Castletown House, Co Kildare: the 18th century brought economic prosperity and saw the landed aristocracy building great classical mansions (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2006)
Part 1: The Church of Ireland in the years leading up to the Act of Union
The second half of the 18th century brought great prosperity to these islands. The decline in smuggling, the demand in industrial Britain for Irish grain and linen, the health of the old woollen industry in the south and of the new cotton manufacturers in the north-east, and the revival of brewing, all contributed to this prosperity.
Land values and rents rose, the population doubled, everyone was better fed and better clothed, and the landed proprietors certainly were better housed, building great classical mansions such as Castle Coole in Fermanagh, Castletown House at Celbridge, Carton House at Maynooth, and the elegant Georgian town houses in Dublin streets and squares.
It was often said by Irish nationalists that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. But all would agree that England’s difficulties with France in the second half of the 18th century also proved to be Ireland’s opportunity. Parliament in Dublin started to assert its rights and its independence from both parliament in London and from the administration in Dublin Castle, and to secure loyalty from the populace at large, and civil, religious and political liberties were extended.
But we should ask about the state of the Church of Ireland in the decades leading up to the Act of Union.
The bishops of the Church of Ireland had to be in Dublin for the sittings of Parliament, where they often constituted the working majority in the House of Lords. But Irish bishops could be said to have seen – or at least had the opportunity to see – more of their dioceses, compared to their counterparts in England and Wales: bishops from dioceses in England and Wales were required to spend similar time in London, which was greater distance away.
And so, many of the bishops of the Church of Ireland had the opportunity to be, and often were, could be conscientious, pastoral bishops. But they enjoyed wealth, prestige and the power of patronage.
They were considerable landed proprietors: between them, the bishops of the Church of Ireland controlled 5 per cent of all Irish land – as much as all the Roman Catholics on the island.
One bishop, describing his easy life in Dublin and his infrequent visits to his northern diocese, wrote: “At Dublin, I enjoy the most delightful habitation, the finest landscape, and the mildest climate … I have a house there, rather too elegant and magnificent, in the North an easy diocese, and a large revenue.”
William Bennet was enthroned in absentia as Bishop of Cork in 1790. Most of his ordinations were conducted in Dublin, including the ordinations of William Trench as deacon and priest at the age of 21, for a parish in the Diocese of Clonfert.
The office of confirmation had been abandoned in most Ulster dioceses, and the Church of Ireland was collapsing in many parts of Co Antrim (the Diocese of Connor). In Belfast, a thriving and fast-expanding city, there was only one Church of Ireland parish church to serve the whole city. It was in a dangerous condition when it was pulled down in 1774, but even its successor, Saint Ann’s, stood alone until Saint George’s chapel-of-ease was built in 1816.
New cathedrals were being built for Cork, Clogher, Waterford, and Cashel, and other cathedrals, including Limerick, were rebuilt during this period. In Dublin, the Protestant population shifted from being over two-thirds of the population to being less than one-third. New churches were erected throughout the second half of the 18th century, but not quickly enough to meet the needs and demands of an expanding, industrialising city.
And yet the Church of Ireland produced many fine, memorable bishops in the second half of the 18th century, including:
Bishop Richard Pococke in 18th century oriental costume
Richard Pococke (1704-1765), Bishop of Ossory (1756-1765) and Meath (1765), would rise at 4 a.m. to supervise the workers engaged in restoring Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. He established factories and schools, and he also visited Scotland, where he provided the first confirmations in the Episcopal Church by a bishop since 1660. He travelled throughout Greece, Egypt and the Holy Land, and left a memorable collection of travel writings.
Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Ossory (1795-1798) and then Bishop of Meath (1798-1823) was a major reformer in both those dioceses.
Thomas Percy of Dromore (1782-1811), although described by Primate Stuart as “inactive and useless,” was an important literary figure. He was a member of Samuel Johnson’s Literary Club, he was a friend of Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and he was the editor of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which fired the imagination of Walter Scott. He had a reputation for piety, hospitality and benevolence.
And there were those bishops who suffered as a consequence of the Rising in 1798:
William Law, Bishop of Elphin, had interesting family connections with George Washington. Through his prudent action, the lives of many members of the Church of Ireland in his diocese were saved.
Joseph Stock (right), Bishop of Killala, the first biographer of George Berkeley, the philosopher and bishop, was imprisoned briefly by the Irish rebels and French invaders in Killala in 1798.
Euseby Cleaver was Bishop of Ferns during the 1798 Rising. Although he went on to become Archbishop of Dublin, he eventually went mad as a result of his experiences in Wexford during the Rising.
His mind was so impaired that it was found necessary to appoint Charles Brodrick, Archbishop of Cashel, as his coadjutor, the only example of such an appointment in the Church of Ireland.
Among the clergy, nepotism was normal and pluralism was rife. The Irish-born clergy resented the imposition of English-born bishops, and the retinue of favoured clerical followers they brought with them. Those clergy who had been educated at Trinity College Dublin felt they were left with “no better prospect than to be curates, or small country vicars, for life.”
Despite the efforts of successive bishops – particularly, in this period, Newcome and O’Beirne – pluralism and non-residence continued to plague the Church of Ireland, while many of the clergy persisted in pursuing social and secular opportunities. On his translation to Meath in 1798, O’Beirne criticised those clergy who were “mere men of the world” and whose passport into society was that they had “nothing of the clergyman about them.” The laity could not respect such men or look to them for spiritual guidance, he suggested, and might even “look on the revenue set apart for our support as a robbery on the public.”
There was a paucity of glebe houses, and church buildings were neglected in many parishes. And yet among the clergy, there were great figures too:
Philip Skelton (1707-1787), of the Diocese of Clogher, was a mystic, a devoted pastor and an able controversialist who was an able foil to the heretical Bishop Clayton. John Wesley and others compared his personality and writings with those of the English mystic and Nonjuror, William Law. Twice he sold his books to feed his parishioners, and in 1770 he gave the profits from his collected works to the Magdalen Asylum in Dublin.
Walter Blake Kirwan (1754-1805) was, perhaps, the most celebrated preacher in the Church of Ireland at the end of the 18th century. Kirwan was educated in France at the English Jesuit College, had intended to become a Roman Catholic priest, and became professor of natural and moral philosophy in Louvain. But he joined the Church of Ireland and became the incumbent of Saint Nicholas Without in Dublin, and then Dean of Killala. As an orator, he ranked second only to the great Irish parliamentarian, Henry Grattan, who said of Kirwan: “He came to disturb the repose of the pulpit, and shakes one world with the thunder of another.”
And there were the rebel clergy too:
Henry Fulton (1765-1840) from the Diocese of Killaloe was deported as a convict to Australia for his part in the 1798 Rising.
At least one rector in Co Wexford, Henry Wilson, took the oath of the United Irishmen during the 1798 Rising.
By this time, the Church of Ireland was a church in need of reform and there were those who were intent on reforming it.
Archbishop Richard Robinson of Armagh ... built Armagh Observatory
Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh (1765-1795), who had no stomach for politics, brought his disordered diocese under control. He built churches and glebe houses, repaired his cathedral and presented it with an organ, built a palace which remained the residence of his successors until the 1970s, and spent much of his wealth in improving the town of Armagh.
During Robinson’s time as primate, houses were built and trees planted. The public buildings that he provided included a registry, a music room and a library. He promoted the building of a barracks, a county gaol, and an infirmary, and at the age of 85, in 1793, he founded and endowed the Armagh Observatory.
William Stuart, who became Archbishop of Armagh in 1800, quickly informed the government of his opposition to the transfer of Bishop George Beresford from Clonfert to Kilmore, saying he was “reported to be one of the most profligate men in Europe,” and warning that “profligate bishops never fail to produce a profligate clergy. They ordain the refuse of society and give the most important places to the most worthless individuals.”
Stuart, in his assessment of the five other Northern bishops, said “three are men of tolerable moral character, and two are of acknowledged bad character.” But Stuart soon found himself looking on helplessly as, in return for securing the votes of the landed aristocracy for the Act of Union in the House of Lords, the government set about promoting the younger sons of the peers to the bench of bishops.
Charles Agar (1736-1809), 1st Earl of Normanton, was Archbishop of Cashel at the end of the 18th century and found himself in the role of spokesman for the bishops in the debates that led to the Act of Union. Agar was a political prince prelate and the 200th anniversary of his death is being recalled in the Diocese of Cashel this year. He went on to become Archbishop of Dublin after the Act of Union, and a recent biographical study by Anthony Malcolmson shows him to have been zealous in efforts at internal reform in his dioceses.
But if the Church of Ireland was a Church in need of reform, it was a Church that was also unwilling and unable to reform itself, and a church that would be forced to face changes in the decades that followed the passing of the Act of Union.
At the end of the 18th century, the Church of Ireland was served by four archbishops and eighteen bishops. For its bishop, the See of Derry was worth £7,000 a year, more than any of the archbishoprics, except Armagh at £8,000, while the bishops of Ossory and Dromore had a mere £2,000 each. And yet in some of the dioceses – including the Diocese of Kildare and the Diocese of Down – the bishop had no fixed, official residence.
The cathedral system was cumbersome, over-burdening the Church and providing titles for absentee clergy who performed no services for the Church of Ireland.
In some instances, there were dioceses where there was no cathedral. One of these was the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe, covering most of Co Kerry. Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Ardfert, outside Tralee, was burned down in 1641, and would only be restored briefly in 1871, to be abandoned almost immediately once again. Despite its name, Aghadoe Cathedral, outside Killarney, never had been a cathedral. Yet, at the end of the 18th century, the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe had a full panoply of cathedral dignitaries, including a dean, precentor, chancellor, treasurer and two archdeacons, one each for Ardfert and Aghadoe.
The Diocese of Kilmacduagh was extremely small, being less than 30 km long and less than 20 km wide. Saint Colman’s Cathedral, outside Gort, Co Galway, had been in ruins since the 1650s, and the parish church in Gort served as the cathedral church for this miniature diocese, which had few parishes and which had been united to the Diocese of Clonfert since 1602. Yet the tithes of this tiny part of south Co Galway were used to pay a Dean of Kilmacduagh, a provost, a chancellor, an archdeacon and two prebendaries, who continued to be installed in their dignities on top of tombstones and nettles in the roofless cathedral building until at least 1874.
Reform and the Act of Union:
The Act of Union not only brought political union to the kingdoms and parliaments on these islands, but also meant changes for the Church of Ireland.
Under the terms of the Act of Union, the Church of Ireland was amalgamated with the Church of England to form a new body known as the United Church of England and Ireland. Eventually, the dioceses of the Church of Ireland would be reduced in number, the tithes would be subject to commutation, and the way was being paved, ultimately, for disestablishment.
Part 2: Mission, philanthropy and culture:
The Church of Ireland and Missionary Work:
At this time, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (now USPG – Anglicans in World Mission) served as the main missionary society for both the Church of Ireland and the Church of England. But there were few opportunities and few volunteers for missionary service.
Those who did offer themselves for missionary work usually went to the colonies, principally in America.
Charles Inglis (1734-1816) of Glencolumbkille, Co Donegal, is an interesting encapsulation of the missionary involvement of some of the clergy of the Church of Ireland at this time. The son, grandson and great-grandson of parish clergy, he was ordained by the Bishop of London for the parish of Dover in Delaware. There he also worked among the Mohawk Indians, and urged the need for a bishop for the colonies.
In 1765, he settled in New York as assistant in Trinity Church, Wall Street, to Dr Samuel Auchmuty, a nephew of the Dean of Armagh. Inglis succeeded Auchmuty as Rector in 1777, shortly after the American Declaration of Independence.
But Inglis suffered for his adherence to the loyalist cause. He was attainted in 1779, and all his property was confiscated. Trinity Church was destroyed and Inglis moved with his family and 30,000 other loyalist emigrants to Nova Scotia in 1783. He was succeeded as rector of Trinity Church by Samuel Provoost, one of the first bishops of the Episcopal Church, and a son-in-law of Iboreas Bousfield, a wealthy banker in Co Cork.
Soon after American independence, George Seabury was consecrated by the bishops of the nonjuring Episcopal Church of Scotland in Aberdeen in 1784. Only then was the wisdom of Inglis’s earlier demands for bishops to serve in the colonies realised at last, if not too lately, and in 1787 Charles Inglis was consecrated in Lambeth Palace as Bishop of Nova Scotia, with jurisdiction also over Quebec, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, although his burden was eased in 1793 with the creation of the Diocese of Quebec.
Two months later, in the first Anglican ordination in Canada, Inglis ordained his own nephew, Archibald Inglis, and in 1790 he laid the foundation stone for the first university founded overseas after the loss of the American colonies.
In 1825, Charles Inglis’s son, John Inglis, became the third Bishop of Nova Scotia.
Back in Ireland, the Association for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (APCK) was founded as the Association for Discountenancing Vice and Promoting the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion in 1792, and it was incorporated in 1800. Its work included the distribution of bibles, prayer books and tracts, and it later went on to found and support schools.
The Church and Philanthropy:
Much of the philanthropic work associated with the Church of Ireland at this time was concentrated in Dublin.
Earlier in 18th century, a number of hospitals had been founded, including Jervis Street, Dr Steevens’s, Mercer’s, and Donnybrook. In the second half of the century, they were followed by the Meath Hospital (1754), the Rotunda (1757) and Swift’s or Saint Patrick’s (1757), the first psychiatric hospital in Dublin, which was founded with funds left by Dean Jonathan Swift.
Lady Arabella Denny (1707-1792) (right), a daughter of the Earl of Kerry and a leading laywoman, earned herself the Freedom of Dublin for her charitable works. She founded the Magdalen Asylum in Leeson Street (1766). The private chapel attached to Magdalen Asylum became a fashionable place of worship, associated with the late 18th century evangelical revival.
In 1784, the year of Wesley’s first ordinations, William Smyth, a Dublin merchant, founded the Bethesda Chapel in Dorset Street in connection with a female orphanage and (from 1794) with the Lock Penitentiary.
The Bethesda Chapel became associated with a circle of Dublin philanthropists that included the brewer Arthur Guinness, who was an active parishioner of Saint Catherine’s, in Meath Street, Dublin, and who was an early figure in the promotion of the idea of Sunday Schools.
These charitable works also had a connection with the cultural life of Ireland and the Church of Ireland at the time: Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus had its first public performance in the Music Hall in Fishamble Street, close to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in association with Bartholomew Mosse’s plans for the maternity hospital that became the Rotunda.
This was the age of reason, and of revival, the age of enlightenment and evangelicalism, the age of revolution and the age of philanthropy. But if the evangelical revival associated with the Wesley brothers was said to have curbed revolution, and if revival and philanthropy were to be associated primarily with the enlightened evangelicals of the day, we should remember that there were other stirrings in the Church of Ireland too.
Alexander Knox, a mystic and theologian, was secretary to Lord Castlereagh before the passing of the Act of Union. Knox was a correspondent of John Jebb, Bishop of Limerick. Knox combined radical religious values with a High Church piety, and both Knox and Jebb are seen as forerunners of the Tractarian Movement.
Part 3: the other churches:
The suppression of the Oakboys and the Rightboys made many Presbyterians in Ulster open to the politics of revolution and the cause of the United Irishmen.
But by now Presbyterians were benefiting too from the liberalisation of the penal laws. In 1780, they secured the removal of the sacramental test for holding civil and military office, and the legality of their church marriages was recognised in 1782.
Out of their dread of revolution, the Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland, to a man, supported the Act of Union and hoped that it would usher in Catholic Emancipation.
Despite the penal laws and the many legal impediments, Roman Catholicism continued to command the loyalty of the majority of the population.
By the second half of the 18th century, many of the legal strictures were being relaxed, and the Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath, Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, himself a former Roman Catholic, had no doubts about the reasons why his former church prospered. “Their clergy are indefatigable. Their labours are unremitting,” he wrote. “They live in a constant familiar intercourse with all who are subject to their pastoral inspection. They visit them from house to house. Their only care, their sole employment, is to attend to the administration of their sacraments, and to their multiplied observances and rites. They watch and surround the beds of the sick.”
John Law, when he became Bishop of Killala in 1787, found that the majority of the population of the diocese were Roman Catholics. He is then said to have expressed the view that, as it was hopeless to make them Protestants, it would be desirable to make them good Catholics. And so, at his own expense, he printed and circulated a pamphlet by a Catholic priest named Gother on simple piety and morality.
Adam Averell observed in 1795 that Catholicism was making strong progress in Connacht. He noted that while the population and industry had increased in Galway in the previous 20 years, Protestantism was in retreat due both to the zeal of the “popish clergy” and to “that vile sloth” that characterised the clergy of the Church of Ireland.
Both Albert Best in Sligo and James Daly in Galway claimed that while there had been many Protestant families in Connacht in the mid-18th century, they had been obliged to have recourse to Roman Catholic priests for want of their own clergy for baptisms, weddings and funerals.
In May 1789, on the occasion of the king’s recovery of health, the city of Dublin witnessed its most spectacular liturgy in a Roman Catholic church for a century. Archbishop John Thomas Troy presided, and was assisted by three of his suffragan bishops, at the first performance of a grand Te Deum, composed by Thomas Giordani from Naples, who had been employed as the musical director at the classical-style Roman Catholic church in Francis Street, since 1779.
The Te Deum was sung before a congregation of 3,000, including the Duke of Leinster, Lord Kenmare, the Earl of Tyrone, Lord and Lady Arran, Henry Grattan, and David La Touche.
Archbishop Troy, who was Charles Agar’s contemporary as Archbishop of Dublin, was a loyalist, who excommunicated the leaders of the Defenders, the Rightboys and the United Irishmen, and who supported the Act of Union. Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, was his creation after the French Revolution, and yet he built the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin in the Classical, Greek revival style so that it stood in stark contrast to the newly-built Gothic-style Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle.
Both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church were facing new relationships with the Government and the offices of state with the Act of Union. And that is another part of the course.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 19 February 2009 was part of the Year II B.Th. course on Church History.