Christianity in Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 11

Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (eds)
(Columba Press, E30)
ISBN 1856073505

This is a collection of 23 articles, all relating to the history of Christianity in Ireland, which aim to fill the need for a book for ‘the interested non-specialist as well as undergraduates . . . about the history of the church in Ireland from the earliest times to the present’ (p. 7). That there is a need for such a book is a point that few would question. It has been attempted twice in recent decades, first under the editorship of Patrick Corish, with a large cast of contributors, in the late 1960s and on into the 1970s, as A history of Irish Catholicism. It was in many volumes, each with many fascicles—but by the time it was complete the first sections were dated and no one seems to have a complete set of fascicles! Later, Corish tried again in his monograph The Irish Catholic experience: a historical survey (Dublin, 1985), but no book of 258 pages by a single author could cover such ground except as a personal narrative. So how does the present book succeed in filling this long-recognised gap?
This collection has two great strengths. First, it appreciates that no one person can follow any theme within a society for a period of over 1500 years. The need for specialisms in dealing with historical evidence dictates that any overview of this topic, however brief, needs the collaboration of many scholars. And here we have essays by various specialists on topics that they have made their own over the last few decades. The result is well-written overviews by John Watt on ‘The Irish church in the Middle Ages’—although it might have been more accurately titled ‘the Irish churches in the later Middle Ages’. The Reformation period is covered by similarly well-written surveys by Brendan Bradshaw and Colm Lennon—in each case we get the fruit of much learning and of their book-length works presented in small compass. The period between 1691 and 1800 is dealt with by Hugh Fenning, while ‘The Catholic Church in Ireland in the age of the North Atlantic Revolution, 1775–1815’ is covered by Dáire Keogh; and as before we have experts surveying their specialist fields. The same can be said of the essays by Donal Kerr on the time of O’Connell (the book is dedicated to Dr Kerr’s memory: he died in May 2001); Emmet Larkin on the changes at parish level after the Famine; David Doyle on the Catholicism of those who emigrated from Ireland; and Thomas Bartlett with ‘an appraisal reappraised’ of church–state relations between 1923 and 1970—this last essay is the most stimulating in the book.
The work’s second strength is that it is devoted to Christianity in Ireland rather than Catholicism, for if the notion of Catholicism is used prior to the mid-sixteenth century—as in Corish’s works mentioned above—then the result is an exercise in marking out territory and the ‘true’ ownership of memories. Here that trap is avoided and there is an effort to observe that Christianity has several dimensions in Ireland after the Reformation. There are fine essays by Raymond Gillespie on ‘The religion of the Protestant laity in early modern Ireland’; by Finlay Holmes on Presbyterianism; by Dudley Levistone Cooney on Methodism; and by Kenneth Milne on the Church of Ireland since 1921. It must be said, however, that in the case of the essays on Presbyterianism and Methodism all that could be attempted were the briefest of ‘whistle-stop tours’; and for all their good work, this reviewer thought that their greatest value in this collection was as place-markers that an understanding of those traditions is part of the experience of Christianity in Ireland.
Now to the work’s weaknesses. This book began life as a conference in Italy, and this is all too evident in that there are many gaps in what it presents and several specialist essays that do not belong to a survey. The notion of 23 snapshots from Irish Christian history is one thing, a survey is quite another—and this is the former rather than the latter and should be presented as such to the book’s potential buyers. If you take it as snapshots in an album then you will not be disappointed by the specialist article by Mary Ann Lyons on ‘Lay female piety and church patronage in late medieval Ireland’, but unfortunately this is the only such essay in the book and the only one which explicitly examines women’s experience of Christianity or the question of actual piety as distinct from formal ecclesiastical styles presenting piety. Another specialist essay is that by Declan Downey on ‘The Irish contribution to Counter-Reformation theology in continental Europe’. It is out of place in this series of surveys and the author has tried to study the history of the ideas and the political context of those ideas in too small an ambit. The essay has suffered as a result; but still it is the only point in the whole collection where the history of ideas as a discipline is acknowledged as one necessary for a historical study of a religion.
A second weakness relates to the division of the work, for the editors are clearly interested in the modern period (five essays cover more than a millennium, while seven are devoted to the twentieth century). This means that the more foreign the world which the historian must enter, and the more complex our sources, the more summary is the treatment. The two essays by Alfred Smyth—the only author who contributes more than one essay—then compound this situation in that they present the material with little more than a nod to what has happened in scholarship in the last two decades. The opening chapter on Patrick not only does not take recent scholarship seriously but represents the traditional view of a single great missionary (plus named assistants) without any hint of the problems inherent in anything written on the fifth century in the British Isles. His second chapter on ‘The golden age of early Irish monasticism’ approaches the question, in its title, of whether it is myth or reality, but without the hermeneutic tools which are necessary to address such a question in any area of religious history. The third essay on ‘The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity’ by Marie Therese Flanagan suffers from the same weaknesses. By conflating the concept of peregrinus with ‘missionary’ she falls back into a view of the Irish on the Continent that bedevilled much writing on the topic prior to the 1970s, while a failure to take on board the methods of historical theology means that developments in the history of ideas are presented as simply variations on dating the foundations of houses. Given that the early medieval period is arguably the most interesting period of Irish religious history, the book’s overall showing in this area is poor. At the other end of the book’s time-line there are three essays which, although fine pieces of work in themselves, are hard to justify in a work of history. The first is chapter 21, by the eminent Irish theologian Michael Hurley, on ecumenical work in Northern Ireland since the 1960s. This is a reflective and thought-provoking piece that should give some troubled sleep to the leaders of each religious denomination on the island, but it is not a piece of history writing for all that. Equally, the essays by James Donnelly and Noel Barber are fascinating reflections on Christianity in Ireland today and tomorrow, but they cannot come under the heading of history. One suspects that the original conference held in Varese, Italy, in 1999 had as a working theme: Christianity in Ireland, understanding it through its past. This is a worthwhile aim, but it should not be put forward as a historical overview. Lastly, in a work where there has been an attempt to cram in so much and where notes have been kept to a minimum (46pp), there is a rather silly 34-page ‘chronology of Irish history’ which gives such firm dates as 432 for Patrick’s arrival sine commentario! This is an undergraduate exercise (of doubtful utility) that got seriously out of hand, and it detracts from the many excellent papers in the volume.
So does this volume fill the need for a study of the impact of the Christian religion on the inhabitants of Ireland? The concise answer is no. However, it is not the weakness of any individual paper—many are excellent—nor of planning the right collection of scholars: the failure results from a lack of attention to some of the fundamental questions inherent in the enterprise. Foremost is the lack of recognition that any narrative about religious history carries with it not just the problems of a national narrative but the whole issue of religious identity, and how religious identity becomes a key marker of overall group identity. Only by addressing this question, whether one addresses it as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’, can one mark off one’s creation of a narrative history from any possible set of facts which might be the elements of that narrative. Several writers here were aware of the problem—and some chose to write explicitly from an ‘insider’ perspective—but nowhere was the problem formally addressed.
Second, the nature of ‘church history’ is more awkward than that of any of the other factors in a society (with the exception of the history of law) given the history of ‘church history’, which in the hands of Eusebius, Orosius, Gregory of Tours, Muirchú, Bede, or any number of others—including scholars such as John Ryan, whose work is frequently referred to here—was a species of apologetics. One of the great methodological changes in historical scholarship has been among those who study the history of the Christian religion and have moved beyond the ‘church history’ model, but this revolution does not appear to have attracted much notice from several authors here. Just as there was no explicit statement about the nature of the narrative that was being produced (essential in the historical study of a living religion), neither was the rationale for having a history of Christianity discussed. While individual historians might forswear such discussions as unnecessary ‘chatter about hermeneutics and method’, their dismissal does not remove the questions but merely answers them ambulando without reflection. Related to this are such questions as what model of history should unite the contributions to a larger work on religion in Ireland or demarcate studies one from another. Should one approach the topics from the standpoint of organisational history (the most common approach here), from the perspective of religion as an element in society forming the shared imagination and identity of a group (seen in several essays), or as an aspect of cultural history (touched on by a few writers here)? And what is the correct place in an overall history for the more specific methods of historians of religion, historians of ideas and, lastly, practitioners of historical theology? These methodologies are strikingly absent in this book. This absence is best seen in that it is not clear from one writer to another what is meant by ‘Christianity’. For most it is an organisation, an institution, a factor in society: ‘the church’. For some it is a religious system, and for others it is a display screen for changes in Irish society. But the problematic questions about how religious systems relate to the societies in which they are found are not addressed, and consequently the complexity inherent in posing such questions to the past is ignored. Given the complexity of the religious history of Ireland, any successful history will need to consciously employ all these methods, and only by carefully orchestrating them will a more rounded picture of the past emerge.
Finally, the collection’s subtitle, ‘Revisiting the story’, calls for some comment. The use of ‘story’ here is not that of any narrative such as that which a group of historians sharing many ideas in common might create. This is the use of the word ‘story’ in its current meaning in some Catholic catechetics, where ‘revisiting the story’ (in the sense of making a narrative out of a selected sequence of events from the Old and New Testaments) is seen as an act of being initiated, adopting an identity, and growing in a life of religious faith. Story in this sense relates to a notion of history as the medium of salvation, and Christians share in this ‘salvation history’ through sharing the story. In this one bit of confusion can be glimpsed so many of the problems that beset a history of Christianity in Ireland: is the writing of that history a ‘story’ that those who share it can revisit, or is it an attempt to understand the foreign country of the past? Each approach has its integrity, each will need much labour by skilled workers, but it would be as well to make the objective clear. In this book, the collection revisits the story, but several of the contributors are barely aware of this larger process.

Thomas O’Loughlin


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