The land of informal Saints and Scholars…

Ireland has long been known as the ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’ and yet the vast majority of those honoured are saints lived in the days before canonisation became a formal procedure.

Up to the 12th century, one was ‘acclaimed’ by the local church as a saint, with the idea that it had to go to Rome only being introduced at that stage.

In 1170, Pope Alexander III declared that no one should be honoured as a saint without papal permission. It was formally incorporated into church law by Pope Gregory IX in 1234, and followed the case of a Swedish ‘martyr’ who was acclaimed after being killed while drunk.

Only a handful of Irishmen, and no Irishwomen, have been canonised by Rome – St Malachy (1094-1148), Feargal of Salsburg (700-784), Lawrence O’Toole (1128-1180) and the only post-Reformation saint, Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681). To that list is sometimes added a Dutch priest who spent much time in Ireland, St Charles of Mount Argus (1821-1893).

By contrast, England and Wales have had 43 canonised saints since the Reformation – St Thomas More and John Fisher, the 40 martyrs canonised by St Paul VI, and St John Henry Newman.

However, Ireland has a significant number of individuals who have been beatified – Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy (1455-1492), Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers (1762-1844), Blessed Columba Marmion (1858-1923), Blessed John Sullivan (1861-1933) and a large group of martyrs, listed here.

November 6 is the feast of all the saints of Ireland, and it also remembers those whose causes have been put forward for canonisation, such as Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation Sisters, Catherine McAuley who founded the Sisters of Mercy, the Dublin layman Matt Talbot, and the Legion of Mary trio of Frank Duff, Edel Quinn and Alfie Lambe.

There is no easy answer as to why Ireland has only had one post-Reformation canonised saint, one would expect far more given the strength of its Catholic history, the experience of the Penal Laws, and the role of Irish priests, nuns, brothers and lay people in the development of Catholicism both in the English-speaking world and in the mission lands.


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