Life in the Church of Ireland: 1600-1800 by Robert Wyse Jackson (Whitegate, Co. Clare: Ballinakella Press, 2018) pp. 239. price €17.50.
Life in the Church of Ireland gives a vivid insight into the lives of its clergy during the tumultuous two centuries from 1600 to 1800. It shows us the concerns of the more responsible clergy while not at all glossing over the presence in the church of more worldly men. It neither excuses the faults nor boasts of the gifts of the Church. Its tone is more that of Swift’s Tale of a Tub in acknowledging that there is much to be said on both sides but that in spite of its faults, the Church of Ireland is redeemed by the diligence and fidelity of many clergymen working often in almost impossible conditions. It acknowledges men who were the glories of the Church of Ireland, Swift (of course) Jeremy Taylor, Archbishop King, Berkeley, Philip Skelton, and others but its real strength are the vicars, curates, and even parish clerks. It includes vignettes of Non-conformist clergy with whom the Church of Ireland had an ambivalent relationship, close in politics but distant in religion. Little reference is made to the lives of Catholic clergy with whom the Church of Ireland had an equally ambivalent relationship, closer in doctrine, perhaps, but hostile in politics.
An unexpected strength of the book is the look into the lives of people in very modest circumstances, and even downright poverty, for not all of the clergy were fox hunting members of the landed class. Many clergy were very hard up indeed. They were, however, well educated which led them to leave records, although not very many, of the lives they shared with others in similar financial circumstances, scratching a living on tiny holdings, doing many menial jobs in their spare time to make a crust. To them we owe a glimpse of the struggles of the bulk of people in such circumstances, advantaged in many respects in relation to their Catholic neighbours but living lives few or none of us would envy today.
Like a pointillist painter, Wyse Jackson he paints vivid pictures of the lives of those impoverished clergy in remote parishes balanced by the occasional glimpse into the lives of the better off, to leave an impression of a church in which there were many devoted to establishing communities of order, charity and industry in the work of the Lord in the face of congregations “whose only religion is a hereditary fear of Roman Catholicism”.
One is left with an impression that the Act of Union, in cementing the union with Britain, helped to free the Church of Ireland from a fear for the political union, and allowed it focus more on its spiritual mission, just as Disestablishment helped to free it from its ties with the established political order, so that it could become in truth, the Church of Ireland, rather than, as it had been seen for much of the earlier period, the Church of England in Ireland.
Stephen Lalor, Dr Lalor is an authority on the work of the deist/ freethinker Mathew Tindal ( 1657-1733 ) , see his book Mathew Tindal, Freethinker, an eighteenth- century assault on religion” ( Continuum, London and New York, 2006 )