There is a growing literature about the demise of Irish Christianity. The latest comes from Crawford Gribben of Queen’s University, Belfast. It is called, simply, The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland and it is a broad, sweeping, readable and concise history of the interplay of religion, politics and society in Ireland from pre-Christian times until the present.
Gribben, a Protestant, tells his story dispassionately. The history of Christian Ireland begins in earnest shortly before St Patrick, when, in 431 AD, Pope Celestine I sent Palladius to become the first bishop of “the Irish believing in Christ”.
The mission of Palladius was not very successful, but Patrick, previously a slave in Ireland, arrived soon after Palladius and had far more success in converting many of the Irish. His efforts swiftly bore fruit, leading to Ireland’s world-famous early monasteries which were centres of education, evangelism and art and helped to spread the faith, or restore it, to other parts of Europe, including Britain.
If this was all Irish Christianity ever did, then its contribution to the world would still be immense.
Up until the Reformation, the tale of Christian Ireland is also in part that of Rome’s efforts to draw the Irish Church closer to it. In this part of Gribben’s story, it was hard not to be reminded of Brexit and its slogan “Take Back Control”.
From China to Europe, the tale of a civilisation is often about the struggle between centralising and decentralising forces. The Irish Church, while doctrinally Catholic, wanted to run things its own way. Rome wanted more centralisation. The same struggle plays out between the EU and its member states.
The first English (or rather Anglo-Norman) invasion of Ireland took place in 1169. But England was still Catholic. It was easier to assimilate these Englishmen to Irish ways. As Gribben explains, the Reformation changed that and from the Tudors onwards, English attempts to conquer Ireland stepped up, with the most brutal and successful of all occurring under Oliver Cromwell. The English could never convert the native Irish to Protestantism. Nor could the settler Scots. It is interesting to contemplate what might have happened if Protestantism in Ireland was not associated with foreign domination.
The Church of Ireland was made the established religion of the country with Catholics, Presbyterians and other “dissenting” Protestant groups being subjected to various restrictions and humiliations. Catholics obviously bore the worst of these which sometimes included violent persecution and martyrdom. What helped to keep Catholicism alive in Ireland at this time was its continued links with the Church elsewhere in Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain where future priests and other Catholic leaders were often educated.
Bit by bit, restrictions on Catholics and dissenting Protestants were lifted and as the 19th century wore on, the Catholic Church regained its old strength. Its influence only increased once Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922 (minus the six counties of Northern Ireland, of course).
It is from here that Gribben’s tale becomes thoroughly and mainly unavoidably depressing, because the Catholic Church overreached. This was encouraged by a people determined to show how independent they were from British influence by becoming as Catholic as possible, even at the cost of further alienating Protestants in the North, who created a highly sectarian statelet in the six counties. The Catholic Church became authoritarian, overly moralistic and, in time, terrible abuses were uncovered in many of its institutions and among the ranks of the clergy.
On the other hand, post-independence Ireland did not succumb to either fascism or communism, when much of the rest of Europe did.
The Catholic founders of the new Irish State were mainly decent men, deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching and Christian Democracy. That is not the worst thing in the world. Eamon De Valera’s Constitution of 1937 became the first anywhere to mention the word “dignity”. Gribben believes that the future of Christianity in Ireland will consist of “Benedict Options” of the sort writer Rod Dreher describes in The Benedict Option, or “creative minorities”, as Pope Benedict might put it.
The days of Ireland as a majority Christian country are gone, as has happened almost everywhere else in Europe. To this extent, Ireland has once again failed to steer its own course, which is what the early Irish monks tried to do long ago. If Rome eventually absorbed Christian Ireland into the mainstream of European Catholicism, this time we have been absorbed into the mainstream of European secularism, for better or worse.
Perhaps in due course there will be a need for someone to write a book called “The Rise and Fall of Ireland”, describing how Irish distinctiveness was erased along with its Christianity. Crawford Gribben might be the very person to write that tale.
David Quinn is a columnist for the Sunday Times and director of The Iona Institute
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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