Ulster Catholics

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), Letters, Letters, Volume 6

Sir,—I was very interested to read in the last issue of History Ireland of Marianne Elliott’s intention to write a book on the history of Ulster’s Catholics. Debate on this relatively neglected subject is set to be invigorated by one of the finest minds in the profession. Nonetheless, I have certain reservations.
The book is set to show that ‘throughout the ages there was a very different provincial identity in Ulster…that was already shaping a slightly different religious identity even before the Reformation’. Of course, Ulster’s age-old ‘provincial identity’ is a hoary old chestnut much loved by an older generation of amateur historians who were more influenced by current divisions than by the historical sources. I do not deny the possibility that pre-plantation Ulster may have had a distinct ‘provincial identity’. One may argue that every region has its own ‘identity’, as historical geographers are wont to do, but one must first identify the criteria by which this ‘identity’ is to be recognised. Can one verify the existence of this identity across the province, from Carrickfergus to Killybegs, from Coleraine to Cavan? Do the criteria transcend the provincial boundaries, which can be disconcertingly fluid in the works of many ‘Ulster’ historians, or are they more localised. The fact that there are some sources which are virtually unique to Ulster such as, for example, the Armagh registers, the Annals of Ulster, plantation records, may simply create the illusion of distinctiveness.
More to the point, I would suggest that too little critical study has been done to establish how the ‘religious identity’ of people in Ulster before the plantation was, or was not, different to that in any part of Ireland other than the Pale. Our knowledge of the religious history of late medieval Ulster is embarrassingly limited, and even less is known about religion in Munster and Connacht. At this time any attempt at comparison between Catholicism in pre-plantation Ulster and ‘elsewhere’ must resort to speculation bolstered by a few anecdotes in the absence of substantive primary research. My feeling is that until we have modern critical studies of the church and religion for a number of regions across Ireland it would be wise to exercise great caution in proposing that there was anything different about the religious identity of one region as against any other.—Yours etc.,

Thornhill College


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