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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2006
Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices
From: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices(Vol. 2: Countries: A-L. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview; Country overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 514


POPULATION 3,883,159
PRESBYTERIAN 0.75 percent
METHODIST 0.13 percent


Country Overview


The Republic of Ireland, located off the northwestern coast of Europe, occupies the second largest and westernmost island of the British Isles. Shaped like a bowl, it has a low central plain ringed by limestone mountains. The republic controls all but the northeastern corner of the island, which is occupied by Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Sea separates the island from the United Kingdom to the east.

Officially known as Eire, the Republic of Ireland attained complete independence from the United Kingdom in 1949. The majority of the population is Roman Catholic. Most Protestants on the island, who are predominantly Presbyterian or Church of Ireland Anglicans, live in Northern Ireland. Religion is a powerful force in Ireland, and the split between Catholicism and Protestantism has formed the major social and economic divisions of the country.


For centuries the Roman Catholic peasantry suffered religious prosecution by the British. A new constitution in 1937, however, ended the power of the British crown and made Roman Catholicism the established religion. This caused some southern Protestants to flee to the six northern counties (Northern Ireland), where they would not be a minority, and some northern Catholics migrated south. Friction still exists in Northern Ireland between Roman Catholics who want to join the republic and Protestants who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Major Religion




Catholicism reputedly arrived in Ireland with its first bishop, Saint Patrick, in 432 C.E. In fact, Patrick was the successor to Palladius, an emissary from the Page 515  |  Top of Article Gaulish church, who died shortly after his arrival in Ireland. Pre-Christian practices and shrines were adapted to the new religion. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, Irish clerics rejected the decision by the church of Northumbria to follow Roman church customs, and by 750 the Collectio canonum hibernensis, the compilation of Irish canon law, was completed, establishing a Celtic Church that did not submit to Roman jurisdiction until the twelfth century.

Henry II of England established the lordship of Ireland in the twelfth century under the authority of the only English pope in history. Roman control of the Celtic Church was accepted at the Synod of Cashel in 1172, and the English government began appointing Englishmen to Irish dioceses. A series of apartheid-like laws followed, establishing a caste system that separated Britons and Gaels. The Tudor monarchs, who ruled from 1485 to 1603, established the kingship of Ireland and destroyed many of the monasteries. Under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), the crushing of Catholicism in Ireland was considered a "holy war." Following the final conquest of Ireland under William of Orange at the end of the seventeenth century, the anti-Catholic Penal Laws were enacted. According to the laws, should a member of a landowning Catholic family become Protestant, rights of ownership and disposal passed to the convert. Bishops and higher Catholic clergy were banished upon threat of death, and only a limited number of registered priests were permitted. The Penal Laws began to ease by the 1801 Act of Union and were abolished by the mid-1840s. Although leaders of the nineteenth-century Gaelic Revival, a movement to revive Irish culture, were predominantly Protestant, the resulting political revolution ended with Roman Catholicism being written into the 1937 constitution of independent Ireland. The church's power began to wane only in the late twentieth century.


During the Dark Ages Irish scholar-monks known as peregrini helped keep learning alive throughout Europe, founding some of the greatest seats of European scholarship. The more famous peregrini include the ninth-century theologian John Scotus Erigena; Columba (also Columcille; died in 597), who founded the monastic center at Iona, the base from which Scotland and northern England were converted to Christianity; and Columbanus (died in 615), who founded monasteries in France and Switzerland. Early on, women held high positions in the Celtic
A devotee of Saint Patrick kneels during his pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick. Pilgrims ascend the 2,510 feet to the mountains summit on their knees, praying the rosary.  GIANSANTI GIANNI/CORBIS SYGMA. A devotee of Saint Patrick kneels during his pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick. Pilgrims ascend the 2,510 feet to the mountain's summit on their knees, praying the rosary. © GIANSANTI GIANNI/CORBIS SYGMA. Church. For example, in the fifth century Saint Brigid held bishoplike authority at a mixed-sex monastery at Kildare.

After Catholicism was outlawed in Ireland during the sixteenth-century English Reformation, few Catholic Church leaders remained. Many Irish political leaders and revolutionaries were now Protestant. Finally, in 1828 the Catholic lawyer Daniel O'Connell won election to Parliament. O'Connell rallied the oppressed majority to campaign for Catholic emancipation. Following the establishment of Protestant universities in Ireland, a Catholic university was established in Dublin in 1850 by John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman; 1801–90). In 1866 Paul Cullen (1803–78) of Dublin became the first Irish cardinal and set about strengthening Roman authority in Ireland.

Contemporary Catholic leaders in Ireland include Cardinal Cahal B. Daly (born in 1917), the retired archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland; Sean Brady (born in 1939), archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland since 1996 and chairperson of the Irish Episcopal Conference; Diarmuid Martin (born in 1945), archbishop of Dublin since 2004; and Michael Neary, archbishop of Tuam since 1995.

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Many of Ireland's greatest theologians lived prior to the Norse incursions in the ninth century and are discussed above in EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS. Contemporary Irish theologians include Eugene Duffy and Attracta Shields of the Western Theological Institute in Galway and David Blake, Eamonn Conway, and Michael Culhane of the University of Limerick. In 2001 a theological university was established in County Mayo.


In the early days of Irish Catholicism the center of worship was the monastery. The backbone of Roman Catholicism today is the parish church, which is led by a pastor (canon) and one or more assistant priests (curates). Ireland's parishes form 26 dioceses, which are organized into four provinces under archbishops. The primacy is reserved for the archbishop of Armagh, though the most populous and influential archbishopric is that of Dublin.

People make pilgrimages to holy wells and shrines, which range from small roadside shelters dedicated to individual saints to Knock Cathedral, the site of an appearance of the Virgin Mary. There also are holy mountains, such as Croagh Patrick in Mayo, where pilgrims ascend the 2,510 feet to the summit on their knees, praying the rosary.


Human life is considered sacred; thus, abortion is illegal in Ireland. The sacraments are also believed to be sacred, especially the Mass. The sacredness of marriage has been questioned since the legalization of divorce in the 1990s.


The most important holiday in Ireland is Easter. Christmas (Nollaig; 25 December) is also a major holiday. On Christmas Eve families set a tall candle in a window to light the path for Mary and Joseph. On Saint Stephen's Day (26 December) boys traditionally have gone from door to door carrying a dead wren on a pole or holly bush and asking for treats and coins. Saint Bridget's Day (1 February)—the pagan holiday Imbolc on the pre-Christian calendar—marks the beginning of the agricultural season. Traditionally people braid small straw crosses to hang in their houses. Saint Patrick's Day (17 March) is not celebrated in Ireland as it is in the United States. People attend Mass on the holy day of the country's patron saint, and anyone avoiding alcohol during Lent may drink. The Feast of Saint John (24 June) probably originated in the Celtic midsummer celebration. The Feast of the Assumption (8 December) is a popular holiday in rural districts. Farm families do their Christmas shopping then because they must come to town to attend Mass.


There are no clothing regulations for the Irish Catholic laity. Priests still wear black suits and shirts. Many nuns, however, no longer wear habits.


Fasting is required only during Lent and on certain holy days. On Shrove Tuesday people eat pancakes in symbolic preparation for the Lenten fast.


The seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism are practiced in Ireland, with attendance at Sunday Mass being the most widely practiced. In recent decades the number of people choosing a religious vocation has dropped. Compared to the United States, however, Ireland has an unusually high percentage of people who have entered holy orders.


Irish Catholics have the same rites of passage, such as First Communion and confirmation, as Catholics elsewhere.


Children of Irish Roman Catholics are expected to be raised as Catholics. As most people in the republic already are Catholic, little evangelization is necessary. Most Irish evangelization has been in the form of foreign missions to former British colonies.


Since the days of the Penal Laws, the Catholic Church has been active in social programs, supporting orphan schools, hospitals, organizations that care for the poor, and old-age homes. Although the Irish can be accepting of those of lower economic status, such acceptance has not been extended to the Traveling People, also known as Itinerants or Tinkers. Travelers are seminomadic people who travel the country in barrel-topped wagons doing odd jobs and begging. Although legislation has been changing in their favor since the 1960s, historically they have been subjected to discrimination, refusal of service, accusations of thievery, and physical assault.


Arranged marriages have nearly disappeared in Ireland, although exceptions do occur. A Page 517  |  Top of Article priest at Knock Cathedral is known for arranging marriages, and an international matchmaking event occurs each year in County Clare. Traditionally married women were expected to cook, clean house, and care for children. In the early twentieth century many working women had to leave their jobs if they married. Men were expected to provide for their families. An unexpected side effect of legalized divorce has been the court-ordered sale of family farms—many held for generations—as terms of property settlements. As a consequence, older farm owners have rewritten their wills, excluding married heirs from the patrimony in order to preserve it.


The Catholic Church was written into Ireland's 1937 constitution, and its political impact has remained pervasive. The 1929 Censorship of Publication Act, which banned all sexually related written materials, stood unaltered until 1967. Reports from the mid-twentieth century held that individuals might be committed to mental institutions if they openly defied parish priests. The decline in the church's power in the late twentieth century can be seen in the 1996 legislation allowing divorce, as well as in the decline in the clergy's reputation following reports in the 1990s of child abuse in church-run orphanages and schools.


A large part of the Irish population today is at odds with the church's ban on birth control. Birth control is now legal in the republic, and although abortion is illegal, women are no longer prosecuted for going abroad to seek one.


Ireland's greatest treasures are works of Christian art, from high crosses to the Chalice of Ardagh and the Book of Kells. Much of the surviving medieval art in Ireland consists of carved stonework from ancient monasteries. Catholicism's impact on art has extended to modern broadcast media: The Angelus, a daily devotion commemorating the Incarnation, is broadcast on RTE, the national radio and television network.

Other Religions

The Church of Ireland, an independent member of the Anglican Church, came to Ireland during the Reformation in 1537, when the Irish Supremacy Act made the English monarch the head of the church. The reconquest of Ireland by William of Orange in 1690 asserted Anglican control through the Penal Laws. Most of the laws were abolished by the 1801 Act of Union, which established the United Church of England and Ireland as the official church, a status it retained until disestablishment in 1870. The Church of Ireland has been independent since 1871. The presiding archbishop of Armagh, the Most Reverend Robert Eames, is the leader of a synod composed of 2 archbishops, 10 bishops, and clergy and lay members from 33 dioceses. Dioceses are composed of individual parishes, each led by a priest and a vestry.

The 1607 "Flight of the Earls," the escape to the continent of about a hundred leaders of an Irish rebellion against English rule, led to the forfeiture of more than 2 million acres of land, which was settled by 40,000 Presbyterian Scots by 1618. In 1642 they formed the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The Presbyterian "new lights" joined the Roman Catholic majority in the 1798 Irish Rebellion, leading the rebel forces in Ulster. Following the defeat of the rebels, the Reverend Henry Cooke sought an alliance between Presbyterians and Anglicans against the Catholics, an alliance that has continued. Presbyterians form the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland.

The structure of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland consists of more than 560 local congregations led by "kirk sessions" composed of presbyters (elders) and a minister. Local congregations elect the members of the 21 presbyteries and 5 regional synods. The General Assembly, the supreme governing council, is led by an elected moderator. The ministry was opened to women in1972. The Reverend Donald Watts became the church's general secretary in 2003.

The Methodist Church in Ireland was created in 1738 following a series of speaking tours by John Wesley. Methodists in Ireland separated from the established church in 1878. The church consists of local congregations formed into 76 preaching circuits, which in turn form 8 districts. Legislative matters are treated at an annual conference of district synods. At this conference the church president is elected. The Reverend W. James Rea was elected president in 2003.

The earliest recorded Jewish presence in Ireland dates to 1079. Although the Jewish population in Ireland is very small (only 0.1 percent of the population), it maintains six synagogues in three cities: four in Dublin and one each in Cork and Belfast. The only Jewish Page 518  |  Top of Article school in Ireland is Stratford School. Prominent Irish Jews include the former lords mayor of Dublin Robert Briscoe (1894–1969) and his son, Ben Briscoe (born in 1924). Chaim Herzog (1918–97), former president of Israel, was born in Belfast and educated in Dublin.

Islam has also maintained a small presence in Ireland. The Belfast Islamic Centre is a charitable institution led by the imam Sheikh Hasrizal Abdul Jamil. It provides worship services and activities for Irish Muslims and a part-time Islamic school for children aged 5 to 16.

Michael J. Simonton

See Also Vol. 1: Roman Catholicism


Archdiocese of Armagh official Web site. 20 August 2004. .

Arensberg, Conrad M. The Irish Countryman: An Anthropological Study. Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1968.

Brady, Ciaran. The Encyclopedia of Ireland: An A–Z Guide to Its People, Places, History, and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 20 August 2004. .

Delaney, Mary Murray. Of Irish Ways. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1973.

Gmelch, George. The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant People. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1985.

Gmelch, Sharon. Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1986.

Mac Gréil, Mícheál. Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland: Based on a Survey of Intergroup Attitudes of Dublin Adults and Other Sources. Dublin: Research Section, College of Industrial Relations, 1977.

Messenger, John C. Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1983.

Nolan, A.M. A History of Ireland. Chicago: J.S. Hyland, 1913.

O'Brien, Máire, and Conor Cruise O'Brien. A Concise History of Ireland. New York: Beekman House, 1972.

O'Rourke, Fergus. The Fauna of Ireland: An Introduction to the Land Vertebrates. Cork: Mercier Press, 1970.

Power, Patrick. Timetables of Irish History: An Illustrated Chronological Chart of the History of Ireland from 6000 B.C. to Present Times. London: Worth Press, 2001.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3437900139