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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