The Pastoral Role of the Roman Catholic Church in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1750-1850

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The Pastoral Role of the Roman Catholic Church in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1750-1850. By Emmet Larkin. (Dublin: Four Courts Press; Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. 2006. Pp. xvi, 298. $69.95.)

Professor Emmet Larkin has had a curious place in studies of the history of modern Irish Catholicism. His most significant contribution has been a pioneering article, published in 1972, on the origins of the exceptional piety of the twentieth-century Irish. Two generations of religious historians have debated Larkin's concept of a "devotional revolution" occurring roughly between 1850 and 1875, during which the Irish became, for the first time, "practising Catholics."Yet Larkin himself has offered no significant further contribution. Instead he has sought to build on the themes set out in a second early piece, from 1975, in which he analyzed the long-term development of the Irish political system in terms of the interaction of three entities that he labelled Church, State, and Nation. Here the years have been less kind. As detailed research has highlighted the sectional and ambivalent nature of successive nationalist movements in nineteenth-century Ireland, and the multiple accommodations and ambiguities that characterized the country's position within the United Kingdom, the quasi-Hegelian abstractions represented by Larkin's "State" and "Nation" have come to seem increasingly irrelevant. Yet Larkin himself has remained committed to his original design, elaborating it in no less than seven large volumes devoted to an exhaustive account of the high political correspondence of bishops and statesmen.

The Pastoral Role of the Roman Catholic Church promises, at first sight at least, to rectify this anomaly. It is the first of two volumes "conceived as history from the bottom up" (p. x) and intended to complement the political narrative by examining the Church's wider role within Irish society.Yet the actual focus of this first instalment is remarkably narrow. In effect the volume comprises four essays. Of these the most important traces the emergence of the distinctive Irish institution of the "station," whereby priests twice annuaEy visited selected houses throughout their parishes to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and administer communion. …