Religion and development in post-Famine Ireland

by Stuart Henderson (Ulster University)
The full paper has been published on The Economic History Review and is available here 


The role of religion in economic development has attracted increasing debate among scholars in economics, and especially economic history. This is at least partially attributable to the normalization in recent times of conversations relating to the effect of religion on social progress. This paper adds a new perspective to that debate by exploring the relationship between religion and development in Ireland between 1861 and 1911. The paper highlights a religious reversal of fortunes—a Catholic embourgeoisement—in the years following the Great Irish Famine.   

Figure 1. St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Roman Catholic). Available at <,_St_Patricks_RC_cathedral.jpg&gt;


Ireland is a rather curious case. Here the effect of the Protestant Reformation manifested, not through a conversionary zeal spreading the land, but rather by the movement of people across the Irish Sea. In the centuries that followed, the Protestant minority, and particularly adherents of the Anglican Church, gained economic and social supremacy. By contrast, the Roman Catholic majority were socioeconomically disadvantaged, and denied the societal privileges offered to their Protestant counterparts.

Slowly, however, the balance of power began to shift. Penal laws, which discriminated particularly against Roman Catholics, were overturned, and eventually The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 marked the culmination of Catholic Emancipation.
However, the legal watershed of Catholic Emancipation did not resolve the uneven balance of economic power between Protestants and Catholics. The arrival of a National System of Education in 1834, was a marker of the amelioration of religious inequality, but arguably it was the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century that truly transformed the prevailing social paradigm.

The Great Famine had a disproportionate impact on Roman Catholics given their lower social status and geographic situation. While devastating, the Famine catalysed a new sense of purpose in Catholic society—peasant religion and superstition were suppressed as the Roman Catholic Church benefitted from a new religious fervour, religious personnel bolstered the provision of education, and a rationalisation of the farming family meant a population more receptive to the social control provided by the Church.


Figure 2. Literacy by selected denominations in 1861
Of the population 5 years old and upwards. Calculated using: Census of Ireland, 1861 (P.P. 1863, LX), p. 558.


However, the effects of the Famine were hardly a mere religious awakening. With Catholic education in Catholic hands, the Catholic population became increasing literate. Literacy aided in occupational advancement and the diffusion of political consciousness. Moreover, with the entrenchment of barriers to Catholic progression—for example the predominance of Protestants in banking—rising literacy likely fuelled discontent and thus nationalist sentiment.

The economic progress of Roman Catholics in the post-Famine decades is statistically examined in the paper. Put simply, the results suggest a Catholic–Protestant convergence over the decades following the Famine. Roman Catholics were rapidly closing the literacy gap and rising in occupational status as Protestant dominance receded. There is also evidence provided which suggests that commercial activities in more Catholic-concentrated areas were catching up with less Catholic-concentrated areas. Indeed, the general trajectory observed is referred to as a Catholic embourgeoisement as Catholics were becoming a more middle-class people—increasingly “alike” their Protestant counterparts.

For Protestants, the prevailing cultural dichotomy—which had long been to their advantage—was perhaps relevant in the economic convergence of the denominations after the Famine, and indeed in ultimate independence. Societal separation meant that the Catholic majority had a religious identity around which to coalesce. Therefore, as legal barriers receded and human capital increased, Catholics began to create an institutional alternative to that provided by the “Protestant” state, with their own network of schools, banks and professionals. Moreover, such movements were likely self-reinforcing, as Catholic professionals aided a new generation to follow their ascent.

The significance of this development is considered further towards the end of the paper. Ireland’s obvious majority–minority structure is contrasted with the Netherlands where no religious majority prevailed. In the latter, this led to a society organised into distinct segments (or pillars), which coexisted in relative harmony. By contrast, in the Irish case, despite the economic convergence of the denominations, independence resulted. The movement towards independence was arguably aided by the mutually beneficial relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and nationalism—the Church, with its body of adherents, provided legitimising capital for nationalism, while nationalism espoused a vision of Ireland that was consistent with the teaching of the Church. Moreover, for individual Roman Catholics, such nationalist vision was likely attractive since it offered the opportunity for societal equality beyond simply materialistic gains—opportunity which the existing state apparatus was slow to provide.

Hence, in understanding the development of Ireland in the post-Famine era, this paper provides not only an important quantification of Catholic progress, but also widens the debate to what Amartya Sen eloquently calls ‘development as freedom’. In doing so, it emphasises the short-sightedness of a narrow materialistic view of societal development, and instead offers a more nuanced perspective on the Irish case.


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