This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a movement for church reform which began when Martin Luther, a priest and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, posted on the door of the local church his Ninety-five Theses against aspects of contemporary church practice. That action, on the 31st October 1517, had profound consequences with much of modern history influenced by the division of Christianity into Roman Catholic and Protestant allegiance. On a recent visit to a Berlin museum, indeed, I was struck by how Luther himself has been treated by history with the Nazis appropriating him as a figure of German nationalism and many German church leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, sacrificing Christian principles to nationalist ideology.
Our own country, renowned as the island of saints and scholars, has not escaped the effects of religious division with persecution and war all too common over the centuries since St. Patrick first brought Christianity to its shores. One of the earliest of Irish letters, indeed, was that written by St. Patrick to a Welsh chieftain complaining of the capture and murder of Irish people whom he had recently converted to Christianity. When, centuries later, the Reformation began, it introduced a religious element to the English conquest and colonisation of Ireland: England accepted the principles of the reformed church whereas Ireland retained its adherence to the traditional religion.
Catholicism, for an English government facing the might of Spain in the sixteenth century, became associated with disloyalty and Ireland, especially in Ulster, was “planted” with Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. Penal laws subjugated Irish Catholics in the eighteenth century and government, administration and commerce became concentrated in the hands of Protestants. Tension, distrust and rebellion were never too far from the surface of Irish life and, while there were notable Protestants involved in rebellion from 1798 to 1916, political convictions were generally determined by religious ones.
In more recent times, the legacy of the Reformation in Ireland has been seen most clearly in the division of society in Northern Ireland. While the sectarian murder and violence that dominated the news there for three decades has largely disappeared and religious belief is declining throughout the country, the Reformation continues to cast a shadow in terms of education, language, culture and social attitudes. Debate on complex ethical and moral questions, in particular, often continues to reflect religious views. As Ireland, north and south, becomes a much more multi-cultural society, it will be interesting to see how the traditional religious divide, accommodates itself to changed circumstances.
Over the years, the Post Office has issued several stamps marking religious events and people who have had particular religious influence. Many of these, given the religious make-up of Ireland, reflect the Roman Catholic strand of Christian thought but Luther’s influence has not been neglected and, to mark the Reformation, I have selected a few stamps that commemorate Ireland’s Protestant religious heritage.