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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