Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

Four Courts Press
ISBN 9781846827563

Reviewed by David Dickson

David Dickson is Professor Emeritus of Modern History, Trinity College Dublin.

Kevin Whelan is a unique figure in the Irish literary ecosystem: historical geographer, social historian, critic and public intellectual, he has been the central player in many collaborative projects over the last three decades, most notably in the Atlas of the Irish rural landscape, and he was the pivotal figure in shaping the development of ‘1798 studies’. He was interdisciplinary long before the term was used, and it is hard to think of anyone who has cast the net so widely in an effort to rethink the deep history of Ireland. His writings, while always passionate, have been marked by a forensic capacity to pick out unfamiliar patterns in familiar spaces and places or, as here, in belief systems.

The declared aim has been to construct ‘an oblique history of Ireland’ (p. xvi) by tracing religious practice and its physical legacies as a way of reordering two millennia of Irish history. This, even for Whelan, is an ambitious task. The striking cover, an ethereal seaward view across three beehive huts on Skellig Michael, sets the scene for a fast-moving, bracing and at times controversial analysis of how religious practice and religious identity have evolved over the long run, using the evidence of landscape and maps, archaeology and material culture. Whelan deploys some really arcane material along the way, and the range of sources, both primary and secondary, that he draws on is quite extraordinary. Even past masters of grand narratives on Irish land and landscape over la longue durée (Frank Mitchell, Estyn Evans, Liam de Paor or Louis Cullen) drew on far less disparate material to shape their ideas, and none has matched the superb but quite diverse interpretative maps that populate this text.

Several interlocking arguments echo through the book: that early Christianity in Ireland ‘bonded’ exceptionally well but that the dynamism and cultural richness of the church-centred society of the first millennium have been hidden in plain sight. This leads to much discussion of the origins of the parish, the architecture of the earliest churches and the coming of the communal graveyard. Then the focus is on how Gaelic Christianity was challenged by Continental church reform and, more fundamentally, by Anglo-Norman conquest, but in the long run how it adapted, triumphing in the late medieval period in the west of Ireland, with its great pilgrimage sites and profusion of friaries.

Whelan concedes that Elizabethan conquest and plantation profoundly affected the infrastructure of vernacular Catholicism, but contends that at the level of popular belief and practice it was a case of defensive adaptation (what with the proliferation of Mass rocks and temporary altars, and the revival of holy wells) and that in this adaptation the regular orders were critical, with the Franciscans far and away the most important. It is Whelan’s view that Protestant belief and practice had no chance of undermining this deeply rooted religious world and that the Reformation was in any case intrinsically bound up with the colonial project. The rival geographies of the established church and the dispossessed church are reconstructed, with some telling comparisons of church design and function.

And then came Cullenite Catholicism, convents and clerically controlled education, which is explored at length, but Whelan sees much of this as subversive of all that was vibrant and authentic in the old religion. He is dismissive of the assumption that the survival of ‘folk’ belief in an all-encompassing spirit world, in banshees and fairies, was somehow a pre-Christian hangover: ‘rather than regarding these beliefs as a superstitious residue from earlier belief systems, it is more accurate to understand them as expressing a vigorous exchange between vernacular beliefs and Catholic theology’ (p. 110). And the argument put forward by David Miller and others that the apparently low church attendance figures recorded for most of the western counties in the 1830s was evidence of the weakness of formal religion is seen here as ‘a distortion’ (p. 118).

In his treatment of the rise and fall of Catholic power in the long twentieth century Whelan is on less-contested ground, but his particular case-studies—not least the rise and decline of Rathnure, a new ‘chapel village’ in his native Wexford—are revealing. He makes some tantalising observations on the revolutionary changes in funerary practices in modern Ireland, yet emphasises the survival of the communal funeral as a distinctive marker of Irish culture.

As in much of Whelan’s writing, the advocacy is powerful and he takes no hostages. Always suspicious of church establishments and of the entwining of secular power and religious authority, he rattles quite a few Church of Ireland skeletons but has much more to say about the Presbyterian impress on the landscape. And despite some excellent material on the religious geography of Ulster, specifically on the forced Catholic exodus from the richer lowlands in the seventeenth century, his focus on conflict, disempowerment and alienation makes for a perhaps unduly bleak picture of quotidian life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Whelan implies a degree of denominational solidarity among Protestants at the local level that was very often not the case in practice. Internal disharmony could be expressed in many ways. He mentions the removal of a Celtic cross in a Protestant cemetery in Bandon in 1903 on the grounds that it was a ‘Romish’ intrusion: intriguing indeed, but this was more likely a case of ‘low church’ antipathy to ‘high church’ tendencies within the local Church of Ireland community than a sign of raw sectarianism (p. 219).

Whelan reproduces a striking photograph of a seventeenth-century Anglican church in Offaly in the early stages of collapse, taken by the late Rolf Loeber almost 50 years ago (p. 159). In its way, this image is as emblematic of the theme as the beehives on the Skelligs.


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