Catholic Reformation in Ireland: The Mission of Rinuccini 1645–1649

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin
(Oxford University Press, £48)
ISBN 0 19820891X

The last 30 years have been exciting ones in the religioushistoriography of Ireland. After a century or more of a highlypolemical approach to religious history, Irish scholars have beenquestioning the interpretation of the past and offering a revisionistapproach to many aspects of this topic. There is still much left to do.On both the Catholic and the Protestant sides of the debate about theimpact of the Reformation in Ireland a new consensus has clearlyemerged, thanks to the pioneering work of Nicholas Canny, Alan Ford andothers. A similar consensus has also begun to emerge on theinterpretation of the Catholic religious history of the lateseventeenth to early twentieth centuries, an area in which SeánConnolly, Patrick Corish and Donal Kerr have made significantcontributions. There has been much less in the way of a revisionistinterpretation of the Protestant religious history of this periodthough such work is beginning to emerge, notably in the recentbiography of Archbishop Agar by A.P.W. Malcolmson.
It is now generally agreed that the emergence of a strong andsuccessful Counter-Reformation in Ireland in the early seventeenthcentury was the result of the failure of the English monarchy to imposea satisfactory Reformation settlement on Ireland in the way that it hadin England and Wales. Partly this was the result of political weaknessand the willingness of the English authorities to accept the loyalty ofany Irish bishops prepared to swear allegiance to the Crown, whether ornot they were convinced Protestants. Partly it resulted from itsfailure to provide the reformed Church of Ireland with the tools itneeded to do the job, especially the publication of the Bible and theBook of Common Prayer in Irish, until it was too late to be effective.Partly it flowed from the religious divisions within Protestantism andthe prevailing Presbyterianism of the new plantation communities. Itwas the failure of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland that helped togenerate the success of the Counter-Reformation, which was well underway by the first quarter of the seventeenth century. When eventuallythe English authorities did begin to mould the Church of Ireland totheir liking in the 1630s it was too late to make much impact and theexperiment was cut short by the English Civil War, and the accompanyingpolitical instability in Ireland, in the 1640s.
The rebellion that took place in Ireland in 1641, though politicallydesigned to support the king against parliament, was in religious termsaimed at securing greater freedom and an enhanced status for IrishRoman Catholicism. A meeting at Kilkenny in 1642 established aConfederation of the Catholics in Ireland, in effect a provisionalgovernment for those areas of Ireland under the control of the RomanCatholic landowners. It was as a result of this situation that thepapacy decided in 1644 to appoint Giovanni Battista Rinuccini,archbishop of the Italian diocese of Fermo, as papal nuncio to Irelandwith the task of reinstating Roman Catholicism as the de jure, as wellas the de facto, majority religion of the Irish people by agreementwith the beleaguered Charles I. It was a failed mission and, after fouryears in Ireland (1645–9), Rinuccini was obliged to departempty-handed, having succeeded only in dividing the Roman Catholicleadership of Ireland.
Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin has provided a detailed study of this importantperiod of Irish history. The divisions in the Roman Catholic leadershipof Ireland, clerical and lay, that Rinuccini’s mission provoked were tobe, in essence, ongoing throughout the late seventeenth, eighteenth andearly nineteenth centuries, and were not finally resolved until PaulCullen succeeded in imposing his leadership, and a vision not a millionmiles away from that of Rinuccini, on the Irish Roman Catholic Churchin the years following the Synod of Thurles in 1850. The success of theIrish Counter-Reformation had enabled episcopal appointments to be madeto nineteen out of 30 dioceses by 1643. Rinuccini added to these bysecuring appointments to the dioceses of Ardagh, Clonmacnois, Dromore,Ferns, Kilfenora, Kilmacduagh and Ross, so that by 1648 only four Irishdioceses—Achonry, Derry, Kildare and Killala—remained without bishops.Yet after the departure of Rinuccini in 1649, and the onslaught of theCromwellian persecution, the collapse of this episcopate was even moredramatic. By the late 1650s most of the confederate bishops were deadand the few that remained technically in possession of their sees hadfled the country. The restoration of the Irish Roman Catholicepiscopate in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was aslow and laborious process. How far had Rinuccini’s mission and thedivisions it caused contributed to this collapse of Irish RomanCatholicism, in administrative terms at least, after 1649?
Ó hAnnracháin shows that in the period between 1618 and 1645 the nativeIrish bishops had done a great deal to establish workableadministrations in their dioceses and to develop an efficient structureof parishes and clergy. The number of parish priests increased from 34to 57 in the diocese of Tuam between 1630 and 1637, and in the dioceseof Elphin from 13 to 42 between 1625 and 1637 (p. 58). The decrees ofthe Tuam provincial synod, approved by Rome in 1634, insisted onenforcing a strict post-Tridentine agenda in respect of clerical dress,the keeping of parish registers, admission to holy orders andregulations for marriage, confession and eucharistic reception (p. 59).Most of the bishops, however, belonged to Roman Catholic landedfamilies and were therefore fully conscious of the need for pragmatismon both the political and the religious fronts, an outlook treated withsuspicion and doubts about their loyalty by some in the papal curia,unaware of the political and religious realities in Ireland.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Rinuccini, whom Ó hAnnracháindescribes as ‘an almost messianic bureaucrat’ (p. 99), should have gotup the noses of the Irish bishops, who argued that they wereimplementing the Counter-Reformation agenda but in a way that suitedthe particular religious conditions of Ireland at the time. ForRinuccini this agenda had to be pursued rigorously to the letter withno hint of variation or compromise, an attitude understandable in theRoman Catholic countries of southern Europe but hardly applicable inIreland. In a sense Rinuccini was an ultramontanist beforeultramontanism became the fashionable orthodoxy throughout the RomanCatholic world in the middle years of the nineteenth century, confirmedby the Vatican Council decree of papal infallibility in 1870. Hisappointment as nuncio to the Catholic Confederation of Ireland was madewithout consultation by the papacy and was, with hindsight, clearly anill-judged move. Its disastrous impact is analysed in detail by ÓhAnnracháin, as is the hostile reaction of many Irish bishops, withRinuccini’s patronising estimation of their abilities and attitudesbeing usefully summarised in an appendix (pp 268–9).
Two of the key points of disagreement between Rinuccini and the mostinfluential faction among the Irish bishops were the latter’s tolerancetowards Protestants and their lukewarm, even hostile, attitude toelaborate ceremonial. This attitude on the part of Irish Roman Catholicbishops was to be repeated throughout the two centuries followingRinuccini’s departure from Ireland and was to find its last greatdefender in Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin, Paul Cullen’spredecessor in that see, who died in 1852. Rinuccini responded byendeavouring to introduce new ceremonies into Ireland, such as thewashing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, which he performed personallyat Kilkenny in 1646 and Wexford in 1647 (p. 249). Whilst this wasperhaps no more than an irritant, Rinuccini’s attempt to force theCatholic Confederation not to compromise with Protestant royalists, andhis excommunication of those who did, was extremely damaging to theRoman Catholic cause and provided ammunition for Cromwell’s ruthlessattempted suppression of Irish Roman Catholicism after Rinuccini’sdeparture from Ireland.
This is a major and well-researched contribution to both the politicaland religious history of Ireland in the early seventeenth century andmust be required reading for all students of this period.

Nigel Yates
Centre for the Comparative Study of Modern British and European History
University of Wales


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568