembered in Gaelic as the
'catastrophe', the same word used by the Palestinians to describe the
ethnic cleansing that accompanied the establishment of the state of
Israel in 1947/8. 'The Cromwellian settlement was the effective destruction
of what Old Irish landholders had survived the earlier plantations;
it was, at one stroke, and only slightly less effectively, the destruction
of the Anglo-Irish Catholic landed class and of the Catholic towns.'


The Presbyterians in Ireland were
concentrated in the North East corner, in Ulster. (14) It was an area
that had been devastated by war, plague and famine induced by deliberate
English policy. The Gaelic aristocracy had been expelled, the native
population for the most part destroyed. The Presbyterians were a new
population largely transplanted from Scotland. It was a pattern that
resembled that projected in the failed Munster plantation and at least
one of the families Froude lists among those responsible for the Munster
project - the Chichesters - played an important role in Ulster. There
was, however, a gap in time between the devastation of the old population
and the plantation of the new. And the new population was, from the
point of view of the general British interest, less than ideal.

In fact the Ulster Presbyterians
stood in a position of radical opposition to nearly all the mainstream
English tendencies including Puritanism, once English Puritanism adopted
the principle of Independency. Defining a 'connexional church' as a
church structure possessing a collective authority able to impose itself
on the individual congregation, the Ulster Presbyterians may claim the
remarkable distinction of being the first dissenting connexional church
in the British Isles. A Presbyterian dissent continued in England and
Scotland under Cromwell and under the restoration of episcopacy that
accompanied the return of the monarchy. But neither in England nor even
in Scotland did the dissident Presbyterians attempt to establish a connexional
church. For them, a connexional church could only be a national church,
recognised as such by the government. Their ambition was to convert
the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. So long as this was
impossible they functioned as independents. They did not establish regular
meetings of ministers - presbyteries or synods - with authority over
the whole.

The Cromwellian administration
in Ireland - once they had abandoned their initial idea of transplanting
the Ulster Presbyterians to Tipperary (to separate them from their Scottish
counterparts) - reluctantly allowed ministers with Presbyterian views
to assume a dominant position in Ulster and to form 'meetings', which
resembled presbyteries. These ministers were dispersed with the Restoration
of the Monarchy, but they returned and established a clandestine Presbyterian
system, at a time when principled Presbyterians were in a state of war
with the government in Scotland. (15) A full Presbyterian system, the
Synod of Ulster, was established immediately on the victory of the Williamite
rebellion in Ireland in 1690. It was so far as I can see the only dissenting
connexional church in the British Isles until the Seceders in Scotland
in 1740 (who, however, claimed to be the true - national - Church of
Scotland) and perhaps the Methodists in England and Wales, though they
of course claimed as long as they possibly could to be faithful members
of the Church of England.

By establishing their own church
discipline in defiance of the episcopal Church of Ireland, the Ulster
Presbyterians were effectively setting themselves up as a nation within
the nation. The church was much more than 'a voluntary society of men
joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public
worshipping of God in such a way as they judge acceptable to Him and
effectual to the salvation of their souls' to quote John Locke in his
Letters on Toleration. It was in its own way a political society in
itself, fulfilling many of the functions that we, living as we do in
the world originally imagined by Locke, would normally associate with
government. The actual political government, whether in London or in
the subordinate Parliament in Dublin, was remote. Its local representatives
- the Anglican landlords - made some initial efforts to impose their
authority but fairly quickly abandoned the attempt. Social discipline
was exercised not by the local Anglican magistrate but by the Church.
In any case, what the landholders particularly wanted was their rent
and an energetic and largely self-sufficient market economy was usually
able to supply it.

By the end of the eighteenth century
a substantial bourgeoisie had emerged, though still in a mercantile
rather than an industrial basis. The society had an intense intellectual
life, reflected in a polemical literature that covered a wide range
of questions in theology and politics. There was a close interest -
fuelled by family relations - in developments in America. There was
also a passionate interest in the French Revolution - Brendan Clifford
has written a history of the French Revolution based on accounts from
the Belfast press in the 1790s. Even the schisms which typically afflicted
the Synod of Ulster - Seceders and Covenanters on the Orthodox Calvinist
side, the Presbytery of Antrim on the liberal and Unitarian side - reinforce
the impression of a self sufficient society. The quarrels were often
deeply felt but they remained quarrels in the family.

I must emphasise the political
and rational character of this literature. The Church was understood
as a social structure; the debates turned on matters of doctrine. There
was virtually no devotional literature, no literature on subjective
experience - which makes a remarkable contrast to the English, American,
Welsh Puritan tradition. There is no sign of any influence of Methodism,
and very little in the way of a 'born again' theology. Until the nineteenth
century, when things changed radically.


At the end of the eighteenth century
an extraordinary event took place - the emergence of a powerful political
movement which combined, or appeared to combine, Catholics and Protestants
(chiefly but not exclusively Presbyterian) round a programme of democratic
reform inspired by the French Revolution. The necessary prerequisite
for this movement was however an absolute conviction on the part of
the Protestants involved that the Catholic Church was no longer functional
as an international force capable of imposing its own political order.

A town debate was held in Belfast
in 1792 to discuss the question if Roman Catholics could be admitted
to the franchise. Nearly all the participants were Presbyterian. Both
sides - those who supported and those who opposed the Catholic franchise
- saw themselves as modern, progressive, tolerant, rational, enlightened
liberals, anxious to secure the best for their Catholic fellow countrymen
and very much opposed to the emergence of Orangeism, which was being
encouraged by the more reactionary Anglican landowners. The question
was to know if the Catholics themselves could be regarded as sufficiently
modern, progressive, tolerant etc to be admitted to the franchise.

This was difficult to judge since
Catholic politics had been so thoroughly suppressed in the eighteenth
century. A 'Catholic Committee' had been formed in Dublin in the middle
of the century but though it kept the idea of Catholic politics alive
it could do little more than publish occasional declarations of loyalty
to the crown. It was used to declaring whatever was required of it.
Its interest was certainly to give a minimal impression of the possible
influence of the Pope. In the early 1790s it was taken over by a more
radical group from the newly emerging Catholic middle class in Dublin
and they appointed as Secretary the Protestant theorist of the United
Irish movement, Theobald Wolfe Tone. His Argument on Behalf of the Catholics
of Ireland, published in 1791, declares:

'I do believe the Pope has now
more power in Ireland than in some Catholic countries, or than he perhaps
ought to have. But I confess I look on his power with little apprehension
because I cannot see to what evil purpose it could be exerted; and with
the less apprehension as every liberal extension of property or franchise
to Catholics will tend to diminish it. Persecution will keep alive the
foolish bigotry and superstition of any sect, as the experience of five
thousand years has demonstrated. Persecution bound the Irish Catholic
to his Priest and the Priest to the Pope; the bond of union is drawn
tighter by oppression; relaxation will undo it. The emancipated and
liberal Frenchman may go to mass and tell his beads; but neither the
one nor the other will attend to the rusty and extinguished thunderbolts
of the Vatican, or the idle anathemas which indeed his Holiness is nowadays
too prudent and cautious to issue.' (16)

Though an Irish Catholic might
not have written so disrespectfully of the Pope, there was what we might
call a relaxed attitude to the specific claims of the Church. Some time
later a successor to Tone as Secretary of the Catholic Committee, Theobald
McKenna, himself a Catholic, was to say:

'In Ireland we forfeit our dinner
on the Friday, and in England you forego your cheerful pastime on the
Sunday ensuing; this is the vast distinction which constitutes the Irishman
a delinquent.' (17)

And James Doyle, Roman Catholic
Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin was saying rather prettily, as late as
1825: 'For a man to be happy in this world and the next he should live
a Protestant and die a Catholic.' (18)

This apparently relaxed attitude
to the claims of the Catholic Church should not be reduced to a matter
of political expediency. It was part of the atmosphere of the time.
The Irish hierarchy had been deeply influenced by the 'Gallican' school
of theology which had developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
in France where, without actually repudiating the spiritual authority
of the Pope, the King had secured a control over the Church comparable
to that of the English monarchy over the Anglican Church, so that in
France the hierarchy was almost as deeply implicated in the 'Enlightenment'
as the aristocracy.

But what really decided the United
Irishmen that Irish Catholics could be admitted to politics was the
fact that the French Revolution - the glory of the world in their eyes
- had been conducted by Catholics; and that the Civil Constitution of
the Clergy (promulgated as it happens on the 12th July 1790) had reorganised
the French Church on what looked like democratic - even rather Presbyterian
- lines. The United Irish agitation was accompanied by a surge of interest
in millennarian literature - including Robert Fleming's Rise and Fall
of the Papacy, originally published in 1701, with its surprisingly accurate
predictions of the fall of the papacy in France and Italy and also of
the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The French Revolution appeared to many
Presbyterians as a fulfilment of scripture. (19) The establishment of
an Irish nation separate from Great Britain and uniting Catholic, Protestant
(Anglican) and Dissenter (Presbyterian) was possible because the age
was an age of miracles.

In 1798 a substantial body of
Presbyterians appeared as well disposed to Catholic political demands
and to separation from Great Britain. In the nineteenth century they
were increasingly suspicious of Catholic political demands and supported
the union with Britain. It has often been asked why this change occurred.
But the question may be misconceived. I have argued elsewhere that the
Presbyterians did not change that much (they did change and the changes
were important but do not go far towards answering this question). (20)
The relevant change occurs in the nature of the Irish Catholics.

The Presbyterians had supported
Catholics for reasons that - at least when seen from a nineteenth century
Irish Catholic point of view - were essentially anti-Catholic. They
believed that the Catholics were in the process of detaching themselves
from the Pope and from the pretensions of their Church to be at the
centre of a great international order. In fact what happened was the
opposite. The nineteenth century sees the Roman Catholics emerging as
a nation whose national ideology was, very distinctly, 'papist'.


I have stressed that the Irish
Catholics had been out of phase with major developments in international
Catholicism so that at least until the sixteenth century they were barely
recognised as Catholics. They possessed a distinctly Gaelic culture
which continued under very difficult circumstances until the end of
the eighteenth century. This was a culture that wore its religion lightly,
seeing it as part of the rich tapestry of life, one source of values
among many, though so intrinsic to the culture that it could hardly
be discarded at the whim of an English King. Among Irish exiles on the
continent a more militant and single minded Catholic world view developed
but it did not take in Ireland and was not a major source for the Catholic
militancy that developed in the nineteenth century.

Towards the end of the eighteenth
century there seems to have been an almost conscious decision spread
throughout the nation that the Gaelic culture had to be abandoned. Right
to the last moment Gaelic poetry of a high order continued to be written
but it was still largely a Jacobite lament for the lost order. The culture
was wholly non-functional in the new society created by the Anglo-Irish
aristocracy. John Minahane has suggested that the poets, as guardians
of the national culture, may have decided that the language should be
abandoned because they did not want to see it debased by the utilitarian
interests imposed by the English system. The first half of the nineteenth
century is marked by a conversion from Gaelic to English largely encouraged
by the Church. It was only when the conversion had been largely achieved
by the end of the century that an interest in its 'revival' was encouraged.

The Catholic Church - still the
'Gallican' church of Bishop Doyle and Archbishop Murray of Dublin -
was also engaged in a huge job of reforming itself, rooting out old
'superstitious' practises that had been integral to the distinctly Gaelic

At the same time the Act of Union
of 1801 - which created the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland'
(the 'U.K.' would cease to exist were Northern Ireland to leave it)
- was regarded with a large measure of indifference by both Catholic
and dissenter. The main opposition came from the still mainly Anglican
Orange faction, protesting against the abolition of the Irish parliament
and the privileges - or opportunities for bribery and corruption - it
had conferred on the Protestant ascendancy.

But a new tendency was appearing
in Dublin among the Dublin middle class, much more jealous than the
Irish hierarchy of the dignity of the Church and the rights of the Pope.
Their names - J.B.Clinch, Dr Drumgoole, Walter Cox - had almost disappeared
from the history books until attention was drawn to them by Brendan
Clifford (21) but they were the first signs of what was to become the
main thrust of the history of Ireland in the nineteenth century.

At the end of the eighteenth century,
the Irish Catholics had been largely a demoralised mass with a lovely
but non-functional national culture and no apparent possibility for
political advance. Even under the United Irishmen the role envisaged
for them was to act as footsoldiers for an essentially Protestant leadership.
By the end of the nineteenth century they were sending missionaries
to China; they had broken the back of the Protestant church establishment;
the Catholic Church had gained control over an education system that
had originally been devised to subvert it; the Church was in many respects
more powerful than the government itself; and in the early twentieth
century, the last in a series of land acts (Wyndham's, passed by the
Tory government in 1903) had finally wrested the land away from the
Cromwellian and Williamite ascendancy.

This enormous advance in the power
of a nation determinedly identified with the Church was again out of
phase with the development of Catholicism in mainland Europe. Everywhere
else, the Church was in retreat. But it was, or at least came to be,
in line with the aspirations of Rome itself.

In 1848 (the year predicted by
Robert Fleming for a deadly but not yet final blow delivered to the
papacy in Italy) the Pope lost control of the papal states to the Italian
nationalist movement led by Garibaldi. He was only preserved in Rome
itself by French troops sent by the bizarrely but appropriately named
Louis Napoleon. Rome fell in 1870 when the French troops had to be withdrawn
because of the Franco-Prussian war. From then until 1929 and the concordat
signed with Mussolini, the Pope considered himself to be 'the prisoner
in the Vatican.'

But the reaction of the papacy
- and especially of Pius IX [r1846-1878] - was to reassert vigorously
many of the old claims that most, or at least many, Catholics thought
had been abandoned, most obviously the claim to 'papal infallibility'
which was made a dogma of the Church by the First Vatican Council in
1870, the very year of the fall of Rome.

With the radical abandonment of
the Gaelic tradition there was very little in Catholic Ireland that
could oppose this development. On the contrary, the new Roman militancy
was received as a programme to be enacted. In this context, it was clear
that the demand for a repeal of the Act of Union, for an independent
or at least autonomous Ireland was a demand for a state to be constructed
on the basis of Catholic social principles. Catholicism - not Gaelic
tradition - was the main defining principle of the nation that marked
it out as being other than British. The establishment of a Catholic
state was seen as a great revolutionary adventure. There was widespread
confidence, well into the twentieth century, that Catholicism was the
way of the future - that, for example, the forces of Communism, Fascism
and liberal democracy would exhaust each other in the 1939 war leaving
the Church to pick up the pieces. Ireland was the only European Catholic
country that did not develop an anti-clerical movement. 'Republicanism'
in Ireland had a content that was quite different from Republicanism
on the continent. And this predominance of the Catholic idea was abundantly
expressed with virtually no opposition in the state that finally came
into existence in 1920 [check].


The Irish Catholics' emergence
as a self sufficient political community based on the Church more or
less parallels a decline in the social self sufficiency of the Presbyterians.
In the nineteenth century, they became part of a wider - British - society.
There are many possible explanations for this, including a purely economic
one - that, to a much greater extent than the Irish Catholics, they
evolved into an industrial society integrated into the British economy.
In the realm of their theological opinions, they had more or less abandoned
the ideal of a covenanted state - a state in which a Presbyterian system
would be imposed and defended by the civil government. (22) In the eighteenth
century they could be said to have abandoned it out of complacency in
their own status as a complete society within the society. In the nineteenth
century, Presbyterian satisfaction at the difficulties of their old
enemy the Church of Ireland was tempered by the consciousness that any
decline in the power of the Church of Ireland was an advance in the
power of the Church of Rome. Many Presbyterians began to see the Church
of Ireland as a bulwark against the Church of Rome. Although this development
could be put down to 'sectarianism' it actually marked a breaking down
of traditional intra-Protestant sectarian barriers.

Another theological tendency that
contributed to the breaking down of Presbyterian self-sufficiency was
Revivalism, especially associated with the great revival of 1859. This
wave of religious enthusiasm emphasised not doctrine or social cohesion
but subjective feeling. The English-Welsh-American emphasis on a subjective
conversion experience had been viewed with suspicion both in Scotland
and in Ireland. Its arrival suggests a crisis in the church and may
be related to the break-up of rural communities through the rapid spread
of urban industrialisation. (23) In appearance it could be said to have
strengthened the Presbyterians, enabling them to hold the loyalty of
the new urban working class. It was accompanied, both among Presbyterians
and Anglicans, by an ambitious programme of church building. But it
still marked a decline in the power of the Church as the organising
principle of a coherent society. A distinction was drawn between those
who had had the conversion experience and those who had not. Religion
became the preserve of a separate category of saved Christians. The
Gospel Hall appeared, separate from the Church; the saved Christians
looked for individual ministers who could help maintain their initial
enthusiasm - what church these ministers belonged to was a matter of
some indifference and a multitude of small sects began to flourish.

Northern Ireland was established
as a result of the refusal of the Ulster Protestants to be incorporated
as a minority into a Roman Catholic state. It was not established as
a result of any positive desire for a Protestant - much less a Presbyterian
- state. Nor did the Ulster Protestant refusal to be governed by Irish
Roman Catholics necessarily mean that Catholics in Ulster had to be
governed by Ulster Protestants. This was a consequence of the imposition
of a devolved government on Northern Ireland, against the wishes of
the Unionist leadership, who essentially wanted Northern Ireland to
continue under the direct rule of Westminster.

Devolution was imposed as a half
way house towards an eventual union with the home rule Parliament in
the South. It signalled the desire of the British political establishment
to keep Northern Ireland at arm's length away from itself. In the event,
however, the Stormont parliament showed little taste for independent
policy making: on the most important issues, it always followed Westminster.

But this does not mean it was
without effect. It was - as one of the Unionist leaders prophesied it
would be - 'a factory of grievances.' The Ulster Catholics already had
the grievance that they were excluded from the great adventure that
their co-religionists had launched in the rest of Ireland. But on top
of that they were now under the direct administrative control of their
traditional enemies, the Ulster Protestants. Since Northern Ireland
was excluded from the politics of the United Kingdom (neither of the
main governing parties in Westminster would organise there) and since
Stormont usually followed Westminster legislation , there was no role
for politics other than the simple Unionist/Nationalist, Protestant/Catholic

The position of the Catholics
has been transformed beyond recognition since Stormont was abolished
in 1972. In particular, almost immediately Catholics began to join the
civil service in Northern Ireland in large numbers. Previously, whether
because of discrimination by the Protestants or because of a Catholic
boycott, there were very few Catholic civil servants. Catholics felt
much more comfortable serving under British ministers than under Ulster
Unionist ministers. It is this increasing participation of Catholics
in the administration of the entity that has changed everything, eventually
resulting in the IRA's turning to politics as the sense of grievance
which fuelled the military campaign withered away. The spectacular initiatives
- Anglo-Irish and Good Friday Agreements - were, I would argue, irrelevant
to the process and indeed probably harmful.

On the negative side, the Ulster
Protestants, deprived of the only political role that had been allotted
to them under the old system - that of keeping the Catholics in order
- and unable to generate a new politics more in keeping with their new,
not particularly undesirable, condition (they are still in the UK and
the union is strengthened not weakened by the demise of the Catholic
sense of grievance), have undergone a collapse into alcohol- and drug-befuddled
gangsterism on a horrifying scale. (24)


One last major development should
be mentioned if only briefly and that is the Second Vatican Council.
The Second Vatican Council marked a watershed in the recent history
of the Roman Catholic Church. I stress 'recent history' since it may
appear less startling if we know something of the state of the church
at, say, the end of the eighteenth century. The Council marked a radical
break, not so much with the whole history of the Church as with the
tendency that had been prevalent for the previous 150 years. In that
period, the policy had been to stress the distinction between whatever
was of the Church and whatever was not of the Church. With Vatican II
the distinction was blurred. Even on those issues of sexual morality
on which the post-Vatican II Church has taken a 'conservative' stand,
it claims to be speaking not for the Church but for the whole moral
world, which is assumed to stretch beyond the Church. The Church is
no longer a whole community in itself.

This development was a response
to the needs of Catholics who felt themselves to be a shrinking minority
in societies - even in notionally Catholic countries - that were increasingly
hostile or indifferent to them. The proposal was that the Church should
open itself up to potential allies, it should adapt itself, even in
its liturgical practise, to create an atmosphere that would be welcoming
to non-Catholics.

This, however, was not a need
that was felt in Catholic Ireland which, as I have argued, was an essentially
new society that had received militant Catholic separatism as its self
defining national ideology. Catholic Ireland still gloried in its distinct
Catholic nature. The effect of the Council was to shake the confidence
of a still very self-confident people. And the effect of that was to
open the door to secular ideas.

Secularism on the continent developed
in the form of militant anti-clerical (Socialist or Republican) movements;
in Britain it developed through the conflict between different religious
movements which were in themselves anything but secularist. In Ireland
it emerged through initiatives undertaken by the Church itself at the
height of its power. It is now sweeping all before it. To my perhaps
jaundiced eye (I am after all an Ulster Protestant by origin) it appears
rather facile and derivative. It has not developed through political
struggle but rather on the basis of the morally self satisfied consumerism
of the post-Thatcher era. Nonetheless, through it, Catholic Ireland
could be said to be at last entering into the front rank of the forces
of progress and civilisation.



(to be read in conjunction with
the bibliography)

1. This is an expanded version
of a talk given to the Brecon Political and Theological Discussion Group
on Thursday 28th October, 2004. Alternatively it may be read as a greatly
condensed version of my book, Ulster Presbyterianism. Back

2. The role of the papacy is emphasised
in Dawson: Making of Europe. Back

3. James Bryce: The Holy Roman
Empire, p. 13 (note) Back

4. The point is argued in, for
example, John Minahane: The Christian Druids Back

5. Account of pre-Norman Christian
Ireland in eg Gougaud: Christianity in Celtic Lands. Back

6. Lawlor: St Bernard of Clairvaux's
Life of St Malachy of Armagh. Back

7. Account in Mooney: The Church
in Gaelic Ireland. Back

8. Corish: Origins of Catholic
Nationalism. Back

9. Froude: History of England,
pp. 230-4 Back

10. I argued this case in my essay
'Sir John Davies and the Origin of Irish Politics', Irish Communist,
237, Nov 1985. The connection between Davies' achievement and the thinking
of the Confederation of Kilkenny is also drawn in Corish: Origins of
Catholic Nationalism, p.35. Back

11. The case was argued in the
early nineteenth century in the letters of Columbanus by the Catholic
priest, Rev Charles O'Connor. See discussion in Clifford: The Veto Controversy.

12. Some of the old Anglo-Irish
aristocracy joined the ascendancy and took their places in Parliament
by converting to Protestantism. Some of these played a protecting role
in relation to what was left of the old order. The outstanding example
was the Butler family in Munster. Back

13. Corish: Origins, p.57. The
letter is given in Carlyle (ed): Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches,
part V, p,74. The governor of New Ross accepted the terms and the town
was spared the massacre of its inhabitants. Back

14. There was a small Presbyterian
interest in the South, in Munster. This was quite distinct from the
Synod of Ulster and had a very English, even quite Independent, character.

15. This Scottish war is the subject
of Sir Walter Scott's novel Old Mortality. Back

16. Theobald Wolfe Tone: Argument
on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, Belfast, Athol Books, 1983, p.25.

17. 'Views of the Catholic Question',
London 1808, quoted in Clifford: The Veto Controversy, p.18. Back

18. 'J.K.L.' [James Doyle]: 'Letters
on the State of Ireland', 1825, quoted in Desmond Bowen, The Protestant
Crusade in Ireland, 1800-70, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1978, p.81.

19. To my knowledge this point
was first developed in David Miller: 'Presbyterianism and "Modernisation"
in Ulster', Past and Present, 80, Aug 1978. See also, for some key texts,
Rev Thomas Ledlie Birch: The Causes of the Rebellion in Ireland with
other writings, Belfast, Athol Books, 1991. Back

20. It is part of the argument
of my university thesis Controversies in Ulster Presbyterianism, submitted
in 1981. It may be consulted at www.politicsandtheology.co.uk. Back

21. In The Veto Controversy and
The Origin of Irish Catholic-Nationalism. Back

22. The outstanding exception
is the Reformed Presbyterians or 'Covenanters'. For an account of their
nineteenth century dispute on the right of the civil magistrate to punish
heresy see my essay The Grand Principle of Magistratical Restraint in
Matters of Religion at www.politicsandtheology.co.uk. Back

23. One of the first people to
develop this point was Gibbon: Origins of Ulster Unionism. Back

24. See Mark Langhammer's essay:
The State of the Protestants in Northern Ireland. Back