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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Ireland before the Plantation

The religious system

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Muirdeach's Cross, Monasterboice,
Co. Louth

'Once I asked about their faith, and what they believed in, but they were not at all pleased by the question and I had to stop. They said that they believed in God and the Trinity, just the same as us, with no difference whatever'. This conversation - reported by the chronicler Froissart - between a 14th century Anglo-Irish squire and some leading Gaelic chieftains showed extraordinary misunderstanding, since the Anglo-Normans - after their invasion of Ireland - had enthusiastically adopted the cult of Irish saints such as Patrick and Brigid, and both communities belonged to the same organised church, under the primacy of the archbishop of Armagh.

Bardic religious poems show the Irish were reading - in Gaelic translation - the same popular religious tracts and Saints' Lives as those circulating among English lay-people just prior to the Reformation. The contrasts were mainly administrative, especially in Armagh diocese, between Armagh-among-the-Irish (Counties Tyrone and Armagh) and Armagh-among-the-English (Co. Louth). The medieval archbishops of Armagh were Anglo-Irishmen living in Co. Louth, exercising only a partial control - through their Gaelic-Irish deans - over 'Armagh-among-the-Irish'.

By the 12th century many Early church sites had no monks or clergy. Instead hereditary tenants farmed the church lands, under lay abbots known as 'erenaghs' - Irish 'oirchinneach' or 'superior' - in the case of smaller church sites; and 'coarbs' - Irish 'comharba' or 'heir' - who governed the principal shrine in a network of church sites dedicated to a single saint.

Stained glass image of St Patrick

Stained glass image of St Patrick

Colonists reallocated these 'termon-lands' - or 'sanctuary-lands' - to parish priests, or new monastic orders like Benedictines, or the barons simply annexed them. Meanwhile in Gaelic Ireland the 'termon-men' realised they needed a new legal status inside the church to avoid being taxed as ordinary laymen by the chiefs. They transferred ownership of their lands to the diocesan bishops. Those remaining on the lands were now the bishops' tenants. 'Erenaghs' and 'coarbs' functioned as stewards, collecting rents and tithes. This revenue went to the rector and vicar of each parish, the bishop and the erenagh himself, who spent some on the maintenance of the church buildings.

Lay erenaghs knew Latin and still claimed spiritual powers of blessing and cursing as guardians of the relics of their founder saints. Ulster parish clergy were recruited from erenagh families, making the clerical profession hereditary. Bardic poets, historians and judges were often drawn from erenagh families also. With this ambiguity between clerics and laymen, wives and mistresses of ordained clergy could enjoy social acceptance, despite canon law. The laity, however, reserved their deepest respect for the celibate, highly-educated Franciscan friars. Most churches in Ulster had been beyond the authority of the English crown. After the Plantation these church lands passed to the king as head of the reformed church, and the erenaghs became tenants of the Protestant bishops. Some conformed and became rectors in the established church, with varying degrees of sincerity. Some were evicted and became bitter adherents of the Counter-Reformation.

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Image of Prof. Maire Herbert Large monasteries became like rich corporations with large tracts of land.
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Prof. Maire Herbert, Lecturer in Early and Medieval Irish, University College Cork
Image of Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle The Jesuits were involved in political matters and supported the chieftains.
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Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Reader in Irish and Celtic Studies, Queens University Belfast
Image of Dr. Salvador Ryan The Franciscans revived religious traditions in late medieval Gaelic Ireland.
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Dr. Salvador Ryan, Late Medieval historian
Image of Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin The Franciscans formed the backbone of religious and cultural resistance.
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Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Lecturer in Medieval Irish History, University College Cork
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