The former Houses of Parliament in College Green, Dublin … the Act of Union not only joined the parliaments of Ireland and Britain, but also joined the Church of Ireland and the Church of England in one united church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
Church History Elective (TH 7864)
Friday 8 March 2013:
11 a.m., 10.3, Disestablishment and the Ultramontane triumph
The Churches and the Act of Union
The Act of Union, which came into effect in 1801, not only joined the parliaments of Ireland and Britain, but also joined the Church of Ireland and the Church of England in one united church. Those who welcomed this included Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath, who saw the Act of Union as breaking the influence of the landed aristocratic families who controlled the Church of Ireland at the higher level, the Beresfords and the Ponsonbys, and as a way of reforming a church that was over-burdened with mediaeval structures and with non-resident pluralists.
But while the Church of England continued to claim to be the church of the majority of the people in England, the Church of Ireland could not make the same claim on this island, and the achievements of leading church figures in the 18th century, such as Jonathan Swift and George Berkeley, and the zealous missionary activities of members of the Church on other continents, did little to change the attitude of the majority of Irish people to the Church of Ireland – an attitude that Dr Kenneth Milne characterises as one that “varied between indifference and resentment.”
By the time the Act of Union was passed, most of the penal laws had been rescinded or repealed, and the bishops no longer formed a major bloc in the House of Lord. But Roman Catholics could still not sit in parliament, and all had to pay tithes – a tax on the produce of the land – towards the maintenance of the Established Church.
The first of these grievances was resolved in 1829 when, due largely to the efforts of Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed – although they still could not hold some offices of state.
The second grievance, the collection of tithes, remained a major running sore, although tithes were often collected not by the incumbents of parishes but by middlemen known as tithe proctors, who made a neat living out of their collecting. The injustice was widely spread, for some clergy were not able to exist on the tiny portion of the tithes they received.
During the first decades of the 19th century, the Church of Ireland 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. These improvements brought an increase in the number of resident clergy, church services, and communicants.
The 1831 Census shows the overwhelming majority of the population in Ireland was Roman Catholic (80.3 per cent), followed by the Church of Ireland (10.7 per cent), and the Presbyterians (8.1 per cent).
However, Church membership was not evenly distributed across the island. Antrim, Down, Armagh and Londonderry/Derry had Catholic minorities, while Fermanagh and Tyrone had almost equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants. Every other Irish county had a substantial Catholic majority. In addition, 96 per cent of all Irish Presbyterians were living in Ulster, and over half the members of the Church of Ireland (56 per cent) were in the north-east.
By the early 1830s, however, internal reform was no longer enough to satisfy the critics of the Church. Two pieces of legislation moved to change the ecclesiastical climate in Ireland: the 1833 Church Temporalities Act and the 1838 Tithe Commutation Act.
Under the Church Temporalities Act, the Archbishoprics of Tuam and Cashel were reduced to bishoprics, and ten other bishoprics were suspended, being put under the care of bishops in neighbouring dioceses, so that, for example, Derry joined Raphoe, Ossory joined Ferns and Leighlin, and Kildare joined Dublin and Glendalough. In all, the number of bishoprics was reduced from 22 to 12.
The Act also established a new body, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of Ireland, to administer the money saved so that churches could be repaired and built, and the incomes of clergy in small parishes could be improved.
The controversial issue of tithes was also resolved by government intervention in 1838. Under the Tithes Act, the tithes were reduced, and in future they were to be paid by the tenant to the landlord, who in due course was to pass it on to the Church.
The University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford: John Keble’s Assize Sermon here in 1833 criticised legislation on changes in the Church of Ireland and marked the beginning of the Oxford Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
However, this state legislation for the internal matters of the Church led to Oxford Movement, which begins with John Keble’s Assize Sermon in in Oxford in 1833, in which he condemned the proposals as “national apostasy.”
The Oxford Movement led to a revived scholarly interest in Christian origins, the Fathers of the Early Church (Patristics), and Liturgy. But it also led to some of the leading Anglicans of the day – including John Henry Newman – becoming Roman Catholics.
During the Famine of the 1840s, many evangelicals in the Church of Ireland became a target for accusations of “souperism,” or the use of food as bribery to win converts. These accusations were particularly levied against the Revd Edward Nangle and his mission on Achill Island.
But the real evangelical revival came a decade or more later with the ‘Second Great Awakening’ in Ulster in 1859. Through this movement, evangelicalism became part of mainstream Church life for Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans.
Archbishop Richard Trench (1807-1886) … he was Archbishop of Dublin (1864-1884) at the time of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland
At the same time as evangelical zeal was alive in the Church of Ireland, however, and despite what Keble, Newman and others may have hoped to achieve initially, Disestablishment or the separation of church and state was being introduced by the Liberal Government and the move was unstoppable.
The Prime Minister, WE Gladstone was convinced that the Church of Ireland was could no longer be maintained as the state church and that its established position was an obstacle to good relations between England and Ireland. In 1869 the Church of Ireland was separated from the Church of England and was disestablished under the Irish Church Act, which came into effect on 1 January 1871.
The Church of Ireland was left in possession of the cathedrals, churches and church schools then in use. But all other properties fell to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and about half the money realised, over £8 million, was distributed among various charitable and educational bodies, including Maynooth College and the Presbyterian Church.
The Church of Ireland was left with its clergy and bishops, and with enough money – the other £8 million – to pay them, but not to pay their successors.
With Disestablishment, the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Trench, told the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait, that he feared the “very worst for the future” and a “very dismal catastrophe” for the Church of Ireland. In his first charge to his diocese after disestablishment, Trench expressed fears that the Church of Ireland would cut itself off from other Anglican churches, casting itself off from the rest of Catholic Christendom and splitting “first into two or three, and then probably into a thousand fragments.”
Those fears, and the worst of fears, were never realised. Instead, it could be argued that the constitutional withdrawal of the British Government from church affairs in Ireland left the churches free to focus on their pastoral and spiritual mission.
Catholic Emancipation and resurgence
James Comerford’s stucco figure of Daniel O’Connell from The Irish House in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Meanwhile, the 19th century was a period of progress and reform for the Roman Catholic Church following the removal of almost all of the legal obstacles from the Penal Laws in the 18th century. Catholic Emancipation – especially the right to sit in Parliament – remained the only obstacle to full participation in political life by Roman Catholics.
Of course, some Roman Catholics already had the vote, long before the Act of Union, when the Catholic Relief Act extended the franchise in 1793 to all freeholders with property worth 40 shillings or more.
As far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, though, there was not enough adequate church buildings, nor was there a sufficient number of priests to care for the large and scattered congregations. In 1800 the ratio of priests to parishioners was about 1 to 2,100, it is estimated that.
The first quarter of the 19th century was a period of unrequited hope. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Troy, (1786-1823), who had been a strong advocate of the Act of Union, persuaded nine of his fellow bishops to concede a veto on episcopal appointments – which, we ought to remember, was not uncommon in European monarchies.
In return, Troy wanted Catholic Emancipation linked with the Act of Union. The influential Irish-born statesman, Robert Stewart (1769-1822), Lord Castlereagh, who was Foreign Secretary and leader of the Commons, was not averse to this principle. However, the Prime Minister, William Pitt (1759-1806), was publicly non-committal and vague, although the Catholic Unionists had no doubt that he favoured linking concession with the passage of the Act of Union, so creating a totally new dispensation for a United Kingdom.
Disappointment ensued when nothing was done in the first session of the United Parliament, and it increased when Pitt resigned office in 1801 and was succeeded by Henry Addington. However, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Cornwallis, assured Troy that Pitt had resigned, unable to overcome the reluctance of King George III, who believed Catholic Emancipation contravened the Act of Settlement, and his coronation oath.
Pitt declared that he would never again take office if emancipation were not conceded. In spite of this, he became Prime Minister again in 1804, no longer an advocate of emancipation having pledged never again to raise the question in Parliament during the lifetime of the king. To this pledge he was as faithful as he had been false to his former assurances.
When the reformer, Charles James Fox, presented the Catholic petition in 1805, Pitt opposed it. After 1806, when both Pitt and Fox died, the Catholic champion was Henry Grattan, who had entered the British Parliament in 1805. In 1808, Troy and the senior Catholic bishops agreed to the veto as a concession. But other bishops were unwilling, and rejected the offer of a state-paid clergy or state-appointed bishops.
The debate over the veto continued for many years, and distracted attention from the demands for Catholic Emancipation. This debate was further complicated arose when the Prefect of the Propaganda, Cardinal Quarantotti, issued a rescript in 1814 favouring the veto. However, he was acting outside his brief in the absence of Pope Pius VII, who was in France, under the thumb of Napoleon. When the Pope returned to Rome, after the fall of Napoleon, the rescript was disavowed.
Henry Grattan died in 1820, and Catholic Emancipation had not yet been introduced. Lord Plunket’s Bill, which conceded the veto, was passed in the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords in 1821.
With these setbacks, Daniel O’Connell, a barrister and orator who had taken a prominent part in Catholic committees, emerged as the political leader for Irish Catholics. O’Connell and Richard Lalor Sheil founded the Catholic Association in 1823. It soon gained the support of Daniel Murray, who had succeeded Troy as Archbishop of Dublin, and James Warren Doyle, ‘JKL,’ Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. Other bishops gave their support too, and when the association was suppressed in 1825 by Act of Parliament, O’Connell merely changed the name to the New Catholic Association.
The strength of these freeholders was galvanised by O’Connell and elections in Waterford, Louth, Meath, and other constituencies, where they voted for Protestant candidates supported by the Catholic Association. The ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ realised the winds of change were blowing through Ireland.
When O’Connell was elected MP for Clare in 1828, he was unable to take his seat. Hastily, two Tory ministers, the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, steered the Catholic Relief Bill of 1829 through the Lords and the Commons in 1829. However, some provisions remained in force excluding Roman Catholics from some of the higher civil and military offices, prohibiting priests from wearing vestments outside their churches, bishops from assuming the titles of their sees, and clergy from obtaining charitable bequests. In many other ways, though, Roman Catholics now had the same civil standing and rights as the members of other denominations, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers.
O’Connell continued to pursue his reform campaign, turning his attention towards the repeal of the Act of Union. His main tactic was the monster rallies that attracted hundreds of thousands of people eager to hear the ‘Liberator’ speak. But O’Connell was unwilling to go outside the law, and when the government ordered the cancellation of one of his rallies, he meekly stood down and thereby gave up his most potent weapon of resistance.
O’Connell’s apparent failure was seen as a terrible capitulation as Ireland was in the midst of the Famine. And yet, for many Protestants, the election of Daniel O’Connell and the granting of Catholic Emancipation, provoked fears for the future. Their anxiety was increased by the Government’s educational policies, which had been designed to put an end to the religious competition in schools.
The National System of Education was introduced in 1831, aimed at bringing 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.
Meanwhile, in the pre-Famine era, some important building work also began 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. However, the rapid growth in population made any improvement in the ratio of priests to people impossible to achieve.
Bishops also introduced measures to regulate the behaviour of the wider Catholic community, particularly in regard to the rituals of faith. The Penal Laws in the previous century had led to a wide variety of religious practice, with popular folk customs merged with Christian events, such as wakes and “patterns,” marked by drinking, dancing and games. In many places, the funeral Mass, as well as baptisms and marriages took place in family homes.
The Dublin Diocesan Statutes of 1831 stipulated that funeral Masses should be said in the church, and under Archbishop Paul Cullen the administration of the sacraments was transferred from home to church.
At the same time, as temperance societies were gaining ground among Protestants, Father Theobald Mathew began the tee-total movement in 1838, which became a popular Roman Catholic crusade against “all intoxicating liquors.”
Its medals, speeches, bands and banners provided a lively alternative to pub-based culture. Around five million people are said to have taken the “pledge” in the first five years of Father Mathew’s movement.
The Famine and the Roman Catholic Church:
The Famine brought dramatic changes for all the Churches, particularly for the Roman Catholic Church, which suffered the greatest losses in the numbers. The 1861 Census shows the population as 77.7% Catholic, 12% Anglican and 9% Presbyterian, with Catholics largely concentrated in the west and south. Smaller religious group included Baptists, Congregationalists, Plymouth Brethren, Quakers and Methodists.
The Famine greatly accelerated social changes already under way. It would appear 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 that was apparently encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church.
The loss of around two million of the poorest people through death and emigration ensured that the Roman Catholic Church emerged from the period of famine in a stronger position to carry out its pastoral role.
After the Famine, following a period of reform and the loss of its poorest members, the Roman Catholic Church was marked by religious renewal and a more public display of faith. The post-Famine period from 1855 to 1875 as been identified by Emmet Larkin as two decades of “devotional revolution” in which the Irish people became virtually practising Roman Catholics within a generation.
A major factor in shaping the Roman Church in these years was the leadership of Cardinal Paul Cullen. He returned to Ireland from Rome in 1850 as the papal delegate and Archbishop of Armagh, became the Archbishop of Dublin in 1852, and became Ireland’s first cardinal in 1866.
As a reformer and a Church politician, it could be said Cardinal 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 19th 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, called by Cullen in 1850, marked the beginning of a more tightly controlled religious system. The ratio of priests to people had been reduced to 1:1,250. An increased Government grant to Maynooth after 1845 meant many of these priests were more likely to be from the lower social ranks in Catholic society.
Cardinal Cullen’s leadership was Rome-centred (Ultramontanist) and he was keenly aware of the danger of an Irish-based nationalistic Catholicism imitating French Gallicanism, of which John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, was a volatile and outspoken advocate. But, as a skilled diplomat, Cullen easily outplayed McHale.
Cullen was deeply hostile to the use of violence in Irish nationalism, and strongly condemned the Fenian movement. However, his focus was on reforming his Church. He was deeply committed to the Papacy and anxious to make the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland conform fully to the Roman model.
The Roman Catholic Church grew in economic, political and social power in Ireland in the 19th century. By the end of the century:
● new cathedrals, churches, schools and convents had been built throughout the island;
● the celebration of the sacraments in the home had become a rare occurrence;
● Confession and Communion were much more frequent;
● Sunday sermons increased in number;
● more people than ever before were attending Mass;
● new Roman-style devotions were flourishing;
● the religious orders were organising parish retreats and missions;
● a proliferation of confraternities and sodalities was encouraging lay piety and renewal.
With this came a marked increase in the numbers of religious orders who influenced all levels of Catholic social life and religious practice. Teaching orders of brothers, particularly the Irish Christian Brothers, expanded rapidly. The number of nuns rose from 120 in 1800 to 3,700 by 1870. Through these nuns and brothers and their work in schools in particular, the Roman Catholic Church acquired a powerful influence on young people and these orders and their schools did much to ensure the dominance of a strict Catholic ethos.
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 dismissed as being ‘godless’ by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
John Henry Newman ... he spent much time in Dublin after leaving behind his Tractarian friends
The Roman Catholic bishops founded an alternative Catholic University in Dublin in 1854, with Cardinal John Henry Newman, the former Oxford Tractarian, as its head, but it struggled to survive. The “University Question” remained largely unresolved until the early 20th century.
Another consequences of the increased control of its people by the Roman Catholic Church was the sexually conservative nature of Ireland by the late 19th century Ireland, especially among the middle classes.
In addition, the 19th century Roman Catholic Church in Ireland came to play an important role throughout the entire English-speaking world. Extending beyond the Roman Catholic Church in England and Scotland, the developing values and mores of Irish Catholicism strongly influenced the Roman Catholic Church in the US and many other English-speaking countries, and in the process acquired considerable power.
John R Bartlett and Stuart D Kinsella (eds), Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Ireland (Dublin: Columba Press, 2006).
Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (eds), Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the story (Dublin: Columba Press, 2002).
Nicholas Canny, The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixtenth Century (Cambridge, 1979).
Patrick J. Corish (ed), A history of Irish Catholicism, general editor (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1970 &c, multi-volume).
Emmet Larkin, The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1976, 1984, 1997).
Week 9 (13 March 2013) Field-trip: Field trip to Kilkenny: Freshford, Kilkenny Cathedral and Saint John’s, Kilkenny.
Week 10 (22 March):
11.1, From Kant and Schleiermacher to Pugin and Biblical Criticism: rethinking and reshaping Christianity.
11.2, Slaves, soldiers and women: new challenges that shaped new priorities.
11.3, Preparing for the third millennium.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 8 March 2013 was part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course, Year I.