Presbyterian Church in Ireland

Presbyterianism is characterised by worship services where reading the Bible and preaching have greatest importance and where there is a lack of emphasis on ritual and liturgy. The basic unit in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is the congregation. In terms of church government it is democratic rather than hierarchical: every minister is considered equal, and to assist him each congregation will appoint a number of ‘elders’, collectively known as the session. Church buildings have historically been known as ‘meeting houses’ reflecting the belief that the significance of the edifice lies not in and of itself, but rather in the group of people who have gathered there.

In the early seventeenth century, with the influx of large numbers of Scottish settlers, a number of clergymen with Presbyterian convictions arrived in Ulster from Scotland. To begin with they were accommodated within the Church of Ireland and were allowed a certain amount of freedom to practise their beliefs. However, in the 1630s there were moves to bring the Church of Ireland more closely into line with the Church of England. This resulted in the expulsion of those ministers with Presbyterian beliefs. In 1642, the inaugural Irish Presbytery was formed at a meeting in Carrickfergus, County Antrim.

1642 Presbytery Memorial, Carrickfergus
1642 Presbytery Memorial, Carrickfergus

Despite periods of persecution, Presbyterians began to form congregations and build their own churches, and by the end of the seventeenth century an overarching ruling body known as the General Synod or Synod of Ulster was established.

For many members of the establishment, Presbyterians were regarded as more of a threat than Catholics, especially because of their numerical superiority over Anglicans in much of Ulster. Certain restrictions were placed on Presbyterians as a result of the Penal Laws passed in the Irish parliament. Even after the passing of the Toleration Act in 1719, under which Presbyterians were granted freedom of worship, there was a strong sense of estrangement from the Anglican and landed establishment, and this was a contributory factor in the large-scale emigration of Presbyterians from Ulster to America in the eighteenth century.

In 1840, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was formed by the union of the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod. Today, the Presbyterian Church is the second largest Protestant denomination on the island of Ireland with over 500 congregations, overwhelmingly in Northern Ireland, but with a significant number of congregations in the Republic of Ireland, especially counties Donegal and Monaghan as well as the city and environs of Dublin.