Though the Irish parliament was dissolved by the Act of Union in 1800, Dublin remained an important center of influence, learning, culture, and wealth for the early part of the 19th century. At that time Dublin was not only the second city of the United Kingdom but also of the British Empire.
The population, then as now, was largely Roman Catholic, though there was a significant Protestant minority, mostly adherents of the influential Anglican state church. In Dublin John Nelson Darby emerged, a Trinity College Dublin graduate, barrister, linguist, and practising Anglican clergyman.
Darby, “with high connections and gentlemanly lineage,” though of humble manners was easily accepted as part of the protestant society. He pursued an evangelical path in his parish and gathered with those of like mind to study the Scriptures. Soon he was seen as a leader among other able scholars.
Spiritual advances gained during the 1830s that we appreciate today include: the renunciation of clerisy starting with Darby’s resignation from ordained ministry, an understanding of fundamental prophetic topics, and an insistence on the principle of assembly separation from the state and politics. He was also the author of Christ-centered hymns that stood the test of time.
Little companies of believers sprang up in Ireland, England, and elsewhere, though these did not survive well in southern Ireland. This was likely due to a number of factors. First, there were doctrinal matters; a failure to distinguish between the Church, the body of Christ, and the local assembly. This hindered practical ecclesial separation. There was also doctrinal division. Second, the leadership of these companies remained with the aristocracy. Third, even those Protestant clerics involved in the Bible studies remained unconvinced or opposed to this new direction. Fourth, the determined and at times militant opposition of the Catholic population to the gospel preached. Lastly, the Great Irish Famine in 1846 saw the population of Ireland halve, from 8,000,000 to 4,000,000, through death and emigration.
In spite of all this, the assembly at Bandon, County Cork continues until the present, meeting at what is now the Riverside Gospel Hall. In those early times, well-known brethren visited.
The ’59 revival
The revival of 1859 spread south to Dublin and other parts, with significant numbers saved and some gathering as companies of believers. New meeting halls were erected, especially in Dublin from 1860 to 1910. There was a focus on evangelization and missionary work, though there was not the same assembly practice or teaching as in Northern Ireland where the work has been sustained to the present day. There were then, as now, few evangelists or teachers permanently based in southern Ireland.
As in earlier times this work began to wane due to the turmoil of the 1920s, the withdrawal of the British, Irish independence, the Irish civil war, and economic difficulties. Emigration resulted in a decline in the proportion of the Protestant population from 20% in the capital to about 5%; this also reduced the number of believers. One company that commenced at that time meeting at Merrion Hall, continued until as recently as 2006.
From then until now
In 1936, evangelist Joseph Glancy, conducted a gospel series in Dublin. These meetings were well attended for he told the story of his miraculous escape from the Lusitania which sank when it was torpedoed. He also gave an account of his salvation from the Church of Rome. At these meetings, William Mullan was saved. About the same time, Ernie Dover was saved through Johnny Cochrane, a fiery preacher, who was himself saved through evangelist William P. Nicholson. Both were first generation believers and together with T. H. Matthews (father of Tom Matthews, Brazil) and others, saw the commencement of the assembly (1957) now meeting at Rathmines Gospel Hall. They remained faithful to New Testament assembly principles, maintaining the testimony according to Acts 2, though the numbers were never large.
During the 20th century a small number of local assemblies appeared in scattered and sometimes unexpected locations in the Republic, each with its own foundation history. Their meeting rooms now were styled by the local brethren as gospel halls, a name presumably borrowed from Northern Ireland where they found fellowship with like-minded believers. (A number of other companies also appeared sometimes designated “Christian Assembly” or “Evangelical Church.” The writer is less familiar with these).
In recent times, the assemblies have been strengthened by the addition of second and third generation believers and by the salvation of some with no assembly background, including a number of Roman Catholics. The increasing cosmopolitan demographics of the Irish population have resulted in believers added from Indian, African, European, Asian, and South American backgrounds. This has been a real blessing to some of the assemblies.
The current world economic turmoil has affected Ireland greatly, with resulting large-scale emigration and, for others, difficulty in obtaining employment. Believers have not been immune from this and assemblies have lost valued members.
As we look to the future, we honor those consistent brethren and sisters from the past generation who set their hearts to maintain the testimony in the difficult circumstances of their day. We fondly remember the small band of faithful evangelists who dedicated their lives to the work in the Republic: the late John Fulton and his wife Eunice (Longford); Gilbert Stewart and his late wife Esther; and also his coworker Sam Patterson, who continues to labor faithfully.
The example and advice of respected preaching brethren who have gone before, remains with us: John Thompson – “Keep at the gospel,” and Robert McPheat – “invite able and gifted men and make the assembly attractive to spiritually-minded believers.” These we seek to follow and are thankful to the Lord that there has been some blessing and growth in the middle of religious confusion. The continued exercise and help of brethren, especially from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and North America is very much appreciated and the prayers and fellowship of all our brethren and sisters are valued.
Finally, in the words often quoted by our dear brother John Glenville: “In every thing give thanks.” “Maranatha.”