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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twenty

                      Religious Divisions

Summary of chapter. These chapters deal with the various religious bodies in Ireland. Study of these is important for Ireland was to split on sectarian lines. This chapter deals with the more general aspects of religion in Ireland.

(i) General Observations

(ii) Origins and History

(iii) The Distribution of the Churches

(iv) Charities and Charitable Bequests


(i) General Observations 

            In the earlier part of the book matters concerning Ireland as a whole were considered. In this section matters on which the country was divided or which were the concern of only some individuals are examined. Among these were religion, education, and medicine. These were essentially private matters, though the State became involved in them from time to time. [Top] 

(ii) Origins and History 

            All the religious groups in Ireland, apart from a handful of Jews, were derived from the medieval Church in Ireland, and all claimed to be the true successor of that Church. The Protestant Churches claimed to be reformed Churches, reformed in accordance with the principles of Martin Luther who began his reformation in Germany in 1517. 

             A long series of wars spanning thirty years, and therefore called the Thirty Years War was fought in Germany in the first half of the seventeenth century to see if the principles of the Reformation could be either spread or extirpated. Its bitter spirit spread to Ireland between 1641 and 1651, a period when the English Civil War also spread to Ireland, and resulted in a many-sided contest. The result in Germany was a draw, and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought the religious wars to an end. In Ireland, the Protestant Parliamentary Party (Dissenters, Puritans, Independents or Congregationalists) triumphed under Cromwell, but the Protestant royalist party (Established Church) was restored in 1660. Among the Catholics, the extremist Counter-Reformation party was at first dominant, but the moderates got more influence after the Restoration. 

            The great principle adopted at the Peace of Westphalia was that each ruler was to be free to determine the official religion within his territories: the principle cuius regio ejus religio. The result of this was that each ruler excluded subjects holding dissident views on religion from all public offices in his realms, and usually provided that all endowments for religious or charitable purposes could only be made in favour of the state religion. Actual persecution for holding dissenting opinions virtually ceased, though  in 1685 Louis XIV was to revoke the Edict of Toleration of Nantes (1598) of Henry IV and expel Protestants from France. (The French wars of religion, the Fronde, ended in 1653 with a clear victory for the Catholics.) 

            From the sixteenth centuries onwards the gentlemen and upper classes in Ireland, and then progressively the middle classes, adopted Protestantism, and laws concerning property and accession to public office were designed to encourage such classes to conform. A study was done about 1840 to see how many leading families in Ireland in 1515 were still Catholic. The study was not necessarily very scientific, but we need not doubt its general accuracy. Of the 65 heads of the principal Gaelic-speaking 'septs' only three of the heads of the families descended from them were still Catholics. Of the descendants of more than 30 'great captains of the English race' none of the heads of the families were still Catholics. The upper classes in Ireland were consequently overwhelming Protestant. 

            Protestants in Ireland tended to be concentrated in the north and east of the island, and this led to spurious racial theories regarding their origins. Protestants were supposed to be descendants of 'Anglo-Saxon' settlers, while Catholics were supposed to be descendants of a 'native Celtic' race.  Many Irish Protestants had, and still have, Gaelic surnames, but many Gaelic-speakers adopted an English-sounding surname when they adopted Protestantism. Those who had no property had fewer worldly incentives to adopt Protestantism, but great numbers did so especially in the north of Ireland. Many of these in Ireland, as in Scotland, were Gaelic-speakers. 

            In the British Isles there was a complicating factor. The kings had adopted Protestantism and had made Protestantism the established religion in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Some Protestants, known as Dissenters, refused to accept the authority of the monarch in matters of religion, and they too were excluded from public offices. The various civil disabilities were gradually removed from Catholics and Dissenters towards the end of the eighteenth century, though some important ones remained like exclusion from Parliament. Among the Dissenters in Ireland, those who looked to Scotland (Presbyterians) expanded at the expense of those who looked to England (Puritans). 

            No adequate study has ever been done of the spread of Protestantism in the island and among the various social classes. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries possession of good land and control of the towns undoubtedly helped Protestantism. But the spread of the cultivation of the potato and the enormous expansion of the lower classes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century caused a relative growth of Catholicism. Finally the spread of industrialisation and the growth of the manufacturing towns again favoured the numerical expansion of Protestantism. Yet other factors led to a virtual extinction of Protestantism in various parts of rural Ireland. Strong Protestant colonies like that of the 'Palatinate' in county Limerick have virtually disappeared. Many Catholic families were Protestant in the recent past. It is a field of study where strong feelings inhibit rational study. [Top] 

(iii) The Distribution of the Churches 

            Since about the year 1800 Protestants have accounted for about one quarter of the population of Ireland. In the second half of the nineteenth century the proportion of the population which was Protestant was rising because of the industrialisation in Ulster and massive emigration of Catholics from the rest of Ireland. But in the first half of the century the proportion of Protestants may have been falling because of the increase of poorer Catholics depending on the potato. This is not certain for the most densely populated county was Armagh in Ulster. As great cities like Dublin grew rapidly so too did the Protestant working and commercial classes within them. Protestant parishes grew rapidly, and new churches were built, and many Protestants felt that the Reformation would soon be completed in Ireland. 

            The first accurate information with regard to religious statistics came from the 1861 census that included a question on religious affiliation. This showed that Catholics numbered about 4,300,000, members of the Established Church 693,000, and Presbyterians 523,000. Protestants therefore amounted to 28% of the population. 

            Protestants were not distributed equally either in a geographic or a social sense in Ireland. The vast bulk of Protestants were to be found in one province, Ulster, while large parts of Ireland had few or no Protestants. Protestantism was strong in many parts of Leinster and Munster, especially in the Midlands, and in county Cork, but not in Connaught except among the upper classes. 

            Protestants tended to be concentrated at the upper end of the social scale. Nearly all of the nobility and gentlemen, the commercial classes in the towns, the successful manufacturers, and the professional classes were Protestants. If any Irishman achieved outstanding success in any field in the nineteenth century it is fairly safe to conclude that he was a Protestant. Except in numbers, Ireland was a Protestant country, with most of the wealth, education, rank, and achievement being in the hands of Protestants.  Catholics found it hard to assert themselves, or to achieve the supremacy which their numbers seemed to guarantee. The picture of Irish Protestants forming a small beleaguered 'garrison' in the midst of a hostile 'native' population, is totally false. [Top] 

(iv) Charities and Charitable Bequests 

            Numerous charities were founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because of widespread frauds there was a great unwillingness to provide for the sick and poor out of public funds. It was considered that self-help should be encouraged in every way and private charity should provide for the helpless. Hospitals and dispensaries were provided for the sick poor, and orphanages for orphans. Collections were taken up for their support, and charity sermons were preached to encourage generosity. Musicians and amateur actors gave public performances in aid of particular charities, and ladies could organise charity balls. Charitable Loan Societies were formed to assist struggling tradesmen. 

            Protestants controlled much of the wealth of the country, and also took the lead in establishing charities. From a slow start in the eighteenth century it became a social obligation for every lady and gentleman to associate herself or himself with some charity. It followed that Protestant committees controlled most of the charities. These committees varied in their sentiments as much the generality of the Protestant population. 

            Orphans were numerous and were supposed to be a charge on each parish. But an orphanage was established in the eighteenth century for the children of soldiers and these were instructed in the Protestant faith. Other orphanages, like that of the Charitable Institution (Belfast), were non-sectarian. Various Catholics were worried about proselytism and Catholic orphanages, often on a parish basis, were established for Catholic orphans. Except with regard to the orphanages there seems to have been few attempts to proselytise, but the suspicion grew, and was carefully fostered on the Catholic side. Gradually, every charity run by Protestants was matched by another run by Catholics. 

            Charities in general came under the Lord Chancellor's supervision, but bequests for charitable purposes came under a special Board called the Board of Charitable Bequests. This Board was established by the Irish Parliament in 1800 at the instance of the Lord Chancellor, which Act replaced an earlier Act of Elizabeth I. Under the earlier Act, in cases of dispute, the Court of Chancery had to appoint four independent commissioners to decide the point, and it was frequently difficult to find four qualified persons willing to act. 

             As with all Boards at the time only Protestants could be appointed to it. It was modelled on a Board of Enquiry into the endowed schools, and itself became a model for later Boards for educational purposes. Unlike in England where the saying of mass was illegal and consequently bequests for masses were illegal, there were no legal restrictions on bequests in Ireland. All the members of the Board were Protestants, and because of this some Catholics believed, or pretended to believe, that they might exercise the powers of cy pres  (as near as possible) and transfer the bequest to other purposes. (Regular Orders of men were illegal, so bequests for their support were clearly illegal also, but this point was not at issue for no such bequests were attempted.)  

            Peel in 1845 reorganised the Board and appointed Catholic bishops to it. But such was the suspiciousness of the nationalist faction that they seized on an opinion of O’Connell's that certain clauses could possibly at a future date be used against them and furiously opposed the Act. At this distance in time it may be conceded that there were few actual problems with regard to proselytism or attempts to divert Catholic bequests to Protestant charities, and most of the difficulty was caused by a factious spirit among some leading Catholic clergy. Despite the opposition the Board was established and did very useful work.



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