Moya St Leger reviews Christianity in Ireland; revisiting the story, Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (eds), The Columba Press £19.99 (30 euros) hbk
CHRISTIANITY IN Ireland is a collection of papers on the religious history of Ireland delivered at a seminar in Italy in 1999. The list of contributors, which includes the editors, Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh, reads like a Who’s Who of Irish history scholars.
The collection is so well edited and the broad sweep of the subject matter flows so seamlessly, one could easily assume it is the work of one author.
The foreword asserts that the book is a response to the dearth of survey history and is meant for the non-specialist as well as for undergraduates.
I know of no other contemporary single volume which presents the history of the Christian religion in Ireland from St Patrick to the present day so concisely and so elegantly.
A useful feature is the chronology of Irish history at the back. This and the scholarly notes account for the final 107 pages.
It would impossible to do such a comprehensive survey justice. Covering every historical period from the earliest Christian mission to Ireland to the present day troubled state of the Catholic Church, the reader new to Irish history is not only provided with an essential work of reference but a reflective one at that.
This book is fundamental for undergraduate study of religion in Ireland. Every aspect of the Catholic Church throughout its history in Ireland is examined: political, social, historical and spiritual. There are also vital chapters on the Protestant laity, Irish Methodism, the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Ireland.
Brendan Bradshaw’s chapter ‘The Reformation in Ireland’, is a key contribution. Bradshaw scrutinises both the factors which account for the triumph of the Reformation in England and its failure in Ireland, which he attributes to the consistent non-co-operation of the lay Irish elite who were crucial in undermining the campaign to promote it.
The English crown depended on the lay elite as instruments of government to secure conformity with the new religious laws, but they evaded them and refused to swear to the royal supremacy.
Even more devastating was that this elite allowed the recently reformed missionary friars to reoccupy their religious houses and preach up the rebellion of the Geraldine League, promising eternal salvation to all who died fighting a heretic monarch.
Their most significant contribution was to successfully root Roman Catholicism in the native Irish as the religion of ‘faith and fatherland’, which it remains to this day, even if diluted.
The book is ideal for the ‘dipper’ and while each chapter is a separate entity, the clever editing entices the reader back and forth.
The final two chapters examine with great honesty the state of the troubled state of contemporary Irish Catholic Church’ and the state and prospects for Religion in Ireland: Noel Barber, a Jesuit, writes: “The humiliation of decline and the experience of powerlessness may well so change the focus and character of the (Catholic) Church as to lead to an inner transformation”
Barber has good grounds for this belief. He is writing of a Church which has survived far worse times since St Patrick than our own.
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Copyright © 2003 Moya St Leger