Free Exercise of Religion

Justin McCarthy
Chapter VI | Start of Chapter

The policy of Strafford might have gone on long enough in Ireland without check from the public opinion of England and Scotland if the conduct of Strafford's master had not already begun to light the flame of rebellion, not only in Scotland, but even in England. The fate of Strafford was soon involved in the rising movement against despotic government and perfidious statecraft, and before long the revolution had set in which sent Strafford first and Charles afterwards to the scaffold. The semblance of religious equality which Strafford introduced into his government of Ireland had much to do with creating that feeling of almost perverse loyalty to the Stuart cause which long prevailed in Ireland. It was asserted on behalf of Strafford that, while he endeavoured to draw Ireland into conformity of religion with England, "no hair of any man's head was touched for the free exercise of his conscience." The practical interpretation of this statement is that it was open to any man in Ireland who had money to secure the right of following the religion of the Church of Rome so long as he made it worth the King's while. But even this peculiar form of concession to the principle of religious liberty had its attractions for the Irish Catholic of that time. During the rule of former Deputies since the Norman conquest of Ireland there had been religious equality only until the Reformation set up two Christian Churches in Ireland, as in England, instead of one. From the time of the Reformation the Faith dear to the hearts of the Irish Catholics had been treated as a crime. Men had been deprived of their property for worshipping according to their ancestral Faith—had been imprisoned, banished, tortured, and put to death for it. It was therefore with a keen sense of relief that the Irish people in general welcomed a policy which, under any conditions, made it possible for an Irish Catholic to practise his religion without being treated as a felon. In this sense we can understand the extravagant hopes aroused in the breasts of so many Irish Catholics by the rule of Strafford in Ireland, and their sentiment of loyal devotion to the memory of Charles I.