The Protestant Reformation in Ireland 1590-1641 (new edition), Alan Ford. (Four Courts Press, hb £37, pb£17) ISBN 1-85782-314-X, 1-85182-282-8

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

It is a pleasure to see Alan Ford’s impressive study of the early Stuart church in Ireland reprinted. Four Courts Press is to be highly commended for undertaking this venture, and for producing a book whose format is infinitely superior to that of the edition of 1985. Dr Ford has not altered his original text to any great degree. However, he presents a second preface—actually a significant chapter—in which he reviews much of the work done in his field in recent years. The bibliography has also been updated.
Alan Ford’s subject is the creation of the Church of Ireland, and the emergence of a settler community with a distinctly ‘Irish’ Protestant identity, between 1590 and 1641. His work is solidly based upon a relatively rich body of official records and other documents. In separate chapters on the Church of Ireland in the Pale and Munster, the West, and Ulster he traces the formation of a Protestant parochial ministry from the end of the sixteenth century. The ministers were, overwhelmingly, drawn from England and Scotland, with Trinity College Dublin contributing a modest quota of preachers, chiefly for service in the Pale. The early Stuart church in Ireland had many vacant benefices, and a surfeit of cathedral offices, to attract British clergymen who could not secure promotion in their native lands. A minority of these ministers were ‘runagates’, disreputable men rejected by the English church. More important, though, in determining the character and identity of the new church were the significant numbers of puritan clergy who came to Ireland because the established church here was more tolerant of their extreme Calvinism than was the Church of England.
Dr Ford’s analysis of the distinctive theology of the early Stuart church in Ireland is detailed and compelling. Compared with its mother church, he shows that the Church of Ireland was more extreme in its Calvinism and in its anti-Catholicism. This is well reflected in the 1615 Articles. They defined the nature of predestination in ‘a rigorously Calvinist way’; they were drawn up in such a way as ‘to accommodate puritan opinions’; and finally, they identified the Pope with Antichrist. Furthermore, the predominant controversial theology of the established church in Ireland ‘created Protestant solidarity by demonising Catholics’.
The Church of Ireland in Ulster is characterised as ‘an intrinsically colonial church’. The same could be said of the established church throughout Ireland during this period, though the process of protestantisation and anglicisation took place more gradually elsewhere for want of Protestant clergy and British parishioners. Plantations and immigration, not conversions, provided the early Stuart church with almost all of its ministers and congregations in Ireland. The church’s mission to the Irish is categorised as a ‘failure’.
The church’s commitment to anglicisation, political and cultural, is offered as a key reason for the failure of the Church of Ireland, together with ‘the immense practical difficulties’ it faced within itself, and the very formidable challenge posed by the Catholic church. However, some of its ministers, when trying to understand why their preaching was so ineffectual among the Irish, took solace from the belief that very, very few of the Irish were numbered among the ‘elect’. This version of predestinarian theology shifted the ‘onus for failure’ away from the clergymen and onto the ‘sinfulness of the (Irish) people and the reluctance of God to send his grace to them’.
Confronted by the massive scale of their failure, and beset on all sides by Catholic priests and parishioners, it seems that many Protestant ministers found in the Book of Revelations an apparent analogy of their situation in Ireland: they identified themselves with the beleaguered forces of light surrounded by the ever threatening powers of darkness. Dr Ford concludes that it is possible to discern in this period the origins of certain themes which became prominent in the Protestant tradition in Ireland: the hostility towards Irish culture, the identification of Catholicism with disloyalty, a visceral fear of the Catholic Irish population, and a determination to impose penal legislation upon Catholics.
Since the publication of the first edition of his book Dr Ford has published a number of articles on the early seventeenth century which extend and deepen his original thesis. Amanda Capern, Aidan Clarke, Declan Gaffney and John McCafferty have also published important studies which have put the early Stuart church in Ireland firmly on the ‘historical map’. Interestingly, though, Dr Ford devotes the greatest part of his second preface to discussing the Tudor reformations, and the likely reasons for their failure.
There is a striking contrast between Alan Ford’s detailed and convincing study of the early Stuart Church of Ireland, and the unsatisfactory impressionistic surveys we still depend on for much of the sixteenth century. Since the Bradshaw/Canny debate in the 1970s, progress in Irish reformation studies has been slow. Aidan Clarke made a very insightful contribution to the debate in his consideration of the practical difficulties faced by the established church during the first century of its existence. Yet more empirical research is required before confident answers to the reformation question can be ventured. Professor Bradshaw’s many studies have since been complemented by James Murray’s work on Dublin diocese, my own work on Armagh diocese and on the 1560 parliament, and by Steven Ellis’s analysis of the hitherto neglected Irish Valor ecclesiasticus, a key text for reformation studies. Our knowledge and understanding of the church and religion across much of Ireland up to 1560 remain very imperfect, yet real advances have been made in recent years.
It is clear that the early Tudor reformations made remarkably little impact upon religious affiliations in Ireland. The English administration was loath to impose the doctrinal aspects of the early reformations very rigorously in the face of widespread clerical and popular opposition, even in Dublin and the inner Pale where the Crown’s authority was quite effective. By contrast, English reformation studies show that in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI the Catholic cause in England was weakened considerably, and that foundations were laid which were to prove critically important for the success of the Elizabethan reformation.
Elizabeth’s reign witnessed the decisive struggle for the souls of the people of Ireland. In his discussion of the Elizabethan reformation Dr Ford tends to treat the Church of Ireland as being synonymous with the church already in place across Ireland in 1560. The native clergy who served in this church are variously described as conformist, crypto-Catholic or semi-Catholic, regardless of whether or not they subscribed to the oath of supremacy and used the Book of Common Prayer. In fact, the transformation of the late medieval church into the Calvinist Church of Ireland was very complex, long drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful. The established church gradually secured possession of most of the temporalities of the Irish church, but the Catholic church held the allegiance of the population at large despite a period of real difficulty in a number of towns, most especially in Dublin.
Colm Lennon’s superb study of the patricians of Dublin offers an in-depth insight into the impact of the reformation and counter-reformation on the ruling class of Ireland’s premier city. We need more of such studies, though none will match what Lennon has achieved for Dublin. Helen Coburn-Walsh’s work on Bishop Brady of Meath is another fine contribution to the study of the Elizabethan reformation in Ireland.
One would dearly wish to have Helga Robinson-Hammerstein’s thesis on Archbishop Loftus and the Elizabethan reformation published in translation.  Its relative inaccessibility leaves a gap in Ireland’s reformation historiography: not only do we not enjoy the fruits of this most important work, but until recently no one else has attempted to address the subject.  Loftus, an English Calvinist prelate, is the ‘missing link’ between the establishment of the Church of Ireland in 1560 and the period studied by Alan Ford. Developments under his episcopate in Dublin prefigured much of what happened subsequently across the rest of Ireland. Only when we know exactly why the reformation failed in Dublin—despite the preachings of a quite numerous and well-resourced Protestant ministry (some of them ‘natives’) from the middle of Elizabeth’s reign, an area where the Crown’s authority was exercised effectively, where the elites and many of the common people were self-consciously English and the much of the population was  English-speaking—will it be possible to attempt a convincing answer to the question of why the reformation failed in Ireland.
To conclude, the publication of this new edition of Alan Ford’s book is most welcome. It is a landmark study in Irish ecclesiastical history. It is certain to remain the key text on the early Stuart Church of Ireland for many years to come. A measure of Dr Ford’s achievement is that it throws into sharp relief the lack of comparable work on the Elizabethan reformation in Ireland.


Henry A. Jefferies

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