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Religious Persecution in Ireland

by Triona Carey,
County Cork, Ireland

About a mile or so outside the village of Inchigeelagh is a Mass Rock, where mass was celebrated from 1640 to 1800. Picture the scene, the priest facing a pile of stones which functions as a makeshift altar, evicted from his church which has been handed over to a protestant minister, hiding like a criminal, in fear of his life, surrounded in the clearing by a gathering of loyal parishioners, many of whom hadn't been overly concerned with religious matters until their spiritual freedoms were threatened.

Religious division dominated European politics for all of the seventeenth century. The shift from the hierarchical catholic church, in favour of more "democratic" protestant denominations was reflected in a similar shift away from feudal values and autocratic monarchies. Whatever the motivation, religious fervour and puritan values took a fierce grip on the imagination - preparing the ground for the vigorous work-ethic that was so vital to industrialisation.

Although Ireland is now one of the world's most prominent catholic countries, the medieval Irish church was quite easy-going and relaxed. The early christian settlers had adapted comfortably to celtic spirituality, incorporating many of their feast days and celebrations into the Christian calendar. The Norman invaders were also Christian, and had integrated well with Irish society. The march of Lutheranism had little impact on this remote corner of Europe and religion remained a rather casual affair until the troubles of England and Europe were imported under the reign of the Stuarts.

Legislation was put in place in Elizabethan times requiring uniformity of religious practice, under the Church of England, however it was rarely enforced in Ireland. In the early seventeenth century there were small pockets of protestant settlers in the country, but most of the wealth and power remained in the hands of the old Catholic settlers, who remained loyal to the Crown. The young Stuart king was happy to keep military costs at a minimum and to work to enlarging the protestant interest in a piecemeal fashion. On the odd occasion a zealous administrator would move to uphold the law and priests might be expelled or churches confiscated.

This is probably what happened in Inchigeelagh. However most of these actions were overturned on direct appeal by the catholic settlers to the Crown.

The Ulster Uprising, which began in 1641, changed the course of our history. Old settlers joined forces with the Irish, undermining the Stuart position which was already under attack by the puritan faction in parliament. When power went to the Cromwellians the face of Ireland was changed for ever. The Cromwellian plantations were extensive and effective and the puritan ethos came to dominate political establishments. Pockets of protestantism gave way to bastions of bigotry, and, banished from their homes, robbed of their freedom and dignity, the Irish found in their religion a rallying point for their nationalism and sense of aggrievement.

The Stuart restoration gave some respite, and catholic wealth and position were partly restored, but the impact of the Cromwellian period was profound. James II (known in Irish as Seamus a Chaca or James the S**t) began to strip protestant power in England, allying himself with the French court. This was a European war and it was inevitable that English protestants would seek the help of William of Orange, James' son-in-law, to help them in their plight.

When William arrived in Ireland he found strong support in the Cromwellian settlements and an ill-trained and ill-equipped opposition under the leadership of a weak James. The Irish had their heroes, such as Patrick Sarsfield in Limerick, but the battle was lost long before the Boyne.

The Irish had entered the seventeenth century an easy-going if somewhat harried race. They went out of it victims of some of the most repressive religious and social legislation in the world. In the course of the next century the penal laws discriminated against their every right - the right to worship, congregate, own property, to speak their language - every vestige of dignity was stripped away and the groundwork was done to ensure that the famine of the 1840s would claim more than a million lives. In these dark days people turned to a religion that hadn't figured hugely in their lives before, finding in it, perhaps, a philosophy that helped them cope with their martyrdom.

It is ironic that, by the time the famine struck, catholicism had become so central to Irish life, that many starved to death rather than renouncing their religion for a bowl of soup. By now the penal laws had been repealed (largely because they had achieved their purpose of sinking the native population into a condition of poverty and abject misery) but many soup kitchens were opened offering famine relief on the condition that the recipients espouse the protestant faith. How so many remained adamant in the face of starvation is a mark of how deep-rooted religion had become in the Irish psyche. As a child I remember the venom in my benign grandmother's voice when telling me that a neighbouring wealthy family were "soupers", i.e. they had taken soup and renounced their faith during the famine. The same lady wasn't even born until 50 years after these occurrences, but such was the hatred in the locality that it is doubtful whether these people will ever be fully forgiven.

Southern Ireland has become increasingly secular in its outlook, particularly in the last 30 years. This may be part of the reason why we have such difficulty in coming to terms with the continuing sadness and struggle in Northern Ireland. Its divisions are rooted in the European wars of the seventeenth century and its sectarianism echoes the religious extremes of those times. The imponderables facing the peace talkers derive from centuries of mistrust and hostility and they will need more than political will to achieve a good solution.

Perhaps some divine inspiration!

This essay is one of a series of Essays from Ireland by Triona Carey. This article is copyright of Triona Carey and can be reached with others at

Published in In Motion Magazine - December 21, 1997.