Friday, January 19, 2018

Unreformable Ireland? The Failure of the Reformation in Ireland

What makes Ireland so interesting for Reformation studies is that it stands out as the classic exception to the general rule of ciuis regio, eius religio. Despite the endeavours of successive monarchs to extend the English Reformation to Ireland since 1534, by the end of the sixteenth century the number of Irish Protestants was reckoned by contemporaries at between 40 and 120 individuals. In Dublin, the capital of Ireland, only twenty Irish householders attended Protestant church services, and only four of those would receive communion by Protestant rites. By any criteria the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was comprehensive and absolute.

Because the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was so overwhelming it had long seemed inevitable, and historians had generally seen no need to try to explain it before Brendan Bradshaw’s exploratory essay, “Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland,” was published in 1978. However, that article prompted Nicholas Canny’s rejoinder of the following year: “Why the Reformation Failed in Ireland: une question mal posée?” Not only did Canny declare the question as misconceived, he presented a new paradigm for Irish Reformation studies. He claimed that until the 1590s the Reformation in Ireland was characterized by a “quiescent phase” during which the Irish were not bothered about the theological debates that concerned Christians elsewhere in Europe. He asserted that throughout that period they were as liable to be absorbed into the Protestant Church of Ireland as to be lost forever to the Counter Reformation. He argued that the Reformation was rejected at the fin de siècle, not for any religious reasons but because it came to be seen as merely another facet of an English government program for Ireland that was characterized by despotism, militarism, and Anglicization. Tellingly, though, it was not made clear how political alienation from English governance could suddenly have inspired a general commitment to Counter-Reformation Catholicism after more than six decades of supposed religious indifference. 

Read the rest here.
HT: Dr. Tighe

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