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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twenty Three

           The Catholics

Summary of chapter. This chapter describes the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the rights of Catholic laymen to attain public office, and the rise of the political priests in the Catholic Church which contributed so much to polarising Ireland on sectarian lines.

(i) The Catholic Church

(ii) The Catholic Laymen

(iii) Relations between Catholics and Protestants


In Ireland Catholics always refer to themselves as 'Catholics'; Protestants always call them 'Roman Catholics'. The reason for this is that Protestants consider themselves part of the true Catholic and Apostolic Church while Catholics deny that claim. 

(i) The Catholic Church 

            It is much easier to describe the Catholic Church than the various Protestant Churches, because there was only one Church and its structure, doctrine, and practice, was uniform over the whole island. In many ways it resembled the Dissenting Churches. Its churches were small and plain, without spires or belfries, its ritual reduced to the minimum allowed by Canon Law and with the least possible external display. The clergy dressed little differently from laymen though, in the nineteenth century, were forbidden coloured clothes, and were bound to wear black or dark cloth. The priests, like the ministers, subsisted entirely on the contributions from their congregations. 

            Legally the Catholic religion was tolerated and had been since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Strictly speaking the presence of Catholic bishops was illegal, though this law was not cited since 1745. The Irish Government had indeed frequent communications with the Catholic bishops. Strictly speaking too the exercise of jurisdiction given by the Pope was illegal, but nobody bothered when it was confined to spiritual administrations to their own flocks, a point expressly recognised by the courts. The Catholic bishops were officially recognised as clergymen or ‘clerks in Holy Orders’ by the Government in the 1790's when it wished to provide for the education of Catholic priests, and an annual subsidy was paid for the upkeep of Maynooth College. At official receptions Catholic bishops were given precedence after the most junior Protestant bishop. After 1810 Catholic chaplains in gaols were paid an official salary. After 1845 following the establishment of the Board of Charitable Bequests on which Catholic bishops were to be officially represented, Catholic bishops were accorded their status as bishops, each after the corresponding bishop in the Established Church. 

            The organisation of the Catholic Church was almost identical with that of the Established Church as both were derived from the same Medieval Church. Catholics were numerous over most of Ireland except the north-east, where Catholic parishes tended to be few and large. In the course of the nineteenth century Catholics became more numerous in this part of Ireland too and the number of parishes increased. The number of dioceses was the same as in the Established Church. There were also unions of dioceses, rarely the same in both Churches. The dioceses were divided into four provinces each with an archbishop as its head. By a decree of the Council of Trent (1545-63) parish priests were bound to reside in their parishes, so in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the bishops combined adjacent parishes into unions large enough to provide a sufficient income for the parish priest. Catholic parishes were therefore larger than Protestant parishes, but holding two or more separated parishes was unknown, except by a bishop for his own support. 

            After the Reformation the Catholic clergy lost the right to the tithes of the parish and so for their income had to depend on gifts or offerings. The size of the parishes was arranged to allow an average income of about £100 for a parish priest and curate, of which sum the curate might get £30 or £40. The revenue of some parishes was much greater than this so senior priests were promoted into the wealthier parishes. An estimate about 1825 considered that the average income of a parish priest was by then about £150. The income of bishops was derived from one or two parishes they were allowed to retain for their support, placing an administrator in the parish, and also from a contribution from the parish priests. In 1800 the average income of a Catholic bishop was considered to be about £300. 

            In 1800, Lord Castlereagh asked for information regarding the number of parishes and clergy. The returns showed that there were 1,026 unions of parishes and 1,824 priests, 400 of whom were members of religious orders. As not all of the latter worked in parishes we can conclude that there were between 500 and 600 curates. By 1869 the number of curates had risen to 1,446. 

            In doctrine the Catholic Church accepted the teaching of all the Ecumenical Councils recognised in the Latin or Western Church down to the Council of Trent. In particular it recognised a particular character in its ceremonies and in its priesthood such that the religious acts they carried out were more than human acts. For this reason, as the acts of worship were above human understanding, little attempt was made to make them intelligible to ordinary people. All public worship was conducted in Latin, and a complicated ceremonial with elaborate music was officially prescribed. 

             However in Ireland, though the Latin language was retained, most of the ceremonial and nearly all the music was dispensed with. Instead of chanting the rites in a high monotone as was the rule when there was no music the priest hastily mumbled or muttered the words to himself. The only part of the ceremony in English was the sermon or instruction. (The above refers to the ordinary Sunday service or mass in the parishes. Where there was singing, as in convents of nuns, contemporary accounts reported that it was very beautiful and effective.) The faithful were exhorted to devote themselves to their private prayers while the priest was saying mass. Those Protestants who became Catholics in the British Isles found the new form of worship very strange. 

            However, as the nineteenth century advanced, larger and more dignified churches than the small thatched  'mass-houses' they had used in the previous century were provided. Also when possible a parochial house was provided in each parish. This implied a legal recognition that parishes and dioceses as corporate bodies could hold real property.  Previously each priest had to rent or build his own. In the latter case his relatives claimed it on his death. 

            As in the Established Church standards of education were gradually improved among the clergy. In the previous century there were numerous burses available for students to study on the Continent but the outbreak of the French Revolution and the beginning of the War with France meant that these could not be used. (Very few were recovered after 1815.)  The Government offered to build a college for the education of half the number of ordinands required, it being felt that the Catholics themselves could contribute towards the education of the remainder. Students were received into Maynooth from all the dioceses in Ireland. Individual bishops provided other seminaries for their own dioceses. 

            Educational standards in the Royal College of Maynooth were quite high, but were not of university standard. Some Greek was taught, but it was not expected that a priest could easily read the Greek New Testament. But he was required to be able to read Latin with some fluency as all theology textbooks were in that language, besides all the liturgical books.  Standards in diocesan seminaries could be quite low. But each bishop, by taking advantage of burses on the Continent, and places in Maynooth, was always able to provide his diocese with several well-educated priests at least. As candidates for Orders normally came from the lower middle classes, especially the strong farmers, it may be supposed that the education they could afford was provided. 

            As in the other Churches great efforts were made in the nineteenth century to improve the morals of the laity.  Better churches were built, and frequent attendance at church was insisted on. Voluntary societies were established to teach Christian Doctrine. A summary of Catholic teaching was provided in a catechism, and the Catholic clergy insisted rather on a knowledge of the catechism than on reading the Bible. Bible-reading, though not forbidden, was not encouraged because it was so easy to get confused by apparently contradictory texts. Catholic teaching was derived from various sources, the text of the Bible, the definitions of General Councils, the witness and interpretation of early writers, the ‘Fathers of the Church, the traditions of the churches, in particular the church in Rome, and decisions of the Pope. Voluntary societies for educational and charitable works were established, and despite the relative poverty of the Catholics considerable contributions were made to assist the foreign missions. Whatever the Established Church did, the Catholics, though much less affluent, tried to do likewise. 

            The supreme authority in the Catholic Church resided in the Pope or in a General Council or General Synod if one happened to be assembled. The clergy of the diocese did not strictly elect Irish bishops. These could choose the names of three priests, whom they regarded as suitable, which they forwarded to Rome so that the Pope could choose one. (The Pope was not restricted to those on the list.)  

            Legally, communication with the Pope was forbidden, but it had been customary for over a century for Protestant gentlemen visiting Rome to be introduced to the Pope. Communication between the British Government and Rome began when French Revolutionary troops invaded the Papal States in 1796, and in 1814 the Pope sought refuge with the British army in Italy. After 1815 the Government supported the restoration of the Papal States to the Pope. Unofficial but cordial communications continued for the rest of the century. The Pope was normally unwilling to appoint to an Irish bishopric a priest of whom the British Government disapproved. 

            The Government, both in Dublin and Westminster, was unwilling to contravene any item in Roman Canon Law. (A very few Grand Juries tried to circumvent Canon Law and Catholic custom with regard to appointing chaplains to gaols but got no support either from the Government or the courts.) They submitted unofficially any proposed statutes that might affect the Catholic Church to Rome for prior approval. Nationalists like MacHale viewed this constant communication between the Government and Rome with suspicion. This led to the nationalists sending delegations to Rome to convince the Pope of the wicked designs of the Government against the Catholic religion. When establishing the Queen's Colleges the Government sent the proposed Statutes to Rome for their approval. MacHale's party persuaded the Pope to condemn them. This required an enormous amount of casuistry but they managed it. Not only was the Government astonished at the decision of the Holy See, but also it was also severely criticised by Gavan Duffy the Catholic editor of the Young Ireland newspaper, The Nation. Duffy commented that the Catholic bishops in Australia readily accepted a less favourable arrangement. 

            The question of the Catholic Church and education will be dealt with under education. [Top] 

(ii) The Catholic Laymen 

            One of the burning topics in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century was Catholic Emancipation. This is another term that is nowadays largely misunderstood. The odd term 'emancipation', derived from the contemporary campaign to free the Negro slaves, had a precise meaning. Emancipation meant the opposite of ascendancy. Some Protestants wished that no further concessions should be made to Catholics; some Catholics campaigned ceaselessly for further concessions. The concession they especially wished for was to be able to sit in Parliament. 

            The Irish Penal Code or Penal Laws in Matters Ecclesiastical was largely directed against laymen. It was never illegal in Ireland to be a Catholic, nor to be a priest, nor to celebrate Catholic rites. Catholic bishops were banished from the kingdom, but after 1700 few bothered to search for them. The laws were directed against Catholic gentlemen, especially those of such wealth who could be Members of Parliament, hold the office of sheriff, etc., and also against those who owned a horse that could be used in a cavalry regiment against the Crown. Strictly speaking the name 'penal' law in Ireland was a misnomer, for the word penal implied a penalty like a fine or imprisonment, whereas the laws normally imposed only civil disabilities like exclusion from office. By the year 1800 most of these disabilities had been removed. 

            Catholics could be magistrates and Grand Jurors in a county but not sheriffs. They could serve legally in Ireland, and in practice elsewhere, as officers in the army, up to the rank of colonel, but could not be general officers on the general's staff. They could practice as barristers in the courts, but could not be King's Counsel, serjeants, or judges. They could be appointed officers of the courts up to the rank of Chief Remembrancer. They could not become Members of Parliament in either House, or form part of the Administration

            The disabilities which remained chiefly affected Catholic gentlemen like Daniel O’Connell who had the property qualification to become sheriffs, or Members of Parliament, or who could afford colonelcies in the army, and such like. Exclusion from Parliament was given symbolic importance, but there were scarcely a score of Catholic gentlemen who had both the necessary property qualification and who had the desire to become Members. The ostensible grievance is of course not necessarily the real grievance. For most middle-class Catholics it was probably more important to get positions in the counties from which they could collect fees and use their office to give jobs to their own relatives. Such motives would never be admitted, but the historian cannot ignore them.  

            The Irish Catholic noblemen were not numerous, numbering not more than half a dozen. Nevertheless they had been the traditional leaders of the Catholics and large Catholic meetings were normally chaired by one or other of them. As peers of the realm they had the same rights of access to the king as other peers, and the Government always treated them with the courtesy due to their rank. But even in the eighteenth century there were some Catholic merchants who felt that they were too subservient to the Government, too willing to make concessions, too unwilling to stand up for supposed Catholic rights.  

            In 1804 the campaign for Emancipation was resumed under the leadership of the Catholic Earl of Fingall. He however agreed with William Pitt and Charles James Fox that the king's determined opposition to further concessions made application to Parliament inopportune at the time. In the Catholic meetings a rough-tongued merchant named John Keogh who was supported by a majority demanding instant concessions denounced Fingall. This ill-advised haste led to the fall of the Whig Ministry of all the Talents in 1807. The Tories returned to office for the next twenty three years.  

            In 1808 it was proposed to offer 'securities' to the crown in return for Emancipation. The chief security was to be a royal veto regarding particular names proposed to the Pope for appointment as bishops. The Pope himself, when finally consulted, willingly conceded this veto, which was to take effect after an Emancipation Act was passed. The Catholic noblemen and a number of the middle classes among whom were Thomas Wyse, Stephen Woulfe, and Richard Sheil, favoured the concession of the veto. Hence they were named 'Vetoists'.  Keogh's faction, now dominated by O’Connell, refused all concessions to the crown, and so were labelled 'Anti-vetoists'. The Emancipation campaign ground to a halt about 1815 amid mutual recriminations. 

            In the 1820's the campaign for admission to Parliament took precedence in the public mind above all else.  It was renewed in 1824 and a truce was declared. But it was only a truce, and O’Connell never forgot that his principal adversary was the Earl of Fingall and his son Lord Killeen. In 1828, before Lord Killeen could offer to stand for Parliament in county Meath where he had a good chance of being elected, O’Connell gambled with the livelihoods of the Forty-Shilling freeholders in county Clare and won. Fearing a civil war Wellington and Peel gave way and passed the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829). When O’Connell succeeded in forcing the Government's hand in the matter of Emancipation he was called 'The Liberator' after a favourite hero of his, Simon Bolivar. 

            The election in Clare settled another point as well. It represented a victory for O’Connell and the hard-liners over the Catholic noblemen and the moderates. The victory was not immediate or overwhelming, nor irreversible, for the Catholic Whigs remained influential for many years. But it marked the beginning of the ascendancy of O’Connell and the clerical intransigents like MacHale, an ascendancy that was to be strengthened in 1850 when the Holy See backed MacHale against Archbishop Murray. 

            After Emancipation the former Vetoists almost unanimously sided with the Whigs and became the Catholic Whigs. The Whig Prime Ministers always found room for them either in the Irish Government or in the Government in Westminster. The Earl of Fingall was given an English title to enable him to sit in the House of Lords. His son, Lord Killeen was made a Privy Councillor, Lord Lieutenant of county Meath and a Lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. Sheil was given various offices; Woulfe became a Law Officer and then a judge. Wyse became an MP and an advocate for improved education in Ireland. In general, up to about 1870, Catholic voters were inclined to support the Catholic Whigs. [Top] 

(iii) Relations between Catholics and Protestants 

            Relations between Catholics and Protestants were quite good between 1800 and 1830 despite the occasional outbreaks of agrarian crime. After the Act of Union both Catholics and Protestants felt reasonably secure, as William Pitt had intended. Protestants were outnumbered in Ireland, and they got a bad scare in 1798 when some badly-led units of yeomanry were defeated in skirmishes which led to an escalation in the numbers joining to rising. For some months an entire county was abandoned to the rebels, and some Protestants were massacred in cold blood. For their part, the Catholics feared the more extreme members of the ascendancy faction, who would, if permitted by the Government, have met atrocity with counter atrocity. Catholics too felt that Emancipation could be more easily granted in the context of the United Kingdom for they would form only a small minority which could not conceivably be a threat to Protestants.  This was the view too of those Protestants, like Pitt, who wished to concede Emancipation. The wide and willing support given by Protestants was a feature of the Emancipation campaign. 

            The Catholic parish priest was likely to be on good terms with the Protestant rector, though lower than him on the social scale. The rector would regard both Catholic or Popish priests and Dissenting ministers as validly ordained Christian clergymen though mistaken on some points. (It was not until the second half of the century that an attempt was made to topple the Protestant clergymen from their dominant social position. The Catholic priests and Dissenting ministers paid their tithes like everyone else.) If the Catholic priest was a graduate of a Continental university he was likely to be on good terms with the gentry as well. Priests and rectors served together on charitable committees. The Catholic poor frequently went to the rector's house to obtain alms. Archbishop Murray noted that Catholics were careful to avoid using hurtful words like 'heretic', preferring to use terms like 'separated brethren'.  

            But as early as 1820 there were signs of incipient disharmony. The proximate cause of this was the attempted poaching of adherents by the members of the Bible Societies, which was fiercely resented by some Catholic priests. As the Emancipation campaign reached its climax so too did the expectation of some Catholics, who seemed to feel that they soon would get back the land allegedly owned by them. Wyse noted that in some places separate meetings of Catholics and Protestants had to be held to allow Catholics greater freedom to denounce Protestantism. 

            This era of goodwill came to an abrupt end about 1830. This was partly O’Connell's fault. Firstly, the tactics he favoured carried an implicit threat of civil war. This was never his own intention, but Wellington was very conscious of the fact that if he were not allowed to take his seat in Parliament control of the mob could easily slip from his hands into those of more violent and determined men. The Irish Protestants were conscious of this fact too. Secondly, after Emancipation was obtained, he immediately began a campaign for the restoration of a native Irish Parliament under Catholic control. As his rhetoric was filled with references to past injustices by Protestants, in seizing the lands of Catholics, for example, the Protestants could reasonably assume that that the Catholics would seize the land back. There is little doubt that both the Protestants and O’Connell's followers had similar views on this point. Similarly, with regard to appointments to public offices Protestants could expect to be excluded.  No matter what O’Connell would protest, an independent Irish Parliament would be a Catholic Parliament, and the Catholic voters would expect to see the alleged wrongs of centuries righted. 

            Other events occurred in 1830 and the years immediately following, which brought about a sudden and rapid deterioration in relations. The first was the refusal of a considerable number of the Catholic middle classes in south Leinster to pay any tithes to the Protestant clergy. They took the law into their own hands and refused to pay, and would assemble in large groups carrying sticks to intimidate those trying to collect the tithes. The Protestant clergy were to be starved so that they would appeal to the Government to abolish tithes. At the same time there arose a wave of agrarian crime, and in this case members of the Protestant clergy were singled out to be murdered. Some Catholic priests denounced Protestant rectors. The rectors were consequently murdered. The priests certainly had no intention of inciting to murder, on the contrary, but Protestants could draw their own conclusions. The third factor, which may be connected with the preceding, was the murderous attacks on the police.  Finally, the Catholic clergy personally joined in direct political action, thus showing that in an independent Ireland they intended being in the forefront. The Rev. James Maher's casual attitude towards truth and his habit of canvassing with a crowd of men with sticks at his heels did not help matters. 

             Protestants of liberal leanings were astonished at the sudden change in attitudes that followed Emancipation. The Act was passed to remove the last source of irritation, and it seemed to be having the reverse effect. After a few years the violence died down but irreparable damage had been done to community relations. For many Protestants in rural areas the memories of the massacres in 1641 and 1798 assumed a very concrete importance. 

            Another aspect was the growth of anti-Protestant feelings among the Catholic clergy. This was first noticeable in the writings of the Rev John MacHale about 1820. As the century advanced these feelings became more marked. Cardinal Cullen was bitterly anti-Protestant in sentiment. These priests shunned contact with Protestants, and were unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt. They suspected Protestant plots to overthrow the Catholic religion everywhere. The fact that a Protestant bishop like Archbishop Whately could approve schoolbooks for use in schools in MacHale's diocese was regarded as an outrage and an insidious plot. The fact that Archbishop Murray did not protest only showed that he was in danger of eternal perdition. Archbishop MacHale was educated in a small local school in county Mayo, went to Maynooth College at the age of sixteen, and studied there for seven years but not to degree level. He then taught theology in Maynooth for eleven years until he was appointed as an assistant bishop in Mayo. He was later promoted to be an archbishop, but remained narrow-minded, dogmatic, and bigoted all his life. Archbishop Murray, by contrast, had spent several years at the University of Salamanca. 

            Though the Catholic clergy were primarily responsible for the growth of these sectarian feelings it cannot be said that many Protestant clergymen went out of their way to allay them. On the contrary they always voted with the extreme Tories, resisted any attempts to ease conditions for the Catholics, and in general hankered for the old days when the clergy of the Established Church were indisputably in charge. Archbishop Whateley and his followers were even more of a minority in his Church than Archbishop Murray and his followers were in his.

            There were only two groups who tried to promote good relations between Catholics and Protestants. (Peel's belated attempt bore little fruit in the first half of the century, though there was the occasional Catholic Tory.) These were the Whigs and Young Ireland. The first considered that Catholics and Protestants should be able to live in harmony within the United Kingdom. The other felt that a new spirit of 'nationalism' and a pride in being Irish should take precedence over pride in religious affiliation. For this to happen however both sets of clergymen would have to agree to retire from politics and agree that secular nationalism was more important than religion. There was never any likelihood that this would happen. In the event Catholic nationalists redefined nationalism to include only Catholics and to exclude Protestants.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.