- The Irish Church and the Tudor Reformations
Henry Jefferies's aim in his new book is "to put religion back at the heart of the on-going debate on the Reformation in Ireland" (p. 12). This is a laudable [End Page 794] objective, and he deserves commendation for reminding us that Ireland's Reformation experience is unintelligible unless due consideration is given to the religious convictions of its sixteenth-century inhabitants. It is disappointing, then, to discover that his own treatment of religion is self-consciously regressive and that ultimately he presents an account of the religious developments of the period that closely resembles the traditional and, prior to the 1970s, predominant Catholic-nationalist narrative of the failure of the Reformation in Ireland.
Given the rhetorical method employed, this outcome is inevitable. Jefferies pits himself against the "revisionist successors" of the older generation of Irish Catholic/nationalist historians, who, he argues, have "tended to project their own secularist mentalities onto the past and deny religion its significance as an important influence in Tudor times"(p. 11). As a remedy, he elects throughout his book to set those modes of inquiry and argument that do not focus specifically on religion in opposition to those that do, suggesting, repeatedly, that the former are necessarily inferior when they are utilized to explore any aspect of the history of the Reformation in Ireland. This uncompromisingly dualistic approach is particularly marked in the final chapters of the book, where the author offers an analysis of the series of rebellions that erupted in Ireland from the late 1570s. Here, the historians who have advanced political, constitutional, or economic explanations for the outbreak of the rebellions are successively dismissed, generally because they are adjudged to have "played down," or "failed to appreciate" the religious dimensions of the revolts (pp. 208, 278).
Jefferies's implicit rejection of the possibility that secular modes of inquiry may offer useful perspectives on the religious history of Tudor Ireland is symptomatic of a more general tendency to simplify or reduce any argument, and the supporting evidence, that complicates that history. Consequently, far from putting religion back at the center of the debate on Ireland's Reformation, he merely reframes that debate as a closed and problemless entity, which enables him to create a clear, untroubled space in which to establish his own narrative. That narrative is ultimately revealed in the final part of the book in a committed and lengthy description of pan-Irish resistance to the Elizabethan settlement. Familiar motifs emerge as this narrative unfolds: a steadfast Irish communal attachment to traditional Catholicism, the buttressing effect of a steadily emerging Counter-Reformation Church, and the ineffectiveness of a weak and corrupt Church of Ireland. His conclusion—that these factors led inexorably to the failure of the Reformation—is reminiscent of historians such as M.V. Ronan and Robin Dudley Edwards not only in terms of the final judgment but also in regard to the evidence used to support it, namely, the series of despatches preserved in the Irish State Papers in the National Archives of the United Kingdom, which were penned by ecclesiastical and state officials and which lament the obdurate nature of Irish religious conservatism. [End Page 795]
This approach is unsatisfying because it not only accepts uncritically the evidence for the existence of an undifferentiated, communal attachment to Catholicism but also endeavors to construct a late-medieval wellspring for the phenomenon built on an equally questionable evidential base. In the opening section of the book, the Irish Church is portrayed as a healthier and more coherent, island-wide entity than many contemporaries were prepared to admit, on the basis of a dubious simplification of the island's complex politics, culture, geography,and economy; through his avoidance of contemporary evidence detailing the widespread lay despoliation of ecclesiastical property; and through some extravagant claims made for a relatively modest renewal of the late-medieval Church's physical infrastructure. Although Jefferies's account certainly challenges the old...