A disastrous attempt to ‘reform’ the Irish Church

‘A rod of correction’: the tomb of Henry II, who reversed the Synod of Kells reforms

The Irish Church, its Reform and the English Invasion
by Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Four Courts, £30

Most people, when they hear about conflict between the Irish and English, think of the great famine of the 19th century or “the Troubles”. But there is a full 800 years of history to consider.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin, emeritus professor of medieval history at University College Cork, takes us back to the Irish Church reform of the 12th century and the English invasion by Henry II. He argues that the reform precipitated the invasion. This is a radical, controversial reassessment.

Ó Corráin insists that he is not using the term “reform” as a value judgment and that he simply wants to understand the changes which took place. He portrays the reformers as people confronting what they perceived as a lack of proper episcopal organisation.

He reassesses the reform movement domestically, reactions to the English invasion, and the international context. He concludes, persuasively, that “the English invasion brought the evil of racism to Ireland and the Irish Church, and divided the population into those who had the benefit of English law and those who did not. The impact on the Irish Church was disastrous.”

Socio-sexual problems, Ó Corráin explains, were a leitmotiv underpinning the reform movement. Laws in Ireland relating to sexual morals and marriage customs appeared to be more lax than elsewhere in Europe. The most serious charges made were related to divorce and remarriage, exchanging partners and not observing Church rules on incest. Reformers proposed a root-and-branch approach. The intent was to bring social life in Ireland in line with their view of a model Christian life as set out in canon law, but almost to the exclusion of other crimes and sins.

This had complex and long-term consequences for Ireland, as the Irish became regarded as barbarian and ripe for religious repression. It also brought the Irish churches into disrepute in English and continental eyes, thus affecting racial and religious perceptions. Lanfranc of Canterbury took the opportunity to criticise and intrude in Irish Church affairs as he sought to claim primacy over Ireland as part of his wider claims over Britain, with the help of Dúnán, the first recorded bishop of Dublin. Lanfranc’s criticisms were echoed during Anselm’s tenure, but plans for dominance came unstuck as the reform became more Irish-centric.

The Irish Church was by no means isolated from other parts of Christendom, with annals recording a great deal of pilgrimage activity, Irish émigrés as far north as Hamburg and the presence of an Irish house at Rome. Malachy of Armagh, a monk seeking monastic reform and innovation, wanted to introduce foreign religious orders to replace indigenous ones. Malachy attempted to go to Rome to keep Dublin independent of Canterbury, but he was initially hampered by King Stephen and then died upon reaching Clairvaux, leaving others to complete the mission.

Equally hampered by King Stephen in the other direction was Cardinal John Papato, on a mission bearing papal palliums for the Irish archbishops. King David I of Scotland was more obliging, circumventing England, and palliums were granted at the Synod of Kells in 1152, a grand occasion and very much a Cistercian affair with some 3,000 clerics attending. Reforms at Kells did not deter Canterbury from pushing accusations of barbarism.

The success Malachy and Bernard of Clairvaux achieved was rapidly reversed as Henry II received papal support to deal with the Irish and mend their morals. Thus, the way was paved for Henry II to sweep successfully through Ireland and bring the Irish Church to heel.

Ó Corráin argues that the Council of Cashel, in the winter of 1171-1172, was the most important event in Irish Church history between the 5th and 16th centuries. It exposed much holy simplicity in the bishops’ support of Henry II as a rod of correction. The king, who already had form with the English Church, desired not reform in Ireland but the consolidation of a new dominion with a show of force. The bishops turned their backs on reforms already achieved, abandoning their property and election claims. They had misread the political landscape and lost, having naïvely put their trust in princes.

The author’s reassessment will provoke scholars into more research, but he also offers the general reader an uncomfortable and damning summary to ponder: that the English invasion brought chronic warfare, racial conflict, legal inequality and severe social disruption. Many achievements of Irish Christianity were suppressed and reform successes airbrushed out of history.

Ultimately, while reform brought the Church closer to the desired European model, it seemed to achieve little else. Ó Corráin suspects that clergy went about their business pretty much as before, while the laity kept older devotional practices. As the Irish might say, in the words of another English foe: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.