Thomas Morrissey SJ
The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland by Crawford Gribben (Oxford University Press, £25.00/€29.00)
The author has produced a readable and impressive work of scholarship and organisation, which endeavours to trace the rise and fall of religion in Ireland from 8,000BC to the present day. The advent and progress of Christianity is presented in its ups and downs throughout history, including the emergence of various forms of Protestantism, periods of religious enthusiasm and of indifference, on to the current massive decline in Christian belief and practise.
Dr Gribben’s chronicle of the ever-changing scene is clearly the work of many years and, as his references testify, of an enormous amount of reading. His own area of special interest, it would appear from his published work, is the history of Protestantism in Ireland, with, perhaps, special emphasis on Presbyterianism.
This is suggested by the amount of attention given in the book to various aspects of Presbyterianism in his treatment of the 17th century in Ireland. The informed reader may also be surprised at his mild presentation of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland; and how, in the 18th century penal laws, their religious motivation seems to give way to economic aims. This is not to take away from the author’s overall sensitive and balanced treatment of a vast amount of material, some of which still simmers close to the surface.
In modern times, he follows the cultural shift of attitude and adherence towards traditional Church teaching and morality that emerged in the 1960s and proved the beginning of the widespread, on-going movement away from traditional religion and morality.
A movement hastened in the Catholic Church by the publication of the sexual failings of so many clergy and by the bishops putting institutional reputation before empathy for its wounded people. The last 20 pages of this impressive book, which he terms ‘The Conclusion’, looks at the Christian Churches today in Ireland and the prospects for the future. A return to the wide, former practice of the Christian religion seems unlikely. “Christian Ireland is dead”. Priests and bishops have lost status and former trust. Leadership has to come, if it comes, from the laity.
Dr Gribben, nevertheless, finishes on a more hopeful note. In 410 AD prospects looked very bleak when the Visigoths sacked Rome and brought an end to Christian civilisation.
The fall of Rome, however, did not mean the end of Christianity. It adapted to meet the needs of a new, chaotic world. Irish monks played their part in a European Christian revival.
The Church has always lurched from one crisis to another. “The dramatic collapse of the older religious structures which shaped the experience of Irish Christianity, and sudden movements in political and cultural norms, have created opportunities for new kinds of religious expression,” and for “new Patricks” to “shape the rise of a new Christian Ireland”.
The book is thought-provoking and rich in personalities and comment, which encourages the reader to return to the text, but, unfortunately, there is no index to facilitate the reader’s wish to do so.
The lack of an index makes a book hard to use, even for the small matter of confirming a reference. But such a lack is surprising in a book from an international publisher as distinguished as OUP.