The Irish church

The Irish church

In Brief

The "Irish church" mentioned in Ulysses is the Protestant denomination known officially as the Church of Ireland. It is identical in all important doctrinal and liturgical respects to the Church of England and part of that faith's worldwide Anglican Communion. Until the passage of the Irish Church Act of 1869 it had been funded by "tithes" imposed on all Irish subjects, causing angry Catholics to agitate for its "disestablishment."

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To this outsider's ears, few phrases sound more ironic than "the Irish church," since few things in Ireland are more English. After Henry VIII broke with the Pope, seized Catholic churches and monasteries, and established the Church of England with himself at its head in 1534, the Irish Parliament followed suit in 1536, seizing structures like Dublin's St. Patrick's cathedral and Christ Church cathedral and placing church government in the hands of the English king. In 1800 the Act of Union not only abolished the Irish parliament but made the two churches one.

Like the English state church, the Irish one charted a middle course between conservatism and reform, viewing itself not as a new institution but as the inheritor of a "catholic" tradition, unbroken since the time of Christ, that had nothing to do with the Pope in Rome. Both churches retained the old church's episcopal structure of government and some of its venerable liturgical practices. Both saw the growth of "high" (more Catholic-like) and "low" (more Reformist) factions. Both have struggled with the consequences of being founded by fiat. (Today there are about 60,000 active baptised members of the Church of Ireland. Irish Catholics number about 3.7 million.) But for a long time that unpopularity was easy to bear for a ruling-class church funded by taxes on laborers.

In Ithaca readers learn that during his high school years Bloom expressed "disbelief in the tenets of the Irish (protestant) church" in which he was raised, subsequently converting to Catholicism. This seems to be common knowledge, because in Hades Tom Kernan, who followed a similar course and like Bloom never became fully sold on Catholicism, tries to engage him in covert criticism of the funeral mass they have just attended:

— The reverend gentleman read the service too quickly, don't you think? Mr Kernan said with reproof.
     Mr Bloom nodded gravely looking in the quick bloodshot eyes. Secret eyes, secretsearching eyes. Mason, I think: not sure. Beside him again. We are the last. In the same boat. Hope he'll say something else.
     Mr Kernan added:
     — The service of the Irish church used in Mount Jerome is simpler, more impressive I must say.
     Mr Bloom gave prudent assent.

Kernan's longing for a kindred spirit, displayed in his "secretsearching eyes," mirrors the moment in Calypso when the Jewish butcher thanks Bloom with "A speck of eager fire from foxeyes." In the Irish Catholic world of Ulysses, sympathy for Jews or Anglicans is something to express very cautiously.

JH 2022
Saint Patrick's cathedral in Dublin, in a 2015 photograph by Diliff.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Christ Church cathedral in Dublin, in a 2010 photograph by Ingo Mehling.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.