The failure of the Reformation in Ireland was arguably the single most important event in Irish history.
The Bible in the vernacular was one of the tenets of the Reformation. However, by the end of the sixteenth century, no attempt had been made to translate the Bible into Irish. By contrast, there were at least seven English translations in circulation.
The Tudor policy was to impose the faith of the Reformation on the people of Ireland through a process of Anglicisation. The Stuarts continued this policy, insisting that all services should be in English using the new King James’ translation of 1611. Irish was regarded as the language of ignorance and anti Christ.
This policy was doomed to failure, as it was just not possible to force-feed a nation which had a very different history, language and culture from England. The Reformed faith, it might be said, never learned to speak Irish.
The people simply ignored the diktats from England and remained staunchly loyal to the Catholic faith. The failure of the Reformation in Ireland was arguably the single most important event in Irish history.
The first Irish translation of the Bible appeared in 1603, when a group of Cambridge educated Anglicans from Ireland published the New Testament. The preface stated that the native Irish people ‘had hitherto been deprived of this means of salvation’, it coming to them in an unknown tongue.
Sadly, this work bore little fruit because so few ministers could speak Irish. Strangely, James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, opposed the translating of the Bible into Irish, seeing it as weakening the relationship between the two countries.
The translation of the Old Testament is a heart-warming story of one man — an Englishman, William Bedell. Educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he was an Anglican minister before being appointed Provost of Trinity College Dublin in 1627.
He recognised the need to communicate the gospel in the language of the people. He learned Irish and insisted that all divinity students should be fluent in the language. Two years later, he became the Bishop of Kilmore, Co. Cavan, where he worked tirelessly to relieve the hardship and poverty of the native people.
He met with opposition from his fellow bishops, who felt that such involvement was inappropriate for an English bishop in Ireland. His greatest achievement was the translation of the Old Testament into Irish.
His work was no slavish translation of the King James Bible of 1611. Working from the original Hebrew text, he produced a translation of the highest order. He died in 1642, aged 71, as a result of many hardships associated with the rebellion of 1641.
He had gained the respect of the rebel Confederate forces, a troop of whom attended his burial in the graveyard of Kilmore Cathedral.
Bedell’s Bible (incorporating the previously translated New Testament) was published in 1685 and was entirely funded by Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society.
There was little demand for Bedell’s Bible in Ireland. The Catholic Church shunned the publication, seeing it as a Protestant Bible for Protestant people; the Reformed churches had been blighted by the Enlightenment; the Presbyterians were torn apart by internal division; and all the dissenters suffered under repressive laws imposed by the Anglican ascendency.
Plans to evangelise the native Irish simply never materialised. Tragically, in eighteenth century Ireland it was a case of ‘the greatest story never told’. Most of the copies of Bedell’s Bible left Ireland and found their way to Gaelic-speaking people in the Highlands of Scotland.
When Dr Samuel Johnson toured the Western Isles 100 years later he found people reading Bedell’s Bible. Today there are only six extant copies of Bedell’s Bible in existence, four of them in Cambridge University Library.
With the dawn of the nineteenth century, the Reformed churches awoke and there was a new impetus for evangelism. The Methodists, invigorated by John Wesley’s 21 visits to Ireland, were the first to use Bedell’s Bible.
They sent out Irish-speaking evangelists, who preached the gospel all over the island. The Anglicans and other churches quickly followed, and, by 1835, the Presbyterians made the ability to preach in Irish an essential requirement for all students for the ministry.
Their General Assembly of 1841 referred to Irish as ‘our sweet and memorable tongue’. This desire to reach out to the native people in their own language led one commentator to say, ‘So did the church seek to undo one of the greatest mistakes of the Reformation — that of refusing the Scriptures in Irish to the Irish people’.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century and following the devastating effect of the Great Famine, the Irish language went into decline. By 1900 there were few monoglot Irish speakers, but by then Bedell’s Bible had served its purpose and its work was done.
In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the Irish language. The first translation of the Scriptures into Irish acceptable to the Catholic hierarchy was published in 1981 and known as the Maynooth Bible.
The work was carried out by a team of scholars, led by the late Cardinal Tomas O’ Fiaich, and is now available for use in schools which teach all subjects through the medium of Irish.
To mark the 400th anniversary of Bedell’s birth, a bilingual ceremony was held in his honour in Kilmore Cathedral in 1971. A plaque to perpetuate his memory was unveiled at the entrance to the graveyard, describing him as Optimus Anglorum — the best of the English. In Ireland you can’t get higher praise that that!
500 years ago, Erasmus said, ‘I wish that the Scriptures might be translated into all languages, so that not only the Scots and the Irish but that the Turks and the Saracens might read them’. Today there are two Bibles in Ireland!
Samuel W. Webb
The author is a retired Consultant Cardiologist and member of Windsor Baptist Church, Belfast.