Roman Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian church worldwide. The Catholic Church in Ireland has its primatial seat in the Archdiocese of Armagh. It ministers to Roman Catholics on an all-island basis under the spiritual leadership of Pope Francis and the bishop of each local diocese. The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference is a consultative body for ordinaries in Ireland.

According to censuses taken in 2011, 84.2% of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland[1] and 43.8% of the estimated workforce of Northern Ireland[2] self-identified as Roman Catholic. In the island of Ireland, 4,599,368 people identified themselves as Roman Catholics; 3,861,335(84.16%) in the Republic of Ireland and 738,033(40.76%) in Northern Ireland.

Ireland was evangelised early in the 5th century by missionaries such as Palladius and Saint Patrick.


The up to the Cambro-Norman invasion in 1169, the Irish Church practised what is now referred to as Celtic Christianity. A reform to the Roman style diocesan system developed slowly after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. In 1155, Pope Adrian IV, the sole English born Pope, issued a papal bull known as Laudabiliter. This gave Henry II permission to invade Ireland as a means of strengthening the Papacy's control over the Irish Church.[3] The Norman invasion of Ireland began in 1169, under the authority of this bull. Adrian IV's successor, Pope Alexander III, ratified the Laudabiliter and gave Henry dominion over the "barbarous nation" of Ireland so that its "filthy practises" may be abolished, its Church brought into line, and that the Irish pay their tax to Rome.[4] After the Norman invasion, a greater number of foreign-born prelates were appointed. A confusing but defining period arose during the English Reformation in the 16th century, with monarchs alternately for or against Papal supremacy. When in 1558 the church in England broke away from what became known as the Roman Catholic Church, all but two of the bishops of the Church in Ireland followed the Church of England decision,[5] although almost none of the local clergy led the laity to do so. The new body became the established State Church, was grandfathered the possession of most Church property. This allowed the Church of Ireland to retain a great repository of religious architecture and other religious items, some of which were later destroyed in future wars. The substantial majority of the population remained Roman Catholic, despite the political and economic advantages of membership in the state church. Despite its numerical minority, however, the Church of Ireland remained the official state church for almost three hundred years until it was disestablished on 1 January 1871 by the Irish Church Act 1869 that was passed by Gladstone's Liberal government.

The effect of the Act of Supremacy 1558 and the Papal bull of 1570 (Regnans in Excelsis) caused the majority population of both kingdoms to be governed by an Anglican Ascendancy. After the defeat of King James II of The Three Kingdoms in 1690, the Test Acts were introduced which began a long era of discrimination against the recusant Catholics of the Kingdoms. The slow process of reform from 1778 on led to Catholic Emancipation in 1829. By then Ireland was a part of the newly created United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Popular traditions

Alongside the church itself, many Irish devotional traditions have continued for centuries as a part of the church's local culture. Holy relics are thought to possess curative powers (through the intercession of the saints),[6] colourful "patterns" (processions) in honour of local saints continue to this day, and in 1985 thousands gathered to pray during the moving-statues phenomenon. Marian Devotion is a central element, focused on the shrine at Knock, where it is claimed the Virgin Mary appeared in 1879. Feasts and devotions such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1642), and the concepts of martyrology are still important elements. Respect for mortification of the flesh has led on to the veneration of Matt Talbot and Padre Pio.

An unbroken tradition since ancient times is of annual pilgrimages to sacred Celtic Christian places such as St Patrick's Purgatory and Croagh Patrick.


The Church is organised into four ecclesiastical provinces. While these may have coincided with contemporary 12th century civil provinces or petty kingdoms, they are not now coterminous with the modern civil provincial divisions. The church is led by four archbishops and twenty-three bishops; however, because there have been amalgamations and absorptions, there are more than twenty-seven dioceses.[7] For instance, the diocese of Cashel has been joined with the diocese of Emly, Waterford merged with Lismore, Ardagh merged with Clonmacnoise among others. The bishop of the Diocese of Galway is also the Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora. There are 1087 parishes, a few of which are governed by administrators, the remainder by parish priests. There about 3000 secular clergy—parish priests, administrators, curates, chaplains, and professors in colleges. The Association of Catholic Priests is a voluntary association of clergy in Ireland that claims to have 800 members.

There are also many religious orders, which include: Augustinians, Capuchins, Carmelites, Fathers of the Holy Ghost, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Marists, Missionaries of Charity, Oblates, Passionists, Redemptorists, and Vincentians. The total number of the regular clergy is about 700. They are engaged either in teaching or in giving missions, but not charged with the government of parishes.

Two societies of priests were founded in Ireland, namely St Patrick's Missionary Society with its headquarters in County Wicklow and the Missionary Society of St. Columban which is based in County Meath.

Affiliated groups

As well as numerous religious institutes such as the Dominicans, there are many Irish Catholic-ethos laity groups including the:

Other organisations with Irish branches:

Missionary activity

Initially inspired largely by Cardinal Newman to convert the colonized peoples of the British Empire, after 1922 the church continued to work in healthcare and education what is now the Third World through its bodies such as Concern and Trócaire. Along with the Irish Catholic diaspora in countries like the USA and Australia, this has created a worldwide network, though affected by falling numbers of priests.

Second Vatican Council

In both parts of Ireland, Church policy and practice changed markedly after the Vatican II reforms of 1962. Probably the largest change was that Mass could be said in vernacular languages instead of Latin, and in 1981 the Church commissioned its first edition of the Bible in the Irish language.[8]

Sex abuse scandals

Main article: Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland

Several reports detailing cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of hundreds of children while in the pastoral care of dozens of priests have been published in 2005-2009. These include the Ferns Report and the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and have led on to much discussion in Ireland about what changes may be needed in the future within the church.

Influence in the Irish Free State and Republic (1922–present)

The Catholic Church has had a powerful influence over the Irish State since 1922, but this has diminished in recent decades. The Church's influence meant that the Irish state had very conservative social policies, banning, for example, divorce,[note 1] contraception,[note 2] abortion, pornography as well as encouraging the censoring of many books and films. In addition the Church largely controlled the State's hospitals, schools and remained the largest provider of many other social services.

With the partition of Ireland in 1922, 92.6% of the Free State's population were Catholic while 7.4% were Protestant.[9] By the 1960s, the Anglican and Protestant population had fallen by half. Although emigration was high among all the population, due to a lack of economic opportunity, the rate of Anglican and Protestant emigration was disproportionate in this period. Many left the country in the early 1920s, to take up other opportunities throughout the Commonwealth. Some felt unwelcome in a predominantly Catholic and irridentist nationalist state. Many were felt insecure for their safety due to the burning of Anglican and Protestant homes (particularly of the landed classes) by republican elements who had forsaken State election results and had imitiated another Civil War. Many simply did not wish to live in an independent Irish state, given the economic disruption caused by the recent violence. The Catholic Church had further stirred the sectarian unrest through a decree, known as Ne Temere, whereby the children of marriages between Catholics and Protestants had to be brought up as Catholics.[note 3] After the end of World War II, the emigration rate of Protestants fell and they became less likely to emigrate than Catholics - indicating their integration into the life of the Irish State.

Fewer than one in five Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday in Dublin with many young people only retaining a marginal interest in religion the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said in May 2011.[10] In some areas less than 2% of the Catholic population attend Mass.[11] According to an Ipsos MRBI poll by the Irish Times, the majority of Irish Catholics do not attend mass weekly, with almost 62% rejecting key parts of Catholicism such as transubstantiation.[12]


In the Irish Free State the church had significant influence on public opinion. It had wrested control of the national primary school system from the state from the introduction of the Irish Education Act (1831) of Lord Stanley which was intended by him to be a non-sectarian school system. It was associated with the Jacobite movement until 1766, and with Irish nationalism after Catholic emancipation was secured in 1829. The church was resurgent between 1829 and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869-71, when its most significant leaders included Bishop James Doyle, Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop MacHale. The hierarchy supported the democratic and mainly non-violent Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s, and its offshoots, and the policy of Irish Home Rule in 1886-1920. It did not support the Irish republican movement until 1921, as it espoused violence, in spite of support from many individual priests, and opposed the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war. Despite this relative moderation, Irish Protestants were concerned that a self-governing Ireland would result in "Rome Rule" instead of home rule, and this became an element in (or an excuse for) the creation of Northern Ireland.

The church continued to have great influence in the newly formed Free State. Éamon de Valera's 1937 constitution, while granting freedom of religion, recognised the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church". Major popular church events attended by the political world have included the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and the Papal Visit in 1979. The last prelate with strong social and political interests was Archbishop McQuaid, who retired in 1972.


After independence in 1922, the Church became more heavily involved in health care and education, raising money and managing institutions which were staffed by Catholic religious institute, paid largely by government intervention and public donations and bequests. Its main political effect was to continue to gain power in the national primary schools where religious proselytisation in education was a major element. The hierarchy opposed the free public secondary schools service introduced in 1968 by Donogh O'Malley, in part because they ran almost all such schools. The church's strong efforts since the 1830s to continue the control of Catholic education was primarily an effort to guarantee a continuing source of candidates for the priesthood, as they would have years of training before entering a seminary.[13]

Health care

From 1930, hospitals were funded by a sweepstake (lottery) with tickets frequently distributed or sold by nuns or priests. On health matters it was seen as unsympathetic to women's needs and in 1950 it opposed the Mother and Child Scheme.

Many hospitals in Ireland are still run by Catholic religious institutes. For example, the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin is run by the Sisters of Mercy. In 2005, the hospital deferred trials of a lung cancer medication because female patients in the trial would be required to practise contraception contrary to Roman Catholic teaching.[14] Mater Hospital responded that its objection was that some pharmaceutical companies mandated that women of childbearing years use contraceptives during the drug trials: "The hospital said it was committed to meeting all of its legal requirements regarding clinical trials while at the same time upholding the principles and ethos of the hospital's mission", and "that individuals and couples have the right to decide themselves about how they avoid pregnancy."[15]

Sexual morality and censorship

Divorce allowing remarriage was banned in 1924 (though it had been rare), and selling artificial contraception was made illegal. The Church's influence slipped somewhat after 1970, impacted partly by the media and the growing feminist movement. For instance the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 showed the ability of the Catholic Church to force the government into a compromise situation over artificial contraception, though unable to get the result it wanted; contraception could now be bought, but only with a prescription from a doctor and supplied only by registered chemists. In the 1983 Amendment to the constitution introduced the constitutional prohibition of abortion, which the Church supported, though abortion for social reasons remains illegal under Irish statute law. However the Church failed to influence the June, 1996, removal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce. While the church had opposed divorce allowing remarriage in civil law, its canon law allowed for a law of nullity and a limited divorce "a mensa et thoro", effectively a form of marital separation. The Church helped reinforce public censorship and maintained its own list of banned literature until 1966, which influenced the State's list.[16][17]

War-time censorship by the government for security was strict and included the church; when bishops spoke on aspects of the war, they were censored and treated "with no more ceremony than any other citizen"[18] While statements and pastoral letters issued from the pulpit were not interfered with, the quoting of them in the press was subject to the censor.[19]

Influence in Northern Ireland

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 acted as the constitution of Northern Ireland, in which was enshrined freedom of religion for all of Northern Ireland's citizens.[20] Here Roman Catholics formed a minority of some 35% of the population, which had mostly supported Irish nationalism and was therefore historically opposed to the creation of Northern Ireland.

The Roman Catholic schools' council was at first resistant in accepting the role of the government of Northern Ireland, and initially accepted funding only from the government of the Irish Free State and admitting no school inspectors. Thus it was that the Lynn Committee presented a report to the government, from which an Education Bill was created to update the education system in Northern Ireland, without any co-operation from the Roman Catholic section in education. Instead, with regard to the Roman Catholic schools, the report relied on the guidance of a Roman Catholic who was to become the Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Education — A. N. Bonaparte Wyse.


Many commentators have suggested that the separate education systems in Northern Ireland after 1921 prolonged the sectarian divisions in that community. Cases of gerrymandering and preference in public services for Protestants led on to the need for a Civil Rights movement in 1967.

See also



Further reading

  • Contemporary Catholicism in Ireland: A Critical Appraisal, ed. by John Littleton, Eamon Maher, Columbia Press 2008, ISBN 1-85607-616-4
  • Brian Girvin: "Church, State, and Society in Ireland since 1960" In: Éire-Ireland - Volume 43:1&2, Earrach/Samhradh / Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 74–98
  • Tom Inglis: Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland, Univ College Dublin Press, 2nd Revised edition, 1998, ISBN 1-900621-12-6
  • Moira J. Maguire: "The changing face of catholic Ireland: Conservatism and Liberalism in the Ann Lovett and Kerry Babies Scandal" In: feminist studies. fs, ISSN 0046-3663, j. 27 (2001), n. 2, p. 335-359
  • Report on abuse by the Catholic Church in Ireland

External links

  • Homepage of the Irish Bishops' Conference
  •, Content-rich portal of the Catholic Church in Ireland
  • Early Christian Ireland Database
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