The best books on the history of Christianity in Ireland

Crawford Gribben Author Of The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland
By Crawford Gribben

Who am I?

Like anyone else who takes an interest in Ireland, I’ve been fascinated by the long and often very difficult history of the island’s experience of religion. Where I live, in county Antrim, religious imagery appears everywhere – in churches and schools, obviously, but also on signboards posted onto trees, and in the colourful rags that are still hung up to decorate holy wells. This book is the fruit of twenty years of thinking about Christian Ireland - its long and difficult history, and its sudden and difficult collapse.

I wrote...

The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland

By Crawford Gribben,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland

What is my book about?

The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland is an account of the sudden emergence, long development, several divisions, and sudden decline of Irish Christianity. It’s a book about how Christianity shaped the Irish, and vice versa. It’s a story of success, showing how for one and a half millennia, Irish Christians created and participated in a culture from which there emerged some of the most iconic artefacts in their religion’s history, such as the Book of Kells.

But it’s also a story of failure, of violence, division, and abuse, not least as the extraordinary effort to create a Christian state in the Republic foundered over the course of a single generation and created one of the most liberal of European cultures.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature

Why did I love this book?

I’m fascinated by the ways in which Christian communities remember pre-Christian cultures. In Beowulf, for example, historians in medieval England incorporated Christian themes into a story that had emerged in pagan times on the other side of the North Sea. In Ireland, Christian historians were much less interested in sanctifying their own island’s pre-Christian myth. Instead, they recorded all kinds of stories with little effort to make them fit within a Christian worldview as if they took delight in pagan culture for its own sake. But what is the historical value of these stories?

In this outstanding book, J.P. Mallory reads early Irish literature as bearing witness to the material cultures of the early medieval period – and even the periods preceding it.

By J.P. Mallory,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Search of the Irish Dreamtime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Following his account of Irish origins as evidenced by archaeology, genetics and linguistics, J. P. Mallory returns to the subject to interrogate what he calls the `Irish Dreamtime': the native Irish retelling of their own origins, as related by medieval manuscripts. He attempts to explore the reality of this version of the earliest history of Ireland, which places apparently `mythological' events on a concrete timeline of invasions, colonizations and royal reigns that extends even further back in time than the history of Classical Greece. Can the accounts of this `Dreamtime' really inform us of the way of life in Iron…

Book cover of The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish: Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland

Why did I love this book?

This book is an eye-opener. Callan investigates a sudden unexpected sequence of heresy trials that shook the Irish church in the fourteenth century. She uncovers all manner of badly behaving churchmen – from the mendacious to the cavalier – and highlights the experience of the women who were so often their victims. Callan argues that the heresy trials often mark out differences other than theological within the Irish church – and shows that two centuries after the Norman invasion, ethnic and cultural differences continued to destabilise its always fragile communion.

By Maeve Bridget Callan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Early medieval Ireland is remembered as the "Land of Saints and Scholars," due to the distinctive devotion to Christian faith and learning that permeated its culture. As early as the seventh century, however, questions were raised about Irish orthodoxy, primarily concerning Easter observances. Yet heresy trials did not occur in Ireland until significantly later, long after allegations of Irish apostasy from Christianity had sanctioned the English invasion of Ireland. In The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish, Maeve Brigid Callan analyzes Ireland's medieval heresy trials, which all occurred in the volatile fourteenth century. These include the celebrated case of…

Book cover of The Irish Church and the Tudor Reformations

Why did I love this book?

Since the later sixteenth century, historians have been trying to explain why the Irish refused to follow their political leaders into the newly established protestant church. Jefferies’s book highlights the scale of the problem – showing that by the turn of the seventeenth century, seventy years after the beginnings of protestant reform, the number of native Irish converts amounted to little more than one hundred. Pushing against the triumphalism that marked an older way of writing the history of the reformation, Jefferies demonstrates the popularity of the late medieval church and argues that historians should reframe their research questions.

It might be less important to ask why the protestant reformation failed, he suggests, and more important to ask why – despite everything – the Catholic church remained so popular.

By Henry A. Jefferies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Irish Church and the Tudor Reformations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This important book examines Ireland's experiences of the Tudor reformations. Part I shows that the Irish Church, far from being in decline, enjoyed an upsurge in lay support before Henry VIII's reformation. Part II shows how the early Tudor reformations failed to address the pre-existing weaknesses of the Irish Church, while Cardinal Pole's program for Catholic restoration in Mary's reign did not enjoy the time needed to do so. Instead, the problems of the Irish Church were exacerbated as Tudor policy in Ireland became increasingly militarist and expansionist. Under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth, the English crown was able…

Book cover of The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840

Why did I love this book?

Irish protestants have always had a keen sense of their distinctive denominational identities – and never more so than during the long eighteenth century, when the Anglican state penalised dissenters, for example, refusing to offer full legal recognition to Presbyterian marriages until the 1840s. This was the period in which Presbyterians consolidated as a community, policing their doctrinal boundaries, and expelling those who could not sign up to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Yet, at the same time, Holmes demonstrates, Presbyterians moved from supporting radical political causes, like that of the United Irishmen, to lending their support to the state by which they had so recently been persecuted. The beginnings of modern unionism may be found in the violent and bloody conclusion of the 1798 rebellion, and the political transformations that followed in its wake.

By Andrew R. Holmes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A historical study of the most influential and important Protestant group in Northern Ireland - the Ulster Presbyterians. Andrew R. Holmes argues that to understand Ulster Presbyterianism is to begin to understand the character of Ulster Protestantism more generally and the relationship between religion and identity in present-day Northern Ireland. He examines the various components of public and private religiosity and how these were influenced by religious
concerns, economic and social changes, and cultural developments. He takes the religious beliefs and practices of the laity seriously in their own right, and thus allows for a better understanding of the Presbyterian…

Book cover of Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity

Why did I love this book?

Why, from the 1990s, did the Irish Catholic consensus so suddenly disappear? And what might be the effect of this sudden-onset secularisation? This brilliant account of the recent revolution in Irish religion describes the effects of the clerical scandals that brought down a government, demoralised a denomination, and drove social change on a massive and structural scale. Ganiel shows how the older religious monopolies that did so much to shape the institutions and culture of Ireland, north and south, have given way to a much more fluid religious market, in which individuals can believe without belonging just as much as they might formerly have belonged without believing.

By Gladys Ganiel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland is the first major book to explore the dynamic religious landscape of contemporary Ireland, north and south, and to analyse the island's religious transition. It confirms that the Catholic Church's long-standing 'monopoly' has well and truly disintegrated, replaced by a mixed, post-Catholic religious 'market' featuring new and growing expressions of Protestantism, as well as other religions. It describes how people of faith
are developing 'extra-institutional' expressions of religion, keeping their faith alive outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church.

Drawing on island-wide surveys of clergy and laypeople, as well as more than 100 interviews, Gladys…

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