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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 304-305
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History of the Diocese of Derry from the Earliest Times
History of the Diocese of Derry from the Earliest Times. Edited by Henry A. Jefferies and Ciarán Devlin. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the U.S. by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2000. Pp. 304. $39.50.)
Several very good histories of Irish dioceses have been published recently, and this volume takes its place amongst them. There are thirteen chapters, which do not try to give a complete account of the history of a diocese which finds itself in two jurisdictions since the partition of Ireland. This is a book to be consulted about various aspects of local church history, rather than read in its entirety. We are told nothing about the background of the writers of each chapter.
The first three chapters give a great deal of information about the development of Christianity in the whole northwest of Ireland from the time of St. Columcille (c. 521597), despite the scarcity of documents from the earliest period. There is a refreshing emphasis on the importance of the humble church buildings scattered throughout the countryside and the priests who served them, since both those buildings and those men comprised the Church in the everyday lives of most people. There seem to have been more churches than clergy, but, by the end of the first millennium, the Church in Ireland was based on some form of federal system, wherein local churches were joined in a community of interests to monastically organized "paruchiae."
The two chapters on the medieval Church in the region includes a description of the formation of the diocese itself, in the twelfth century, by which time the famed learning of the Irish clergy was being seen as old-fashioned. The twelfth-century Reform, in Ireland as elsewhere, tried to free the Church from domination by great families. In this sphere, it had very limited success.
The summary of some episcopal biographies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries faces the fact that there was no resident Catholic bishop for at least 119 years. The most famous Protestant bishop, George Montgomery, was a Scot appointed by James I in 1605. A courtier, with three Ulster dioceses, he was mainly interested in securing the financial basis of the Reformed Church in Ulster and in planning the Plantation of thousands of Lowland Scots. He had no hesitation in being translated to Meath in 1610.
Fergus Lea was appointed Catholic Bishop of Derry in 1694, the first since the murder of Reamonn O'Gallagher in 1601, but a report of 1731 shows that there was hardly any church structure in the diocese. It is remarkable that the loyalty of the majority to Catholicism was so enduring. Such was the poverty of most Catholics, descendants of the dispossessed, that church structures became firm only in the nineteenth century, shown by the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in 1848 and the Irish Christian Brothers in 1854. The chapters telling the stories of both congregations are distorted by giving too much biographical information about the foundress and the founder.
Bishop Francis Kelly played a major role in the development of the local church from 1851 to 1873, including much building. It is unfair to describe [End Page 304] him as a very good pastor, but to criticize him for not being interested in politics.
The present Bishop Emeritus, Edward Daly, contributes one of the two chapters on the twentieth century. His writing has an immediacy which comes from witnessing or participating in extraordinary developments which transformed Derry and Northern Ireland, not least the Bogside Riots of August, 1969, and the killing of fourteen unarmed civilians by British soldiers on January 30, 1972.
The story ends well, with a dramatic increase in the Catholic population over forty years to 2000, because the discrimination which forced Catholics to emigrate has now ended, and with the physical conditions of their lives being improved by good-quality public housing. Derry Diocese has a turbulent...