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 Catholic Synods in Ireland 1600-1690
Alison Forrestal

 English Historical Review
‘Throughout the first ninety years of the seventeenth century the Catholic church in Ireland is known to have held sixty-six synods.  The resulting decrees survive for forty-three.  These furnish the material which is methodically analysed by Alison Forrestal in Catholic Synods in Ireland, 1600-1690. Her careful study brings more sharply into focus the ambitions of Ireland's clerical leaders.  In essentials, these spiritual directors shared the objectives identified by the Council of Trent.  Doctrine and local practice were to be conformed to those of the international church.  The authority of pope, curia and bishops were to be upheld.  It was also hoped that improvements in the numbers and preparation of the clergy would then bring about better understanding and behaviour among the laity.  Ms Forrestal argues that the appearance in Ireland of comprehensive and effective diocesan and parochial organizations came about only when the relaxed official attitudes of the 1620s coincided with an invigorated Tridentine mission to Ireland.  For the first time it became practicable for synods to promulgate detailed instructions for the clergy and lay people.  These hopeful beginnings were arrested during the disturbed 1640s and 1650s.  Yet, as early as 1658, signs of less oppressive conditions allowed the hierarchy to resume its schemes.  Expectations that the restored Stuarts would treat Irish catholics more generously were fully realized only with the short reign of James II.  Yet, as early as 1672, before he was identified publicly as a Catholic, James Stuart was being prayed for according to the authorized liturgy of the Irish Catholics.  Already, it would seem, he had been identified as the best hope for a permanent end to persecution.  Generally more propitious circumstances under the later Stuarts allowed ecclesiastical structures to be strengthened.  An index of the prevalent forbearance is the greater frequency of diocesan and provincial synods.  However, Forrestal judges that in their larger ambitions the Irish bishops only partially succeeded.  The parish priesthood, although modestly increased in numbers, still harboured the vicious, venal or ignorant.  Regulars and seculars competed for the offerings of the prospering laity.  Acrimonious squabbles among the clergy impeded any unified onslaught on error.  Above all, the intermittent war waged against lay laxity did little to amend the customs surrounding birth, marriage and death or the superstitious regard for holy places and objects.  Constantly alert to the divergences between intention and achievement, this cautious and convincing study considerably expands knowledge of seventeenth-century Irish religion.  Much of the programme described here resembled the endeavours of Protestant contemporaries to reform manners. What now invites further consideration is the degree to which these Irish efforts matched or varied what was being done by the Tridentine clergy elsewhere in Europe. That such comparisons now seem possible is a measure of Ms Forrestal’s achievement’ T.C. Barnard, English Historical Review.

 Recusant History (October 1999)
'Much of the work of the synods 1600-1690 was concerned with bringing into effect the instructions of the Council of Trent, especially in relation to the celebration of the mass and the sacraments. The author’s investigations disclose much about the pre-Tridentine beliefs and practices of the people. This is not the least interesting part of the book. It will come as a surprise to some not familiar with the period that the priest offered mass behind a screen, and that although the element of sacrifice was accepted, the provincial Synod of Armagh, 1614, felt it necessary to urge that the laity be instructed that the body and blood of Christ were offered in the Eucharist. Mass tended often to be seen as semi-magical, and the number of masses offered for one was deemed of central importance. The quantitative approach was also applied to private prayers – so many Our Fathers and Hail Marys, so many rosaries, the number of times, on the Lough Derg pilgrimage, the pilgrim went around the chapel on his/her knees, and so on.

The author writes interestingly of Sin and Reconciliation, of Baptism, and of Marriage. Baptism was frequently by immersion, but the synods brought an end to this, particularly where young children were concerned because of fears for their health. The sacrament was often conducted in private houses in the closing years of the sixteenth century. This the author sees as an indication that Baptism was viewed ‘as primarily a means of social regeneration and kin solidarity’. May it not rather suggest that there was persecution, few active priests, and that churches were not available? On Marriage there is an amount of material indicating the fluid nature of arrangements in pre-Tridentine times. The ceremony was frequently arranged without the consent of the participants, and between children. Kinship purposes were a key factor. The ceremony was frequently arranged without the consent of the participants, and between children. Kinship purposes were a key factor. The ceremony was not infrequently conducted without a priest being present, particularly in disturbed times, cohabitation was widespread, the nature of the couple’s commitment in marriage was in question, given the circumstances of the marriage and, linked to this, perhaps was the easy tolerance of divorce. Marriage prior to 1612 Ws often held outside the door of the church, which suggested to the author that marriage was seen as a social process rather than as a solemn religious rite. It may also suggest, perhaps, that, then as now, marriage was seen as both, rather than as one at the expense of the other.

The book underlines the desire mirrored in the synods to bring about uniformity of practice in the Irish church, and thereby bring it into line with post-Tridentine churches in Europe. A factor in this were the religious orders. The author makes references to the early Jesuits in Ireland, but pays little or no attention to the friars who were far more plentiful in the country. Strangely, there is no reference to the impact of the Irish colleges on the continent, where the priests who returned to Ireland were imbued with the teachings of the Council of Trent. These colleges, as a result, have been described, perhaps excessively, as the power-houses of the Counter-Reformation in Ireland.

The middle years of the seventeenth century were marked by the confederate wars and the puritan régime. By the 1660s, therefore, much of the earlier work was undone, and religious worship and parochial organisation were in a chaotic condition. The Williamite wars further disrupted recovery. By the 1690s, as a result, the Catholic reform in Ireland might be seen to have made little progress from the start of the century, particularly in the realms of doctrinal understanding, morality and superstition. Hence, as the author notes, a ‘deep-rooted sense of Counter-Reformation morality had not been implanted in the minds of the laity and many of the clergy by the close of the century, despite the efforts of the synods and zealous ministers.’ Nevertheless, ‘outward piety and a sense of loyalty to the Catholic faith existed within the parish structure of observance’, and there was reverence of  the power of the sacraments and this rendered ‘clerical authority and status … quite high by the closing decades of the century’. The emphasis on bringing practice into line with the Counter-Reformation church necessarily established a distance from the heretical beliefs associated with the Anglican church, and was in line with the contemporary neo-Thomist teaching on the separation of church and state.

The author’s work is highly condensed, but repays application. It is a welcome addition to seventeenth century scholarship' Thomas J. Morrissey, S.J. Resucant History.

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