20. Ennis and the Gospel: 1600 to 1900


The main centre for Christian worship in Ennis since the 13th century was the old Franciscan Friary. Between 1536 and 1543 Henry VIII suppressed monasteries across England and Ireland. Ennis Friary was formally supressed in 1543 but the friars remained in the town and operated from various houses of refuge. One friar Fr. Dermot O’Brien became known as the ‘Mad Friar’ when he was certified insane in 1617 so that he could continue to minister in the town.

The Penal Laws

Penal Laws were gradually introduced in the 1600s to ban Catholics and non-mainline Protestants from public service and property ownership. Exclusion of Catholics from most public offices was in force since 1607. Presbyterians and other non-conformist Protestants were also barred from public office. In 1610 Protestant settlers were invited by the Earl of Thomond to live in Ennis. (Ó Dálaigh, 3). In the years that followed Ennis’ municipal control was largely in the hands of a Protestant minority supported by the Government. In the mid 17th century there were several small non-conformist Evangelical Protestant churches in county Clare, including Ennis though little of consequence is known about them (Butler, 175). Already in 1615 Ennis Friary was taken over as the new Church of Ireland, consequently, Catholics in Ennis had no public church. A small L-shaped chapel was built in Chapel Lane over an earlier Mass House in 1735 for Catholic worship, but no spire was allowed on the building.

Evangelical Groups in Clare

Irish Protestant Landlords tended to encourage the settlement of non-conformist Protestants for work purposes. French Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) were established in Corofin in 1694 (Butler, 172). In 1788 Daniel Beaufort (whose family were of Huguenot extraction) came to Ennis. He describes his visit to the Church of Ireland in Ennis:

“The town is large and very populous, but streets crowed and narrow….. The inn, Mrs Loughlin’s, is most horribly situated in a narrow lane through which one must walk, is dark, dirty and ill attended… After paying very dear for a bad breakfast, dressed and went to church, where Mr Weldon the curate gave us a very sleepy sermon. The church is pretty large but gloomy, owing to a gallery on each side lately erected and not quite finished. This supposes a large congregation but they are not very polite, for they let us stand in the aisle full ten minutes without offering a pew. No sexton and the clerk sent this morning to jail for robbery but he got out again to officiate.”

Corofin also saw Moravian Christians come as refugees in 1790 and build a church (Butler, 172). A brother Collis became the resident Moravian Evangelist in Corofin and the congregation reached 100 in its heyday, but was abandoned during the 1798 rebellion.

Methodism was important in Ennis in the 18th and 19th centuries. Methodism started as an Evangelical reform within the Church of England at Oxford in 1729, by John and Charles Wesley (ODCC: 1084). John Wesley with Thomas Walsh came in 1756 to Ennis. Wesley preached at the old court house (at the Height). Walsh a native Irish speaker from Limerick preached in Irish to a receptive crowd (Butler, 178). Visits by Wesley to Ennis continued in 1758, 1760, and 1762. Wesley noted in his diary:

Friday 25 June, 1756. Mr Walsh preached at six [a.m.], first in Irish and then in English. The [Catholic] priest had contrived to have his service just at the same hour; and his man came again and again with the bell, but not one in ten of his people would stir. At eight I preached to a far more serious congregation and the word seemed to sink into their hearts.

His last visit to Ennis in 1767 was a disappointment:

Saturday 9 May, 1767. I rode to Ennis, but found the preaching had been discontinued, and the society was vanished away. So having no business there, I left in the morning and preached at Clare about eight and in the evening at Limerick. The continued rain kept me from preaching abroad this week; and I was scandalised by the smallness of congregation in the house. I am afraid that my glorying touch of mark of these societies is at an end. In Munster a land flowing of milk and honey, how widely is the case altered! At Ennis the god of this world has wholly prevailed.

The Methodist Gideon Ouseley preached in Ennis in 1811. A native of Galway he was also a fluent Irish speaker and was generally received well (though he was attacked by stones at Ennistymon in 1808). A new Methodist chapel opened in Ennis in 1842 on a site on Francis Street (Butler, 180).

In addition to Methodists Ennis also had several smaller independent Evangelical groups meeting. Little is known of these small Independent Evangelical churches. One group met in Arthur’s row (off the Height), at an site unknown as late as 1837 (Ó Dálaigh, 14). A separate Evangelical group met at the old court house (at the Height), but we know little more about them.

In 1848 Presbyterians were holding occasional meetings at the old court house by visiting preachers. A Presbyterian congregation was established in Ennis in 1853 and led by Rev. Thomas Warren, a native of Co. Down. Warren managed to raise £256.2s.6d for a new church which was built on Harmony Row. It held its first service in 1856.

Following Catholic Emancipation in 1829 Catholicism enjoyed more freedom to establish public places of worship in Ennis. Ennis RCC Cathedral was built from 1841-71, and the Franciscans opened a new church in 1892. The Church of Ireland moved to a new purpose-built church in 1871 on Bindon street. It was designed to sit 400 people, though the congregation was a fraction of that number at the time (Butler, 8)

In the Census of in 1861 Co. Clare was the most Roman Catholic of all 32 counties in Ireland with 97.8% of the population Roman Catholic. While the failure of the Reformation to take root in the west of Ireland is a complex question, the proclamation of Gospel message (as articulated by the Reformation) was hampered by the toxic political situation in Ireland and the comprised unity of the Church of Ireland with the state. Outside of the established Church (Church of Ireland) smaller Evangelical groups have lived and worshipped in Ennis since at least the 17th century. However, Ireland stood unique in the history of the Reformation in Europe in that the vast majority of the population did not support the religion of its government (because that government was a foreign power). The Evangelical faith would remain a foreign concept for the majority of people in county Clare, and Ireland.

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