Allegoric statue of "Tolerance", depicted as a seated woman with a torch in her right hand, and a shield on her left with the words "Concordia religionum" (harmony in religions).

Toleration in 18th century Ireland

This year, World Philosophy Day (17th November 2016) is celebrated immediately after International Day for Tolerance (16th November every year). The theme for World Philosophy Day 2016, therefore, is Tolerance.

In her message on World Philosophy Day 2016, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova has this to say on tolerance and philosophy1:

Philosophy does not offer any ready-to-use solutions, but a perpetual quest to question the world and try to find a place in it. Along this road, tolerance is both a moral virtue and a practical tool for dialogue. It has nothing to do with the naive relativism that claims everything is equally valid; it is an individual imperative to listen, all the more striking because it is founded on a resolute commitment to defend the universal principles of dignity and freedom.

While an accurate description of the ideal of tolerance, it should be remembered that tolerance was not obviously a virtue in the past. It had to be argued for, and the acceptance of toleration waxed and waned over time. 

In the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, toleration was generally a term of insult. The Thirty-Year War and the Eighty-Year War sought to establish right religion within Europe. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw all countries recognise the 1555 Peace of Augsburg in which each ruler would have the right to determine the religion of his own state while allowing other Christians to worship privately and (limitedly) in public. This had some strange ramifications in Ireland.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Church in Ireland was the established church, but the vast majority of the population did not conform to it. Approximately 80% of the population were Catholic, 12% Church of Ireland and 8% Presbyterian (the latter concentrated mostly in Ulster and Dublin). While not unique, this was highly unusual in eighteenth century Europe2. In Dublin; the seat of government, education and trade; about half the population around 1720 were members of the established church, with 40% of the remainder Catholics and 10% dissenters, mostly Presbyterian but also including Huguenots, Quakers, Moravians, Lutherans, Baptists and Anabaptists 3. There was even a small Jewish community.

While other religions were free to worship (at least, as long as they avoided accusations of blasphemy), those outside the Established Church suffered civil disabilities. Dissenters could not hold public office, perform marriages or run schools. Catholics faced even more restrictions, severly restricting clergy, inheritance, property that could be owned, education and employment (see the summary here and this website for details of the statutes.) This was justified on the basis that Catholics owed their primary alligence to a foreign power (the pope) who claimed the authority to depose protestant rulers. Moreover, it was argued, “men have a natural right to Liberty and Protection, until they forfeit that Right by their evil Behaviour: yet not to Honors and Employments.” A bare toleration to profess your faith without suffering imprisonment or death was all the law provided for. 4

Plaque marking the original location of the French Huguenot Church and Cemetery (c) William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Plaque marking the original location of the French Huguenot Church and Cemetery
(c) William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The first relief was under George I, with the enactment in Ireland of the Toleration Act in 1719, which granted Dissenters freedom of worship and allowed them to run schools. The Dissenters argued that the Test Acts and other restrictions should also be lifted. For example, in a sermon preached in November 1723, the Huguenot minister Gaspar Caillard argued in a sermon that not only was intolerance immoral, but irrational and imprudent. It is imprudent since enforcing a set of beliefs undermines society: it leads groups to take a defensive stance against other groups, destroying public order. It is irrational since, while coercion can lead people to accept a belief outwardly, it cannot alter their inner convictions. It is immoral because coercion’s inability to change inner beliefs means it can only breed lies and hypocrisy, and because individuals have the right to self-determination5.

However this toleration was not to be extended to Catholics. The sermon was preached on 5th November, commemorating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. In a later sermon, Caillard established the limits of toleration. While still endorsing the individual right to self-determination, Caillard argues there is a limitation on religious freedom: that such freedom not be harmful to religion in general or society as a whole. (Of course, what “harmful” means has been a contentous issue, and would be more so in the confessionally divided Dublin where Caillard spoke.) Those who do not belong to the Established Church are categorised by Caillard into heretics (those whose beliefs justify wrongdoing, including blasphemers and atheists), “false religionists” (those who hold principles which might be harmful to the state, such as Catholics) and the “erring” (Dissenters). The first should be prevented spreading their beliefs, the second if present permitted to continue in existence with restictions and the third (surprisingly) to also be subject to restrictions6.

These limitations on public office and spreading of their beliefs for Dissenters were not aceptable to John Abernathy. His sermons argued for lifting the Test Act, and responses to his work led to him drafting a comprehensive case for toleration with William Bruce. In Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test (1733), Bruce and Abernathy argued that the Test Act was against religion since punishing people for their religious beliefs was unchristian and contrary to the gospel, and it turned Communion in the Established Church (the Test in the Test Act) into a means of advancement. They also made the case that the Test infringed civil liberty and natural rights. Finally they argued that the Test Acts did not protect the Established Church, and in fact weakened Protestant interests against Catholics. However, they do make one concession: the penal laws should be curbed out of “humanity and a regard to the mild institutions of the Gospel”7

Cornelius Nary (detail) © UCD OFM, with permission
Cornelius Nary (detail) © UCD OFM, with permission
But in what way could the laws be curbed? Cornelius Nary, a Dublin Catholic priest made one suggestion. In his pamphlet The Case of the Roman Catholics in Ireland (1723) he argues that the Penal Laws breach the articles of the Treaty of Limerick. Breaking of a Treaty is a crime against Heaven and Heaven will punish it, as Louis XIV was punished, says Nary, for breaking the Edict of Nantes. The Treaty of Limerick allowed the same freedom of religion as had held under Charles II and asked for an oath of allegiance rather than the Oath of Abduration8

An oath swearing loyalty to the king was one possible way to lift the burden of the Penal Laws from Catholics. Cornelius Nary may have discussed the wording of a such oath with Edward Synge, Bishop of Tuam. Synge had advocated an oath as a means to allow loyal Catholics to participate in civil society. Synge’s son, also Edward (and friend of Francis Hutcheson) preached a sermon in 1725 arguing for limited toleration for Catholics who demonstrated their loyalty to the state. But there was no desire in the Irish Parliament to curtail the powers of the Established Church, so the Penal Laws and Test Act remained. It should also be noted that this version of toleration continued to assume that Catholics were to be distrusted unless proved otherwise.

Religious divisions were not the only thing plaguing Ireland. Economic woes haunted the landscape, resulting in food shortages. Dissenters in particular emigrated in large numbers. Clearly something needed to be done: a need that expressed itself in the creation of what Michael Brown calls the “Social Enlightenment”. This expressed itself in the creation of suggestions and models for improvement and in the founding of societies and clubs, “rejecting the confessional divisions of Irish society to the extent that they emphasised the need for all parties in the country to commit to creating a civil society.”9 As well as Freemasons and solidarities, the Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy, this period saw the foundation of the Catholic Association (later the Catholic Committee) by Charles O’Connor and John Curry in 1756, which revived Edward Synge’s old project of creating an oath to demonstrate Catholic loyalty10. It died away in 1763, only to revive again as the Irish Enlightenment became politicised due to factors with little to do with confessional divisions11.

This period, the “Political Enlightenment”, saw the Penal Laws finally being relaxed against Catholics. While Enlightenment values may have been a factor, a major issue was the need for army recruits, particularly as relations worsened with the American colonies. The first acts allowed longer leases on land and, in 1774, permitted any subject of George III to swear their loyalty to him. The Capuchin priest Arthur O’Leary published in 1776 Loyalty asserted. : or, The new test oath, vindicated, and proved by the principles of the canon and civil laws, and the authority of the most eminent writers aimed at reassuring Catholics of the propriety of swearing the new oath and explaining what in his view the relationship of monarch and pope actually was. (Part of his argument was aimed at pointing out how very little good the Stuart line had ever done for Ireland.)

O’Leary published his major work, Essay on Toleration, or Plea for Liberty of Conscience in 1780, which called on not only the Church fathers, but Grotius and Locke to outline principles of toleration. The core of his argument was that government was a social contract, with power given to protect the people from wrong-doers (ie those who committed crimes or disturb society). Belief was not wrong-doing, but a gift from God which the state could neither give nor take away. Thus the penal code was mistaken. Its abolition would have positive results at home and abroad: “the kingdom would soon flourish, and the brilliant example, set to such princes as have not as yet thrown open the gates of toleration would rescue mankind from the heavy yoke which misconstrued religion has laid on their necks.”12.

In the 1780s the Volunteer movement (a network of voluntary militias aimed at preserving law and order and defending against invasion, started in 1778) agitated for government reform. Controlled locally, and associated with debating societies, they were fertile ground for liberal ideas. Elements within the movement wanted further Catholic toleration13.

The burgeoning social pressure saw Acts in 1782 which recognised Presbyterian marriages, allowed Catholics to teach, be guardians, own land and removed penal restrictions from registered priests. The following year the Irish Parliament achieving independance from Westminster, also due to pressure from the Volunteers. Under the independent “Grattan parliament” futher relief acts followed in 1792 and 1793 (allowing Catholics to be lawyers, to vote under the same terms as Protestants, to serve on juries and be educated in Trinity College.) Pressure for these changes had come from both the Catholic Committee (revived in the 1790s after being in hiatus from 1784) and the United Irishmen, notably the 1790 pamphlet by Wolfe Tone, the Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.

In 1797 the United Irishmen swore an oath declaring among other things that there could be no solution to the problems of Ireland which did not include Irishmen of all persuasions. The following year, they staged a revolt in the name of that oath. The rising itself revealed sectarian feeling even within the ranks of the United Irishmen themselves.

The suppression of the revolt resulted in the Act of Union, with Ireland ruled directly from Westminster. Despite Catholic hopes, further emancipation did not result until a campaign started by Daniel O’Connell in 1823 achieved full emancipation for British and Irish Catholics in 1829. At the same time, sectarianism was on the increase in Ireland. Legal toleration had been achieved, but tolerance within Irish society seemed further away.

The day after Philosophy Day 2016 is the 369th year since the birth of Pierre Bayle (18th November 1647). Bayle’s main focus was on toleration, declaring that toleration should extend to all religions and to atheism 14 However he was very much the exception in his time and for centuries afterwards. The history of increasing religious toleration in 18th century Ireland shows that philosophical argument can and has been used both for and against toleration. Neither is argument enough to grow tolerance within society: social and political pressures have important effects. And most importantly, the fight for tolerance is an ongoing one. History tells us tolerance can all too easily slip away.

Allegoric statue of "Tolerance", depicted as a seated woman with a torch in her right hand, and a shield on her left with the words "Concordia religionum" (harmony in religions).Featured Image: Allegorical statue of “Tolerance” in Brno-Lužánky Park, Czech.
Dezidor/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Further Reading

Thomas Bartlett (1993) “The Catholic Question in the Eighteenth Century” History Ireland Vol. 1, Issue 1. (online)

Ruth Whelan & Carol Baxter (eds) Toleration and Religious Identity: The Edict of Nantes and its Implications in France, Britain and Ireland Four Courts Press, Dublin

Michael Brown (2016) The Irish Enlightenment Harvard University Press.


  1. Irina Bokova (2016) “World Philosophy Day 2016: Message from Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO” on UNESCO website.
  2. Nigel Yates Eighteenth Century Britain: Religion and Politics 1714-1815 London: Routledge, p. 14.
  3. Patrick Fagan (1991) “The Population of Dublin in the Eighteenth Century with Particular Reference to the Proportions of Protestants and Catholics” in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Vol. 6 (1991), pp. 121-156 (see p. 135). Colm Lennon (2009) Dublin 1610 to 1756: The making of the modern city, Dublin: RIA, p. 9.
  4. Robert Eccleshall (1993) “Anglican Political Thought After the 1688 revolution” in D.G. Boyce, Robert Eccleshall and Vincent Geoghegan, Political thought in Ireland since the Seventeenth century, London:Routledge, pp. 37-72. See p. 46. Quotation from William Hamilton, A sermon preach’d . . . the fifth of November, 1725 p. 18, quoted in Eccleshall (1993) p. 46.
  5. Whelan, Ruth (2003) “Repressive toleration: the Huguenots in early eighteenth-century Dublin” in Ruth Whelan & Carol Baxter (eds) Toleration and Religious Identity: The Edict of Nantes and its Implications in France, Britain and Ireland Four Courts Press, Dublin, pp. 179-196 (Maynooth University eprint. See pp 186-7.
  6. Whelan (2003), pp. 187-192.
  7. John Abernathy (1757) Scarce & Valuable Tracts, p. 60. Also see A public-spirited citizen: William Bruce on this blog.
  8. For more see Catholic Controversialist: Cornelius Nary on this blog.
  9. Michael Brown (2016) The Irish Enlightenment Harvard University Press, p. 170.
  10. Brown (2016), pp. 297-300
  11. Thomas Bartlett (1993) “The Catholic Question in the Eighteenth Century” History Ireland Vol. 1, Issue 1. (online))
  12. Arthur O’Leary (1781) “Essay on Toleration” in Miscellaneous Tracts, Dublin: John Chambers, p. 392 (google books)
  13. Brown (2016) pp. 345-404.
  14. Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, “Pierre Bayle”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>. Tim Madigan (2014) “The Comet Cometh” Philosophy Now issue 103 (online).
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