Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Father Aeneas Penny: 'slain in the act of celebrating the Mass'

On May 4, 1582, Father Aeneas Penny was cut down by soldiers while celebrating Mass in his parish church. There is not a great deal of information about this martyr, but he is among those recorded by the Irish Franciscan Anthony Bruodin in his 1669 work Propugnaculum Catholicae Veritatis. Bruodin's short account was translated by author Myles O'Reilly in his own work on the Irish martyrs published two centuries later:


"A priest of Connaught, was slain by the heretical soldiers, in the act of celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass, in his parish church of Killatra, the 4th May, 1582." — Bruodin, lib. iii. cap. xx.

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 74-75.

Father Denis Murphy S.J. also published Bruodin's account in his 1896 Our Martyrs, but notes that the townland of 'Killatra' cannot be traced and mentions that another martyrologist, John Copinger, had also listed the case of Father Penny. Like Anthony Bruodin, Copinger was also an Irish priest in exile on the Continent. He published a catalogue of Irish martyrs in the reign of Elizabeth I as part of his 1620 work The Theatre of Catholique and Protestant Religion. In his even more succinct listing, Copinger renders the name of the martyr's parish as 'Killagh': 

Eneas Penny parish priest of Killagh, slaine at the alter in the parish church therof.

J. Copinger,  The Theatre of Catholique and Protestant Religion (St Omer, 1620), p. 582.

 Father Aeneas Penny is number 12 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. No further progress has been made with his cause.


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Thursday, 28 April 2022

Father Fergal Ward, O.S.F.: 'hanged with the cincture of his own habit'.


On April 28 in the year 1575, according to some sources or 1577 according to others, the Franciscan guardian of Armagh, Fergal Ward, was beaten and hanged. The Franciscan friary at Armagh was founded in 1263/4. It was included in the monasteries ordered to be suppressed in 1542 and in 1557 was reported to have been surrendered.  The friars remained in the local area though and in 1565 two were flogged to death through the streets of Armagh. A report of 1586 in the Calendar of State Papers speaks of 'Armagh, a small village; the church and friaries are all broken and defaced.' Father Donatus Mooney O.F.M. wrote in 1616 that 'the convent of Armagh was destroyed in the late wars'. Indeed, in 1596 the ruins of Armagh friary had been used by Con O'Neill to mount an attack on the English forces seeking to supply their garrison in the town. So the execution of Father Fergal Ward is set against the backdrop of these decades of religious, political and military upheaval. Below are two accounts of his martyrdom. The first is from Bishop P.F. Moran's 1864 History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin, using Franciscan records. It gives a glimpse into the hardships faced by Friar Fergal as he attempted to exercise his ministry in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. His capture illustrates how vulnerable Catholic priests and religious were to the rough justice of martial law, for he appears to have been seized by soldiers and executed without any form of legal process. He is also reported to have been hanged using the rope cincture of his habit, a detail commonly found in accounts of the killings of members of religious orders:

Anno 1577*
Dr. Moran thus relates his martyrdom:

"While Drury was lord-deputy, about 1577, Fergal Ward, a Franciscan, and a native of Donegal, was put to death in Armagh. He was venerated by the people for the simplicity of his life and his zeal for the salvation of souls. He travelled at intervals throughout the whole province of Armagh, visiting the scattered families who, in the mountainous districts, lived without the comforts of the holy sacrifice or the strengthening grace of the sacraments. On one of these excursions he fell into the hands of the soldiery, and, being scourged with great barbarity, was hanged from the branches of a tree with the cincture of his own religious habit.

*From Dr. Moran's History of the Archbishops of Dublin, Introduction, p. 141, where he quotes Synop. Prov. Franciscan. in Hib. p. 66. The same account is given by Bruodin, lib iii. cap. 20, where he refers to John Good's work.

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 42-43.

The second account is drawn from Anthony Bruodin's 1669 catalogue of Irish martyrs, Propugnaculum Catholicae Veritatis. It confirms the details of Friar Fergal Ward's beating and hanging, although here the blame is placed on the 'Ministers of Elizabeth' and some variant dates are given for the year of his execution:


(From Bruodin's Propugnaculum, p.247)

Fergall Ward, a native of Tyrconnell, a member of the Seraphic Order of St. Francis, was a very eloquent preacher and most observant of poverty. He had laboured zealously for three years in the vineyard of the Lord, and was then promoted to be Guardian of the convent of Armagh about the year 1575. At this time the plague of heresy, introduced by Elizabeth, was raging throughout Ulster. Ward opposed it as a skilful physician. Wherefore be was seized by the Ministers of Elizabeth, and no regard being had for his great age or religious character, he was scourged cruelly and beaten. At length when the holy martyr, persevering in his good purpose, exhorted his executioners to return to a better life, by order of the ministers he was hanged with his own girdle on the 28th of April, 1575, as Father John Good writes, or in 1565, as Wadding states in his work on the Martyrs of the Order

Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), 94-95. 

Father Fergal Ward O.S.F. is number 38 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose names were submitted to Rome for official consideration. No further progress has been made with his cause.


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Sunday, 24 April 2022

Father Donatus O'Mollony: 'ready by God's help to endure all torments and death itself.'

On April 24, 1601, Irish priest Donatus O'Mollony (Donough O'Maloney, Daniel O'Maloney), vicar of the western Diocese of Killaloe, died in prison in Dublin. He had been tortured immediately before his death in an attempt to force him to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth's claims to spiritual as well as temporal authority.  This he refused to do, saying 'a woman, who may not speak in the church, I cannot acknowledge as its head.'  Father O'Mollony was not the only Irish martyr to take this stand, four decades earlier Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare, also declared that a woman could not exercise authority over the church on the grounds that it was contrary to scripture and that Christ had not extended this privilege even to his own mother. Unlike Bishop Leverous, however, who was deprived of his see but allowed to retire to Limerick and take up a new career as a teacher, Father O'Mollony was to pay with his life. Leverous made his stand in the beginning years of Elizabeth's reign when the policy of coercion was not so rigorously applied in Dublin, Father O'Mollony made his in the final years when coercion was enforced. The account of his martyrdom below has been taken from Myles O'Reilly's 1869 collection Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. The original source is the work of the Irish martyrologist Anthony Bruodin O.F.M. (1625-1680), who, as he tells us, was related to Father Donatus through his mother, Margaret O'Mollony. The O'Mollony (O'Maloney) sept were one of the most important in Thomond and had provided chieftains and leading churchmen from their ranks for centuries. The last native-born chieftain, Dermot O'Mollony, was forced to flee as a teenager to Flanders in the wake of the Second Desmond Rebellion, his kinsman Malachy O'Mallony, Bishop of Killaloe, mentioned in Bruodin's account, was imprisoned in London in the early 1570s but escaped and returned to Ireland. A later Bishop of Killaloe, John O'Molony would die in the Cromwellian siege of Limerick in 1651.  So this was a family who were very much at the centre of events in this turbulent era. Bruodin's pride in the courage shown by his kinsman in resisting torture, which he says impressed even his tormentors, shines through his account of the martyrdom of Donatus O'Mollony:


"Was of a noble family, a theologian and priest, and vicar of the diocese of Killaloe. He was a truly apostolic pastor, and when the wild boars ravaged the vineyard of the Lord in the diocese of Killaloe, (of which Malachy O'Mollony was bishop,) he feared not to risk his life for his flock. He was taken in the district of Ormond, where he was visiting the parish priest, and, with his hands tied behind his back like a robber, was dragged to Dublin in the midst of the soldiers. The reader may imagine what he suffered in this long journey. (I have heard much of it from my mother, Margaret O'Mollony, a near relative of the martyr, and from other friends in my country, but for the sake of brevity I omit much.) Hardly was Donatus shut up in the Tower of Dublin, when the iron boots, the rack, the iron gauntlets and the other instruments with which the executioners tortured the confessors of Christ were paraded before his eyes, and he was asked by the chief-judge whether he would subscribe to the queen's laws and decrees in matters of religion. Mollony, filled with the spirit of God, answered courageously he was ready to obey the queen's commands in all things not contrary to the laws of Jesus Christ, the King of kings, and his vicar on earth. The judge, like Pilate, answered: 'The queen in her kingdom is the only vicar of Christ and head of the church; therefore you must either take the oath of supremacy or die.' Mollony answered, 'Either Paul, the doctor of the Gentiles, and Christ himself in his gospels, err, or the queen is not the vicar of Christ!' 'Then you will not acknowledge the supreme authority, after Christ, of the queen in spirituals?' 'By no means! said Mollony;  'a woman, who may not speak in the church, I cannot acknowledge as its head; nay, for the truth of the opposite I am ready, by Gods help, to endure all torments, and death itself! ' Very good,' said the judge; 'we shall see to-morrow if your deeds correspond with your words.'

"Next day, about nine o'clock, the executioners, by order of the judge, so squeezed Donatus's feet in iron boots, and his hands in like gauntlets, that blood came from all his ten fingers.

"But the torture failed to move him, and during it Donatus more than once returned thanks to God that by his grace he was able to bear the torture for his Son's name. He was then for two hours extended on the rack, so that he was stretched out a span in length. During the cruel torture Donatus continually either prayed or exhorted the Catholics who were near to constancy in the faith, which is the only road to salvation, and for which he was ready to shed his blood. The executioners were moved to tears by the patience and constancy of the sufferer, and, by order of the judge, carried him, half-dead, back to prison, where a few hours afterward he slept piously in the Lord, on the 24th April, anno 1601." — Bruodin, lib. iii. cap. XX.

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 174-5.

As 'Daniel Maloney', Father Donatus O'Mollony is number 22 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918) whose names were submitted to Rome for consideration. No further progress has been made with his cause.

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Thursday, 14 April 2022

Three Martyrs of Ferns: Fathers Daniel O'Brien, Luke Bergin, O.Cist., and James Murchu

On April 14, 1655, three priests of the Diocese of Ferns were hanged in Wexford. Two were secular priests, Father Daniel O'Brien, Dean of Ferns and Father James Murchu (Murphy), the other, Father Luke Bergin, a member of the Cistercian Order. The story of their martyrdom was set down by one of their contemporaries, Galway-born Father John Lynch (c.1599–1677) in his De praesulibus Hiberniae (‘Of the bishops of Ireland’). Father Lynch was writing from exile in France, having left Galway sometime after the fall of the city to Parliamentarian forces in the spring of 1652. In his account of these three martyred priests he bolsters their status as martyrs by emphasizing that the judge at their trial declared 'that no crime was more grievous than that of being a priest', when the jury initially found them innocent of any crime. This helps to establish that they were executed in odium fidei (out of hatred for the faith), one of the categories under which martyrdom occurs.  Furthermore, after their executions Father Lynch records that lights were seen shining over their graves, a common trope in martyrological accounts of the period. He obviously had access to more information on Dean O'Brien, whom he tells us was known as 'Daniel the Spaniard' due to his affection for Spain where he had been educated.  This and other details suggest that Father Lynch had been informed by eyewitnesses to the events in Wexford and or by someone with personal knowledge of the man. The account from De praesulibus Hiberniae was translated by Father Denis Murphy, the then Postulator of the Cause of the Irish Martyrs, in his 1896 catalogue Our Martyrs:


(From Lynch's De Praes. Hib., i., 365)

The first was educated in the Irish College of Compostella, and such was his gratitude for the kindness which he received from the people of Spain, that he always spoke of them with the greatest affection, and would wear no other dress but that worn by the Spanish clergy; hence he was called Daniel the Spaniard. As a priest he was remarkable for his virtuous life, charity, and zeal for souls; and so great was the love of the Catholic people for him, that they would sacrifice for him not only their property but their very lives. One time the soldiers of a certain garrison, suspecting that the Catholics had assembled at the castle of a nobleman to hear Mass, surrounded the place, so that no one could escape. Their captain demanded that the priest should hand over the chalice to him; if he did not, he threatened to shoot every one in the house. Daniel, hearing these words, came out of his room, and cried out: 'I am the priest who said Mass, these people have done nothing wrong.' He was seized, stripped of his clothes, and robbed of some money which he had. Daniel handed him the chalice, and when he had taken a draught of beer out of it, all of a sudden he fell, as if in a fit of apoplexy, and by his cries and convulsions, he struck terror into the bystanders. Daniel in pity made the sign of the cross over him, and offering a short prayer, restored him to health. In gratitude he gave back the chalice, and ever after was kindly to priests.

Though Daniel escaped from this danger, he fell in with greater. Three times he was captured by heretical soldiers. Once he was saved from hanging by the efforts of a Catholic, a friend of the Governor. Towards the end of his life he was so worn out with disease that he could not walk. He was taken to the prison, mounted on horseback.

When he heard the sentence of death pronounced on him, he seemed to get back all his former vigour, and to the surprise of the spectators he walked to the scaffold firmly. Having mounted it, he addressed the crowd standing round, and declared he was innocent of any crime, and earnestly besought the Almighty to receive his soul. He was hanged on April 14th, 1655, the vigil of Easter Sunday.

His companions were Luke Bergin, a Cistercian, and James Murchu, a priest. The jury at first declared they were not guilty of any crime; but when the judge urged that no crime was more grievous than that of being a priest, they were declared guilty. The citizens, even the Protestants, asked that they should not be executed within the town, but their request was refused.

The three martyrs were buried in the old ruined church of the Franciscan Monastery, outside the walls of the town. To the comfort of the Catholics, and to the confusion of the heretics, lights were seen shining over their graves, in token, no doubt, of the bliss which they were enjoying in heaven.

 Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., Our Martyrs, (Dublin, 1896), 361-362.

Father Daniel O'Brien is number 166, Father James Murchu (Murphy) number 167 and Father Luke Bergin O. Cist., number 168 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918). They are also numbers 40, 41 and 42 in the cause of Richard Creagh and 41 Companion Martyrs of Ireland whose cases are currently being prepared for resubmission to the authorities in Rome.

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Monday, 14 February 2022

Irish Hedge Schools

If the 'Mass Rock' is the leading iconic image of the Irish Catholic experience in the Penal Times, then perhaps the 'Hedge School' could be said to run it a close second. Elite Catholic families could pay to have their sons educated at colleges and seminaries abroad, but what of those who could not afford the luxury of a continental education? In the article below, taken from The Sacred Heart Review of 1910, Irish scholar P. W. Joyce (1827-1914) describes not just the history of the hedge schools but also his own experience of them. For some of these schools survived well into the nineteenth century, years after the legal restrictions which gave rise to them were abolished. Inevitably, the quality of teaching could vary, but for Joyce the hedge school reflected the native love of learning in Ireland, the "Island of Saints and Scholars":


Dr. P. W. Joyce, M. A., the well-known Irish author, has lately published a notable work, entitled "English as We Speak it in Ireland," one of the most interesting chapters in which is the description of his own schooldays in those times when the schoolmaster was not so much abroad as at the present time. Evil memories of the bad old penal days (he says) come down to us clustering around the the term "hedge-schools". At the end of the seventeenth century, among many other penal enactments, a law was passed that Catholics were not to be educated. Catholic schoolmasters were forbidden to teach, either in schools or in private houses; and Catholic parents were forbidden to send their children to any foreign country to be educated—all under heavy penalties; from which it will be seen that care was taken to deprive Catholics— as such—altogether of the means of education. But the priests and schoolmasters and people combined all through the country—and not without some measure of success—to evade this unnatural law. Schools were kept secretly, though at great risk, in remote places—up in the mountain glens or in the middle of the bogs. Half a dozen young men with spades and shovels built up a rude cabin in a few hours, which served the purpose of a schoolhouse; and from the common plan of erecting these in the shelter of hedges, walls, and groves, the schools came to be known as 'Hedge Schools.' These hedge schools held on for generations, and kept alive the lamp of learning, which burned on—but in a flickering, ineffective sort of way—"burned through long ages of darkness and storm" till at last the restrictions were removed, and Catholics were permitted to have schools of their own openly and without let or hindrance. Then the ancient hereditary love of learning was free to manifest itself once more; and schools sprang up all over the country, each conducted by a private teacher who lived on the fees paid by his pupils. Moreover, the old designation was retained; for these schools, no longer held in wild places, were called—as they are sometimes called to this day—"hedge schools." 

The Schools of Munster. 

The schools that arose in this manner, which were of different classes, were spread all over the country during the eighteenth century and the last half of the nineteenth. The most numerous were little elementary schools. The higher class of schools which answered to what we now call intermediate schools, were found all ever the southern half of Ireland, especially in Munster. Some were for classics, some for science, and not a few for both; nearly all conducted by men of learning and ability; and they were everywhere eagerly attended. Many of the students had professions in view, some intended tor the priesthood, for which the classical schools afforded an admirable preparation; some seeking to become medical doctors, teachers, surveyors, etc. But a large proportion were the sons of farmers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, or others, who had no particular end in view, but, with the instincts of the days of old studied classics or mathematics for the pure love of learning. These schools continued to exist down to our own time, till they were finally broken up by the famine of 1847. In my own immediate neighborhood were some of them, in which I received a part of my early education; and I remember with pleasure several of my old teachers; rough and unpolished men many of them, but excellent solid scholars and full of enthusiasm for learning—which enthusiasm they communicated to their pupils. All the students were adults or grown boys; and there was no instruction in the elementary subjects—reading, writing, and arithmetic—as no scholar attended who had not sufficiently mastered these. Among the students were always half a dozen or more "poor scholars" from distant parts of Ireland, who lived free in the hospitable farmers' houses all round; just as the scholars from Britain and elsewhere were supported in the time of Bede— twelve centuries before. 

The "Poor Scholars." 

The year before going to Mitchelstown I attended a science school of a very different character kept by Mr. Simon Cox in Galbally, a little village in Limerick under the shadow of the Galtee Mountains. This was a rough sort of school, but mathematics and the use of the globes were well taught. There were about forty students. Half a dozen were grown boys, of whom I was one; the rest were men, mostly young, but a few in middle life—schoolmasters bent on improving their knowledge of science in preparation for opening schools in their own parts of the country. In that school, and indeed in all schools like it through the country, there were "poor scholars," a class already spoken of, who paid nothing—they were taught for nothing and freely entertained, with bed, supper, and breakfast in the farmers' houses of the neighborhood. We had four or five of these, not one of whom knew in the morning where he was to sleep at night. When school was over they all set out in different directions, and called at the farmers' houses to ask for lodging; and although there might be a few refusals, all were sure to be put up for the night. They were expected, however, to help the children at their lessons for the elementary school before the family retired. In some cases if a farmer was favorably impressed with a poor scholar's manner and character he kept him—lodging and feeding him in his house—during the whole time of his schooling—the young fellow paying nothing, of course, but always helping the little ones at their lessons. As might be expected, many of these poor scholars were made of the best stuff; and now I have in my eye one who was entertained for a couple of years in my grandmother's house and who subsequently became one of the most respected teachers in Munster. Let us remark here that this entertainment of poor scholars was not looked upon in the light of a charity; it was regarded as a duty, for the instinct ran in the people's blood derived from the ancient times when Ireland was the "Island of Saints and Scholars." It was a custom of long standing; for the popular feeling in favor of learning was always maintained, even through the long dark night of the Penal Laws.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 44, Number 12, 10 September 1910.


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Thursday, 10 February 2022

Opposing the Reformation: A Seditious Sermon in Donegal, 1539

Recently while listening to one of the many interesting talks from the Tudor and Stuart Ireland site, I had my curiosity piqued by a paper from their 2018 Conference entitled 'An Anonymous Sermon made in opposition to King Henry VIII’s Reformation recorded in Donegal in 1539 – Can the Franciscan Friar who gave it be identified?' The podcast is available here. Speaker Dr Darren McGettigan described a report from a Galway merchant, Thomas Lynch, present in 1539 in 'Odoneles countrey' when he heard what was to him a most alarming sermon from an unnamed preacher, presumably one of the community of Francsican Observant friars at Donegal town, the O'Donnell capital. As a Gaelic urban centre Donegal town was unusual in sixteenth-century Ireland, since most Irish towns and cities at this time were to be found within the Pale and other centres of English influence. The Franciscan friary was under the patronage of the O'Donnells who among other things made sure the friars were supplied with wine, the very reason why our Galway merchant was in their locality. Lynch reported to the authorities that the friar's message was that for the salvation of his soul every man ought to rise up against the King, adding if he died during the conflict his soul would go to heaven just as had the souls of Saints Peter, Paul and others who had suffered death and martyrdom for God's sake. When Lynch objected he appears to have been forcibly ejected from the church 'for a heretic' and described himself as 'greatly afraid'. His original report has been preserved in the State Papers:

The Confession of Thomas Lynch, of Galway, marchaunte, late being in Odoneles countrey with a ship of wynes:

 "Item, the friers and preestes of all the Yrishtree, not onely of Odownelles countrey, but all other wheres as I was, do preache dayly, that every man ought, for the salvacion of his sowle, fight and make warr ayenste Our Soverayne Lord the Kinges Majestie, and his trewe subjectes; and if any of theym, which soo shall fight ayenste His said Majestie, or his subjectes, dy in the quarrell, his sowle, that so shalbe dedd, shall goo to Heven, as the sowle of Saynt Peter, Pawle, and others, which soffered death and marterdom for Godes sake. And forasmoch as I ded travers somwhate of souche wordes, I was caste oute of church, and from theire masses, duering a certen tyme of daies, for an heretike; and I was gretly afiraide"

State Papers, Henry VIII, Volume III, Part III, (London, 1834), 141.  

But who was the unnamed preacher whose words so alarmed Lynch? Dr McGettigan suggests that one possible candidate could be a Donegal Franciscan with a particular reputation for sanctity: Friar Bernard Mac Grath, who died c. 1549.  Friar Bernard was from the family of the Mac Graths of Termonmacgrath in the diocese of Clogher, the hereditary custodians of the sanctuary of Saint Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg. Another Donegal Franciscan, Father Donatus Mooney (c.1577-1624), bore witness to Friar Bernard's holiness and miracle-working abilities in a manuscript history of the Irish Franciscans. However, it is not his reputation in these areas which leads Dr McGettigan to suggest him as a plausible candidate for the deliverer of the seditious sermon of 1539, but rather for his ability as a preacher, something Father Mooney also recorded:

The fame of this man’s sanctity and wisdom soon sped beyond the borders of Tirconnell, and reached the ears of Gerald, earl of Kildare, who was then lord deputy. Desirous of ascertaining what credit he should give to the marvellous anecdotes related of father Bernard, the earl summoned him to Drogheda, to preach in the presence of his entire court. Bernard obeyed; and so charmed was Kildare with his eloquence and piety, that he not only invited him to dine at his table, but gave him precedence of all his nobles.

Rev. C.P. Meehan, The Rise and Fall of the Franciscan Monasteries (Dublin, 1877), p.8.

When we consider the fact that the preacher would have had to make a journey of over one hundred  miles to the Pale in order to deliver his sermon, it seems likely that only someone with a reputation of being worth the hearing would have been invited to do so.  

Certainly the message of the anonymous preacher would have met with the approval of another member of the O'Donnell clan, Rory (Roderick) O'Donnell, the Dean of Raphoe who became Bishop of Derry in 1529. He too was the subject of hostile comment in the State Papers for writing what McGettigan describes as a 'blistering letter' with a litany of complaints about the behaviour of the English Lord Deputy to the Pope:

This bishop was very much opposed to the religious innovations which Henry VIII. endeavoured to introduce into the Irish Church. In the State Papers (vol. i. pag. 598) there is a letter dated 14th March, 1539, and addressed by Lord Cromwell to the English king, in which the following eulogy is passed on Dr. O’Donnell: “Also there be letters long from an arrant traitor, Rorick, Bishop of Derry, in your grace’s land of Ireland, his hand and great seal at it, to the Bishop of Rome, declaring the calamities of the Papists in Ireland”.
'The See of Derry', The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume 1 (1865), 356.

Bishop O'Donnell was also a supporter of military resistance to Henry VIII's religious policies and was one of the delegates who made overtures to the Scottish King seeking support for the cause of the young heir to the Earldom of Kildare following the execution of Silken Thomas in 1537:

It was in the preceding year that Bishop Roderick had mortally offended the agents of King Henry by his efforts to preserve from their grasp the youthful Gerald, who, though yet in his boyhood, was chief of the Geraldines, and destined, it was hoped, to become one day the rallying point of a confederacy of the Irish chieftains. In the month of May Gerald and his faithful escort passed without molestation from the south to the north of Ireland, being hospitably received in Thomond, Galway, and Sligo; and they were safely entrenched within the barriers of Tyrconnell before the government spies had even caught the intelligence of this journey. On the 28th of June the Earl of Ormonde wrote a long letter to the council of Ireland, giving information of the movements of young Gerald. From this letter we learn that it was an Irish rhymist that acted as his spy amongst the Northern chieftains, and that, according to the latest intelligence received from him, "twenty-four horsemen, well apparrelled”, had been appointed to wait upon the young Geraldine. The King of Scotland, too, solicited the Irish princes to commit Gerald to his care. However, in another letter, of 20th July, the same earl writes that this scheme was not pleasing to O’Neil and O’Donnell, but the Bishop O'Donnel (of Derry), James Delahoyde, Master Levrous, and Robert Walshe, are gone as messengers to Scotland, to pray aid from the Scottish king; and before their going, all the gentlemen of Ulster, for the most part, promised to retain as many Scots as they should bring with them, at their own expense and charges during the time of their service in Ireland” — (St. Pap ., iii. 52).

'The See of Derry', The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume 1 (1865), 356-357.

 In the event, The Geraldine League was short-lived. Manus O'Donnell and Conn O'Neill launched a raid on the Pale in the autumn of 1539 and were caught by the English Lord Deputy and his army on their way home. Lord Grey inflicted a decisive defeat on the Irish forces at the Battle of Bellahoe where they lost four hundred men and all of the spoils from the raid. The two great northern chieftains were left to come to terms with King Henry VIII and O'Donnell's enthusiasm for the Geraldine cause cooled.

The sermon of the anonymous friar of 1539 can thus be placed in a wider context of opposition within Donegal to the religious changes instituted by King Henry VIII. Our friar, whether or not he was Bernard Mac Grath, was clearly not alone in his conviction that armed resistance to the Reformation was a righteous cause.


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Thursday, 9 December 2021

Mass in Ireland in the Penal Times

During the month of December I plan to explore the theme of 'Mass in the Penal Times', for although we will be celebrating the bicentenary of Catholic Emancipation in 2029, the era of persecution which began at the end of the seventeenth century continues to resonate in the Irish Catholic psyche, evoking an image of Mass rocks, hunted priests and heroic resistance by laypeople prepared to risk everything that their faith might survive. I hope to explore some of the realities behind this romantic imagery, but we will begin with an historical overview of the subject by Father Ambrose Coleman, O.P. The writer was born in England to Irish parents in 1858 and entered the Dominican Order in 1874.  He was a regular contributor to the religious press and produced a number of books including a translation of Father John O'Heyne's 1706 work The Irish Dominicans of the Seventeenth Century. Father Coleman delivered the paper below to the 20th International Eucharistic Congress held in Cologne in August, 1909 and there are some interesting specific cases contained within it. There is the former Bishop of Raphoe who died in 1861, for example, who recalled that as a child he had acted as a lookout for priest hunters while Mass was taking place in the open-air. Then there is 'the Ark of Carrigaholt', a structure on wheels shaped like a Victorian bathing hut, which ingeniously circumvented the opposition of Protestant landlords to the holding of the Mass for the tenants on their estates in West Clare in the 1850s. If nothing else, Father Coleman's paper makes it clear that there is more to Mass in the Penal Times than simply Mass Rocks and priest hunters as he covers a range of places and circumstances in which the Mass was held, some of which even survived long after the repeal of the penal legislation:



[The following description of the dangers and difficulties under which Mass was celebrated in Ireland in the Penal Days, was one of the papers read at the recent Eucharistic Congress in Cologne.]

It is a remarkable historical fact that for two hundred and twenty-two years the holy sacrifice of the Mass was forbidden by law in Ireland, and it is an equally remarkable fact that during that long period of persecution the holy sacrifice never ceased to be offered up in every part of the land. No other country in the world can point to such a glorious record. In other countries, it is true, penal legislation against the Mass existed for an equally long period, but with the important difference that in some of them, such as Norway and Sweden, the faith was completely stamped out of the people after two or three generations, and in others, such as England, only a remnant of the people remained Catholic to the end; whereas the Irish people were just as Catholic to the end of the period as they were at the beginning, patiently bearing all the disabilities incurred by reason of their religion, a nation enslaved at the hands of a handful of bigoted Protestants, who possessed all power, influence, and wealth. In 1781, when the Penal Code first began to be relaxed, the whole population of Ireland, then estimated at two and three-quarter millions, was Catholic, with the exception of English, Scotch, and Continental Protestant settlers; while in England, at the same date, out of a population of six millions, there were only about sixty thousand Catholics, some thousands of whom were Irish immigrants. England for the two centuries previous had been a Protestant nation; Ireland had remained as it remains to the present day a nation of Catholics. 

First Efforts to Protestantize Ireland. 

The first endeavor to plant Protestantism into Ireland was made in the reign of Edward VI under the euphemism of introducing the English Liturgy. That this meant the banning of the Mass was clearly seen by the then Catholic Primate, George Dowdall, who made a vigorous stand for some time for the true faith, and then left the country in disgust, saying that he " Wolde never be bushope where th'olie masse was abolished." The attempt was an utter failure, and on Queen Mary ascending the throne shortly afterwards the old religion was restored. It is to Queen Elizabeth that we must attribute the introduction of Protestantism in a permanent form into Ireland. In 1559 the Act of Uniformity was passed, or supposed to have been passed, in a packed Parliament in Dublin. By this Act, the Book of Common Prayer was made obligatory on all the clergy and people, and all "Popish rites and superstitions," meaning, of course the holy sacrifice of the Mass, were forbidden by law. The Act remained in force in Ireland, with the exception of the short reign of James II till 1781 - that is, for a period of two hundred and twenty-two years.  

"Mass Houses" in Elizabeth's reign. 

The immediate effect of the Act was to drive the Bishops and priests out of all the churches of the country, except in the remote parts, where Elizabeth's power was not felt. Their places were taken by a crowd of horse-boys, laborers, shoemakers, and others, many of whom could not even read, who acted as nominal ministers, and were supposed to perform divine service. The clergy, seeing the people deprived at one stroke of all their places of worship, were forced to begin the practise of saying Mass in private houses, and of converting barns, stables, and ordinary cottages into chapels. These were known in Elizabeth's time, and down almost to our own days by the name of "Mass-houses," and the priests are referred to in the State papers as ''massing-priests." 

 Persecution in the Reign of James I. 

On the death of Elizabeth the Catholics were filled with the hope that they should enjoy toleration under her successor —James I, son of the saintly Mary Queen of Scots. And so they took possession of many of the churches that remained, and began to say Mass in them. This did not escape the vigilant eye of the Lord President of Munster. Writing from Waterford, he says:— "Masses infinite they have in their several churches every morning without any fear. I have spied them, for I chanced to arrive last Sunday, at five o'clock in the morning, and saw them resort out of their churches by heaps." The hopes of the Catholics were doomed to disappointment, and a most vigorous persecution followed for the next few years. Some years later a proclamation was issued against the clergy, the Lord Deputy intimating that the "late intermission of legal proceedings against them has bred such an extraordinary insolence and presumption in them that he was necessitated to charge and command them in his Majesty's name to forbear the exercise of their Popish rites and ceremonies." The Lord Deputy complains in a letter to Primate Ussher, that this proclamation was ill observed. 

The Iron Days Of Cromwell. 

During the terrible Cromwellian regime, when three-fourths of the country was parcelled out among the English soldiers and adventurers, and the great bulk of the people were driven into Connacht, the poor Catholics never showed greater constancy in their religion. Even in that awful period they heard Mass on every opportunity that offered. A letter from a Capuchin Father, who visited several of his brethren at that time, throws a remarkable light on the situation. A pathetic instance of the hardships borne by the priests at the time is that of an old Dominican Father, who during the Cromwellian period, had to hire himself out to one of the English planters as a shepherd. Exposed in this occupation to all the vicissitudes of the weather, he completely lost his sight, and then attired as a common beggar, with a wallet on his back, and led by a little boy, the poor old man, reverenced as a messenger from God, made his way from house to house, spending the last days of his life hearing the confessions of the people and consoling them in their afflictions.

A Rift in the Clouds. 

Not until 1782 was the Act of Uniformity, the principal weapon all along in the hands of the Persecutors, virtually repealed by an Act of Parliament (21-22 George III) by which priests, on taking the oath of allegiance, and registering their names, ages, and places of abode, were allowed to exercise their priestly office without being subject to the penalties of previous years. But the Act restricted them "from officiating in any church or chapel with a steeple or bell, or at any funeral in a church or churchyard, or from exercising any of the rites or ceremonies of the Popish religion, or wearing the habits of their order, save within their usual places of worship or in private houses, or from using any symbol or mark of ecclesiastical dignity or authority." The immediate effect of the Act was the building of churches and chapels without steeples or bells, in more open places than formerly, most of which have long since disappeared to make way for the noble ecclesiastical structures we see everywhere around us in Ireland. 

Intolerance of Bigoted Landlords.

But it must not be thought that by the passing of this Act of Parliament all the difficulties consequent on Catholic worship were at an end. The bigoted and intolerant Protestant landlords, who possessed practically all the land in the country, could not be induced, in numberless instances, to grant sites for Catholic churches and chapels, and very often in the lease given to Catholic tenants there was a clause against the sub-letting of any land for the purpose of building any Catholic place of worship or a Catholic school. Again, in the Protestant part of the North, which had just seen the formation of the aggressive Orange Society, based on deadly hatred of everything Catholic, it was impossible to build even a humble chapel for fear of its being wrecked or set on fire. The Most Rev. Patrick M'Gettigan, who died Bishop of Raphoe in 1861, used to relate that in his childhood he was often placed on the summit of a high rock to signal the approach of the priest-hunters, whilst in an adjoining hollow the parishioners were assembled around the temporary altar on which the Holy Sacrifice was offered up. As he advanced in years he became one of the acolytes whose duty it was to hold the candles in their hands, and prevent them from being blown out by the wind, for there were no candlesticks on the open-air altars of those days. As another instance, coming home to ourselves, I may refer to the case of my own maternal grandmother, who, when a child, had to hear Mass every Sunday and festival in a field in all weathers with the rest of the parishioners, while a priest said Mass in a hut in front, the people having to endure this hardship because no landlord would give a site for a chapel. This parish, I am glad to add, possesses at the present day one of the finest parish churches in Ireland. 

The Ark of Carrigaholt. 

To give another instance: I am well acquainted with a gentleman, a prominent merchant of the South of Ireland, who as a boy used to serve Mass regularly in what was known as the "Ark of Carrigaholt." This was a structure, built as a traveling van on wheels, with large glass windows all round, through which the priest and altar could easily be seen. It was devised as the only possible means of enabling the people of the parish of Carrigaholt to hear Mass. The local landlords were so bigoted that none of them would allow a chapel to be built on their lands, and prosecuted and evicted tenants who allowed Mass to be said even in a temporary shelter for the priest. The van was forbidden to enter any of the lands occupied by the tenants: hence the only place where the people, comprising several thousands, could hear Mass was at the cross-roads, the Ark being placed at the junction of the roads, and the people kneeling in four distinct groups along the four roads.

The present illustrious Archbishop of Sydney, his Eminence Cardinal Moran, devoted several years both in Ireland and in Australia to embody in his historical writings the living traditions that linger round these humble monuments of Penal days. No other historian has done half so much as he has to illustrate the ecclesiastical history of the times of persecution. 

Only Mud Huts Tolerated. 

In 1731 an order was issued by the Privy Council in Dublin to all the Protestant Bishops to send in an account of all the Mass-houses and Popish schools in their diocese, and the number of priests and friars officiating therein. Very detailed reports, from which we can gather a mass of interesting information, were sent in by them, and are to be found in the Irish Record Office, Dublin. Only mud huts were tolerated as places of worship, and where, owing to the rancor and aggressiveness of local magistrates, these were thrown down, the people had to betake themselves once more to the rock altars and the fields. 

A virulent persecution arose in 1744, owing to the invasion of Scotland by Prince Charles Stuart. Many priests were thrown into prison: others fled to Dublin, and Mass had to be celebrated once more in holes and corners. This state of things lasted for nearly a year, when a disastrous accident touched the heart of the Lord Lieutenant and moved him to allow the quasi-public celebration of Mass once more. The accident, which resulted in the death of a priest and nine other people, came from the giving way of the floor of a garret in Dublin, where the people had assembled secretly to hear Mass. 

Owing to the enormous increase of the population during the first part of the last century, and their abject poverty, the small chapels were able to contain only a small proportion of those who came to hear Mass. Montalembert, the illustrious French Catholic writer, who visited Ireland in 1729, vividly described the profound impression made on him by the devotion of the people at Mass regardless of the weather. Five years after Montalembert's visit, a public meeting of the Catholics of the Diocese of Killala sent a petition to the House of Commons, setting forth, amongst other things, that "in this diocese alone upwards of 30,000 souls are obliged on every Sunday to hear Mass under the canopy of Heaven." 

A Relic of the Past. 

A relic of the penal times are the Stations which are still held regularly in the houses of the people in some of the dioceses of Ireland. I once took part in one myself with the parish priest. At an early hour we made our way to the house, a poor cottage of two rooms, preceded by the clerk, carrying the altar requisites. We there found several of the neighbors already waiting for confession. The kitchen table was turned into an altar, and the parish priest and I were soon seated on chairs hearing the confessions of all who presented themselves. Then each of us said Mass in turn and gave Holy Communion. When the religious function was over the people came up one and one and made their half-yearly offering. Devout people of other lands might fear that these sordid surroundings might lead to a lack of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, but such is by no means the case, and I can bear witness that I never came across a more devout congregation. Many priests have to spend three or four months of the year holding Stations from house to house in their parishes. 

Irish Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. 

One other instance of the piety of the people at Mass in the real Irish parts of the country and I have done. I was once saying Mass in one of the islands off the West coast when, at the Elevation, there was a general murmur among the congregation. Having been always used to profound silence at that solemn moment I was at a loss to account for it, but learnt afterwards that it was the custom of the people to welcome aloud the coming of Our Lord in their midst, using the old Irish greeting— Ceud mile failte, "A hundred thousand welcomes." The devotion to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, so remarkable in Penal times, is not less so at the present day. The churches are all crowded on Sundays, and the absentees are few and far between. Would that that could be said of other Catholic countries. 

The Irish as Church Builders and Maintainers.

 "Another lesson learned in Penal times was that of supporting the needs of religion. At present the generosity of the Irish in supporting their priests, in building churches, in keeping up charitable institutions, is proverbial, not only as regards Ireland itself, but every country in which our people have set foot. It is the pence of the Irish poor that have built up most of the churches in England. It is the Irish emigrants that have built three-fourths of the churches in the United States, and all the churches in Australia and South Africa. Who could think that the down-trodden peasants—who worshiped for centuries in fear and trembling around the rock altars and in front of the mud-walled Mass-houses —could ever rise to take such a glorious part in the spreading of the Gospel through the world as they have done in the past century? Truly the ways of God are wonderful!

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 42, Number 14, 25 September 1909, pp. 8-9.

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