The Transformation of Traditional Religion in Ireland

  • Samantha A. Meigs
Part of the Early Modern History: Society and Culture book series

Abstract

How can one correlate the tradition of an old, highly orthodox Gaelic church with the stereotyped images of an Irish peasantry riddled with ignorance and superstition, and all but lapsed into paganism by the eighteenth century? Behind these conflicting images lies a serious misinterpretation of the evidence by many historians who have simply swallowed whole the prejudices of the early modern observers of Irish society, without looking at the broader context. Even otherwise sound scholarship, such as that produced by John Bossy, Emmet Larkin and S. J. Connolly, has been skewed by their acceptance of the old notion that the Irish peasantry of the early modern period were ignorant and heterodox in their religious observance. Bossy tends to overemphasize Irish practices (such as wakes) of borderline Tridentine orthodoxy persisting through the seventeenth century; Larkin underplays achievements of Tridentine Ireland before the disasters of the 1690s; and Connolly often overlooks evidence of medieval Gaelic orthodoxy.1 Yet evidence exists that the Irish peasants retained a clear grasp of a fundamentally orthodox Catholic tradition until the disasters of the 1690s — once the testimony of outside observers is properly decoded.2

Keywords

Europe Stratification Lime Gravel Burial 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 1.
    See John Bossy, ‘The Counter-Reformation and the People of Catholic Ireland,’ Historical Studies 8 (1971): 155–69;Google Scholar
  2. Emmet Larkin, ‘The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850–1875,’ American Historical Review 87 (1972): 625–52;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. and most recently S. J. Connolly, Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    A useful corrective to the interpretations offered by Bossy and Larkin can be found in Thomas C. McGrath, ‘The Tridentine Evolution of Modern Irish Catholicism, 1563–1962; A Re-examination of the “Devotional Revolution” Thesis,’ in Irish Church History Today, ed. Reamonn Ó Muiri (Armagh: Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, 1990), 84–99. McGrath’s analysis is brief on the earlier period, but his emphasis on the need to examine the problem of Tridentine Catholicism in terms of the longue durée makes excellent sense.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    For the best analysis of the terminology and concepts associated with ‘superstition,’ see William Monter, Ritual, Myth and Magic in Early Modern Europe (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  6. Dieter Harmening, Superstitio: Überlieferungs und theoriegeschichte Untersuchungen zur kirk-lichtheologishen Aberglaubensliteratur des Mittelalters (Berlin: Schmidt, 1979), 33–42 is also useful on this subject.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    See K. T. Hoppen, ‘The Hartlib Circle and the Origins of the Dublin Philosophical Society,’ Irish Historical Studies 20, no. 77 (March 1976): 40–8.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    For a fascinating study of changing seventeenth-century mentalités see Nicholas Canny, The Upstart Earl: A Study of the Social and Mental World of Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Although the book concerns the experiences of Robert Boyle’s father in an earlier time-frame, it is useful in helping understand how an individual like Robert Boyle could logically come out of the Irish setting.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 10.
    Henry Piers, ‘A Choreographical Description of the County of West-Meath Written in A.D. 1682,’ in Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, ed. Charles Vallencey (Dublin: Thomas Ewing, 1770), 21.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Certainly there was a correlation between the Lughnasa celebrations and the quarter-day observances of the church. See Máire McNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962),Google Scholar
  11. introduction, and Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland (Cork and Dublin: Mercier Press, 1972), 167–77.Google Scholar
  12. It is also interesting to note that the Highland Scots also performed rituals to bless the cattle during Lammas; for a discussion of some of these customs see John Gregorson Campbell, Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 1902; repr., Yorkshire: EP Publishing, 1974), 277–9.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    T. Crofton Croker, ed., The Tour of the French Traveller M. de La Boullaye LeGouz in Ireland, A.D. 1644 (London: T. and W. Boone, 1837), 38–9.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    Jorevin (Jouvain) de Rocheford, ‘Description of England and Ireland after the Restoration,’ in Illustrations of Irish History and Topography, ed. C. Litton Falkiner (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1904), 415.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    Peter O’Dwyer, ‘Irish Medieval Spirituality,’ in Irish Spirituality, ed. Michael Maher (Dublin: Veritas, 1981), 61.Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    Laurence F. Renehan, Collections of Irish Church History, ed. Daniel McCarthy (Dublin: Warren, Richardson and Son, 1861), 433.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    Patrick F. Moran, History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin Since the Reformation (Dublin: James Duffy, 1864), 271.Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Malachy Hartry, Triumphalia Chronologica Monasterii Sanctae Crucis in Hibernia, ed. Denis Murphy (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1891), 127.Google Scholar
  19. This particular practice sounds quite similar to many of the German ‘holy water’ rituals described by Robert Scribner in ‘Ritual and Popular Religion in Catholic Germany at the Time of the Reformation,’ in Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London and Ronceverte: The Hambledon Press, 1987), 33–4.Google Scholar
  20. 31.
    Anselm Faulkner, ‘Father Ó Finaghty’s Miracles,’ Irish Ecclesiastical Record 109 (December 1965): 351.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Patrick Corish, The Catholic Community in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Dublin: Helicon, 1981), 50.Google Scholar
  22. 35.
    Roderic O’Flaherty, A Choreographical Description of West or h-Iar Connaught, ed. James Hardiman (Dublin: Irish Archaeological Society, 1846), 98. See also above, Chapter 2, n. 55.Google Scholar
  23. 36.
    Edmund MacCana, ‘Irish Itinerary,’ trans. and ed. William Reeves, Ulster Journal of Archaeology 2 (1854): 48.Google Scholar
  24. 37.
    (John Synnott), ‘An Account of the Barony of Forth, in the County of Wexford, Written at the Close of the Seventeenth Century,’ ed. Herbert F. Hore, Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, n.s., 4 (1862): 61.Google Scholar
  25. 38.
    Solomon Richards, ‘Particulars Relative to Wexford and the Barony of Forth by Colonel Solomon Richards, 1682,’ ed. Herbert F. Hore, Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, n.s., 4 (1862): 90.Google Scholar
  26. 40.
    An interesting article which emphasizes the role of perception in the recording of customary practices is A. Laurence, ‘The Cradle to the Grave: English Observation of Irish Social Customs in the Seventeenth Century,’ Seventeenth Century 3, no. 1 (1988): 63–84. It covers a wider range of behavior patterns than just religious rituals, but the overall discussion is relevant to this theme.Google Scholar
  27. 45.
    John Lynch, Cambrensis Eversus seu Potius Historica Fides in Rebus Hibernicis Giraldo Cambrensis Abrogata, trans. and ed. Matthew Kelly (Dublin: For the Celtic Society, 1848), 1: 82.Google Scholar
  28. 48.
    Edmund Campion, Two Bokes of the Histories of Ireland, Compiled by Edmunde Campion, ed. A. F. Vossen (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1963), 19.Google Scholar
  29. 49.
    Barnaby Rich, A New Description of Ireland (London: Printed for Thomas Adams, 1610), 13.Google Scholar
  30. 54.
    For an interesting discussion of the history of wakes and especially the customs associated with nineteenth-century observance see Sean Ó Suilleabhain, Irish Wake Amusements (Cork: Mercier Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  31. 55.
    See Eleanor Hull, ‘The Ancient Hymn-Charms of Ireland,’ Folk-Lore 21 (1910): 417–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. and the same author’s review of Douglas Hyde’s Religious Songs of Connaught in Folk-Lore 18 (1907): 347–8 in which she specifically discusses the difficulty of categorizing these charms.Google Scholar
  33. 56.
    This point is well made both by Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 3–5Google Scholar
  34. and Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), passim.Google Scholar
  35. Keith Thomas in his foundational study, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Scribner’s, 1971) also discusses the subject at some length. See especially pp. 177–211.Google Scholar
  36. 57.
    Robin Flower, ‘The Revelation of Christ’s Wounds,’ Béaloideas 1 (1928): 38–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 58.
    The most exhaustive study of this particular subject is James Todd, ‘On the Power Said to Have Been Possessed by the Irish Hereditary Bards, of Rhyming Rats to Death, or Causing Them to Migrate by the Power of Rhyme,’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1 st ser., 5 (1850–3): 355–66.Google Scholar
  38. 61.
    Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  39. and Jeanne Favret-Saada, Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) offer some interesting Continental perspectives on the interrelationship between religious belief and word magic during the early modern period. Such studies strongly indicate many continuities in belief across much of Europe.Google Scholar
  40. 62.
    John J. Ó Riordan, Irish Catholics: Tradition and Transition (Dublin: Veritas, 1980), 50.Google Scholar
  41. 64.
    Although his thesis is somewhat overstated, Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1924) still provides the best glimpse of the eighteenth-century transformation of the Old Irish gentry and aes dána, as they became socially part of the peasant classes, but remained aware of the old rights and duties associated with their erstwhile position as the Gaelic political and intellectual elites. The poets especially moved in an anomalous social sphere in which they were reduced to trying to earn a living by agricultural labor, but still sought to maintain the respect once granted them for their learning and poetic skills. There were many of these dispossessed elites, but the poignancy of their position is perhaps best exemplified by the poet Daibhid Ó Bruadair, slowly starving to death but refusing to sell his few prized Gaelic manuscripts.Google Scholar
  42. See John C. MacErlean, ed., Duanaire Daibhid Uí Bruadair (Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1910), 1: lxv–lxvi.Google Scholar
  43. 65.
    For a discussion of the decline of the Gaelic language during this period see Daniel Corkery, The Fortunes of the Irish Language (Dublin: C. J. Fallon for the Cultural Relations Committee, 1954), chapter 8.Google Scholar
  44. 66.
    An interesting account of the political implications of the Gaelic language can be found in Tomas Ó Fiach, ‘The Language and Political History,’ in A View of the Irish Language, ed. Briain Ó Cuív (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1969), 101–11.Google Scholar
  45. 67.
    John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: John Hyde, 1727), 70–1.Google Scholar
  46. 69.
    An interesting discussion of the persistence of this saint’s cult can be found in Proinsias Ó Ceallaigh, ‘Gobnait Naofa Bhaile Mhuirne,’ Feasta 18 (1951): 21–2. I am grateful to Seán Ó Carnaigh for calling this reference to my attention.Google Scholar
  47. 70.
    An interesting ancient application of this idea is explored in Howard Merony, ‘Irish in the Old English Charms,’ Speculum 20, no. 2 (April 1945): 182.Google Scholar
  48. 71.
    Jean Delumeau, Catholicism Between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation (London: Burns & Oates, 1977).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Samantha A. Meigs 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samantha A. Meigs
    • 1
  1. 1.University of IndianapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations