Ireland: Island of Saints & Sign of Contradiction

Author: Grzegorz Kucharczyk


The Christianization of Ireland took place in the fifth century thanks to the monumental efforts of St. Patrick. Over the following centuries the Emerald Isle came to be known as the “island of saints.” From here a host of missionaries set out to evangelize neighboring Britain and the more distant lands of the former Western Roman Empire: modern-day France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.


“The Irish miracle”

Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, St. Columban, St. Kilian, and St. Gall typified the evangelizing efforts of the Irish monks (known as the Iro-Scots). Their contribution to the evangelization of Western Europe was of equal importance to that of St. Benedict and his followers. Together with the Benedictines, the Iro-Scots lay the foundations of the European community of Christian nations. Thanks to the painstaking diligence of their monastic scribes, they preserved within their cloisters the most valuable civilizing achievements of Greco-Roman times. It is hard to imagine the rise of Western (Christian) civilization without Ireland. This is what is meant by the term, “the Irish miracle”—a phenomenon eminently worthy of emulation by Catholic Poland in the twenty-first century.
Unlike other European nations, medieval Ireland did not evolve into a unified state. Her social and political structure rested upon family and ancestral ties (clans). This left the way open for the expansion of Ireland’s neighbors—England, in particular. From the twelfth century onward, the Emerald Isle underwent a fitful process of conquest by the English. Until the break with the Roman Church in 1534 by the English King Henry VIII, the conflict was political in nature. With the consolidation of the Reformation in England, it took on the character of a religious war—in effect, the ruthless conquest of Ireland by the forces of a Protestant state and the imposition of blatantly discriminatory laws upon Catholics throughout the territories of the island progressively subdued by England (namely, the “Penal Laws,” discussed earlier in the present series of articles).
Ireland remained staunchly loyal to the faith, which St. Patrick had taught her a thousand years earlier. But the price of this loyalty proved to be inordinately high. By the second half of the sixteenth century Ireland lay subject to a system of extraordinary laws which placed Catholics outside the pale of political, social, and economic life. The English Puritan Revolution of the 1640s launched a period of bloody martyrdom for Catholic Ireland.

“The barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish”

Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the victorious Protestant Puritans, seized unchallenged power in England—an event sealed in 1649 by the beheading of the King of England, Charles I Stuart. Cromwell then set out to conquer that “nest of papists” by which term the Puritans referred to Catholic Ireland. In August 1649 Cromwell and his troops landed in Ireland. A proclamation accompanied the arrival of the English army. In it the Lord Protector declared “that as God had brought him thither in safety so he doubted not but by Divine Providence to restore them all to their just liberties and properties and that all persons whose hearts’ affections were real for the carrying on of this great work against the barbarous and bloodthirsty Irish and their confederates and adherents and for propagating of Christ’s gospel and establishing of truth and peace…should…receive such rewards and gratuities as might be answerable to their merits.” Exactly how the Protestant forces understood the phrase “propagating the Gospel and peace” was evidenced by the fate of the Irish town of Drogheda, a strategically located fortress on the road to Ulster. Having taken the town, Cromwell abandoned it for two days to the mercy of his victorious troops. They murdered the soldiers who had surrendered upon Cromwell’s word of honor and burned alive twenty-four Irish defenders of the town who had sought sanctuary in the Church of St. Peter. Wholesale slaughter of soldiers as well as civilians took place; not even women or children were spared. The commander of the resistance, Colonel Arthur Aston (he had fought with the Polish army in 1621 against the Turks in Chocim) was clubbed to death with his own wooden leg. The surviving inhabitants were deported as slaves to the English colonies in the Caribbean (most of them to Barbados).
 Drogheda typifies the policies that the Puritans introduced to Ireland. Coupled with sheer physical terror, it amounted to an ethnic and religious cleansing conducted on a massive scale. The so-called Act of Settlement passed by the English Parliament in 1652, allowed for the systematic colonization of Ireland by Protestants. Colonization meant the forcible removal of the Catholic landowners. Under the new conditions, they might be fortunate enough to remain on as mere tenants of lands, which now belonged by force of law to the Protestant settlers from England. In the first half of the seventeenth century native Irish still possessed over two thirds of arable land on the island. As a result of the Cromwellian colonization (i.e. confiscations), most of this acreage passed into the hands of the new Protestant owners. By the early 1760s, 690 000 Catholic Irish (81% of the island’s inhabitants) owned barely 31% of the land, whereas 160,000 English (Protestants) resident in Ireland owned 69%.

Protestant apartheid in Ireland

The year 1688 marked the next chapter of the Irish Catholics’ martyrdom. The so-called Glorious Revolution, staged by English Protestants, resulted in King James II Stuart’s fall from power in England (his crime being that he was Catholic) and flight to Ireland. As a result, Ireland suffered yet another armed English invasion in 1691. This time the leader was William of Orange, whom the English Protestants had chosen as their next monarch. The defeat of the Catholics at the River Boyne (to this day the event is commemorated by Protestant “Orangemen” with incendiary marches through Catholic suburbs in Northern Ireland) meant not only a decisive end to James II’s rule, but also the beginning of a century of virtual apartheid for the Catholic Irish—a system brutally imposed and administered by the Protestant minority. The first to come under fire (in accordance with the age-old principle of “killing the shepherd”) were the members of the Catholic clergy. All Catholic bishops and monks were exiled. To return from exile carried an automatic death sentence. The Protestant authorities allowed priests to remain in Ireland until 1709. But in that year they decreed that every priest working in Ireland must swear an oath of abjuration. All “popish errors” were to be renounced—chief among them the belief in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine consecrated at Mass. Needless to say, no Catholic priest could take such an oath, and this meant immediate expulsion from Ireland on pain of death.
With equal severity members of the Catholic clergy were forbidden to establish schools on the Emerald Isle; nor could they travel beyond its shores to further their own education. They could not receive legacies left in their name; nor could Catholic churches have steeples, bells, or visibly placed crosses.
The policy of apartheid also affected the Catholic laity—indeed, even more so. In the decades after 1691, successive acts passed by the British Parliament decreed that all Catholic inhabitants of Ireland should be barred from holding seats in parliament, all civil offices, and many key professions as well. Catholics were excluded from the practice of law; nor could they be teachers. Catholic women were forbidden to care for children. The ban on Catholic educational institutions and attendance of such centers of education abroad applied in equal measure to lay Catholics. Another unmistakable sign of apartheid was the law prohibiting intermarriage with Protestants. The celebration of such mixed marriages by a Catholic priest carried the death sentence.
Under the penal laws of Ireland of 1691 Catholics were forbidden to reside in larger towns. They were not allowed to carry arms. Their saddle horses could command no greater price than five pounds sterling. Those who buried their dead in the churchyards of old monasteries (remnants of an institutional monastic life long since destroyed) incurred a monetary fine. Pilgrimages to Catholic shrines dedicated to Our Lady or the saints were also banned. A worker refusing to work on a Catholic feast day was to be whipped. The same punishment applied to those violating the ban on Catholic pilgrimages.

How to bring about the effect of “Catholic backwardness”?

A distinctive feature of Protestant England’s anti-Catholic legislation as imposed on Ireland was its economic aspect. Under the penal laws passed in Ireland in the eighteenth century a Catholic had no right to acquire land or hold leases. The law made it mandatory for a Catholic landholder to divide his property equally among his children. At the same time, land held by Protestants was subject to the right of primogeniture, that is to say, the entire estate passed to the (eldest) heir. The above-mentioned law was contrived to bring about an artificial fragmentation of Catholic owned lands. From a purely economic standpoint, given the huge tracts of Protestant lands (maintained by the right of primogeniture), Catholic possessions had no chance of surviving in the long term.
The anti-Catholic laws were not only intrinsically unjust; they also fostered immoral deeds. They promoted a spirit of denunciation. Those who helped in the tracking down and capture of a Catholic priest in hiding received a monetary reward. (This gave rise in Ireland to a group of people enticed by the profits to be had—the so-called “priest-hunters”.) In addition, a cash reward awaited any priest who decided to renounce his “popish superstitions.”
For nearly two centuries (the eighteenth and nineteenth) official English historiography pointed out to the Irish their “backwardness,” material poverty, and lack of education. Attributing these qualities to “the pernicious influence of Catholicism,” it ignored the true cause of this state of affairs, which was the almost one hundred years of discriminatory policies against the island’s Catholic population, which found itself denied the means of education and excluded from honest economic competition. In effect, Britain’s discriminatory policies both created and reinforced the growth of anti-Catholic feelings and prejudices.

Towards equal rights

In the 1770s the politics of anti-Catholic apartheid began to crumble. Britain was experiencing growing problems with her North American colonies. In 1776 these difficulties led to the American War of Independence. It was in this context that the British government’s gradual dismantling of the penal laws in Ireland took place. No sudden outburst of love towards Catholics accounted for the change of policy. It was a matter of pure political calculation. London did not want to have another revolution “on its doorstep.”
In 1778 Irish Catholics were allowed to take leases of land. Catholic landlords were permitted to leave their entire estates to a single heir (thus contributing to a consolidation of Catholic lands). In 1782 Irish Catholics could establish their own schools (upon permission from the local Anglican bishop) and the Catholic clergy (including Bishops) was once more allowed to reside on the island. That same year Catholics won the right to own horses on the same terms as Protestants (i.e. without the price limit referred to earlier). Catholic women were also allowed to mind children.
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the fear that France might gain Irish allies in the fight against “perfidious Albion” inclined the British Parliament toward further concessions. In 1792, Irish Catholics were allowed to marry Protestants, to practice law, and to set up schools without the Anglican bishop’s leave. A year later Catholics earned the right to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections. This same Catholic Relief Bill of 1793 enabled Catholics to become judges, sheriffs, councilors, and officers in the army and navy. They could even possess arms.
In 1829, the British Parliament resolved to extend full political emancipation to Catholics in the British Isles. This resolution also applied to Ireland, although with certain notable exceptions. Jesuits continued to be banned from working in Ireland, and other religious orders were denied the right to receive charitable bequests. Stiff fines were leveled against priests seen in their vestments outside church grounds. The law excluding Catholics from the highest administrative offices on the Emerald Isle (those of Viceroy and Lord Chancellor) continued in force.
Grzegorz Kucharczyk
 (translated by Alicja Kozlowska)
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