Frank Parker's author site

Home » Chapter 2 – Religion

Chapter 2 – Religion

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – stave #3

Chapter 2 – Religion

The previous chapter provided a summary of how the political relationship between Ireland and its neighbour developed over the seven centuries preceding the famine. But that is only a part of the story. We have already indicated that religious thought and argument, especially in regard to the question of the power of kings versus that of the Pope, was central to the lives of secular and spiritual leaders.

Years before Dermot McMurrough, the deposed king of Leinster, set out to seek English assistance, the Pope had signaled his dissatisfaction with the behaviour of some of his bishops in Ireland. Indeed, the fact that Dermot paid a visit to the Papal Legate in Lismore before setting sail suggests that he had that fact in mind and intended to use it as leverage in his plea to King Henry. The murder of Arch-Bishop Becket by knights loyal to him meant that the king felt the need to atone. And what better way than by carrying out an instruction that he had so far ignored?

But the native Irish continued to cling to their ancient traditions and the Brehon laws. And quite a few of the conquering Anglo-Normans adopted them too. Until the sixteenth century it was battles over the English royal succession and war with France that preoccupied the authorities in England, occasionally spilling over into Ireland, as in the Bruce invasion in the 14th century. But in the 1500s Europe was gripped by a movement for reform of the Church. Led by men like Martin Luther, this movement was opposed to the power wielded by the clergy, seeking greater democracy for the Church, with bibles and liturgy in native languages and an end to reverence for religious relics and symbols.

As part of this movement the old argument about the right of kings to have sovereignty over the clergy once again came to the fore. England’s king, another Henry, the eighth to carry the name, took advantage of the movement in order to secure a divorce from his first wife who had failed to provide him with the son he desired as heir. The practices of the Church of England which he declared as independent from Rome were, to begin with, little changed from those of the Roman Catholic church.

Church lands and property were now crown assets and were re-distributed among the English aristocracy, in Ireland as well as in England.

Meanwhile, the so-called Protestant movement continued to grow. Following Henry’s death the son his third wife, Jane Seymore, had produced, came to power. Like his mother, Edward was an ardent supporter of the movement and set about the destruction of monasteries and the wholesale murder of those who opposed him. His reign was mercifully short. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary who had remained true to her mother’s Roman Catholicism. As it turned out, this fact was no help to Ireland. As already noted in Chapter 1, it was Mary who was the first to introduce the practice of confiscating Irish land and ‘planting’ English loyalists.

Following Mary’s death it was the turn of the other half-sister, Elizabeth, to rule over England. Elizabeth’s reign is usually seen in England as one of progress and prosperity characterised by exploration and discovery. And the successful overthrowing of the Spanish Armada, much of which came to grief on the North West coast of Ireland. But it was not a good time to be a Roman Catholic anywhere in the archipelago, and priests, if discovered, risked imprisonment or worse.

Throughout Ireland Mass was celebrated in secret places in the open air, in woodlands or on mountain sides where a rocky outcrop would be dedicated as a makeshift altar to be referred to, to this day as a Mass Rock. And in many English country houses there are small, dark spaces called ‘priest holes’. These were the places where priests hid whenever priest hunters were in the neighbourhood.

Nicholas Owen was the most skilled and prolific builder of priest holes. A Jesuit brother, Owen dedicated his life to constructing secret chambers to protect the lives of Catholic priests.  In the book, Secret Chambers and Hiding Places, Alan Fea describes how he artfully designed and created priest hides:

“With incomparable skill, he knew how to conduct priests to a place of safety along subterranean passages, to hide them between walls and bury them in impenetrable recesses, and to entangle them in labyrinths and a thousand windings”.1

In Ireland the practice of ‘planting’ of Protestant farmers in Ireland was stepped up, especially in Ulster.

The dissatisfaction with the monarchy in the middle of the seventeenth century referred to in Chapter 1 was principally based on a distrust of Charles I and his alliances with, and support for, those who seemed to many to be taking the Church of England back to the old, Catholic, ways. Parliament wanted to see the Church adopt the practices and beliefs of Presbyterianism. The Scots were, by now, mostly of the same persuasion, so when the king sought funding to resist a Scottish invasion, Parliament refused. Instead they agreed to Scottish demands that certain named individuals be charged with treason.

In Ireland there were now three distinct factions: Native Irish, ‘Old English’ (descendants of the original Norman settlers and mostly Catholic) and ‘New English’, the occupiers of confiscated lands. The king’s representative in Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, had operated a harsh regime and continued with confiscations and plantations. Nevertheless, he had succeeded in maintaining an uneasy peace between the factions. When Parliament refused the king’s request for support for a campaign against the Scots, Wentworth suggested raising an Irish force to invade Scotland on the king’s behalf. Not surprisingly it was Wentworth, who, along with the Arch-Bishop, that the Scots wanted to see tried.

At first the trial did not go Parliament’s way, the available evidence being inconclusive. They, therefore, changed their tactics and instituted something called an ‘act of attainment’. This required only a body of suspicious evidence in order to secure a conviction. The problem was that the act required the king’s signature. At first he refused to sign.

In an act of extraordinary courage, Wentworth, fearing that his aquital would lead to riots and unnecessary bloodshed, wrote to the king begging him to sign, concluding with this sentence: “To set Your Majesties (sic) Conscience at liberty, I do most humbly beseech Your Majesty for prevention of evils, which may happen by Your refusal, to pass this Bill.”2

In Ireland, the Catholics and the native clansmen began to fear the prospect of domination by the Protestant New English and Scots Presbyterians. They staged a rebellion, making the spurious claim they were supporting the king. Exaggerated tales of massacres of Protestants by Catholics in Ireland, not all of them erronious, reached England. This did the king no favours and the stage was set for a revolution in England.

A long and bloody civil war followed in which reprisals by Protestants against Catholics were most bloody in Ireland. As usual, the war was accompanied by disease and famine among the civilian population. At least half a million people died in the conflict, more than half of them in Ireland.

The man who became leader of the Protestant ‘New Model Army’, Oliver Cromwell, earned a reputation in Ireland as the person responsible for brutal massacres, especially at Drogheda and Wexford. He was, however, a devoutly religious man who believed that Roman Catholicism was an evil subversion of true Christianity. He earnestly believed that it was his mission to execute ‘God’s design for the nation’. That design, he believed, included ‘the free and uninterrupted Passage of the Gospel running through the midst of us’ with people free to ‘practice and exercise the Faith of the Gospel and lead quiet and peaceable lives in all Godliness and Honesty.’³ A wish that most Catholics view with distaste and disbelief given his behaviour towards them.

Under his regime, after he became ‘Lord Protector’ in 1653, there were mass confiscations of lands owned by Catholics. Over 12,000 veterans of the New Model Army were given land in Ireland. Some sold it on to existing Protestant occupiers but around 10,000 remained. Most were single men many of whom, in due course, married Catholic Irish women although such marriages were declared illegal.

In addition, thousands of Scottish covenanter soldiers, who had supported the Parliamentarians, remained in Ulster. Around 12,000 Irish people were sold into servitude in Barbados.

And there were more religious wars to come. The monarchy was restored in 1660 in the shape of Charles II. On his death the crown passed to his brother, James (I of England, VI of Scotland), a Catholic. And when James’s Catholic wife gave birth to a son there was consternation among the Protestants in parliament. They could barely tolerate James’s Catholicism. Their hopes had been pinned on James’s daughter, Mary, who was married to Charles II’s Protestant nephew, William of Orange. James was not expected to live long. That he had produced a son late in life, baptised with Roman rites, appeared to thwart those hopes.

Religious wars had continued on mainland Europe and included an attempted invasion of Protestant Holland by Catholic France which William had successfully repelled. Those in England opposed to the idea of a Catholic succession set about encouraging William to invade. William landed in Devon in November 1688. He and Mary were declared joint sovereigns in February 1689, their coronation taking place two months later. Meanwhile, James had responded by landing in Ireland accompanied by 20,000 French troops. Tens of thousands of Irish Catholics joined them.

The decisive battle that established William and Mary’s position as rulers of the archipelago took place 20 miles North of Dublin, in June 1690, when the two armies faced each other across the river Boyne. William’s was a multinational force containing Danes and Germans as well as Dutch, Huguenots and English. It was funded by international finance, Portugese Jews and Huguenots. A surprising supporter of William’s campaign was the Pope. He feared that a win for James and his French allies would strengthen France’s domination of Europe. But it was William’s command of strategy that won the day. James went into exile as a guest of the king of France. Pontifical High Mass was held in Rome to celebrate the victory. And the scene was set in Ireland for three centuries of religious conflict based on a myth. In the words of James Connolly: “neither army had the slightest claim to be considered as a patriot army combating for the freedom of the Irish race.”4


  1. Fea , Alan: Secret Chambers and Hidiing Places, Dodo Press, 2008 (first published 1901)

  2. York, Philip Chasney (1911). “Strafford, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of”. In Chisholm, Hugh.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 978–980

  1. The words of Oliver Cromwell, quoted by Simon Schama in The British Wars 1603-1776, Vol.2 of A History of Britain BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2001

  2. Connolly, James: Labour in Irish History (1910)

Continue to Chapter 3

%d bloggers like this: