Icon of St Patrick of Ireland standing between St Ambrose and St Gregory

Who will separate us? Patrick and division in 17th and 18th century Ireland.

In 2017 the Russian Orthodox Church added Patrick to their calendar of saints1 A saint from before the Great Schism and the Reformation, Patrick is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Indeed, many have attempted to claim Patrick as particularly their own.

Patrick has also been invoked in bringing different groups together. While Ireland had a recognisable identity from early times, but like ancient Greece or contemporary Germany, that did not suggest a unitary state. The warring of petty states led to a influx of Normans. Henry II’s assertion of his dominance over those Norman lords led to a separation of the inhabitants into “mere Irish” and “Old English.”

The line between “the king’s English subjects” and “the king’s Irish subjects” was, counter-intuitively, a matter of choice. Those adhering to the native customs outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny were declaring themselves outlaws, those adopting an English lifestyle were English regardless of background. For “Old English” Norman families outside the Pale, who intermarried and interacted with Irish Gaelic families, a certain amount of fancy footwork must have been required to balance Irish customs with English laws. The borders of the Pale saw constant aggression that Richard Fitzralph’s admonishing sermons gives witness to2.

That division didn’t fade, even after Henry VIII was declared king of Ireland in 1541, thus demanding loyalty from all Irishmen. Nor had it earlier when he passed laws implementing his Reformation, including laws aimed at anglicising Ireland in terms of customs and language, and moving from relying on the Old English nobles to rule Ireland towards using appointed officials and bureaucratic administration3. Few converted, paving the way for resistance to the Tudor state to be organised via religious objections. “Conflict was commonplace among petty-states who shared ethnic traits. Yet, when threatened by a common enemy, more often than not they cooperated.” The leaders of Gaelic Ireland, and of the Old English had no common political cause, but they could have a religious one4.

Creating the Natio

In 1607 after decades of war, Gaelic Ireland had lost. On the continent, the battle for Irish culture continued. It was an uphill struggle: funds were low and Ireland was seen less as a nation than as a country of degenerate barbarians, a perception cemented by writers from Giraldus Cambrensis on5. In this context Thomas Messingham published his monumental work Florilegium Insulæ Sanctorum, a collection of Irish saint’s lives, in 1624. The work aimed at battling proselytism, encouraging the faithful, raising funds for the Irish College in Paris and rebutting the claims to Irish saints, made by figures such as Thomas Dempster.

Front cover of Messinghams' Florilegium, featuring the patron saints of Ireland: Patrick, Columba (left) and Brigid (right)
Front cover of Messinghams’ Florilegium, featuring the patron saints of Ireland: Patrick, Columba (left) and Brigid (right)
Courtesy Google Books

However Messingham had a wider aim in establishing Ireland’s possession of a pantheon of saints: “to portray Ireland as an ancient, autonomous nation, which from the dawn of time had close links to Europe, and from apostolic times was linked to Rome”6. This overall aim also drove the historical efforts of the Franciscans. Establishing Ireland as a nation would make Ireland a worthy target of sympathy of European Catholic elites, who might intervene with James I to ensure better treatment of Catholics.

If a nation is an “imagined commmunity”7 then Messingham was the first to fully imagine the Irish nation based on sixteenth century antecedents. “Messingham emerges from the Florilegium as one of the first Irish intellectuals sufficiently self-aware and adequately equipped to undertake the invention of the Irish Natio”. He depicts the Irish nation as a distinct, longlived, historical identity, whose defining characteristic is its Catholicism. That identity centres on the Irish saints, who can act as a core for the restoration of the Irish natio. Messingham’s Catholicism, however, is not exclusive. “The quality of Irishness for Messingham is not associated with blood or ancestry but with solicitude for the faith…Religious allegiance is less about personal conviction than about solicitude for the Natio”8. St Patrick is, therefore a true Irish saint. His mission, combining concern for the Irish and devotion to Catholicism, outweighs racial or geographical origin.

This is not however the nation as a nationalist understands it: one to which an individual feels supreme loyalty. Elsewhere Messingham expressed “Old English political views, accepting the Stuart title and being content with limited toleration for Catholics.” His natio is an identity which is subordinate both to religion and to loyalty to the crown9.

This first expression of the Irish Catholic natio reached its most influential expression in the work of Geoffrey Keating. Foras Feasa ar Éirinn aimed to combat the hostile testimony of historians such as Giraldus Cambrensis, Edmund Spenser, William Camden and Richard Stanihurst, and outlined a (dubious) account of Irish history in which Old English and Gaelic Irish were joined in a Catholic natio The expression of this idea in manuscript, oral poetry and sermons ensured its survival 10.

It also quickly came into practical political use. Messingham’s Florilegium included the text of a work by David Rothe documenting the use of Scotia as a name for Ireland. At the time of publication David Rothe was Bishop of Ossory and presiding over a synod in Kilkenny. The “Confederate parliament” met in the relatively peaceful city in 1642, and in October identified Irish Catholics with the Irish nation11.

Two years later, the Confederacy expanded that definition, including all born in Ireland who were Christians in the Irish nation12:

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.

Unfortunately sectarian killings destroyed the idea of a Christian Irish nation. The backlash against the killings resulted in the growth of sectarian politics, which saw no difference between Old English Catholics and Gaelic Catholics. The internal divisions within the Confederate ranks evaporated in the face of the Cromwellian campaign. By the end of the century, the old split (often expressed as Ulster/Connaght vs Leinster/Munster) had largely vanished13.

Towards a civil society

After the Restoration in 1660 loyalty was entwined not merely with Protestantism but with affiliation with the Established Church. Protestantism split between Established Church and Dissenter. In tandem, official attitudes to the Old English in Ireland changed. Their backing of Charles I and James II and their adherence to Catholicism undermined any claims of loyalty to the Crown 14. The “New English” (those who had emigrated to Ireland from England, Wales, Scotland and protestant Europe since the time of Henry VIII) became the favoured rulers. It was a time of social turmoil as new powers arose, such as the “Great Earl” Richard Boyle, or “Speaker Connolly” and others lost power due to politics, bad alliances, or the penal laws.

The upheaval of 1688-91 revitalised parliament in Ireland while producing a shift in the balance of power in William III’s dominions from the periphery to the centre. This expressed itself in clashes over Irish trade, notably the suppression of the Irish woolen industry. The putative rulers of Ireland found they did not have the equal status that they might have expected from the rhetoric in circulation after the “Glorious Revolution”. Thomas Molyneux’s The Case of Ireland’s being bound by acts of parliament in England, stated (1698) outlined the classic Ireland that Ireland was an independent political entity, not subordinate to England but sharing allegiance to the same crown. This argument was rooted in an historical account of Henry II’s annexation of Ireland: Irish chiefs submitted voluntarily, forming a contract analogous to Locke’s social contract in the Two Treatises. While attacked on its first appearance, the Case became the standard authority on the Irish constitution, reprinted nine times in the 18th century15

Westminster was far from convinced. In the 1700s, many in the Ascendancy pinned their hopes on parliamentary union between England and Ireland. By 1720 it was clear that would not happen and the Declaratory act (1719. (6. Geo. I, c. 5) An Act for the better securing the dependency of the Kingdom of Ireland on the Crown of Great Britain) copperfastened Westminster’s dominance over the Irish parliament. In addition, lucrative posts in the Irish civil and ecclesiastical administration increasingly went to Englishmen. Benedict Anderson has outlined how solidarity build up between local-born colonial administrators in South America, locked out both from the top positions at home and any position in Spain. One can see a parallel situation in 18th century Ireland 16

Many realised the situation in Ireland could only be improved by local action. The decades from 1720 saw a rash of pamphlets about how to improve the Irish economy and agriculture, including Swift’s return to pamphleteering A proposal for the universal use of Irish manufacture (1720), Molesworth’s Some Considerations for the Promoting of Agriculture and Employing the Poor (1723) and George Berkeley’s Querist (1735).

In The Irish Enlightenment, Michael Brown documents the transition from a Religious Enlightenment to a Social Enlightenment as the economy worsened. Confessional divisions had to take second place to creating a civil society, though the modes of “politeness and aesthetics, improvement and political economy”. James Arbuckle spearheaded an early attempt at spreading these ideas. The “patriot” political economists such as Samuel Madden believed that not only the Irish economy but the Irish people were “improvable”. This dovetailed with efforts towards toleration to Catholics (with the conviction that exposure to protestant thinking would expose Catholicism as false). Toleration efforts were spearheaded by Edward Synge, John Abnernathy and others. Later the Charles O’Connor used Whig constitutionalism in arguing for Catholic toleration 17.

Interest in Gaelic antiquities and culture grew in tandem with the growth in civil society. Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn was widely read in English translation, a work in which parallels between ancient Ireland and the “mixed monarchy” of the 1688 settlement could be seen. Early Irish Christianity (portrayed by Ussher in the 17th century as independent of the Pope and based on scripture) was a particular interest. By the 1750s Patrick was being invoked by moralists and promoted in the hopes of unifying Presbyterians and Church of Ireland under a “British” saint18.

Organisations proliferated and flourished, from the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society, focused on agriculture and manufacture) and the Royal Irish Academy to reading groups, musical societies and freethinking clubs. St Patrick lent his name to the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, an organisation focused on opposition to duelling which emerged in Athenry, Co. Galway. The Friendly Brothers were organised countrywide in groups called Knots, headed a president elected every St Patrick’s Day. As the century wore on sectarian separation started to break down, with Catholics become acceptable in groups previously entirely protestant. The Friendly Brothers were from the start expressly inclusive (to Christians, at least). Besides the anti-duelling role, the society encouraged friendship between its members, and banned religious debate19. The group survived as a gentleman’s club into the 1990s. The US Friendly Sons of St. Patrick is a different group, founded in 1771 and officially The Society of The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland.

The adoption of Irish self-identification increased through the eighteenth century. However it was a situational identity, with protestant writers identifying themselves as Irish, English or British depending on context, much as the earlier “Old English” had moved between Gaelic Irish and English identities 20.

As the Social Enlightenment grew political, the Irish identity seemed in ascendant. When Ireland finally achieved legislative independence in 1781, Grattan asked if “we shall be a Protestant settlement or an Irish nation?” The answer seemed to be the later, as Irish national interest threatened to undermine Irish support for British measures, particularly in foreign affairs, and the push for reform including toleration risked undermining British management of the Irish Parliament. Even before the French Revolution, separatism was in the ascendant.

Interior of St Patrick's Cathedral, showing ornate stalls, each with a helmet topping the high back. Over each stall hangs a heraldic banner.
Banners of the Knights of St Patrick In St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin.
(c) Alex Lecea/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Official Ireland acknowledged Patrick in 1783 instituting the Knights of St Patrick. “The new chivalric order was intended to ensure firmer ties, at least among members of the peerage, to the British crown.” St Patrick was its patron and its motto (intentionally or not running against the tide) was “Quis separabit?”, Latin for “Who will separate us?”21.

Arched window of diamond paned plain glass. The stone surround incorporates shields bearing a saltire
Fitzgerald saltires adorn this window surround of St Mary’s Church of Ireland Church in Maynooth
© Irish Philosophy (CC BY)

The Knights also instituted their own arms, with the “St Patrick’s Cross” as the central feature. This was probably adapted from the arms of the Duke of Leinster, the most senior of the first members after George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward Augustus. As H. Gough wrote a hundred years later, there was no evidence of the red saltire cross on a white background being used as a symbol of St Patrick or Ireland prior to this date22.

This was no impediment to the rising tide of separatism. In 1791 the United Irishmen were formed, part of the flood of political clubs. Their vision was of an Irish nation united regardless of sectarian division. The Duke of Leinster’s brother, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, defended the group in the Irish parliament, joined in 1796 and was one of those involved in revolt in 1798.

In the aftermath, when an Act of Union united Ireland and Great Britain under one parliament, it was unsurprising that the symbol of that unity was the incorporation of the St Patrick’s Cross into the Union Jack. However, as the previous centuries had shown, St Patrick could only do so much against the forces of division.

Icon of St Patrick of Ireland standing between St Ambrose and St GregoryFeatured Image: Icon depicting St Patrick with Ss Ambrose and Gregory (detail).  Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, Chicago, IL.
(c) FrTed/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


  1. “St. Patrick of Ireland and other Western saints officially added to Russian Orthodox Calendar” Orthodox Christianity 10 March 2017 (blog).
  2. Joep Leersen (2008) National Thought in Europe: A cultural history, Amsterdam University Press, pp.32-3.
  3. Leersen (2008), pp.32-3.
  4. Leersen (1996) pp. 38-9, 47. Quote from Azar Gat, Alexander Yakobson (2013) Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.
  5. Joep Leersen (1996) Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael, 2nd edition, Cork University Press, pp. 32-6.
  6. Thomas O’Connor (1999) “Towards the Invention of the Irish Catholic Nation: Thomas Messingham’s Florilegium (1624)” Irish Theological Quarterly, 64, pp 157-177. Quote on p. 164.
  7. Benedict Anderson (2006) “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism” 2nd edition (first edition 1983), Verso Books, pp. chapter 4.
  8. D. George Boyce (2003) Nationalism in Ireland, Routledge, p. 81. Quotes from O’Connor (1999), p. 175
  9. Quote from O’Connor (1999), p. 160.
  10. Cunningham (2000), Chapter 6, pp. 192-3
  11. Boyce (2003), p. 81.
  12. 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.
  13. Boyce (2003), p. 83-4.
  14. Leersen (1996) p. 48. Toby Barnard (1998) “Protestantism, ethnicity and Irish identities” in Tony Claydon and Ian McBride, eds., Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650-c.1850 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 206-235 – see pp. 206-7. For the situation in England, see Lady Ranelagh’s appeal on behalf of imprisoned dissenters.
  15. Ian McBride (1998) “‘The common name of Irishman’: protestantism and patriotism in eighteenth-century Ireland” in Tony Claydon and Ian McBride, eds., Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650-c.1850 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 236-261. See pp. 243-5.
  16. McBride (1998), p. 243. Anderson (2006) “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism” 2nd edition (first edition 1983), Verso Books, pp. chapter 4.
  17. Michael Brown (2016) The Irish Enlightenment, Harvard University Press, quote on p. 170. McBride (1998), p. 249, pp. 251-253
  18. Barnard (1998), p. 230.
  19. Brown (2016), pp. 278-281.
  20. McBride (1998) p. 245
  21. Brown (2016), pp. 278-281. Quote from Robert O’Byrne (2014) “Hail Glorious Knights of St Patrick ” in The Irish Aesthete (blog)
  22. H. Gough (1883) in George W Marshall The genealogist, Vol VII, London:George Bell and Sons, pp. 129-131 (archive.org). With thanks to Dr Anne Darcy for the information.
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