Review: ‘Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the Story’ edited by Father Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh

(December 2021)

It has been almost twenty years since ‘Christianity in Ireland’ was published: two decades during which an unprecedented secularisation has changed Ireland drastically.

This collection of essays was edited by two of Ireland’s most eminent historians.

The Marist priest Rev. Dr. Brendan Bradshaw spent most of his career teaching in Cambridge.

A firm nationalist, much of his work dealt with challenging the ‘revisionist’ school of Irish history which sought to paint Britain’s occupation of Ireland in a brighter light.

Father Bradshaw died in 2018, while his colleague Professor Dáire Keogh, on the other hand, ascended to the role of President of Dublin City University in 2019.

Rather than being intended as a comprehensive history of Irish Christianity, their book features 23 essays by leading experts addressing a wide variety of key topics: from the mission of Saint Patrick all the way through to the 1990s, with the period of intense religiosity in the late 19th and early 20th century receiving a strong focus.

The ongoing emotional backlash against this era in Ireland’s history is a central fact (possibly the central fact) of Irish life today.

Given the strength of anti-Catholic feeling currently – and given the manner in which radical social change in the present is being justified as a response to a clericalist past –  it is incumbent on all who dissent from the progressive dogma to actually examine the past, and ‘Christianity in Ireland’ offers fascinating and thought-provoking insights.

Importantly, none of the diverse set of contributors fall into the trap of contrasting a difficult present with an idyllic past.

As the late Professor Alfred Smyth observed in his essay on early Irish monasticism, myths about an ‘Age of Saints’ can in fact be dangerous. “[A]ll heroic ages, whether spiritual or secular, reflect dissatisfaction with the realities of the present and a desire to reinvent the past in an idealised form,” he wrote, adding that this vision could degenerate into “an image of a Dark Age hippy colony inhabited by gentle gurus doing their own Christian thing far removed from the stultifying influence of sub-Roman bishops and their dioceses.”

Though the great monasteries housed many holy figures, Smyth also noted that they were blighted by scandals at a time when local warlords treated monastic centres as pawns in their power struggles.

Nor do the essayists fall into the trap of magnifying the Irish Church’s role in preserving Western civilisation during the Dark Ages, as others sometimes have.

Professor Marie Flanagan’s chapter on this subject is a typically even-handed overview of varying historical perspectives, in which she explained the important role which the Irish Church played in biblical exegesis and in laying the foundations for the re-christianisation of parts of Europe which had reverted to paganism.

‘The Reformation in Ireland’ focused on Bradshaw’s area of greatest expertise, and is particularly illuminating.

The fact that Ireland remained Catholic in spite of the Tudor reforms was remarkable for many reasons. Across Europe, virtually every nation eventually followed the principle of cuius regio, eius religio: whatever religion the ruler decided to practice, the people would eventually practice it too.

Ireland’s refusal to follow the English lead by embracing Anglicanism set the course for the next five centuries of history, but little thought is given to why the Irish found Protestantism so unappealing.

Respect for the past and loyalty to the universal Church certainly played a role, but this respect and loyalty existed in England too, and did not prevent national apostasy. Abuses existed in the English monasteries and the broader Church which could be, and were, cited as an excuse to cut ties with Rome, but similar abuses existed in Ireland as well.

For Bradshaw, the main factor in explaining the greater health of the Irish Church was the flourishing of the Observant friars which had begun in the mid-fifteenth century. For generations prior to Henry VIII’s reforms in the 1530s, the friars had developed a strong reputation and had effectively evangelised broad swathes of the people through the medium of the Irish language.

As Declan Downey noted in his chapter on the Counter-Reformation, though Lutheran and Hussite ideas had reached England prior to Henry’s decision to establish a church of his own, they had not reached Ireland.

Thus, the Reformation arrived here late, while the Counter-Reformation had arrived early in the form of charismatic friars who were well able to link faith and fatherland together.

As Bradshaw wrote, “Ireland possessed in the Orders of friars a dynamic, numerous, widely dispersed and highly respected spiritual elite who directed their formidable resources to subverting the state-sponsored religious innovations from the outset and linked the resistance with the Counter-Reformation just then developing on the Continent.”

From this point, Christianity in Ireland took on a new and more political character, and many of the subsequent essays reflect this.

Despite severe persecution, Protestantism failed to attract native converts to any significant extent, and the accounts of Protestant churches which are included here (focusing on Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Methodism) are very much stories of small minorities which lacked numerical strength outside of Ulster.

As with the earlier chapters, essays dealing with the era of anti-Catholic persecution often run contrary to widely-held beliefs.

Though the Penal Laws were certainly calamitous for the country, as the late Dominican historian Hugh Fenning observed in his chapter, they also helped to lay the foundations for modern Irish nationalism by wiping away the old distinctions between ‘Old English’ Catholics and Gaelic Irish Catholics, not to mention the distinction between the Catholic aristocracy and the landless masses.

While Dublin was the centre of British rule, Fenning noted that it was here in the full glare of the Protestant establishment that the Catholic revival of the 18th century commenced: religious orders were present in the city from about 1725, and could organise their own confraternities and sodalities more easily in Dublin than in the countryside.

Though Mass attendance was much lower prior to the Famine than it was afterwards, this was often due to the lack of church infrastructure, and those Irish people who could attend showed a piety in church which was noted by many outside observers such as France’s Alexis de Tocqueville.

The religious resurgence which began after the Famine is the focus of Emmet Larkin’s chapter on the ‘Parish Mission Movement,’ the movement which Cardinal Paul Cullen credited with revitalising the Church nationwide and helping to create the exceptionally religious nation of the late 19th century.

This image is also challenged, however, by the outlining of statistics showing that even during this period where the Church was at its strongest, a surprisingly large number of Irish Catholics abandoned their religion after moving to the United States.

This looming question about the recent loss of faith is the focus of the concluding chapters, which deal with a Church beset with difficulties, not least of which was the abuse crisis and the rapid secularisation which was obvious from the 1980s onwards.

From start to finish, this book commands the reader’s attention. Each essay could be the focus of a book, and in many cases, the authors have published several of their own.

There are many issues to explore in much greater detail, and at a time when the Church is at its lowest ebb, greater historical enquiry is essential to counteract false historical narratives which bear no resemblance to its reality, and which only serve to justify the power of the current ruling class, which rivals the old regime for the intensity of its dislike of Catholicism and ignorance of the nation’s past.

The historical record of Christianity in Ireland will not correct itself, so books like ‘Christianity in Ireland’ will be even more essential in the future.