The Irish Fight for the Latin Mass
The Irish Fight for the Latin Mass
Part 1

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Above: Doonagore Castle (“fort of the goats”), Doolin, Co. Clare, Ireland. Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

Seán Dartraighe 1P5 |  January 24, 2023

In the English speaking world, the story of Catholicism during and after the Reformation is dominated by the experience of England. The sad tale of an ancient Catholic kingdom subjected to the yoke of Protestantism, of a systematic persecution of the Faith, and the making of martyrs. Who, can I ask, has not heard of St. Thomas More, or St. John Fisher, the scandal of Henry VIII and his six wives, the Pilgrimage of Grace, Mary, the Queen of Scots, the Gunpowder Plot and Treason?

The history of English Catholicism is well known and deservedly beloved.

Yet, to the west of Britain, there lies another island whose story is unique for the period. Ireland is peculiar in many ways, but is particularly strange for being the only country in northern Europe to have successfully resisted the Reformation.[1]

That story is largely unknown. For most, it is simply a tale of Irish national resistance against the dominance of her larger and more powerful neighbour. As one historian put it, “had the English remained Catholics, the Irish would have adopted devout Protestantism out of spite,” but such an assumption is gravely mistaken.

The truth is that Irish nationhood was born in the crucible of the Reformation, through a union of two peoples, not by shared birth on this Atlantic battered island, but through adherence to a common faith. Certainly, the politics of identity and ethnicity played its part, and at points in this story, it can be hard to see where Irishness ends and Catholicism begins.

Nonetheless, in the epic I am about to tell, you will see that it was the blood of martyrs and an absolute – some might say “rigid” – determination to preserve the faith of their fathers that birthed a nation.

It was not resistance to preserve nationhood that maintained the Catholic faith in Ireland, rather it was determination to live and die in their faith that forged Irishness.

It is a story in which you will meet golden heroes, martyrs whose suffering and constancy rivalled that of the early Christians, and a people whose simple refusal to sacrifice their faith could not be moved despite the best efforts of a government over three hundred years. It is also a story, predictably, with its villains, as all such stories must have. Some of these villains will surprise you, but it is precisely for the example of our saints and sinners that this story should be better known.

In these days, when we have our own struggle to accomplish, let the story of the Irish Church over these centuries serve as an inspiration, and an example, to our brothers and sisters in every corner of the globe.

Let us begin.

Divided Ireland

Sixteenth Century Ireland was a land of two nations. Most of the country remained under the sway of her traditional Gaelic lords, the ancient dynasties that traced their rule back into the depths of pre-history. They ruled as their fathers had, in an intricate web of clan ties and allegiances over a patchwork of fiefdoms. This was unconquered Ireland, ‘Hibernia Invicta’ as they described it. Lauded by their bards and harpists, the Gaelic lords ruled from castles that formed the heart of rural communities and scattered villages. They were bound by the ancient Brehon Laws, codified by the High Kings of old, but, more importantly, by the limited resources their almost parochial kingdoms could provide.

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However, in a small, and shrinking, enclave on the east coast, there was another Ireland. These lands, centred on the city of Dublin, had fallen to the Norman invasion in 1171 and remained firmly within the bounds of the English crown. This was a very different world, inhabited by English colonists who lived lives in a manner almost identical to their homeland. A centralised bureaucracy administered the King’s justice, they wore English fashion, spoke the English language and prided themselves in the purity of their cultural ties to the motherland. Indeed, so conservative were they in preserving their English identity that they were regarded by English mainlanders as cultural curios, a relic of an England that had long since passed away.

This cultural confidence of the inhabitants of the English Pale belied the insecurity of their foothold on the island. Less than ten miles from the city gate lay the Gaelic lordship of Cuala that bore down on them from the mountains. Once a year, they marched out in a magnificent procession and blew trumpets towards the hills in a show of defiant resistance, before promptly returning behind the city walls in a not-so-defiant show of realism. Nonetheless, provisioned from the sea and their meagre hinterland, and guarded by the great noble houses of Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Burke and Butler, their tenuous foothold would endure.

The Church Made Ireland

On this island of two nations, there was one unifying force that could call on the loyalty of Celt and Saxon alike; the Church. Seamlessly, the network of parish churches, friaries, abbeys, and cathedrals ensured that no one was more than three miles from a church anywhere on the island and although the two peoples lived for the most part separately, at the great pilgrim shrines they routinely found themselves beside each other in prayer, in the religious houses both nations lived under one roof. For all their incessant squabbling and warfare, both found shelter under the indomitable skirts of Holy Mother Church.

It would be wrong however to look upon this land as a Catholic idyll. The Irish Church in the late Middle Ages reached a level of depravity seldom matched in its long history. It was, according to a Papal legate of the time, the “most rotten branch in all of Christendom,” I shall not go into further detail here. In light of this, the Irish Church seemed to be a ready victim for the storm that was about to engulf it, that the whole decayed edifice would be swept away in consequence of its own corruption and refusal to reform. Yet, as is often said, dung grows the best roses.

The First Salvo of the Anglican Regime

Initially, the progress of the Reformation seemed as though it would pass as smoothly in Ireland as it had in England. The bishops gave little resistance to the passage of the Act of Supremacy in the Irish Parliament, and it passed in the first session. However, the episcopate soon encountered a complete unwillingness of the clergy to obey the injunctions such as it rendered progress impossible. George Browne, the Henrican Archbishop of Dublin, found opposition in the parishes so universal that he was unable to force them to even omit the prayers for the Pope in the Mass. The Chancellor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Father John Travers, wrote a treatise in response to the Act entitled “On the Authority of the Roman Pontiff,” for which he was martyred in 1537.

The dissolution of the Irish Monasteries was limited by the reach of the Crown. The religious houses of the Pale had been dissolved without much resistance, but beyond the Pale, London may as well have been the moon for all the local lords regarded the Crown’s writ. In the Gaelic interior, the monasteries continued uninterrupted, with some even commencing extension projects. The government responded by launching raids into the Gaelic lordships where the looting and dissolving of the monasteries became prime targets.

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Ruined monastery in County Offaly

Within the Pale, the authorities had so far resisted any major suppression of the Catholic faith within the parishes. However, when the news of the slow pace of reform reached the King, he sent an edict to Browne demanding the suppression of the cult of relics and saints. Dutifully, the archbishop took the relics of Christ Church Cathedral, including the staff of Saint Patrick, the Speaking Cross, and the miraculous image of Our Lady of Trim, and burnt them in the high street of the city.

This destruction however was not as complete as one might assume. The Heart of St. Lawrence Ó Toole, a prized relic of Christ Church Cathedral, was unharmed and survives to this day. Indeed, in subsequent accounts of the latter years of Henry’s reign, it is clear that Browne was unable to dislodge any of the major shrines in his own Cathedral. The saints would smile down undefaced and complete with their vigil lamps and candles until the reforms of the boy king, Edward. Nor was the problem confined to Dublin. In his visits to the towns of Leinster, Browne wrote despairingly to London that “the churches everywhere are yet filled with images and relics, and I dare not touch them, for fear of the ire of the ignorant populace.”

To be continued next week.

[1] That is, if we count Poland as Eastern Europe.
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre
The Irish Fight for the Latin Mass
Part 2

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Above: graveyard at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Strabane, Northern Ireland. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Seán Dartraighe 1P5 |  January 30, 2023

The Boy King and His Successor

The accession of Edward VI brought the full force of Protestantism to Ireland and the backing of the State to enforce reform. However, the first reading of the new English service in Christ Church Cathedral was marred when an alabaster depicting the Christ of the Passion started to miraculously bleed in a side chapel. In Ossory, a simple layman called Gilpatrick suffered imprisonment for publicly denouncing the reforms and the abolition of the Latin Mass. At his trial, he “declared his intention of preventing as many as he could either by force or persuasion from attending the new services.”

In 1553, two vital Irish bishoprics were left vacant when the Bishop of Ossory died, and the Archbishop of Armagh fled into exile to Rome. The Crown used the opportunity to promote the cause of Protestantism and appointed two Englishmen to the sees but their reception in Ireland was to be a manifest disaster. Goodacre, the appointee to Armagh was poisoned before he could leave Dublin by a delegation of his own diocescan clergy. Bale, the appointee to Ossory, was to have a longer trial.

Upon his arrival in Ireland, Bale was astounded to find the Protestant prayer book operating only in a handful of churches, and even there, the Latin Mass was celebrated soon after. Even among colonial loyalists, he found little enthusiasm for the cause of reform. He wrote to London, somewhat fearfully, that he was met in Waterford, not with a welcoming party, but with priests singing requiems for his soul. His efforts to impose reform in Kilkenny met with little success, failing even to have the images removed from the city’s churches. His brief tenure in Ossory was inaugurated by the arrival of Thomas St. Lawrence, the retired Attorney General for Ireland, who urged the people of the diocese to expel the bishop from his seat and restore their ancient faith to its rightful place.

He need not have bothered.

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Queen Mary

Soon after St. Lawrence arrived in Kilkenny, the royal herald in the city announced that the boy king was dead and his sister, the resolutely Catholic Mary had ascended to the throne, signalling the immediate return of official favour to the Catholic faith across the island. The work of restoration in Ireland was not the mammoth task as it was in England, for in Ireland, the Latin Mass had remained the normal act of public worship in most churches, even in the English Pale, the images had not been destroyed, there existed no community of heretics to pursue, and across most of the country, the monasteries had continued undisturbed. In short, the Marian Restoration in Ireland was not a restoration, merely the official recognition of the existing status quo. Her death, and the accession of her sister, the Protestant Elizabeth marked an altogether different setting for the Church in Ireland.

The Wicked Witch of the East

The Elizabethan regime was keenly aware of its own vulnerability. Within England itself, the population remained largely Catholic and sympathetic to revolt. Looking outwards, it was surrounded by Catholic France, and her ally to the north in Scotland. Spain menaced in the south and from its territories to the east in the Netherlands. To the west lay Catholic Ireland, its Gaelic Lordships, known to be keen allies of Spain, enjoyed a long coastline with some of the finest harbours in western Europe. The threat they presented was only heightened by the open willingness of the Gaelic states to offer assistance to Spain, and by the little couplet fashionable at the Court in Madrid; “He whom England shall win, through Ireland must go in.” Ireland, with her direct access to the northern English coast, a hotbed of Catholic resistance to London, offered a welcoming launching pad for a Catholic invasion of England by the global superpower of the sixteenth century.

London devised a two part strategy to deal with the threat; firstly, Ireland had to be drawn fully into the Protestant fold and Catholicism utterly extinguished; secondly, the Gaelic lordships had to be subjugated, either by force or persuasion, and English authority extended over the whole island. From the outset of the reign, hostilities with the Gaelic Irish raged bitterly, but it was followed jointly by a severe and determined effort to eradicate Catholicism. Here though the Crown faced an insurmountable problem that hindered success from the very beginning.

During the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, the population had learned that mass disobedience rendered the Protestant reforms ineffectual to the point that the State had feared to implement them. With the Elizabethan regime, even though it was resolute in its pursuit of Protestantising the Irish population, it faced a people and civil administration that either actively resisted the reforms, or, at best, simply ignored them.

Initially, mirroring the measures taken in England, the Crown imposed the Oath of Supremacy on civil magistrates and clergy, requiring their renunciation of Papal authority, and adherence to the Anglican faith. The Protestant liturgy was translated into Irish Gaelic and a printing press for Reformed literature was established in Dublin. Injunctions were issued that the reformed liturgy was to be read in the churches of the kingdom, and the Latin Mass abolished. With all the bricks in place, the Crown began its great project to remake the Kingdom in a Protestant image.

It turned out to be an immediate and total failure.

One English observer noted the absolute resistance to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, even within the Pale. He complained that priests would walk to the churches carrying the Latin translation of the Book of Common Prayer, but would “read nothing of it, save a Gospel in Latin, telling instead some tale of Our Lady or Saint Patrick or some other Saint.” The resistance of the clergy was so universal that the Queen herself ordered that the Dublin officials to stop demanding clerics take the Oath of Supremacy, lest the entire clergy leave their posts.

The level of resistance from the clergy and the general population, but also from civil authorities, had become so acute that even the Lord Mayor of Dublin could not be compelled to take the oath, and when he was reminded that it was law that the Lord Mayor go to Christ Church Cathedral on Sundays and Holy Days, he obliged by arriving to the Cathedral at the head of a splendid procession, before immediately leaving in equally splendid form for a clandestine Latin Mass.

The campaign of civil disregard for the legal injunctions led to the Government attempting to enforce reform on the population by various financial and legal pressures, to no avail. Fines were issued, and ignored. Summons were directed, and ignored. Eventually, officials even resorted to physically carrying people into services where they “conduct themselves as though at a May game” by shouting, playing games, singing songs and telling jokes with laughter and applause all through the service. Specific legislation had to be introduced to counter those responsible for “misbehaviour committed or perpetrated in any church or chapel, or against divine service” so widespread was the problem.

The universality of open defiance of the regime was such that the Protestant Bishop of Waterford complained of

Quote:Massing in every corner. … Rome-runners and friars maintained amongst them. Public wearing of beads and praying upon the same. Worshipping of images and setting them openly in their street doors with ornaments and deckings. Ringing of bells and praying for the dead, and dressing their graves diverse times in the year with flower pots and wax candles, the whole inhabitants of this kingdom be noted, obstinate, Papists.

The strategy did not hide away the popular adherence to Catholicism, but provoked an even more public and ostentatious display of the ancestral faith than previously.

The Glorious Martyrs

By the later years of Elizabeth’s reign, a new difficulty emerged for the foetal Protestant church. The population en masse refused to endow either the churches or the clergy of the state, diverting their funds to a parallel parochial structure that operated illegally, and more crucially, to a network of colleges for Irish students located within the Catholic states on the continent. The effect was that the physical condition of church buildings and estates declined sharply without funds or labour to maintain them. Gradually, the Protestant authorities were, in most cases, forced to unroof the churches themselves, simply to salvage scrap for sale to provide livings for its ministers, in so doing, dismantling their own ability to conduct their own “evangelisation efforts” and liturgy.

In 1580, the citizens of Dublin were confronted by a sight utterly unthinkable in their youth. Until now, the roles of martyrs had been almost exclusively made up of the resistant clergy. Most of them had been Gaelic Irish. However, on this day, the sight of Dublin’s grandest dame in chains awaited them. Blessed Margaret Ball, once the great Lady Mayoress of the city and daughter of one of the leading families of the Pale, had remained utterly steadfast in her commitment to the Catholic faith. Her son however had taken the Oath upon his entry into political office. Distressed by his apostasy, she arranged for him to visit the family home in Merchant’s Quay. Upon arrival, he was introduced to the sight of Diarmaid Ó hUrthuile, the Archbishop of Cashel, known to history as Blessed Dermot Ó Hurley.

Margaret’s hopes to restore her son to the Catholic faith would cost her dearly. Both she and the Archbishop were arrested on her son’s orders. Being riddled with arthritis on account of her age, she was dragged through the streets on a pallet to Dublin Castle, and was there imprisoned in its infamous dungeons. It would be the last time she would see daylight.

Archbishop Ó Hurley met martyrdom in one of the most gruesome manners devised by the authorities. His feet were clasped in iron boots filled with wine and salt. The authorities proceeded to suspend these boots over a fire, and over the course of hours, they boiled his flesh to the bone. At any point, he could take the Oath and save himself, but he remained constant. When they had stripped his feet to the bone, he found his glorious crown in the hangman’s noose.

For Margaret Ball, her martyrdom was a slower ordeal. Her children constantly petitioned their elder brother to have mercy and release the old woman. He merely responded that he was being merciful in not executing her immediately, and that all she had to do was to take the Oath. Her son Nicholas managed to get elected to the position of Lord Mayor, but his brother had been appointed Royal Commissioner and thus outranked him, preventing Nicholas from saving his mother. Margaret Ball was kept in chains for three years, without light or heat, before she finally obtained the victory in the damp squalor of her cell.

In spite of everything he had done to her, Blessed Margaret Ball refused to disinherit her son.

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Sculpture of the “Dublin Martyrs”, Mayor Francis Taylor and his grandmother-in-law Mayoress Margaret Ball.

To be continued next week.
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre

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