Tuesday, 31 January 2023

'One who was a an example to future generations': Blessed Francis Taylor


At the end of January 1621, a long period of imprisonment, impoverishment and humiliation finally came to an end for Francis Taylor (Tayler, Tailler), a once-prominent citizen of Dublin who had been involved in the capital city's civic, commercial and political life at the highest level.  Born around the year 1550 into a wealthy merchant family in Swords, County Dublin, the Taylors were one of the 'Old English' families of the Pale who remained loyal to the Catholic faith, a loyalty which would ultimately cost Francis his life. Although it would be another three and a half centuries before he would be officially beatified, the cause of Francis Taylor's martyrdom was first promoted a few years after his death by Cork martyrologist John Mullan (Joannes Molanus) in his Idea togatae constantiae published from exile in Paris in 1629. Sadly, he does not provide much biographical detail but does provide the testimony of contemporary witnesses to the character of the martyred man. Mullan's account was translated by Father Denis Murphy in his 1896 work Our Martyrs:

1621. Francis Tailler.

(From Molanus' Idea, p.96)

He passed several years in prison in Dublin, and endured in it all the hardships of cold and confinement. Broken down by sufferings, he exchanged this brief life for eternity, in the year 1621. We have the following testimony borne to his merits by the Archbishop and several of the leading clergy of the city: -

We, the undersigned, having been asked to declare what we know with certainty of the manner of life and of the death of Francis Tailler, senator of Dublin, and resolved to give to virtue the praise it deserves, and to all good men the honour due to them even after death, testify and declare from certain knowledge that the aforesaid Francis Tailler, senator of the City of Dublin, was by far the most respected of the senators of Dublin, and not only that he was of good repute and much honoured by all good men, but so faithful to God that though advanced in years, and respected for his virtue and constancy which was tested by various persecutions and imprisonment at the hands of the enemies of the Catholic Church, yet he could never be induced to swerve by a hair's breadth from the profession of the Catholic faith and obedience to the Church of Rome.  Wherefore, after an imprisonment of seven years, worn out by old age and the hardships of the prison, he died in the Castle of Dublin on January 30th, 1621. So we testify, and in proof of our good faith, we gladly subscribe our names and set our seals to the same.

Given in Dublin, in Ireland, August 17th, 1630.

Thomas Fleming, Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland.

Luke Rochfort, P.P. of St Audeon's.

 Patrick Cahill, Rector of St. Mary's Galtrim.

Fr. Dominic Nugent, of the Order of Preachers.

Henry Cusack, Superior of the Residence S.J., Dublin.

The second testimonial Mullan solicited mentions the various public offices once held by the martyr:

I wish to add my testimony to what is know by public report and spread abroad by the abundant testimony of many persons, and to show my respect for one who was an example to future generations, and whose memory we can never sufficiently commend. Francis Tayler was sprung from an ancient noble family both on the father's and the mother's side, and filled several public offices with great credit, as that of Mayor, Treasurer, and Senator, in fine, in the City of Dublin, the metropolis of Ireland.  But he was far more illustrious by his profession of the Catholic faith, to which he was very much attached all his life. He put the crown to this constancy and to his other great virtues by a glorious death after an imprisonment of seven years in the Castle of Dublin, on the 20th of January, 1621.

In testimony whereof I have set my name and seal to these presents.

Given in Paris, May 4th, 1631.

Thomas Mede, Protonotary of the Holy Roman Church, formerly Almoner of the Most Illustrious Cardinal de BĂ©rulle.

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J. , Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), pp. 260-261.

The surviving records confirm that Francis Taylor was indeed an active member of the local government of Dublin City, acting not only as Mayor and Treasurer but as an agent, presenting the city's concerns directly at the court of Queen Elizabeth:

 1st April, 1597.

Francis Taylor and William Gough, alderman, to be the city agents for exhibiting suits to the Queen, they to be ready to take shipping for England by 10th April.

Berry, Henry F. “Minute Book of the Corporation of Dublin, Known as the ‘Friday Book,' 1567-1611.” PRIA, vol. 30, 1912, pp. 477–514.

What Mullen's account, however, does not explain are the circumstances in which this highly-regarded city father ended his days in prison. The imprisonment of Blessed Francis Taylor took place in the context of a deteriorating political situation for Dublin's Old English Catholic elite. As we have seen above, by the end of the sixteenth century Francis Taylor was acting as the city agent, representing the Irish capital in person at the court of Elizabeth I. His Catholicism then was clearly not a barrier to his moving in political circles at the highest level. He was not associated with violent resistance to the English crown, but was rather its loyal servant. Yet his ability to navigate the swiftly-turning tide of intolerance towards those who refused to conform to the new state religion was becoming increasingly compromised. The death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 initially led Catholics to believe that the reign of the new monarch, James I, son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, would herald a new era of toleration. Ten years later it was apparent that these hopes were futile. The government made clear its determination to quash Catholic resistance by holding a parliament which would introduce anti-Catholic measures and ensure that the Irish capital would reflect the Protestant religious ethos the state had embraced, even if so many of its leading Old English citizens had not. In 1612 it reinforced the message with the public execution of Bishop Conor O'Devany O.F.M. along with secular priest Father Patrick O'Loughran on charges of treason. This brutal event and the show trial which had preceded it were intended to send a message to the city's Catholic elite: the days of the authorities tolerating their unwillingness to accept the religious settlement were over.  From now on recusancy would have consequences.  However, this strategy backfired spectacularly and rather than being cowed into submission by the executions, the resolve of Dublin's Catholics was strengthened. Contemporary observers noted that the streets of the capital were lined with people watching as the priest and the bishop were being dragged off to the scaffold, but this was no common mob, for we are told that the crowds included many of the leading families of the Pale. It is more than likely that respected city father, Francis Taylor, was among them. 

The executions of Bishop O'Devany and Father O'Loughran marked a turning point for the Dublin Catholic elite. I am sure that a politician as experienced and skilful as Francis Taylor would have recognized that he was running out of room to manoeuvre. The community, however, made one last show of defiance. The Dublin Catholics took advantage of the absence of the Mayor of the city on April 20, 1613 to call the election of two members to represent the city and chose Francis Taylor and fellow-Catholic Thomas Allen. Mayor Sir James Carroll returned the next day and was not amused by this fait accompli, knowing that it would incur the wrath of his political masters who were determined to secure a Protestant majority in the new parliament. They had already created new boroughs, dominated not by the Old English but by the New, Protestant incomers who had been granted confiscated Irish lands. He therefore ordered the election to be re-run, but this time with the electorate widened to include residents of the borough who were not native-born. One contemporary English observer recorded that this decision sparked a riot, as the Dublin Catholics forcibly ejected all Englishmen from the city hall and would not allow anyone who did not represent their community to speak. The proceedings had to be abandoned and Mayor Carroll faced the ire of Lord Deputy Chichester, who ordered him to reconvene at an open-air venue at Hoggen Green and invite all the citizens resident in the borough, whatever their origins, to attend. Despite the protests of the Catholic electors that their earlier election of Francis Taylor and Thomas Allen had been valid, the outcome was that two Protestant candidates were chosen to replace them. Subsequent legal challenges to this result were ignored and Francis Taylor was thus denied the opportunity to represent Dublin in the new parliament.

The clock was now ticking for Blessed Francis and for his ability to continue to operate in the world of politics. As Doctor Colm Lennon, who authored the official report on Francis Taylor, submitted as part of the beatification process, notes:

Francis Taylor's Catholicism was not mentioned in any official record until the time of his election when he was referred to by Sir Robert Jacob on 26 May [1613] as a 'most Spanish and seditious schismatique'. 

C. Lennon, The Lords of Dublin in the Age of Reformation (Irish Academic Press, 1989), 202.

This description seems very wide of the mark. Francis Taylor was a conservative figure who was not involved in any kind of armed insurrection of the type that the adjective 'Spanish' would appear to imply. There is no evidence that he was intriguing with members of the Spanish court or asking for an invasion force to be sent to Ireland to restore him and his community to their traditional place in society. His real crime was not 'sedition' but recusancy. 

The exact sequence of events which followed is difficult to reconstruct, thanks to gaps in the historical record. Colm Lennon speculates that the government may have moved against him in 1614, possibly meting out a large fine. What is known from the records is that Francis Taylor was elected as treasurer for the last time in 1615.  Two years later he was petitioning to be excused certain debts and arrears because of his 'present troubles', 'weake habillitye' and 'distressed estate'. He makes no reference to his former lands and properties in his will dated January 4, 1621 and indicates that his wife was now residing in their son's house in High Street. His stand for Catholicism had cost him not just his career as a politician but also his former status as a man of substance. By the end of January 1621 it would also cost him his life. 

It is not known exactly when the arrest of Francis Taylor took place and surviving accounts suggest a number of different dates. Whilst the government wished to be rid of this able opponent, they had learnt the lessons from the 1612 public execution of Bishop O'Devany. It was therefore more expedient to remove the threat of Francis Taylor by imprisoning rather than killing him. By the start of 1621, when he drew up his will, he was dying and his life came to an end either on the 29th or on the 30th of January. He had requested in his will that he be buried in Saint Audoen's church in Dublin, the city he had served so faithfully and capably for many years.

It is clear from the witness testimony gathered by Mullan that the sacrifices Francis Taylor made for the sake of his faith were not forgotten by those who had known him. He was a man who preferred to lose everything - career, social position, wealth, liberty and life itself- for the sake of conscience.

Francis Taylor is Number 122 on the 1918 Official List of Irish Martyrs whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. On September 27, 1992 he was one of the seventeen Irish martyrs beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II.


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Saturday, 24 December 2022

The Most Important Christmas Custom

We conclude the series on how Mass in the Penal Era in Ireland was presented to an Irish-American audience at Christmas time with a final offering from the Boston-based newspaper The Sacred Heart Review. In 'The Most Important Christmas Custom' the writer examines why the Christmas Midnight Mass was of such importance to the people of Ireland and suggests that it was because people were forced to gather before dawn during the penal era. He then goes on to draw a parallel between Our Lady and Saint Joseph being forced to retire to 'a cavern in the rock' when there was no room at the inn and the Irish people being forced by the penal laws to retire to underground caverns to celebrate the Mass. Thus once again we see it suggested that despite the harsh physical conditions in which the Christmas Mass was celebrated in Ireland at this time, the spiritual quality of the worship was something special:



"Of the Christmas customs of Catholic Ireland in its glory," wrote O. B. M. in the Catholic Columbian, a few years ago, "we have not even the records nor the traditions. All was destroyed. We have but the English records of laws that proscribed them, that intended to destroy the faith itself, and whose authors vainly thought they had succeeded. 

"But the faith survived in Ireland and Christmas in its essence survived with it. The laws of the persecutor aimed at the destruction of all things Catholic; but it singled out for special proscription the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catholic religion was for the time banished, outlawed. The celebration of the Mass was especially penalised. For 276 years the Mass was proscribed and yet the Mass never ceased to be offered. The people retired to the hillsides, to the glens, and to underground caverns and there often before the dawn assembled around the altar whereon the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered. 

"In those years the Christmas Midnight Mass was, therefore, the great central observance; and it remains so to-day in Ireland as it does not in any other country. Some readers may remember the picture which Carleton in his 'Willy Reilly' draws of a Mass in the penal days celebrated in an underground cavern. How could a Christmas come nearer to the literal repetition of Bethlehem than a Midnight Mass in Ireland under such conditions? The central fact of Christmas is the presence of God the Saviour in the flesh. Here the people had Him present upon the altar. It was to a cavern in the rock that the Blessed Mother and Joseph retired, 'because there was no room for them in the Inn.' Here the Catholic people retired because they were hunted from the towns and even from the face of the earth but they had the Saviour present with them all, visible to the eyes of faith. The shepherds did not see the Godhead but believed the word that was given them from heaven and adored Him present on the Altar. 

"It is not strange, therefore, that in Ireland the early Mass on Christmas day is the great central fact of the celebration. Three hundred years during which it was their only consolation have trained the people to this. In the country districts it is now celebrated not at midnight but in the very early morning. But to the young, especially in this northern latitude, five o'clock on Dec. 25 is equivalent to midnight."

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 54, Number 26, 11 December 1915.

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Friday, 23 December 2022

Mass in the Penal Days

We turn away today from accounts in the popular religious press on the theme of Christmas Mass in Penal Era Ireland to a sermon given by Archbishop John Joseph Glennon (1862–1946), a native of County Westmeath who served as Archbishop of St. Louis from 1903 until his death in 1946. Below is an extract from a 1910 sermon he delivered in Saint Patrick's Church in Montreal during the Eucharistic Congress. Although the Archbishop is not directly addressing the specifically seasonal aspects of Mass at the Penal Rock, nevertheless he alludes to many of the features we associate with it, from the 'sad-visaged' priest to the necessity for lookouts and the potentially dire consequences of discovery. Indeed, it is because both celebrant and congregation are so intently focused on the most solemn part of the liturgy that the authorities are able to close in. I note too that like other commentators Archbishop Glennon favourably compares the natural outdoor setting of Mass in the Penal Days with anything a gilded cathedral had to offer:

Mass in the Penal Days
From Sermon of His Grace, Archbishop Glennon at Montreal.
September 10th, 1910 

Extract from Sermon delivered by His Grace, Archbishop Glennon, of St. Louis, in St. Patrick's Church, Montreal, on September 10th, 1910, during the Eucharistic Congress

"IT is not inopportune that in this Eucharistic Congress, this litany of nations in the praise of their King, that I should speak a word, that I should strike a chord, though it be in a minor key,  for the nation whose apostle is patron of this sacred edifice, and whose exiled sons have made possible its building. I would pass by the days of the schoolmen, and come to those latter days, namely the penal times in Ireland, the long weary years when the Catholic Church was persecuted, when a price was set on every 'Mass priest', when the churches were alienated, desecrated, burned; and the entire country pillaged and its people driven to the mountains or into the sea. And this dread visitation, unlike the storm that passes, unlike the plague that eats its lethal way, not for a season, but for over three hundred years, brooded over the land, its darkness lighted only by the ascending fires of burning homes, or the gleaming swords of the brutal soldiers. It is easy to serve in fair weather: the test of devotion comes when human life is the forfeit. The Irish people stood the test, their land to-day is hallowed by the ashes of a hundred thousand martyrs of the Blessed Sacrament, while the survivors, praying their 'De profundis' for the dead, cling still to the 'Mass priest', and their fealty tried by fire is all the truer to their King. 

It was during the burning days that the 'Mass priest', sad-visaged and hunted, gathered his flock out in the mountain fastness, or in the shaded valleys. Knowing that the enemy was near, outposts were set so as to guard the approach, and give the signal of threatening danger. The candles were lighted, the priest puts on the sacred vestments. It is not a scene to attract the eye of the worldling; there are no marble columns, no tabernacle of gold, no fretted roof, no dim visted aisle, no organ pealing, no glorious chant, no censer swinging. But for people such as these around, love crowns all, love transforms all. For them the censor swings, for, is there not the perfume of the wild flowers that bloom there, of purple heath, of fragment hawthorn; vistas, there are, too, just as nature made them in rich nature's temple, for down the valley are the dim aisles of the forest trees. And for a sacrificial chant, they have the song of birds, and the murmur of their own heart's love, the love of Irish hearts for their faith and their Lord; of all others on this earth that we know of, the tenderest, the truest, the best.

Yet little time have they now to think of those things. The Mass is commenced. The priest has invoked the mercy of God— 'Lord have mercy on us'; he prays for the living and the dead. He reaches the solemn act that brings the Saviour down to His poor people. With bowed heads and reverent, the people murmur words of welcome, satisfied that, though by all the world forgotten, yet will He not forget them.

But why the alarm? Alas, these moments absorbed in worship are taken advantage of; the enemy, the soldiers of the King, are around them. The cry, repeated in the long ago, is heard again, We have no king but Caesar.' 'Down with the Mass'— 'Death to the Mass priest'— it is the tragedy of Calvary again, only to the tragedy is added the desecration. The blood of the Saviour and his priest flow together, and the dying lips of the priest whisper their last words on earth, 'Go, the sacrifice is over.' Quite true it is that the penal days in Ireland have ended long ago, and if the memory of them remain, it is not in bitterness nor revenge. No, they are thinking now, not of their persecutors, but how best they may honor and serve in the days of their religious freedom the King they followed during the long night of their persecution. Now they will restore him to the churches they build, churches to take the place of their older temples, from which He has been driven, and they have been despoiled. They will cross the seas bearing the standard of their King."


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Thursday, 22 December 2022

The Sweet Christmas Bells

We are staying with the Boston-based newspaper The Sacred Heart Review for yet another illustration of how the image of Mass at Christmas time in Penal Era Ireland was presented to a late nineteenth-century Irish-American audience. The paper's 'Our Irish Letter' column offered its readers a romantic and sentimental vision of the old country where Irish exceptionalism is reflected in the claim that 'nowhere is the festive season more religiously observed than in this Catholic isle' because no other country has suffered quite as much as we have in order to do so. The focus of this 1894 piece, 'The Sweet Christmas Bells', by M.J. Roche, is therefore not so much on the image of the Mass Rock but rather on the history of the persecution that lay behind it. The reader is invited not to weep the penal days but instead to hail the courage, endurance and determination on the part of the Irish people and their heroic priests which allowed the faith to survive. Most interestingly of all is that the article concludes with a roll-call of Irish clerical martyrs which the author imagines being read out 'at many an Irish fireside on Christmas night' recalling a time 'when the history of the Irish struggle was written in the best, the purest, the holiest blood of Ireland':


Christmas is again with us, and "Our Irish Letter" of today extends to its thousands of readers the compliments of the season — A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, with many joyous returns. No need to remind our readers that "Our Irish Letter" columns, week after week, year after year, occupy Old Ireland's corner of the Sacred Heart Review. Scarcely a noteworthy incident has transpired in the Old Land since "Our Irish Letter" made its initial bow to our readers that has not been recorded in its columns. It's aim has been to edify and instruct while it faithfully depicts the Irish news, and strives to infuse into the minds of its readers an ardent and undying love for the faith and land of St. Patrick. Ever ready to raise its voice in behalf of Old Grannuale it has never been found wanting to spring to the aid of any patriotic movement. It has done good and enduring work for the Home Rule cause, and that its services are recognized and appreciated may be judged from the fact that it is invariably one of the first to be called upon for assistance when any project for the advancement of the Irish cause is launched forth by the Irish patriots of Massachusetts. But it is not our purpose to dwell upon politics while the merry Christmas bells are ringing forth their glad message of 'Peace on earth and good will towards men.' Accordingly we shift a slide, and, lo, a wondrous transformation is effected and we find ourselves transported by some invisible power to the Old Sod of the Isle of Saints. 

What a happiness it is for us to be privileged to pass Christmas-tide in dear old Ireland, for nowhere is the festive season more religiously observed than in this Catholic isle. Despite the cruel and oppressive laws of tyrants enacted for centuries, religion flourishes there as vigorously today, thank God, as it did before the penal laws. The blood of our forefathers shed copiously in streams for the faith, the sacrifices they were ever ready and willing to make for the sake of religion, have borne good fruit. Ireland's history is the glorious story of heroic and saintly lives, it brings before us the deeds of her devoted and patriotic sons, and depicts the bright picture of her martyrs and confessors and her gifted students. It tells us how they kept alive in dark and dismal caverns and on the mountain tops the torches of science and sanctity. It points out to us the glorious deeds of the Irish priesthood and shows us what they suffered for love of their country and religion. It incites us to purity of life and nobility of action and teaches us to prize and cherish the holy faith handed down to us at the cost of toil and blood and tears. It also teaches us that — 

We must not weep the penal days 
That sanctified our hills and plains; 
We must not shudder when we gaze 
At men that feared not death nor chains; 
In blood and tears 'neath penal laws 
Saint Erin's heart was purified; 
For holy Faith and Freedom's cause, 
Our martyred nation grandly died. 
When peaceful bloomed our garden land 
The hermit and the monk arose 
And every vale heard virgin-band 
Sing love of God, at evening's close; 
But when our air with war was red, 
From cells and caves Truth's soldiers came 
And every rock a glory shed, 
Around some Irish martyr's name. 
We will not weep the penal days, the days of the ruin of the dear old convents of the Irish Franciscans and Dominicans, when the inmates were driven forth at the point of the sword and scattered like sheep over the land. We will not weep the penal days which sorely tried Ireland's faith and Ireland's religion. Five pounds was set as a price upon the head of the friar or priest —the same price that was set upon the head of a wolf. They were hunted throughout the land, and when they fled for their lives from their convent homes, the Irish people opened their hospitable doors and said, "Come to us, saggarth aroon." Scattered with no shelter but the canopy of heaven; with no Sunday sacrifice to remind the people of God; no Mass celebrated in public and no Gospel preached; and yet they succeeded for three hundred years in preserving the glorious Catholic faith. The venerable ruins of the Irish abbeys and monasteries tell to this day the tale of Ireland's woe, of Ireland's sorrow. The persecution of the Irish friar, the Irish monk, the Irish priest brought sorrow and affliction to everybody in Ireland. There were upwards of eighty convents of religious —Franciscans and Dominicans —in Ireland before the penal days, and about a thousand priests of each order. Henry began his persecution and was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth and at the close of the latter's reign, how many of the thousand Dominicans were there left in Ireland, do you think? There were a thousand before and only four of them left— only four. And all the rest of these Irish friars had stained their white habits with their hearts' blood shed for God and for their country. It took Queen Bess twenty years to try to plant the seedling of Protestantism on Irish soil. The ground was dug as for a grave, the blood of the nation was poured in to warm the seed and bring it forth. It never grew; it never raised its tiny head above the soil, it never bloomed. Protestantism could not find root on Irish soil and Ireland was as Catholic the day that Bess breathed her last at Hampton Court, gnawing the flesh off her hands in despair, and blaspheming God — Ireland was as Catholic that day as she was the day Henry the Eighth vainly commanded her first to become Protestant. 

With Elizabeth's death came a little breathing time, and in fifty years there were 600 Irish Dominican priests in Ireland again. They studied in Spain, in France and in Italy. These were the youth, the children of Irish fathers and mothers, who cheerfully gave them up, although they knew almost to a certainty that they were giving them to a martyr's death; but they gave them up for God. Smuggled out of Ireland, they studied in these foreign lands; and they came back again by night, and by stealth, and they landed upon the shores of Ireland; and when Cromwell came he found six hundred Irish Dominicans upon the Irish land. Ten years after — only a decade of years had passed — and again the Dominican friars assembled to count their numbers, and to tell how many survived, and how many had fallen. Only one hundred and fifty were left out of the six hundred; four hundred and fifty had perished — had shed their blood for their country or had been shipped to the Barbadoes as slaves. These are the thoughts recurring to us as we tread the soil of holy Ireland at Christmastide. Small wonder then that the Irish people are so proud of their faith. Do not the very moss-grown stones of the Irish ruins speak of their noble martyrs? As we trudge o'er hills and fields to the midnight Mass on Christmas eve, the grey walls of the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries, glistening in the moonlight, remind us how the Irish people gave up everything they had for years and years, as wave after wave of persecution rolled over them, rather than renounce their glorious faith or their glorious priesthood.

At many an Irish fireside on Christmas night is told the story of Dominick Collins, the faithful son of St. Ignatius, taken by the heretics in the fort at Berehaven and hanged by order of the cruel Mountjoy at Cork; of Maurice Eustace, young, generous and brave, executed at Dublin on pretense of treason against Elizabeth; of Father James Boyton, slain by the followers of Inchiequin at the sieege of Cashel of the Kings, while he administered the Sacrament to the dying defenders of the Holy Rock — Collins, Eustace, Boyton — these and hundreds of others of their order remind us of what the Jesuits did and suffered for Ireland in the penal days. The fate of Thaddeus O'Connell recalls the heroism of the Augustinians; Mulcahy of Clonmel, O'Kelly of Connaught, Fitzpatrick of Ossory vividly recall the patriotism and self-sacrifice of the secular clergy. The members of religious orders and the secular clergy were faithful to Ireland and freely poured out their blood for the cause of religion and freedom, and the Irish people suffered and fought and died like true martyrs, but faithful above all were the noble prelates of the Irish Church. Bishop after bishop, archbishop after archbishop in all the sees of Ireland died gloriously for the faith and the liberty of the Church of St Patrick. And it is to this old Catholic land that "Our Irish Letter" is devoted, to this old Catholic land it has taken its readers in spirit to the midnight Mass in the Irish chapel, to the Irish firesides where the turf blazes so brightly, and the joyous greeting of "God save all here" is heard every time a new-comer crosses the threshold to listen to the glorious tales of Irish faith and patriotism when the history of the Irish struggle was written in the best, the purest, the holiest blood of Ireland. 

M. J. Roche.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 13, Number 5, 22 December 1894.

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Wednesday, 21 December 2022

The Midnight Mass: A Christmas Incident of the Penal Days in Ireland

Yesterday we looked at the nineteenth-century lithograph 'A Christmas Mass in the Penal Days - The Alarm! containing all of the iconic elements of the people huddled together in the snow while the lookouts rush to warn the priest to flee from the approaching soldiers. Over the next few days we will look at some further examples of how this symbol of the Penal era appeared in the popular religious press, especially that aimed at Irish expatriate communities. We begin with a piece by the Irish-American poet Denis Aloysius McCarthy (1871-1931), who was based in Boston and a regular contributor to its Sacred Heart Review.  The Irish saints and martyrs were a favourite subject of McCarthy's poems, selections from which were often quoted by other writers in an age which enjoyed epic poetry.  In the article below, published in the December 25, 1897, edition of the Sacred Heart Review,  the writer begins with a poem telling of a hunted priest battling the winter wind and trying to evade the authorities to reach his lonely altar beneath the hill. Alas, in this case the warning to flee comes too late and the unfortunate soggarth will say the Midnight Mass no more. It is interesting to see that the poet suggests that despite the makeshift outdoor setting, the quality of the worship at the Mass Rock surpasses anything found at a cathedral. He then goes on to offer a sentimental reflection on what it is to be away from the old country at this time of the year. He seems keen to point out though that such nostalgia is not a denial of all the benefits which America has to offer and stresses the loyalty of the Irish to its banner of liberty. Indeed, McCarthy dedicated his 1906 anthology Voices from Erin 'To all who in their love for the new land have not forgotten the old':




With stealthy step across the wold 
The hunted soggarth swiftly goes; 
The winter wind is blowing cold 
And round him drives the winter snows; 
But little does he heed the wind, 
The blinding snow, the dark morass; 
With many an anxious glance behind 
He goes to say the midnight Mass! 
For hours, with many a devious turn. 
He's led the chase by moor and fen. 
He's seen the village tapers burn, 
But dare not seek the haunts of men, 
For close upon his track have pressed, 
(His holy Faith the only cause) 
With horrid oath and ruffian jest, 
The minions of the Penal Laws. 
And woe to him, should evil hap 
Into their hands the priest betray; 
The raven o'er his corse should flap 
Her sable wings before the day! 
But fainter now have grown their cries, 
Their shots more distant than before, 
And hopes within his heart arise 
That he has baffled them once more! 
Ah, vain the hope of baffled foes! — 
A few more crafty than the rest 
Still dog his steps as on he goes, 
Still keep the chase with eager zest; 
But, all unconscious, fares he still 
By tangled wood and torrent dread 
To where, beneath a lonely hill, 
The Mass in secret may be said. 
"Oh, failte! failtel" —round him throng 
The remnant of his scattered flock, 
And Mass with neither chant nor song
 Is offered from a fallen rock; 
And never at cathedral shrine 
Were purer spirits wrapt in prayer
Than those who worshiped the Divine 
Before that lonely altar there. 
But, hark! The rite is scarcely done 
When rings a cry upon the breeze; 
"Up, Father — for your life — and run!" 
The soggarth rises from his knees— 
Too late! One muttered prayer to God, — 
A volley shakes the mountain-pass,— 
The priest lies dead upon the sod 
He'll say no more the midnight Mass! 

At Christmas time all hearts turn homeward. The present is forgotten, the future ceases to allure, and the past is before us again in all its brightest lights and tenderest shadows. We forget the long, dreary years of separation, the vicissitudes of time, the strange scenes and faces with which we have become familiar during many a day of exile; and, once more, the old home, the family circle, unbroken yet by absence, the loving faces of parents and of brothers and sisters, are presented to our gaze; and few indeed are the hearts that do not beat faster, and few are the eyes that are not dimmed with tears at the memory of old times. 

To the Irish exile, particularly, this season of Christmas is one of remembrances that are composed of mingled joy and sorrow. For Christmas in Ireland, as in no other country, is a day sacred to family life and love. It would seem, indeed, as if upon that land, ever faithful to the Church through ages of persecution,the Holy Family had showered the richest spiritual blessings, for the affection that obtains in pious Irish households among the various members of the family is akin to that love which bound together the three principal actors in the great mysterious drama at Bethlehem. It is therefore only natural that the thoughts of the Irish exile turn back to the old scenes that he may never again see in reality, and to the old friends whose hands he may clasp again only In dreams and "tears of memory," shed at Christmas time over the past are evidence of the deep and holy feeling for home which God has implanted in the hearts of the Irish people. 

The new country, with all its broadening influences, with its atmosphere of freedom, and the possibilities of material advancement that it affords, is very dear to the sons of the Green Isle who have sought and found shelter from oppression and bitter poverty beneath its starry flag. They have increased and multiplied. Their blood courses in the veins of the best and bravest of the citizens of the great republic. In peace they have tilled the fertile lands, and reared upon the boundless prairies the homes that were denied them in the land of their birth; and in war they have been the to grapple with the foes of their adopted country, shedding their blood freely in defense of a banner that is to them the symbol of liberty for themselves, and hope for the old land over the water. 

But the hearts go backward across the leagues of the Atlantic and the years of absence, to their motherland at Christmas. They hear Mass again in the little chapel. They see the gray-haired priest at the altar. They listen to the Christmas hymn of the humble village choir, than which the grandest cathedral chorus is, to them, not more solemn and inspiring. And around them are the friends of their youth, unchanged. 

Of course it is only a dream. But who can say that this return to old times does not make the hearts of the exiles better and braver, bringing them, through home ties, more close to the Babe of Bethlehem, in Whose cause their fathers bore persecution unflinchingly, and strengthening them against the enemies of their race and creed, who would rob them of their love for faith and fatherland. 

D. A. McC.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 18, Number 26, 25 December 1897.

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Tuesday, 20 December 2022

A Christmas Mass in the Penal Days


If there is one iconic image which can be said to encapsulate the Irish Catholic experience in the Penal era, then surely it must be that of the people gathering at a Mass Rock while lookouts keep watch for the authorities. The one above is called  'A Christmas Mass in the Penal Days - The Alarm! ' by Dublin cartoonist and illustrator John Dooley Reigh (1851-1914) and was first issued as a supplement to the December 20 issue of the newspaper United Ireland in 1884. [1] This late nineteenth-century lithograph has had a deep and long-lasting influence on the Irish Catholic imagination, and framed copies of it can still be found in Irish homes. In the article below, published almost thirty years later for an Irish-American audience, it is clear that the image has already resonated as a symbol of endurance and unbreakable commitment to their faith on the part of the Irish people.  Indeed, 'Midnight Mass in the Penal Days' became a staple among the articles in the popular religious press at this time of the year. One assumes that a picture of an open-air Mass on a balmy summer evening would not have achieved the same impact as this snow-covered setting.  The anonymous writer of the short piece in The Sacred Heart Review below certainly enters into the scene and almost imagines himself present as 'the bitter winter wind drives the cold sleet before it in stinging gusts' and 'the worshipers shiver in the rush of the pitiless blast'. Yet it is the willingness of the Irish people to endure these hardships in order to attend the Mass which is the reason why the faith survived and which leads the writer to conclude that there is a lesson here for us all:


When people begin to lose reverence for the Mass, they soon begin to lose their faith altogether. Be faithful to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, we repeat, and you will infallibly save your soul. If you are cold and distant and careless toward these essential things you are surely on the broad road that leads to destruction. Why was it that Ireland got the wondrous privilege of preserving the Faith through so many long and blood-stained centuries? asks the Catholic Register and Canadian Extension. It was because of the devotion of her people to the most holy sacrifice. It is a cold heart that does not thrill at the heroic apostolic piety and zeal suggested by the picture of the "Midnight Mass in the Penal Days." Under a protecting bush, in the shelter of a rock, or in a cave in the hillside, are gathered the faithful few. The bitter winter wind drives the cold sleet before it in stinging gusts. The priest is at the rude altar, which is nothing more than a rockhewn shelf. The worshipers, close about him, shiver in the rush of the pitiless blast. On the outer hills and peaks, occupying posts of observation, are the sentinels. They are listening for the tramp of armed men, and watching for the deadly glint of bayonets in the chill white moonlight. For the "priest hunter," with his murderous and blasphemous crew, is abroad, and only the mercy of God can protect his prey. The tinkle of a little bell is heard, and every head is bowed, while on the wings of the night is borne the whispered welcome of Him Who has come down into their midst to comfort them: "Cead mile failte!"— " A hundred thousands welcomes, O Christ, the Son of the Living God!" Never in the history of men did the world witness anything more touching, more devoted, more sublime, than the faith and love of the Irish peasant and his priest for the mystery of the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, that merited for Ireland her perseverance in the true faith; and it is devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament that will merit the same glorious and priceless gift for ourselves. Let us be wise in good time and take the lesson to heart.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 49, Number 21, 10 May 1913.

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 [1] M. O'Sullivan and L. Downey, 'Mass Rocks', Archaeology Ireland (Spring 2014), p.26

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Thursday, 24 November 2022

The De Profundis and the Irish Martyrs

On November 15, 1960 a decision taken by the Irish bishops at the Synod of Maynooth held four years earlier came into effect. It abolished the recitation of the De Profundis (Psalm 129) after the Mass, a liturgical practice peculiar to Ireland. A report of the decision appeared in the American Catholic paper The Catholic Standard and Times the following month: 

Irish Bishops Abolish De Profundis at Mass

DUBLIN (NC). —A custom dating from Ireland's penal times of reciting the De Profundis for the dead after Mass has been discontinued by order of the Irish Bishops.  The custom is believed to have been introduced during the 17th-century persecution of the Church by Ireland’s English rulers. Its original purpose was to pray for the souls of those who died under the harsh anti-Catholic laws of that period. Recitation after Mass of the De Profundis, the 129th psalm, was peculiar to Ireland. The Bishops decided to abolish the custom in 1956 at the Synod of Maynooth. Decrees resulting from the synod were approved by the Holy See, and went into effect on November 15. Church authorities emphasized that the omission of the De Profundis after Mass does not imply that Catholics should pray less for the dead. The intention of the Bishops was to focus the thoughts of Catholics at Mass on its central idea as a sacrifice.

The Catholic Standard and Times, Volume 66, Number 13, 16 December 1960. 

To learn more of the history of this custom I turned to the work of Father Sylvester Malone (1822–1906), a prolific contributor to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and other nineteenth-century journals. He traced the liturgical use of the De Profundis in one of his books on Irish Church history noting that, as part of the financial arrangements with the Crown in the medieval abbey of Saint Thomas in Dublin, 'the chapter house, over and above what it was bound to, by its order, was under an obligation of saying, especially on All Souls Day, a De Profundis for the souls of the king, his ancestors, the aldermen, and of the citizens of Dublin'. He goes on to say

And here it is worth while to inquire whence the origin of the De Profundis after Mass, and so peculiar to Ireland. Various reasons are assigned for its use;  but I consider it took its rise from a desire to compensate for the loss of the divine offices for departed benefactors. Prayers in the office were not confined to Ireland. Cardinal Bona assures us that when the number of benefactors became large in every well-regulated community, instead of calling out the names of all benefactors the chanting of the De Profundis, with a suitable prayer, had been substituted. There had been an obligation of making a commemoration in the offices for a stated period or for ever. Hence, on their interruption, that most touching of the prayers for the dead was substituted.  Not, indeed, that there had been a strict obligation to do so. Besides the psalm De Profundis touchingly expressed the helpless state in which the Irish Church was placed by penal laws, and continued a protest against the false religion of the so-called Reformers. What wonder, then, that this prayer, warranted by many reasons during the days of persecution, should continue to the present day after Mass, when we find it in use in the early and middle ages even in Ireland. The Irish Church, so tenacious of ancient customs—its chorepiscopi, acolytes, exorcists, readers, its liturgies—what little reason for marvel that it retained its De Profundis called for by charity if not justice.

Another reason why the psalm in question may be looked on as a commutation for the offices is that it is affected by the same causes, and almost in the same way as the offices. The De Profundis is not said, I believe, at least generally after High Mass or solemn Mass for the dead. Well, even when religious orders were bound by vow to say the psalm De Profundis daily, they were inhibited from doing so on All Souls Day, and on the day of the death and burial. And this happened even though there had been a bequest left for the purpose of saying a De Profundis daily. Again, the nuns of the Monastery of Chagas by a decision of July, 1741, were allowed to chant the Responsory for the dead unless on the most solemn festivals, and even on these to recite it privately in choir, lest the pious disposition of testators should be frustrated. Gardelini also informs us (n. 4687) that there had been an immemorial custom in the Church of Milan, of repeating the 129th psalm (De Profundis) with a suitable prayer after the divine offices for the souls in purgatory, especially those of all benefactors. All this leaves no reasonable doubt that the De Profundis was intended in charity or justice as a compensation for the divine offices interrupted by persecution.

Rev. Sylvester Malone, Church History of Ireland in Two Volumes, Vol. II, 3rd edition, (Dublin, 1880), 219-222.

Interestingly, in an obituary for his father who died in 1997, contemporary Irish composer Patrick Cassidy recorded that his father had suggested using the De Profundis as a final chorus in a work on the Famine which he was struggling to complete. He went on to say:

My father strongly suspected that the Irish pre-Vatican II practice of the celebrant saying the De Profundis after every Low Mass may have had its origins during the Famine. Further research revealed that the practice was, in fact, more ancient. After he and my mother, Kathleen, contacted Archdeacon Cathal McCarthy, they discovered that "the most likely" and "most popular hypothesis" is that the De Profundis "was meant to be part, or really token, of various endowment Masses which, because of the outlawing of the Mass under the Penal Laws could not be said with any assurance."

 It would seem therefore that although the origins of the practice of praying the De Profundis lay in the medieval obligation to honour those benefactors who had endowed religious foundations, it later became linked with the memory of all those who had died during the Penal era, when the Mass itself was placed under restriction and death had to be faced without the comfort of a priest to minister to the dying. In hindsight it is perhaps remarkable that this practice survived in Ireland right up to the middle of the twentieth century.


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