Persecution of Catholics

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXIV

Dr. Browne and the Lord Deputy now rivalled each other in their efforts to obtain the royal approbation, by destroying all that the Irish people held most sacred, determined to have as little cause as possible for "the trembling in body" which the King's displeasure would effect. They traversed the land from end to end, destroying cathedrals, plundering abbeys, and burning relics—all in the name of a religion which proclaimed liberty of conscience to worship God according to individual conviction, as the great boon which it was to confer on the nation. However full of painful interest these details may be, as details they belong to the province of the ecclesiastical historian.

The Four Masters record the work of desecration in touching and mournful strains. They tell of the heresy which broke out in England, and graphically characterize it as "the effect of pride, vain-glory, avarice, and sensual desire." They mention how "the King and Council enacted new laws and statutes after their own will." They observe that all the property of the religious orders was seized for the King; and they conclude thus: "They also made archbishops and bishops for themselves; and although great was the persecution of the Roman emperors against the Church, it is not probable that so great a persecution as this ever came upon the world; so that it is impossible to tell or narrate its description, unless it should be told by him who saw it."[1]

The era of religious persecution was thus inaugurated; and if Ireland had made no martyrs of the men who came to teach her the faith, she was not slow to give her best and noblest sons as victims to the fury of those who attempted to deprive her of that priceless deposit. Under the year 1540, the Four Masters record the massacre of the Guardian and friars of the Convent at Monaghan, for refusing to acknowledge the spiritual supremacy of the King. Cornelius, Bishop of Down, a Franciscan friar, and Father Thomas FitzGerald, a member of the noble family of the Geraldines, and a famous preacher, were both killed in the convent of that Order in Dublin. Father Dominic Lopez has given a detailed account of the sufferings of the religious orders in Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII., in a rare and valuable work, entitled, Noticias Historicas de las tres florentissimas Provincias del celeste Ordem de la Ssma. Trinidad.[2]

I shall give two instances from this history, as a sample of the fashion in which the new doctrine of the royal supremacy was propagated. In 1539 the Prior and religious of the Convent of Atharee were commanded to take the oath of supremacy, and to surrender their property to the crown. The Superior, Father Robert, at once assembled his spiritual children, and informed them of the royal mandate. Their resolution was unanimous; after the example of the early Christians, when threatened with martyrdom and spoliation by heathen emperors, they at once distributed their provisions, clothing, and any money they had in hand amongst the poor, and concealed the sacred vessels and ornaments, so that not so much as a single emblem of our redemption was left to be desecrated by men professing to believe that they had been redeemed by the cross of Christ. Father Robert was summoned thrice to recognize the new authority. Thrice he declined; declaring that "none had ever sought to propagate their religious tenets by. the sword, except the pagan emperors in early ages, and Mahomet in later times. As for himself and his community, they were resolved that no violence should move them from the principles of truth: they recognized no head of the Catholic Church save the Vicar of Jesus Christ; and as for the King of England, they regarded him not even as a member of that holy Church, but as head of the synagogue of Satan." The conclusion of his reply was a signal for massacre. An officer instantly struck off his head with one blow.


[1] Saw it.—Four Masters, vol. v. p. 1445.

[2] Trinidad.—Madrid, 1714.