Why did the Reformation fail to take hold in an Ireland under English rule?

Ireland is anomalous in Europe as the only country not to follow the religion of its ruler

Martin Luther's pinning his 95 Theses – or reform proposals – to the door of his local university church in Wittenberg 500 years ago may well be more legend than hammer and nails, but what is undeniable is that the Augustinian friar issued an outspokenly blunt challenge to his own Catholic Church to reform itself from within.

This was particularly the case concerning the sale of "indulgences" – which ultimately precipitated a huge religious and political upheaval right across Europe and divided mainstream Christianity ever after.

The anniversary has already contributed to a plethora of important conferences and publications which have led to some reappraisal of Luther’s theology and hopefully these deliberations will in turn facilitate better relations between the Catholic and Reformed traditions.

At the risk of being parochial, one question that has not yet got the attention it deserves is: why did the Reformation fail in Ireland?


It must be said at the outset that the Reformation was not a complete failure on this island as it gained followers in Ulster and Dublin; specifically, "the Pale".

It is quite remarkable, however, that the Irish, who failed to withstand the invasion of the English, should have so thoroughly succeeded in building an increasingly strong and unified cultural resistance to the Reformation.

The reasons for the failure of the Reformation in Ireland are many. One such element was the difference between the state of the church in Ireland compared with that of England and Wales at the time.

Observant orders

Indeed, the state of religion was as abysmal in Ireland as in those other two countries, but they lacked one crucial element: a lively movement of reform that had begun among the Observant orders – the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans – in Ireland.

These orders became involved with powerful families in Gaelic society who were in charge of maintaining and cultivating the native culture. The fact that their religion had been rooted within the culture before the reformers arrived would indeed make it very hard to uproot and replace it with a new form of religion.

Another element leading to the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was the fact that tensions began mounting between the Old English (local elites) and English rule in Ireland, resulting in their loyalty tilting away from the English monarchy.

The intertwining of religion with culture and tradition is crucial in the understanding of Irish religiosity and how the Irish were said to be the “first to find faith and the last to lose it”.

The approach of conquest taken by the English in Elizabeth’s Reformation led to a somewhat disintegrated relationship between the Old English in Ireland and the English monarchy.

It has been said that had Elizabeth been successful in winning over the local elites, the rest of the people in Ireland would have followed suit and thus the Reformation could have been a triumph.

However, that did not occur and in its stead was a growing schism between the Old English and English rule. By the time of the death of Elizabeth, their feelings of alienation were increasingly expressed in religious recusancy.

Their refusal to follow the religious statutes introduced in England was a result of the tensions that were mounting against the monarchy. The Old English were cast aside to make room for seemingly more loyal New English in Ireland.

These New English began to challenge the dominance of the existing elites, which would inevitably cause a growth of bitterness amongst those being replaced.


Another problem was the militarisation of the government. Both the Anglo-Irish and the Gaelic Irish saw this as a burden, both for economic reasons and societal reasons. This was compounded by the plantations.

It meant lands of the current elites were to be reduced, which led to an rise in rebellions against the new settlers and English rulers.

The measures taken seem to prove that the English officials wanted a political gain more than a religious one, and if that is the case, this could be the ultimate reason for the failure of the Reformation to win over the masses.

It made Ireland, arguably, the greatest anomaly in the progress of the European Protestant Reformation as the only country not to follow the religion of its ruler.

Dr John Scally is Beresford adjunct assistant professor in ecclesiastical history at Trinity College Dublin