Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland

By Ian N. Gregory; Niall A. Cunningham et al. | Go to book overview

3
Religion and Society in Pre-Famine Ireland

The first population censuses were taken in Ireland in 1821, 1831, and 1841, but while they contain geo graphically detailed information about the distribution of the population, they did not include any information on religion. The Commission of Public Instruction, Ireland, taken in 1834, does, however provide us with data on religion for this period. The Commission was instigated by the nonconformist Whig government in Lon don, which sought to use its results to assail the privileged position of the established Church of Ireland.1 Prior to this survey the extent of the Catholic majority in Ireland had been grossly underestimated, and the desire to uncover the demographic strengths of Ireland’s religions was fueled by a strong desire among Protestant evangelicals to proselytize the majority group.2 This chapter uses the Commission and the early censuses to explore the geographies of religion and society immediately before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They show that Ireland had both similarities with and differences from the rest of Europe. As with other European countries, the population was starting to grow rapidly; however, in Ireland a lack of industrialization meant that rural population pressures were growing. The island also already had clear and polarized spatioreligious patterns that still closely followed those laid down during the plantations. Presbyterians, primarily the descendants of private Scottish planters and ad hoc migrants, were concentrated in the northeast of the island. The Church of Ireland had a much more fragmented pattern, being spread along south Ulster and east Leinster and reflecting the relative lack of success of the plantations in many of these areas. The rest of the island was overwhelmingly Catholic.

The first part of this chapter uses the 1834 Commission to describe the geographies of religion of the early nineteenth century and explores the extent to which these geographies had their roots in the plantation period. The second part is more forward-looking, exploring how nineteenth-century trends such as population growth and industrialization were emerging in this period and how Ireland was in some ways similar to other parts of Europe and in other ways very different from them. The differences, in particular, were to have deadly consequences when famine struck and also ensured that the Great Famine would have impacts in Catholic Ireland different from those in more Protestant parts.


Religion in 1834

The 1834 Commission provides us with the first detailed survey of the distribution of Irish religion. The survey, available in digital form for the Church of Ireland’s dioceses, of which there were only thirty-two, does not provide

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