Robert Wyse Jackson on “Life in The Church of Ireland 1600- 1800.” ( 1 )

One of the great joys of living- as I do- near Gorey in Co. Wexford, is Zozimus Book Shop run by my friend John Wyse Jackson. John is not simply a bookseller, but also a social entrepreneur, and the shop ( which is linked to an excellent coffee shop ) has become something of a social centre. John is an authority on Irish literature, and has written a biography of John Lennon which attracted considerable attention when it was published some time ago. He comes from a literary family, and he has just edited a new edition of a book by his late father Bishop Robert Wyse Jackson entitled “Life in the Church of Ireland 1600- 1800”. This new edition was launched recently at a reception in the Zozimus Book shop.

The markedly convivial gathering was eloquently addressed by:-


Robert Wyse Jackson ( 1908-1976 ) Church of Ireland bishop of Limerick and Kerry. The picture is by Thomas Ryan P.R.H.A.

When John invited me to speak at the launch of this re-publication of his late father’s book, I agreed without hesitation. It tickled my fancy that a Roman Catholic priest should be asked to launch a book by a Church of Ireland clergyman, about life in the Church of Ireland. I’m not by any means the best-qualified person for the task, but I take comfort from the fact that this book deals with social rather than political history. Not that the two can be separated entirely, but Robert Wyse Jackson set out to chronicle something of life in the Church of Ireland, rather than writing about the bigger and more complex matter of the Church in the life of Ireland.

This is a well-researched book, but it doesn’t read like an academic history. It has a pacey feel that I would associate more with a novel than a history book. It’s not heavy; it doesn’t put the reader on the spot, or demand that we take up a particular position regarding some or other aspect of history. I like how John puts it in his foreword: ‘Today we tend to judge the past harshly, when loyalties, prejudices and social practices do not agree with our own. There are few such retrospective judgments here, however. The clerics and laypeople in these pages are generally viewed according to the standards of their own times. As we read here about their various lives – eccentric, misguided or saintly, as they may have been – it is a relief to know that we are free to make up our own minds.’

And that really is quite a relief, if we think of what a tumultuous time in our history the 17th and 18th centuries were. The Penal Laws were biting hard, even if they weren’t rigorously enforced in every place and at every time. There was the savagery of the Confederate Wars, beginning in 1641, finally put down by a certain Mr Cromwell, who – despite the odd attempt to rehabilitate him (though not, I hasten to add, in this book!) – was surely no stranger, himself, to savagery.

Given that background, it is a relief to read a book about that time that doesn’t leave one exhausted, or suffering the demoralizing effects of moralizing. Truth to tell, there’s more here to entertain than there is to exhaust. Let me share with you the one thing I found most amusing as I read this book – something that left me laughing, not at one of the characters in Wyse Jackson’s story, but at myself and my response to what I was reading.

This is an honest book. There isn’t the faintest hint of an apologetic for the Church of Ireland, or of a denigration of any other faith. And there’s no airbrushing of anyone’s foibles or failings. In the opening chapter, appropriately enough entitled, ‘The Seventeenth Century Opens,’ there’s a description of ‘The notorious Miler Magrath, prelate for more than fifty years and Archbishop of Cashel for thirty-six.’ Wyse-Jackson says that he was ‘quite obviously nothing more than a blackguardly if picturesque ecclesiastical bandit,’ but that ‘At least, to his credit, he does not seem to have attempted to hide his activities under a mask of virtue.’ (p. 10). A contemporary had written that the people in his dioceses ‘scarcely knew if there was a God.’ (p. 11). If he wasn’t much of a theologian, this Miler Magrath certainly didn’t lack shrewdness: he parcelled out the best of Church properties and benefices among his children.

As I, a Catholic priest of the 21st century, read about that gentleman, a bishop of the ‘reformed church’ (to use the author’s own term) of the 17th century, I felt a certain sense of relief. Not pleasure, not gloating, not Schadenfreude… just a faint sense of relief. Why? Well, I suppose I was thinking, barely consciously, of the many historical failings in my own Church, and it’s human nature to derive some consolation from the knowledge that one’s own ‘group,’ whether that be church, country, family or whatever, has no monopoly on sin or stupidity.

But my relief was short-lived. I should have paid more attention to the name of that ‘picturesque ecclesiastical bandit.’ ‘Magrath,’ for heaven’s sake! Yes, he was a former R.C. As our author puts it, ‘This ex-Franciscan was quite without principles and a notorious drunk.’ I enjoy it when that happens, when I’m reading something that inadvertently taps into my own attitudes, anxieties or prejudices, and begins to unpack some of my own baggage. This book, I’m sure, was not written with any such psychological aim in mind, and yet I found that the reading of it brought me one or two subtle moments.

During a period that is associated with the suppression of things Gaelic, I was fascinated to read about the concern with preaching in Irish (cf. pp. 32, 47). Bishop George Berkeley is quoted as asking ‘Whether there be any instance of a people’s being converted in a Christian sense, otherwise than by preaching to them and instructing them in their own language.’ That concern went as far, in 1652, as a grant of a pound a week to encourage preaching in the vernacular in Dublin.

Also, as we might expect, there was some concern in those times with the Crown. I enjoyed the naive triumphalism of a hymn commissioned for a celebration, in St Patrick’s Cathedral, of the Restoration of King Charles II, in 1660. Here are the lyrics quoted by Wyse Jackson:


Now that the Lord hath re-advanced the Crown;

Which thirste of spoyl, and frantick zeal threw down,

Now that the Lord the Miter hath restored

Which, with the Crown, lay in the dust abhorr’d:

Praise him ye kings,

Praise him ye priests…


Angels look down and joy to see

Like that above, a monarchie;

Angels look down and joy to see

Like that above, a hierarchie. (p. 68)


Those charmingly unselfconscious lyrics reflect what today might be called the hegemonic narrative – a narrative long since subverted. Pardon the digression, but imagine: there are people in positions of influence who would remove the study of history from our schools, to make more space for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. But what have we got to put us in our place, to debunk our grand notions of ourselves and our times, to open our eyes and our minds… what have we got for that task but a sense of historical perspective? How can we critique or revise our thinking about today, except in the light of history? At this remove, the political consensus captured in that hymn seems almost charmingly pathetic. Maybe, just maybe, there are unquestioned aspects of our own consensuses that ought to be exposed as pathetic… or worse!

There’s a lot in this book to entertain and inform, but I’ll draw towards a close with one last topic: the little matter of religious intolerance, which is so intolerably shocking to this tolerant age of ours. Here’s a tidy understatement from our author, about half-way through the book: ‘It must have become quite clear by now that the religion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries left little room for toleration… Religious controversy was generally conducted with a violence of language which startles the modern reader.’ (p. 105). Wyse Jackson illustrates that by quoting the Anabaptists of Cromwell’s time, who describe the Lord Protector as a ‘grand impostor… loathsome hypocrite… detestable traitor… prodigy of nature… opprobrium of mankind… landscape of iniquity… sink of sin… compendium of baseness…’ (p. 105).

There have, of course, been people who would say that those Anabaptists were blessed with a flair for objectivity, but sin scéal eile! And of course it wasn’t all bad. There were clergy who fostered a spirit of friendliness between Protestants and Catholics, which, as Wyse Jackson says, was ‘enlightened work in the days of persecution and penal laws.’ (p. 140). In 1786, Bishop Law of Clonfert wrote: ‘Unable to make the peasants around me good Protestants, I wish to make them good Catholics, good citizens, good anything…’ (pp. 140-141). Then there’s the story of a parson somewhere in the west of Ireland who made a good show in front of his visiting bishop by borrowing ‘eighty clean and well-dressed Roman Catholics from his friend the parish priest!’ (p. 141).

At the very end of the book, the author notes, ‘The Church has lived through dark and evil days.’ And yet it moves forward, he says, as ‘a company of loyal and faithful men and women pressing through the gloom towards the Kingdom of God.’ Those are the closing words of Wyse Jackson’s survey of life in the Church of Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries, and I think they’re an apt description of the challenges, including the ecumenical challenges, that can face Christians in our own day. A book like this helps us not to take any gloom too seriously, but to put it in its place, which is to say, in historical perspective.

NOTES. Fr Chris Hayden is Curate in Charge of Coolafancy Co. Wicklow.

The book by Robert Wyse Jackson is published by Ballinakella Press. It is available from  Zozimus Book Shop ( included in our “Visiting Ireland”  links category ) for E17.50

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