Ireland

Pre-Christian Ireland was a Celtic land of tribal institutions, Druidic influences, and pagan worship, especially of the oak, the ash, and the yew tree. The island had escaped the ravages and the benefits of Roman invasion. There were in Ireland Christians from an early age, such as Kieran of Cape Clear Island. Palladius* was sent in 431 to minister to the Irish who were believers in Christ; but the establishing and development of the Christian Church was largely the work of Patrick,* and the church he founded developed in isolation from the Western Church (see Ireland, Church of). Its monasteries were the main centers, and its abbots exercised a wide influence in learning and art. Saints like Finnian of Clonard (d. c.589) and Comgall* of Bangor at home, and Columba* and Columbanus* abroad, made famous the name of the Irish Church.

This period of brilliance ended disastrously with the Danish invasions that ravaged the island for more than three centuries before their defeat by Brian Boru at Clontarf in 1014. But the land still disunited was poor soil for Christian progress, and the days were dark during Anglo-Norman invasions that began in 1170. Though the conquest by the Anglo-Normans was never complete, the pope's recognition of the sovereignty of Henry II in 1172 was the death knell of the independent Celtic Church,* and the dividing of the church into a majority section that accepted oversight from Rome and a minority section which was largely the church of the ruling classes and continued as the Church of Ireland.*

The policies of reformation for the Church of England adopted and enforced by Henry VIII were applied to Ireland with equal tactlessness and with the same disastrous results. In 1537 the king was declared to be head of the church in Ireland, and the submission to Roman authority was forbidden. The gap between native Irish and Anglo-Norman widened. Reformation was identified with English law, and the people were drawn to Roman supervision as never before. Indeed, Romanism and patriotism became almost synonymous from that time.

A new element was introduced in the early seventeenth century when English and Scottish settlers were planted in Ulster to replace the native Irish who had been hostile to the English rule, and to develop the land by their industry. For some years their religious life was directed by godly Anglican bishops like Ussher of Armagh, Echlin of Down, and Knox of Raphoe. But the Scots in particular looked to their homeland for ministers, and eminent preachers like Brice, Cunningham, Blair, and Livingstone served them well. The coming of a Scots army to Carrickfergus in 1642 to quell a bitter rebellion led to the organizing of a presbytery by the army chaplains, and from this there has grown the strong, virile Presbyterian Church in Ireland. This church submitted to a period of stern testing after the Restoration in 1660. It had been largely committed to the Scottish Covenants of 1638 and 1643. Following the Revolution Settlement of 1690, a small remnant adhered to the Scottish Covenants and still exists as the Reformed Presbyterian Church* of Ireland.

The Secession from the established church in Scotland had its effect in Ireland. For about a century the original Presbyterians, the synod of Ulster, and the Secession Synod worked side by side in Ireland, but a felicitous union in 1840 formed the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The influence of Arianism affected Presbyterianism in Ireland. The synod of Ulster in 1721 by a large majority affirmed its belief in the essential deity of Christ, and called for a voluntary subscribing of the Westminster Confession of Faith.* The minority who were unwilling to subscribe subsequently became the synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

Two other vital factors affected Christianity in Ireland. The first was the vigorous impact of the ministry of John Wesley.* He preached in many parts of Ireland, and while his influence was greatest where English settlers were most numerous, the cause he fostered has been permanently established throughout Ireland, Methodism today makes a big contribution to the spiritual, educational, and cultural life in both Northern Ireland and Eire. The second and very important factor was the revival of religion in 1859. There had been earlier evidences of the special working of the Holy Spirit, particularly among the Presbyterian settlers in County Antrim in 1625, but the 1859 revival was wider in its scope and deeper in its effects. Most of the branches of the Protestant Church received benefit from the movement.

The onward progress of Christianity in Ireland has been closely identified with its political life. The outstanding politicians in every age have been closely connected with some branch of the church. As a general rule, Roman Catholics have been nationalist and republican in their outlook, while the Protestant population has sought to maintain the link with Great Britain. This strong division in political sympathies has produced much bitterness and tension, but it has also led to a deeper involvement in political life by the churches.

Ireland has made a significant contribution to missionary work throughout the world. From the days of Columba in the sixth century until the present time, thousands of missionaries of every type of ecclesiastical attachment have taken the Gospel to many countries.

J.S. Reid, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (3 vols., 1833); J. Godkin, The Religious History of Ireland (1873); W.D. Killen, Ecclesiastical History of Ireland (1875); T. Olden, The Church of Ireland (1892); W.A. Phillips (ed.), A History of the Church of Ireland (3 vols., 1933-34); R.P. McDermott and D.A. Webb, Irish Protestantism Today and Tomorrow (1945); T.J. Johnston, J.L. Robinson, and R.W. Jackson, A History of the Church of Ireland (1953).