Religion and Rebellion: Historical Studies, Judith Devlin and Ronan Fanning (eds.). (University College Dublin Press, £35) ISBN 1900621037 A History of the Church of Ireland, 1691-1996 Alan Acheson (Columba Press, APCK, £25) ISBN 185607210X

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), Reviews, Volume 6

Religion and Rebellion contains the proceedings of the twenty-second biennial Irish Conference of Historians, held in May 1995. The title is not an exact description of the contents. Only a few of the essays deal with ‘rebellion’ in the usual sense of the word: violent resistance to established authority. ‘Religion, rebellion, dissent, and social protest’ would have been a more expressive, though a more cumbersome, title. F. Donald Logan’s opening essay is certainly not about armed rebellion. His subject is renegade members of religious orders in late medieval England, and he is candid enough to admit that most renegade religious left their houses ‘for reasons that are mostly elusive’. Some claimed under-age profession as a reason, others lacked a sense of vocation, and some were simply bored. Heresy and doctrinal dissent were rare, and relatively few cases involved issues of chastity. Eamon Duffy’s detailed examination of the Devon parish of Morebath during the Reformation does deal in part with the Western Rebellion of 1549, but his main concern is with passive or covert resistance to the religious changes of the sixteenth century. Morebath was a remote and isolated parish in the diocese of Exeter. Its vicar from 1520 to 1574 was Sir Christopher Trychay. Duffy argues that during the latter half of the reign of Henry VIII, ‘the communal sense of Morebath was focussed on the adornment of the parish church itself’. This ‘communal sense’ was to be broken by the Edwardian Reformation. In the early years of Edward VI’s reign the church was stripped of most of its furnishings. It is no surprise, therefore, that the parishioners were involved in the Western Rebellion, a religiously conservative cause. But the parish also supplied men for the rebellion’s suppression. Resistance in the parish was passive as well as active: parishioners concealed vestments. Morebath welcomed the Marian restoration, while renewed change under Elizabeth was accepted with reluctance. What the Reformation meant to Morebath was ‘the drastic and sudden interruption of a lush and busy piety’.
Nicholas Canny’s contribution deals with the relationship between religion and the 1641 rising. He steers a steady course between the rocks of nationalist and Marxist interpretations and the shallows of liberal ‘value-free’ accounts. He demonstrates by a close examination of the rising in Leinster that it was a ‘religious disturbance’, and ‘was intended as a pre-emptive strike against a further erosion of the already precarious position of Catholicism in Ireland’. But there were ambiguities: many of the rebels convinced themselves ‘that their actions were also intended to support the king and queen’.
Jacqueline Hill writes about the uses of biblical language and the idea of providential destiny in mid-eighteenth-century Irish Protestant patriotism, noting that little attention has been paid to the ‘purely religious aspects’ of patriotism. James Livesey’s essay seems somewhat out of place in this volume. Despite his title, ‘The sovereign as God? Theophilanthropy and the politics of the Directory, 1795-99’, theophilanthropy (one of the cults of natural religion which flourished during the French Revolution) is mentioned only on the penultimate page. Fergus D’Arcy writes about Father Thaddeus O’Malley, a Christian socialist and an early advocate of a federal solution to the problem of Anglo-Irish relations. As D’Arcy observes, his career suggests ‘an alternative possible history for Ireland in the nineteenth century’. Christopher Bayly examines religious conflict in twentieth-century India, while Paul Boyers discusses ‘Bible prophecy belief in modern American culture’. Michael Laffan’s consideration of ‘The sacred memory: religion, revisionists, and the Easter Rising’ deals briskly with ‘patriotically correct’ versions of the Irish past, and rightly notes that ‘there is no need to be anti-nationalist…most Irish historians have outgrown the need to justify Irish nationalism and the achievement of independence’. But it is a pity that he does not give more attention to the use of religious imagery by some of the participants in the rising. And it is unfortunate that he does not mention Sheridan Gilley’s important treatment of the subject. [S.W. Gilley, ‘Pearse’s sacrifice: Christ and the Cuchulain crucified and risen in the Easter Rising, 1916’, in S.W. Sykes (ed), Sacrifice and Redemption: Durham essays in theology (Cambridge 1991)]
Only three of the essays tackle a common theme: Marian apparitions in nineteenth-century Europe. David Blackbourn’s subject is the visions at Marpingen in 1876. These coincided with the Kulturkampf (Marpingen was in Prussian-controlled territory). Prussia’s reaction was hostile, and the cult provided a means for expression of opposition to the Kulturkampf. Paul Bew writes of the near-contemporary apparitions at Knock, and their relationship to the Land War He has discovered that the first recorded cure at Knock was of a daughter of P.J. Gordon, a Land League organiser. The case of Knock suggests that a ‘radical secular Republican project’ did not stand ‘outside of, and opposed to, a more mainstream Catholic nationalist project’. Bew draws comparisons and contrasts between Knock and Marpingen He observes that both events ‘occurred at moments of intense crisis for the communities involved’, but adds that ‘the State in Germany responded in a heavy-handed way whilst the UK state was largely indifferent’. Ruth Harris deals with ‘Gender and the sexual politics of pilgrimage to Lourdes’. She finds that the idea of a national pilgrimage to Lourdes originated only after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, and argues that the pilgrimage was ‘charged with political overtones’, so that ‘spirituality became a form of politics’. The best essays—notably those by Duffy, Canny, Blackbourn, and Bew—share a rejection of crudely reductionist interpretations of religious history, and a commendable readiness to treat the subject seriously.
It is over sixty years since the last academic general history of the Church of Ireland was published, a three-volume study edited by Walter Alison Phillips. The valuable collection of academic essays, edited by Alan Ford, James McGuire, and Kenneth Milne, As by Law Established (1995), was not, alas, a comprehensive treatment. And the most recent general histories—Milne’s (1966) and R.B. MacCarthy’s (1995)—are rather brief. At first sight, Alan Acheson’s A History of the Church of Ireland would appear to belong with the popular histories of Milne and MacCarthy. The impression that it was written primarily for a denominational readership within the Church of Ireland rather than for a scholarly readership is strengthened by the gratingly pious tone of the foreword by the Bishop of Down and Dromore. However, this effort has academic pretensions above those of mere popularisation. Acheson provides twenty pages of notes and bibliography. Unlike his predecessors, he does not deal with the Celtic or medieval church, thus avoiding the controversial question of continuity across the Reformation. It is odd, however, that he chooses to begin neither with the Henrician Reformation nor even in 1660 (though he does give a few pages of background on the period between the Restoration and the Williamite War). Odder still, Acheson provides no justification for starting at the end of the seventeenth century.
As to be expected from a general survey it is based mainly on secondary literature but the author fails to give current classifications for most of the few manuscript sources he cites (his excuse [p.8]?—he consulted them over thirty years ago!) which typifies his rather hit-and-miss approach to bibliographical references. Moreover, his command of the secondary literature is far from absolute. It comes as a surprise to learn that he believes that Archbishop Lord John George Beresford and Archbishop Lord Plunket ‘have been the subjects of modern biographies’ (p.15). Beresford has never received a biography, and the only biography of Plunket appeared as long ago as 1900. Even more worrying are the many omissions from the bibliography. Comparison with the critical bibliography published in Irish Historical Studies in 1993 reveals some regrettable gaps in Acheson’s reading. No mention is made of A.R. Winnett’s biography of Peter Browne (1974). He ignores Louis A. Landa’s Swift and the Church of Ireland (1954), and prefers a late-nineteenth-century biography to the standard three-volume life by Irvin Ehrenpre’s (1962-83). He makes no use of P.M H. Bell’s masterly Disestablishment in Ireland and Wales (1969), and his inadequate account of the episcopate’s role in the Irish House of Lords is innocent of any debt to F.G. James’s chapter on the subject in his Lords of the Ascendancy (1995).
No less unfortunate are the omissions and errors that arise from Acheson’s limited acquaintance with the secondary literature. He devotes almost a page to the relationship between Archbishop William King and Jonathan Swift without mentioning the lengthy struggle between them over patronage and precedence in St Patrick’s Cathedral (a subject dealt with by Landa). Since Acheson has failed to consult Sir Harold Williams’s edition of Swift’s correspondence, it is unsurprising that he believes Swift and King discontinued their correspondence between 1711 and 1716 (p.48), although Williams prints twelve letters from Swift to King and thirteen from King to Swift in the years 1712-14. Among other errors, Acheson contrives to confuse Richard MacDonnell, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin with J.C. McDonnell, Dean of Cashel (p.175). He is under the misapprehension that J.P. Mahaffy was an evangelical (p.220), when the detailed account of Mahaffy’s religious opinions in the biography by R.B. McDowell and W.B. Stanford (1971) makes it clear that he was in fact a Broad Churchman. And some of Acheson’s judgements are simply baffling. He describes Bishop John Bernard’s opposition in 1914 to the admission of women to lay parochial office as ‘politically correct’: perhaps he does not know what that expression means (p.218).

At a more general level, the work is characterised by a heavy, and at times excessive, concentration on the role of evangelicalism. This may account for his decision to devote eleven lines to the career of Archbishop Henry McAdoo (former co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) (p.236) while giving a page to one of his evangelical heroes, the late Bishop George Quin of Down and Dromore (p.240-241), a far less important figure in the history of late twentieth-century Anglicanism both in Ireland and abroad. The absence of any recent competitor in the field means that students will perforce turn to Acheson but the Church of Ireland still awaits a fresh and reliable comprehensive history.

C.D.C. Armstrong


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