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Protestantism in Ireland

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Protestantism in Ireland

Proportion of respondents to the 2011 censuses who stated they were Catholic. Areas in which Catholics are in the majority are blue. Areas in which non-Catholics (usually Protestants) are in the majority are red.

Protestantism is a minority Christian denominational family in Ireland. In the 2011 census of the Republic of Ireland, 5% of the population described themselves as Church of Ireland (Anglican) or Presbyterian (93,056 and 14,348 people respectively).[1] In the 2011 census of Northern Ireland, 48% described themselves as Protestant, which was a decline of approximately 5% from the 2001 census.[2][3] Some forms of Protestant Christianity may have existed since the early 16th century. The established church of Ireland was founded by King Henry VIII of England, whose right was determined by Laudabiliter.[4]



In 1536 during the English Reformation, Henry VIII arranged to be declared head of the Church in Ireland through an Act of the Irish Parliament. When the Church of England was reformed under King Edward VI of England, so too was the Church of Ireland. Later when the acts of the Elizabethan Settlement were passed all but two of the Irish bishops accepted them , although the vast majority of priests and the church membership remained Roman Catholic. The Church of Ireland claims Apostolic succession because of this continuity in the hierarchy.

During the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland by the Protestant state of England in the course of the 16th century and the failed attempts of the Elizabethan state and of Cromwell's parliament to convert the Catholic natives to Protestantism there was also a vigorous campaign by Counter Reformation Catholic clergy. The result was that Catholicism came to be identified with sense of nativism and Protestantism came to be identified with the State.

The established church in Ireland underwent a period of more radical Calvinist doctrine than occurred in England. James Ussher (later Archbishop of Armagh) authored the Irish Articles, adopted in 1615. In 1634, the Irish Convocation adopted the English Thirty-Nine Articles alongside the Irish Articles. After the Restoration of 1660, it seems that the Thirty-Nine Articles took precedence; they remain the official doctrine of the Church of Ireland even after disestablishment.

The Roman Catholics from public office, but were later, starting under Oliver Cromwell, also used to confiscate virtually all Catholic owned land and grant it to Protestant settlers from England and Sotland. The Penal Laws had a lasting effect on the population, due to their severity (celebrating Catholicism in any form was punishable by death or enslavement under the laws), and the favouritism granted Irish Anglicans served to polarise the community in terms of religion. Anti-Protestantism in Early Modern Ireland 1536-1691 thus was also largely a form of hostility to the colonisation of Ireland. Irish poetry of this era shows a marked antipathy to Protestantism, one such poem reading, "The faith of Christ [Catholicism] with the faith of Luther is like ashes in the snow". The mixture of resistance to colonization and religious disagreements led to widespread massacres of Protestant settlers in the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Subsequent religious or sectarian antipathy was fueled by the atrocities committed by both sides in the Irish Confederate Wars, especially the repression of Catholicism during and after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, when Irish Catholic land was confiscated en masse, clergy were executed and discriminatory legislation was passed against Catholics. The Penal Laws were renewed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries due to fear of Catholic support for Jacobitism after the Williamite war in Ireland and were slowly repealed in 1771-1829. Penal Laws against Presbyterians were relaxed by the Toleration Act of 1719, due to their siding with the Jacobites in a 1715 rebellion. At the time the Penal Laws were in effect, Presbyterians and other non-Conformist Protestants left Ireland and settled in other countries. Some 250,000 left for the New World alone between the years 1717 and 1774, most of them arriving there from Ulster.

The Church of Ireland undertook the first publication of the Bible in Irish. The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until his death in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Dr. Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam; it was finally completed by William O'Domhnuill. Their work was printed in 1602. The work of translating the Old Testament was undertaken by William Bedel (1571–1642), Bishop of Kilmore, who completed his translation within the reign of Charles I, although it was not published until 1680 in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713), Archbishop of Dublin. Bedell had also undertaken a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was effected by John Richardson (1664–1747) and published in 1712.

The Dublin area saw many churches like Saint Stephen's, built in the Georgian style during the 18th century. When Ireland was incorporated in 1801 into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Church of Ireland was also united with the Church of England to form the united Church of England and Ireland. At the same time, one archbishop and three bishops from Ireland (selected by rotation) were given seats in the House of Lords at Westminster, joining the two archbishops and twenty-four bishops from the Church of England.

In 1833, the British Government proposed the Irish Church Measure to reduce the 22 archbishops and bishops who oversaw the Anglican minority in Ireland to a total of 12 by amalgamating sees and using the revenues saved for the use of parishes. This sparked the Oxford Movement[citation needed], which was to have wide repercussions for the Anglican Communion.

As the official established church, the Church of Ireland was funded partially by tithes imposed on all Irish landowners and tenant farmers, irrespective of the fact that it counted only a minority of the populace among its adherents; these tithes were a source of much resentment which occasionally boiled over, as in the Tithe War of 1831/36. Eventually, the tithes were ended, replaced with a lower levy called the tithe rent charge.

The Irish Church Act 1869 (which took effect in 1871) finally ended the role of the Church of Ireland as state church. This terminated both state support and parliament's role in its governance, but also took into government ownership much church property. Compensation was provided to clergy, but many parishes faced great difficulty in local financing after the loss of rent-generating lands and buildings. The Church of Ireland made provision in 1870 for its own government, led by a General Synod, and with financial management by a Representative Church Body. With disestablishment, the last remnants of tithes were abolished and the Church's representation in the House of Lords also ceased.

The overthrow of the Catholic majority in the Irish House of Commons in 1613 was realised principally through the creation of new boroughs in the Plantation of Ulster, all of which were Protestant-dominated, resulting in a slight majority of 108-102. By 1695 all Catholics, representing some 85% of Ireland's population then, were banned from the Irish parliament. Political power rested entirely in the hands of a British settler-colonial, and more specifically Anglican, minority while the Catholic population suffered severe political and economic privations.

By the late 18th century, many of the Anglo-Irish ruling class had come to see Ireland as their native country. A Parliamentary faction, the Irish Patriot Party led by Henry Grattan agitated for a more favourable trading relationship with England and for greater legislative independence for the Parliament of Ireland. However, reform in Ireland stalled over the more radical proposals to enfranchise Irish Catholics. This was enabled in 1793, but Catholics could not yet enter parliament or become government officials.

Sectarian conflict was continued in the late 18th century in the form of communal violence between rival Catholic and Protestant factions over land and trading rights (see Defenders (Ireland), Peep O'Day Boys and Orange Institution). The 1820s and 1830s in Ireland saw a major attempt by Protestant evangelists to convert Catholics, a campaign which caused great resentment among Catholics.

20th century decline and other developments

Concentration of Protestants in Ireland per county.
In 1991, the population of the Republic of Ireland was approximately 3% Protestant. The figure in the same geographical area was over 10% in 1891, indicating a fall of 70% in the relative Protestant population over the past century.

The effect of Protestant depopulation in the Republic of Ireland is dramatic. In 1861 only the west coast and Kilkenny were less than 6% Protestant. Dublin and two of the border counties were over 20% Protestant. In 1991, however, all but four counties were less than 6% Protestant; the rest were less than 1%. There are no counties in the Republic of Ireland which have experienced a rise in the relative Protestant population over the period 1861 to 1991. Often, the counties which have managed to retain the highest proportion of Protestants are the ones which started off with a large proportion. In Northern Ireland, only counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Armagh have experienced a significant loss of the relative Protestant population; in these cases, the change is not as dramatic as in the Republic.

21st century growth

The 2006 census of the Republic of Ireland found that a little over 5% of the nation was Protestant. The 2011 census of the Republic of Ireland found that the Protestant population in every county had grown. In 2012 the Irish Independent reported that "Irish Anglicanism is undergoing a quite remarkable period of growth" due to immigration and Irish Catholics converting.[5]


See also


  1. ^ "Census 2011 Profile 7 Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers - Ethnic and cultural background in Ireland". Central Statistics Office. 
  2. ^ Devenport, Mark (11 December 2012). "Census figures: NI Protestant population continuing to decline". BBC News Northern Ireland. 
  3. ^ Sedghi, Ami (13 December 2012). "Northern Ireland census 2011: religion and identity mapped". The Guardian. 
  4. ^ Seán O'Riordan. (1958.) "Protestantism in Ireland", The Furrow, 9(2):90-101.
  5. ^ The Catholic Church in Ireland is losing market share. Some would call this a healthy development

Further reading

  • Biagini, Eugenio F. "The Protestant Minority In Southern Ireland," Historical Journal (2012) 55#4 pp 1161–1184 DOI: reviews recsent scholarship
  • Comerford, R. et al. Religion, conflict and coexistence in Ireland (Dublin, 1990)
  • Crawford, Heather K . Outside the glow: Protestants and Irishness in independent Ireland (University College of Dublin Press, 2010) 240pp. ISBN 190635944X
  • d'Alton, I. "'A vestigial population'? Perspectives on Southern Irish Protestants in the twentieth century", Eire-Ireland 44 (Winter 2009–10)
  • Deignan, Padraig. The Protestant community in Sligo, 1914–1949 (Dublin: Original Writing Ltd, 2010) 385pp. ISBN 978-1-907179-58-7
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