History of the Diocese of Derry

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 8

History of the Diocese of Derry, Henry A. Jefferies and Ciaran Devlin
(Four Courts Press, hardback £19.95) ISBN 18512824901

Religious Renewal and Reform in the Pastoral  Ministry of Bishop James Doyle of Kildare and Lieghlin, 1786-1834
,Thomas McGrath
(Four Courts Press, £35) ISBN 1851823719

Politics, Interdenominational Relations and Education in the Public Ministry of Bishop James Doyle of Kildare and Lieghlin, 1786-1834
, Thomas McGrath
(Four Courts Press, £35) ISBN 1851823727

Archdiocese of Armagh, Monsignor Raymond Murray
(Editions du Signe) ISBN 274680039X

Oracles of God, The Roman Catholic Church and Irish Politics, 1922-37, Patrick Murray
(University College Dublin Press, pb £19.95, hb £42.95) ISBN 1900621282

Piety and Power in Ireland 1760-1960, Essays in Honour of Emmet Larkin, Stuart J. Brown and David W. Miller
(Institute of Irish Studies & University of Notre Dame Press, £25) ISBN 0853897433

John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland, John Cooney
(O’Brien Press, hardback £25) ISBN 0862785944

History of the Catholic Diocese of Dublin
, James Kelly & Daire Keogh
(Four Courts Press, £29.95) ISBN 1851822488

Vocationalism and Social Catholicism in Twentieth Century Ireland
, Don O’Leary

(Irish Academic Press, £39.95) ISBN 0716526670

Peter L. Berger, the distinguished sociologist, edited a volume in 1999 entitled The Desecularisation of the World—Resurgent Religion and World Politics. His essay is strikingly revealing and reflects the ideas of a social scientist prepared to admit that his theory of secularisation was wrong: ‘As I like to tell my students, one advantage of being a social scientist, as against being, say, a philosopher or a theologian, is that you can have as much fun when your theories are falsified as when they are verified’. Berger is refreshingly candid when he states that he contributed to the literature which took the following simple idea at the heart of ‘secularisation theory’—modernisation necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals—and he writes, ‘it is precisely this key idea that has turned out to be wrong’. He believes it false to hold to the assumption that we live in a secularised world: ‘The world today…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever’. He admits that the relationship between ‘religion and modernity is rather complicated’—and much more complicated than the confident secularisation theorists of the 1960s ever realised. Modernisation has, in some cases, ‘provoked powerful movements of counter-secularisation’. Even when secularisation has occurred at the societal level, religion continues in the lives of individuals, and sometimes with surprising political results.
Berger is candid, and refreshingly so. However, the title of the collection, The Desecularisation of the World, is somewhat unreconstructed. It does not reflect Berger’s frankness. Rather, it suggests that the secularisation theorists actually were right in their analysis. The world, or sections of it, had gone through a process of secularisation and the resurgence of religion at the end of the twentieth century was the result of a counter-thrust. Hence, a hesitancy—unlike Berger—among scholars to admit that secularisation theory ‘is essentially mistaken’.
Ireland was always a difficult case study for the secularisation theorist. Refuge was taken in the proposition that the country was unique in Western Europe. But there were also other troublesome areas, too, which deserved explanation, namely the Basque country, northern Portugal and parts of Belgium and France. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s brought further discomfort to those who believed that modernisation had killed off religion in Europe. The opening up of the former Soviet Union and the democratisation of its satellite states revealed religion to have had an enduring quality.
In the less gifted reflection of popular journalism, Ireland was often viewed from abroad by visiting ‘firemen’ as a backward, church-ridden, obsessively religious society—north and south—awaiting for its salvation the messianic process of modernisation. Ireland received a visit in the early 1950s from an American journalist and anti-Catholic writer, Paul Blanshard, who wrote The Irish and Catholic Power. It is, regrettably, much more widely known than an infinitely better book published a few years later, Jean Blanchard’s The Church in Contemporary Ireland.
Paul Blanshard’s work conformed to the prevailing political correctness of the time and confirmed stereotypes of the Irish. With its un-Derrida-like title, John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland, adopts the Blanshard thesis. John Cooney, however, had the benefit of access to state archives, private papers and a number of McQuaid’s own files. It is a work that has taken years to research and write, but, in many ways, it has failed to take full advantage of the insights which the new archival material provides. It crudely portrays McQuaid as the major obstacle to the development of a modern state where the Catholic church would cease to exercise a dominant influence over government. Cooney provides the reader with a reheat of the Blanshard thesis with its strong, implicit sympathy for ‘secularisation theory’.
The Cooney treatment of McQuaid stands in marked contrast to the profile of the archbishop provided by Deirdre McMahon in James Kelly and Daire Keogh’s, The History of the Catholic Diocese of Dublin. This volume sets a very high historical standard. The three essays by McMahon, Maurice Hartigan and David C. Sheehy provide examples of how the history of Catholicism in twentieth century Ireland ought to be written, based, as all three essays are, on fine archival scholarship.
Patrick Murray’s Oracles of God: the Roman Catholic church and Irish politics, 1922-37 is a further welcome addition to the growing body of specialist monographs on church-state relations during the years which witnessed the foundation of the Irish Free State and of Northern Ireland. The strength of this text is based on its extensive use of ecclesiastical archives. There are occasions when one would wish that the author gave more extensive citation of other secondary sources and monographs on which he has relied, but that may have been due to the strictures of an unenlightened editorial policy. Leaving down this 493-page volume, no reader will be left in doubt about the complexity of the role of religion, and of religious institutions, in the formation of the Irish Free State and of Northern Ireland.
Don O’Leary’s Vocationalism and Social Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Ireland provides yet another model of how to write about the influence of religion and of the Catholic church in Irish society. Although very different in style and approach from that of Murray, the author helps provide a cultural and political context in which the Catholic church operated in Ireland between the 1920s and the 1950s. It also includes an analysis of the intellectual life and contributions of leading lay Catholics who were active trying to shape the direction of Irish society. This text, in turn, casts Archbishop McQuaid in a different context. His relationship with leading lay intellectuals is traced in great detail with the aid of significantly new archival material.
Having read O’Leary, Murray and Kelly/Keogh, this reader has swiftly come to the conclusion that the study of the past—particularly of the role of the Catholic church—will be best conducted in a reflective, scholarly atmosphere away from the whiff of grapeshot. All three volumes have added to our understanding of a complex area of Irish history that has remained under-researched for far too long.
The reason for such a dearth may in part be explained by the widespread support up to very recently for secularisation theory that removed the mystery and complexity from the study of religion/church and society. However, that flowering of such scholarship in Ireland predates the recent realisation that the theory of modernisation was flawed. All of the above rely upon the use of traditional historical methodology. All grapple with the concept of ‘a Catholic modernity’. There is nothing mutually contradictory in the terms although their juxtaposition may appear incongruous to certain readers who have been persuaded by the thesis put forward by Steve Bruce in his provocative work, Religion in the Modern World. It is worthwhile, however, examining the counter-thesis in José Casanova’s Public Religion in the Modern World and Charles Taylor’s essay, ‘A Catholic Modernity?’ in a volume edited by James L. Heft (Oxford University Press, 1999).
The debate on modernity has long been a central part of intellectual exchanges in the United States. Scholarship in this country might benefit from a familiarity with the works mentioned above and also with Philip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity: Catholic higher education in the twentieth century and David J.O’Brien’s Public Catholicism.
Professor Emmet Larkin has dedicated a lifetime to exploring the history of the Catholic church in Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here is a scholar who knows the two worlds of scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic. His work has acted as a bridge between academia in the United States and Ireland and he has worked hard to build strong professional connections between the two countries. His lifetime of scholarship is celebrated in a series of essays edited by Stewart J. Brown and David W. Miller, Piety and Power in Ireland 1760-1960.
His long-time friend, Lawrence J McCaffrey has written a personal memoir outlining Professor Larkin’s pioneering role in the founding of the American Conference for Irish Studies and in the development of Irish historical and literary studies in the United States. This essay is a generous and deserved tribute to the historian who has done most to bring the writing of Irish history in the area of church-state relations to a new level of scholarship.
Here I must acknowledge a personal debt. As a prospective post-graduate at UCC, I was disappointed at being turned down by a somewhat conservative panel of historians to write a study of the labour leader, Thomas Johnson. That was in 1970 when the Johnson papers were already open to scholars in the National Library. In searching for an alternative ‘acceptable’ subject, I read James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, 1876-1947. This set me on the path to research in two areas—the history of the Irish trade union and labour movement and the study of the Catholic church in twentieth century Ireland. Larkin’s work on the controversial labour leader was most challenging. His thesis was formulated in a way that challenged and encouraged further work on the subject. Moving on to doctoral studies, Professor Larkin’s work on the Catholic Church in the twentieth century again opened up new avenues to be explored. His studies of the church in the nineteenth century, based on rich archival holdings, pointed to the existence of similar but as yet unused primary sources for the twentieth century. Over twenty five years later, the growing body of work on the Catholic church in the twentieth century only reveals the extent of the task before the next generation of scholars.
Larkin’s Devotional Revolution thesis is reviewed extensively in this volume. The original formulation has been much debated—and that has been the strength and the courage of Larkin’s professional approach. He has been bold, and not a little provocative, in the manner in which he has chosen to formulate his cardinal ideas. Professor Joe Lee has contributed an essay on the Larkin thesis on the birth of the modern Irish state. He writes of the ‘exhilarating shock’ on first reading that ‘In the seven short years between his taking up the combined leadership of the Land League and the home rule movement in 1879 and the introduction of Gladstone’s first home rule bill in 1886, Parnell created the modern Irish state’. Many other historians have also been so shocked, but not sufficiently to be left without the power of reflection and analysis. The pungency of the Larkin formulations has, as Joe Lee points out, resulted in very lively debate and provoked strong counter-argument. Through scholarly debate, it is sometimes possible to arrive at a synthesis. But usually the debate simply continues.
It is difficult, therefore, when teaching Irish history to refer to the Larkin thesis. There are, in fact, many Larkin theses and there will be more to come. Larry McCaffrey tells us that although Larkin is now over seventy, his intellectual energy and curiosity have not been diminished by minor physical disabilities. He continues to add new material and interpretations to his lectures, counsels undergraduate and graduate students, supervises seminar papers and dissertations, prepares papers and lectures for academic conferences and pubic forums, when called on to do so offers advice to the ACIS executive committee, and researches and writes his multi-volume history of Irish Catholicism in the nineteenth century. He continues to spend part of each summer in diocesan and religious order archives in Britain, Ireland and Rome. The quality of the scholarship in this collection of essays, written in his honour, is a fitting tribute to Emmet Larkin and to his work.  His own reflections on the content of the volume will be worth hearing and reading.
There is only space to mention in passing the two fine volumes by Thomas McGrath on the pastoral and public ministries of Bishop James Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin, 1786-1834. McGrath has contributed very actively to the Devotional Revolution debate. His study of Bishop Doyle is a major contribution to the historiography of the early nineteenth century.
The rapid development of the study of diocesan history is a reflection on the importance and the standing of the place of history in the Irish Catholic intellectual tradition. Many bishops are to be congratulated for having made the resources available to place their diocesan archives on a solid professional footing. Armagh and Dublin are two leading examples.
The scholarly fruits of such a policy are to be seen in the volume edited by Henry A. Jefferies and Ciaran Devlin: History of the Diocese of Derry from Earliest Times. This must be set beside the edited work on the history of the Catholic diocese of Dublin. Monsignor Raymond Murray has added to this growing list of diocesan histories with his Archdiocese of Armagh: a history. This is produced in a more popular format together with a range of impressive colour illustrations and photographs. It is a rewarding read.
These books point to the growth over the past ten years in the study of the history of religion/churches in Ireland. The Irish scholarly tradition is very strong on administrative history and the study of church-state relations. But there are many new areas of specialisation which deserve to be addressed. It will be a welcome sign to see a study on Ireland such as Robert A. Orsi’s Thank You, St Jude: women’s devotion to the patron saint of hopeless causes and The Madonna of 115th Street: faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. Ruth Harris’s Lourdes: body and spirit in the secular age might well have resonance for Irish scholars. Professor James Donnelly’s book on Marian devotion in Ireland, to be published in the next few years, may well serve as a model for future research.
Ireland has certainly undergone significant and rapid social, cultural and religious change over the past twenty years. Secularisation theory has been used to predict the demise of organised religion on the island. But, as Peter Berger has so candidly acknowledged, the decline of organised religion on a societal level ‘is not necessarily linked to secularisation on the level of individual consciousness…It is possible, of course, to reject any number of modern ideas and values theoretically, but making this stick in the lives of people is much harder’.
Until recently the study of religion/churches has never been central to the concerns of many Irish historians. God forbid, that the study of religion in Irish society will now become academically fashionable, if not trendy.

Dermot Keogh


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