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  • The Origins of Sectarianism in Early Modern Ireland
  • Colm Lennon
Alan Ford and John McCafferty, eds. The Origins of Sectarianism in Early Modern Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. x + 250 pp. index. $90. ISBN: 0-521-83755-3.

No less than that of its European counterparts, the post-Reformation history of Ireland is marked by episodes of violence, torture, and religious bigotry, as separate religious confessions developed within the island. This collection of essays has as one of its aims the adducing of evidence of such divisiveness in the early modern period as a way of explaining the origins of sectarian hatred in contemporary Ireland. Generally speaking, however, as Alan Ford points out in his introduction, coexistence was the default mode in interconfessional relations, though these were subject to a "mysterious transition to brutal hostility" (23) at times of severe testing. Thus, rather than sectarianism as understood in the negative, destructive sense, much of the emphasis here is on the positive self-identification of the reforming religious groupings. This process of "sectarianisation" is almost, but not quite, coterminous with confessionalization as discussed by Ford himself, and by Ute Lotz-Heumann, whose innovative scheme of periodization in the Irish Reformation and Counter-Reformation is highly suggestive.

Within the leaderships of the conflicting confessions in early modern Ireland, efforts to maintain positions of pristine godliness and independence are shown in a number of case studies to have collapsed under the weight of events. John McCafferty examines the Church of Ireland episcopacy under the earlier Stuarts and finds that the struggle for survival in a hostile environment led to a dilution of virulent anti-popery. For the Roman Catholic bishops, as documented by Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin, the question of how and to what extent a Catholic restoration should be pursued proved to be damagingly divisive. Only the Irish nobility in continental exile after Kinsale, according to Declan Downey in his interesting piece, found it possible to maintain a stance of cultural and religious purity, but then at the expense of the complete subordination of their aspirations to those of Spanish Habsburg Catholicism.

In addition to the credal communities in Ireland publicly defining themselves in opposition to their antagonists, this book provides some illuminating perspectives on internal complexities within the religious communities and ethnicities. In a sense, this was due to the leniency rather than the rigor of the state regime in the enforcement of religious conformity. David Edwards, in a fascinating study, reveals the extent of new English Catholic settlement in Ireland in the early modern period. In his study of Protestant historiography, Alan Ford argues that the apocalyptic strain was softened in the writings of Old English writers, such as James Ussher and James Ware, by a humanistic pride in Irish culture. Rather than serving as champions of Catholic resistance to Tudor religious reform, the bardic order of [End Page 1294] Gaelic poets is convincingly shown by Marc Caball to have held aloof from religious controversy. While articulating a conventional late medieval piety, the bardic poets were focused primarily on the preservation of Gaelic political and social traditions. Micheál MacCraith posits the pragmatism of Catholic political writers in their response to shifting diplomatic circumstances in the early Stuart period, as they wrestled with the problem of accepting King James I as lawful ruler of Ireland in matters temporal. And in a colorful account of early seventeenth-century Drogheda, Brian Jackson explains how a dispute among the Catholic clergy there raised searching questions about rights of property and jurisdiction in the milieu of the Tridentine renewal.

In his concluding reflection, John Morrill stimulatingly aerates the thematic content of the book, suggesting his own chronology for the Catholic response to the Reformation. He is rightly warm in his welcome for this contextualizing of early modern Irish religious history within British archipelagic and European continental historiography. The success of this collection lies not so much, perhaps, in its elucidation of contemporary sectarian tensions, but rather in its conveying of the texture of relations between and within the confessions in early modern Ireland. This is achieved through an appropriately proportionate colligation of religious issues with those concerning politics, race, and culture. As...


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Archived 2009
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