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.

The books I picked & why

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

By J.P. Mallory,

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

Why 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.

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

By Maeve Bridget Callan,

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

Why 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.

The Irish Church and the Tudor Reformations

By Henry A. Jefferies,

Book cover of The Irish Church and the Tudor Reformations

Why 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.

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

By Andrew R. Holmes,

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

Why 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.

Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity

By Gladys Ganiel,

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

Why 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.

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