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The Origins of Sectarianism in Early Modern Ireland
The Origins of Sectarianism in Early Modern Ireland

Cambridge University Press, 2006
260 pp., $113.00

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Mary Noll Venables


How Did It Start?

The origins of Irish sectarianism.

Early on May 7, 2006, a gang of teenagers beat Michael McIlveen with baseball bats and jumped on his head. A day and a half later, McIlveen, a 15-year-old schoolboy from Ballymena, Northern Ireland, died in the hospital. It quickly emerged that McIlveen had almost certainly been attacked for wearing a green-and-white striped football shirt.1 In the charged world of Irish republicanism and unionism, this was not just another shirt; it was a Celtic jersey. Celtic is a Glasgow soccer team fervently supported by Catholics. Celtic's rival, the Glasgow Rangers, wear red jerseys and are equally fervently supported by Protestants.

McIlveen's tragic death adds to the long and sad story of religious conflict in Ireland, where everything from naming babies to cheering soccer teams carries a confessional label. Under the headline "Sectarian divide has not healed," David Adams commented in The Irish Times that it was only a matter of time until someone else was killed in sectarian violence in the North. In this divided land, Adams wrote, "Protestant and Catholic youngsters do not live on the same streets, they do not play together, they do not go to school together and they do not socialise together."2

The religious and cultural antagonisms displayed in McIlveen's murder have long roots, reaching back to the 16th century. But while it's fairly easy to find accounts of 20th- and 21st-century sectarianism in Northern Ireland, finding an explanation for the origins of violent sectarianism is more difficult. The Origins of Sectarianism in Early Modern Ireland, a collection of conference essays edited by Alan Ford and John McCafferty, aims to correct that deficit.

Sectarianism in Ireland can be seen as the result of Ireland's two Reformations: one supported by the English crown, and one supported by most Irish people. These two Reformations shared many goals—celebrating the sacraments, preaching the Gospel, instructing the laity—and often ran parallel to each other. For example, ...

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