Protestant Dissent and Controversy in Ireland 1660-1714, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society 1740-1890, Catholicism in Ulster 1603-1983: An Interpretative History, Catholicism in a Protestant Kingdom: A Study of the Irish Ancien Régime.

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

Protestant Dissent and Controversy in Ireland 1660-1714, Phil Kilroy (Cork University Press, £27.50)

Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society 1740-1890, David Hempton and Myrtle Hill (Routledge, £40)

Catholicism in Ulster 1603-1983: An Interpretative History, Oliver P. Rafferty (Gill and Macmillan, £12.99)

Catholicism in a Protestant Kingdom: A Study of the Irish Ancien Régime, C.D.A. Leighton (Gill and Macmillan, £12.99)


Religious history comes in many forms. Phil Kilroy’s Protestant Dissent falls into the category of detailed institutional history. Its first half offers a painstaking reconstruction of the personnel and organisation of the different nonconformist denominations in the decades after the Restoration; the second provides a careful guide to the controversial writings of representatives of these different traditions and of their opponents in the established church. She has worked through an extensive body of contemporary material, and her findings allow us to speak with a precision never before possible about the size, structure and general character of the different branches of non-Anglican Protestantism. As a guide to mentalities she is somewhat less satisfactory. Too often she is content simply to summarise polemic and counter-polemic, or to take refuge in earnest platitude. (The comments of two Quakers in 1655, for example, represented ‘very strong, convinced language and in effect undermined the foundations of society’). At the same time her survey effectively highlights the important differences within Irish nonconformity. The English Presbyterians, Scottish Presbyterians and Independents of Dublin and other southern centres were willing to share funds and even religious services, and were also prepared to accept occasional conformity as the price of coexistence with the established church. Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster, by contrast, insisted on their claim to be recognised as a separate church, and rejected any compromise with episcopacy. Blanket denunciations by Anglican polemicists of the evils of dissent and schism thus blurred important differences. How far such misrepresentation derived from partisan blindness, however, and how far it was a deliberate tactic, remains unclear; the blend of theological principle and realpolitik is one of the things that gives the history of religious policy in this period its fascination, but also its complexity.
Somewhat similar in subject, but more rounded in approach, is Hempton and Hill’s study tracing the interaction between evangelical religion and Protestant politics from the late eighteenth century to the first Home Rule crisis. The great potential hazard in any such study is of course teleology; the reconstruction of past politics and religion can all too easily become dominated by the search for an imagined key to the conflicts of contemporary Northern Ireland. But Hempton and Hill are too accomplished to fall into any such trap. Indeed, if there is a criticism of their work, it is that they are rather too reluctant to offer firm conclusions. Did evangelicalism take off in response to the political crisis of the 1790s, or was it already gathering pace from much earlier in the eighteenth century? How far was Henry Cooke’s crusade against Arianism within the Synod of Ulster also a political conflict between conservatives and liberals? How much did the great revival of 1859 owe to the psychological stresses associated with rapid industrialisation? On such questions Hempton and Hill tend to offer example balanced by counter example, and to emphasise above all the complexity of the issues and the variety of individual responses. Yet their overall message is clear. Evangelicalism did not create the divisions within Ulster society. But it played an important part in the definition of a Protestant identity, and in uniting different social classes behind a shared religious and political allegiance. Any attempt to understand the development of politics in Ulster, in the nineteenth century or later, will thus have to take account of their detailed and lucidly presented analysis.
Hempton and Hill’s restraint is all the more evident if their study is set beside Oliver Rafferty’s narrative history of Ulster Catholicism from the end of Tyrone’s rebellion to the post-hunger strike triumph of Sinn Féin in the general election of 1983. Drawing on a wide range of printed and manuscript sources, Rafferty traces the gradual and uneven impact of the Counter Reformation, the cautious institutional growth of the eighteenth century, and the impact of the nineteenth-century ‘devotional revolution’. These developments are set against the background of the Ulster plantation, the penal laws, the political and sectarian conflicts of the nineteenth century, the trauma of partition, and the indignities of the Stormont era. Across this whole period, Rafferty argues, the enduring characteristics of the Ulster Catholic community remained the same: a sense of being under siege, combined with and contributing to an unusually strong attachment to Catholic belief and practice, even if the latter was not always synonymous either with strict religious orthodoxy or with amenability to clerical control.
Rafferty’s declared aim is to write a history of ‘Ulster Catholicism’. For the first two thirds of the volume, dealing with the period up to the early twentieth century, this means the nine counties of historic Ulster: Monaghan, for example, is particularly prominent in discussions of nineteenth-century political agitation. The remainder of the book, on the other hand, looks only at the six counties of Northern Ireland. The sudden shift in focus is never acknowledged, much less justified. If the aim is to look at the distinctive forms taken by Catholicism in areas where Protestants were numerically dominant, then there is no reason to deal with anything more than the four counties of the north east. If, on the other hand, the aim is to look at areas where Catholics lived side by side with significant numbers of Protestants, then why exclude from the twentieth-century chapters three of the nine Ulster counties? To return to County Monaghan, the extensive discrimination against Protestants by nationalist dominated district councils, following the democratisation of local government in 1898, might have provided an instructive context both for Unionist reactions to the prospect of Home Rule, and for developments in Northern Ireland after 1920.
The other, and probably the most likely, possibility, is that Rafferty sees himself as offering a study of the influences that have shaped the religious and political attitudes of contemporary Northern Irish Catholics. This raises another key assumption: that the experience of Ulster Catholics across almost four hundred years can be told as a coherent story. Yet Ulster is distinguished by sharp discontinuities seen in no other part of Ireland: an uniquely successful seventeenth-century colonisation, and the transformation of economic life by large-scale industrialisation. How far, against this background, does it make sense to trace a line of descent from Eoghan Roe O’Neill’s pikemen of the 1640s to the Catholics of the present day Falls Road? There is of course a case to be made for the long-term historical perspective. But the break neck pace of Rafferty’s narrative never allows him to confront the potentially damning charge of teleology.
If Rafferty subordinates analysis to narrative, Cadoc Leighton does very much the opposite. The starting point for his study is the proposition that eighteenth-century Ireland was a typical part of the European ancien régime. It was a society in which privilege was taken for granted and liberty consisted of concrete and divisible rights possessed by specific groups and corporate bodies. In such a society the penal laws against Catholics were both easily justifiable and affected only a relatively small minority. Indeed Catholics themselves were slow to develop arguments against their legal disabilities. Before the 1780s the task of formulating a critique largely devolved on just two men, Charles O’Conor and John Curry. Even they, moreover, had to make a difficult progress from traditional Jacobitism to arguments for the view that Catholics could safely be admitted to greater freedom within a Hanoverian, Protestant kingdom. It was only in the late eighteenth century, in a rapidly changing political environment, that the penal laws began to be attacked on grounds of democracy and natural rights.  From about the same time, in an equally important transition, Protestant privilege was redefined so as to apply, not just to a propertied elite, but to the Protestant population as a whole. ‘Protestant democracy’ replaced Protestant elitism.
Leighton presents his argument in determinedly low key terms. ‘It has not been the purpose of this study’, he assures us towards the conclusion, ‘to offer criticism of any existing general understandings of modern Irish history.’ Yet in reality the most compelling aspect of his book is in fact his reassessment of the general character of eighteenth-century Irish society. Other writers have played with the idea of Ireland as part of a European ancien régime, but none with such sophistication or rigour. Apart from the obvious themes of hierarchy and privilege, Leighton reminds us that conflict between corporate institutions and centralising authority was a recurrent feature of ancien régime politics. In the same way he shows how easily the political stand of a figure like Charles Lucas (on whom a recent writer in Eighteenth-Century Ireland has tried to pin the hopelessly anachronistic label ‘nationalist’) can be understood in the context of corporate liberties as opposed to natural or national rights. Even the superiority enjoyed by plebeian Protestants is ingeniously compared with the ‘popular nobilities’ of eastern Europe and Spain—although the problem remains that one could not make oneself a hidalgo, as one could a Protestant, by a simple legal declaration of altered allegiance.
By contrast with this provocative essay in reinterpretation, Leighton’s detailed explication of the Catholic debate remains curiously unsatisfactory. A hallmark of the ancien régime was the confessional state. But here Leighton sells the pass by conceding that, in the wake of the toleration granted to dissenters after 1688, the British and Irish states had abandoned the option of proscription on religious grounds alone. Instead Catholicism had to be repressed on the ‘Lockean’ grounds of the danger it presented to the political order. Where privilege is concerned, he notes a tension between two justifications of the Protestant ruling elite—one on the basis of its property and aristocratic status, the other on the basis of its Protestantism—but seems unwilling to consider the possibility that this tension makes it inadequate to discuss Ireland in terms derived from ancien régime ideology alone. By the same token his argument that the majority of Irish Catholics, even at the end of the eighteenth century, would have preferred to seek assimilation into a world of corporate privilege rather than to challenge its foundations rests on rather narrow foundations. The existence of a conservative, establishmentarian side to Irish Catholicism in this period can hardly be doubted.  But it would take rather more than the fragments assembled here—such as Archbishop Butler’s expression of sympathy for Anglican clergy ‘persecuted’ by the Rightboys of the 1780s—to establish what Leighton calls ‘Gallicanism’ as a fully fledged theoretical formation.
The different approaches of Rafferty and Leighton are highlighted above all in their treatment of the penal laws. Central to Leighton’s argument is the proposition that the popery acts owed their fame more to contemporary polemic than to their actual impact on society. The Catholic population of the eighteenth century was ‘a community, certainly harassed and often humiliated, but whose chief sufferings were in the past, and whose members, as individuals, were frequently capable of prospering and maintaining an appropriate social status’. For Rafferty, on the other hand, penal legislation takes its place in a pattern of sustained economic, religious and political oppression extending from the displacement of the native Irish by English and Scottish settlers, through the terrorism of the Peep o’ Day Boys and the Orange Order, to the murderous onslaughts of Protestant supremacists, in and out of uniform, in the early years of the Northern Ireland state. The contrast is
in part a matter of emphasis. Rafferty demonstrates, for
period after period, that the Ulster Catholics’ glass was half empty; Leighton emphasises that, in the early and mid-eighteenth century at least, it was nevertheless half full. But there is also a fundamental difference of approach. Leighton insists on the need to understand the penal laws in the context of an ancien régime society. Rafferty, by contrast, is relentlessly present minded. Academic historians are likely to feel more at ease with Leighton’s approach, even if they question his conclusions, and to be happier still with the dispassionate, non-judgmental reconstructions of Kilroy and Hempton and Hill. General readers are likely to respond warmly to Rafferty, and to wonder why more history cannot be written like this.

Sean Connolly


Copyright © 2019 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568