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

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

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


Northern Ireland

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.' (9)

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 unimaginable.

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 1689.

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, aborted.


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 boundaries.

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 tradition.

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 confrontation.

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. Back

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. Back

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. Back

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. Back

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

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May 29 2006 23:05


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