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Roman Catholicism in Ireland: Wikis


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St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh. Seat of the Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland.

The Catholic Church in Ireland is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, the Christian Church under full communion with the pope, currently Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church in Ireland, which has it seat in Armagh, as does the Church of Ireland, serves Catholics in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and is under the spiritual leadership of the Pope, the Roman Curia, and the Conference of Irish Bishops. 87.4% of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland[1] and 43.8% of the citizenry of Northern Ireland[2] were baptised Catholic as infants.

Christianity had come to Ireland by the early 5th century, and was spread through the works of early missionaries such as Palladius, and more famously Saint Patrick.



The early Church practised what is now called Celtic Christianity, a variant suitable for local conditions. A more regular diocesan system developed after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111, and following the Norman conquest of Ireland in 1171 a greater number of foreign-born prelates were appointed. A confusing but defining period arose during the Tudor reconquest of Ireland in the 1500s, with monarchs alternately for or against Papal supremacy. In line with most Europeans at the time, most Irish people remained Catholic.

The effect of Regnans in Excelsis (1570) caused an unpleasant internal divide, with a Roman Catholic majority ruled by an Anglican minority that introduced penal laws which were finally reformed in 1829. Thereafter Roman Catholicism became a primary mainspring in modern Irish nationalism, and has defined Irish identity to a great extent.

Popular traditions

Alongside the church itself, many Irish folk traditions persisted for centuries as a part of the church's local culture. Holy relics are[citation needed] thought to possess curative powers (through the intercession of the saints), colourful "patterns" (processions) in honour of local saints persisted into the 1800s, and in 1985 thousands gathered to pray during the Moving statues phenomenon. Marian Devotion is a central element, focused on the shrine at Knock, where it is claimed the Virgin Mary appeared in 1879. Recent feasts and cults such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1856), and the concepts of martyrology are still important elements. Respect for mortification of the flesh has led on to the veneration of Matt Talbot and Padre Pio, and claims of miracles are investigated.


The Church is organized into four provinces; however, these are not coterminous with the modern civil provincial divisions. The church is led by four archbishops and twenty-three bishops; however, because there have been amalgamations and absorptions, there are more than twenty-seven dioceses.[3] For instance, the diocese of Cashel has been joined with the diocese of Emly, Waterford with Lismore, Ardagh with Clonmacnoise. The bishop of Galway being also Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora. There are 1087 parishes, a few of which are governed by administrators, the remainder by parish priests. There about 3000 secular clergy—parish priests, administrators, curates, chaplains, and professors in colleges.

There are also many religious orders which include: Augustinians, Capuchins, Carmelites, Fathers of the Holy Ghost, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Marists, Order of Charity, Oblates, Passionists, Redemptorists, and Vincentians. The total number of the regular clergy is about 700. They are engaged either in teaching or in giving missions, but not charged with the government of parishes.

In addition there are two societies of priests founded in Ireland, namely St Patrick's Missionary Society with its headquarters in County Wicklow and the Missionary Society of St. Columban who are based in County Meath.

Affiliated groups

As well as numerous Orders such as the Dominicans, there are many Irish Catholic-ethos laity groups including the:

Other organization with Irish branches:

Missionary activity

Initially inspired largely by Cardinal Newman to convert the colonized peoples of the British Empire,[citation needed] after 1922 the church continued to work in healthcare and education what is now the Third World through its bodies such as Concern and Trócaire. Along with the Irish Catholic diaspora in countries like the USA and Australia, this has created a worldwide network, though affected by falling numbers of priests.

In the Irish Free State and Republic (1922–present)

Political map of Ireland.

The Roman Catholic Church has had a powerful influence over the Irish Free State since its inception in 1922, that has diminished in recent decades. The clergy's influence meant that the Irish state had very conservative social policies, banning, for example, divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography as well as encouraging the censoring of many books and films. In addition the Church largely controlled the State's hospitals, schools and remained the largest provider of many other social services.

With the partition of Ireland in 1922, 92.6% of the Free State's population were Catholic while 7.4% were Protestant.[4] By the 1960s, the Protestant population had fallen by half. Although emigration was high among all the population, due to a lack of economic opportunity, the rate of Protestant emigration was disproportionate in this period. Many Protestants left the country in the early 1920s, either because they felt unwelcome in a predominantly Catholic and nationalist state, because they were afraid due to the burning of Protestant homes (particularly of the old landed class) by republicans during the civil war, because they regarded themselves as British and did not wish to live in an independent Irish state, or because of the economic disruption caused by the recent violence. The Catholic Church had also issued a decree, known as Ne Temere, whereby the children of marriages between Catholics and Protestants had to be brought up as Catholics. After the end of World War II, the emigration rate of Protestants fell and they became less likely to emigrate than Catholics - indicating their integration into the life of the Irish State.

Sex abuse scandals

Several reports detailing cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of hundreds of children while in the pastoral care of dozens of priests have been published in 2005-2009. These include the Ferns Report and the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and have led on to much soul-searching in the Irish press about what changes may be needed in the future within the church.

Influence on Irish society

Republic of Ireland


In the Irish Free State, now Ireland, the church had a great influence on public opinion as it had supervised public education for about 90% of the population since at least the 1830s. Historically it was associated with the Jacobite movement until 1766, and with Irish nationalism after Catholic emancipation was secured in 1829. The church was resurgent between 1829 and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869-71, when its most significant leaders included Bishop James Doyle, Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop MacHale. The hierarchy supported the democratic and mainly non-violent Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s, and its offshoots, and the policy of Irish Home Rule in 1886-1920. It did not support the Irish republican movement until 1921, as it espoused violence, in spite of support from many individual priests, and opposed the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war. Despite this relative moderation, Irish Protestants were concerned that a self-governing Ireland would result in "Rome Rule" instead of home rule, and this became an element in (or an excuse for) the creation of Northern Ireland.

The church continued to have great influence in the newly formed Free State. Eamon de Valera's 1937 constitution, while granting freedom of religion, recognised the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church". Major popular church events attended by the political world have included the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and the Papal Visit in 1979. The last prelate with strong social and political interests was Archbishop McQuaid, who retired in 1972.


After independence in 1922, the Church remained heavily involved in health care and education, raising money and running institutions which were staffed by Catholic Orders, largely because the new state remained impoverished. Its main political effect was to continue to run schools where religious education was a major element. The hierarchy opposed the free public secondary schools service introduced in 1968 by Donogh O'Malley, in part because they ran almost all such schools. Some have argued that the church's strong efforts since the 1830s to continue the control of Catholic education was primarily to guarantee a continuing source of candidates for the priesthood, as they would have years of training before entering a seminary.[5]

Health care

From 1930 hospitals were funded by a sweepstake (lottery) with tickets frequently distributed or sold by nuns or priests[citation needed]. On health matters it was seen as unsympathetic to women's needs and in 1950 it opposed the Mother and Child Scheme.

Morality and censorship

The Church helped reinforce public censorship and maintained its own list of banned literature which influenced the State's list.[6][7] Divorce allowing remarriage was banned in 1924 (though it had been rare), and selling artificial contraception was made illegal. The Church's influence slipped somewhat after 1970, impacted partly by the media and the growing feminist movement. For instance the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 showed the ability of the Catholic Church to force the government into a compromise situation over artificial contraception, though unable to get the result it wanted; contraception could now be bought, but only with a prescription from a doctor and supplied only by registered chemists. In the 1983 Amendment to the constitution introduced the constitutional prohibition of abortion, which the Church supported, though abortion for social reasons remains illegal under Irish statute law. However the Church failed to influence the June, 1996, removal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce. While the church had opposed divorce allowing remarriage in civil law, its canon law allowed for a law of nullity and a limited divorce "a mensa et thoro", effectively a form of marital separation.

In Northern Ireland

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 acted as the constitution of Northern Ireland, in which was enshrined freedom of religion for all of Northern Ireland's citizens.[8] Here Roman Catholics formed a minority of some 35% of the population, which had mostly supported Irish nationalism and was therefore historically opposed to the creation of Northern Ireland.

The Roman Catholic schools' council was at first resistant in accepting the role of the government of Northern Ireland, and initially accepted funding only from the government of the Irish Free State and admitting no school inspectors. Thus it was that the Lynn Committee presented a report to the government, from which an Education Bill was created to update the education system in Northern Ireland, without any co-operation from the Roman Catholic section in education. Instead, in regard to the Roman Catholic schools, the report relied on the guidance of a Roman Catholic who was to become the Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Education — A. N. Bonaparte Wyse.

We hope that, notwithstanding the disadvantage at which we were placed by this action, it will be found that Roman Catholic interests have not suffered. We have throughout been careful to keep in mind and to make allowance for the particular points of view of Roman Catholics in regard to education so far as known to us, and it has been our desire to refrain as far as we could from recommending any course which might be thought to be contrary to their wishes.[9]

—Lynn Commission report, 1923

Many commentators have suggested that the separate education systems in Northern Ireland after 1921 prolonged the sectarian divisions in that community. Cases of gerrymandering and preference in public services for non-Catholics led on to the need for a Civil Rights movement in 1967.

Vatican II

In both parts of Ireland Church policy and practice changed markedly after the Vatican II reforms of 1962. Probably the largest change was that Mass could be said in vernacular languages and not in Latin, and in 1981 the Church commissioned its first edition of the Bible in Irish.

Privilège du blanc withheld

Privilège du blanc allows the queens (or queen consorts) of European Catholic monarchs to wear white during a papal audience; this has not yet been extended to Irish female presidents such as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, as Ireland is a republic.

See also


  1. ^ CIA FActbook, Ireland
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ M.E.Collins, Ireland 1868-1966, (1993) p431)
  5. ^ E. Brian Titley "Church, State and the control of schooling in Ireland 1900-1944"; McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, New York 1983.
  6. ^ Curtis, Maurice (2008). The Splendid Cause. The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Dublin: Greenmount Publications/Original Writing. ISBN 978-1-906018-60-3. 
  7. ^ Curtis, Maurice (2009). Influence and Control: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Lulu. ISBN 978-0-557-05124-3. 
  8. ^ His Majesty's Government (23/12/1920). "The Constitution of Northern Ireland being the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, as amended (Clause 5)". Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1956. Retrieved 2007-02-13. 
  9. ^ Morrison, John (1993). "The Ulster Government and Internal Opposition". The Ulster Cover-Up. Northern Ireland: Ulster Society (Publications). p. 40. ISBN 1-872076-15-7. 

Further reading

  • Curtis, Maurice (2008). The Splendid Cause. The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Dublin: Greenmount Publications/Original Writing. ISBN 978-1-906018-60-3. 
  • Curtis, Maurice (2009). Influence and Control: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Lulu. ISBN 978-0-557-05124-3. 
  • Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland: A Critical Appraisal, ed. by John Littleton, Eamon Maher, Columbia Press 2008, ISBN 1856076164
  • Brian Girvin: "Church, State, and Society in Ireland since 1960" In: Éire-Ireland - Volume 43:1&2, Earrach/Samhradh / Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 74–98
  • Tom Inglis: Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland, Univ College Dublin Press, 2nd Revised edition, 1998, ISBN 1900621126
  • Moira J. Maguire: "The changing face of catholic Ireland: Conservatism and Liberalism in the Ann Lovett and Kerry Babies Scandal" In: feminist studies. fs, ISSN 0046-3663, j. 27 (2001), n. 2, p. 335-359
  • Report on abuse by the Catholic Church in Ireland

External links

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