Typically, the Catholic priest in Ireland was seen as an important leader of his community, exercising an effective ministry and tending to the religious and social needs of his people, whilst the Church of Ireland clergy were ‘ministering to a small clique of landlords’ and were consequently ‘isolated from the majority of people in the district’ (Block3, p101). For this reason, if no other, argues Wolffe, nineteenth-century Ireland history illustrates ‘the importance of the link between Roman Catholicism and nationalism’
I would conclude simply by stating that improvements in education, increased literacy being the most critical, and religion played significant roles in the development of nationalism during the nineteenth century. However, the reasons for this are varied-the importance of technical and technological advances are too great to be ignored and the fact that a’ popular press’ grew up during the period meant that the working classes were given access to information and reading material in a manner than had hitherto been denied them.
For example, Dickens and Conan Doyle, amongst others, were able to serialise popular fiction through the periodicals of the day thereby giving encouragement to parents who wanted to teach their children the benefits of reading. This was enhanced by the expansion of trade and the resultant need for a literate workforce able to cope with the demands that trade placed upon it and by a recognition by the governments of Europe of the need to provide at least a basic level of education to all.
In religious terms, the Catholic Church represented to many of the disaffected groups of western Europe a source of salvation and strength as well as a social focus and its powerful voice added to the sense of national pride. Furthermore, the growth of religious non-conformity during the course of the century again provided a source of inspiration and belief that had almost been lost in the breakdown of the established order and Britain saw the explosion of evangelism and the involvement of the community in religion, or rather in taking control of religion, in a manner unseen before.
The importance of these changes cannot be overly emphasised but they do not provide the whole picture-it is far too complex to be easily summed up. From the reaction against the twin French threats of Napoleon and the overthrow of the established order, to the power of the press, the nineteenth century saw social changes on an unprecedented scale and we should not ignore its importance in shaping modern society.