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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Catholicism, Oliver Rafferty SJ

Ulster was less susceptible to the Protestant Reformation than the rest of Ireland...

It has long been a canon of Irish historiography that Ulster was less susceptible to the Protestant Reformation than the rest of Ireland. The survival of certain aspects of institutional Catholicism, such as some of the religious houses, into the reign of James I is often adduced as testimony to this fact. At the very least one might say that by the time of the Plantation of Ulster, the province was, for the most part, still outside the parameters of the State-Church.

Protestantism had, however, made some gains especially in east Ulster where the process of English settlement, with its attendant religious implications, predated the formal Plantation. Even here, however, Catholicism was more robust and better off financially than in many other areas of Ireland. A Royal Commission and the army assessments in the 1620s and 1630s show that the Catholic diocese of Down and Connor was among the wealthiest in the country.

The Plantation of Ulster may not have been as utterly disadvantageous to Ulster Catholics as is sometimes thought, but neither was it of much benefit to the native Irish. More importantly the Plantation became a symbol of displacement and an indication of an attempt by the government, however half-hearted, to obliterate Catholicism. The sense of victim-hood that the Plantation would eventually instil in Ulster Catholics resulted in distrust of government and of the Planter religion. Lingering hostilities towards the Planters would find expression in violent and bloody insurrections almost from the beginning of the period and would reach something of an apogee in the slaughter of 1641. Those events would, in the Protestant imagination, cement generational antipathies towards Catholics and lead to political and religious intolerance, which have remained as almost continuous features of Protestant dealings with Catholicism.

did the practice of the faith actually conform to the post-Tridentine European norm...

From the Catholic perspective the social discrimination and exclusion of the Plantation was allied with a sense of suffering that the Ulster Gaels had endured for the Catholic faith. Pope Paul V had acknowledged this in his 1606 brief Clero nobilitati et populo fidelis regni Hiberniae. On the other hand it is reasonable to ask how Catholic was Ulster at the time of the Plantation? In other words did the practice of the faith actually conform to the post-Tridentine European norm? In this matter the evidence is, to say the least, ambiguous.

The Synod of Drogheda of February 1614 claimed that the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-63) had been received and promulgated at a meeting of the Ulster bishops held for that purpose at Clogher in 1587. If Catholicism was to make progress it could only do so by implementing the Counter-reformation strategy outlined by Trent. Yet there is little evidence that the conditions in Ulster would allow such a process to take place. The 1614 Synod was significant for another reason in that it upheld the view by then traditional in Catholic theology, that treasonable activity against the state was inadmissible for Catholics. The Church, the Synod declared, ‘always abhorred treason and conspiracy’. At the same time it was made clear that Catholics could not take the Oath of Supremacy nor conform to the State religion, even in purely external matters. Priests were told not to meddle in politics nor were they to make themselves disagreeable to the civil authorities.

The Protestant Reformation had failed to make headway...

The state of Catholicism in Ulster in the wake of the Plantation was in fact far from the Tridentine ideal. Ulster Catholicism still incorporated many features of folk religion. Superstition was rife and generally speaking priests were not of high intellectual calibre, a feature shared with the Church of Ireland clergy. The practice and administration of the sacraments was much neglected. Towards the end of James I’s reign Robert Blair, not an impartial observer, could say of the Ulster Catholic clergy that they were but ‘ignorant dolts, living in whoredom and drunkenness’.

The fact remains, however, that Catholic identity in the face of the Plantation and its aftermath still remained strong. The Protestant Reformation had failed to make headway. One aspect of the Plantation was precisely the hope that given some deft social engineering on the part of the authorities, Protestantism might take hold. The state of Catholicism was such that it could hardly be described as triumphant. It had survived but not in a way that would necessarily be recognisable as a product of Counter-Reformation zeal. Indeed by the mid-1640s the Papal Nuncio to the Confederation of Kilkenny, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, was appalled at the lack of due religious practice even among bishops.

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