Luther stands in front of the church doors as his theses are nailed to it. A watching crowd has mixed reactions: friars leave angrily, one well-dressed man cheers, most look on in curiosity.

Perspectives on Ireland and the Reformation

Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, on 31 October 1517. He may also have fixed them to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on that day, but there is no contemporary evidence of it. The first reference to the supposed nailing of the theses is in 1558 (twelve years after Luther’s death) from Philip Melanchthon, an ally of Luther who was not in Wittenberg in 1517. If the theses was fixed to the church door, a practice at the time, one would have expected in line with that practice that they would have been fixed by wax1

Very early in the history of Protestantism, history became important. Confronted with the question of “where was your church before Luther” a succession of scholars set out to establish that their church was not new, starting with Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574) 2 Luther was not the first to call for reform in the Church, and forebears could be traced: Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. And before Wycliffe, at least according to John Foxe (born in 1517), an Irishman: Richard FitzRalph.

John Foxe’s ACTES and Monumentes touching things DONE AND PRACTISED BY THE Prelats of the Romishe Churche was published in English in 1563, and was popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This work, published early in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, sought to establish the continuity of the English church with the original Christian Church. Foxe’s account ended with the suppression of Protestantism by Mary I. Four editions were printed in Foxe’s lifetime, and after his death his work formed the basis for other versions of “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” including new material, frequently including the Irish rebellion of 16413

In Foxe’s 1570 edition, he mentions Richard FitzRalph in Book 5 (modernised spelling)4:

IN the Catalog of these learned & zealous defenders of Christ against Antichrist above rehearsed, whom the Lord about this time began to raise up for reformation of his church, being then far out of frame, I can not forget nor omit some thing to write of the revered prelate and famous clerk Richard Armachanus, primate & archbishop of Ireland: A man for his life & learning so memorable, as the condition of those days then served, that the same days they as they had but few good, so had none almost his better.

Foxe praises both FitzRalph’s campaign against the friars, and his use of scriptures in argument rather than the “profound vanities of Aristotle’s subtlety”5.

Fitzralph’s complaints about the friars were also used by James Ussher, in his An epistle…concerning the religion anciently professed by the Irish and Scottish, shewing it to be for substance the same with that which at this day is by publick authoritie established in the Church of England (1623) and his later, shorter A Discourse of The Religion Anciently Professed by The Irish and British (Dublin 1631). The latter succinctly outlines Ussher’s aim, to show that:

the religion professed by the ancient bishops, priests, monks, and other Christians in this land, was for substance the very same with that which now by public authority is maintained therein, against the foreign doctrine brought in hither in latter times by the bishop of Rome’s followers

For Ussher “where was the Church of Ireland before Luther” had a simple answer: a pure biblical Christianity had been introduced by Patrick, corrupted by Rome and restored by the reformers. This answer also argued against the established church in Ireland being a branch of the established church in England. Proud of his country and its heritage, “he was offering his fellow protestants a ready-made history that allowed them to claim that they, and their church, were truly Irish. For many…it was to prove an attractive option.”6 Bolstered by two further works by Ussher, a collection of documents from the early Irish church Veterum epistolarum Hibernicarum sylloge (1632) and The antiquities of the British Churches (1639), plus the ecclesiastical history of James Ware, this account was highly influential from the 18th and into the twentieth century7.

These efforts were probably too late to convince Catholics in Ireland to convert, however.8 One of the key issues was, ironically given the focus on the vernacular within Protestantism, the lack of Irish Gaelic speaking clergy and Irish Gaelic protestant resources. The Irish Counter-Reformation seized the initiative, spearheaded from the Irish College in Leuvan. The first Counter-Reformation catechism in Irish, An Teagasg Criosdaidhewas published at Antwerp in 1611, followed by a stream of texts in Irish after the College obtained their own press.

Moreover, the Irish Counter-Reformation targeted an issue that Richard Fitzralph had preached about in Ireland: the mutual hostility between the “mere Irish” and the “old English”. First Thomas Messingham, then Geoffrey Keating, outlined an Irish identity that encompassed both groups, rooted in Catholicism. The Confederacy in 1644 (albeit in the aftermath of sectarian atrocities) went further, saying9:

he that is born in Ireland, though his parents and all his ancestors were aliens, nay if his parents are Indians or Turks, if converted to Christianity, is an Irishman as fully as if his ancestors were born here for thousands of years.

Unexpectedly, the Reformation had the potential to unify as well as divide. Unfortunately that potential was too often untapped. Despite his life-long defence of the established church, Swift satirised the divisions caused by religion in Gulliver’s Travels, in his story of the Great War between the little people of Lilliput and Blefuscu, embroiled in a religious war, triggered by Lilliput enforcing the opening of boiled eggs at the small end due to the crown prince three generations back cutting his finger when he opened his egg at the large end. The parallels to the seventeenth century where “one emperor lost his life and another his crown” and the Big-endians are “rendered by law incapable of holding employments” are obvious.

Swift’s Tale of a Tub is equally sardonic about the English Reformation, but his true feelings are probably most clearly stated in his unfinished and posthumously published Concerning that universal hatred which prevails against the clergy, written in 24 May 1736 10.

The piece opens:

I have been long considering and conjecturing, what could be the causes of that great disgust, of late, against the Clergy of both kingdoms, beyond what was ever known ’till that Monster and Tyrant, Henry VIII. who took away from them, against law, reason, and justice, at least two thirds of their legal possessions; and whose successors (except Queen Mary) went on with their rapine, till the accession of King James I.

And it goes rapidly downhill from there. Henry was the very worst of princes, “cruelty, lust, rapine, and atheism, were his peculiar talents”, his actions were pure sacrilege since he at one and the same time seized abbey lands and persecuted those who deviated from Catholicism. Swift’s interim conclusion appears to be that the Reformation was necessary, but carried out in every country in such a way as to weaken the church as a whole. Swift suggests this was no accident in many countries, but done deliberately to destroy the influence of bishops. Because of this, Reformed Protestantism (in Ireland, represented by Presbyterianism) was in the ascendant.

This is an interesting historical hypothesis, but at first glance it is a little strange to see it from the pen of a Dean of the Established Church. Swift’s concern, however, is that history will repeat itself, and that government (or the landowners who control it) will attempt to take over tithes or church lands. The 1730s had seen attempts to remove tithes on land growing hemp (1734) and pasture lands (1736). “He had seen the Establishment’s success in weakening the Church of Ireland in the seventeenth century, and these dangerous precedents had carried over into the eighteenth century”11 Swift’s attitude to Henry VIII was also not unusual among contemporary clergy. For whatever reason, Swift abandons his argument on an enigmatic note: “Henry VIII. with great dexterity, discovered an invention to gratify his insatiable thirst for blood, on both religions, ***********”.

Luther stands in front of the church doors as his theses are nailed to it. A watching crowd has mixed reactions: friars leave angrily, a group around Luther seem supportive, one well-dressed man cheers, most look on in curiosity.Featured Image Der Anschlag von Luthers 95 Thesen by Julius Hübner. Wikimedia Public Domain.

Further Reading and Listening

Mark Empey, Alan Ford and Miriam Moffat (eds) The Church of Ireland and its Past: history, interpretation and identity, Dublin:Four Courts Press.

History Ireland (2017) Reformation 500 – the Hedge School (podcast)

Peter Marshall (2017) “9.5 myths about the Reformation” on OUP Blog (30 Oct 2017)

  1. Alan Ford (2017a) “‘That noble dream’: objectivity and the writing of Irish church history” in Mark Empey, Alan Ford and Miriam Moffat (eds) The Church of Ireland and its Past: history, interpretation and identity, Dublin:Four Courts Press, pp. 1-18. Page 3.
  2. Ford (2017a) p. 9.
  3. The undated text on Project Gutenburg is one example, as is this 1830 version by Charles Goodrich and this 1856 version by Cobbin of a previous edition by Milner, both on
  4. John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1570 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Page 523. Available from: http//
  5. The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1570 edition) Page 523. Available from: http//
  6. Alan Ford (2017b) “Shaping History: James Ussher and the Church of Ireland” in The Church of Ireland and its Past, pp. 19-35 on p. 26.
  7. Ford (2017b), pp. 26-31. Mark Empey (2017) “Creating a useable past: James and Robert Ware” in The Church of Ireland and its Past, pp. 36-56.
  8. The question of when the Reformation in Ireland definitively failed and why is the focus of chapters 14 and 15 in The Church of Ireland and its roots.
  9. Quote from “Confederate explanation of propositions 1644” in Gilbert (ed) History of Irish Confederation II, p. 199, in Micheál Ó Siochrú (2015) “The centre cannot hold: Ireland 1643-1649”, in Michael J. Braddick (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution (Oxford University Press), pp.137-53, on p. 142.
  10. Jonathan Swift, Deane Swift (ed) (1765) The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, Volume 16, Dublin: George Faulkner, pp. pp 259-263. Online at Jonathan Swift Archive.
  11. Paul J. DeGategno and R. Jay Stubblefield (2014) Critical Companion to Jonathan Swift: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, p. 52. Also see page 377.
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