Protestantism In Ireland

Chapter VII --Protestantism In Ireland

THE religious dawn which rose upon other countries in the sixteenth century brought only a few scattered gleams to Ireland. In its isolation, this island had scarcely felt the movement which elsewhere was tending to the breaking up of the mediæval system. There was no spirit of criticism or enlightenment to stir unrest and beget receptivity for new teachings. The way, too, in which such teachings were proffered, was not calculated to conciliate favor. They came at the point of an English sword, and so incited the hostility which was felt toward the rule of England.

Politically, Ireland was in a very disordered condition at the opening of the sixteenth century. English rule within the Pale was none too strong and settled; outside of the Pale, the shadow of an existence which it maintained was due largely to the feuds between the Irish themselves. "During the first thirty years of the sixteenth century the annals of the country which remained under native rule record more than a hundred raids and battles between clans of the north alone." 1 Green, History of the English People, ii. 174. An Irish Romanist declared in 1515: "There is no land in this world of so long continual war within itself, nor of so great shedding of Christian blood, nor of so great robbing, spoiling, preying, and burning, nor of so great wrongful extortion continually, as Ireland." 2 W. D. Killen, Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, i. 397.

Religious disorder went parallel with the political. Church edifices fell into ruins. Bishops often had more interest in party broils than in the care of their flocks. Preaching was mostly neglected, except on the part of the begging friars, and their ministrations were attended with little fruit. Speaking of the secular clergy, Archbishop Brown said, in 1535: "They be in a manner as ignorant as the people, being not able to say mass, or pronounce the words, they not knowing what they themselves say in the Roman tongue." 3 Richard Mant, History of the Church of Ireland, i 115.

During the reign of Henry VIII., especially under the powerful ministry of Thomas Cromwell, much was done toward establishing a real supremacy of English civil authority over Ireland. But in the line of religious innovations the government was less successful. Ignorance, inertia, and bondage to tradition were too general to allow of reforming zeal in any class of the people. They were content with the old order of things They rendered, indeed, at first an indifferent recognition of the King's ecclesiastical supremacy, and acceded to the decree for the dissolution of the monasteries. A further attempt, however, to reform religious customs and rites was met with sullen opposition, and inclined the people to retract the concessions already made. So far as any change was wrought, it was almost wholly mechanical, the result of the external pressure brought to bear.

The more earnest Protestantism which gained the ascendency in England during the reign of Edward VI. made little impression upon Ireland. Decrees were indeed sent across the Irish Channel. In 1551 it was ordered that the English Liturgy should be used. This order, however, war mostly discarded, and the reign of Edward VI., like the preceding, showed the futility of attempting to convert a nation by edict.

The baseless structure which had been reared fell, as a matter of course, as soon as governmental support was withdrawn. On the accession of Mary, the old religion assumed full sway. The reign of Elizabeth served to extend over Ireland again the laws of the English Church, but it failed to establish in the greater part of the country anything more than the merest shadow of Protestantism. Every element of an efficient ecclesiastical establishment was wanting, as appears from this testimony of Sir Henry Sidney in a letter to Queen Elizabeth, in 1575: "Upon the face of the earth, where Christ is professed, there is not a Church, your Majesty may believe, in so miserable a case: the misery of which consisteth in these three particulars: the ruin of the very temples themselves; the want of good ministers to serve in them when they shall be re-edified; competent living for the ministers being well chosen." 1 Mant, i. 299. A few years later Edmund Spenser used equally strong terms, and described the great body of subordinate clergy as lacking in every requisite for their vocation.

During the reigns of James and Charles, Protestantism was considerably strengthened in Ireland. A higher average of intelligence and religious industry was maintained by the clergy. The Plantation of Ulster introduced, in the former reign, a noteworthy accession to the Protestant element in the North of Ireland, though at the expense of embittered, feeling on the part of the dispossessed natives. There was, however, no such increase of strength as to secure a real supremacy to the Protestant establishment. Edicts of James for the banishment of the Romish priests were almost totally disregarded. A greater appearance of subjection to the government scheme was brought about under the iron rule of Strafford, in the years following 1633. But be failed to reconcile Romanists to the Establishment, and chilled the enterprise of the most zealous element among Protestants by his insistence upon strict conformity.

The work of Strafford did not long survive his presence in Ireland. In 1641 occurred a great uprising against English rule and the Protestant religion. Thousands were ruthlessly slaughtered in the first months of the insurrection, and other thousands made to die of ill-treatment. The devastations of civil war followed, until at length the sword of Cromwell avenged the massacre and reinstated English authority.

While legislation, followed up in some instances by force, appears as the chief means employed for the conversion of Ireland, there was a better element in the enterprise which should not be overlooked. Here and there we have record of a distinguished laborer who sought to reach the hearts of the Irish through patient evangelical tuition. Such a laborer was John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, near the close of the reign of Edward VI. Such also was Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of the same diocese, who inaugurated in 1573 the translation of the New Testament into Irish, a task which was completed in 1602. As furthering the chosen method of these evangelists, Edmund Spenser deserves honorable mention. A different history would have been written for Ireland had the following precepts of his, penned near the end of the sixteenth century, been diligently carried out from the start: "Religion should not be sought forcibly to be impressed into them, with terror and sharp penalties, as now is the manner, but rather delivered and intimated with mildness and gentleness, so as it may not be hated before it be understood. And therefore it is expedient that some discreet ministers of their own countrymen be first sent over amongst them, which by their meek persuasions and instructions, as also by their sober lives and conversations, may draw them first to understand, and afterwards to embrace, the doctrine of their salvation." Mant, i. 327, 328. James Usher, who became Archbishop of Armagh just before the death of James I., was an advocate and exponent of this moral and rational style of propagandism. It is true that he believed in the legal restraint of Popery; but he attributed a much higher efficacy to earnest and pains-taking indoctrination, and added to the fame acquired through his immense learning a reputation for convincing and persuasive discourse. A contemporary of Usher, William Bedell, Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, secured an unusual measure of esteem by his fidelity, piety, and kindly bearing. The Irish pronounced him the best of the English bishops, and a Romish priest is said to have exclaimed at his grave, "Would to God that my soul were with Bedell!"