'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.
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
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.