History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

Fidelity of Ireland to the Faith

At the time when Henry VIII. began his quarrel with the Holy See, and for a long time before, Ireland was practically governed, under the supremacy of the English sovereign, by a powerful family of the Geraldines, Earls of Kildare. They were probably of Florentine extraction, and had come over to England with the Normans, but they had thoroughly identified themselves with the Irish in all their pursuits, alms, and feelings, and were devoted Catholics. They were more to the Irish than their own native chiefs, and when the Reformation came they were the champions of the Catholic cause.

When Henry declared himself head of the Church, he exacted the same recognition from Ireland as he had received in England, but he met with great opposition from the clergy, and in the first Parliament of 1536 the Act of Succession was passed only by depriving the ecclesiastical dignitaries of their right to vote, and leaving all in the hands of the laymen. The Oath of Supremacy was administered with the same penalties as in England, and the Act suppressing monasteries was also put in force, only a few in remote districts escaping, all the confiscated property being kept by the king or given to his nobles. Many of the monks were slaughtered during the period of confiscation.

In 1540 all the chieftains acknowledged the king's temporal and spiritual authority. It is to be presumed that as Henry's lordship over Ireland was of a vague nature, they did not know to what they were committing themselves. The people apparently knew nothing of what had been done. The next year Henry's demand to be recognized king was unanimously granted to him and his successors. In 1542 the exiled Primate of Ireland begged Paul III. to send Jesuits to Ireland to help his flock, deprived of their chief pastor. Paschasius Brouel and Salmeron were sent, and during a month, in spite of the great danger they incurred, as Henry feared above anything the introduction of Bulls from Rome, they went about among the people encouraging them to be true to the Church. The joy of the people was so great at the sight of priests sent direct to them from the Holy Father in Rome that the emissaries of Henry soon discovered something was on foot, and a price was set on the heads of the legates, who, according to their instructions, returned to Italy. It would seem as though persecution ceased, and to the end of Henry's reign there was peace in Ireland. But a great change came over the land when the English sovereigns and their councils strove by main force to oblige the people, so rightly tenacious of their national manners and customs, to live like Englishmen under English law, to see colonies of English planted in their most productive lands, and, above all, to accept the religion which persecution was inflicting on England. Hence the story of the ensuing three hundred years is a story of bitter strife, oppression, wrong, and revenge.

Under Edward VI., though the doctrines and worship of Protestantism were promulgated by the Lord-Deputy St. Leger, there was no serious attempt to force the State religion on the Irish people. The new service was not translated into Irish, the English formula were to be used, as it would have hindered the plan of Anglicizing Ireland had the use of the Irish tongue been employed in the Church. Hence, as Lingard remarks, the English perpetrated the very thing for which they blame the Catholic faith—the use, for liturgical purposes, of a language the people could not understand. Five Irish bishops accepted the new service; in other places, only when armed force was used, was it adopted. Dowdall, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, staunchly defended the rights of the Church, and in consequence the primacy was taken from him and attached to the See of Dublin, but the Reformation took no hold on the country.

When Mary was married to Philip II., the two sovereigns assumed the title of King and Queen of Ireland. But Cardinal Pole suggested that the Pope ought to have been asked to grant the right of raising the lordship into a kingdom. Pope Marcellus, who had just been elected to the Pontificate, graciously granted the Bull, which was delivered to the Archbishop of Dublin to keep. The names King's County and Queen's County commemorate the double accession. Ireland had peace as far as religious affairs were concerned during Mary's reign. No persecutions of Protestants are recorded, and there were many who fled from England to enjoy the security that Ireland afforded to religious refugees. Thus, Catholic Ireland and, later on, Catholic Maryland gave the first examples of religious toleration in centuries characterized by persecution of conscientious objectors.

Two years after Elizabeth's accession, Ireland shared the fate of England in seeing Protestantism established as the State religion. The steps followed in the same order; first the Act of Supremacy, with deprivation of all clergy who refused to take it; then the Act of 'Uniformity, obliging all, under pain of fine, to assist at Protestant worship; but they never got as far as replacing all the clergy. In spite of all laws to the contrary, the Irish bishops and priests retired to the woods and fastnesses of the mountains, whither their flocks followed them for the ministration of the Sacraments and Holy Mass. The utmost cruelties were wreaked on all priests who fell into the hands of the officers of the Crown. In the larger towns also there was much tyranny used in forcing the people to go to church. To elude the fine, people would often go to Mass in the morning and to the Protestant church in the evening. The churchwardens soon discovered the ruse, and used to make a roll-call of the parishioners at the morning service. Hundreds of priests and monks are said to have been put to death for religion, among these being refugee priests from England. The people at last rose in rebellion, but their chiefs, having no concerted plan, were one after another defeated. Then the lands of the insurgent nobles were confiscated, and the attempt to plant Ireland with English colonies led to fearful sufferings. Essex was sent to carry out the project. He waged savage war on the Irish, slaughtering and devastating mercilessly. At his death Ireland was offered to English adventurers as a scene for colonial enterprise. This cruel injustice was viewed with horror by the natives both of Irish and English descent, and they sought the aid of Catholic powers against England. France and Spain were too busy to attend to them, but the Pope sent a little army, which stopped to aid Sebastian of Portugal in his war in Morocco, and the greater number were slain. A small band making its way into Ireland was, after many adventures, cut to pieces by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Throughout the remainder of Elizabeth's reign, warfare amongst the chieftains and rebellions against England make up the story. But the years from i600 to 16oz saw misery hitherto unequalled in Ireland. There was a deliberate attempt on the part of the English to produce a famine, and thousands were victims of the fiendish plan. Munster first, then Ulster were thus treated. Like the English Catholics, the Irish received James I. loyally; like them, they anticipated the restoration of Catholicism, and, like them, they were doomed to bitter disappointment. But once again it was found that English law could be imposed with success only in the neighbourhood of Dublin, and even there, as nearly every one was a Catholic, and no one would yield, the project of enforcing the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy had to be abandoned.

But James was more successful with his plantations than his predecessors had been, and the whole of Ulster was settled by English and Scotch "undertakers." All the holders of the larger estates had to be Protestants, and their tenants had also to follow the established religion. The smaller estates might be held either by Catholics or Protestants, the former not being obliged to take the Oath of Supremacy. Ulster was thus Protestantized. The ousted natives, with many a bitter memory rankling in their breasts, clung to their hills, glens and bogs, and could not be turned out. Smaller plantations were made in Leinster.

It must be remembered that during the whole of this time, and for long after, it was to Ireland that English Catholics looked for the Sacrament of Confirmation. From time to time an Irish bishop would venture into England and confirm as many as presented themselves. From Ireland, too, the holy oils were brought for use in the Sacraments of Baptism and Extreme Unction.

In 1616 James appointed Oliver St. John Lord Deputy of Ireland, but had to recall him, as by his enforcements of all the penal statutes he raised such dangerous opposition that his longer stay would have plunged the country into rebellion. Lord Falkland, a mild and tolerant ruler, was named; there was peace in the land as long as he remained in Ireland. Catholics again began to build churches and open schools in spite of Protestant outcries. Charles I. recalled him in 1629, and persecution began in earnest. Such commotions arose that the king had to give orders for the justices to desist in their attempts to put down the Mass and make people frequent Protestant worship.

But in 1633 Wentworth was appointed to govern Ireland. He inaugurated a system of reckless tyranny, affecting Catholics and Protestants alike, but falling most heavily on the former. He broke the royal word to the natives, harassed them with fines, compositions, and plantations, and incurred the hatred of all ranks of people, whatever their origin or religion. He, moreover, did his utmost to ruin Ireland's flourishing wool-trade. He was recalled in 164o, but not before he had goaded the Irish into rebellion. The wildest tumult prevailed—assassinations, whole-sale massacres and depredations of all kinds, continued during many years. In many places Protestants were singled out for vengeance, but often the Catholic priests exposed themselves to save the hunted heretics.

There had been for a long while a good deal of bitter feeling between the old Irish Catholic party and the early English settlers who had been converted by intermarriage with Irish, and who are sometimes known as Anglo-Irish. The clergy tried to get them to work together during this time of rebellion. A General Assembly, or Parliament, known as the Confederation of Kilkenny, met and declared they were all loyal subjects to the king, whom they regarded as overruled by Puritans, but otherwise favourable to them. They undertook to rule the country for the time, elected a Supreme Council, and named generals for the Catholic army. But there was also a Puritan party against the king, and a Protestant loyalist party for the king. Thus four politico-religious factors existed.

The lord-lieutenant, ostensibly a Royalist, was really on the Parliamentary side, so the confusion was complete. Charles tried to treat with the Confederates, and a cessation of arms was agreed upon. But the English Parliament signified to the Puritan party not to accept the terms. The king attempted a secret treaty, promising full toleration for religion, but disavowed it when Parliament discovered what he had been doing.

In 1645 a Papal nuncio was sent to Ireland to pacify the differences which still existed between the Anglo-Irish and the old Irish factions, to propagate the faith and sustain the king. Unfortunately the result was a complete split in the Catholic Confederacy, the old Irish, headed by the nuncio on one side, demanding the complete restoration of Catholic worship in all its splendour; the Anglo-Irish, on the other, declaring themselves satisfied with the mere exemption from the Oath of Supremacy. A similar rift occurred in the army, with the result that Dublin was given up to the Parliamentarians in 1647. At length, after seven years of warfare, a peace was signed, and the abolition of the penal laws was promised. This was in 1649; a fortnight later Charles I. was beheaded. Then Ireland's troubles began in desperate earnest.

The savage military conquest of Ireland accomplished under Cromwell, Ireton, and Ludlow, was followed by a series of events which left the Catholic population reduced to extreme poverty, the majority being shut up in but a fraction of the island, and that the least productive part. Famine, pestilence, the expatriation of all men who were willing to serve in the armies of France and Spain, the transportation of their wives and children into slavery in the West Indies were the earliest misfortunes. A legal process of spoliation termed the settlement of the Irish completed their misery. The barren hillsides of Connaught and Clare—about one-sixth of the area of the country—were allotted to such of the Irish land-owners as escaped condemnation for having fought against the Protestant usurpers of their hereditary rights. Disputes respecting the division of the lands went on for many dreary years, but by the strenuous efforts of Charles IL, some kind of arrangement was come to, and it amounted to this: Protestants, the majority still occupying Ulster, held possession of all the fine estates and productive areas, the remainder only being distributed among the Catholics. That more was not done for the Catholics was due to furious opposition between the rival claimants for the debatable lands. This takes us as far as 1665. Every Act passed in England under Charles II. against Nonconformists was, of course, echoed in Ireland, but in spite of every kind of proscription not a few of the Protestants were converted to the old faith as time went on by intermarriage with the native population.

During the reign of James II. the Irish Catholics were for a short time in the ascendancy. Measures for the restoration of the supremacy of the Catholic party were as injudiciously set on foot as in England. It was unnecessary to seek means of converting the people, who, Anglo-Irish and Celtic natives alike, were all staunch adherents of the old faith. Only the recent settlers were Protestants, and of these large numbers immediately fled to England or to the Continent, fearing what might befall them if they remained. The lord-lieutenant, Talbot of Tyrconnel, who, in 1686, succeeded Clarendon, endeavoured, but without success, to sever Ireland from England by working for the repeal of the Act of Settlement. He foresaw the result of the difficulties in which James had involved himself and wanted to prevent Ireland coming under the dominion of a Protestant sovereign. While England welcomed the Dutchman, Ireland held out for James II. War broke out—James arrived to lead the Irish troops, but fled when ill success attended their arms.

The story of the three years of desperate strife that followed does not belong to Church history. Its sequel, however, must be touched on, as the future fortunes of Catholicism in Ireland were largely coloured by the conditions under which the war terminated. William, who admired the gallant bravery of the Irish, accorded them apparently generous terms after the capitulation of Limerick. Liberty of worship was granted them, a simple oath of allegiance being enforced, pardon without confiscation was accorded to all who had taken up arms for King James, and a choice was given to the soldiery either to enter the service of William and Mary or that of any foreign prince. Many chose the latter, and were conveyed at the expense of the government, with all their belongings, to France or Spain. Unhappily for Ireland, after a short time of comparative peace and awakening prosperity, means were found of evading the terms of the treaty and before long a new era of trial began for the people—perhaps the most severe they had ever endured.