The History of Synods in Ireland by Dr. Salvador Ryan

Dr. Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth since 2008. Alongside Bishop Brendan Leahy he has co-edited two volumes of Treasures of Irish Christianity.

Date:   Tuesday 24th March 2015
Time:   8.00 p.m.
Venue: Scoil Mhuire & Íde, Newcastle West Synod talks series

Download the lecture notes here the talk here


When Bishop Brendan Leahy announced last September that a synod for the diocese of Limerick would be held in 2016, few would have realised that it has been over fifty years since such an event has occurred –and over seventy since there was a Limerick diocesan synod. Since then, both the Church in general, and the Irish Church in particular, has changed beyond recognition, not least owing to the seismic effects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Whatever can be said about the forthcoming Limerick Synod, one thing is certain: it will be a very different affair from any of its predecessors. For one thing, its 400 delegates will be drawn from all strands of life, and Bishop Leahy’s description of the event as “an opportunity to open up, look around us, see things from other points of view ... to dialogue with people” clearly takes its cue from the language of Vatican II.

On the face of it, this looks like a radical departure from the sort of dry canonical legislation enacted by Irish ecclesiastics at diocesan synods over the centuries – legislation which bore little relevance to the daily lives of most men and women.  And yet, while we may be inclined to draw an absolute contrast between what is to come and what went before, perhaps such a judgment is a little unfair to those who participated in such synods in the past. For, if we look a little more carefully at the preoccupations of some of these earlier Irish synods, they were not without either pastoral application or concern for the well-being of priests, religious and laity.

In my paper this evening I’d like to present an overview of the history of synodal legislation in Ireland from the earliest times to the twentieth century. I don’t propose to cover every synod, of course – there are far too many – and for some we have very little information; but, rather, to give you a flavour of the sorts of concerns that synods have had over the centuries.

Despite the long distance in time between ourselves and some earlier synods, you might be surprised at how some of the legislation and the rationale behind it retains currency even today. Some of these synods concerned themselves with issues of church structure, property holding, jurisdiction and other legal issues.

My focus will not be so much on these matters, as Bishop Brendan has already pointed out that our concern in the run up to the 2016 synod cannot remain simply at the level of church structures, and amending or adapting these for a new reality. My interest, rather, is at the level of the lived out religion of ordinary people – both clergy and laity – and what were deemed to be the most pressing concerns in this regard over the centuries.

Finally, I will say something at the end of my talk as to how some of the concerns of earlier synods remain (albeit in different guises) in twenty-first-century Irish Christianity.