The Irish Dissenters

Thou art permitted to speak for thyself , ACTS 26:1.



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.



A story of 3 Willies

King Billy’s heritage – Ireland – Early 1700’s

They call themselves Dissenters and often oppose the Crown.

Gugliemo III d'Orange, in olandese Willem Hendrik van Oranje-Nassau, anche noto come Guglielmo III d'Inghilterra, Guglielmo II di Scozia e Guglielmo I d'Irlanda, fu Principe d’Orange, Conte di Nassau ..

William of Orange, in dutch Willem Hendrik van Oranje-Nassau, also known as William III of England,William II of Scotland, WIlliam I of Ireland, was also The Prince of Orange, Count of Nassau,Baron of Breda,Statolder d’Olanda, Zelanda, Utrecht, Gheldria, Overijssel e Drenthe and many other names not mentionable here…

With the death in 1702 of King William III of England and Scotland, he left a legacy  in Ireland as a Protestant Nation where his supporters in the religious battles of the last decade are now in the ascendancy, and his Catholic opponents are the targets of marginalization and penalization.

The Irish parliament is also under William’s thumb, and they must disavow themselves of Catholic doctrines. For their allegiance to Catholic King James II, the Irish Catholics were disarmed, their bishops banished. Penal laws were introduced to strengthened the position of the English Protestants in power, and reduce the Irish Catholics to impotent servants.
In this era:

  • Catholics are not permitted to vote
  • Marry a Protestant
  • Join the armed force
  • Possess arms even for protection
  • Be educated abroad as Catholics

They wera about 70% of the population of around 2 million, yet they owned only 5% of the land.
Farming in Ireland
The farming although overseen by the advantaged English Protestants, is farmed by the greatly disadvantaged Irish Catholics and is woefully inefficient.

Protestants can will property to their one eldest son, maintaining the large estate size, whereas Catholics are forced to divide properties among all male heirs and over time their lands shrink into tiny plots. Protestant land owners often live in England, lease their farms to ‘squireens’ who further subdivide the expensive yet unimproved land to Catholic tenants.

There is little incentive to make land improvements as this increases the value and therefore the rent. The result is frequent food production shortfalls. In 1729 Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and anonymous pamphleteer, publishes “A Modest Proposal” — a sharp satire of the Irish predicament, suggesting the rich should eat the children of the poor, to the benefit of both parties. His works lead economic criticism from 1713-1745.

The situation is different in the northern province of Ulster. It had already been colonized by Scottish and English Protestants over the last century and faired better than the three southern ones due to its unique linen trade.

Linen production
Brought by French Huguenot refugees, was an exception in the Irish economy. Due to severe trade restrictions, any commodity that competed with England could not be exported.

(Not all were Hugenots, The Wolfendens of Lambeg origins are Olde English. There was in the 16th century a hamlet in Lancashire called ‘Wolfendene’, forming part of the parish of Newchurch-in-Rossendale. It would seem that Wolfendale, the surname, is a localised dialectal transposition of the hamlet name. The name translates as ‘the valley of Wulfhelm’, the later being an early baptismal name of the pre 9th century.

Linen alone had no significant English producers.  As are all provinces of Ireland, Ulster is subject to religious persecutions of her non-Church of England inhabitants. Although her Catholic population had been largely displaced, Scottish Presbyterians are also forced to accept the English Church and many suffer exclusion from civil service and the military from 1704-1718. Although most restrictions are eventually lifted, Presbyterians must still recognize the dominance of the English Church and pay tithes. They call themselves Dissenters and often oppose the Crown.

English Protestant landowners enjoy renewed peace and prosperity, build great mansions and expand their estates. In 1714 the Georgian Era begins when George I takes the throne of the United Kingdom (so called when England swallowed Scotland in 1702). He continues to strengthen the parliament by his disinterest in ruling and over the next few decades, the power of parliamentary government overshadows the monarchy. In 1720, the British parliament passes the Sixth of George I Act allowing it to pass legislation in Ireland without the agreement of the Irish parliament.

While Irish Protestants take advantage of their privileged position, some look enviously to the British gentry and yearn for control of their own parliament again.