Church of Ireland: History & Concept

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about the history of the Church of Ireland. The lesson will discuss the origins and growth of the church, and its relationship to the struggles between Ireland and Britain.

An Introduction to the Church of Ireland

The Church of Ireland is Anglican and identifies itself as Catholic and Protestant. It is Anglican because it originated from the Anglican Church of England. The Church of Ireland identifies with Catholicism as it follows traditions and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and Protestantism because it does not recognize the authority of the pope. It is the second largest church in Ireland; the majority of Irish people are Roman Catholic. The Church of Ireland is active in Northern Ireland, which is still a part of the United Kingdom, as well as the independent Republic of Ireland.

For centuries, the Church of Ireland was a hated symbol that represented the British oppressors who were predominantly Protestant. Irish national identity was deeply tied to Catholicism. We must understand the history of the Church of Ireland in the context of struggle between the Irish and British.

Anglicizing Ireland

In 1534, Henry VIII, the King of England, separated from the Roman Catholic Church to establish the Church of England, because the pope would not grant an annulment of his first marriage. The Act of Supremacy established this new Anglican church in Ireland calling it the Church of Ireland.

Church of Ireland Sign
Church of Ireland

This was part of a broader plan to anglicize Ireland, to make it more alike and obedient to England. Most Irish spoke Gaelic, not English, and did not consider themselves British subjects. In 1541, King Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland, and passed laws that outlawed Catholicism, ordered Bibles and church services be made in English, and granted Irish lands and buildings to the Church.

This imposition of a foreign religion and unwanted ruler angered the Irish. In the 16th century, the Church of Ireland had not grown much, and Ireland was still too Irish and Catholic for the King's liking. The crown began a plantation project, in which English and Scottish people and clergy settled on Irish land, mostly in the North. Amongst these settlers were Protestant bishops who took over Catholic churches and dioceses.

Creating an Independent Identity

By the 17th century, the British realized that the Irish would continue to reject the Church of Ireland unless it created a more independent Irish identity. In 1602, the first translation of the New Testament in the Irish language was published.

James Ussher
James Ussher

An important figure creating this independent identity was Irish theologian, James Ussher. Ussher was the main author of the 1615 Irish Articles, which laid out the Church's theology. The Articles proclaimed a belief in predestination, and named the pope the Antichrist. The theology was closer to the churches of continental Europe than the Church of England.

In 1622, Ussher wrote the 'Discourse on the Religion Anciently Professed by the Irish and British'. Ussher argued that the Church of Ireland was not created by Henry VIII, but descended from the Ancient Irish Celtic Church. He claimed that St. Patrick, who famously brought Christianity to Ireland, was Protestant in his theology, that Ireland had fallen under the influence of the pope, and that the Church of Ireland was attempting to rescue Ireland from the pope and restore it to the vision of St. Patrick and the early Celtic Church. This new origin story separated the Church of Ireland from England, and connected it to deep Irish history.

Conflict and Famine

The Church of Ireland and the Irish people remained on rocky terms despite these attempts to legitimize the Church. A major issue was tithing. The Irish people were forced to pay tithes, or small amounts of money, to fund the Church. That meant that poor Irish farmers, who were overwhelmingly Catholic, were forced to give money to a church they did not believe in or attend.

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