Catholic Church in Ireland

Proportion of respondents to the Ireland census 2011 or the Northern Ireland census 2011 who stated they were Catholic. Areas in which Catholics are in the majority are blue. Areas in which Catholics are in a minority are red.
St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh. Seat of the Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland.

The Catholic Church in Ireland is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the pope in Rome. With 4.7 million members, it is the most populous Christian denomination in Ireland, comprising 71.9 percent of the population. The primatial seat is the Archdiocese of Armagh and the Church ministers to Catholics on an all-island basis. The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference is a consultative body for ordinaries in Ireland.


In 2011, 84.2% of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland[1] and 43.8% of the workforce of Northern Ireland[2] self-identified as Catholic. In the island of Ireland, 4,599,368 people identified themselves as Catholics; 3,861,335 (84.16%) in the Republic of Ireland and 738,033 (40.76%) in Northern Ireland. The combined Catholic populations is 4,599,368 or 71.88% of the overall population.


Gaels and early Christianity

Ireland was evangelised early in the 5th century by missionaries such as Palladius and Saint Patrick. Until the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, the Irish Church practised what is now referred to as Celtic Christianity.

Gregorian Reform and Norman influence

A reform to the Roman style diocesan system developed slowly after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. In 1155, Pope Adrian IV, the English born Pope, issued a papal bull known as Laudabiliter. This gave King Henry II of England permission to invade Ireland as a means of strengthening the Papacy's control over the Irish Church.[3] The Norman invasion of Ireland began in 1169, under the authority of this bull. Adrian IV's successor, Pope Alexander III, ratified the Laudabiliter and gave Henry dominion over the "barbarous nation" of Ireland so that its "filthy practises" may be abolished, its Church brought into line, and that the Irish pay their tax to Rome.[4] After the Norman invasion, a greater number of foreign-born prelates were appointed.

Counter-Reformation and suppression

A confusing but defining period arose during the English Reformation in the 16th century, with monarchs alternately for or against Papal supremacy. When on the Death of Queen Mary in 1558, the church in England and Ireland broke away completely from the Papacy, all but two of the bishops of the Church in Ireland followed the decision.[5] Very few of the local clergy led their congregations to follow. The new body became the established State Church, which was grandfathered in the possession of most Church property. This allowed the Church of Ireland to retain a great repository of religious architecture and other religious items, some of which were later destroyed in future wars. A substantial majority of the population remained Catholic, despite the political and economic advantages of membership in the state church. Despite its numerical minority, however, the Church of Ireland remained the official state church for almost three hundred years until it was disestablished on 1 January 1871 by the Irish Church Act 1869 that was passed by Gladstone's Liberal government.

The effect of the Act of Supremacy 1558 and the Papal bull of 1570 (Regnans in Excelsis) legislated that the majority population of both kingdoms to be governed by an Anglican Ascendancy. After the defeat of King James II of The Three Kingdoms in 1690, the Test Acts were introduced which began a long era of discrimination against the recusant Catholics of the Kingdoms.

Catholic Ireland since Emancipation

The slow process of reform from 1778 on led to Catholic Emancipation in 1829. By then Ireland was a part of the newly created United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Popular traditions

Alongside the church itself, many Irish devotional traditions have continued for centuries as a part of the church's local culture. One such tradition, unbroken since ancient times, is of annual pilgrimages to sacred Celtic Christian places such as St Patrick's Purgatory and Croagh Patrick. Particular emphasis on mortification and offerings of sacrifices and prayers for the 'Holy Souls' of Purgatory is another strong, long time cultural practice. The Leonine Prayers were said at the end of Low Mass for the deceased of Penal Times. "Patterns" (processions) in honour of local saints also continue to this day. Marian Devotion is an element, focused on the shrine at Knock, an approved apparition of the Virgin Mary who appeared in 1879. Feasts and devotions such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1642), and the concepts of martyrology are very prominent elements. Respect for mortification of the flesh has led on to the veneration of Matt Talbot and Padre Pio.


Catholic Dioceses in the island of Ireland

The Church is organized into four ecclesiastical provinces. While these may have coincided with contemporary 12th century civil provinces or petty kingdoms, they are not now coterminous with the modern civil provincial divisions. The church is led by four archbishops and twenty-three bishops; however, because there have been amalgamations and absorptions, there are more than twenty-seven dioceses.[6] For instance, the diocese of Cashel has been joined with the diocese of Emly, Waterford merged with Lismore, Ardagh merged with Clonmacnoise among others. The bishop of the Diocese of Galway is also the Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora. There are 1087 parishes, a few of which are governed by administrators, the remainder by parish priests. There are about 3000 secular clergy—parish priests, administrators, curates, chaplains, and professors in colleges. The Association of Catholic Priests is a voluntary association of clergy in Ireland that claims to have 800 members.

There are also many religious orders, which include: Augustinians, Capuchins, Carmelites, Fathers of the Holy Ghost, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Marists, Missionaries of Charity, Oblates, Passionists, Redemptorists, and Vincentians. The total number of the regular clergy is about 700. They are engaged either in teaching or in giving missions, but not charged with the government of parishes.

Two societies of priests were founded in Ireland, namely St Patrick's Missionary Society with its headquarters in County Wicklow and the Missionary Society of St. Columban which is based in County Meath.

Affiliated groups

As well as numerous religious institutes such as the Dominicans, there are many Irish Catholic-ethos laity groups including the:

Other organizations with Irish branches:

Missionary activity

In the years surrounding the Great Famine in Ireland, the Catholic Church was doing much work to evangelize other nations in the world. As a consequence of the famine, the Parish Mission's Movement commenced that would lead to a stricter observance of Catholicism in Ireland as well as the push for reform of healthcare and education which would later be expanded into the overseas missionary work.[7] Initially inspired largely by Cardinal Newman to convert the colonized peoples of the British Empire, after 1922 the church continued to work in healthcare and education what is now the Third World through its bodies such as Trócaire. Along with the Irish Catholic diaspora in countries like the USA and Australia, this has created a worldwide network, though affected by falling numbers of priests.

Second Vatican Council

In both parts of Ireland, Church policy and practice changed markedly after the Vatican II reforms of 1962. Probably the largest change was that Mass could be said in vernacular languages instead of Latin, and in 1981 the Church commissioned its first edition of the Bible in the Irish language.[8]

Sex abuse scandals

Several reports detailing cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of hundreds of children while in the pastoral care of dozens of priests have been published in 2005–2009. These include the Ferns Report and the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and have led on to much discussion in Ireland about what changes may be needed in the future within the church.

Influence in the Irish Free State and Republic (1922–present)

Political map of Ireland

The Catholic Church has had a powerful influence over Irish society throughout history, but this has diminished in recent decades. The Church's influence meant that the Irish state had very conservative social policies, banning, for example, divorce,[note 1] contraception,[note 2] abortion, pornography as well as encouraging the censoring of many books and films. In addition the Church largely controlled the State's hospitals, schools and remained the largest provider of many other social services.

With the partition of Ireland in 1922, 92.6% of the south's population were Catholic while 7.4% were Protestant.[9] By the 1960s, the Anglican and Protestant population had fallen by half. Although emigration was high among all the population, due to a lack of economic opportunity, the rate of Anglican and Protestant emigration was disproportionate in this period. Many left the country in the early 1920s, to take up other opportunities throughout the Commonwealth. Some felt unwelcome in a predominantly Catholic state. Many simply did not wish to live in an independent Ireland, given the economic disruption caused by the recent violence. Relations were also strained due to the Catholic Church's policy of Ne Temere, whereby the children of marriages between Catholics and Protestants had to be brought up as Catholics.[note 3] After the end of World War II, the emigration rate of Protestants fell and they became less likely to emigrate than Catholics – indicating their integration into the life of the Irish State.

Fewer than one in five Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday in Dublin with many young people only retaining a marginal interest in religion the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said in May 2011.[10] In some areas less than 2% of the Catholic population attend Mass.[11] According to an Ipsos MRBI poll by the Irish Times, the majority of Irish Catholics do not attend mass weekly, with almost 62% rejecting key parts of Catholicism such as transubstantiation.[12]


In Ireland the church had significant influence on public opinion. It had wrested control of the national primary school system from the state from the introduction of the Irish Education Act (1831) of Lord Stanley. It was associated with the Jacobite movement until 1766, and with Irish nationalism after Catholic emancipation was secured in 1829. The church was resurgent between 1829 and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869–71, when its most significant leaders included Bishop James Doyle, Cardinal Cullen and Archbishop MacHale. The hierarchy supported the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s, and its offshoots, and the policy of Irish Home Rule in 1886–1920. It did not support the Irish republican movement until 1921, in spite of support from many individual priests, and opposed the anti-Treaty side in the Irish civil war. Despite this relative moderation, Irish Protestants were concerned that a self-governing Ireland would result in "Rome Rule" instead of home rule, and this became an element in (or an excuse for) the creation of Northern Ireland.

The church continued to have great influence in Ireland. Éamon de Valera's 1937 constitution, while granting freedom of religion, recognised the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church". Major popular church events attended by the political world have included the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and the Papal Visit in 1979. The last prelate with strong social and political interests was Archbishop McQuaid, who retired in 1972.

It has been confirmed that Pope Francis is to visit Ireland in 2018.Ireland’s Catholic bishops extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the country in August 2018 for the World Meeting of Families.[13]


After independence in 1922, the Church became more heavily involved in health care and education, raising money and managing institutions which were staffed by Catholic religious institute, paid largely by government intervention and public donations and bequests. Its main political effect was to continue to gain power in the national primary schools where religious proselytisation in education was a major element. The hierarchy opposed the free public secondary schools service introduced in 1968 by Donogh O'Malley, in part because they ran almost all such schools. The church's strong efforts since the 1830s to continue the control of Catholic education was primarily an effort to guarantee a continuing source of candidates for the priesthood, as they would have years of training before entering a seminary.[14]

As Irish society has become more diverse and secular, Catholic control over primary education has become controversial, especially with regard to preference given to baptized Catholics when schools are oversubscribed. Virtually all state-funded primary schools — almost 97 percent — are under church control. Irish law allows schools under church control to consider religion the main factor in admissions. Oversubscribed schools often choose to admit Catholics over non-Catholics, a situation that has created difficulty for non-Catholic families. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva asked Ireland's minister for children, James Reilly, to explain the continuation of preferential access to state-funded schools on the basis of religion. He said that the laws probably needed to change, but noted it may take a referendum because the Irish constitution gives protections to religious institutions. The issue is most problematic in the Dublin area. A petition initiated by a Dublin attorney, Paddy Monahan, has received almost 20,000 signatures in favor of overturning the preference given to Catholic children. A recently formed advocacy group, Education Equality, is planning a legal challenge.[15]

Health care

From 1930, hospitals were funded by a sweepstake (lottery) with tickets frequently distributed or sold by nuns or priests. In 1950, the Church opposed the Mother and Child Scheme.

Many hospitals in Ireland are still run by Catholic religious institutes. For example, the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin is run by the Sisters of Mercy. In 2005, the hospital deferred trials of a lung cancer medication because female patients in the trial would be required to practise contraception contrary to Catholic teaching.[16] Mater Hospital responded that its objection was that some pharmaceutical companies mandated that women of childbearing years use contraceptives during the drug trials: "The hospital said it was committed to meeting all of its legal requirements regarding clinical trials while at the same time upholding the principles and ethos of the hospital's mission", and "that individuals and couples have the right to decide themselves about how they avoid pregnancy."[17]

Sexual morality and censorship

Divorce allowing remarriage was banned in 1924 (though it had been rare), and selling artificial contraception was made illegal. The Church's influence slipped somewhat after 1970, impacted partly by the media and the growing feminist movement. For instance the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 showed the ability of the Catholic Church to force the government into a compromise situation over artificial contraception, though unable to get the result it wanted; contraception could now be bought, but only with a prescription from a doctor and supplied only by registered chemists. In the 1983 Amendment to the constitution introduced the constitutional prohibition of abortion, which the Church supported, though abortion for social reasons remains illegal under Irish statute law. However the Church failed to influence the June 1996, removal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce. While the church had opposed divorce allowing remarriage in civil law, its canon law allowed for a law of nullity and a limited divorce "a mensa et thoro", effectively a form of marital separation. The Church helped reinforce public censorship and maintained its own list of banned literature until 1966, which influenced the State's list.[18][19]

In spite of objections from Catholic hierarchy, voters in Ireland approved a referendum to legalize Same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland in 2015. In September 2010, an Irish Times/Behaviour Attitudes survey of 1,006 people showed that 67% felt that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. This majority extended across all age groups, with the exception of the over-65s, while 66% of Catholics were in favour of same-sex marriage. Only 25% disagreed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, opposition that was concentrated among older people and those in rural areas. In terms of same-sex adoption, 46% were in support of it and 38% opposed. However, a majority of females, 18- to 44-year-olds, and urban dwellers supported the idea. The survey also showed that 91% of people would not think less of someone who came out as homosexual, while 60% felt the recent civil partnership legislation was not an attack on marriage.[20]

War-time censorship by the government for security was strict and included the church; when bishops spoke on aspects of the war, they were censored and treated "with no more ceremony than any other citizen"[21] While statements and pastoral letters issued from the pulpit were not interfered with, the quoting of them in the press was subject to the censor.[22]

Influence in Northern Ireland

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 acted as the constitution of Northern Ireland, in which was enshrined freedom of religion for all of Northern Ireland's citizens.[23] Here Catholics formed a minority of some 35 percent of the population, which had mostly supported Irish nationalism and was therefore historically opposed to the creation of Northern Ireland.

The Roman Catholic schools' council was at first resistant in accepting the role of the government of Northern Ireland, and initially accepted funding only from the government of the Irish Free State and admitting no school inspectors. Thus it was that the Lynn Committee presented a report to the government, from which an Education Bill was created to update the education system in Northern Ireland, without any co-operation from the Roman Catholic section in education. Instead, with regard to the Roman Catholic schools, the report relied on the guidance of a Roman Catholic who was to become the Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Education — A. N. Bonaparte Wyse
We hope that, notwithstanding the disadvantage at which we were placed by this action, it will be found that Roman Catholic interests have not suffered. We have throughout been careful to keep in mind and to make allowance for the particular points of view of Roman Catholics in regard to education so far as known to us, and it has been our desire to refrain as far as we could from recommending any course which might be thought to be contrary to their wishes.[24]
Lynn Commission report, 1923

Many commentators have suggested that the separate education systems in Northern Ireland after 1921 prolonged the sectarian divisions in that community. Cases of gerrymandering and preference in public services for Protestants led on to the need for a Civil Rights movement in 1967.

See also


  1. Divorce was permitted under the Constitution of the Irish Free State. The ban on divorce was introduced with the 1937 constitution. The ban was repealed in 1995. The ban did provide for separation. Nonetheless it forbade remarriage.
  2. The sale of contraceptives was banned until 1979. They were regarded as medical items thereafter, and were only available from pharmacies; see . Other outlets issued them freely, accepting donations and, as this was not selling, it was legal; see Contraception in the Republic of Ireland. Other countries had a total ban: in the United States, for example, laws in some states prohibited contraception to married couples until the Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965; unmarried couples had to wait until the 1972 ruling Eisenstadt v. Baird.
  3. The Ne Temere decree was issued in 1908. It applied world-wide, and it caused problems in several countries. In one Irish instance, a court ruled, in 1957, that such a pre-nuptial agreement was legally binding. This led to the Fethard-on-Sea boycott. Many, including Éamon de Valera condemned the incident. Ne Temere was criticised by the Second Vatican Council and repealed by Pope Paul VI in 1970, declaring: "The penalties decreed by canon 2319 of the Code of Canon Law are all abrogated. For those who have already incurred them the effects of those penalties cease" (see ).


  1. "Table 36: Persons, male and female, classified by religious denomination with actual percentage change, 2006 and 2011" (PDF). This is Ireland, Highlights from Census 2011, Part 1. Central Statistics Office. p. 104. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  3. Austin Lane Poole. From Domesday book to Magna Carta, 1087–1216. Oxford University Press 1993. pp. 303–304.
  4. Hull, Eleanor. "POPE ADRIAN'S BULL "LAUDABILITER" AND NOTE UPON IT", from A History of Ireland and Her People (1931).
  5. Brady, W. Maziere (1867). The Irish Reformation: or The Alleged Conversion of the Irish Bishops at the Accession of Queen Elizabeth. London: Longmans, Green & Co. pp. xi.
  6. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 May 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-28.
  7. Larkin, Emmet (June 1972). "The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-75". The American Historical Review. 77 (3): 625–652. doi:10.2307/1870344.
  8. An Biobla Naofa, Irish Bible Society, Maynooth 1981 ed. Pádraig Ó Fiannachta.
  9. M.E.Collins, Ireland 1868–1966, (1993) p431
  10. Smyth, Jamie (30 May 2011). "Fewer than one in five attend Sunday Mass in Dublin". The Irish Times.
  12. O'BRIEN, CARL. "Many Catholics 'do not believe' church teachings". Irish Times. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
  13. "Pope Francis' 2018 visit to Ireland will be a great gift - Archbishop Diarmuid Martin". The Journal. 28 November 2016.
  14. E. Brian Titley "Church, State and the control of schooling in Ireland 1900–1944"; McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, New York 1983.
  15. Catholic Church’s Hold on Schools at Issue in Changing Ireland The New York Times, January 21, 2016
  16. "Ruth Dudley Edwards: Scandal shows how prone we are to hypocrisy and hysteria". Irish Independent. 21 March 2010.
  17. "Mater responds to drug trial controversy". RTÉ News. 3 October 2005. Retrieved 13 July 2011.
  18. Curtis, Maurice (2008). The Splendid Cause. The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Dublin: Greenmount Publications/Original Writing. ISBN 978-1-906018-60-3.
  19. Curtis, Maurice (2009). Influence and Control: The Catholic Action Movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Lulu. ISBN 978-0-557-05124-3.
  20. "Yes to gay marriage and premarital sex: a nation strips off its conservative values". Irish Times. 9 September 2010. Retrieved 15 September 2010.
  21. Whyte, John Henry (1980). Church and state in modern Ireland. Gill & Macmillan. p. 375. ISBN 978-0-7171-1368-2.
  22. O Drisceoil, Donal (1996). Censorship in Ireland. Cork University Press. p. 221. ISBN 1-85918-074-4.
  23. His Majesty's Government (23 December 1920). "The Constitution of Northern Ireland being the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, as amended (Clause 5)". Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1956. Retrieved 13 February 2007.
  24. Morrison, John (1993). "The Ulster Government and Internal Opposition". The Ulster Cover-Up. Northern Ireland: Ulster Society (Publications). p. 40. ISBN 1-872076-15-7.

Further reading

External links

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