Dissenters in Ireland

Although Ireland was always numerically dominated by Roman Catholics (about 4/5ths of the population ) there was a substantial and varied Protestant population. Those Protestant groups which refused to conform to the Church of Ireland suffered at various times, like the Catholics, from discriminatory laws and the requirement to pay tithes to the established Church of Ireland. This discrimination persisted in varying degrees until disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869. The distribution of some of the less numerous groups by the early eighteenth century can be demonstrated with some certainty.


French Protestants were known as Huguenots; they became followers of Calvin and were basically Presbyterian. Their intensive persecution began in France, and during the sixteenth century many emigrated to England and there were some small and unsuccessful settlements in Ireland in Cork and Swords. After the Edict of Nantes in 1598 gave them protection, most returned to France. The recommencement of persecution in the seventeenth century led to mass emigration to England, Scotland and Ireland. The main exodus to Ireland came from the 1620s to 1641, in 1649 with Cromwell who tolerated all religions, and from 1662 when the Duke of Ormond introduced into Parliament 'An Act for Encouraging Protestant Strangers and Others to Inhabit Ireland'. He established a number of colonies throughout the country. More came to Ireland with William of Orange from Holland and Switzerland and established new settlements in Lisburn, Kilkenny, Dundalk and Lurgan. They were celebrated for their textile expertise, specialising in weaving, lacemaking, glove making and manufacturing of linen and cloth. They were easily absorbed through intermarriage.


Presbyterians were numerically by far the most numerous group of dissenters. Most Irish Presbyterians were Scots in origin and settled in Ulster. The Presbyterian Church under John Knox was strong in Scotland when James VI/ I began his drive to impose the church of his choice ( episcopal ie rule by bishops, with himself as supreme head of the kirk) in the Reformed Church of Scotland. He later encouraged the dissenters to migrate to Ireland in the Plantation period (1610-30). The vast majority of the Scots settled in Ulster during the seventeenth century, but during the early eighteenth century large numbers migrated to America to avoid the Penal Laws which impacted them as well as the Catholic populace. By about 1720 the pressure to migrate solely on religious grounds had dissipated (the die hard dissenters had by then either already gone or met their maker) and economic issues forced their migration. Some English Calvinists settled in Dublin and the south of Ireland; a less severe sect than other Calvinists, they united with the Presbyterians in 1696.


Quakers were an extreme section of the Puritan movement of the mid-seventeenth century. Their first Irish group was established in Lurgan in 1654 and they spread throughout Ulster, Leinster and Munster before the Restoration. They also specialised in textiles, but were additionally merchants and farmers.


To escape persecution, about 3,000 German-speaking Protestants from the Palatinate of the Rhine fled to Ireland, arriving in Dublin in 1709. They settled in substantial numbers throughout Limerick, and scattered throughout several counties. Many of them became Methodists at a later date.


Baptists, Congregationalists and Independents came to Ireland during the Commonwealth and Protectorate; they formed a large part of the Cromwellian army and were very powerful politically. After the Restoration many of them emigrated to America. In the eighteenth century Congregationalists and Independents ceased to be distinct sects. Most of those who did not emigrate after the Restoration suffered persecution and became absorbed into other churches.


John Wesley founded Methodism to encourage a more personal religion; he did not intend the break from the established church which happened later. Methodism in Ireland originated in the 1730s and by the early nineteenth century had over 30,000 members.

Population growth.

When Sir William Petty in 1672 made an estimate of the population of Ireland as 1,100,000 he judged that more than 72% of these were Catholic. By 1834 when a Royal Commission looked at religion in Ireland it established the following figures:

Roman Catholic 6,436,060                         80.7%

Established Church 853,160                     11 %

Presbyterians 643,058                                 8 %

Other Protestant Dissenters 21,822 or     0.3%

The 1861 Census found that Roman Catholics had an absolute majority over all other religions except in Counties Antrim, Arrnagh, Down and Londonderry and in the towns of Carrickfergus and Belfast.

Add to this mix the human disasters of poverty, intolerance and war - from  Cromwell`s subjugation (1649 - 1652) , the civil war leading up to the Boyne (1690); the failed 1798 Rebellion and the catastrophe of the Great Famine (1845 - 50) and there are many reasons for emigration to far lands where survival was a risk, but no more than might be the case in the homeland of Ireland or Scotland.

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