Ethnicity, the State & the Nation
The religious history of Ireland differs from that of the rest of the British Isles — that is, much, if not most, of Ireland
remained Catholic, almost to the present day.
Where the history of the island of Great Britain is one of accounting for the success of the Reformation in England,
Scotland and Wales — and then of looking at the internal battles of Protestantism between denominations and, as
we will see later, the impact of the advent of modernism — the story of religion in Ireland is in one sense the
obverse of this coin.
The central historical issue here is why the Reformation did not take root in Ireland, and the role in this of ethnic
identity — which is perhaps the central reason.
We will therefore look at the course of Irish religious history, and the role of ethnicity. Here is a case of comparing
‗Church and State‘ with ‗Church and nation‘ — and by this I mean ‗nation‘ in the sense of a people, who, in the case
of the Irish, lose their state for a large part of their recent history.
In this period, the apparatus of the state, which increasingly meant the English monarchy, attempted to change the
religious habits and practices and beliefs of the Irish people, while the Catholic Church became a bulwark of the
retention of Irish identity — that is the Irish ‗nation‘. Later in the course, you will encounter this same phenomenon in
French Canada, where religion — and the church representing religion — becomes a defender of a sense of nation
as opposed to government.
We are dealing here then with the Irish as an ethnic group.
What do we mean by ethnic identity or ethnicity? Most often we think of summer cultural events — unique
national costumes, dancing — or ethnic restaurants, or clubs. For example, there is an Irish Canadian club around
the corner from my house in Hamilton — but often we connect religious adherence and practice with ethnicity.
Ethnicity is usually defined also against a template of something we vaguely call ‗normalcy‘.
This ‗normalcy‘ is defined by the socially dominant cultural group — and I say socially and culturally dominant
because this model against which others are measured is not necessarily statistically larger than others at all points
in history. This creates some interesting differences in a country like Canada with its official policy of
multiculturalism, as we shall see towards the end of the course, or in England where today there are more practising Catholics than Anglicans.
I will define what I mean when I use this term for this course:
Firstly — Ethnic identity is socially and culturally structured.
Secondly — An ethnic community is a community having real or imagined common characteristics that distinguish
it from other communities.
Thirdly — Many, possibly all, the elements of an individual's personal identity have the potential for group identity
— being Black, being Catholic, having a German name, being short, being a cook. But only a few of these specific
personal characteristics turn at a particular point in time into group identity that cuts across social roles.
Fourthly — The individual identities that most often become group identities are those of national origin, language,
religion, and race.
Finally — Ethnic or group identity can include all or some of these in varying degrees.
For the British Isles, Canada and the U.S., this normalcy has been for some time occupied by people of British origin
who speak English, are Protestant in religion, and are white — again I emphasise this does not imply necessarily
that this group was, or is, statistically dominant in terms of absolute numbers (though it was through much of
history), but that it occupies a position of cultural and social hegemony which dominated the mental
landscape of the British Isles, and America north of Latin America.
For those who did not fit this model, religion often became the chief defence against full assimilation. And it was
around the church that the local community most often gathered as community.
English-Irish Relations & the Impact of the Reformation
There has always been confusion over the terms English, British, Irish and so on. Geographically speaking, the
British Isles include the island of Great Britain, the island of Ireland, and a number of smaller islands and groups of
islands, such as the Isle of Man, the Shetlands, Orkneys. Within these islands there was by the year 1500 a number
of ethnic groups, or nations — the English, Scots, and Welsh in Great Britain, and the Irish in Ireland. Historically
there had always been traffic in people, culture and conquest between Scotland and Ireland principally — prior to the end of the Roman era, the Celts dominated England, Wales and Ireland, while a people named the Picts were
settled in Scotland. Later, Celtic Irish crossed over into Scotland.
Religiously speaking, of course, in 1500 all were one — i.e. Catholic. (See
Since the Middle Ages, the English monarchy had a tenuous hold on Ireland, but more in theory than practice —
King Henry II of England in 1171 had received the homage of the High King of Ireland as his vassal, in return for
support against a Norman Lord who had seized Dublin and set himself up as a king there. But not until the reign of
Henry VIII did the English turn their attention more closely to Ireland.
Henry was concerned that Ireland could be used as an ideal launching site for an invasion of England by sea —
which had been the traditional reason the English had attempted since the Middle Ages to control the island and its
Thus in 1519, while Henry was still a fervent Catholic (and 14 years before he broke with the Catholic Church), he
seriously considered ‗planting‘ Ireland with loyal English colonists who would constitute a kind of permanent English
garrison in Ireland. However, Henry's feasibility study showed that a ‗plantation‘ program would require huge
expenditures for an occupation army. Thus Henry settled instead for a coercive ‗anglicization‘ program under which
the English language and culture — and particularly feudal land law — as well as an English-style parliament would
be forcibly imposed on Ireland. Its most important component was a ‗surrender and re-grant‘ program under which
negotiations and military threats were used to coerce Irish lords to ‗submit‘ to the Crown — i.e., to acknowledge
subservience and surrender their lands — but on condition the lords would receive back the same lands as feudal
fiefdoms. The policy proved moderately successful, as Henry used Irish lords to enforce his feudal rights.
Meanwhile, by 1527, Henry was finding it expedient to address his marital problems, which quickly became
entangled with the ‗Protestant Reformation‘.
Shortly after his success in ousting the Catholic Church, Henry was faced with a rebellion by his Irish supporters —
which he crushed militarily. In 1537, the Irish Parliament (created by Henry VIII) declared the Anglican religion to be
the ‗established‘ (i.e., official) religion of Ireland. There was virtually no indigenous sympathy for reform, which made
the task much more difficult than in England.
Henry did not reckon with the factor of ethnicity — of a sense of being a separate people, who now began to identify their sense of nation with Catholicism, in an oddly reverse image of the gradual identification of Catholicism with
treason in England, and Anglicanism with patriotism and a sense of ethnic national identity there.
In 1541 Henry had himself declared King of Ireland, rather than as its feudal lord — that is, before as King of
England he was feudal overlord of the Irish kings, but now he claimed to be the only king of Ireland.
Henry died in 1547 and, as we have seen, was succeeded by his son, Edward VI (r. 1547–1553), who had little
impact in Ireland, as his Protestant advisors were more concerned with completing the Reformation in England
itself. Edward was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I (r. 1553–1558), the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry
VIII‘s first and Catholic wife. Mary remained a Catholic and officially restored the Catholic religion but, ironically, was
hostile to Ireland for reasons other than religion. She had the same fears of Ireland being used as a base for
invasion as her preceding monarchs, and in fact imposed England's first plantation on Ireland. Mary was succeeded
by her sister Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) who reigned for 43 years, and proved to be one of England's strongest
Elizabeth, as we have seen, re-adopted the Anglican religion — as a middle way, reinstituting the Book of Common
Prayer in a new edition, and imposing fines on individuals (of whatever religion) who failed to attend Anglican
Elizabeth was at first remarkably tolerant of her Irish subjects, in part because she feared they might align with
France and/or Spain, who were both Catholic and both enemies of England. She soon, however, began a campaign
of intimidation — her armies pursued a scorched earth policy against the ordinary Irish and began a full-scale policy
of planting Protestants, mostly Scots and English, on the lands of displaced locals, her intent being the same as that
of her father and of her sister Mary: to anglicize the country. This was a curious contrast to her light treatment within
England and is the beginning of the violent relationship between the English and Irish — ironic given her
reputation for caution and diplomacy.
This prompted one major uprising, that of Hugh O'Neill in 1595 in Ulster in the north. In 1598 help for O'Neill arrived
from Spain: money, ammunition, and a small Spanish force of 4,000 troops, which tended to prove the worries
English monarchs had always had, but they were defeated.
James I, Elizabeth‘s successor, was willing to let the Gaelic lords live on their ancestral lands as English-style
nobles, but not within the old Irish Celtic social system. In 1607 most of the Celtic leadership (99 leaders in all) secretly boarded a ship and sailed for the Continent, never
to return — the ‗Flight of the Earls‘, or so it was called and remembered in Irish history. They could not acquiesce
to a state dominated by Protestantism and a foreign monarch — though it is difficult to say which was the more
important factor. The practical result was to that they left the ordinary Irish to face occupation without their traditional
civil leadership — except the Church. This is a situation we will encounter again with the conquest of New France by
the British more than a century later.
Over the next years the plantation program was instituted even more forcefully and systematically, in an attempt to
anglicize Ireland. There were three major periods of planting Protestant settlers on lands taken from Irish Catholics
(and one minor period, the Marian Plantation).
The Ulster Plantation (1609) occurred in the reign of James I. This involved the confiscation of three million acres
(about 30 percent of the island) all in six counties in west and central Ulster. The Ulster confiscations were directed
almost exclusively at the remaining Celtic lords and their supporters who had rebelled in 1595. Mostly working class
Presbyterians from Scotland were given the lands of those evicted. This formed England's only successful colony in
Ireland — and is the source of the current troubles in Northern Ireland, which may finally in 2007 be coming to an
end, 400 years after the start.
Although Charles I of England (who succeeded his father James I in 1625) was not anti-Catholic, and at first had
extended some relief to Catholic Ireland, his troubles with the Puritan parliament and the beginning of the English
Civil War caused the Irish to attempt to exploit his weakness — they rebelled in 1641. The plan might have worked,
except that parliament and the Puritans won the war in England. In 1649, Cromwell, who was a brilliant general —
and later their political leader — brought his army to Ireland and quashed the rebellion with a savagery that has
Puritans, whatever they thought about Anglicans, were virulently anti-Catholic, and it was during the Cromwellian
era (1649–1660) that anti-Catholic animus reached its highest level in Irish history.
Thus the Cromwellian Plantation, which followed the war in 1652, was the largest and most acrimonious of the
confiscations, reducing Catholic ownership of land to 22 percent, and giving the confiscated land this time to
Cromwell's soldiers (in lieu of back pay) and to investors in the war effort.
By the mid-1660s, the Marian, Ulster and Cromwellian Plantations had created a huge landlord class, many of
whom were absentee landlords — staying in England and leaving management of their estates to others. Their rental income often permitted them to lead lives of leisure, while backbreaking rents had thrust the native Irish into
abject poverty, with 85 percent of the populace living at subsistence level. This laid the foundation for class warfare
— rich versus poor or, more accurately, rich Protestant landlord versus poor Catholic tenant. (See
In 1688–1690, the Irish arose again to take advantage of the battle between James II and parliament which had
invited William of Orange to replace him. They supported the hereditary claimant, James II, who was Catholic,
versus the man who had deposed him — William of Orange and his Stuart wife Queen Mary (one of James II‘s
grand-daughters, though a Protestant). Despite quick defeat in England, James's Catholic army in Ireland remained
intact, and in an effort to regain his rightful throne, James promptly began recruiting new Irish and French troops
from his exile in France. He promised old Celtic Irish leaders that if his war was successful they would recover their
lands and power.
In March 1689, James arrived in Ireland personally to take charge of his army (25,000 strong). He also presided
over a new and largely Catholic parliament, which voted to overturn the earlier plantations. In June 1690, William of
Orange and his army (36,000 troops, mostly non-Irish) arrived to do battle.
At the Battle of the Boyne (July 12, 1690), William's army handily defeated James's forces. In military terms, it was
not a decisive victory, since Irish losses were small and their army lived to fight another day. But James immediately
fled back to France, thereby (in European minds) effectively abandoning his claim to the throne. His forces
continued to fight on for another year, until a treaty, negotiated by William himself, ended the war.
The Treaty was surprisingly generous to Catholics. It provided that Catholics would have the same religious liberty
enjoyed under Charles II, and that those still resisting William, if they took an Oath of Allegiance, would be pardoned
and allowed to keep their property, practise professions, and bear civilian arms. The Catholic general (Sarsfield)
demanded that these concessions apply not only to his own troops, but also to the entire Catholic community: It was
"the first thing insisted upon by them, and agreed to by us", according to one of William's negotiators. But when the
formal Treaty was presented to the English and Irish Parliaments for ratification, this latter provision — called the
‗missing clause‘ — was omitted, thereby facilitating the enactment of anti-Catholic penal laws over the objection of
Thus, there ensued the third and final wave of 17th century plantations — the Williamite Plantation (1693), which
reduced Catholic ownership of land from 22 to 14 percent. Its name is ironic, given the personal opposition of
William to these actions — but parliament, not the king, was now supreme in England. (See http://www.rootsweb.com/~irlkik/ihm/ire1700.htm ) .
These three drives resulted in 81 percent of the productive land in Ireland being confiscated from the native Irish
and transferred to Scots Presbyterians and English Anglicans — who together formed eventually 25 percent of the
population as ethnic groups which differed radically from the native Irish. Also, in Ireland's overwhelmingly agrarian
economy — where land equalled wealth and power (and vice versa) — the Plantations caused a massive transfer of
wealth and power to non-native landlords, whose rents then thrust 85 percent of the natives into poverty.
An attempt was made to force all native Irish into one county, but the realities of the need for farm labour made this
unfeasible, so most were allowed to remain as farm labourers or tenant-farmers.
Summary of the Plantation Era
The Plantations divided Ireland, apartheid-like, into two hostile camps:
• In one camp was 75 percent of the populace: Poverty-stricken, landless, ethnically Irish, Gaelic-speaking, Catholic,
• In the other camp was 25 percent of the population: Affluent landed gentry, ethnically British (English or Scots),
English-speaking, Protestant (Anglican [10%] and Presbyterian [15%]), and politically dominant. These immigrants
thought of themselves as the Crown's colony in Ireland, not as Irishmen (although within a few generations they
began to regard themselves as a ‗Protestant [Irish] nation‘).
The Age of Penal Laws, or The Protestant Ascendency
Between 1694 and 1727, Parliament enacted a penal code for Ireland (actually enacted in a series of laws over
these years) to mirror the anti-Catholic laws in place in England since the reign of Elizabeth. This period would later
be called the ‗Age of Penal Laws‘ or the ‗Protestant Ascendancy‘. The series of laws barred Catholics from
voting, sitting in Parliament, holding office, buying land, or inheriting land from Protestants. The code also decreed
that Catholic lands must be inherited by all sons of a deceased Catholic landowner, rather than just one — ensuring
that wealth based on land would gradually be depleted for Catholics. Education and military service was also
restricted — Catholics were allowed to attend only Anglican schools, and could not hold commissions in the army
(that is, be officers). Finally, Catholic bishops were forbidden from entering Ireland — this latter move being designed to strangle religious practice as bishops were the church‘s local leaders under the Pope, and only bishops
could ordain priests, who performed all the religiously and culturally necessary ceremonies of the local churches.
It is notable, too, that the state church ideal of Anglicanism caused Parliament to place some restrictions on
Presbyterians too — they were barred from officers‘ positions in the military and from holding government offices.
Both groups had to pay a tithe (a tax) to support the Anglican Church of Ireland.
Presbyterians congregated in Ulster in the north, nearest to Scotland. Presbyterianism is a faith which stresses the
local community church — and, although Presbyterian churches do have larger organizations, it is by inclination and
belief a grass-roots sort of church, which allowed it to thrive easily in Ireland. The typical Presbyterian pursued a
middle class livelihood in the linen business or in farming.
Anglicans came in smaller numbers, and were dispersed more often in the south of the island, though also in the
north. More Anglicans were major landowners (this too can be exaggerated, even though it can be said that all the
new Irish aristocracy — the Ascendency — were of English origin). Unlike the closed Presbyterian communities of
the north, they were to integrate more easily into Irish society in the 20th century.
Catholics were forced into ever-deepening poverty — a culture which also bred a disrespect for the law, and an
ever-growing adherence to Catholicism, as religion served to tighten the bonds of community and provide some
measure of organised defiance to the Anglican overlords. But as Roman Catholicism is by definition a top-down
church, rather than grass roots — and as the Pope was far away, and bishops banned — the Catholicism which
flourished in this period would perhaps be unrecognisable as such by other Catholics, then or now. It was a folk
religion (sometimes called ‘folk Catholicism’) in practice, mingled with many of the beliefs and practices of a
pagan past — attendance at Mass, the prime focus of Catholics everywhere, was rare out of necessity at first, then
out of habit. These priests were necessary for rites of passage, i.e. baptism and burial, though less often for
marriage, and only occasionally for liturgy, which were usually held in fields or anonymous houses or even barns to
avoid detection. Most of the priests were recruited and trained outside Ireland by the Jesuits and sent in secretly —
death being the penalty if caught.
This was a period of secret societies: groups banded together by religion to fight secret wars — terrorism really, to
gain momentary advantage in their local districts. On the Catholic side were groups called the ‗Whiteboys‘ and
‗Defenders‘, and on the Protestant side the ‗Hearts of Oak‘, ‗Steelboys‘, and ‗Peep o' Day Boys‘. As you can