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  • Landscape and Religious Practice:A Study of Mass Attendance in Pre-Famine Ireland
  • David W. Miller (bio)

In a 1975 article I used the mass-attendance data collected in 1834 by the Commissioners of Public Instruction, Ireland, to demonstrate that there were extremely large variations in rates of mass attendance in pre-famine Ireland.1 The contrast between this pattern and the nearly universal compliance with the canonical requirement for weekly mass attendance in mid-twentieth-century Ireland contributed support to Emmet Larkin's claim that a "devotional revolution" occurred in the generation after the Great Famine of the 1840s.2 In the 1990s, armed with more powerful technology, I undertook a data-visualization project that yielded a contour map of mass attendance in 1834 (figure 1, page 92) based on data for over two thousand chapels and other sites.3 In this essay I present, in simplified form, some of the findings of my analysis of the data on which the map was based, and seek to place those findings in a larger context of time and space. [End Page 90]

Explaining Mass Attendance Rates in 1834

The Commission's massive data-collection effort in 1834 was motivated not by a desire to measure religious practice per se, but by a determination on the part of the Whig government to demonstrate once and for all that despite a three-century monopoly on "public instruction," the Church of Ireland had failed in its appointed task of making Anglicans of the Irish people.4 Census takers were directed to go back into the field and determine the religion of each person they had enumerated three years earlier, questionnaires were sent to clergymen of all denominations, and public hearings were held throughout the country by itinerant pairs of commissioners to test the validity of the information gathered. Evidence on "the average number of persons usually attending divine service in each place of worship" seems to have been collected as a check against gross misrepresentation of the number of adherents of any denomination. I have addressed elsewhere some of the concerns about the data, which had been raised by scholars since the appearance of my 1975 article, and described the process by which I prepared the data for visualization and analysis.5 A key feature of that process was the creation for each chapel of a geometric "catchment"; at any point in the catchment, the walking distance to the chapel was less than the walking distance to any other chapel. The Catholic population served by the chapel was estimated for the catchment from data collected for the Protestant parishes.

How should we account for the marked differences in levels of mass attendance revealed by the 1834 data? Three lines of explanation have been advanced during the three decades since I first pointed out those differences. The first explanation stresses the church's resources—or rather its lack of resources. In its most fully developed form, this argument is presented by Thomas McGrath, who maintains that the Irish church was determined from the early seventeenth century to achieve compliance with the standards of the Council of Trent but was prevented from implementing that determination [End Page 91]

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Figure 1.

Catholic mass-attendance rates, 1834.

by the penal laws and then by the Catholic community's lack of resources to supply sufficient clergy to service the spiritual needs of a rapidly expanding population.6 A second approach points out the fact that in many of the areas in which low mass attendance was reported, population was sparse and many people would have had to walk considerable distances to reach the nearest Catholic chapel. Historians who stress the distance factor are sometimes pastors themselves who tend to conceptualize the problem in terms of the pastoral issue of "excusation."7 The third way of accounting for patterns in the data was offered soon after my earliest publication on [End Page 92] this topic by a sociologist, Eugene Hynes, who argued that the high levels of mass attendance in mid-twentieth-century Ireland were a result of the "embourgeoisement" of Irish rural society in the generation after the famine. He suggested...


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