The Reformation failed comprehensively and absolutely in Ireland before the end of Elizabeth’s reign: contemporaries estimated the number of Irish Protestants at between forty and 120 individuals. The debate about that failure has been long running, yet inconclusive. After a short historiographical review, this paper considers a range of factors which may have been pertinent in shaping Irish responses to the Reformation policies of Henry VIII and his Protestant children. It shows that Elizabeth’s Reformation in Ireland was stymied by the absence of indigenous support, which meant that religious change was neither propagated by local clergymen nor enforced by the local elites in Irish parishes. It points to the strength and persistence of Catholic resistance to the Reformation in different forms from the very start of Elizabeth’s reign in Ireland, contradicting the unsubstantiated notion that passive ‘church papistry’ was general. Nonetheless, it argues that it was only from the 1580s, when the Catholic church in Ireland was reorganised as a disestablished ‘people’s church’, and infused with the confidence inspired by the Counter-Reformation, can it be stated that the Reformation had failed in Ireland definitively.
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