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Irish Pilgrimage: Holy wells and popular Catholic devotion. (Reviews).

Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion. By Michael P. Carroll (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. pp. ix plus 226. $38.00).

Since the appearance in 1972 of Emmet Larkin's seminal article "The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-75," (1) Irish historians have gotten used to the idea that virtually universal compliance with canonical norms by Irish Catholics actually began in the nineteenth century. There is no longer any serious doubt that the extraordinarily high levels of religious practice which set Catholics in twentieth-century Ireland apart from their co-religionists in the rest of western Europe supplanted a pre-Famine regime in which many Catholics, especially in Gaelic-speaking areas of the north and west, seldom attended mass. Debate continues, however, on how to characterize and explain the change, and an important focus of that debate is the relationship between the tridentine official model of Catholic practice which was almost universally observed by Catholics by 1900 and the array of "superstitious" beliefs and practices which preceded it.

Into this somewhat desultory discussion among historians a sociologist has now tossed a bombshell. Michael Carroll argues that virtually all those who have discussed the devotional revolution have mistakenly supposed that the popular devotions which preceded it were a Celtic inheritance from pre-Christian Ireland. This unfounded assumption leads to a false juxtaposition between "traditional" peasant rituals and "official" religious prescriptions which the clerical and lay Catholic elites would have imposed between the Council of Trent and the end of the penal laws if they had been able to do so. Rather, Carroll posits an early seventeenth century "devotional revolution" in which Irish Catholics invented local devotions and syncretized them with just enough of the tridentine model to retain clerical sanction. Following Bossy, he argues that the resulting system suited the kin-based society of that period, and especially its elite, by ensuring that feuds between kin groups would not be disturbed by the inconven ient ritual requirement of a peaceable gathering for mass each Sunday.

This syncretic devotional regime was not seriously challenged within the Catholic community until an alternative social structure emerged in the eighteenth century. That structure, at least in the Catholic heartland around Dublin and the southern ports, was dominated by well-off commercial farmers and their clerical cousins. The sexual license and faction fights accompanying the festive "patterns" (patron saints' days) where the popular devotions also occurred were at variance with the interests of this new class in a stable social order and the integrity of their agricultural patrimony. It was this social change which led to the suppression of popular devotions and the triumph of canonical practice. The effects of this second devotional revolution were obscured by the presence of the enormous underclass of cottiers and laborers, who did not share the interests or the values of the strong farmers, until that underclass was eliminated by the Famine and its aftermath.

Carroll's explanation of the "second" devotional revolution is plausible and consistent with recent empirical work by various scholars. His so-called "first" devotional revolution is more problematic. He writes (p. 104) of "the silence of the historical record" as "an intellectually liberating condition" which invites us to entertain alternatives to "the view that Irish popular Catholicism has its origins in far-off Celtic mists" so long as those alternatives accord with "the evidence that is available." The problem with this truism is that the evidence "available" to Carroll seems mostly limited to that presented in the secondary literature. Original research on early modern Ireland is both tedious and linguistically demanding, but its practitioners can be relied upon to tell us how consistent Carroll's hypothesis is with the evidence available to them.

Nevertheless, Carroll's argument is elegant, provocative, and well worth the attention of historians. After presenting his "Summary and Conclusion" at the end of the penultimate chapter, he adds another chapter entitled "The Psychology of Pre-Famine Catholicism" preceded by a warning that readers "for whom a good cigar is.... never anything more than a good cigar" may prefer not to read it--an admonition which no responsible reviewer could observe. The earlier argument focuses on one specific, and undoubtedly very important, form of popular devotion: the pilgrimage to a holy well which the pilgrim would circumambulate clockwise a specified number of times, often negotiating a rocky path on bare feet or knees. In the final chapter Carroll departs from his reliance on social structure to offer a Freudian explanation of these "rounding" rituals. It is an odd shift in the argument, which many readers, including this one, will find less convincing than the main lines of his theory.


(1.) American Historical Review 77 (3): 625-52.
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Author:Miller, David W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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