Against a backdrop of social and economic change, religious leaders tried to introduce reform, improve administration, and discipline their flocks. The churches were under growing pressure from the secular world and from its ideas, its education and its cultural activities. In the face of all this there was an increase in religious passion. In Protestant churches much of this can be explained by evangelicalism and its emphasis on a more 'enthusiastic' style of religious expression.
The Irish scholar Kevin Whelan claimed that "the provision of Catholic education in Ireland by the indigenous teaching orders became a main motivation of Irish Catholicism between 1770 and 1830, and it was "an essential component of the artillery of the revised Tridentine Church" which developed in Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s and began to develop in Newfoundland Catholicism in the 1850s and 1860s".
Yet progress was slow in the pre-Famine era. On the other hand, some important building work was begun and a new generation of reforming bishops brought their influence to bear on the lower clergy through regular conferences, retreats, and visitations. At the same time as priests were encouraged to improve their preaching and pastoral work, regulations were introduced to address personal standards of behavior. Whilst discipline was tightened as a result of these measures, the rapid rate of population increase made any improvement in the ratio of priests to people impossible.
The years 1826-7 saw the beginning of a more rigorous evangelical challenge to Catholicism. The so-called 'Second Reformation' began in Co. Cavan with reports of the conversion of several tenants of the evangelical landlord, Lord Farnham. Accusations of proselytism quickly followed and were furiously refuted. Nevertheless, the weakness of the tenantry and the widespread influence of the Farnhams were clearly major factors. A challenge to the popularity of Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Association, the Second Reformation movement also demonstrated the evangelical belief in religious solutions to political problems. As with the teaching and bible societies, the primary motivation was the view that the only way of solving Ireland's problems was through conversion of the majority of the population to Protestantism, not concession to their political demands. By October 1827 it was reported that there were 783 converts in Co. Cavan, but the 'Reformation' had little direct impact on other areas. Protestant evangelicals again came under attack in 1831, when famine on Achill Island inspired the Irish-speaker, the Reverend Edward Nangle, to establish a Protestant settlement there, aiming at the teaching and conversion of the Catholic population. He had a school, which attracted 420 children within a year and a printing press dedicated to publishing attacks on 'the idolatry of the Roman Mass'. This made Nangle's settlement a focal point for evangelical visitors and, during the Famine of the 1840s, a target for