The Change in Religion (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Change in Religion | start of chapter

All the threats of the Government had little effect outside the English Pale. A commission held in 1549 asked the question, “How many friar houses and others remain using the old Papist sort [form of Mass]?” The answer was: “All Munster in effect, Thomond, Connacht, and Ulster.” And in 1565 Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Armagh, reported that still “the nobility and chief gentry frequent the Mass.”

Besides the immediate result which the forcing of the new doctrines upon the country had in strengthening and combining the Catholics of the North and South, it had the further effect of attracting the attention of Catholic powers abroad and of bringing France and Spain into closer touch with Ireland during their wars with England, to the great disadvantage and peril of that country.

Ireland, during the next hundred years, was to act as one chief pivot of the Continental wars, and was to prove a centre of intrigue and a point of constant danger to England. Moreover, the Papal authority which had, from the time of Henry II onward, been steadily on the side of the English Crown now naturally was thrown upon a contrary policy; the Irish Catholics were called upon to support a league which was outwardly, at least, designed for the preservation of the Catholic religion. Hitherto the Popes had always been ready to excommunicate either Scottish or Irish princes and people who were not “buxom nor obedient to their Lord King of England,” and it was not till the Catholic League was fully formed in Elizabeth’s reign that the Pope blessed it with his approval, and the Bull of excommunication against the Queen was promulgated by Pope Pius V, and supported by his successor, Pope Gregory XIII.

At the accession of Queen Mary the question arose whether she, as a sincere Catholic, would abjure the title of Head of the Church adopted by her father and give up the Oath of Supremacy which distressed the minds of so many of her Catholic subjects; but neither she nor her husband, Philip of Spain, showed any disposition to limit the prerogatives of the Crown, though in a general way they “set forth the honour and dignity of the Pope’s Holiness and See Apostolic of Rome,” and recommended the suppression of all heretics and “damnable sects.”

On Mary’s accession, Pope Paul IV, despairing of recovering a title which had been now claimed by two kings of England, and which the present occupier of the throne showed no sign of abandoning, decided to bless a condition of things he could not alter, by ignoring the action of Henry VIII, and “erecting the island into a kingdom, so that the world might believe that the Queen used the title as given by the Pope, not as decreed by her father.” He thus once more re-established his own claim to a superior authority by giving away, as Adrian had done before him, the actual power to the kings of England, to be held once more as the gift of the Holy See.[7]

That the condition of the Church in Ireland had been in a satisfactory state before the Reformation is much to be doubted. A State Paper of May 31, 1534, gives a lamentable account of the ruin which had fallen upon the monasteries and churches and the secular purposes to which they were put. We know from other sources that some of the cathedrals in the Irish districts were used entirely for such purposes as fortresses, storehouses, and barracks.

Tuam was for three hundred years used as a fortress by the neighbouring gentry, “without the holy sacrifice or divine office,” according to the report of the Papal emissary, Father David Wolf, until the appointment of Christopher Bodkin, the Government Archbishop, who had “with a great risk of his own life” cleared out the horses and beasts that inhabited the cathedral and had restored the divine worship in decency and quiet.

Wolf says of Bodkin that “his morality is unimpeached, and he is well liked by everyone,” and he strongly recommends that his appointment should be accepted and confirmed by the Pope, as he was better fitted for the post than the “true and legitimate archbishop,” Art O’Fredir.

Achonry Cathedral had been used as a fortress up to 1561, according to the interesting letter of the same apostolic delegate, written in that year to the Cardinal to whom he is reporting.[8] “It does not retain one vestige of the semblance of religion.”

Armagh Cathedral had long been used as a military centre both by Shane’s party and by the English, who made it into a barracks and used it for their military headquarters during their wars in Tyrone. The complaints as to the sort of men who occupied posts in the native churches before the changes can also not be without some ground of truth.

The State Paper to which we have already referred complains of “the unlearned persons, murderers, thieves, and [persons] of other detestable dispositions (such as light men of war)” who had been intruded into the churches, having expelled the rightful incumbents, and who spent and wasted the lands given for the service of God.[9]

Creagh’s account of the State of the Church in Ulster confirms this. Sidney declares that the Church is “foul, deformed, and cruelly crushed;” out of two hundred and twenty-four churches in the diocese of Meath, a hundred and five were leased out to farmers, and no parson or vicar was resident on any of them; very simple or sorry curates, mostly Irish-speakers and quite unlearned, were appointed to serve them, without houses to dwell in and living on the gain of Masses and other “bare altarages.” This was in the best-peopled diocese in the country.[10]

The obligation to take the Oath of Supremacy, and the new doctrines, began to empty the churches in the towns also. Even Justices of the Peace and bailiffs refused the Oath of Supremacy in Cork, and where the bishop of that diocese had been accustomed to preach to a thousand or more he had now not five.

The correspondents of the time impute this increasing stubbornness to the activities of foreign agents, whom the English classed under the comprehensive name of Jesuits. There is no doubt that large numbers of priests, schoolmasters, and friars were coming into the country purposely to support the Catholic League as well as to carry on their ordinary functions. Some were Italians and Spaniards; others were Irishmen who had been educated abroad and had imbibed the views of the countries in which they had spent their youth. This continued throughout Elizabeth’s reign.

“They land here secretly in every port and creek of the realm (a dozen of them together sometimes, as we are credibly informed) and afterwards disperse themselves into several quarters, in such sort that every town and country is full of them … The people in many places resort to Mass now in greater multitudes, both in town and country, than for many years past.”[11]

Though the ports were watched and the houses searched, these teachers, half missioners and half political agents, continued to arrive; and their teaching was followed by a revival of Church life, “solid and brilliant,” as the letters of Father Fitzsimon declare, as well as by the awakening of a violently anti-English spirit among the people.

Of actual bodily suffering on account of religion there was at this time considerably less in Ireland than in England and abroad. There were no burnings at the stake, and none of those holocausts such as were being suffered for the sake of religion in France, Spain and the Low Countries. Compared with these the sufferings of the Irish were light. Yet there were a considerable number of severe punishments inflicted, and fines and often long imprisonments were the reward of those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy—a refusal which could easily be construed as an act of disloyalty and was punishable as treason.

Nor could the order for the suppression of the monasteries be carried through without great hardships, though in Henry’s reign pensions were promised to the ejected abbots and priors. The order made in 1538 could not be carried into immediate execution; and in the remote parts of the country the monasteries continued to carry on their work practically untouched.

Sir John Davies, in the reign of James I, remarks that the abbeys and convents in Tyrone, Tyrconnel, and Fermanagh had never been reduced. But before the close of 1539 twenty-four of the chief monasteries had been effectually suppressed in the districts over which the English held sway. A number of priors and abbots and many monks were imprisoned or put to death for resisting the dismantling of their monasteries, or for refusing to accept the King’s supremacy.

The main period of persecution began after the restoration of the Act of Uniformity in 1560, when a number of bishops, priests, and friars suffered long periods of imprisonment, and in some cases torture or death.

One of the most pathetic cases was that of Dr. Dermod O’Hurley, Professor of Philosophy at Louvain and of Canon Law at Rheims, who left his congenial and learned posts to become Archbishop of Cashel at a time when “the Irish mission” was one of almost certain imprisonment or death.

For a time he carried on his work in the face of constant danger, but, being tracked down at last, he suffered in prison extreme torture, which he bore with admirable patience and serenity, till in 1584 he was put to death by being strangled with a withe.[12]

Fourteen bishops and a number of other clergy are remembered by name as having suffered imprisonment, death, or exile between the years 1577 and 1597, during which period the persecution was at its height.

To hunt priests was a meritorious act, and was rewarded by the Government, often on the testimony of such infamous informers as Miler Magrath, one of the few Irish ecclesiastics who acknowledged the supremacy of Elizabeth and whose grasping disposition was rewarded with many honours. He employed himself in hunting down men more honest than himself, and shamelessly invented accusations against them. “Very few of them,” he writes to Cecil in 1593, “escape the whip of my censuring discoveries.” His career runs through the State Papers of his day like the track of some vile reptile, and it is only a slight satisfaction to know that the same violent death that he had been instrumental in inflicting on others eventually overtook himself.

The laws were spasmodically enforced, but in the larger number of cases, though a Catholic priest might be forced to quit the country if found celebrating Mass or teaching Catholic children, and though the fines for non-attendance at the Protestant churches were frequently levied, severe corporal punishments were rare.

Such documents as the Italian Report of 1613,[13] the declarations of O’Sullevan Beare regarding Elizabeth’s reign,[14] and the similar statements of Pope Innocent X in 1645[15] are sufficient evidence of this. In 1613 there were still 800 seculars, 130 Franciscans, 20 Jesuits, and some members of the other orders at work in Ireland; and though the terror of imprisonment hung over them if they were found taking part in political affairs, they seem generally to have been left in peace.

But the disabilities that beset a Catholic in every walk in life were as degrading and harassing as the later penal enactments. A Catholic might not study under one of his religion at home, and if he were caught going overseas for his education he was liable to imprisonment and heavy fines. No Irish Catholic could plead in court, nor was he eligible for any civil employment, nor might a merchant share in the privileges of his town without taking the Oath of Supremacy, going to church, and promising to bring up his children as Protestants; hence all official employments passed into the hands of English Protestants.[16]

In 1556 the long Deputyship of St Leger, broken into four parts by three short recalls, came to an end. He had been in power, with intervals, since 1540. He was succeeded by Sussex, Lord FitzWalter, under whom, from 1556 onward, Sir Henry Sidney acted as Lord Justice and Vice-Treasurer, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the country’s conditions and needs during his seven years of active association with him before he was appointed to follow him as Lord Deputy in 1565.

In 1558 Mary died, and with the accession of Elizabeth to the throne the most stirring period of Irish history begins. At the date of the new Queen’s accession there were signs of difficulties ahead in the North. Shane O’Neill was smarting under a sense of injury in having been set aside by his father in favour of an older man whom he persistently declared to be only “the son of a blacksmith,” and who was supported in his position, at Conn’s request, by the English Government.[17] Conn, his reputed father, died in 1559, and Shane, who was now coming to manhood, determined to assert his claims.