This was an important period for religious life in Ireland, when all churches faced challenges to their spiritual authority, or their status. Against a background of social and economic change, religious leaders tried to introduce reform, improve administration, and discipline their flocks. The churches were under increasing pressure from the secular world—from its ideas, its education and its cultural activities. In spite of all this there was an increase in religious fervour. In Protestant churches much of this can be explained by evangelicalism and its emphasis on a more ‘enthusiastic’ style of religious expression. After the Famine, following a period of reform and the loss of its poorest members, Catholicism was marked by religious renewal and a more public display of faith. Practice differed from person to person and from place to place. Religious faith itself is difficult to measure; for some it was an intensely private matter; for many it was a mixture of ritual and tradition, the social and spiritual behaviour of a community. In fact, it is almost impossible to separate religion and culture. However, there were many cultural activities that were entirely secular. Religious leaders increasingly found they had to compete for the leisure time of their flocks.
1. Religion in pre-famine Ireland
The first statistics for religion in Ireland are contained in the 1831 Census, and these give us some idea of the proportionate strengths of the major denominations before the Famine. The great majority of the population, around 80.3%, were Catholic; 10.7% belonged to the Church of Ireland; and 8.1% were Presbyterian. Denominational membership was not, however, evenly distributed around the island. The north-east was distinctive. The counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh and Londonderry had Catholic minorities, while Fermanagh and Tyrone had almost equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants. Every other Irish county had a substantial Catholic majority. Moreover, because of earlier migrations from Scotland and England, 96% of all Irish Presbyterians were located in Ulster. The majority of Anglicans (56%) were also in the north-east, and the remainder were more generally dispersed throughout the island. The population of Ireland was, of course, dramatically affected by the Famine, and Catholics suffered greater losses than Protestants. The 1861 Census reflected the change: it recorded the population as 77.7% Catholic, 12% Anglican and 9% Presbyterian. Class and geography were important. Catholics were largely concentrated in the west and south of the country, and they made up the majority of the lower classes in society.
There were other small religious groupings: such as Baptists, Congregationalists, Plymouth Brethren, Quakers and Methodists. Their numbers rose and fell over the course of the century. However, even taken together, these made up only a small percentage of the population. The Methodists were probably the most significant in terms of numbers and influence. None of the denominations operated in isolation. Apart from their interaction with each other, they were also affected by wider social and political events in Ireland itself, and were influenced, too, by international theological trends.
2. The Catholic Church
The nineteenth century was a period of progress and reform for the Catholic Church following the removal of almost all of the legal obstacles imposed on it in the previous century. Only Catholic Emancipation—and particularly the right to sit in Parliament—remained to be achieved. Only then would full political participation be open to Irish Catholics. But the years of persecution had inevitably weakened the overall structure of the Church and its ability to function effectively.
The most visible areas of concern were the shortage and inadequacy of church buildings and the lack of sufficient numbers of priests to deal with large and scattered congregations. It was estimated that in 1800 the ratio of priests to parishioners was about 1 to 2100. At the beginning of the century bishops felt the need to standardise religious practices and to exert their authority in matters of discipline.
Progress was slow in the pre-Famine era. However, some important building work was begun and a new generation of reforming bishops brought their influence to bear on the lower clergy through regular conferences, retreats, and visitations. While priests were encouraged to improve their preaching and pastoral work, regulations were introduced to address personal standards of behaviour. Whilst discipline was tightened as a result of these measures, the rapid rate of population increase made any improvement in the ratio of priests to people impossible.
Strong efforts were also made to regulate the behaviour of the wider Catholic community, particularly in regard to the rituals of faith. The restrictions of the previous century had led to a wide variation in religious practice and the merging of popular folk customs with Christian events. The ‘merry wake’ is probably the best example. While the priest delivered the last rites, the main activities surrounding the newly deceased were very much social and communal, from the keening women (mná caointe) following the funeral to the drinking, dancing, games, tricks and general horseplay enjoyed by family, friends and neighbours. In country areas the funeral mass was also often held in the home, as were marriages and baptisms, though the priest’s house sometimes provided an alternative venue. The Dublin diocesan statutes of 1831 ordered that the requiem and funeral mass be held in the church, and under Archbishop Cullen the administration of the sacraments was transferred from home to church. The secular traditions surrounding the wake, however, proved more resistant to reform, though the elements that were most offensive to the priests—mimicry of the sacraments, especially marriage, and satirical attacks on the clergy—had largely disappeared by the second half of the century. Boisterous behaviour at patterns (the feast day of a parish’s patron saint) also aroused the criticism of the hierarchy, who were particularly concerned about their Protestant counterparts and how they viewed the superstitious and immoral traditions which surrounded them. These pre-modern aspects of popular Catholicism presented the Church with significant challenges to its authority over social as well as religious life.
3. The Church of Ireland
As part of the constitutional establishment, the Church of Ireland operated within a particularly difficult framework and its pastoral relationship with its parishioners was complicated by tasks of civil administration. The parish, operating as a kind of unofficial local parliament, was responsible for the upkeep of church buildings, schools, and roads; for the burial of the destitute; for the welfare of deserted children; and for looking after the poor. Such responsibilities ensured that Anglican clergy had considerable influence within the community, a situation reinforced by their strong social ties developed with local gentry. And while the church attracted a wide social range of followers amongst landlords, the professional and business classes and labouring families, the clergy themselves were most likely to come from gentry or professional backgrounds. Both the local and national power of the Established Church placed it in a position of privilege in relation to other religious denominations. This provoked considerable hostility from Catholics and Dissenters who greatly resented paying for the upkeep of a religious institution to which they did not belong.
Representative of only a small minority in Ireland as a whole, it is not surprising that the Established Church was the target of much hostile criticism in this period. However, complaints also focused on the pastoral role of the Church and its ministers. Pluralism (clerical double jobbing) and non-residence were cited as obvious examples of apathy and neglect. The Church’s material and administrative inadequacies most clearly affected the services offered to the community, and the frequency with which divine service was held, communion celebrated and confirmations performed, was regarded as insufficient in many areas. Under pressure from an increasingly unsympathetic legislature, and under the critical scrutiny of the Presbyterian community, the Church of Ireland could not afford to be complacent.
During the first decades of the nineteenth century the church engaged in a series of administrative improvements, redeploying its assets and reasserting its authority. By 1830 the province of Armagh could boast of 79 new benefices since 1782, while the number of glebe houses had increased to 93% of all parishes. Such improvements meant an increase in the number of resident clergy, church services, and communicants. Its success, while limited, was due to different causes. These included the committed churchmanship of an increasing number in both the upper and lower ranks of the Church, increased pressure from clergy and laity involved in evangelical societies, and the contribution of evangelicals striving to revitalise the Church from within. However, it was clear by the early 1830s that internal reform was not enough to satisfy the critics of the Church, in an age of increasing accountability. Amongst a series of legislative measures imposed by the Whig government was the Church Temporalities Act which reduced the number of bishoprics from 22 to 12, and it established a new body to deal with church administration and finance, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of Ireland. The ancient and inefficient structure of the Church of Ireland was thus thoroughly overhauled, and more respect was paid to efficiency than to tradition. The controversial issue of tithes was also resolved by government intervention in 1838. The Church hierarchy, unsurprisingly, responded with alarm to what was believed to be an attack on property; but the vulnerability of the Protestant establishment in a mainly Catholic country would continue to increase over the course of the century.
The activities of evangelicals posed a different challenge for Church leaders. Characterised by an emphasis on personal salvation, the centrality of the Cross and the authority of the Bible, evangelicalism had been an important though minor undercurrent in Irish religious life since the late eighteenth century. It was most visible as an organised movement within Methodism, but individual members of the clergy and laity of other denominations were also influenced by its challenge to contemporary religious lethargy. In the early decades of the nineteenth century a small number of Anglican clergy showed their evangelical tendencies by forming religious societies, engaging in outdoor preaching and co-operating with members of other denominations in the interests of spreading the gospel. Church leaders regarded this kind of activity as a threat both to the hierarchical structure and to the wider authority of the establishment. They also feared the possibility of religious division, even schism. But while extempore prayer and popular hymn-singing were at first seen as worrying developments by a Church rooted in liturgical tradition, these tensions eased as the century progressed. Indeed, the gradual development of evangelical churchmanship within the Church of Ireland proved that co-operation between orthodoxy and evangelicalism was not only possible but also desirable. By the second half of the 1830s, church extension work and the formation of diocesan societies showed the extent to which they could co-exist, and by the middle of the century the Anglican church in Ireland could be described as an evangelical institution.
4. The Presbyterian Church
The Presbyterian Church in Ulster has been described as virtually ‘a state within a state’, a self-regulating community organised according to its own principles and virtually independent of the wider structures of church and state. While Catholics and Anglicans came under the authority of Rome and Westminster respectively, the Presbyterian community selected its own ministers, built its own churches, and administered its own discipline. But although technically a dissenting church in Ireland, it did receive an annual state grant, the regium donum. At the head of the numerically strong and geographically concentrated Presbyterian community was the Synod of Ulster, the provincial church government which had the loyalty of the vast majority of Ulster Presbyterians throughout the 18th and 19th century. There were, however, other significant minority groups such as the Covenanting or Reformed Presbyterian Church, which had originated in the second Scottish Reformation, and put down somewhat delicate roots in Ulster during the troubled years of the mid-seventeenth century. The Associate Synod, or the Seceders, a Scottish breakaway sect which began to make an impact in Ulster in the 1740s, was numerically stronger than the Covenanters, and particularly successful in competing with mainstream Presbyterianism. Combining conversionist zeal and a strong emphasis on fighting sin with rigid orthodoxy and strict discipline, the Seceders had organised a total of 16 congregations in Co. Down by 1818.
There were also numerous doctrinal disputes and divisions within the Synod of Ulster itself. These were largely due to what has been described as ‘the inherent tension of Presbyterianism, between traditional ecclesiastical orthodoxy and the right of private judgment’. In the early nineteenth century the major disputes were connected with the ideas of Arianism and subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Arianism meant a rejection of the traditional Christian doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, a view offensive to more orthodox laity, and capable of creating bitter divisions. The frequency with which congregations took issue with each other, their ministers, or the synod, over such matters, and the consequent forming of breakaway groups, suggests a degree of disharmony at grassroots level. This could not only divide communities, but also significantly affect the cause of Presbyterianism in a locality. Matters came to a head in 1829, with the setting up of a separate Remonstrant Synod by the Arian Party, and the passing of a resolution that required full subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith by all ministers in 1835. It is widely accepted in Presbyterian history that the split of 1829, begun by the Reverend Henry Cooke, was both recognition of the growth of evangelicalism within the church and a powerful stimulant to the evangelical cause. This was reflected in 1840 in the union of the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod into the new General Assembly and the beginning of a new era of missionary enterprise.
Although it accounts for only about 1.5% of the overall population, it is worth briefly looking at Methodism. It originated as a reforming society within the Church of England and was, by the nineteenth century, a distinct religious body. Methodist preachers travelled extensively throughout Ireland, preaching outdoors, forming local societies and spreading the message of justification by faith and Christian perfection. With its emotional class meetings, spiritual discipline and practical support, Methodism reached out to many of those neglected by the more established religions. The importance it attached to thrift and temperance perhaps appealed particularly to women, while the early use of women preachers introduced a dimension of novelty into popular religious life. It was particularly strong within traditional Anglican areas and in the ‘linen triangle’ of south Ulster. The province of Ulster was Methodism’s most successful recruiting ground: 68% of Irish Methodists living north of a line drawn from Sligo to Dundalk in 1815. Although very anti-Catholic, and specifically targeting the peasantry through Irish-speaking preachers, Methodism’s most important contribution to Irish society was the stimulus it gave to a much wider evangelicalism. During the course of the nineteenth century many Methodist characteristics, particularly itinerant preaching and the establishment of voluntary religious societies, were taken up by individuals, missionary organisations, and eventually the main churches themselves.
6. Religious divisions
Each denomination was separated from the other by social, cultural and political as well as by theological distinctions. Despite internal divisions, Ulster Presbyterians, with their strong Scottish links and sense of religious and political identity, formed a close-knit community. Most Presbyterian ministers were local men, serving the middle-class, mainly farming communities, from which they came. On the other hand, while Anglican ministers were also likely to come from the educated middle classes, their adherents were more broadly representative of society in general. There is no doubt that evangelical outreach strategies introduced an element of rivalry into inter-church relations, but the most contentious area of competition was between Catholicism and the different branches of Protestantism.
7. Religious competition
Protestant evangelicalism, vibrant and enthusiastic, was also assertively anti-Catholic, and hostility between the two major branches of Christianity became a marked feature of nineteenth-century Irish life. A proliferation of voluntary British religious agencies had made Ireland one of the chief targets for their conversionist zeal from around 1800. These established schools and distributed religious tracts and bibles. Their use of the Irish language to win over the peasantry was particularly irritating to the Catholic hierarchy. Against this background—and in the broader context of poor harvests, tithe wars and the growth of Orangeism—the 1820s witnessed a version of rural millenarianism. This was based on the prophecies of Pastorini [a pseudonym of Charles Walmsley], a Catholic prelate and mathematician. His millennial text a General History of the Christian Church …, written in 1790, predicted the downfall of Protestantism in 1821–5 and the triumphant emergence of the Catholic Church. A source of considerable embarrassment to the Catholic hierarchy, Pastorini was reported to be a household name in the South in 1822–3, especially in the Limerick area. His prophecy was widely believed in Ireland and the sixth edition of his book was published in Cork. Within a few years, however, the Catholic Emancipation campaign became the focus for many of the resentments that had earlier found expression in agrarian violence and for the mood of millenarian expectation that shortly before had made Pastorini so popular.
The years 1826-7 saw the beginning of a more concerted evangelical challenge to Catholicism. The so-called ‘Second Reformation’ began in Co. Cavan with reports of the conversion of several tenants of the evangelical landlord, Lord Farnham. Accusations of proselytism quickly followed and were angrily refuted. However, the vulnerability of the tenantry (the linen industry in the area had virtually collapsed) and the extensive influence of the Farnhams were obviously significant factors. A challenge to the popularity of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association, the Second Reformation movement also testified to the evangelical belief in religious solutions to political problems. As with the teaching and bible societies, the underlying motivation was the view that the only way of solving Ireland’s problems was through conversion of the majority of the population to Protestantism, not concession to their political demands. By October 1827 it was reported that there were 783 converts in Co. Cavan, but the ‘Reformation’ had little direct impact on other areas. Protestant evangelicals again came under attack in 1831, when famine on Achill Island inspired the Irish-speaker, the Reverend Edward Nangle, to establish a Protestant settlement there, aiming at the teaching and conversion of the Catholic population. He had a school which attracted 420 children within a year and a printing press dedicated to publishing attacks on ‘the idolatry of the Roman Mass’. This made Nangle’s settlement a focal point for evangelical visitors and, during the Famine of the 1840s, a target for accusations of ‘souperism’ , the use of food as bribery to win converts.
The reformation movement was also concerned to draw attention to the distinctions between Catholic and Protestant doctrine, and to this end organised a series of great public meetings. Reports of attendance at these meetings, where Catholic and Protestant clergy hotly debated theological questions, are varied. They usually continued for several days and stirred up considerable religious tension. While the number of converts to Protestantism was probably insignificant, these public confrontations both fed upon, and contributed to, the sectarian disturbances of the period. It has also been said that the necessity of defending Catholic doctrine united all classes in defence of the ancient faith, and in fact probably served to entrench Catholicism in the minds of the ordinary people.
For many members of the ascendancy class, the election of Daniel O’Connell and the granting of Catholic Emancipation, provoked fears for the future of Protestantism. Their anxiety was increased by the British Government’s educational policies, which had been designed to put an end to the religious competition in schools. The National System of Education, introduced in 1831, aimed to bring all children together for general literary instruction while separating them for religious doctrine. However, the idea of providing inter-denominational education served mainly to increase denominational rivalry, and the hostility of both Catholic and Protestant clergy forced the government to compromise its principles. The Churches’ control of schooling was not so easily given up. Religious conflict also marked developments in higher education. Trinity College Dublin, though attended by some middle- and upper-class Catholics, was largely a stronghold of the Anglo-Irish, and the Catholic hierarchy banned attendance there in 1875. The Government’s plans to establish provincial non-sectarian colleges in Cork, Galway and Belfast in 1848 also failed to meet religious demands. The Queen’s Colleges, which two years after their formation were linked as constituent colleges of Queen’s University, were dubbed ‘Godless’ by the Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic bishops founded an alternative Catholic University in Dublin in 1854, with Cardinal Newman as its head, but it struggled to survive. The ‘University Question’ (as it was called) remained largely unresolved until the early twentieth century.
8. Popular culture in pre-famine Ireland
In the early nineteenth century education was also available in Sunday Schools attached to the various churches. While there were schools throughout the country, they were particularly important in Ulster where the proportion of Sunday scholars to population was 1:14 in 1831. In addition to their specifically religious objectives, Sunday Schools were expected to instil good manners, sound morals, and respectable appearance. However, for the children who attended, they also offered educational and recreational facilities, and made a distinctive contribution to working-class culture through their anniversary celebrations, street parades, Whitsun outings, book prizes, and benefit societies.
Apart from education, another recurring theme in the evangelical crusade for moral reformation was temperance. Drunkenness was regarded as the prime cause of sexual immorality, gambling, broken homes, poverty, and social strife. The impetus for temperance societies originated in America, was taken up by local clergy of various denominations, and with the support of influential laymen spread rapidly throughout the province. By 1833, only four years after the first plans were published, there were 15,000 members of temperance societies in Ulster. The emphasis of these societies was on moderation rather than total abstention. The tee-total movement which was led by Father Mathew, began in 1838 and was a popular Roman Catholic crusade against ‘all intoxicating liquors’, and its medals, speeches, bands and banners provided a lively alternative to pub-based culture. Not only priests and evangelicals, but employers, landlords, radicals, and reformers in general supported the ‘improving’ movement, each viewing the advantages of a sober working class in a different light. The interest of employers in promoting the sobriety of their work force is self-evident, but Catholic nationalists were also convinced that the self-respect and self-esteem arising from sobriety could advance not only moral, but political aspirations. Around five million people were estimated to have taken the pledge in the first five years of Father Mathew’s movement.
A decline in the popularity of whiskey drinking and general drunkenness was noted by many visitors and commissioners in this period, but the problem of drunkenness in Ireland was by no means solved. Many thousands remained unmoved by the crusade, while the resolutions of others were all too short-lived. Nor should all the responsibility for the reported decline in alcoholic consumption be attributed to the work of temperance campaigners. The introduction of revenue police and the reduction of duty on whiskey were undoubtedly significant factors in reducing the numbers of ‘shebeens’ and the local customs and festivities which surrounded them, while the increased supervision of ‘improving’ landlords and their agents was a further effective deterrent.
Secret societies and faction fights, an important part of rural Irish society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century did not die out completely. However, they were declining in significance, aided by the condemnations of the clergy and Daniel O’Connell and, from 1836, the presence of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Famine greatly accelerated social changes already under way. The portrayal of pre-Famine Ireland in literature is very significant for social history. The work of William Carleton (1794-1869) has been acknowledged as an important source. Carleton’s own hedge-school education and carefree youth provided him with abundant materials for the lively tales of Irish peasant life which are an important part of our cultural heritage. Close familiarity and direct experience give life and vigour to Carleton’s portrayals of local events and characters, ensuring their popularity. Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, first published in 1830–3, went though several editions. Evidence of popular culture is difficult to find in the more traditional archives and, while writers such as Charles Lever and Samuel Lover contributed to the popular image of the stage Irishman as a drunken buffoon, Carleton’s vivid portrayals reflected a wider experience. His stories of wakes and weddings, faction fights, country dances, drinking dens, and sporting rivalries—events at the very core of community life—prompted J. M. Synge (1871–1909), the playwright, to call Carleton the ‘father of Irish literature’.
There was, however, at least at intellectual levels, growing opposition both to the stereotypical view of Irish life, and the gradual encroachment of England evidenced in sports, literature, music-hall entertainment and, importantly, in the decline of the Irish language. The Royal Irish Academy, founded in 1785, had become the centre of scholarly study of Ireland’s ancient civilisation. Editions and translations of Gaelic poetry, legends and sagas were published by poets and scholars such as James Clarence Mangan, Samuel Ferguson, George Petrie, John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry and others. O’Donovan published his monumental edition of the Annals of the Four Masters in 1848–51, revealing the rich sources in Irish for the medieval history of the Irish church and of society, while Bishop William Reeves and J. H. Todd studied the early centuries of Irish Christianity. They drew scholarly attention to a country that developed an outstanding literary and religious culture in the early middle ages, a land of saints and scholars whose missionaries and teachers made a major contribution to the creation of Europe’s Christian civilisation. Their work was particularly important because it provided a new set of symbols for Ireland. George Petrie edited a very important popular but high-quality magazine, the Dublin Penny Journal, that carried well-crafted articles on Irish antiquities and history, many written by himself. Ferguson wrote in 1840 of its important role in ‘bringing back to the light of intellectual day, the already recorded facts by which the people of Ireland will be able to live back, in the land they live in’. Later, Petrie established the Irish Penny Journal to inform the people at large of Irish cultural achievements in the past.
The approach of Thomas Davis in the 1840s was something new: cultural nationalism and the creation of an Irish identity in English. He took Ireland’s past from the scholars and brought it to the people. He and his associates popularised Ireland’s cultural heritage—in story, in history, in rousing ballads—to re-affirm ‘the pedigree of her nationhood’, to rekindle a pride in her history and language. The Young Ireland movement (and here Davis played a leading part, together with the Catholic journalist Charles Gavan Duffy and the Catholic barrister John Blake Dillon) was strongly influenced by wider European romantic nationalism. Young Ireland spread its ideas through the Nation, its weekly newspaper. The movement never won mass support, and its attempted rising in 1848 was doomed from the start. Nonetheless, its legacy is impressive. Later generations built on Young Ireland’s concern for Irish culture—the Irish language, Irish music, art and history.
9. Catholicism after the famine
The Great Famine was the most serious disaster of the century, an ‘event of cosmic significance’ during which superstition and fears were rife. Research suggests that the initial Catholic folk interpretation of the Famine was in terms of a supernatural judgement, God’s wrath and divine punishment of the people’s sins, a view apparently encouraged by the Church. It does indeed seem that the psychological shock of these years led to an increase in religious faith and practice. The loss of around two million of the poorest of its people ensured that the Catholic Church emerged from the period of famine in a stronger position to carry out its pastoral role. Indeed, it has been claimed that the confidence and progress of Irish Catholicism between 1850 and 1875 was marked by a ‘Devotional Revolution’.
A major factor in the shaping of the Church in these years was the leadership of Paul Cullen. He arrived in Ireland from Rome as papal delegate and Archbishop of Armagh in 1850, was translated to Dublin in 1852, and became Ireland’s first cardinal in 1866. As a reformer and ecclesiastical politician, Cullen created the modern Irish Catholic Church, regulated its clergy and its practices, and bound it closely to Rome. His work benefited from the progress made in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the changed conditions following the Famine. Cullen strengthened the relationship between a more devout people and their more disciplined clergy. The Synod of Thurles, convened by Cullen in 1850, marked the beginning of a more tightly controlled religious regime. The ratio of priests to people had been reduced to 1:1250, and as a result of an increased Government grant to Maynooth, after 1845, many of these priests were more likely to be from the lower ranks of Catholic society. Cullen’s leadership was Rome-centred (Ultramontane) and he was keenly aware of the danger of an Irish-based nationalistic Catholicism (Gallicanism), of which Archbishop John McHale of Tuam was a volatile and outspoken advocate. Cullen, a skilled diplomat, easily outplayed him. Cullen was deeply hostile to the physical force tradition in Irish politics, and he strongly condemned the Fenian movement. However, he was primarily an ecclesiastical reformer, deeply committed to the papacy and anxious to make the Irish Catholic Church conform, to the fullest possible extent, with the Roman model.
The results of these combined circumstances were already clear by the end of this period. The celebration of the sacraments in the home became a rare occurrence; confession and communion were much more frequent; the number of Sunday sermons increased; and more people than ever before attended mass. Many new churches were built; and new Roman-style devotions flourished. Retreats and parish missions organised by the religious orders provided the opportunity for spiritual renewal and a proliferation of confraternities and sodalities encouraged religious practice amongst the laity. A massive increase in the numbers of religious orders influenced all levels of Catholic social life and religious practice. The number of nuns, which stood at 120 in 1800, had risen to 3,700 by 1870. Teaching orders of brothers, particularly the Irish Christian Brothers, also substantially increased in number. Through their work in schools in particular, this para-clerical church personnel had a powerful influence on the youth and did much to ensure the dominance of a strict Catholic ethos. As many have remarked, the sexually conservative nature of late nineteenth-century Ireland was one consequences of the Church’s increased control, especially of the middle classes.
10. Post-famine Protestantism
One of the few high points in nineteenth-century Protestant religious life occurred in Ulster in 1859. Known as the ‘Second Great Awakening’, this religious revival which swept over much of the province shows how evangelicalism had infiltrated mainstream religion by the middle of the nineteenth century. Although the Presbyterian heartlands of Antrim and Down were most strongly affected, the counties of Londonderry and Tyrone also witnessed the ‘miraculous manifestations, marvellous conversions and mysterious prostrations’ that characterised the ‘Great Revival’. Methodists and Anglicans were also affected, but Catholics remained largely immune.
Although the roots of the revival can be found in the gradual spread and growing acceptance of evangelical activity in all Protestant churches from the beginning of the nineteenth century, this particular outbreak of religious excitement began amongst a group of young men who met together for prayer, and the laity played a key role in sustaining and spreading the movement. The original converts, on praying and preaching tours throughout the countryside, caused great excitement in churches and meeting houses. While many Protestant clergy welcomed what was claimed as a genuine outpouring of the spirit, some took a more cautious approach because of the physical phenomena that often accompanied dramatic conversions. The physical prostrations, faintings and ‘strikings down’, which were the most controversial characteristics of the 1859 revival, were felt by some to be fraud or delusion and, although they affected only a minority of converts, they caused considerable local excitement.
Promoters of the revival made great claims for its success, estimating that they had made around 100,000 converts in all. These statistics must, however, be treated with caution as many ‘converts’ were probably those on the periphery of church rather than drunkards, villains and the like. Another significant consequence of this period of revivalism was the growth of those denominations that required a more visible and positive commitment from their adult members. For example, the Plymouth Brethren particularly benefited. It is unlikely that the revival had such a direct effect on the lives of most ordinary men and women, though one would imagine that in small, close-knit communities the pressure to conform might be considerable. Most importantly, the revival gave a boost to Protestant confidence on the eve of further political assaults.
It is ironic that the Church of Ireland was being undermined by political events beyond its control just when administrative reform and evangelical zeal made its pastoral mission more efficient. But Disestablishment, the separation of church and state, an almost inevitable consequence of the Liberal Government’s attempts to deal with the problems of Ireland, united Protestants of all creeds against the perceived threat from Catholicism. For example, the Presbyterian leader Henry Cooke headed an emotional display of Protestant solidarity in Hillsborough in 1867. It was one of the major demonstrations against Gladstone’s policy. Such instances of solidarity temporarily overcame narrower theological distinctions. However, when it came in 1869 (Irish Church Act), Disestablishment was on favourable terms. Protestant interests were looked after and proper provisions were made for the Church of Ireland’s future. A Temporalities Commission was established to manage church revenue and the Representative Church Body set up to deal with legal and administrative matters. It has been argued that the constitutional withdrawal of the British Government from religion in Ireland left the churches free to focus on their pastoral and spiritual mission.
What really united the Protestant denominations was anti-Catholicism, and during the second half of the nineteenth century tensions between the religious communities frequently spilled over into violent sectarian conflict. In 1849, for example, at Dolly’s Brae near Castlewellan in Co. Down, a clash between Ribbonmen and Orangemen resulted in the deaths of six Catholics. While such rural conflicts had been common since the late eighteenth century, demographic shifts brought sectarianism to Belfast where it was to have lasting impact on culture, politics, and religion. The proportion of Catholics in the city, estimated at 16% in 1808, had increased to 31.9% by 1871 and, while religious riots in the town were rare before 1830, in the following decades sectarian clashes became more frequent and more violent. Competition for jobs and the activities of the Orange Order were contributory factors but so, too, were the popular and controversial outpourings of evangelical preachers. Anglican Thomas Drew and Presbyterian Hugh Hanna are prime examples of clerical leadership which, by graphically denouncing the ‘errors’ of Rome in open-air sermons, contributed to outbreaks of sectarian rioting. Thus the religious leadership, whether from Sunday morning pulpits or the speakers’ platform at the Great Protestant meetings in Hillsborough, carried a weighty responsibility. Their sermons often determined the nature of local community relations.
12. Post-famine culture
A major consequence of social change in these years was the decline of the Irish language. The regions and the social classes where Irish was most prevalent were hardest hit by the Famine, emigration, and the subsequent process of change. The language was increasingly seen as ‘old-fashioned’, signifying poverty and ignorance rather than tradition and culture. The usual language of ‘modern’ everyday life—newspapers, schools, administration, and religion (whether Catholic or Protestant)—was English, and in a world where all these were becoming increasingly important the Irish language was bound to decline.
Although not solely responsible for the decline in the Irish language, the national system of education did help to bring about mass literacy in English. When this was combined with changes in the methods of book production and in printing technology, the printed word in English became more readily available to all classes. Most medium-sized towns had at least one bookshop. In smaller towns and villages throughout the country, books could be bought, or even hired in the local grocery stores. Chapmen, itinerant small traders who plied their wares—clothing, combs, and small items of hardware—from door to door in country areas, also carried books. Reading materials was also accessed through a range of libraries. Despite the passage of the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act of 1855, rate-supported libraries were very slow to start. While subscriptions to commercial libraries were beyond the reach of many, landlords and clergy, intent on improvement, frequently established their own lending libraries.
The material available to the new reading public was diverse and generally reflected a culture beyond the shores of the island. Traditional tales such as Aesop’s Fables or the Arabian Nights, tales of travel, adventure or disaster, and histories were all popular, as were cheap translations of French novels. Indeed the popularity of these was a matter of concern for religious bodies who themselves swamped the market was religious tracts and pamphlets. Specifically Irish material was more limited, though the theme of the Rebellion of 1798 did attract some writers, and collections such as Irish Legendary Tales and Royal Hibernian Tales were available. By mid century, editions of cheap quality literature were also being made available through series such as the Parlour Library. Newspapers were, of course, an important source of news, opinions, and information although until 1861 high taxation limited their circulation. However, they were widely read, they passed around in reading rooms and public houses, and their contents was discussed at length in a variety of venues.
In terms of culture more generally, a combination of secular and religious influences was having an effect on behavioural patterns during this period. Changes in farming methods, urbanisation, industrialisation, and a shift to a money economy led to the greater regularisation and organisation of leisure time. The influence of churches has already been noted. It seems that, generally speaking, a more ‘respectable’ and religious strong-farmer culture was replacing the old habits of the shebeens and riotous wakes. Nonetheless, weddings and funerals, hiring fairs and markets, the departure or return of emigrants, and harvest homes were all occasions of sociability, merriment, music, and dancing. In rural areas, ‘crossroads’ dancing was common on summer Sunday evenings while even in the Dublin slums, tenement families enjoyed gossip and regular ‘hooleys’. Ballads and music, passed on from one generation to the next, were enjoyed in a range of venues, from humble cottages, to city streets to community gatherings of all kinds.
The new railway network was also important, enabling individuals, couples and families to travel to the seaside or countryside for day trips, weekends, or even longer periods during Easter and Summer holidays. While holidays were a rare luxury for the poor, for the wealthy they were a way of life and made easier by the advances in travel. The London season was viewed in upper-class circles as an essential cultural and social opportunity—a time for the women to catch up on the latest fashions and for the men to renew acquaintances at their clubs, while both enjoyed the latest plays. Visits to the cultural centres of Europe were regular, and were seen as being particularly important educational experiences for upper-class young men and as providing the ‘finishing’ touches to the education of wealthy young women. ‘Culture’ was, of course, also available at home, and light opera was on offer at several venues. Between 1841 and 1867 a total of twenty-two different music societies were founded for the middle and upper classes. Larger audiences enjoyed the programmes of Grand National Concerts of Irish Music, consisting of more popular tunes, such as Moore’s Melodies.
While cultural, as well as religious experience, was diverse and multi-faceted, the influence of Ireland’s dominant neighbour was strong. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the nationalist challenge to this creeping anglicisation, mostly the work of the Gaelic League (Connradh na Gaedhilge), resulted in the resurgence of a Catholic Irish culture which, being both Gaelic and Catholic, would greatly strengthen one aspect of culture at the expense of a more inclusive diversity.
Dr Myrtle Hill