Sunday, May 1, 1994

The Irish Reformation: A Perspective from Without

An academic paper submitted at University College, Cork (Ireland) during the 1993-1994 academic year.

The question of why the Protestant Reformation failed in Ireland is one whose historiography, long, distinguished, and lucid, is given in Professor Nicholas Canny's article 'Why the Reformation failed in Ireland: une question mal posée.'[1] And there is indeed little question that it did fail, for a significant portion of the island of Ireland remains to this day Catholic. As such it seems that, as in most failures, there must have been a point at which the progress of the Reformation in Ireland was no longer in a direction of success, but of failure, inevitable and undeniable. Where was this point? Was it a single policy decision, shortcoming, or other individual circumstance that put the Reformation out of the realm of possible, even unlikely success? Or, rather, as seems more plausible, was it a collection of such circumstances, accrued over time, that led the Reformation to its doom?

Those questions I have just posed lead to the question of what the Reformation faced that would have been manipulated by the reformers, or indeed the reformees, to their advantage? These problems I see as several, each of which has been treated more fully in other works than they will be here, but in those other works more at the expense of other problems than in this.

These problems are threefold: how to get the Catholic population to attend services in the Established Church; how to get the Catholics to convert to Anglicanism/Protestantism; and how to communicate with the Irish-speaking population. These, in turn, lead to further questions, which will be brought up as they arise.

Having identified these questions, I should point out that I do not undertake to examine each, nor even any, of these in detail sufficient for total understanding of the problem as an element of the Reformation. I do intend to discuss each in sufficient detail (with appropriate pointers for further reading) to illustrate my idea.

This idea is, then, that the point at which the Protestant Reformation was doomed was not nearly so early as its beginning in 1536 with the declaration by the Irish Parliament (called for that purpose) that Henry VIII of England was the supreme head of the church of Ireland. Nor, indeed, was it as a result of a single circumstance or decision that the Reformation failed. Instead, as a result of continued ignorance, inflexibility, and indefatigability of officials of both the London government and the Established Church, the Irish people were led, or forced, or both, to an attitude of uncooperativeness, at best apathy, at worst open resistance, towards the Reformation and also the governments in Dublin and London.

In my research for this work, I have noticed what is to me an appalling narrowness of view taken towards the Irish Reformation, in that discussion and evidence comes from sources (primary and secondary) from the island of Ireland, with, it seems, only the necessary forays into the State Papers of England, in London.

That London is the only source outside Ireland for a perspective on occurrences within Ireland - and one which cannot be ignored (as a repository for decrees and legislation pertaining to Ireland), as well as one which is used only for those documents relating to Ireland proper, is evidence to me of a frightening limiting of vision by scholars whose reputations are widely known and respected. Indeed my own opinions of them remain high, but I am forced to ask a nagging question: Why, when Ireland today likes to hearken back to the 'days of yore' when Scotland, Wales, and Ireland were similar, closely linked cultures - why are the former two areas, also undergoing Reformation at the same time as Ireland, ignored?

And so, in a plea to those more experienced and educated minds of whom I have read, I undertake to illustrate the dilemmas of the Irish Reformation, and to hypothesize that doom was not inevitable until very late in the process; similar situations and choices arose in Scotland and Wales, and the problems were there solved to the success of the Reformation.


On the continent, the Reformation began with conformity, attendance at protestant services, achieved by force; those who did not attend were punished. This later moved, after initial conformity, to evangelisation and education of the people, particularly the young, which in time eliminated the need for statutory conformity, as true believers would attend of their own free will.[2]

In Ireland, the beginning was the same: force was used to attain external conformity - that is, the attendance at protestant worship, regardless of internal beliefs, which were most likely Catholic. But at that stage, the Irish trend took another route. The Dissolution of Monasteries, and other political and economic opportunities arising from the establishment of a new church, led to greed on the part of Irish, Anglo-Irish, and New English alike.

At the Dissolution, monasteries were to be seized, their land confiscated, and goods sold or taken by the Crown. The land was then to be granted, rented or sold, after an initial survey of its worth. This survey opened the door to greed, as surveyors vastly underestimated the value of the land, in order to put themselves in a better position to buy it (at lower prices) and reap its true wealth. This raised the additional problem of the pre-Reformation practice of impropriation, which was the rent or sale of church lands by beneficed clergy to laity to improve the income of the benefice. Both of these practices lessened the financial power of the Church, and increased the power over the church held by laity.[3]

This weakness of the Church led to delayed missionary action; its initial efforts were in reclaiming its own land. The delay permitted the Counter-Reformation efforts to proceed and get a head-start on its own efforts to preach to the people.[4] It does seem necessary, in light of the power of the Catholic Church, to have used coercion at first to force people to attend protestant services. But then, it seems, that persuasion and actual preaching should have taken over and eventually made belief the driving force behind church attendance.

But this was a ruinous dichotomy. Those in power were divided over whether coercion or persuasion ought to be used; the dispute was seen as 'either-or'; one method or the other ought be used, and there seems to have been little support for the continental 'both' approach. This disagreement was among both the political powers and the religious leaders, along with a further dispute in the latter group as to how to actually go about conversion.

In Wales, when in 1536, it was annexed by England, the same laws applied to Wales as did to England, including those governing rights of subjects. But this also meant forced conformity.[5] But in Wales, the people saw loyalty to the church as loyalty to the Crown and also to Wales.6 This was a major difference from the perplexing duality of loyalty held by the Anglo-Irish, who had to deal with the serious problem of loyalty to the Crown on temporal matters, but to the Pope and the Catholic Church on spiritual issues.[7]

When the Oath of Supremacy was forced upon the Welsh clergy, they took it without hesitation,[8] partly due to fear from previous reprisals against religious and political dissenters,[9] and partly due to a lack of resistant leadership.[10] Among those who took the Oath, the majority actually obeyed it, and did preach Anglicanism to the best of their 'mediocre' ability.[11]

Thus, the success of the Reformation in Wales was perhaps not due to the activities of the protestants, but to their lack of divisive and damaging dispute, which imperiled the mission in Ireland. Also, as will be discussed later, the Counter-Reformation in Wales was very small. Jesuits did come to Wales, but the Catholic Church often took preachers from Wales (even the vital ones who had Welsh as well as English) to preach in England.[12] As well, since the uniformity of loyalty pointed to conformity and conversion in Wales (where it failed to do in Ireland), with the passage of time Wales was brought under Anglican religious influence and Catholicism became a distinct minority.[13]

In Scotland, coercion was also used at first, and recusancy depended on the actions of the local lairds and their influence among the populace.[14] But conformity was not only in name; when protestant preachers were available, they quickly were able to convert some of the populace, aided partly by a lack of dispute about strategy for attaining church attendance - there was no 'either-or' dispute in Scotland, and coercion followed by conversion happened as on the continent.[15]


The next problem faced in Ireland was one not too much discussed in Wales or Scotland: that of the method of converting Catholics. Particularly, there were two movements; the first advocated directly beginning to proselytize and preach to convert people quickly. The second advocated a reform of the Church from within, saying that there was no way for the Church to succeed outside itself if it did not in fact have a 'clean house.'[16] This led to a bad situation early in the seventeenth century, when little conversion had been done; conformity was abolished in a test move to see what the success of the Church's preaching had been. And all of a sudden congregations disappeared; when they were not made to go to services of the Established Church, the Irish people would not go.[17]

The Archbishop of Dublin, Loftus, was unconcerned with 'inward conversion,' so long as the people displayed 'external conformity.'[18] This, especially from one of the most influential men in determining the policy of the Irish Church, was to prove very damaging. This created two separate objects among the top level of the church hierarchy, those of conversion and conformity, with conformity having greater support.[19]

Despite that duality, and the above-noted tendency for 'either-or' controversy rather than compromise, conversion remained the most important need to fulfill for the success of the Reformation.

Conversion, then, implied (and still does imply) three things: the reasons for believing in and practising one religion must be seen to be similar to those for following the other, and translatable between the two to some degree; the actual move from one religion to the other must be made advantageous; and there should be a trend for change within the first religion (or at least within the individual's view of the first religion), so that a need is perceived for outside influence, and the chance created for conversion.

The Similarities of the Two Religions

To determine what protestantism or Anglicanism could give to the Catholics, to fill the needs they had which Catholicism filled, it is necessary first to determine what needs Catholicism met. These are basic to most religions, in fact, and they are: ritual; a belief in something outside oneself; hope and reassurance in bad times; trust in supernatural aid; and faith in salvation and happy life after death.

Then, what could protestantism give? The first four of these it could give, but it could not guarantee, or offer concrete hope of, the last, regarding salvation, as Catholicism could. Predestination doctrine put forth that though all might be saved, not all were.

To show them as translatable, or in cruder terms (which would be disputed by nearly every theologian), as interchangeable, is fairly easy. It had been done on the continent; this is the actual process of conversion, which entails explanation of the new religion, its beliefs and practices, its differences with the old religion, why it is in some sense 'better,' and why the individual ought believe in the new rather than the old.

Of course, to term this process 'easy' is to assume several conditions that were not the case in Ireland during the time of the Reformation. The first of these is the preparation of clergy, who are actually charged with carrying out conversion.

Most of the protestant clergy in Ireland were Catholics who had changed their nominal allegiance, if that. They were unprepared and unwilling to preach the Reformation, and those who were true preachers of the Reformation had little or no Irish; this caused major problems in communication with the natives, as most of them had Irish but no English.[20] Also, the clergy were poorly educated; a university was not founded until 1591, and even then it was not particularly interested in doing work in Irish,[21] as well as minimising the emphasis on protestantism in the hope of continuing the trickle of Irish students coming to study.[22]

In Wales, this conversion by persuasion was successful.[23] The clergy did begin with poor preparation, with similar problems of being spread too thin by plurality of office,[24] but these were overcome. Preaching in the Welsh language was permitted, and this was a big help to the mission.[25] Additionally, at the Dissolution, monks were paid well to do nothing relating to preaching,[26] and after initial problems with education, protestant preachers began to be trained at universities, improving their understanding of their faith and their ability to argue it with those to be converted.[27] And, further, if ministers preached the Reformation, they did not have to fear being killed in further crackdowns.[28]

In Scotland, plurality was a serious problem at the beginning; as everywhere, it seemed there were not enough people to fill the places which needed filling.[29] Instead of continuing the problem of absenteeism and real lack of services, despite nominal coverage of a parish, the Scottish reformers adopted an intelligent and original (at least in the British Isles) strategy, that of leaving offices and benefices unoccupied until a suitable person could be found to hold it.[30]

There was also seen a need for change within the Scottish Kirk before the Reformation, which opened the minds of the clergy and laity alike to outside influence.[31] While Calvinism, in its fundamentalism, took hold after John Knox's return from Geneva (where Calvin's teachings had changed his ideas from those of Luther to more puritan thought),[32] this did not stop the Reformation from taking root where it was preached, though this was a small area.[33] And especially after the presbyterys were founded in 1581, the amount of local input into religion (at least from clergy and powerful local laity) fed the conversion process; Catholicism did not offer such input to the people.[34]

Making Conversion Advantageous

In short, conversion from Catholicism to protestantism was advantageous. It eased the conscience conflict of attending services of a faith not believed in; as well, and more materially, it permitted going to services of the Established Church not under the fear of recusancy fines or other punishment.

Beyond the individual, there was social pressure to convert on those in Ireland who dealt with England, Wales, and Scotland (or protestant countries on the continent) in business. And these people did convert, but they also had already overcome another problem that was associated with the Reformation in Ireland, which was anglicisation.[35] Those who dealt with the English were most probably anglicised, or at least were not reviled by the idea of anglicisation, as many native Irish were.

In Wales and Scotland, similar advantages to conversion to protestantism were present, due to the similarity of laws and the fact that those in business were either protestant or dealt with protestants; people in those two countries, as in Ireland, converted to use the advantages for their own betterment.

Trend for Change from Within

The easiest way to effect change in a society, for an influence outside it, is to create a movement for change within that society. This creates an attitude on the inside that can be exploited by an outside power offering change; if there is no attitude for change, the response from the society in question could easily be, without any internal qualms, 'Take your activities elsewhere.'

In Ireland, there was little clamour for change from within the Catholic Church.[36] There were problems within the Catholic Church; there was plurality; simony; impropriation; and poor, unbeneficed clergy were not of the preaching type - all they could do was read the service to their congregations. The situation had been thus, though agreeable to clergy and laity alike, for a long time, and there was not yet the Counter-Reformation move to reform from within, when the protestant Reformation arrived in Ireland.[37]

Even the protestants in Ireland were 'more interested in profit than theology,' and so change, when unprofitable, went undone; when it was profitable, like the Dissolution, change occurred.[38]

Canny puts forth that neither the Reformation nor the Counter-Reformation succeeded in Ireland, and that pre-Tridentine practices continued despite efforts of protestant and Catholic missionaries alike.[39] The Catholics in Ireland were used to the vaguely Gaelic system of having a priest around as an adviser to be respected and trusted, but who did not exercise authority nor try to stir up trouble. The laity were resistant to the idea of a protestant preacher trying to convert them; as well, they resented anyone who tried to exercise the authority of a priest as outlined by the Council of Trent.[40]

In Wales, the introduction of the Reformation led to a renewed interest in religion.[41] The Cistercians, the most influential of the holy orders, had enough momentum for change from within that they actually reformed themselves without outside aid or interference.[42] As well, the formal Reformation was seen as a formalisation and continuation (with the addition of government aid) of a process already going on, and as such was welcomed rather than rebuked by those in Wales who were concered about church reform.[43]

Though the Reformation was aided by the English Crown and state (under Thomas Cromwell), it was seen in Wales as separate from politics, which made the change of religion easier to stomach than in Ireland, where religion and politics and anglicisation were seen as going hand in hand.[44] As well, the Reformation in Wales seemed to be more in tune with the citizenry than in Ireland: by the reign of Elizabeth, most of the bishops holding episcopates in Wales were in fact of Welsh birth.[45]

Due to the advantages offered by state aid, without the detriments of the negative label 'anglicisation,' and also due to the pulling away of Wales from Rome, concurrent with Rome's pulling away from Wales,[46] by 1553 the Anglican Church was so strong in Wales that 50 years later, in 1603, it was the only religion that the vast majority of those under 50 (who were in turn the vast majority of the Welsh population) could remember.[47]

Within the Scottish Kirk, there was also a trend for change. Before the Reformation, clergy and church officials were seen poorly, as corrupt, unreligious figures.[48] This said, however, there was less action to reform than there was seen need to reform.[49] But when ideas for reform were introduced, by both protestant and Tridentine reformers, those ideas were acted upon. As well, other reforms within the Catholic church, beyond those required by Trent, were undertaken.[50]

The political situation in Scotland, with regards specifically to the Catholic power of France, was such that a move away from France in any discipline, economic, political, or religious, was seen as positive.[51] As well, not so much encouraging a split from Rome, but not maintaining the Scottish connection there, was the increasing lack of interest of Rome in Scotland, and the correspondingly small Counter-Reformation effort there.[52]

For various reasons, conversion was made tough in Ireland; the people did not want to be converted, saw no need even to change the way they practiced Catholicism, despite the Tridentine missionaries' efforts, and had little reason to convert, by virtue of the anti-nationalist political statement it would make.

Additionally, even if these problems had been alleviated, there remained another problem which made conversion in Ireland next to impossible: the language barrier.


This problem is by far the most fundamental: a streamlined, efficient, motivated, devoted missionary force led by a centralised, flexible (but determined) coordinating body will still hit a stone wall when confronted with a population to be converted, with which the missionaries cannot communicate. As such, it is the most easily solved - simple education, with no embellishments, will suffice to destroy nearly any language barrier, and a bit more education, with some practical experience, will do the same to cultural bias. The very simplicity of this matter makes it all the more astonishing when it is realised that the reformers in Ireland totally overlooked it.

The protestants claimed that 'the Irish people refused to hear the word of God preached.'[53] In truth, they probably would have refused if they could understand it, but the fact is that if services were offered at all, it was probably in a language incomprehensible to the majority of the Irish population![54]

Efforts to Preach in the Vernacular

Little respect was shown to the Irish people by the officials of the Reformation; those who did respect the Irish language and culture, like William Bedell at Trinity College, were left alone by the Rebellion in 1641.

But even at Trinity, there was a poor effort to advocate Irish language proselytization; the two biggest advocates, Bedell, in the 1630s and 1640s, and William Daniel (who established the first Irish-language printing press on the island) from 1567-1580, were separated in their efforts by 50 years or more![55] This was to lead to the inevitable result that in Munster, as well as elsewhere on the island, ministers were unable to communicate with their parishioners.[56] And those were the ministers who were trained at Trinity - others, who had received either no university training or training outside Ireland were even less likely to have Irish.

In Wales the problem of the vernacular was minimal - preaching was permitted, and there was religious literature published in the vernacular from the onset of the Reformation.[57] In Scotland English was used, and the Reformation remained accessible to the majority of the people.[58] The true effort in those countries was not to get the people to understand the words, but to hear the Word.

Attracting Listeners

Assuming that preaching was done in Irish (as it occasionally was) or that the Irish-speakers also had English (as occasionally was the case also), the next problem of communication was to get them to listen to the preaching.

There were two methods open to Reformation missionaries, and these were expertly used outside Ireland: first, by avoiding the entanglement of the Church with political problems (though using political figures for the advancement of the religious message), the acceptance of religious change was made easier to the common people; second, by educating the young, religious change was inculcated rather than advocated, and the future of the Church was more secure.

Political Entanglements

The Reformation in Ireland was linked quite strongly with political issues in Ireland, particularly relating to the influence of England and the process of anglicisation. In Munster, for example, the effect of the plantation on the native population was to increase its resistance to both English influence and Established Church influence.[59] Nationalism and Catholicism were strongly tied in the minds of the native population,[60] and though their loyalty to the Crown remained strong, they found it tough to deal with their dual allegiance to the Crown and the Pope.[61]

This dual allegiance went both ways; the Dublin government, while committed legally and financially to the Reformation's success, also depended for its political and financial stability on prominent Irish families in the Pale. These families, when compelled to attend Established services, were often recusant, and in order to avoid confrontation which would bring down the Dublin government, the administration had to be more lenient on recusancy; thus recusancy punishments were handed down seemingly arbitrarily, creating more resentment among those subjected to prosecution.[62]

Prosecution was also seen as persecution; the Reformation was seen by the Irish as being imposed from above by a monarch who was acting against their will. The Church needed the power of magistrates and law to keep people attending church, which further increased resentment.[63] This view of the Reformation as coming from outside was both manifested in and worsened by the great influx of protestant ministers from England and Scotland, who were subjected to racism. Also, these people, new to the area, and often not even resident in some of the parishes to which they were assigned (due to the practice of plurality, to provide clergy with viable livings in the poor country of Ireland), had trouble collecting tithes and other monies due them from their resentful parishioners.[64]

This was evidence of a larger problem: 'Protestantism implied a political loyalty to the Crown which was far more complete than that which followed from Catholic political theory.'[65] In Ulster, after 1603, anglicisation went rather well, and along with this went some clerical conformity to the Church. After 1607, when plantation began, things went much more smoothly, with the influx of protestant settlers.[66]

Beyond this problem was again the duality of attitude of the government; they also tended to put religious issues on the back burner in favour of political issues, if pressure on the indigenous population was getting too high.[67] This included making appointments to religious posts for political reasons, even if the appointee was poorly qualified, or even unqualified.[68]

The worst two mistakes made by the Irish Reformation missionaries were to come in two parts: one suddenly, and the other as a continuing policy throughout the Reformation. The first, sudden affront to the Irish Catholics was the release of the Irish Articles in 1615, which declared that the Pope was the Antichrist.[69] The second was the ongoing and increasing tendency of the Church to look to England for the preachers (in the face of shortage of same in Ireland), and also, and more damagingly, to look to the English settlers to be the congregation; rather than keeping the focus of the Reformation on converting the masses to the True Religion, the Established Church seemed to write off hopes of converting the Irish, and to withdraw into the secure sphere of English preachers tending English flocks, on Irish soil.[70] One result of this was that few native children were attracted to protestant schools, leaving only the children of protestant parents to attend schools run by the Established Church.


Most schools were not run by protestants, but by Catholics; they had run schools before the Reformation, and little effort was made to replace them. Where schools were set up by the Established Church, the competing Catholic school was not shut down; this led to competition between the two schools, a competition which was won by the Catholics hands-down. For lack of a reason to change schools, students continued attending the Catholic school.[71]

Funding for the schools continued this problem. The governments in London and Dublin were unwilling to pay for education,[72] so funding of the schools was left to the communities. Since most people sent their children to Catholic schools, those were the schools families were willing to give money to.

The Jesuits had founded a school in Galway, and used that city as the centre of their control of Connacht.[73] They held this firmly, and with the foundations of learning in Catholic teachings, students went to the continent for their university schooling. There were more opportunities for Catholics to partake of higher education on the continent than were present, even for protestants, in Trinity College.[74]

Education for most protestants was at a diocese school, followed by study at Trinity.[75] In Tuam, where there was a protestant school which attracted native children, very few of those went on to the clergy.[76]

In Wales, the Established Church was backed by law and government finance. This ensured that the Reformation was funded, while the Counter-Reformation lost steam, due to the persistence of the protestant efforts and the lack of Catholic interest.[77] Politically, Henry VIII did undertake policies that were designed to cause trouble among the Welsh,[78] but with the Act of Union in 1536, things went much more smoothly than they had before.[79]

Part of the ongoing process of anglicisation in Wales[80] was reform of the education system. With the advent of the Reformation, clerics who taught had to have a licence from the bishop of their diocese.[81] This kept the teaching staff of Wales to a firmly protestant standard; in addition, many of the Welsh clergy were university-trained,[82] which was a measure of the depth of their faith. Funding from the chuch and state paid for education; as well, the Reformation idea that education was good was in harmony with Welsh attitudes on the subject.[83] This meant that people were willing to be in protestant schools, and that local support and funding were available.

In Scotland, political concern was anti-Catholic.[84] Educationally, universities did participate in the General Assembly and the Reformation Parliament,[85] giving them input into Reformation efforts, as well as displaying their support for the new movement. Education was conducted much the same way as in Wales, with state funding and support; additionally, the Scottish practice of leaving posts open rather than continue the problem of plurality did the same in terms of schooling as it did with conversion of adults; schools run by protestants sprung up and then died down as teachers (clergy) came and went, creating a less-confrontational atmosphere.[86]

Attracting Preachers

Problems were still rampant in Ireland; after getting over the language barrier and after attracting native listeners who were open to preaching, there remained the further challenge for both the Established Church and the Catholic church of providing ministers to the flock.

The Protestant Mission

The poverty of the Established Church in Ireland was a serious handicap; outside the towns no living could be made as a protestant minister.[87] This was made more serious by the fact that preachers, as well as money, were in short supply in Ireland.[88]

The attitude within the Church that native ministers were inferior stemmed from the general desire, among the English and Scottish clergy in Ireland, for anglicisation. Even native Irish ministers in the protestant church were seen as second-class citizens.[89] This hostility among the ranks led to a decline in the number of native clergy working for the Established Church.[90] To replace this decline, foreigners from England and Scotland were brought in, but they came only slowly.[91]

For these people, the barrier of language was a demoralising factor, and led to frustration among the clergy. They adopted the idea that the Irish must be brought to 'civility' before they could be converted; part of this would involve teaching the Irish to speak and read English.[92]

The reluctance to preach among the parish-level clergy was not aided by the higher level officials in the Church. Leaders of the Church of Ireland, Loftus and Jones, asserted that the Irish were stubborn; this began a clergy-wide movement of writing the Irish off.[93]

This writing-off was twofold. First, the Irish lack of education and their familiarity with Catholicism made them unable and unwilling to be part of the protestant tradition of personal understanding and personal internal search for truth and faith.[94]

Further, and more fatal to the protestant mission in Ireland, was the protestant doctrine of predestination. If some people were saved and others were not, no matter what effort put forth by missionaries, it was easy for demoralised missionaries to forget that all might be saved and instead to think that all might not be saved.[95] This is especially dangerous in a situation like Ireland, where the people seemed unwelcoming to the protestant move for change.

The writing-off began in the 1560s,[96] and continued, with the added view of the English in Ireland as the Israelites in the desert in the Bible; that the few were saved among the many heathen.[97] This situation worsened until 1594, when the Nine Years' War broke out. In 1603, after the war ended, there was no money among government, church, or people; no ministers, as many had left or been killed; and no churches, as they had been destroyed or damaged in the war.[98]

After 1607 in Ulster, with the influx of protestant settlers, things began to improve there. As the plantation established itself, and especially as it began to do well economically, from 1622 to 1634, the number of foreign clergy increased, due to the improvement in benefice income; for the same reason indigenous clergy also increased marginally. However, these clergy were largely tending to the English and Scottish settlers, rather than the native population.[99] In 1641, the writing off of the Irish was finalised with the rebellion of the Confederation.[100]

Due to the general unwillingness of the foreign protestant clergy to preach in Ireland, and the lack of anyone else coming from within Ireland to preach protestantism, Catholicism was given room to maneuver and to succeed.

The Catholic Mission

After the Dissolution, the monks, who had been part of the local ministry, stayed around in the localities where they had lived, and continued preaching (with increased anger at the protestant authorities) partly because they wanted to, and partly because there were no protestant preachers to minister to the flocks formerly tended by the monks.[101]

Additionally, the people were familiar with the friars and monks, and wanted them to stay around. The Catholic clergy had the advantage over the protestants of having Irish and the friendship and respect of the people.[102] This hit a small patch of trouble, when the Jesuit mission arrived in 1542, on the heels of promises to the Crown by various Gaelic chieftains that they would not aid nor permit the preaching of Catholics in their family lands. This meant that the Jesuits did not have as much support locally as they had been counting on; this did not mean that they had no local support.[103]

The Catholic missionaries were largely unconcerned with maintaining their congregations, but rather with effecting Counter-Reformation changes within the existing Catholic church in Ireland.[104] Their success was related to the ideologies of the person on the English throne,[105] but even more so, their failure to effect Tridentine changes (they were successful in maintaining a large Catholic majority among the population) was due to the lack of previous call for change from within.[106] The Catholics did hold enough power among the population to be able to collect money from the populace, instead of them giving the money to the protestant ministers, if there were any in the area.[107]

So it was not so much that the Catholics did very well in the area of communication with the indigenous population, as it was that the protestant efforts to do the same were an abject failure,[108] while the Catholics kept communication going.

In Wales, the reverse was true; the protestants were able to efficiently dismantle the Catholic hierarchy and exploit anti-Catholic tendencies of the population. The first advantage in the Welsh Reformation was money. The protestant benefices did well enough to support preachers without too much plurality.[109]

This was a draw to protestantism, but the true efforts of the protestants in Wales were their anti-Catholic exploits. At the Dissolution, they gave monks pensions, related to their former pre-Dissolution income, which were basically payoffs to do nothing.[110] Monks, since they did not need to preach to earn money, handed over the job of preaching to the protestant clergy, as they had previously handed over the management of their estates to the laity.[111]

In addition to the persuasion of Catholic clergy not to preach, the exploits of Lee and his brutal enforcement of laws, resulting in possibly 5000 executions over six years, were seriously intimidating and coercive, as examples to those monks who might seek to continue their religious work.[112] This fear was further invoked when Thomas Cromwell called for the arrest of all who were preaching loyalty to the Pope.[113] So the clergy was effectively prevented from Catholic tendencies.

The population was also; they had only been attached to Catholicism out of habit rather than true belief in the first place.[114] Further, aside from being deprived, by protestant efforts, of their Catholic leadership and guidance, they had an innate hostility to the Jesuits,[115] which, coupled with the taking of other non-Jesuit Catholic missionaries to England, ended the hegemony of the Catholic church in Wales.

In Scotland, political events were again the deciding force in determining who was willing to preach. At first, 'protestantism had no deep roots in Scotland,'[116] and John Knox's sermons initially had to be preached in secret, even in Edinburgh in 1555-1556.[117] Under James V's reign, protestantism had been put down as heresy, but after his death, it began to increase again.[118] The means by which protestant preachers became able to preach was through the influence of local lairds.[119] After 1581, when presbyterys began to form, the support of the people was garnered by the influence they were able to have in their local councils.[120]

Thus the protestant ministry was strong. It was not corrupted by the conversion of Catholic priests, who were protestant in name but Catholic in preaching, as was frequently the case in Ireland.[121] When priests began to be persecuted, the Catholics lost even more morale and support and freedom.[122] The crushing blow was the political link with France and the anti-Catholic/anti-French concurrence of sympathies.[123]


To sum up, the Reformation, and indeed the Counter-Reformation, faced similar challenges in Scotland and Wales as it did in Ireland, but each challenge was met a different way in each country.

The continued and consistent error of the Irish Established Church, in failing to undertake necessary activities and fund them properly, and to exploit circumstances to its advantage, caused its own demise and failure. The Welsh and Scottish Reformations made mistakes, also, but theirs were not so consistently serious as to doom their efforts.

It is difficult to pinpoint where the Irish Reformation passed the point of no return, but basic things like a lack of Irish-speaking preachers, lack of central control of even the lowest level of clergy and schools, and its constantly increasingly narrow mind and scope doomed the Reformation efforts.

It is possible to argue that the Reformation was doomed from the start, if the protestant argument of predestination is taken to apply to movements and not just individuals: if God determined that the Reformation in Ireland would fail, then it is even possible to argue that the Reformation was doomed before it began.

However, it is possible, in a secular arena, to see that at each turn, another set of circumstances, such as those in Wales or Scotland at various times (as two examples of alternative possibilities) would have led back to the road of success for the Irish Reformation.

Works Cited

John Bossy, 'The Counter-Reformation and the People of Catholic Ireland, 1596-1641,' in T.D. Williams (ed.), Historical Studies viii (Dublin, 1971).

John Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570-1850 (London, 1975).

Karl Bottigheimer, 'The Failure of the Reformation in Ireland: une question bien posée,' Journal of Ecclesiastical History xxxvi (1985).

Brendan Bradshaw, 'Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland,' The Historical Journal (1978).

Nicholas Canny, 'Why the Reformation failed in Ireland,' Journal of Ecclesiastical History xxx (1979).

Aidan Clarke, 'Colonial identity in early seventeenth-century Ireland,' in T.W. Moody (ed.),Nationalism and National Identity (Historical Studies xil) (1978).

Ian B. Cowan, The Scottish Reformation: Church and Society in Sixteenth Century Scotland (London, 1982).

R. Dudley Edwards, Church and State in Tudor Ireland: A History of Penal Codes Against Irish Catholics 1534-1603 (Dublin, 1935).

Alan Ford, The Protestant Reformation in Ireland, 1590-1641 (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1985).

Alan Ford, 'The Protestant Reformation in Ireland' in Ciaran Brady and Raymond Gillespie (eds.), Natives and Newcomers: essays on the making of Irish colonial society 1534-1641, (Dublin, 1986).

Glanmor Williams, Renewal and Reformation Wales, c. 1415-1642, (Oxford, 1993).

[1]Published in Journal of Ecclesiastical History xxx (1979), 423-450.

[2]Canny, 'Why the Reformation failed in Ireland,' 446.

[3]Alan Ford, The Protestant Reformation in Ireland, 1590-1641 (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1985) (hereafter 'Ford book'), 68; also Alan Ford, 'The Protestant Reformation in Ireland' in Ciaran Brady and Raymond Gillespie (eds.), Natives and Newcomers: essays on the making of Irish colonial society 1534-1641, (Dublin, 1986) (hereafter 'Ford article'), 53.

[4]Ford book, 68; Ford article, 53.

[5]Glanmor Williams, Renewal and Reformation Wales, c. 1415-1642, (Oxford, 1993), 268. The reader will note that due to a general lack of Welsh history sources available to me in the U.C.C. library, and the obvious difficulty with obtaining other sources outside that library, I have relied upon this volume for my information on the progress of the Welsh Reformation. Similarly, I have relied upon Ian Cowan's work on the Scottish Reformation for my information on that subject. I hope that this shortfall will be understood, if not forgiven, in light of the present shortage of information.

6Williams, 331.

[7]Aidan Clarke, 'Colonial identity in early seventeenth-century Ireland,' in T.W. Moody (ed.),Nationality and the Pursuit of National Independence: Historical Studies xi (Belfast, 1978), 61.

[8]Williams, 281.

[9]Williams, 262.

[10]Williams, 281.

[11]Williams, 310.

[12]Williams, 329.

[13]Williams, 226.

[14]Ian B. Cowan, The Scottish Reformation: Church and Society in Sixteenth Century Scotland (London, 1982), 161. See also above note introducing Glanmor Williams's work on Wales.

[15]Cowan, 122.

[16]Ford book, 56.

[17]Ford book, 49.

[18]Brendan Bradshaw, 'Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland,' The Historical Journal (1978), 481.


[20]Karl Bottigheimer, 'The Failure of the Reformation in Ireland: une question bien posée,' Journal of Ecclesiastical History xxxvi (1985), 200; Ford article, 53.

[21]Ford book, 105.

[22]Ford book, 77.

[23]Williams, 138.

[24]Williams, 131 and 138.

[25]Williams, 295.

[26]Williams, 288.

[27]Williams, 434.

[28]Williams, 262.

[29]Cowan, 72.

[30]Cowan, 172.

[31]Cowan, 111.

[32]Cowan, 120.

[33]Cowan, 114.

[34]Cowan, 132.

[35]Canny, 432.

[36]Ford article, 51.

[37]Ford article, 52-54.

[38]Ford article, 70.

[39]Canny, 450.

[40]Clarke, 68.

[41]Williams, 127.

[42]Williams, 129.

[43]Williams, 275.

[44]Williams, 296.

[45]Williams, 307.

[46]Williams, 318 and 329.

[47]Williams, 330.

[48]Cowan, 72-74.

[49]Cowan, 88.

[50]Cowan, 77.

[51]Cowan, 119. For further information on this French-Scottish problem, see Cowan, 118-119.

[52]Cowan, 180.

[53]Ford article, 71.

[54]Ford book, 174.

[55]Ford book, 124-125.

[56]Ford book, 105.

[57]Williams, 127.

[58]Cowan gives no special mention to the problem of a language barrier, and indeed he mentions many works written by Scottish protestant writers, the titles of which are in the English of the time, and therefore may be thought not to have been translated by Cowan while he was writing the present work. See Cowan, 89-114.

[59]Ford book, 25.

[60]Ford book, 27-28 and 48.

[61]Ford book, 51; Clarke, 61.

[62]Ford article, 57.

[63]Ford book, 254.

[64]Ford book, 137.

[65]Ford book, 250.

[66]Ford book, 153.

[67]R. Dudley Edwards, Church and State in Tudor Ireland: A History of Penal Codes Against Irish Catholics 1534-1603 (Dublin, 1935), 192.

[68]Edwards, 219.

[69]Ford book, 208.

[70]Ford book, 135.

[71]Ford article, 55; John Bossy, 'The Counter-Reformation and the People of Catholic Ireland, 1596-1641,' in T.D. Williams (ed.), Historical Studies viii (Dublin, 1971), 167.

[72]Ford article, 51-52.

[73]Ford book, 131.

[74]Ford book, 169-170.

[75]Ford book, 250.

[76]Ford book, 130.

[77]Williams, 329 and 331.

[78]Williams, 254.

[79]Williams, 273.

[80]WIlliams, 275-276.

[81]Williams, 429.

[82]Williams, 434.

[83]Williams, 432.

[84]Cowan, 111 and 119.

[85]Cowan, 127.

[86]Cowan, 172.

[87]Ford book, 48 and 64.

[88]Ford book, 72.

[89]Ford book, 169.

[90]Ford book, 171.

[91]Ford book, 73.

[92]Ford book, 157.

[93]Ford book, 46.

[94]Ford book, 203.

[95]Ford book, 209.

[96]Bradshaw, 489.

[97]Ford book, 209-216, 227, 243-246, and 264.

[98]Ford book, 63.

[99]Ford book, 66 and 70.

[100]Bottigheimer, 203.

[101]Edwards, 71.

[102]Edwards, 82.

[103]Edwards, 117.

[104]Bottigheimer, 200.

[105]John Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570-1850 (London, 1975), 278-282.

[106]Ford article, 51.

[107]Ford book, 27.

[108]Bottigheimer, 206; Canny, 450.

[109]Williams, 308.

[110]Williams, 288.

[111]Williams, 135.

[112]Williams, 262.

[113]Williams, 259.

[114]Williams, 279.

[115]Williams, 318.

[116]Cowan, 187.

[117]Cowan, 108.

[118]Cowan, 99.

[119]Cowan, 119.

[120]Cowan, 132.

[121]Cowan, 162.

[122]Cowan, 118.

[123]Cowan, 114.

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