Religion in Ireland – A Methodical Approach

here is a saying in Ireland - "Never talk about religion or politics in the pub" - it will only end in a fight. Religion in Ireland has come to signify a lot more than a person's spiritual beliefs or church-going habits. Over the centuries religion was the place where you made your stand - a place that stood for your culture, traditions and history.

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Religion in Ireland – A Methodical Approach

This morning I sat down to write about “The 13 Pubs of Ballydehob“. As I pulled out my notes and started to write, I noticed something that took me on a completely different route to the one planned. So, the wonderful tales of Ballydehob and its 13 pubs will have to wait for another day. Instead, we’re going to chat (maybe for the first time) about religion in Ireland. At least one particular aspect.

Religion and Ireland – Where Do You Start? 

There is a saying in Ireland – “Never talk about religion or politics in the pub” – it will only end in a fight. Religion in Ireland has come to signify a lot more than a person’s spiritual beliefs or church-going habits. Over the centuries religion was the place where you made your stand – a place that stood for your culture, traditions and history. It also became a badge that locked you in, or out, of opportunity, advancement and wealth.

By 1911, we had four primary religions in Ireland – Roman Catholicism for 85% of the population, and the three main Protestant religions of Church of Ireland, Presbyterianism and Methodism. I don’t know about you, but talking about religion never works for me unless we bring it down to a human level – the level of the story and the individual. So, let’s do just that. As part of my research into the “13 pubs of Ballydehob” (bear with me here!) – I examined the 1911 census for the Ballydehob area in County Cork (my own father’s family was born and reared in those parts).

I was drawn in by the religions noted against each of the names (click here to see for yourself) on the register. The majority were Roman Catholic as you might expect, next were Church of Ireland, most Presbyterians are up in Ulster – so none in these parts – and next were the Methodists. And it’s this last group we’ll concentrate on for the remainder of this letter.

The Methodists in Ireland. 

Maybe you are already familiar with “Methodism”? The Methodists came out of the Church of England in the early 18th century, led by a one John Wesley. The focus of Methodism is to help the poor and average person – building relationships and social service is at the heart of all they do.

Their methodical observance of the rules of the Book of Common Prayer regarding works of charity earned them the derogatory nickname of “Methodists” – which they decided to keep! I do like that!  The Methodists arrived in Ireland in 1747 and received most of their support, and converts, from the junior members of the British army garrisons spread throughout the country. So, most of the Methodist converts came from Protestant stock, and a smaller number from Roman Catholic. If you converted in those days – you crossed a great divide – and mixed marriages were not condoned by society or the established churches.

Looking at the Methodist surnames in Ballydehob in 1911 – you can see this mix coming through in the mostly English surnames and the smaller number of Irish Gaelic surnames:

Coy, Daly, Evans, Jennings, Johnson, Kingston, McDermott, Roycroft, Swanton, Willis, Wolfe, Woodhouse, Young

One Special Man. 

Peter Wolfe was one member of the Methodist church whom I knew. He was also Carina’s (my wife) uncle. Peter married Carina’s aunt in one of Ireland’s first “condoned” mixed-marriages. And that was in the 1970s! I remember Peter as a busy man – with all the time in the world for the people around him. He ran a large business and had a young energetic family. Yet, if you needed help or assistance he gave you his full attention and enthusiastic support. He was a living embodiment of the stated intent of Methodism.

Peter died at the young age of 71 in January of this year. In all the time I have known Peter, I don’t think I ever heard him talking about religion. He just did it – he somehow married the best part of his beliefs to much of what we consider important in Irish tradition. Be there for your friends, your family and your community. Be accountable and let your actions speak for themselves.

Last year, his son, Mark – completed an Ironman Triathalon in Peter’s memory and to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society (you can see more about Mark here). He also managed to finish fourth (!!!) over a grueling 11 hours of swimming, running a marathon and cycling around ALL of the Ring of Kerry. Well done Mark – a great achievement in memory of a special man. And I’m sure he was at your side all the way.

I realise that when I look up those textbook explanations of the different religions – I really don’t get it. The descriptions rarely make sense to me. However, when I look at the attitude and actions of people like Peter Wolfe, I get it – the “explanation” is there for all to see. It’s all about using whatever religion you choose to let the best of your humanity shine through to others.

So, that’s it for today – and to finish with that famous Irish blessing for Peter and his family – and you and all the special people in your life:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

As always, do comment below if you want to share a story, ask a question about your Irish surname or just to say hello!

Slán for now – Mike.

  • Hermine McLaughlin says:

    Hey Mike & Carina:

    I find this topic so interesting because I’m finding all four religions in my roots. One family had both C of E which would be Church of Ireland now and Wesleyan Methodist within the same immediate families. One ancestor was Methodist on every census & suddenly on his death certificate he was a “Disciple.” I haven’t found a history of the Disciples in 19th Century rural Ontario so where did he come upon its doctrines? Did he have a deathbed conversion? The town registrar’s daughter was married to the Disciple’s son so had they shared confidences? There are so many small mysteries that I feel I’ll never solve.

    There are scattered showers here – vertical showers. Horizontal rain is one of the UK memories I don’t miss. ☔️

    Thanks as usual for sharing your ideas and insights.


    • Mike says:

      Very interesting – in my experience, many Methodists “converted” to a similar faith after emigration to join a local congregation. Mike.

  • Marge says:

    This letter was very interesting. Please keep up the good work.

  • Irene M says:

    Hello there! I too have found this a very interesting read as my ancestors are mostly the Wesleyan Methodist of way back but my paternal g g grandfather was Roman Catholic on all the early census records and his wife and children were all listed as WM and found this to be “Wesleyan Methodist”. Times sure have changed as my own immediate family are quite interdenominational and all accept each other just fine and we don’t bring up the subject.

  • Valetta Sparks (Hughes) says:

    My Irish ancestors (Hughes) were of the Quaker faith. Was/is that a common religion?

    • Mike says:

      Quite a few Quakers in Ireland alright Valetta – including one William Penn who was partly schooled in Cork and discovered Quakerism at that time. Mike.

  • Karen McKee says:

    All my people were COI, out of St Mary’s, Blessington, Co Wicklow. First record I have is ggg grandfather, Nicholas Sargent, marrying Lydia Buttler in 1809. Their daughter, Lydia Sargent, married my gg gandfather, William Lee, in 1839. Their daughter, I believe, married an O’Doyle in the Catholic church and soon emigrated to Canada in 1871. I figured they left because of her decision to marry a Catholic. She is the only child of two generations to leave Ireland. Her brother, my great grandfather, James Lee, joined the RIC in 1868 and ended up in Belfast. His 3 children 2 emigrated to America and 1 daughter married a Methodist in Belfast and then came went to Canada. The 2 boys became Episcopalians upon their arrival.

    Lately I have seen mention of Episcopalians in Ireland. I thought that was the name referred to in the United States, the name they took upon leaving
    England and renouncing the Anglican church. A couple of brochures my friend just brought back referred to that term also when he was researching COI records at the Representative Church Body Library. Can you enlighten me.

    I signed up for your Newsletter, but have not received an e-mail to confirm with you.

  • says:

    When you talk of mixed-marriages it reminded me of my own stint in London in the 1970s and the nearby home decorating store owned by a gay couple who often joined the local community at the corner pub on a Friday night. If ever talk turned to a relationship or marriage ending, one of them was bound to say: I told you those mixed marriages never work!

    Human nature seems to make us intolerant of anything or anyone that is different – I hope we can all improve, but it is taking a long time.

  • nancy green says:

    I was born into a religion that didn’t suit me . so for year I looked for my place in the religion path and I found one that suits me .here in the USA some call it devils work witches work eta. I love the ground I walk on the trees that shade me the water that falls from the sky and runs down the steams to our creek ,lakes eta. and to the ones whom made it I give thanks to .if it a tree god or water god flower god all the gods I do. so im Pagan. I don’t do spells or spill blood for it . but like all religion someone will look down on it and say that wrong

  • […] year (to see if the sun actually shone anytime in the past), and I came across this letter – Religion in Ireland, A Methodical Approach (just click on it to see the letter) – and it got me thinking about religion in […]

  • […] Letter 1: Religion in Ireland – A Methodical Approach. […]

  • […] other Protestant settlers – establishing further settlements in the area. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited the area many times – and many families converted to Methodism under his influence […]

  • Jocelyn says:

    I see that my ancestors (Young’s) were Methodists according to the article. I’m searching for them

    • Carina says:

      Thanks for getting in touch o The Letter from Ireland. Good luck with your search and try too!

  • Cheryl Kerschner says:

    Thanks for this article, Mike! I became aware of the Methodists in Ireland a few years ago while researching a 4th great grandfather, George Armstrong. He and his wife, Jane Irvine, were said to be born in Dublin in the 1770s. George later became a Methodist circuit rider in rural Indiana, USA. I still do not know any more about George and Jane but now realize it was possible for them to be Methodist. From what I’ve read, John Wesley made trips to Dublin, as did his brother, Charles. John drew crowds of children when he came to town… George could have been one!

  • Brett Adams says:

    Thanks for the article! I was lucky enough to visit Ireland last year and learn more about my third-great-grandfather, James Hutchinson Swanton, from Gortnagrough, Ballydehob, and Skibbereen. He also seemed to embody the best of the Methodist philosophy, as he tried to do what he could to help people during the famine. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is an amazing resource and a national treasure.

    • Mike Collins says:

      Thanks for getting in touch and sharing that information with us Brett and yes the Skibbereen heritage is a wonderful place to visit and get assistance with your ancestry search.