Version classiqueVersion mobile

La sécularisation en Irlande

Paul Brennan

La montée du sectarisme

Sectarianism and secularism in nineteenth-century Ireland

Kevin Whelan

Texte intégral

1Abstract : At the beginning of the nineteenth century the United Irishmen, in an attempt to break with the past, adopted the rhetoric of the enlightenment : rational, progressive and Utopian. They also embraced its programme which, were it applied, would have required reforming the law, the system of government and separating church and state. Such a reform was excessively utopian.

2Résumé : Au début du XIXe siècle, les Irlandais-Unis, dans un souci de rompre avec le passé, ont adopté la rhétorique moderne des Lumières : rationnelle, progressiste et utopique. Il embrassèrent également ses revendications qui, pour être appliquées, auraient nécessité des réformes de lois et de système gouvernemental et notamment la séparation de l’Église et de l’État. Cette dernière s’avèra, en effet, une utopie.

3In the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions, it appeared only a matter of time before the new enlightened political ideal they had unleashed would be influential in Ireland. The United Irishmen were moving forward in tandem with the inevitable laws of historical evolution. Very conscious of the French Revolution’s claims to have annihilated history in inaugurating a new political order, the United Irishmen subscribed to the revolutionary orthodoxy of repudiating the past, and specifically the Irish past. In their own words, the United Irish Society “will not by views merely retrospective stop the march of mankind or force them back into the lanes and alleys of their ancestors”. They therefore adopted the relentlessly modernising rhetoric of the Enlightenment – rational, progressive, Utopian. They also adopted its claims that law in itself could reform the people. Therefore, reform of the laws and system of government, not reform of the people, became their preferred option.

4In particular, Catholics needed to be admitted to the political nation, as until then there could be no consonance between l’esprit and les lois, between res and publica, between nation and state, between ruled and ruler. Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform would generate a natural consonance between cultural identity and government practice, creating a harmony which would allow for the unimpeded expression of benevolence, beauty, civic virtue, rationality and all the other Enlightenment values. Once the despotic and arbitrary government of Ireland (the “Junta”) had been removed, the new representative Irish parliament would enact legislation which would bind the nation together in an agreed polity. In the United Irish view, divisions within Irish society were artificial, deliberately fomented or exacerbated by the existing government and its minions to maintain their own corrupt regime on “divide and rule” principles. This despotism alone destroyed the internal cohesiveness of society ; indigenous Irish divisions, including religious ones, were exogeneously, not endogenously, produced. These divisions could be eliminated simply by altering the mode of government to a representative, republican mode. The United Irish programme was anchored insistently on this point : “With a parliament thus reformed, everything is possible”. There is accordingly only a muted articulation of social, economic or cultural programmes within their rhetoric. Such issues could safely be left to a reformed parliament which would, because it represented the nation, enact legislation consonant with the Irish experience : les lois and l’esprit would be harmonious. Thus, the United Irishmen felt there was no need to recast the people, to reform them in advance of legislation ; no need, in other words, to adopt a cultural nationalist stance. As yet, romanticism had not undermined their enlightenment faith in law as the principal vector of historical change.

5The United Irishmen therefore insisted in the religious sphere on the separation of church and state, thus clearly of opting for the secularisation of society. Their political creed stated that religion was “an affair between the conscience of man and his creator, and that it ought to be as free as the air in which we breathe”. Accordingly, “all national churches are national defects”. One of their favourite toasts was “a speedy divorce to church and state”. And William James McNevin, one of their principal leaders, considered that “all church establishments are injurious to liberty and religion”. Asked by Lord Kilwarden if Anglicanism would not simply be replaced by Catholicism as the established religion in the event of a successful Irish revolution, McNevin replied vehemently,

I would no more consent to that than I would to the establishment of Mohammedanism.

6Similarly, Theobald Wolfe Tone was opposed to the idea of having Catholic priests involved in the United Irish movement :

[he had] a strong objection to letting priests into the business at all : that I had the very worst opinion of them and that in Ireland especially they were very bigoted and ignorant men, slaves to Rome and, of course, enemies of the French Revolution.

7How realistic was this United Irish project of separating church and state, and of creating a reformed parliament which would oversee a super-factional state able to adequately represent the Irish nation ? To understand their optimism regarding the possibility of a secular state, one has to realise that the United Irish moment emerged at a period when institutional Catholicism (“popery” in contemporary parlance) seemed to be weakening appreciably and irreversibly. Thus, the United Irish “declaration to the Nation” in September 1792 could confidently assert that “popery is no longer to be met with but in the statute book”. A flavour of this contemporary feeling can be savoured in the following advertisement by the Dublin radical and United Irishman John Daly Burk, who had himself been expelled from Trinity College Dublin for atheism :

For Sale. Two red slippers of His Holiness the Pope ; a bit of the toe nail of St. Januaries ; a scrap of the garment of Ignatius Loyola ; inquisition racks, just from the inquisition ; crowns, sceptres and crosses of St. Louis ; cardinals’ hats, ducal coronets etc., together with all the wardrobe of royalty. Theatrical gentlemen would do well to attend this auction, for the purpose of increasing their wardrobes, which are useless to their present owners, who are becoming plain citizens. Also, a few Pope’s bulls with gilt horns.

8It was this perceived decline of Popery and its associated protective Ancien Regime shell which convinced Presbyterian radicals in particular that common cause could be made with Catholics. Until the French Revolution, conventional Protestant wisdom was that Irish Catholics could not be safely allowed into the political nation, as their religion was inherently undemocratic and persecuting. Therefore, any talk of Catholic emancipation, or even of parliamentary reform, was dangerous, as the MP Sir Hercules Langrishe understood :

Personal equality of representation, the only equality that I can conceive, would be a pure democracy, and in a country like ours, where the democracy does not profess the religion of the state, a democracy subversive of the laws and constitution.

9For conservatives, Catholics were semper eadem, and reformers were self-deluding if they believed that the Popish leopard would shed its clerical spots. Amputating the present from the past, as the United Irishmen wished to do was, for the conservatives, dangerous, as it would dispense with the ties, loyalties, and shared historical memories which bound the Protestants, the Irish parliament and the connection with England together. The conservative response to the United Irish appeal to the future was therefore an appeal to the past, a backwards glance which emphasised the ethnic and religious fissures in Irish society, the old reliable hatreds which had made possible stable government in the century following the Boyne.

  • 1 John Beresford, (1773-1862), Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, a member of a very powerful A (...)

10A second conservative strategy was to pit the rights of property against the rights of man, especially, to quote John Beresford, by “arming the Protestants that can be depended on” in the yeomanry1. This would provide a rallying force, defining and consolidating their common interests by defending the stability of the social and political order on which it rested. A third conservative response was to counter the non-sectarian message of the United Irishmen with an avowedly sectarian one ; this was reflected in the successful formulation and dissemination of the concept of “Protestant Ascendancy” and secondly in the substitution of informal impediments to Catholics in place of the gradually dismantled formal barrier of the Penal Laws. This internal role was allocated to the Orange Order, founded in 1795, and used by government and military leaders to stem the United Irish tide, especially in Mid and South Ulster.

11The cumulative impact of these strategies was a stiffening of the Protestant self-image, which was inextricably bound up with their sense of hereditary superiority over Catholics. That image had been dislocated by the legislative concessions to Catholics in 1792 and 1793, by the challenge of the United Irishmen, and by the seeming detachment of Presbyterians from the Protestant consensus. Under pressure from England which for imperial reasons wished to placate Catholics in anticipation of the coming war with France, the state itself seemed to be disengaging from its Protestantism. In these circumstances Protestants (hitherto Anglo-Irish) were forced to develop a common political identity as Protestants, not as Irish. A notable sectarianising of the political atmosphere in the mid-1790s was one of the principal results of this transition.

12The United Irishmen could not understand how these atavistic feelings could have any genuine popular constituency ; in their reading these developments were artificially induced by conservative ascendancy figures (the “junta”) to prolong their divide and rule strategy. Once the people’s eyes were opened to these cynical manœuvres by self-serving and corrupt politicians, they would simply abandon these atavisms. The “junta” could then be effortlessly swept aside in a non-bloody revolution. The debacle of 1798 showed the limits of the United Irishmen’s understanding of the depth of cleavage within Irish society.

13In a sense, the United Irishmen were the end, not the beginning, of a political tradition in Ireland, as their enlightenment project was superseded by a project based on Romanticism-cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism valorised societies with a long past, claiming that they produced citizens who practiced traditional, uncorrupted virtue. It queried the universality of law when confronted by cultural heterogeneity, questioned the imperative of a cosmopolitan future when confronted by the primacy and potency of a particularist past. Romanticism believed that a renovated society could not be achieved by law alone : instead, one needed to recreate the people, by recuperating their cultural identity. In this sense, the nation was to be assembled organically and naturally, not artificially by the law or state. A nation was a people bound by blood, custom and a desire for political autonomy. If a nation is without an enabling set of political institutions, it retains its cohesion and collective order by cultural means. Frequently, its identity only becomes self conscious under external threat.

14Romanticism and its offshoot cultural nationalism therefore reversed the horse and cart in the understanding of historical change. If once l’esprit of the people was nurtured, fortified and stabilised, les lois would inevitably yield to its insistent presence. Cultural nationalism therefore valorised the past, the regional, the customary, the particularist, at the expense of the new, the cosmopolitan, the universal. In Ireland, cultural nationalism tended to be implicated with Catholicism, perhaps an inevitable intersection as Catholicism could represent itself as the traditional and customary religion of Ireland, the “national” religion of Irishmen, and the principal repository of a distinctive Irish nationhood.

  • 2 S. Deane et al. (eds), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 1, Deny, Field Day Publicati (...)

15The most cogent support for these assertions came from a superficially unlikely quarter – Edmund Burke. Burke pleaded eloquently for Irish Catholics as a local application of his defence of the integrity of traditional society2. Extending his defence of family and local loyalties against abstract claims, Burke argued that Irish Catholics represented those rooted communities whose presence alone sustained the Ancien regime. Catholic traditions, beliefs and habits were so engrained in the fabric of Irish culture that a political system which failed to recognise them would inevitably lack the crucial bonding force that gave political systems their endurance – the affection of the people who lived under them. In the Irish system, these well-founded Catholic claims were reduced or denied by a narrow ruling group whose claims to supremacy were based solely on religious persuasion. That ruling group of Irish Protestants was not a rooted, respected aristocracy, but merely a plebeian and parvenu ascendancy, a bogus facsimile whose scornful, narrowly based pursuit of power and privilege achieved only resentment and loathing. Like the French Jacobins, they violated the customary affections and rooted relations which made society adhesive and stable. Burke believed that only by admitting Catholics fully to the political nation could Ireland be tranquillised, as their innately deferential and monarchical tendencies would then be expressed in support of the status quo, and they would no longer be a prey to factious Dissenters or Jacobin United Irishmen. Burke warned Sir Hercules Langrishe of the consequence of allowing the Catholics to be pushed by the Ascendancy into an alliance with the dissenters and United Irishmen :

  • 3 Edmond Burke, “A Letter to Sir H. Langrishe” [1793], Irish Affairs : Edmund Burke, London, Century (...)

Suppose the people of Ireland divided into three parts. Of these (I speak within compass), two are Catholic ; of the remaining third, one half is composed of Dissenters. There is no natural union between those descriptions. It may be produced. If the two parts Catholic are driven into a close confederacy with half the third part of Protestants, with a view to a change in the constitution in church or state or both, and you rest the whole of their security on a handful of gentlemen, clergy and their dependents – compute the strength you have in Ireland, to oppose to grounded discontent, to capricious innovation, to blind popular fury and to ambitious, turbulent intrigue3.

16Burke believed that this analysis picked out the central issue “the great danger of our time, that of setting up number against property”. This blunt diagnosis left only three options open. Firstly, if Protestants wished to avoid repeating the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, they would have to relinquish sole proprietorship of the state. Alternatively, if they wished to face down Catholics, they could retreat into the hollow shell of Protestant Ascendancy and seek either a union, or a bloody civil war, in which they could only hold the country by force with English support. Then,

  • 4 Thomas W. Coperland (ed.), The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. II, Cambridge University Press (...)

You may call your constitution what you will, in effect it will consist of three parts (orders if you please) cavalry, infantry and artillery and of nothing else or better4.

17The three options – Catholic emancipation, union, civil war – were here starkly delineated.

18In an inchoate way, Burke’s high flown rhetoric was mirrored in the views of the Defenders, the Ulster-based Catholic secret society which had evolved in the 1780s and 1790s, and which in ways most strongly represented grassroots Catholic political opinion. Like Burke, and unlike the United Irishmen, the Defenders wished not to repudiate but to embrace history. Like Burke, they saw Catholics as the authentic aboriginal inhabitants of the island. Time’s arrow was not for them the United Irishmen’s untroubled progressive projectile : the Defenders wished to flex time, to bend it back to a pre-Plantation idyll. Their solution to Ireland’s ills was to reverse their seventeenth-century setbacks by overturning the church establishment, the land settlement and the social hierarchy which rested on their defeats. Thus, like Burke, they were fundamentally historicists, looking to the past for explanations of their traditional grievances-tithes, taxes, rents, labour and living conditions.

19Unlike Burke, they saw in the French Revolution a possibility of casting off old oppressions, of reverting to a version of the status quo ante. It was easy for them to give a sectarian gloss to their readings of Irish history especially in the cockpit atmosphere of Ulster. Thus the Defenders could also practice the politics of the grudge, develop an adverserial sense of collective awareness, and unify themselves through their hostilities. The Defenders signalled the democratisation of the political culture of Catholics, the transition from Jacobite to Jacobin, and a break with the century-old Catholic strategy of deferential supplication. The events of the 1780s and 1790s also gave the Defenders a heightened sense of nationality. Groping towards a cultural nationalist statement, the Defenders lacked the vocabulary to express it. Appealing to history for authenticity and legitimacy, Defenderism sought to use the past to create the future, to utilise (or invent) traditions as the binding force shaping and perpetuating the Irish nation. In this sense, like the Burkean project, Defenderism collided with the classic enlightenment project of the United Irishmen. But it was the Burkean-Defender paradigm that would flourish in the nineteenth century, as the enlightenment politics of the United Irishmen lost impetus and definition under the challenge of romanticism, nationalism, and sectarianism. The fall out from the 1798 Rebellion clearly indicated this.

Repeal Meetings during 1843 attented by O’Connell

Repeal Meetings during 1843 attented by O’Connell

20Source : O. MacDonagh, The Emancipist : Daniel O’Connell, 1830-1847. Londres. 1989.

21First of all, the post ’98 and post-Union period saw the sundering of the United Irish alliance of Presbyterian and Catholic radicalism. After the rebellion’s failure, Catholics sought to distance themselves from its implications. Overtly Catholic apologists went so far as to claim that basically loyal and monarchical Catholics had been seduced from their allegiance into republicanism by wily Presbyterians and that the rebellion itself had solely defensive and protective aims, into which Catholics had been unwillingly driven by brutal repression. By the 1820s, this convenient consensus had become axiomatic among Catholic leaders, and with it a repudiation of the United Irishmen. Daniel O’Connell gave a classic rendition of it when asked in 1825 if there were any Catholics among the United Irishmen.

22He replied that

there were scarcely any among the leading United Irishmen who were almost all Dissenters. In the North, the lower classes of United Irishmen were at first almost exclusively Dissenters : it spread then among the Roman Catholics and as it spread into the Southern counties, and took in the population, it increased its number of Catholics. In the County of Wexford, where the greatest part of the Rebellion raged, there were no United Irishmen previous to the Rebellion and there would have been no Rebellion there, if they had not been forced forwards by the establishment of Orange lodges and the whippings and torturings and things of that kind.

23While Catholic political leaders like O’Connell peddled this pap, establishment historians like Sir Richard Musgrave laboured to promote a purely sectarian reading of 1798, in which Catholic culpability loomed large. This served the twin purposes of scapegoating the rebels as bigoted fanatics, and of helping to detach Presbyterians from political radicalism. Aided by anti-Catholic propaganda and by the spread of the Orange Order, Presbyterians and Anglicans drew closer together again in the post-Rebellion period. Edward Hudson reported from Armagh on 5 July 1799 :

The word “Protestant” which was becoming obsolete in the North has regained its influence and all of that description seem drawing closer together... the Orange system has principally contributed to this.

24As well as post-Rebellion propaganda, changing international circumstances also detached Presbyterians from sympathy towards Catholic claims. Unlike the early and mid-1790s, when it seemed that Popery was on the retreat, Napoleon’s concordat with the papacy in the early 1800s suggested that it was on the rise again. In a situation where Irish and international events both conspired to present images of Catholics which fitted pre-French Revolution Protestant stereotypes, the United Irish moment passed, and Presbyterians withdrew into the protective carapace of Protestant Ascendancy and the Orange Order. It was this distrust of Catholics which also allowed the Act of Union to pass. Given the numerical dominance of Catholics in Ireland, it was wise to negative them by joining the British state. Better to be among a confident majority of Protestants in the United Kingdom than to be an embattled, anxious minority in Ireland. At a stroke, the union converted Catholics from an 80 % majority in the Irish state to being at most a 20 % minority in the United Kingdom. However, acquiescing in the Act of Union was the end of Protestant Ireland’s project of representing itself as “the Irish nation”. In that sense, the Union was a crushing defeat for them, as their vaunted Protestant parliament simply disappeared.

25For Catholics, the Act of Union was initially welcomed as removing what Burke called that “crazy and infected structure” which crushed them in the eighteenth century, or as Bishop Thomas Hussey expressed it, Irish Catholics

would prefer a union with the Beys and Mamelukes of Egypt to that of being under the iron rod of the Mamelukes of Ireland.

26That initial relief at being freed of their local taskmakers soon frosted over when it became apparent that the expected final removal of Catholic disabilities was not contemplated, and that Catholics would not be admitted to the imperial parliament. Catholic frost turned to ice when it also quickly became apparent that, to placate Protestants, the Irish administration would be run on strictly Protestant, and essentially Orange lines. In choosing this strategy, the British government ensured that Catholics would be turned from neutrality to hostility towards the Union, that local sectarian rancour would be institutionalised, and that the Catholic question would quickly become the Irish question. Once Catholic political activism revived, it would inevitably be pitted against the sectarian administration at home, and a hostile or indifferent imperial parliament in London. In such circumstances, Catholic emancipation could only be taken, not granted, and the adverserial stances between Catholic and Protestant and between Catholics and the British state would be hardened and perpetuated. The self image of the emergent Catholic nation would be formed, or deformed, as much by its enemies as by its internal character.

27Thus in the post-Union period, the enlightenment project of the United Irishmen simply stood no chance. Its secular and republican impulses were negatived and its universalist and international strains were domesticated. The symbiosis of “Nationalism” and “Catholicism” in Ireland was strengthened by the withdrawal of Prebyterians from the equation and the generous current of Irish nationhood, fed by many tributaries, as envisaged by the United Irishmen, was canalised into a narrower Catholic channel by the principal engineer of the new Irish politics – Daniel O’Connell.

28O’Connell’s genius was to actualise and empower the latent potential of superior Catholic numbers. As democratisation and parliamentary reform progressed, the numbers game became an increasingly important part of the political equation. The first detailed religious census in 1834 turned in Catholics as 81 % of the total population of Ireland. While they were excluded from parliament, Catholics did have the vote since the 1793 Relief Act. The abolition of two hundred “rotten borough” seats in the Act of Union left Ireland 100 seats in the imperial parliament, of which 64 were county seats, and therefore containing large electorates. In these open constituencies, the numerically dominant forty-shilling freeholders became the decisive force. By the 1820s there were over 100 000 Catholic voters, and in eighteen counties there was a decisive Catholic interest, which supported liberal candidates.

29It was only in the mid 1820s that the Catholic Association, prompted by Thomas Wyse, and then spectacularly led by Daniel O’Connell, decided to challenge landlord control of this Catholic vote. The campaign’s spearhead would be the only nationwide system available to Catholics – the structures and personnel of the institutional church. O’Connell was willing to work hand-in-glove with the episcopacy and priesthood to build an effective grassroots organisation over much of the country. In this way, he was able to link high and low politics, to stitch the institutional church into the fabric of Catholic political life, and to replace landlords by priests as the arbiters of Catholic votes. The sweeping electoral victories at Waterford in 1826 and Clare in 1828 with O’Connell himself a candidate were irresistible demonstrations of the efficacy of the new force ; Catholic Emancipation swiftly followed in 1829.

30The success of the Catholic Emancipation campaign also owed much to the willingness of the Catholic episcopacy and clergy to participate in public politics. That willingness reflected the renewed self-confidence in the universal Catholic Church, now recovering from the attack of the French Revolution. It reflected also the revival and strengthening of the domestic church in Ireland – in ecclesiastical discipline, in church building, in devotional matters, in catechesis, in episcopal control. But it also derived from the Church’s hostile response to the “Second Reformation” – the evangelically-inspired crusade to convert poor, Irish-speaking Catholics which gathered steam and publicity in the 1820s. All these moved the institutional church from its distant, diffident relationship with politics to a much more assertive and public stance.

31A number of conclusions followed from these developments. Firstly, in 1829, the Irish state finally passed from being sectarian to being neutral, but it did so grudgingly and under pressure rather than voluntarily or gracefully. Thus, its disengagement took place in a rancid sectarian atmosphere, shrill with triumphalism and begrudgery. As revived Catholicism vied with evangelical fervour in the Anglican Church, Presbyterians shifted towards theological conservatism (Anti-popery) and political conservation (Toryism) under the leadership of Henry Cooke, an intriguing analogue of O’Connell in his methods and appeal. In this atmosphere, it was impossible for the state to credibly present itself as neutral and supra-confessional, even when, as with tithes, it began to shed itself of Protestant prerogatives.

32Secondly, the organisation and structures of the Catholic Church were pressed into political service as the only available national option open to the Catholic Association. This gave the church and politics a close relationship, of a type unthinkable in the other great period of mass politicisation in the 1790s. Thirdly, politics fossilised on sectarian, not on class lines, as newly assertive Catholics collided with newly defensive protestants. This reinforced the cross-class communal sense of religious affiliation. Fourthly, these developments demonstrated the successful ability of the Catholic Church to present itself as the sole national institution available, sympathetic and responsive to Irish Catholic needs. Finally, these transitions also effectively signalled the end of the road for the Irish landed gentry as the dominant political player in Irish politics.

  • 5 D. H. Akenson, The Church of Ireland, Ecclesiastical Reform and Revolution (1880-1885), New-Haven, (...)

33How did the emerging neutral state deal with religion ? Its first great testing ground was the education question. In 1831 the national system of education was set up by central government, under the direction of the Chief Secretary, G. E. Stanley, to create and provide non-denominational education. Building on Spring Rice’s 1828 Report, Stanley claimed that one of the main aims of the proposed system was to unite the children of different creeds in a common school5 The curriculum would accordingly be non-denominational and every school was to be open to children of all faiths. To ensure this, a funding criterion was built in that schools would only be funded if they had mixed (i.e. joint Catholic and Protestant) applications ; a one-third local financial commitment was also required to encourage such co-operation. On paper, this system looked impeccable ; on the ground, it quickly unravelled.

34Under the truculent leadership of Henry Cooke, the Synod of Ulster ran a skillful campaign of agitation, intimidation and negotiation to bend the national school system to suit Presbyterian predilections. They especially attacked the exclusion of the Bible from normal classroom teaching, a requirement designed to safeguard the school’s non-denominational character.

35Simultaneously, they attacked Catholic involvement in the scheme as an example of state-subsidised Popery. In the mid-1830s, and helped by the Orange Order, Presbyterian mobs burned or closed ten of the forty Presbyterian schools associated with the National School system. Anglicans, for so long the favoured children of the Irish state, were sufficiently incensed by the Catholic involvement in what they saw as their sole prerogative that they withdrew completely from the system in 1839. Faced with the erosion of their scheme, the Commissioners caved in to Presbyterian demands, in an effort to bring them into the system to replace the Anglicans. In 1837, religious instruction was allowed at all times of the day and heralded the collapse of the non-denominational ethos. The Commissioners also permitted schools built with local money (non-vested schools) to be incorporated into the system, but allowing them to be run by their local managers (in effect, clergymen) as they saw fit – adding only the proviso that children in school could be withdrawn without penalty from religious instruction on the written instructions of their parents. In effect, non-vested schools were denominational schools.

36Unlike their Presbyterian and Anglican counterparts, the Catholic hierarchy initially welcomed the schools. O’Connell had ceded control of the education debate to bishops, as part of their price for participating in his political programme. The Catholic bishops, especially Daniel Murray, James Doyle and William Crolly, were keen on the neutrality of the system which they saw as severing the link between government and proselytism. They were also keen to benefit from government resources, at a time when their own were stretched to breaking point by the surging demographic profile of their flocks. But, as bishop Oliver Kelly observed, their willingness to take grants did not mean they utterly approved of the scheme :

  • 6 Archivium Hibernicum, Dublin, p. 96.

it is their poverty and not their will consents6.

37Episcopal consciences were eased by the fact that over large swatches of the countryside, the homogeneously Catholic composition of the communities ensured that schools were one hundred percent Catholic, and their managers were the local Catholic clergy. By the early 1840s, once the Presbyterian battering ram had broken down the non-denominational wall, Catholics were quickly through the breach, and turned the system into a denominational one. By 1850, 70 % of all schools were non-vested, 75 % were under exclusive clerical management (this had risen to 90 % by 1900). By 1851, the system was de facto denominational.

38What was the impact of the National School system ? Firstly, it saved the denominations a large amount of their own money. Secondly, it reinforced and perpetuated denominational barriers in nineteenth-century Irish life. Thirdly, it delivered extensive power and patronage into church hands. The key figure in the system was the patron, who applied for the school, became its manager and appointed its staff. By 1835, in almost one thousand schools, the patron was a priest and effectively these patrons ran schools as their own private clerical fiefs.

39William Thackeray, visiting Ireland in 1843, was struck by the visible impact of these arrangements :

Look at the national school : throughout the country, it is commonly by the chapel side ; it is a Catholic school, directed and fostered by the priest ; and as no people are more eager for learning, more apt to receive it, or more grateful for kindness than the Irish, he gets all the gratitude of the scholars who flock to the school, and all the fuller influence over them, which naturally and justly comes to him.

40Poignantly, the liberal Catholic bishop, James Doyle, had warned in 1830 against the result of precisely this style of strictly denominational education :

I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions. I do not know any measures which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age and bringing them up in the same school, leading them to commence with one another and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist throughout life.

41Doyle’s sentiments, quickly became anachronistic in a Catholic Church increasingly getting into in Roman and Tridentine stride. William Carleton caught the character of the newer breed of Maynooth priest, who had “the hard gloomy character of men who are replete with profound knowledge, exalted piety and extraordinary power”.

42In the post-Famine period, the Papacy, under Pius IX (1846-1878) moved to combat what it saw as the insidious effects of modernisation and secularisation, created by an urban, industrial society which was increasingly rationalist, pluralist and “Godless”. Pius IX substituted the centrality of the Papacy (ultramontanism) in Catholicism, replacing the protective custody of the shattered Ancien Regime ; he promulgated infallibility as the response to enlightenment claims. Utilising the acceleration of information flow with the post and railway, he increased surveillance of domestic churches, speeding up the level of institutionalism and professionalism of the clergy. He tried to insulate the faithful from the challenges of modernity, most notably in the Syllabus of Errors of 1864.

43Pius IX’s riposte to the enlightenment then was ideological infallibilism, a triumphalist Papacy, increased authoritarianism, and political support for institutional monarchies. Only in America and especially with Bishop John Ireland, was there any serious attempt to reconcile Catholic and liberal values. This involved support for separation of church and state ; a respect for religious pluralism ; an enhanced role for the laity ; a concern for social justice, especially in the labour field. The 1897 papal condemnation of this “American Heresy” was followed in 1907 by the condemnation of modernism itself. This was accompanied by the explicit statement that the church is not a republic, or a democracy, but a monarchy.

44Pio Nono’s aims were staunchly supported in Ireland by the almost aggressively single-minded Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Cullen, whose thirty year stint in Rome had imbued him with a thoroughgoing Romanness. His career in the Irish church from 1849-1878 uncannily matches Pius IX’s and Cullen’s career can only be understood in the context of that Papacy, not in any Irish context. His initial aim was to unify the Irish episcopacy and therefore strengthen its role as the Papal body in Ireland ; to achieve this, he had to face down the redoubtable patriarch Archbishop John McHale of Tuam, the great defender of the rights of the Irish church against the encroachments of Rome. Cullen’s close Papal contacts, his ubiquitous intelligence system and his powers of intellectual intimidation soon gave him control over episcopal appointments in which his policy was to appoint only likeminded “thorough Romans”.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 52.

45Having moulded a uniformly “Roman” episcopacy, Cullen then sought to remove them from factional involvement in party politics. In 1854, he observed : “For my part, I will keep aloof from Castle dinners and patronage, but I will also keep aloof from the patriots7.” He also sought to detach Irish Catholicism from any involvement with the state, linking Catholics instead to the polity of Roman Catholicism. Thus, between 1850 and 1878, Cullen devoted his considerable energies to rolling back the state’s involvement in education (“mixed” or “infidel” education). He also insisted on building, even in the taut economic circumstances of post-Famine Ireland, an independent Catholic intermediate and university system, to prevent any possibility of state encroachment. In 1870, the Powis Commission crowned his labours by recommending direct grants to the denominations, instead of state funding of education. In 1883, Cullen’s achievement was crowned posthumously by the establishment of denominational teacher training colleges. By 1900, even the synod of bishops had to agree that the education system was now “as denominational as could be desired”.

46Cullen’s attacks on mixed education also extended to mixed marriages ; once again, his efforts bore fruit posthumously when the Ne Temeré decree was promulgated on 19 April 1908, which dictated that in all cases involving mixed marriages, Catholics were to be bound totally by the Catholic form of marriage.

47Why was Cullen so successful in “Romanising” the post-Famine Irish church ? The standard explanation is that the trauma of the Famine, the associated decline of vernacular religion and popular culture, and the erosion of the Irish language, all created a cultural vacuum, which was filled by the “devotional revolution” – the institutionalisation of mass-going, new devotional practices such as novenas, forty hour devotions, exposition of the host, more ritualistic practices. In a period of immense cultural change, the church became the central symbol of identity and endurance. The symbiosis of “Irish” and “Catholic” was strengthened, and religion articulated an artificial, symbolic language of identity to replace the living one being swept away by famine, emigration and jolting socio-cultural transformations. The institutional Catholic Church could also take advantage of the more homogenised post-Famine social structure, which was receptive to bourgeois Roman Catholicism, as the pre-Famine potato people, the “bruscair an bhaile” with their barely Christianised popular culture were decimated and demoralised. The culture of poverty was supplanted by the culture of piety, as the church provided a new social discipline of respectability. A growing political rapproachment with nationalists from these same bourgeois classes cemented an unusually cohesive and ideologically impregnable marriage of church and nation. These developments were stiffened by the post-Famine institutionalisation of the Catholic Church and by the surge of self confidence it got from involvement in the creation of an Irish Catholic spiritual empire overseas. An epiphyte on empire, Irish Catholicism took root in the diaspora, colonising the anglophone Catholic world as an Irish province. At the First Vatican Council 1867-1870, thirty percent of the 730 bishops were either Irish or of Irish descent.

48In Ireland, as population fell, the number of clergy rose and by the early twentieth-century, the Irish priest-people ratio at 1 : 1 000 was the highest in the world. Between 1800 and 1900, the number of nuns increased from 120 to 8 000. This vocational surge also ensured the marginalisation of the laity within the power structures of the church itself, even at a time when that laity was becoming more pious. By 1861, only 146 people (including deists and atheists) claimed to have no religious affiliation.

49Thus, in post-Famine Ireland, religious affiliation became increasingly a surrogate for national identity as the effective agent of communal solidarity. Linked to a shared historic experience of marginalisation, this clerical-nationalist alliance could also transcend and neutralise class division as a basis of political action. Rapid social change induced by industrialisation and urbanisation had undermined other European Catholic Churches’ ability to represent the whole society, forcing these churches to develop new tactics. Given the failure of post-Famine Ireland to industrialise generally, the Irish church, armed with the formidable new ideological arsenal designed by Rome to combat modernism, had an easy victory over its essentially phantom enemies. Only the weakened republican tradition could offer even a token challenge to versions of community and nation based exclusively on religious identity ; the most effective republican activists, the Fenians, could easily be dismissed as “Godless nobodies” by Cullen, worthless Irish representatives of the anti-clerical Mazzini and Cavour faction in Italy.

50Thus the Catholic Church effortlessly cruised centrestage in the post-Famine decades. It had another strengthening device. At a time when church and state were being disentangled across Europe, it was a great advantage to the Irish Catholic Church that it had never been established, and therefore could never be disestablished, the constitutional fate that awaited the Anglican Church in 1869. Thus, Catholicism in Ireland eventually benefited from its penal experience, which be-quested a legacy of formal independence from the state. Yet, informally, it could take on the character of a church established, locked in by its role in education, in politics, and increasingly in social welfare (especially its work in hospitals and orphanages). The Irish Catholic Church, therefore, had most of the power, but none of the negativities of a close link with the state. It was itself acutely aware of the value of this independence, as expressed by its opposition to the veto, O’Connell’s “wings” or any hint of government involvement in its affairs. Cullen wrote sternly to Rome in 1857 :

  • 8 Ibid., p. 39.

If the government got any control over the Irish Church, it would mean ruin. The influence of the clergy would be mined. Warn them [the Irish bishops] not to yield an inch8.

51The apogee of the new accommodation with nationalist politics came in the 1880s. Already in the O’Connellite period, a pragmatic alliance had developed between Catholic clergy and the emerging Catholic political nation. This alliance was copperfastened in the Parnell period, when an unified national political phalanx emerged. Tactically and tacitly, the episcopacy was ceded stewardship of issues impinging on public morality which it wished to control (like education) ; in turn, the episcopacy ceded control of national politics to Parnell and his party. This constitutional division of labour was the dowry of the formal marriage of Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism ; both could then unite to attack their common enemies – the landlords and the state. The Land War and the Home Rule movement were effective precisely because of this alliance, an alliance which survived the Parnell split, as the Catholic Church subsequently simply made the same bargain with whatever the successive prevailing nationalist parties were – Redmondite, Sinn Féin, Cumann na nGaedhael, Fianna Fáil. The seeds of the confessional state sown by O’Connell were now in flower. The yoking of the church and the national struggle stymied anti-clericalism, because in this new Irish scenario, to be anti-clerical was also to be anti-national. Thus, the Irish Catholic Church was uniquely well placed to marginalise its critics.

52This history of the relationship between church, nation and state helps explain why nineteenth-century Ireland never developed a state which could claim the willing allegiance of its constituents. Accordingly, the concept of citizenship was retarded and with it, the liberal humanist set of values which nineteenth-century ideas of citizenship tended to promote. The distaste and unease with the very word in Ireland can be seen in its pejorative register in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the “Citizen” is a derisive figure. As with citizenship, the rule of law itself could be seen in a jaundiced way in this situation. Law in Ireland, back to the sixteenth century, had been used as a wedge to divide “civilians” and “barbarians”, a distinction which then quickly acquired the additional glosses of “English” and “Irish”, “Protestant” and “Catholic”. Thus, for the majority population, and most notoriously in the Penal Laws, law itself could be seen, not as neutral, but as a partisan political weapon. The smooth transition from the “civilizing” values of plantation to the “civilizing” values of the Enlightenment preserved this distinction, if anything with increasing confidence in the role of legislation, per se, to reform people. Irish Catholics, at the receiving end of these legislative instruments, developed an adversarial perception of law itself. When the “Enlightenment” project gave way to liberalism, with the essential faith in the efficacy of law in creating progress undiminished, Irish Catholics still saw liberalism in the same negative way, as one more supposed value-free, normative procedure with a hidden agenda, with an inbuilt anti-Catholic and anti-national bias. Thus, for Irish Catholics, even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the commonplaces of citizenship, the law and the state were all still deeply troubled and freighted with pejorative historical baggage.

53How did these striking developments in Irish Catholicism (paralleled elsewhere perhaps only in Poland) compare with the development of Protestantism in the post-Famine period ? In many ways, there were similarities. Firstly, a popular Protestant identity, transcending its confessional variety, was consolidated around shared opposition to Catholic/Nationalist claims. This expressed itself in the rapid revival of the Orange Order, and by the evolution of the Unionist party in the late nineteenth century as a riposte to the Home Rule movement. Presbyterianism and Anglicanism also came closer together in a shared evangecalism with its stress on personal religious experience, tailored to suit a more urbanised, industrialised and individualised society. Thus, religious and political conflict underwrote rather than undermined Protestant religious allegiance in Ulster, mirroring the Catholic experience.

54By the 1840s, the Achille’s heel of O’Connell’s political strategy was revealed ; he consciously avoided campaigning in the Northern third of the island during the Repeal Movement, repeating a pattern established in the Catholic Emancipation programme. In so doing, O’Connell subliminally proclaimed that his Irish nationalism was a Catholic nationalism, and that he was unable or disinclined to create a nationalist political movement that could transcend his Catholic support base. Reports of the Repeal monster meetings stressed how they “joined rich and poor, men and women, clergy and laity, town and country” in a powerful display of unity. But what they did not join in any meaningful way was Catholic and Protestant. O’Connell’s experiment in participatory democracy failed signally to include Irish Protestants. By the early twentieth century, the long term implications of that failure were already clearly evident. Partition emerged onto the political agenda as an easy solution to the Irish problem. By institutionalising “Protestant” and “Catholic” states, it was hoped to make nation and state congruent, within the sectarian equation. Craig could proclaim that Northern Ireland was “a Protestant state for a Protestant people” and de Valera had a virtual carte blanche to enshrine a Catholic ethos in the 1937 Constitution. By then, the United Irish aim of “a speedy divorce of church and state” had faded into oblivion.


1 John Beresford, (1773-1862), Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, a member of a very powerful Anglo-Irish family.

2 S. Deane et al. (eds), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 1, Deny, Field Day Publications, 1991, p. 808.

3 Edmond Burke, “A Letter to Sir H. Langrishe” [1793], Irish Affairs : Edmund Burke, London, Century Hutchinson, 1988, p. 267.

4 Thomas W. Coperland (ed.), The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. II, Cambridge University Press, 1958, p. 452.

5 D. H. Akenson, The Church of Ireland, Ecclesiastical Reform and Revolution (1880-1885), New-Haven, Yale University Press, 1971, p. 121.

6 Archivium Hibernicum, Dublin, p. 96.

7 Ibid., p. 52.

8 Ibid., p. 39.

Table des illustrations

Titre Repeal Meetings during 1843 attented by O’Connell
Fichier image/jpeg, 331k

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1998

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search