“The Saints in Ireland,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 45
It was a baptismal service in Dublin, the capital of Eire. Brother and Sister Gibney had just been baptized, finally uniting their family in the gospel—their daughter Susan had joined the Church some time before. “I cried the night my daughter was baptized—from sorrow, because I thought she was lost,” Sister Gibney told the assembled Saints. “I’m crying again tonight, but they are tears of joy. I’ve found my daughter again, and now we’re united as a family in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Being united means a great deal in that green island, a land with a long history of division and war. Though the first Latter-day Saint missionaries reached Ireland in 1840, led by Elder John Taylor, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and later president of the Church, the missionary work was hampered—and often discontinued for long stretches of time—because of the violence and hostility sweeping the island during the long struggle for independence from England.
Indeed, because the Irish nationalist movement had strong religious overtones, with Catholic Irish largely leading the movement for independence from Protestant Englishmen and pro-English Irishmen, the Mormon missionaries had little success among Catholics for many years. They tended to view Mormons as “just another Protestant church”—and Protestant churches were not viewed very kindly in those days.
Most of the early members of the Church came from the Protestant population, primarily in the north, around Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. The first missionaries landed at Warrenpoint, County Down, in 1840, and except for a small branch in Dublin, most of the Saints lived in the northern counties where the Protestant churches were strong.
But where only 152 Saints belonged to the Belfast conference in 1856—which was the high point of early missionary work in Ireland—a stake now flourishes there. The Belfast Northern Ireland Stake, organized 9 June 1974, has six wards and two branches. Northern Ireland is part of the Scotland Glasgow Mission. In the south, the majority of the Irish members are in the Ireland Dublin Mission, with seven branches of the Church scattered through Eire.
And instead of 152 Saints, there are now about 4,500 members of the Church on the island.
Yet, though the Church is stronger today than ever before, the land is still torn by conflict. While the south is largely past its time of turmoil, in Northern Ireland the struggle between the large Catholic minority and the Protestant majority goes on—for the last several years marked by unrest among extremists of both sides. But the Saints all over the island are united in the hope that a fair and equitable peace can be restored to the island.
Ireland was not always divided. While England was overwhelmed by invasions of northern Germanic tribes, Danes, and Normans from the fifth to eleventh centuries A.D., the Gaelic kings of Ireland and the warlords throughout the island successfully resisted all attempts at invasion.
The Irish people embraced Christianity eagerly during that period. For many years the Irish Christians were organized in a loose system of monasteries, quite independent of the Roman Catholic organization of parishes and bishoprics. Ironically, when the English first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, it was partly to force the Irish church to become subservient to the Roman Catholic Church. That effort succeeded, but the attempt to make Ireland a willing part of the British Empire failed; and when the English rejected Catholicism as the state religion, the Irish clung tenaciously to Catholicism and staunchly continued the struggle for independence.
In Northern Ireland, however, a large number of immigrants settled in the area, mainly Protestants from Scotland and England. The Presbyterian and Anglican churches became dominant in several counties, and comprised large minorities in others. When Ireland’s struggle for independence resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, the northern counties of Antrim, Londonderry, Armagh, Fermanagh, Down, and Tyrone were separated and formed Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom and was governed by a Protestant majority in its parliament. That original division persists today, though many Irishmen would like to see the entire island united once again under its own government. If that should happen, it would be the first time since the twelfth century that the land was united and independent.
The Irish are very proud of their national heritage, with a history and literature among the oldest in northern Europe, The Gaelic language, one of the two official languages of Eire (the Republic of Ireland), was a fully developed language when Anglo-Saxon was still evolving into English.
And the last forty years, marked by tremendous economic progress as Ireland changed from an agricultural nation to an industrial one, have also been years of progress for the Church. William Robert Lynn, now first counselor in the Dublin District presidency, remembers how small the Church used to be.
“When I joined the Church in 1946 in Dublin, nearly all the members were Germans.” The Church’s main growth in Dublin from the turn of the century was among Protestant German immigrants, a large number of whom worked as pork butchers. Brother Lynn’s first introduction to the Church came from his next-door neighbors, the Mogerleys, who were pork butchers on the South Circular Road in Dublin. He was attracted to their daughter, Maureen, and they began to go out together during the years before World War II. But their religious discussions, while very enlightening for young Brother Lynn, did not convince him of the truthfulness of the gospel.
When Ireland declared its neutrality in World War II and Prime Minister De Valera called for volunteers to defend that neutrality, Brother Lynn joined the army. At the same time, Maureen Mogerley left to serve a mission in London. At first it seemed that this would be the end of their friendship—but then Maureen sent Robert a “serviceman’s kit”—including the book A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, which interested him greatly.
“Finally,” Brother Lynn remembers, “I decided that when Maureen returned from her mission I would go and see just what a Mormon service was like. At that time Catholics were forbidden to attend the church services of another denomination or church, but after reading the Book of Mormon and other literature, I was curious enough to ignore that rule.”
However, a good Catholic at the time, Brother Lynn first went to mass before attending the Mormon Sunday School at 11:30 A.M., then held in a hotel room in Dublin. “I was very impressed with the simplicity of the service. It was held in an ordinary room with chairs, a piano, and a chorister to conduct the singing. All the congregation were dressed in ordinary clothes.” He was especially impressed that all the members partook of the sacrament.
After the service, Brother Lynn recalls that “I felt that this simple service had the truth, where all the members participated. I felt quite at home with these friendly people and felt their sincere spirit as they discussed the gospel. It was so simple, with just ordinary people and all volunteer workers.”
When Brother Lynn decided to be baptized, there was no chapel—and no font. He was baptized in the public baths in Tara Street in Dublin on 26 July 1946—and from that day began a career of Church service that included twenty-three years as branch president in Dublin and later years of service as a counselor in the mission and district presidencies.
Brother Lynn was the only former Catholic in the Dublin Branch when he joined, and missionary work among Catholics went slowly. At first only two missionaries worked in Dublin, and “it was hard work for them to teach the gospel. Most doors were closed in their faces.” The branch in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, was much larger, and for many years the Dublin Saints went north for the semiannual conferences there.
The construction of the temple near London in 1959 was a tremendous boost to the Saints all over the British Isles. Brother Lynn was one of many Saints who hurried to the temple to be sealed with his family and to do work for the dead. In 1972 the Dublin Branch moved into a new chapel, and by 1975 the branch was large and strong enough to be divided.
On 17 July 1976, the Ireland Dublin Mission was organized, and for the first time Eire had a mission president free to concentrate his full efforts on the missionary work and the growth of the Church in that nation. Though there are currently only about 750 members in the Republic of Ireland—compared to nearly 4,000 in Northern Ireland—there is tremendous excitement among the members to build the Church by sharing the gospel message and by keeping the commandments themselves, thus becoming living examples of the joy the gospel brings.
Northern Ireland was the beginning place for the Church on the island. The first baptism in Ireland took place on 29 July 1840—only two days after Elder John Taylor of the Council of the Twelve and two English missionaries arrived in County Down. In a meeting at Newry, County Down, over 700 people came to hear the missionaries’ first sermon. But the next day, curiosity satisfied, they stayed home, and only a few returned to hear the rest of the gospel message.
Part of the reason the Church in Ireland grew only to a membership of just over 300 by the turn of the century is that many Saints emigrated, obeying the call for Church members to “gather” in Utah. As the movement of gathering ended and Saints were urged to stay in their native lands and build the Church among their fellowcitizens, the Church in Ireland strengthened considerably.
Belfast, today the center of the island’s only stake, was the focal point of the Church in Ireland for many years. The people of Northern Ireland have usually been tolerant of the Church, and although there was a wave of opposition in the early 1960s, the Latter-day Saints there today are appreciated for the Church’s contribution to the spiritual life of the community.
And spirituality is important in Northern Ireland. Particularly important has been observance of the Sabbath, and Latter-day Saints find that they are not alone by any means in trying to obey the fourth commandment.
Though most of the members are first-generation Latter-day Saints, baptized within the last twenty years or so, their children who have grown up in the Church are beginning to reach adulthood, adding greatly to the strength of the Church. Both in Northern Ireland and in Eire the seminary and institute programs are going strong—and in recent years a team of seminary students from Belfast won the Seminary Challenge Cup for the British Isles.
And Irish Saints are beginning to have an impact on their community. Those who planted gardens in response to President Kimball’s urging soon found their neighbors growing gardens, too. When a local newspaper published a negative article on the Church a while ago, a nonmember lady wrote in protest: “Clearly they have something—what I don’t know, but I recall that Jesus said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’.”
Eric Bowyer, second counselor in the Scotland Glasgow Mission presidency, is locally well known as a semiprofessional footballer for Linfield, a strong local team in a land where football (soccer) is an avidly followed sport. Named Ulster Player of the Year in 1974–75 and four times named best player for his club, he has brought some welcome good notices for the Church. And many other Irish Saints have used their talents to bring credit to the Church they belong to, both through their jobs and through community service.
Though unrest has caused problems in Northern Ireland recently, the Lord has protected the Church there, the members feel. Except for two Saints who belonged to the security forces and were injured by terrorist bullets, no Latter-day Saint has been hurt—and no Church meeting has had to be cancelled.
And the Saints in Ireland have not only worked to bring the gospel to their neighbors; they have also sent missionaries to such countries as Germany, France, England, Scotland—and even Taiwan.
The Irish feel strongly about religious matters; so strongly that when Irish Saints embrace the gospel, they also long to share it with others. More than a thousand years ago, as forms of Christianity first spread through Europe, it was enthusiastic Irishmen who often carried the good news of Jesus Christ. And today, as more and more Irish discover and accept the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that fervor is increased as they offer the gospel to their families, their friends, and even strangers in distant lands.