The Church Among Two Nations

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1998), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 6

The Church Among Two Nations 1The conventional image of the diocesan church in late medieval Ireland is one of decay and decadence. One historian posited a degree of disorder ‘not far short of [the] total breakdown of organised religion in that…country’. However, a series of recent studies is revealing a very different picture: a church endeavouring to meet the pastoral needs of its laity in a systematic and effective manner. This brief survey examines the situation in the parishes of Armagh, a diocese which encompassed the north of the Pale as well as central Ulster. How well did diocesan clergy serve congregations from the two ‘nations’, Old English and Irish?

The two nations

In the later middle ages the county of Louth was dominated by gentry of Anglo-Norman descent (later known as the ‘Old English’) whose tower-house residences still dot the landscape and bear witness to their virtual monopoly of economic and political power in the countryside. These lords gave preferential access to the larger tenancies to peasants of English descent and culture. Together with the urban oligarchs, their counterparts in the boroughs, they promoted the English crown’s authority in the county. They volunteered their services in local government, to enforce English common law and to defend English lordship from assaults from the Ulster Irish. They gave Armagh inter Anglicos its ‘English’ character and ambience.
Within County Louth the majority of the inhabitants were Irish. Indeed, the parliament of 1465 observed that across the Pale Irish people ‘exceed greatly the English people’. The relationships between these two communities may, as Art Cosgrove recently suggested, have been analagous with those pertaining today in Northern Ireland where ‘two different communities can exist side by side, can mix socially, trade with one another, occasionally even intermarry, and yet remain with quite distinct identities’.
North of County Louth was that portion of the archdiocese which was termed Armagh inter Hibernicos in the registers. It encompassed the eastern part of the extensive lordship of Tyrone. Conn O’Neill, its lord from 1519 to 1559, ruled a population which was, with the exception of a small minority in Armagh city, exclusively Irish. Yet, Conn O’Neill was related to the great Earl of Kildare and, in part, owed his position as lord of Tyrone to the earl’s support. This reflected a symbiotic relationship which existed even at the highest levels of the two nations. Nonetheless, there continued to be some conflict between them. They competed with each other for possession of the marchlands to the north and north-west of the Pale ditch. In the early years of the reign of Henry VIII a tide ran in favour of the Old English, though the English resurgence was reversed somewhat from the late 1520s.

The parishes

The parochial system across the archdiocese of Armagh reflected the variations in physical geography and socio-economic conditions. On the flat, fertile lowlands of County Louth, particularly in the well protected district to the south and east of the Pale ditch, there was a well developed agricultural economy bolstered by a number of boroughs and villages. This economy formed the financial basis of a dense network of pastoral care centres. In 1544 there were as many as sixty-five churches and chapels in this area—a decade earlier there had been several more with resident priests to meet the pastoral needs of Armagh inter Anglicos. In the rural deaneries of Drogheda and Ardee the average size of area serviced either by a parish church or chapel was little more than 2,000 acres. In such small, intimate communities the local priest would have been a familiar figure, and he would have been well placed to minister to his parishioners, day after day, throughout the year.
Inter Hibernicos, to judge by 1544 procuration lists, there were forty five parish churches, an average parish size of almost 14,000 acres. Sources from the eve of the Ulster plantation suggest that there may also have been an additional thirteen chapels, implying a figure in excess of 10,000 acres for the average area serviced by a either a parish church or chapel. However, these churches and chapels were concentrated on the fertile lowlands of the Lough Neagh basin—where the bulk of the population was concentrated—while on the extensive mountainous rim of the basin there were very few, since the sparse population was insufficient to finance a priestly ministry on such marginal lands.
It is often imagined that the church in Gaelic Ireland was somehow ‘monastic’. In fact, there was only one Augustinian priory and two very small convents in Armagh inter Hibernicos. There was a Franciscan friary in Armagh city, and two small Third Order communities in the rural deanery of Tullyhogue. These religious communities played a modest role in supplementing the pastoral care afforded by the parish clergy, but they could never have taken the place of the priests ministering in the parishes, nor was that their role. The priests who staffed the churches inter Hibernicos were often drawn from local erenagh families. Erenaghs, who were essentially the heads of clans who were tenants on certain episcopal lands, were the successors of the ancient heads of religious communities in Early Christian Ireland. Their sense of tradition and attachment to the church generally produced priests who were conscientious churchmen.
In Armagh inter Anglicos most of the rectors and vicars (i.e. the holders of benefices) were of English descent in the first half of the sixteenth century, though in 1518 about a third of them were Irish. Generally the Irish priests were relegated to the most poorly remunerated benefices, like the vicarages of Kildemock or Clonkeen which were worth only £1-1s-1d and £1-7s-2d per annum respectively. Of critical importance for the ministry of the church inter Anglicos, though their significance has hardly been acknowledged, were the parish clergy who had no benefices. Almost two thirds of the churches and chapels in Armagh inter Anglicos were entrusted to the ministry of unbeneficed curates. Furthermore, curates also served the cures of benefice holders who were either members of the archiepiscopal administration, or pluralists enjoying the incomes of more than one benefice at the same time. It is extremely difficult to identify unbeneficed clergymen in late medieval Ireland. However, it seems clear that the great majority of the priests who exercised a cure of souls in the parishes of Armagh inter Anglicos, beneficed or otherwise, were actually Irish. Many of the Irish priests bore surnames which suggest that they were members of erenagh clans living in Armagh inter Hibernicos, or in the neighbouring diocese of Dromore which was often in the custody of the late medieval primates.
Medieval priests were not normally trained in a seminary but, having acquired an education for themselves in a grammar school or in a studium particular in Gaelic districts, clerical students learned the mechanics of their vocation as an apprentice to a priest. It was a system liable to produce variable results, depending on the qualities of the individual student and mentor. This was the practice throughout Christendom, and meant that the non-graduate clergymen of Armagh, regardless of their nationality, were probably as well-trained as any of their counterparts across Europe. Graduate priests were very few in Armagh in the early sixteenth century and, with the exception of the vicars of Drogheda and Ardee, they were normally found in the archiepiscopal administration rather than in parish cures. In any event even the graduates had not formally trained to be priests at university.
The nationality of the priests cannot be shown to have had any discernible effect upon the quality of their ministries in Armagh. One might speculate that the priests drawn from and/or educated by an erenagh clan may have favoured forms of piety and religious customs with a more ‘native’ hue than those favoured by Old English priests, though such speculation would be extremely difficult to substantiate. On the other hand, Irish clergymen were inevitably influenced by English and continental forms of piety through books, study abroad, and discourse with Old English clerics and lay people. An interesting indication of the accessibility of continental piety in an Irish context is the fact that Cathal O’Reilly, lord of East Breifne, was given a penance by Primate Cromer which involved the recitation of the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a book which was very popular in early Tudor England.

The rural deaneries

In the early sixteenth century the parishes of Armagh were grouped together into five rural deaneries, though Ardee, Drogheda and Dundalk had no rural deans at that time and had largely become defunct except as ‘constituencies’ for the annual elections of collectors of the royal subsidies. In these southern rural deaneries the archdeacon of Armagh was the primate’s chief subordinate. He visited the parishes regularly to ensure that the church buildings were maintained in good order. He checked to see that the parish clergy carried out their pastoral responsibilities in a satisfactory manner, and he investigated whether priests or people had infringed any of the church’s canon laws or the synodal statutes of the ecclesiastical province of Armagh. He tended to refer such disciplinary matters to the consistory or diocesan church court. The archdeacon also executed mandates given to him by the archbishop, to conduct inquisitions whenever a benefice fell vacant, to institute and induct the incoming rector or vicar, or to carry out any other tasks entrusted to him.
The archdeacon of Armagh was rarely seen in the parishes inter Hibernicos in the sixteenth century. In the rural deanery of Tullyhogue there was a rural dean who exercised some modest supervision over the parish clergy there, and who executed any mandates given to him by the archbishop. Any minor disciplinary matters uncovered by the rural dean in the course of ruridecanal visitations could be referred by him to the official, or judge, of the ruridecanal church court. Grave matters were the preserve of the archbishop’s consistory or diocesan church court. There was no rural dean for the rural deanery of Orior, but the powers of that office were exercised by the dean of Armagh’s cathedral, aided by an official who helped to maintain discipline among the clergy and laity.

The dean and chapter

The primary responsibility of the dean and chapter of Armagh was to ensure that the fabric of the cathedral was well-maintained, and that the liturgy was celebrated in a manner appropriate for the mother-church of the archdiocese. Although Armagh’s cathedral was in a poor state at the start of the sixteenth century and suffered from a devastating fire in 1511, under Dean Eoghan McCawell (1505-1549) the edifice was renovated, and soon after his death the cathedral was described by Lord Chancellor Cusack as ‘one of the fairest and best churches in Ireland’.
The archbishop had to work with the dean and chapter in managing the archiepiscopal estates. All leases of the see lands and the tithes attached to the archbishop’s mensa had to be endorsed with the seal of the dean and chapter. The seal was kept under three locks, the keys to which were held by the dean, chancellor and precentor of Armagh. The archbishop also needed the endorsement of the dean and chapter in order to unite benefices, a practice which was sometimes necessary to alleviate the impoverished state of clergymen. The dean, the three other dignitaries and most of the canons in Armagh diocese were Irishmen throughout the later middle ages. They took care to ensure that Irish priests remained in the majority in the capitular body, despite the efforts of Archbishop Mey and possibly other primates to create an Old English majority. No doubt they were well aware of the situation in Dublin where Old English clerics had enacted statutes to prohibit Irishmen from being members of St Patrick’s Cathedral chapter.
Armagh’s cathedral chapter not only ensured that no new canons were appointed at their expense, they also demanded the right to be consulted before the archbishop promoted any man to a benefice inter Hibernicos. When Primate Mey failed to follow this long-standing tradition the dean and chapter successfully sued him in Rome. Nonetheless, the archbishops enjoyed greater authority when it came to appointing men to benefices inter Hibernicos than they did inter Anglicos where the right to present men to benefices was chiefly enjoyed by religious communities, and by a number of the gentry.
In every diocese it was important that the bishop and his cathedral chapter worked together for the well-being of the diocese. In Armagh the differences in nationality and the political divisions made it even more imperative that the archbishops of Armagh treated the dean and chapter as partners, and not merely as subordinates, to ensure that the ministry of the church among the two nations functioned as effectively as possible.

Parsonstown church, County Louth. (OPW)

Parsonstown church, County Louth. (OPW)

The archbishop

The archbishop had the power to ordain men to the priesthood, to institute men into benefices, thereby giving them responsibility for the cure of souls in a parish, and to induct them, thereby giving them legal possession of the manse and glebe and the revenues of the parish. Yet the freedom of the archbishop to choose the men who served the parishes in Armagh inter Anglicos was very limited indeed. In truth, apart from a couple of benefices in his own gift, he could do little more than either endorse or veto the candidates presented to him by the patrons of the benefices. Normally, he accepted the presentees. The archbishop enjoyed greater freedom, at least de jure whatever about the practicalities on the ground, to collate priests to benefices inter Hibernicos. On the other hand, papal appointments and deprivations of benefice holders were extremely rare in the Pale thanks to the operation of the English common law compared with the situation inter Hibernicos, though even there it was not so common as is generally assumed.
Every year, in late June or early July, the clergy of Armagh assembled for the annual diocesan synods. The division of the archdiocese was institutionalised by the convening of two separate synods: one for the clergy inter Anglicos which was generally convened in St Peter’s church, Drogheda, and another for the clergy inter Hibernicos which seems normally to have been convened in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. The synodal records show the archbishops and their deputies employing the synods to promote modest reforms, to address matters of concern within the diocese, and as opportunities for what would now be termed ‘in-service training’.
The archbishops of Armagh ensured that the clergy were visited regularly, apparently as often as once a year. The visitors could meet the parish clergy and the representatives of the laity either in their separate parishes or collectively in the chief church in each of the five rural deaneries. Parish visitations took a great deal of time and the archbishops tended to employ commissaries or deputies for such detailed inspections of the parishes. However, pre-Reformation primates made a point of regularly visiting the cathedral city of Armagh in person. Unfortunately, only one 1546 visitation report (inter Hibernicos) survives for the sixteenth century.
The visitors, most especially the primate, could deal in person with minor failings uncovered during the course of the visitations. For serious sins, however, defendants were charged before the consistory court of Armagh for trial and punishment by the archbishop or by the official principal, his most senior judge. The church courts investigated allegations of serious sins committed by priests or lay folk. If the charges were proved the official imposed some form of penance. For scandalous sins, like adultery or perjury or for fighting inside a church, the punishment could be a very public one. Some penitents had to stand near the altar in their parish church dressed in white and holding a two pound candle for the duration of a Sunday Mass. A sinful priest could be removed from office. Private individuals could bring suits to the church courts about marriage problems, disputes about wills, slander or for breach of contract. Armagh’s consistory court dealt with all such matters from the parishes inter Anglicos in quite an effective manner.
The secular authorities recognised the church courts as an important instrument for promoting social order, and for resolving many disputes which might otherwise have resulted in disorder and violence. If ecclesiastical sanctions alone failed to secure the repentance of a recalcitrant sinner then the church courts could signify the culprit to the secular authorities for arrest and imprisonment. Undoubtedly the support of the secular authorities considerably enhanced the effectiveness of the church courts inter Anglicos.
The church courts in Armagh inter Hibernicos encountered in the brehon law a less bureaucratic and elaborate judicial system. Nonetheless, the church courts also expected the support of the Irish secular authorities. They were accustomed to call upon the ruling O’Neill to act as the church’s ‘secular arm’. Unfortunately, for the primates, the O’Neills could sometimes be the worst offenders, particularly when it came to encroaching upon the rich lands of the archiepiscopal manor of Armagh. A striking illustration of the dilemma which the archbishops could find themselves in is afforded by the records of the consistory court for 16 February 1534. Early that day Primate Cromer formally called upon Conn O’Neill, lord of Tyrone, to act as the church’s ‘secular arm’ in a case under appeal to Rome. Later that same day, however, the primate issued a solemn warning to O’Neill that he and his men would be excommunicated and their lands put under an interdict unless they made restitution for despoiling the archiepiscopal manor at Armagh, and for wounding its custodian. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the church courts of Armagh were less effective in the parishes inter Hibernicos than in County Louth. In the 1546 visitation several of the parish clergy were found to have had concubines. Given the difficulties experienced by the church courts in enforcing so basic a requirement as priestly celibacy, effective court actions against lay people for any but the most ‘mortal’ of sins seems unlikely. The apparent weakness of the church courts inter Hibernicos as instruments of Christian discipline prompts the suggestion that religion over much of late medieval Ireland may already have acquired something of a ‘voluntary’ character, which might explain how the Catholic church survived disestablishment in Ireland following the 1560 parliament.

Templetown church near Carlingford, County Louth. (OPW)

Templetown church near Carlingford, County Louth. (OPW)


The church in late medieval Armagh was quite vigorous on the eve of the Tudor reformations. Inter Anglicos there were extensive programmes of church building, extension, and ornamentation. The surviving wills, the many chantries and the foundation of a confraternity at Ardee as late as 1534 reflect strong lay commitment to the church in the parishes.
Although the archbishop’s authority was exercised most directly and effectively in Armagh inter Anglicos, his authority inter Hibernicos was universally acknowledged in theory and was reasonably effective in practice, if less so than in the southern parishes. There was some new building inter Hibernicos also, together with the re-emergence of some parishes to improve the provision of pastoral care from the mid fifteenth century. The 1546 visitation report shows that at least basic levels of pastoral care provision were attained in the parishes inter Hibernicos. The structures were certainly in place to ensure that the pastoral needs of the laity were satisfied indicating that the late medieval church in Armagh functioned well in spite of the tensions between the two nations.


Remarkably, the unity of the church in the archdiocese was not broken by the early Tudor reformations. Not until after the parliament of 1560 does one find the first indications of the diocese splitting along ethnic lines, with Catholic archbishops in possession inter Hibernicos and an Anglican prelate attempting to create a reformation church inter Anglicos. In the event the survival of the Catholic Church as the church of the Irish and Old English, and the success of Protestant reformations among the peoples of Britain, led to the creation of two parallel archdioceses in Armagh, each of which is identified with a distinct ‘nation’ to this day.

Henry A. Jefferies teaches history at Thornhill College, Derry.

Further reading:

J. Watt, The church in medieval Ireland (Dublin 1972).

H.A. Jefferies, Priests and prelates of Armagh in the age of reformations, 1518 -1558 (Dublin 1997).

H.A. Jefferies, ‘The diocese of Dromore on the eve of the Tudor reformations’ in L. Proudfoot (ed.), Down: history and society (Dublin 1997).

H.A. Jefferies ‘Derry diocese on the eve of the plantation’ in G. O’Brien (ed.), Derry/Londonderry: history and society (Dublin 1998).


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