A church ‘in decline’? The pre-Reformation Irish Church

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2006), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 14

Quin Abbey-one of at least 34 churches in County Clare completely rebuilt in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Quin Abbey-one of at least 34 churches in County Clare completely rebuilt in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Our understanding of the Church in Ireland before the Tudor reformations has long been distorted by a paradigm that insisted that it was ‘in decline’. Historians conventionally trawled through the records of centuries to find instances of pluralism, absenteeism, concubinage, simony and other disorders, without putting that evidence into context or offering any assessment as to how representative it was. They often failed to take due account of the fact that the court records they used—whether from the papal curia, diocesan curiae or secular courts—by their very nature were focused on the delinquent or criminal (or allegedly so), and that the individuals featured in them were not necessarily representative of the wider clerical milieu. They tended to portray the extraordinary individual as typical, the exceptional incident as the ‘norm’. Such evidence cannot be denied—but it needs to be seen in context. In fact, there is a considerable body of compelling evidence that contradicts the very notion of ‘decline’ in the Irish Church on the eve of the reformations.

State papers

The ‘established interpretation’ of the pre-Reformation Irish Church was based mainly upon a few state papers and posited a degree of disorder ‘not far short of total breakdown in the organised religion in that war-torn country’. The state papers, however, are inherently political tracts and have to be interpreted very cautiously. The ‘Description of Ireland’ (1515), the keystone of the conventional paradigm, is hyperbolic; it should not be accepted as literally true. The author wanted a remedy for Ireland’s political disorders, and stated that some people believed that if the clergy were more devout God would have granted the grace needed to bring peace and order. The political disorders in Ireland were cited as proof of the clergy’s failings—a criterion for judging them which is hopelessly inadequate.

Clonmacnoise Cathedral-had been refurbished in the second half of the fifteenth century, when a very fine doorway in the perpendicular Gothic style was inserted into the north wall. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Clonmacnoise Cathedral-had been refurbished in the second half of the fifteenth century, when a very fine doorway in the perpendicular Gothic style was inserted into the north wall. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

In another state paper the earl of Kildare wrote that ‘all the churches, for the most part, within the counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary are in such extreme decay . . . that no divine service is kept there . . .’. This colourful characterisation lends itself to quotation, but it is also misleading. The 1537 presentments submitted by the juries from south-eastern Ireland identified only one rector who failed to celebrate Mass, and he employed a vicar to serve the cure. The presentments reflect some lay criticism of the fees charged by priests for some of their services, but they do not corroborate Kildare’s statement that the priests in the Ormond lordship generally failed to conduct church services. Since the clergy depended on the laity for their incomes, that seems inherently implausible. It is best to regard Kildare’s indictment simply as one of the most emotive of a series of charges that he laid against his chief rival, the earl of Ormond, in an effort to discredit him.
The reports in the state papers on the state of ruined cathedrals are more credible precisely because they were narrowly focused, but it is not at all clear that they are representative of the state of the wider Church in Gaelic Ireland. Indeed, while the cathedral at Clonmacnoise was reported to have been in a poor state in 1515, Conleth Manning’s architectural study of the cathedral has shown that it had been considerably rebuilt and refurbished in the second half of the fifteenth century, when a very fine doorway in the perpendicular Gothic style was inserted into the north wall at the instigation of Dean Odo O’Malone (d. 1461). At the same time a new window was set into the south wall and the chancel was transformed with rib-vaulting carried on columns, two bays deep and three bays wide. Also in the fifteenth century the sacristy or chapter house at Clonmacnoise was extended, with a first-floor chamber with a fireplace and chimney. Furthermore, whatever state the cathedral was in in 1515, it had evidently experienced considerable restoration and embellishment before marauding English troops descended upon it in 1552 and smashed the altars, statues and glass windows, destroyed the Catholic liturgical books and stole the bells.
The report of 1515 is therefore misleading in terms of the impression it might convey of the state of Clonmacnoise cathedral throughout the later Middle Ages, and ought not to be cited as proof of ‘decline’ in the wider Irish Church. In any event, the state paper report on Clonmacnoise has to be set against a much greater volume of documentary evidence of cathedrals in good order, and those documents offer merely a pale reflection of a truly impressive upsurge of investment in the fabric of the Irish Church in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

New perspectives

The study of the Armagh registers for the sixteenth century, with their records of annual diocesan synods and convocations, parish visitations, consistory court cases, the promotion of parish clergy and some lay people’s wills, has shown that the conventional paradigm, predicated on the assumption that the pre-Reformation Church was ‘in decline’, was invalid for Armagh diocese. The problem is that the Armagh registers are unique, and the relevance of the conclusions drawn from them to other Irish dioceses cannot be vouchsafed with documentary evidence alone—though the voluminous records of early Tudor Dublin point towards very similar conclusions. It is clear, in any case, that the experiences of the Church differed considerably in Ireland’s very varied regions, and detailed case-studies are needed to reflect that complexity. A critical part of the mass of evidence used to challenge the conventional paradigm for the diocese of Armagh was archaeological, however. Evidence of church-building and refurbishment made the case for a strong revival in the fortunes of the Church on the eve of the Reformation absolutely compelling.

The medieval parish church at Lusk was a twin-aisled building of considerable size. The church's substantial west tower still stands-an imposing edifice with three round turrets incorporated in it to match the ancient round tower that forms the fourth ‘turret'. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

The medieval parish church at Lusk was a twin-aisled building of considerable size. The church’s substantial west tower still stands-an imposing edifice with three round turrets incorporated in it to match the ancient round tower that forms the fourth ‘turret’. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

As long ago as 1960 Harold Leask highlighted the fact that the later medieval period was a time of ‘remarkable building activity’ in the Irish Church. Not only were scores of new friaries constructed, but the ‘larger monasteries of earlier date were busy with alterations and additions’:

‘Rural parish churches were very numerous . . . Many were rebuilt in the fifteenth century . . . and the addition of features in the current fashion to churches of earlier date was extremely common.’

This remarkable evidence highlighted by Leask did not conform to the conventional paradigm of a Church in decline—and was simply ignored!
Recent work by archaeologists and architectural historians has confirmed that the later Middle Ages witnessed an extraordinary programme of church-building, remodelling and ornamentation across the Pale, and throughout Ireland generally. Indeed, the great majority of Irish medieval church buildings with any diagnostic features still extant can be shown to have been built in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, or at least to have been significantly modified in that same period.

The Pale

Máirín Ní Mharcaigh’s study of the medieval churches in south-west County Dublin showed that most of the buildings that still possess diagnostic features may be dated to the fifteenth century. Another, the parish church at Palmerston, is the only building in the study area that certainly pre-dates the later Middle Ages, and it was remodelled to conform with late medieval expectations. There were several substantial west towers associated with the medieval churches in south-west Dublin. These stone towers were commonly built as priests’ residences in the Pale in the later Middle Ages. Together, the churches and towers show that in the later Middle Ages the physical fabric of the Church in south-west County Dublin enjoyed massive investment.
Mary McMahon highlighted the existence of approximately 60 late medieval parish churches and chapels in north County Dublin. She drew attention to the richness of the surviving legacy of medieval parish churches across north Dublin. The medieval parish church at Lusk, for example, was a twin-aisled building of considerable size. The church’s substantial west tower still stands—an imposing edifice, incorporating three round turrets to match the ancient round tower that forms the fourth ‘turret’.  The tower was being erected in the later fifteenth century, as is clear from the evidence of bequests in lay people’s wills towards the cost of its construction.
Dublin’s two cathedrals towered above the city. Unfortunately, most of the late medieval modifications to the cathedrals were obliterated in the nineteenth-century ‘restorations’. Nonetheless, it is known that in the fifteenth century Christ Church Cathedral was embellished with a striking canopied cloister arcade— financed, at least in part, by gifts from the laity. Michael O’Neill has argued that St Patrick’s Cathedral was ‘at the fountainhead of the great rebuilding campaigns undertaken in the Pale . . . in the fifteenth century’. He has traced some architectural influences of the cathedral, particularly window tracery design and elements derived from the massing of the west gable and Minot’s tower, on a number of its prebendal churches, and on some churches in County Meath.
O’Neill’s survey of the medieval parish churches of County Meath drew attention to the ‘great rebuilding campaigns of the early fifteenth century onwards’ and revealed an impressive body of late medieval details from many churches across the county: of window tracery, doors, rood lofts, bellcotes and belfries—no mean achievement, given that none of the medieval parish churches in County Meath is in use today. His conclusion is convincing: ‘The discussion of the architecture of the churches in Meath, in particular the quantity and good quality of the late medieval buildings and the documentary evidence for their furnishings, must surely reinforce the arguments that the late medieval church in Meath was healthy and, indeed, vibrant’.

Dunsany church-Michael O'Neill's survey of the medieval parish churches of County Meath drew attention to the ‘great rebuilding campaigns of the early fifteenth century'. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Dunsany church-Michael O’Neill’s survey of the medieval parish churches of County Meath drew attention to the ‘great rebuilding campaigns of the early fifteenth century’. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Archaeological surveys have found approximately twenty towers that provided priestly accommodation in the later Middle Ages concentrated in Meath, many of them commodious residences of two to four storeys, with barrel vaulting, garderobes and fireplaces, reinforcing the same arguments. Brendan Scott, in his study of Meath diocese, concurs with this positive assessment of the pre-Reformation Church.
O’Neill identified no fewer than eighteen churches in County Kildare that were built in the fifteenth century, together with another five multi-period buildings that show signs of having been refashioned about the same time, and concluded that a ‘massive building and re-building programme’ took place, not only within the inner Pale but also in the north-west and south of County Kildare. It seems, though, that with few exceptions there is not the same depth or consistency in quality as that found in counties Dublin and Meath—as might be expected, given the less favourable economic conditions prevailing over much of late medieval Kildare.
The archaeological and architectural evidence from counties Dublin, Kildare, Louth and Meath, in conjunction with the evidence from the Armagh registers, makes a nonsense of the notion that the late medieval Church in the Pale was ‘in decline’ before the reformations. On the contrary, it was on the crest of a wave of an unprecedented spate of church-building, rebuilding and refurbishment that transformed the face of the institution dramatically. Parishioners standing in their newly built or newly refurbished parish churches and chapels on the eve of the reformations could hardly have imagined that most of those same buildings would be roofless or in ruins a century later.

Outlying boroughs

In the outlying boroughs of the English lordship there is further evidence of a revival in the fortunes of the Church before the Tudor reformations. St Nicholas’s Church in Galway was greatly extended after achieving collegiate status in 1485, with the addition of a south aisle; a north aisle was added from 1538, making St Nicholas’s the second-largest parish church in Ireland. Lay people endowed the church with a beautiful stained-glass window, a choir, a belfry with a great bell, and a set of organs. Lay people financed the building of College House as the residence of St Nicholas’s priests. Through lay benefactions the collegiate church built up a significant property portfolio before the reformations to finance its services. By the time of the reformations there were fourteen altars in St Nicholas’s. On the eve of Henry VIII’s reformation, lay people in Galway founded a hospital or poor-house in the city. They financed the foundation of a Dominican friary in 1488, an Augustinian friary in 1508 and added a transept to the Franciscan friary. A chapel of ease was founded on the west bank of the Corrib at Galway c. 1509–10.
Leask observed of St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, that no other church in Ireland received so many additions in the fifteenth century. The massive shell of the Dominican friary built in the 1460s to replace its thirteenth-century predecessor is further tangible testimony to the state of the Church in Limerick in the later Middle Ages. I have the impression that religious conditions in Cork were analogous with those of the Pale, with the institutional Church being in good order and enjoying much support from the laity. Brendan Bradshaw concluded that the spate of church-building in the cities in the south and west of Ireland, together with the overwhelming progress made concurrently by the Observant movement among the local communities of friars, creates a picture of the state of the pre-Reformation Church in the south-western towns that is ‘not at all in conformity with the conventional image. The impression created is of a vigorous and flourishing institution which enjoyed the esteem of the lay community—not at all the moribund structure which the text-books depict as conditioning the onset of the reformation’.

Gaelic and Gaelicised lordships

As long ago as 1900, T. J. Westropp revealed that at least 34 churches in County Clare had been nearly completely rebuilt in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and many earlier churches were renovated in the same period. This extraordinary spate of church-building and renovation in one of the most Gaelic regions of late medieval Ireland did not conform to the conventional paradigm—and was ignored. Yet recent work by Sinéad Ní Ghabhláin has confirmed Westropp’s findings, and the ongoing archaeological surveys from across the Republic of Ireland are revealing a very similar pattern. Across Ireland, in the decades prior to the reformations, very many new churches and chapels were being constructed, and older ones were being renovated, ornamented or extended, with many altars, baptismal fonts and bellcotes—not to mention altar-tombs, tomb-slabs and other funerary monuments—being added to churches at that same time. Indeed, the ‘great rebuilding’ of the later Middle Ages seems to have been so extensive that several compilers of the archaeological inventories can claim that ‘the majority of church remains appear to be fifteenth/sixteenth century (late medieval) in date’.
Elizabeth FitzPatrick and Caimin O’Brien highlighted architectural evidence from at least 35 churches and chapels in County Offaly that ‘indicates some rebuilding or refurbishment’ in the late medieval period, while most of the remaining fifteen or so churches and chapels lack diagnostic features on which to base an assessment. Priests’ quarters, or at least vestiges of them, survive at ten churches in Offaly. Siobhán Scully’s study of the medieval churches of south County Leitrim showed that seven of the eight churches with diagnostic features in her study area were either built in the fifteenth or sixteenth century or, more commonly, comprised earlier thirteenth- or fourteenth-century buildings that were modified in the later Middle Ages. She concluded that the evidence of lay patronage of the Church in south Leitrim would indicate that ‘the parish may not have been as ineffective as the tales of neglect in the papal letters would lead us to believe’.

Killeen church (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

The absence of a modern published archaeological inventory for Northern Ireland might create a misleading impression that conditions in Ulster were different to those in the rest of Ireland. Studies of the dioceses of Armagh inter Hibernicos, Clogher, Derry and Dromore have challenged the conventional impression that the Church in those dioceses was in a poor state, however. There is evidence that the late medieval church-building campaigns seen further south occurred in Ulster too. The eulogy of Tomás Óg Maguire, lord of Fermanagh (d. 1480), in the Annals of Ulster notes that he built many churches and monasteries, and there is archaeological evidence to confirm that many churches in Fermanagh were built or renovated in the fifteenth century. A survey of Derry diocese c. 1607 shows that it had priests in place to staff a comprehensive network of parish churches and chapels, even after the devastating Nine Years’ War that caused such appalling mortality in the north. And there were other late medieval churches or chapels that were not listed in the survey, such as the chapels at Burt, Co. Donegal, and Straidarran, Co. Derry. Even in Dromore, once seen as the epitome of the poor state of the late medieval Church in Ireland, it has been argued that ‘religious life in the late medieval diocese was vibrant enough’. In Armagh inter Hibernicos it has been shown, in some detail, that the parochial system functioned well, despite the widespread poverty of the diocesan clergy.

Conclusions

The sheer numbers of parish churches and chapels that were newly built, rebuilt or significantly refurbished in the later Middle Ages demonstrate that the Irish Church was not ‘in decline’ before the Tudor reformations. Those churches and priests’ residences give tangible testimony to the vitality of the Irish Church in the later Middle Ages. In that same context we have the long-recognised evidence of the foundation of a great many new friaries in the later Middle Ages, which, logic should always have insisted, did not occur in some kind of ecclesiastical vacuum. The remarkable scale of lay investment in the diocesan Church, as well as the friaries, makes a nonsense of the conventional paradigm that the late medieval Irish Church was ‘in decline’.
The ‘great rebuilding’ of churches reflected, in part, an economic upturn across Ireland in the fifteenth century. One may also point to the contemporaneous building of tower-houses, which, in tandem with the church-building taking place, provided the incentive to develop the infrastructures and techniques needed for large-scale quarrying, transportation and building with stone. Yet the increased capability of building in stone, both financial and logistical, does not in itself explain why so much building actually occurred. It seems likely that many of the older church buildings were in such a poor state that their replacement was an imperative by the later Middle Ages. That might account for two contemporary comments: the earl of Kildare’s reference to decayed churches in Kilkenny and Tipperary in 1525, and Lord Deputy Sidney’s reference to the number of ruined churches in the Pale as early as 1566. If my inference is correct, then the Tudor reformations interrupted an ongoing but incomplete programme of renewal of the physical fabric of the Irish Church.

St Nicholas's Church, Galway, was greatly extended after achieving collegiate status in 1485. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

St Nicholas’s Church, Galway, was greatly extended after achieving collegiate status in 1485. (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I would hesitate before positing a late medieval ‘revival’ of religion in Ireland, but the massive scale of lay investment in the Church, diocesan and regular, seems to point towards that conclusion. Perhaps the burgeoning of the mendicant communities did not simply reflect an increase in lay piety but contributed to that increase. Such a relationship seems eminently plausible. The fine effigies of St Francis and St Dominic, beside St Patrick, above Dean O’Malone’s doorway in Clonmacnoise cathedral, which dates from the mid-fifteenth century, lend credence to the suggestion. The shaft of a late medieval wayside cross preserved at Rhode, also in County Offaly, points towards the same conclusion: it is decorated with images of the Crucifixion, the Blessed Virgin, St Patrick and St Francis. This paper does not claim that all was well in the late medieval Church, but it does challenge the notion of ‘decline’ in the Irish Church on the eve of the Tudor reformations.

Henry A. Jefferies is the Head of History at Thornhill College, Derry, and Visiting Fellow in the Academy of Irish Cultural Heritages in the University of Ulster.

Further reading:
E. FitzPatrick and R. Gillespie (eds), The parish in medieval and early modern Ireland (Dublin, 2006).
H.A. Jefferies, Priests and prelates of Armagh in the age of reformations (Dublin, 1997).
H.A. Jefferies, The Irish Church and the Tudor reformations (Dublin, 2007).
M. O’Neill, ‘The medieval parish churches of County Meath’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 132 (2002).

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