“The very woman for Joe,” replied Mick. “Do you recall that, over in ‘Derryvore’ townland, there is a well matured lady by the name of Sara, who lives with her brother, John?”
“Aye! You mean Sara McCree?” smiled Kathy.
“That’s the girl!” said Mick. “Only last week I was having a pint with him in the ‘Pheasant Pub’ and John was telling me that he has took a notion for a woman and would like to marry her and have her move in. But Joe told me that his sister Sara had not the least notion of moving out of the house, and her just over forty. It’s his sister and he can’t just throw her out. Yet, I’ve heard it said that Sara McCree is not a woman who would turn her back on a man who could put a roof over her head and provide her with some degree of comfort.”
“Well matured is the right description, but that Sara has a bit of a history behind her some people say,” Kathy remarked. “It seems that a few years back she went off to England quite suddenly and left a little bundle with the ‘Good Shepherd Sisters’ in a convent. But the woman never married and that’s for certain.”
“Well, I bet you that Bud doesn’t know that and if they marry it won’t matter. Anyway, Bud never married, for he has never left the district except once or twice to go to Dublin for an All-Ireland final. He could hardly have gotten himself hitched in one night and, besides, have you ever seen another face as bad looking as ‘Bud’s’? He has hardly a bar in his grate and any teeth that have survived are as black as your boot,” laughed Mick.
“Aye,” laughed Kathy, “and the hair on his head, what’s left of it, standing uplike the quills of a porcupine!“
Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”
When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.
Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.
There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.
There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.
The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.
As Christ rose at Easter to free us all from sin, so the Irish People Rose at Easter 1916 to free Ireland from the grip of British tyranny.
I am taking a short break to rise up and refresh my aging batteries. But I will be back shortly to continue giving my readers Interesting insights into the Folklore, History, Poetry, and Life of the Irish people.
Thankyou to all my followers, Happy Easter and may God Bless you all. See you soon….
On 10th October 1918 the ‘M.V. Leinster’ was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat, causing a horrendous loss of life, a great proportion of whom were Irish men, women and children. The scale of this disaster became clearer over the days following the sinking. The identities of the victims were made available and much emphasis was placed on the fact that a large percentage of the casualties were civilians, and that many of the bodies had gone down with the ship and were never to be recovered. It became clear to the Irish people, through the British-controlled press, that the allies were struggling in their fight to the death with an enemy who would stop at nothing, not even the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, to ensure their victory.
The wartime British leadership consistently preached that the only means of overcoming German barbarity was total military victory over the Kaiser’s army and the complete cleansing of the German nation. British politicians made it clear that the only kind of language that the German nation understood was the language of brute force, and that only brute force could bring an end to such a murderous regime.
Using the large numbers of Irish lives that were lost aboard the ‘M.V. Leinster’ the British press suggested that it was up to the men of Ireland to brutally avenge those lost lives. The men of Ireland were told bluntly that it would only be by killing considerable numbers of Germans that the enemy would come to realise that terrible punishment would always be the price to be paid for the inhuman crimes they committed. At the same time, however, explicit attacks were launched against the republican cause in Ireland. They reminded the Irish people that the supporters of the republican cause had allied itself to Germany through those sentiments expressed in the 1916 Proclamation.
The British-controlled press had viewed the growing republican support in Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising of 1916’ with a mixture of alarm, contempt and disdain. In its reporting of the ‘M.V. Leinster’ tragedy the focus of the press was directed against the domestic enemy as much as the foreign enemy. The concern for the British administration at this time was that the end of the war was fast approaching, and they had promised Ireland would have its ‘Home Rule’ election agreed just prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914. In the background lay the growth of republican influence within Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916 and they had to devise some method to combat this influence. The key to success, they believed, was to devise a positive programme for Ireland that the Irish Home Rule Party could champion to regain the support they had lost to ‘Sinn Fein’. By delivering ‘Home Rule’ they believed they could encourage the large number of first time Irish voters to ignore the programme of the republican movement in the country.
Within Catholic circles, however, there was a growing level of doubt about the fulfilment of British promises. Among the Irish there was an inherent lack of trust concerning any initiative the British government might suggest, created through previous experience. Moreover, the rise in republican popularity had been strengthened following the success of the ‘Russian Revolution’ in the previous year. As far as the majority of the Irish people were concerned, by 1918 no British promises or guarantees could be trusted and, therefore, the ‘Irish War of Independence’ was inevitable if true freedom was to be gained.
Many years ago, when we were holidaying in a quiet seaside resort in the south of the country, we discovered that time went very slowly and hung heavy on our hands. There were few young people of our own age to converse with, no suitable books to read, and nothing of any particular interest in the locality to excite our curiosity. What was worse, before leaving home we had promised to write to an old invalid lady and her two daughters and tell them about anything that occurred during our stay at this seaside retreat, but there was nothing that we could write about. After some time, something turned up and we greedily seized upon it. This became the subject of a letter, which long after being forgotten, has come into our possession once again through the hands of the elder of the two daughters, to whom it was addressed. When returning it she added a note that the letter had been the one thing that kept her mother throughout her life, which had now come to an end. Naturally, we were saddened by the news but the note she had written consoled us, especially because we had thought the letter, we had sent, to be anything but a brilliant. But you can judge for yourself.
“Dear Mrs. M —
“Since we arrived at this place, I have noticed that there are two ladies with wooden legs. These ladies have to be described separately, however, because the legs differ considerably in their character and, I am certain, in their price. Perhaps, it would be better to speak of them legs Number 1 and 2, with leg 1 consisting of a rounded black pin, similar to that of the old genuine wooden-leg type, which is less common than it used to be. The leg itself is very well made and it does not pretend to be anything but what it is, a simple, nondescript wooden leg as that anyone would recognize. But it must be said, it does not form an entire leg, and it goes only as high as the lady’s knee. I suppose we should correctly call it a wooden half-leg. Anyway, this wooden half-leg belongs to a smart, well-dressed young lady, who stumps about the place with a certain degree of graceful beauty, although she must expend considerable exertion.The lady’s knee appears to rest on a form of a cushion, causing the lower part of the limb to project rearward a little, but not in a too obvious manner. Thanks to her long dress, the real leg and foot are to a certain extent hidden from view. But an observer can see a kind of jerking out of the foot, every time her red petticoat and tucked-up dress behind moved.
‘While feeling some sympathy that a person so young and so beautiful is afflicted by what appears to be a terrible misfortune, it is quietly encouraging to see how she smartly goes about her daily tasks while wearing that wooden leg. She is always brightly dressed, usually wearing a stylish hat with a delicate feather, and with her dress tucked-up, she walks at a good pace, laughing, chatting, and as full of high spirits as if nothing was the matter with her. Alongside two young-lady companions, she walks daily on the coastal promenade that overlooks the shingly beach of the resort. Naturally, it is not good manners for anyone to openly notice another person’s infirmity, and because nobody pays any attention to it her life-affirming sprightliness is unhindered. From the bay window of our apartment, which gives a commanding view of the promenade from one end to the other. This has given me an excellent opportunity to observe how cleverly she manages her wooden limb. But before continuing, it might be best to say something about the other artificial leg.
“The best thing that can be said about ‘leg two’, as I have called it, is that it is an ‘ambitious’ leg. It is a false leg that makes a not very successful attempt to appear to be real. The person who owns this leg is a somewhat unfashionable lady. She is a very dull sort of person who has a permanently sad expression on her face. I’ve heard the remark that she has a face that looks like a smacked arse. But undoubtedly, this lady’s leg had been amputated above the knee, as a result of being seriously injured in some terrible accident. Watching her as she walks along with a halt in her step, I can almost feel the pain that this lady has experienced, her sufferings, of her unfulfilled hopes in life, and her constant discomfort. I can also imagine the trouble that this woman had in finding a good manufacturer of artificial legs and, when she found one, how she looked over an assortment to find one that might be suitable. Can you imagine how she felt when she had chosen a suitable pattern of leg and had to be measured for a leg of the same type? Imagine, also, the lady’s servant coming into the parlour, and announcing, “Excuse me, ma’am, but the man has come with the new leg you ordered.” Next, think of her taking the leg upstairs to her room and trying it on for size! How awkward did she feel when she first heard that stump, stump, as she walked across the floor. It must have taken weeks before the leg became familiar to her and she could wear it for prolonged periods every day.
“Now, I know that I said this artificial leg is to a certain extent a failure, but I have to say that it is more fit for purpose than if it had been an unyielding wooden pin. The opinion I formed, therefore, is that there is a deficiency in the way she walks. While the heel goes down, the forepart of the foot does not fall or take the ground neatly. I am informed that this all depends on the arrangement and easy working of the springs and other machinery of the false leg. You could have a five-pound leg or a ten-pound leg, or even a twenty or thirty-pound leg, according to the nature of the springs, pulleys, straps, and wheel-work it has. For all that I can tell, the leg in question was a five-pound leg, for it does not appear to be heavier.
“One thing is for certain in this matter, however, and that is that trying to get it all done on the cheap is not good. If you want an artificial leg that will look and act as much as is possible like a real leg, my advice would be to not go for the cheapest product and buy yourself the best article available. My father told me the story of a man who had lost his leg in battle. He bought an artificial leg, which appeared to be so real and worked perfectly through the placement and quality of springs, etc. That man was able to ride horses, dance, and do all the things he could do before he lost the leg.
“When you consider the two cases of these ladies with artificial legs that it must strike you, as it did me, that it is all very odd. Not so long ago it would have been no rare spectacle to see old soldiers and sailors with wooden or false legs, but seldom any other person. It was very rare for a civilian to get their leg so badly shattered that they needed amputation, but women in such difficulty almost never occurred. Except on rare occasions, civilians did not get their legs shattered, ladies almost never. The progress of transportation these days appears to have changed all that. Accidents, blunders and sheer carelessness have caused the number of people who need artificial legs, of one kind or another, to grow considerably. Travellers are now in the same bracket as military men when it comes to the likelihood of losing a limb, and it is fortunate that mechanical science continues to keep pace with these disasters. Lately, great improvements have been made in the design and construction not only of artificial legs, but of hands and arms and, with good care and a suitable expenditure, the horrors of mutilation are greatly reduced.
“The modern artificial leg-makers should be thought of as being public benefactors since such titles will not make us less inclined to sympathize with those young ladies who suddenly suffer some sort of calamity that necessitates amputation of the leg and its replacement with an artificial leg. All fashionable ladies take pride in the neatness of their and feet because these are usually the main areas to be criticized. Unfortunately, the acquisition of an artificial leg of any description ends all that. It’s sad to think that there will be no more dancing or flirting, or hooking up with parties of young gentlemen, or hopes of marriage. There is also the personal inconvenience to be thought about, the unbuckling of the leg at night when going to bed and having to hop about or use a crutch when the leg is off. Putting on the leg in the morning and, when you sit down, you always must consider how the leg is to be adjusted. Going up and down stairs, the real leg first at every step, and the artificial leg is brought up behind it. The unpleasantness of ordering boots and shoes, and the still greater unpleasantness of being generally pitied by people.
“These were just some of the thoughts that passed through my mind. But, the one thing that puzzled me was, how did it happen that the young lady with leg number one was always so happy-looking? All my preconceived notions about losing a leg were turned upside down. I began to think how you and your sister would think it an utter calamity if you and your sister were left stumping down the street to church with an artificial leg, even a good ten-pound leg full of springs. But here, to my amazement, there is a sweet, happy young lady going about with a wooden leg of the simplest structure, and she appears not to be affected in any with her misfortune. So, I began to think, that this lady’s conduct is a fine example of philosophy and faithful resignation. She knows full well that she is destined to be lame all her life, and yet she submits to her fate with good grace, putting a pleasant face on the matter. Although deprived of certain hopes of happiness that most girls her age and position have, she has instead learned to overcome her misfortune by simply saying, “Thy will be done.”
“This is the conclusion that I have come to, regarding the young lady, and I will admit that the cheerful manner with which she endures her infirmity does my own spirit good. This poor young girl is a practical example of resignation. It appears that she is saying to me and others, “You pretend to have troubles and tribulations, but look at me! You have been spared all the discomfort of having a wooden leg.” That makes me feel happier than I might otherwise be. So, we learn that Providence, while sending us misfortunes, beneficently sends consolations, and in all the circumstances we find ourselves we are not without reasons to be thankful.”
The final English victory over the ‘Native Irish’ in Ulster during the “Nine Years War” (1594 – 1603) gave the English crown control of the entire island for the first time in over five centuries. Sadly, for Ireland and its people the victory also signalled the final collapse of the old “Gaelic Order”. Worse still was that, between 1603 and 1641, King James and his son, Charles I, consolidated their colonial power in Ireland. They achieved this task mainly through a policy of “Plantation”, which simply meant the confiscation of land and subsequently giving it to loyal Protestant co-religionists from England and Scotland.
The Kingdom of Ireland was divided into four provinces. The best land was to be found in the Province of ‘Leinster’ to the east, and the Province of ‘Munster’ to the South. Meanwhile, the western Province of “Connacht”, which was separated from the rest of Ireland by the River Shannon, and the Northern Province of ‘Ulster” were considerably less fertile and remained. Virtually inaccessible. The people in all Provinces were usually to be found clustered together in small rural settlements, which were usually sited around the nearest manorial residence of the local landlord. However, during the summer months, many of the peasant population would gather their cattle and drive them to greener pastures in the highland areas. On these rough grazing pastures, they would build temporary shelters of rocks and sods to shelter their families from the elements.
In the early decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated the population of Ireland numbered in the region of one million people. In demographic terms the population was divided into four distinct grouping –
1. The Native Irish
2. The Old English
3. The New English
4. The Scots in Ulster
The ‘Native Irish,’ were by far the largest of these groups and they lived almost exclusively in rural communities that were traditionally dominated by the leading clan or family, such as the O’Neills, the McCarthys and the O’Briens. Moreover, the ‘Native Irish’ obstinately refused to embrace the new reformed faith, which created deep religious divisions to add to the existing ethnic tensions that already existed between the Irish and the newcomers. But, following the defeat of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in 1603 the old Gaelic political order collapsed. Hugh O’Neill fled into exile on the Continent, where he was joined by thousands of unemployed swordsmen who found work in the Spanish and French armies. Those of the Native Irish elite who had remained in Ireland had to adapt as best as they could.to the New Order. They, however, detested the colonial system that had been imposed upon them, and they deeply resented the power and influence of the minority Protestant settlers.
There were, nonetheless, a few of the old Gaelic aristocracy, such as Donough McCarthy, who appeared to overcome much of the disadvantages of religious and ethnic discrimination allowing them to integrate into the new colonial society successfully. The heir to estates in east County Cork, McCarthy was able to marry into the leading ‘Old English’ family in the country, the Butlers. With this advantage McCarthy could carefully build up a strong network of friends that spanned the entire religious divide. He succeeded his father, ‘Viscount Muskerry’ in 1641, and took his seat in the “House of Lords” just before the outbreak of the Irish insurgency. The subsequent polarisation of Irish society, however, caused ‘Muskerry’ to choose a side and, in early 1642, he openly declared his commitment to the Catholic insurgents. His principal opponent in the Province of Munster throughout much of the 1640s was Murrough O’Brien, “Lord Inchiquin”, one of the few prominent native Irish leaders to forsake the Catholic religion.
The ‘Old English’ were the second largest demographic group in Ireland and were also the principal landowners in the ‘Kingdom’. They had also suffered mistrust and discrimination because of their refusal to abandon their Catholic faith. This group were descendants of the original ‘Anglo-Norman’ colonists and had, for the most part, supported the Tudor conquest and fought against their traditional enemies, the ‘Native Irish’. The King, however, retained his predecessor’s policy of excluding them from government posts, appointing instead the more reliable though unashamed rapacious English Protestant officials who soon began to intrigue among themselves to gain control of the big, landed estates. The ‘recusancy fines’ which were imposed upon those who failed to attend the Protestant services were only a sporadic irritant. The process of ‘Plantation’ in Ulster and elsewhere, although it was mainly directed against the native Irish, succeeded in causing many of the ‘Old English’ families feeling vulnerable about their own land holdings. The ‘Old English’ also dominated the big urban centres of Ireland and, with the exception of the colonial capital, the newly created ‘Plantation Boroughs’ in the Province of Ulster. Only a handful of merchant families monopolised civic power in the land, growing wealthy on trade with the surrounding countryside and the Continent. At the same time, each town jealously guarded its local autonomy from any outside interference, and traditionally excluded the native Irish from residing within the defensive walls of the settlement. But, many of the big cities, however, such as Waterford, Limerick and Galway joined the Catholic insurgency during the 1640s and would subsequently organised the most effective opposition to Oliver Cromwell and his ‘New Model Army’.
At the pinnacle of Catholic ‘Old English’ society Ulick Bourke, Earl (and later) Marquis of Clanricarde, who owned vast estates in Connacht. He enjoyed close relations with the town of Galway, one of the busiest trading ports in the country. His step-brother, Robert Devereux, was the Earl of Essex and the future commander of Parliamentary forces. In fact, it was through the intercession by Essex that ‘Clanricarde’ was appointed to the English ‘Privy Council’ in 1641, and Lieutenant of the town and County of Galway in Connacht. He was, therefore, one of the very few Catholics to hold public office at this time. Bourke returned to Ireland in September 1641, on the eve of the Catholic uprising. Although the vast majority of the ‘Old English’ aristocracy subsequently sided with the Catholic insurgents, Bourke remained loyal to the Stuart Monarchy throughout the 1640s. There was, however, another leading Catholic nobleman, James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, whose father, an English Lord, owned estates in Leinster and travelled to Ireland at the same time as ‘Clanricarde’. He pursued a military career on the Continent, before he joined the Catholic insurgents in Ireland. Although many of his co-religionists were to suspect him of holding royalist sympathies because of his English connections, Tuchet proved himself to be an energetic cavalry commander, and would be one of Cromwell’s most implacable opponents.
The Protestant people living in Ireland made up the third and fourth demographic groups that have been listed. The ‘New English’ group consisted mostly of soldiers and administrators who had settled in Ireland on confiscated lands taken during the ‘Tudor Conquest’ from Catholic Irish rebels in Leinster and Munster. From 1610 the English government sponsored a ‘Plantation’ scheme that redistributed the lands that had been seized from Hugh O’Neill and his northern allies and shared among thousands of Protestant migrants from England, alongside even greater numbers of settlers from Scotland. Although there were tensions that existed between the ‘New English’ and the Scots, their common fear of the Catholic Irish kept such tensions very much as secondary causes for concern. Except for a few centres such as Derry, Enniskillen, and Carrickfergus, the vast majority of the settler population lived in relatively small fortified settlements, constantly afraid of the threat to their security from the various bands of native Irish outlaws sheltering in the woods, bogs and mountains of the Province. Cork, Kinsale, Bandon and Youghal formed the back-bone of the ‘Munster Plantation’. Many of the original Protestant ‘Planters’ from the 1580s had either been killed or driven out of the country during the “Nine Years War” but the settler population soon rose in the aftermath of the rebel defeat, and by 1640 they numbered in excess of 20,000, mainly from the southern and western counties of England.
Two of the leading ‘Planter’ families were the Cootes and the Boyles. Sir Charles Coote fought in the “Nine Years War”, acquiring estates for himself in Connacht as a reward, and he officiated in a member of important administrative position for over forty years. He was violently anti-Catholic and an aggressive advocate for further English plantations. Sir Charles earned for himself a deserved reputation for brutality and was eventually killed during a skirmish with the enemy in May 1642. His eldest son, also called Charles, proved to be an equally uncompromising opponent of the Catholic insurgents and commanded forces that were loyal to the English Parliament in efforts to pacify the West and North of the country.
Meanwhile, Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork rose from humble origins in England to become one of the largest landowners in Ireland. Already and old man by the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641, he died in 1643. One of his younger sons, Roger, Lord Broghill, played a key role during the wars and fought alongside Cromwell during the later stages of his conquest of Ireland. Roger Boyle, like Coote, needed little encouragement to take up arms against his Catholic neighbours. Also, like Charles Coote, Roger showed no mercy to those who opposed him.
The leading Protestant family in Ireland at this time was not a new arrival, but the head of the most important ‘Old English’ family in Ireland known as Butler. He was raised in England as a ward of the Royal Court in a strict Protestant household. The young James Butler, the future Earl of Ormond, enthusiastically embraced the new faith and resisted all the pleas from his extended family asking him to revert to Catholicism. He remained a deeply controversial figure across the religious divide in Ireland, but he retained the unswerving confidence of King Charles I. It was due to this fact that James Butler kept his command of the royalist armies in Ireland for much of the 1640s, and he co-ordinated the military resistance within Ireland against Oliver Cromwell at the end of that decade.
While many of the ‘Native Irish’ looked abroad for a leader, the ‘Old English’ elite, for the most part, placed their hopes in the Irish Parliament, whereas major landowners and representatives of the big towns they retained a powerful, if no longer dominant, influence. Through Parliament they sought to safeguard their landholdings, mitigate the worst excesses of religious discrimination and regain some influence in government circles. But, the crown’s failure to implement the ‘Graces’, which were areas of concessions to Irish Catholics, caused great resentment and intense bitterness among the Irish Catholic population. Over the next ten years there followed a traumatic time for the Catholic elite, both ‘Native Irish’ and ‘Old English’. The situation worsened after Thomas Wentworth was appointed to the commanding position of Lord deputy in Ireland. This man’s increasing use of arbitrary powers, apparently with the King’s full support, negated any remaining influence that the Catholic elite held over the ‘Native Irish’, or in Parliament. Moreover, Wentworth’s continuing policies of ‘Plantation’ now began to threaten the retention of their estates. The time for the Catholic Irish to rise up against what they perceived to be tyranny was not far off.
In 1641 the Puritan Parliament in England went as far as to decree the absolute suppression of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. The main cause for Parliament taking such a step was the effort begun by dispossessed Gaelic-Irish Lords in Ulster to recover those lands that had been confiscated from them in past years. Very quickly this effort by the local Irish of the north to have their ‘stolen’ lands restored to them became an alliance of all Catholic people in Ireland, whatever their origin, to rise up against this persecution. As a people they were determined that their religion should be preserved, and, at the same time, they would defend their rights and property under the monarchy and within the constitution. In this insurrection both the ‘Gaelic-Irish’ and the ‘Old English’ joined together to form what became known to Ireland’s history as the “Confederation of Killarney”.
Although there are many who refer to the original uprising in the north as “The Great Rebellion of 1641”, I prefer to see the event as being more of an insurrection by a dissatisfied people. In most instances those who prefer to call it a ‘Rebellion’ support their claim with various stories of massacres and bloody atrocities on the part of the ‘Native Irish’ alone in a concerted effort to mark an entire people. Even now, in the twenty-first century there are certain groups who continue with these contentious charges to maintain division and animosity among the people for their own political sectarian motives. This, however, this not an attempt to portray the Insurrection of 1641 as being less of a struggle than it was and there was bloodshed on both sides, just as there has been in all the popular uprisings in Ireland’s history that attempted redress long-standing grievances. Without doubt, there were many crimes committed during this insurrection, which must be deplored and condemned by everyone.
Much has been written about the brutal atrocities allegedly committed by Catholic Irish insurgents by men such as Walter Harris, Milton, Borlase, May, Rushworth, Cox, Carlyle, and Froude. In the years since the insurrection these so-called historians have concealed what is the true story of the struggle. Many of the alleged massacres appear to be nothing more than made-up stories without any basis in truth. For the most part these reporters relied upon the depositions taken from alleged eyewitnesses to the events, which were preserved for future generations and are visible on-line at present. Since the beginning of the twentieth century modern investigative historians have studied these depositions in depth and have recognised many of them for what they were meant to be i.e. An attempt by the English authorities of the day to blacken the name and reputation of those Irish Catholics for all time. Instead of furnishing proof of bloody massacres and atrocities the depositions highlight the fact that many of the charges are both baseless and malignant. But, for the moment let us look at how the fuse was finally lit.
On Friday 22nd October 1641 Sir Phelim O’Neill, the respected Catholic landowner, justice of the peace, and Member of Parliament for the borough of Dungannon in County Tyrone, decided he would pay a visit to his neighbour, Sir Toby Caulfield, Governor of Charlemont Fort in the County of Armagh. Without warning, the men accompanying O’Neill seized control of the fort, imprisoning the startled Sir Toby who was to die later in the custody of the insurgents. This unexpected action was the match that lit the fuse of a war that would last for more than a decade and result in the death of over one-fifth of the Irish population. Although Sir Phelim belonged to the powerful and influential O’Neill family, which had ruled over Ulster for centuries, but in many ways, he was not the typical example of a ‘rebel’. His father Turlough Og, had fought for the English crown during the “Nine Years War” and his son, Phelim, received estates in the ‘Ulster Plantation’ as one of those that the crown declared to be “deserving Irish.” Although he had been raised in the Protestant faith as a ward of the English Crown, Phelim returned to Ireland in the 1620s where he reverted to his native Catholicism.
For over a decade, he played a leading political and social role in the local Ulster community and, outwardly at least, he appeared to have assimilated well into colonial society, and was knighted in 1639. As it was with all Irish Catholics, however, O’Neill was still subject to sporadic religious persecution, and resentful of the power and influence carried by the Protestant newcomers. Moreover, he struggled to maintain his family’s estates and, by 1640, he owed the then enormous sum of £12,000 to creditors in Dublin and London. His rank and position in Ulster quickly attracted the attention of similarly disgruntled Catholic landowners, such as Philip McHugh O’Reilly and Lord Conor Maguire, who were anxious to gain his support for a pre-emptive strike against what they considered to be a hostile colonial administration. They had been impressed by the success of the Scottish Covenanters, they sought to gain control of the Kingdom and negotiate with the King from a position of strength. Sir Phelim now allowed himself to become gradually entangled in the complex series of plots that developed over the summer of 1641, involving not only the Ulster Irish but also the ‘Old English’ grandees from that area of Ireland known as ‘The Pale’.
The Ulster Irish envisaged an assault on two fronts with Sir Phelim targeting Charlemont and other key points in southern Ulster as a means of preventing Protestant settlers in the north of the Province from linking up with forces that would undoubtedly be sent from Dublin. At the same time, Lord Maguire’s men would storm Dublin Castle, paralyse the government and gain access to the state’s vast store of weaponry. Successfully rallying thousands of followers to his banners, Sir Phelim executed his part of the plan to perfection. In Dublin, however, a companion of Lord Maguire, Owen O’Connolly, managed to slip away from his companions the night before the planned attack and alerted the authorities in the capital. Acting quickly the authorities rounded up the conspirators, including Maguire, who was subsequently executed in London. Maguire’s failure in gaining control of Dublin left the Ulster insurgents facing the grim prospect of a massive retaliatory action by well-armed government troops.
Within a few days, however, the limited strike that had been envisaged by the leaders of the insurgency sparked widespread unrest in the land, with reports of attacks not only in Ulster, but in North Leinster as well. By the end of 1641, less than two months after O’Neill seized Charlemont fort, the violence had spread to south-west Munster, the furthest point geographically in Ireland from the source of the initial rising. the conspirators, for the most part, belonged to the landed gentry and who were motivated by a mixture of fear, resentment and financial worries. Disillusioned with the existing discriminatory political system they, nonetheless, professed their loyalty to the King, and claimed to have acted in self-defence against the unjust policies enforced by the colonial administration in Dublin.
In his book, “The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland,” the Rev. James Seaton informs us that – “Sir Phelim O’Neill of Kinard or Caledon, in the County Tyrone, engaged to commence the insurrection in Ulster, on the same Saturday by the seizure of its chief places of strength. He was especially charged with the capture of Derry: his relation Sir Henry O’Neill was to be urged to surprise Carrickfergus; and Sir Con Magennis, his brother-in-law, to seize Newry. The Protestants were to be taken and imprisoned with as little violence as possible; and agreeably to the King’s Commission, the Scots were to remain unmolested.”
The administration in Dublin had reacted ferociously to the news that a revolt had broken out in the North of the country and by their action exacerbated an already explosive situation. The day after the rebellion had began in Ulster the Lords Justices, Sir William Parsons and Sir John Borlase (Father of the historian Edmund Borlase) issued a proclamation blaming the disorder on what they called “evil affected Irish papists,” without any distinction being made. The Catholic Lords of “The Pale” were deeply angered by the administrations action and, following complaints made by them, there was a grudging retraction of the proclamation six days later. Although they now identified the Ulster-Irish as the chief culprits in the uprising, their actions had done little to assuage the fears that these Catholic Lords held about the possible heavy-handed tactics that Dublin might just employ in their response to the insurrection. The subsequent refusal Lords Justices to provide these same Catholic Lords with sufficient arms to protect their estates from the Ulster insurgents merely reinforced the general sense of grievance that was felt by all those Catholics not yet involved in the uprising. The insurgents, however, restricted their actions in those first weeks to the theft and destruction of property from Protestant settlers. The evidence that survives does suggest that relatively few people died during these opening weeks, despite the so-called ‘evidence’ produced by some parties after the events.
In early November, Sir Phelim published a proclamation that was allegedly issued by the King, Charles I, authorising Irish Catholics to take up arms on his behalf. This sensational document, although later exposed as a forgery, appeared to give a veneer of legitimacy to the actions of O’Neill and his followers. This, combined with the early successes achieved by O’Neill and his forces, began to attract a growing number of people to his banner from every rank in society. To the ranks of the insurgent forces came small tenant farmers, landless labourers, and notorious outlaws among many others. Most of these men had been drawn to O’Neill’s cause simply to be on the side that appeared to be winning. The local Catholic landowners had become anxious in the wake of the uprising, fearing that there would be a complete breakdown of law and order, and they rapidly assumed command of the insurgents in their areas. But, despite their best efforts, the landowners began to find it increasingly difficult to maintain any control of the rank-and-file supporters. Most of these men had been embittered by long-standing grievances and more recent economic hardships which they blamed on the Protestant newcomers. It wasn’t long, therefore, until the insurgents began targeting the ‘Planters’, particularly in the Province of Ulster.
After suffering several set-backs against government forces in various places, some of the insurgent groups began to adopt a more violent attitude towards their targets. Their initial efforts to drive a wedge between the Scots and English settlers, by limiting their attacks to the latter group, had proved to be unsuccessful and impossible to sustain as the disorder spread throughout the Province. Terrified Protestant settlers felt themselves exposed and vulnerable to attack from their Catholic neighbours, and they fled their homes for the relative safety of the nearest garrisoned town. From there many of the refugees would continue south toward the capital, Dublin. The journey south, however, was filled with danger as the insurgents would frequently attack the defenceless convoys that moved slowly along the road. Men, women and children would be stripped of all their clothes and possessions. Exposed to the harsh winter weather without food, or shelter many of these civilian victims would die by the side of the road.
Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the opening weeks of the insurgency had witnessed brutal and indiscriminate reprisals by the commanders of the ‘colonial’ forces. Sir William St. Leger, the President of Munster, and Sir Charles Coote in the Province of Leinster horrified the ‘Old-English’ communities in those places. St. Leger launched a widespread and bloody offensive across the southern part of the country. Indiscriminately executing large numbers of Catholics, including some of the landed gentry, whether or not they supported the uprising. Whatever the initial intention of the Dublin administration, Coote and St. Leger, the escalating conflict effectively gave them the ideal excuse to confiscate the most lucrative Catholic estates that still survived in Ireland. It was the fulfilment of a policy long favoured by many of the administration’s officials in Dublin.
On the first day of the rising the insurgents successfully captured the town, port and castle of Newry by surprise, which meant that little blood had been shed by either side. It was, however, the beginning of a ‘propaganda war’ that still has ramifications today, almost three hundred and eighty years after the events. A certain Dr. Seaton Reid tells us that when the town of Newry was taken by surprise, by the rebels, fifteen of the local townspeople were hanged. However, Dr. Reid used the depositions of alleged eye-witnesses to make such claims, without recognising them to be little more than hearsay evidence. He states – “On the same eventful day, Sir Con Magennis, at the head of the Magennis’s and the McCartans, led by a Father Crilly, surprised the town and castle of Newry. The Governor, Sir Arthur Tirringham, very narrowly escaped but the entire garrison were captured and disarmed, and fifteen of the townspeople hanged.”
Another rabid anti-Catholic reporter, Walter Harris, for some unknown reason made no propaganda from the alleged sufferings of the Protestant inhabitants of Newry. As a matter of fact, Harris makes no mention of any executions around or within the town of Newry at this time. Yet another self-proclaimed historian of the period and Protestant Churchman, Dr. Knox, seems to mix up events in Newry with what was alleged to have happened in Armagh the following May. He reported the charge of murder in the following manner – “Sir Con Magennis attacked and took the castle and town, destroyed the church, and put many of the inhabitants to the sword.”
 The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867
 The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867
The ‘Mass Rock’ is a structure that is peculiar to Ireland. It is classified as “a rock or earth-fast boulder used as an altar or a stone-built altar used when Mass was being celebrated during Penal times (the 1690s to 1750s AD), though there are some examples which appear to have been used during the Cromwellian period (1650s AD). Some of these rocks/boulders may bear an inscribed cross” (The Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland). They are, for the most part, located in isolated places, because such locations were especially sought so religious ceremonies, such as the Catholic Mass, could be celebrated by the faithful. Such rites had been prohibited as a result of Oliver Cromwell’s decimation of Ireland and the ‘Penal Laws’ enforced after William III’s victories at the Boyne and Limerick. Bishops were banished from Ireland and priests had to register with the authorities to preach, which made the practice of Roman catholicism both difficult and dangerous during these years with ‘Priest Hunters’ being employed to seek out and arrest unregistered priests.
In Irish, the name given to a ‘Mass Rock’ was Carraig an Aifrinn. Other names associated with sites where Mass was celebrated in Penal times include Clais an Aifrinn meaning ‘Mass Ravine’, Páirc an tSéipéil or ‘Chapel field’, Faill an Aifrinn or ‘Mass cliff’, Leaca na hAltora indicating a flat stone or rock altar, Cábán an Aifrinn or ‘Mass Cabin’, Cnocan na hAltorach meaning ‘small hill of the altar’ and Gleann an Aifrinn indicating a ‘Mass Glen’. In many instances, the ‘Mass Rock’ was a stone taken from a ruined church and relocated to an isolated rural area, and a simple cross was carved on top. Because the practice of the Roman Catholic Mass and other rites were illegal, the services were held at random times and places with the parishioners having to spread the word from neighbour to neighbour. By the late 17th century these rites of worship had been generally moved to thatched Mass houses, and the ‘Mass Rock’locations became used as places where the local faithful could make their devotions on the feast day of the patron saint of the parish.
In those dark days of the ‘Penal Laws’ and persecution, the ‘Mass Rocks’ were landmarks for the local Catholic community, but were hidden away from the prying eyes of the authorities and are, therefore, by their very nature, difficult to find. Nevertheless, In Ireland, the locations of these ‘Mass Rocks’ of the Catholic faith remain important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to the Nation’s heritage and tradition. During his visit to Ireland in 1979, the Pope recognised the continuing importance of the ‘Mass Rock’ as a reminder of the past persecutions that the Irish people faced and, even today, the Mass continues to be celebrated at some of the ‘Mass Rocks’ that are spread throughout the country.
The ‘Penal Laws’ were imposed on the Roman Catholic population of Ireland by the ruling British during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The reformed Christian faith (Protestantism) was the established faith of those areas controlled by the British Crown and an effort was made to force the Irish Catholic majority to abandon their faith and replace it with the new reformed faith. as a result, the ‘Laws’ enacted against Catholicism were very restrictive and had a long and lasting effect on the daily life of Irish Catholics, which continues to this day. These restrictive laws included –
Restrictions on how children of Catholics were educated
Banning Catholics from holding public office or serving in the army
Expelling Catholic clergy from the country, or executing them
Taking the land and distributing it among British Lords
Dividing inherited land equally between children, to reduce land size held by individual Catholics
Excluding Catholics from voting
Catholics banned from inheriting Protestant land
A ban imposed on the celebration of the Catholic Mass.
In Ireland, the Catholic faith was banned by the English invaders under Cromwell’s leadership in 1649. With puritanical hatred, the churches were desecrated and closed, and a bounty of ten pounds was placed on the head of every priest. ‘Priest Hunters’ were employed to seek out and arrest Catholic priests, who were subsequently hung, drawn and quartered by the authorities. Moreover, any person caught hiding or giving sustenance to a priest would be hanged immediately. But the faith was strong among the Irish people, and Sunday was still the day when you were obliged to obey the word of God rather than the laws of the English government against what was seen as the ‘True Church’. Often rising from their beds in the middle of the night the family prepared themselves for a long, cold, silent walk in the darkness they would follow narrow, almost hidden trails towards mountains, forests, or bogland, where they would disappear from sight among thickets, trees, and bushes. In this hidden place Irish men, women, and children would kneel on the ground before a massive rock, while others would stand guard, watching for the approach of English troops. A curtain of sorts would be pulled around this makeshift altar, from behind which could be heard the voices of a man and a boy preparing to celebrate the Mass. On the altar would be placed a book, a tablecloth, wine, water, and bread, but none could see those making the preparations and, therefore, could not be forced to identify the person offering them the Eucharist.
Silence prevailed in the darkness with the cries of young children being muffled by the hands of their mothers, while the Mass continued. After the consecration, a line forms quietly behind a protruding rock near the sanctuary curtain. Each takes a turn kneeling on the cold stone, as a voice says, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.” A hand reaches out from behind the veil and places a Communion Host on every tongue. The, After the reading of the Last Gospel, most scatter in different directions to escape detection. A few stay behind to have their confessions heard. Afterward, only a boy and a man remain, hiding any evidence of what occurred. With the man’s blessing, the youngster heads off into the woods. Finally, the man, his priest’s kit stowed safely under his arm, slips into the forest, disappearing like a thief in the night. Such places are scattered throughout Ireland and are often found hidden deep within lush, green forests in remote mountain areas. Ramblers and adventurers occasionally stumble across what appear to be ancient open-air amphitheaters that have been carved into the mountainside and are the remains of Penal Mass sites and represent the vicious persecution of Irish Catholics by English Protestants from 1536 to 1829, during which the Faith was outlawed and priests hunted down like criminals. It was in these places that the Mass was celebrated in secret for the faithful during several periods in Irish history. But it was at these Mass Rocks that the light of the Faith was kept lit, even in the darkest of times, and for many Irish people these sites still represent ‘Holy Ground’.
England’s long and torturous persecution of the Irish began when Pope Adrian IV bestowed Ireland on King Henry II in 1155 after the King promised to reform the Church there. Almost four-hundred years later King Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and launched a terrible attack upon the Catholic Church under English control. In 1536 the Irish Parliament followed the Parliament in England by enacting the ‘Act of Supremacy’, which made Henry head of the Church and brought the Protestant Reformation to Ireland. Many of the Irish chieftains accepted this new situation, but the Catholic clergy and the majority of the ordinary people of Ireland rejected the ‘Act’. After Henry’s death and the succession of his son, Edward VI, the English Church began to attack the Catholic Faith in two main areas. Belief in ‘transubstantiation’ was declared a heresy and was punishable by death, and this attack upon the Holy Eucharist gave parliament courage to pass laws that would exterminate the Mass from England, and from Ireland. This assault, however, was interrupted with the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter. It was a sign of hope when she came to the throne and repealed the ‘Act of Supremacy’ in 1554 and began punishing those who had spread the ‘heretical teachings’ of Protestantism throughout her kingdom.
Unfortunately, Mary’s reign was a short one and in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth. The ‘Act of Supremacy’ was reinstated and Queen Elizabeth was made Supreme Head of the Church in England. The great effort to make England a Protestant country continued, but all efforts to remove the religion and culture from Ireland was greatly resisted. Undeterred, the Queen commanded that the Irish be brought under control and submit to her authority, allowing the Protestant religion to replace the Catholic faith of the people. She was, furthermore, prepared to use the strongest measures to enforce her will, including the gibbet, the rack, the axe, and the sword. In 1560 the Parliament in Dublin was persuaded to pass the ‘act of Supremacy’, making Elizabeth head of the Irish Church, and the ‘Act of Uniformity’, abolishing the Mass. Any person that continued to accept the Pope’s claim to spiritual jurisdiction in Ireland was considered to be a traitor, and any priest that was caught saying Mass would equally receive severe punishment for their treachery. In addition, any Catholic who refused to attend the new Protestant services would be subject to severe financial penalties for their disobedience.
Elizabeth and her advisers were convinced that the surest way to eliminate the Mass from the religious life of the Irish was to eliminate the priests who served them. But, despite imprisoning, starving, torturing and executing these men, the English authorities could not stop the tide of new priests rushing to replace them from various seminaries established in Europe. Young Irish men wanting to train for the priesthood attended seminaries in France, Italy, and Spain that were specifically set up to provide priests for the persecuted Catholics of Ireland. In the knowledge that their lives would constantly be in grave danger, these men returned to Ireland. It was the zeal and determination of such men that brought them to the fore as leaders of the great ‘Counter-Reformation’ that would recover Ireland and other nations for the Catholic faith.
Those priests returning to Ireland now found an ‘underground’ network of supporters ready to assist and sustain them in their work. They hid the priests in their homes and provided them with all their materials needs. By using secret places and subterfuges these priests were able to offer the sacraments to the faithful in various private houses. However, there arose a need for places where the sacraments could be delivered to larger groups of people, and thus arose the use of Mass Rocks. Because of the continuing persecution of all Catholics, the banned sacraments would have to be celebrated outdoors on some remote mountainside or field. In secret, these places were prepared and the faithful were clandestinely notified of their location, where they would have their Confessions heard, celebrate Mass, and receive the Blessed Sacrament. The practice spread quickly throughout Ireland and almost every parish in Ireland can lay claim to a Mass Rock from these times, especially in Northern Ireland where the ‘Plantation’ of farmers took hold. As you can imagine, these secret locations varied. They were far from the main roads, hidden on rugged mountainsides, or in rough wooded glens, or even in noted landmarks like the ruins of forts, abbeys, and churches. Many locations were sited near streams so that no tracks would be left for the enemy to follow. At the same time, however, some locations were close to one another so that the priest and people could move during bad weather to give respite from the elements. There were some locations, also, that were hidden away in naturally formed grottoes, while nearby others were ‘holy wells’ that might be used for baptisms.
By the end of the sixteenth century, Protestantism had become the established religion of England. While, in Ireland, it was clear to the authorities that all their attempts to impose the new religion were a failure, because of the strength of local resistance. Queen Elizabeth was succeeded after her death by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England in 1603. Under the rule of James, and his son, Charles I, despite the latter’s efforts to seek toleration for Catholics, there was little improvement in the lives of Irish Catholics. But, after the defeat of English forces at the ‘Battle of Benburb’, the Irish people once again gained a taste of religious freedom and their ‘Mass Houses’ were tolerated and the priests were permitted to go about their business without hindrance. This, however, was only a brief respite and quickly ended when the rabidly anti-Catholic Puritans took control of the English government, and the subsequent arrival of Oliver Cromwell to Ireland in 1846 heralded the greatest onslaught yet on Irish Catholics. They were to be shown no mercy under Cromwell’s rule, with entire towns razed to the ground and populations massacred. There were entire areas of fertile Irish land confiscated and given to Cromwell’s soldiers, Protestant adventurers and farmers, and Cromwell’s stated aim was to ensure that there would be no Catholic Irish east of the Shannon River. He gave them the option of going “to Hell or to Connacht.” All Catholic clergy were ordered to leave Ireland and put to death if they refused alongside any who would give them shelter. As a result, it is said – “To such an extent was the persecution carried that Catholic churches were soon in ruins, a thousand priests driven into exile, and not a single bishop remained in Ireland but the old and helpless Bishop of Kilmore.” Again, the use of ‘Mass Rocks’ became common and the faithful kept watch for the approach of ‘Priest Hunters’ and English soldiers. there were occasions, however, when the soldiers came, catching the worshippers unawares as they prayed and slaughtered them, splattering the blood of men, women, and children across the makeshift altars.
When the ‘Williamite War’ in Ireland came to an end after the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, the subsequent ‘Treaty of Limerick’ promised Catholics the freedom to exercise their religion, but very soon afterward the Protestant Lords and lawmakers tore up these guarantees. They persuaded the King, William of Orange, that implementing a substantial number of anti-Catholic laws, known as the ‘Penal Laws’ were the only way to subdue the native Irish. Some of these laws have been outlined above and under their authority, the Catholic faith was banned and the priests exiled under pain of death. Life was not much better for the ordinary Catholic Irish who could not teach or attend Catholic schools and were excluded from serving in Parliament, the legal profession or the armed forces. They could not vote, carry arms, own a horse worth more than five pounds, and could not act as a guardian or marry a Protestant. More importantly, they could not acquire land or hold a mortgage, but if the wife or son of a Catholic should become Protestant all things changed in their favour.
There have been many thoughts about what purpose the ‘Penal Laws’ actually served. Some have argued that they were not intended to exterminate Catholicism but to neutralise them as a political threat to the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. Others have argued that their purpose was, in fact, to eliminate Catholicism from Ireland. Nevertheless, both parties agree that the ‘Laws’ failed in part because of the remarkable tenacity of the Catholic clergy and laity, and to the difficulties encountered in enforcing them over a period of time when sectarian passions grew and then fell away. It is my opinion, however, that the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland had intended for the ‘Laws’ to completely eradicate Catholicism but, because of the resistance encountered, were forced to settle for them being a support for their own power and privilege. Meanwhile, renewed oppression caused to adapt once again. ‘Mass Rocks’ became the centre of worship and, because they were denied official education, young Irish Catholics were taught literature and religion in secret hedge schools that were often taught by fugitive priests. At the same time, the Irish Catholic peasantry formed themselves into secret agrarian societies to protect themselves against the Protestant landlords and their punitive rents.
The people again attended the ‘Mass Rocks’ to receive the sacraments and have their faith sustained. Ordinations were also held in such places, despite the prohibitions, when Bishops with several other attendees laid hands on the priests to avoid the discovery of member of the Catholic episcopacy. These leaders of the Church would wander on foot, dressed in rough clothing that made them almost indiscernible from the peasantry among whom they lived, ate and slept in broken down turf cabins, or holes in the ground covered with turf roofs. Masses were now often confined to the secret ‘Mass Rocks’ in lonely valleys or the hidden places on the hillsides, and once again these places proved to be essential in sustaining the ‘old faith’ in Ireland. By 1730, the active persecution of Roman Catholics in Ireland had greatly decreased and it became clear, even to the most hardened Protestants in the land, that the ‘Penal Laws’ had been a total failure. In 1829 ‘Catholic Emancipation’ came to Ireland and the faithful were finally permitted to use their ‘Mass Houses’ without fear. But, even after emancipation, the ‘Mass Rocks’ continued as the main places to celebrate the sacraments because many of the major Protestant landlords refused to allow Catholic churches to be built on their property. Interestingly, ‘Mass Rocks’ are undergoing a bit of a revival as people visit them as a place of pilgrimage and pray there for those men, women, and children who kept the faith alive in our beloved Ireland.
For any who would like to read more about this particular subject I would recommend ;
S.J. Connolly, Religion, law, and power: the making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760 (Oxford, 1992).
P. Corish, The Catholic community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Dublin, 1981).
H.A. Jefferies, ‘The early penal days: Clogher under the administration of Hugh MacMahon (1701–1715)’, in H.A. Jefferies (ed.), History of the Diocese of Clogher (Dublin, 2005).
Although William Smith O’Brien was very proud of his descent from the great Irish High-King, Brian Boru, he was critical of his ancestors who had traded independence for English titles. William was born in 1803, the son of Sir Edward O’Brien, (Baronet) of Dromoland Castle, in Co. Clare. William’s mother, Lady Charlotte, was the daughter of William Smith, and inherited his Cahirmoyle estate in County Limerick. Sir Edward’s eldest son, Lucius, was the natural heir to Dromoland Castle and his father’s title, but Cahirmoyle was given to William, the second son, who unofficially added ‘Smith’ to his name. While Sir Edward strongly believed that William, as his second son, should earn his own living, the young man wanted an allowance paid to him until he came of age to take over Cahirmoyle.
Strangely, Sir Edward opposed the 1800 Act of Union and consistently supported Catholic claims in parliament, but his wife, Lady O’Brien, was a strong evangelical and proselytising Protestant. During William’s early years she taught her son that the Pope was Antichrist and that the Catholic population must be converted to Protestantism. As a result, William went through an intense evangelical phase of life before he discovered that many Catholics were often more devout and good-living than those extreme Protestants who constantly condemned them.
When William attained the age of eight years he was sent by his parents to school in England. From that time, until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, he returned home to Clare only for the Christmas holidays. From his ‘private school’ at Willing, in Sussex, William moved on to Harrow. Although he quickly proved that he was above average in ability, he became disgusted by the ‘fagging’ system employed at the school, which made young boys the virtual slaves of their elders. The demands of the older boys constantly interfered with a pupil’s schoolwork and could earn the unfortunate ‘fag’ a thrashing from his teacher for his bad school work. Not surprisingly, William failed to develop any personal interest in learning. Thankfully, William was saved from Harrow by his father moving to Orleans with his family as an economy measure. Although he found his French tutors more stimulating than those at Harrow, William soon found himself back at private schools in England. Among these he attended the evangelical establishments of the Reverends Scott and Bradley, which caused William to reach a high pitch of religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm would, however, completely disappear by the time he reached the age of seventeen and entered Trinity College.
William had a flair for the classics, but he still had to work hard for his first examination at Trinity and achieved a first-class pass. In his second year of his course, however, he allowed himself to be seduced by social side of university life. He spent his evenings playing cards and drinking port wine, before he would stagger back to his rooms in the early morning hours. At this time, William also refused to attend chapel and incurred upon himself a series of punishments. But, he enjoyed the penalty of memorising Greek poetry and transcribing Euclid’s theorems, which only encouraged him to continue his boycott of the chapel. It was just good luck and the good offices of his tutor, a brilliant mathematician, that prevented him from being ‘sent down’ by the end of term.
Because he was unable to gain a first-class-honours in his next examination, William deliberately failed his second test in an effort to avoid appearing to be second-rate. He refused to answer easy questions, and this caused him to drop to seventh grade. Naturally, his parents were not amused at this failure and they kept him at Dromoland for the next year. At home, William read more generally in Sir Edward’s well-stocked library and diverted himself by visiting local landowners, whose regular habit of imbibing quantities of port wine reminded him of his time among the undergraduates of Trinity College. Despite his fervent claim that he was always an Irish nationalist, it was probably during this period of his life that he had more opportunity than he ever had, at school or university in England, to study Ireland and its culture. Nevertheless, although achieving high honours was now impossible, William returned to Cambridge and idly came to grips with the great questions of existence without giving up his social pleasures. It appears that he eventually reached the conclusion that because religion could not be proven by reason alone he should adhere to simple, traditional belief. Therefore, for the rest of his life, O’Brien maintained a middle-of-the-road tolerant Anglicanism.
Sir Edward had hoped that his youngest son would earn a handsome living as a barrister, in London or Dublin and, for a time, William obediently attended Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he tenaciously studied his legal texts. Then Sir Edward decided that it might be advantageous considered returning William for the ‘pocket borough’ of Ennis, which before the 1832 Reform Bill was shared by the local O’Brien and Fitzgerald families. Although Sir Edward was of the opinion that the law and politics were a good combination, William quickly lost any interest in the law and prepared for parliament by reading politics and political economy. In which he duly graduated in 1826.
After graduating, William took an active part in the wild celebrations that spread through the town of Cambridge. When the student revellers erupted into the town itself, O’Brien, too drunk to know what he was doing, assaulted a university proctor who was attempting to restrain him. He was very fortunate to avoid serious punishment from the academic authorities, but William was now ordered home for the second time by his outraged parents. Sir Edward was now completely convinced that his youngest son lacked both the temperament and the industry to succeed at the ‘bar’.
Left with nothing to do, William became frustrated and miserable. To pile further hurt upon his son, Sir Edward refused to pay a marriage settlement to the wealthy Earl of Kingston caused William’s engagement to the earl’s daughter to fall through. Furthermore, his father also refused to finance a grand European tour for a son who had strayed from the course and standards that had been laid down for him. William was, however, permitted to visit Dublin and, in that city, he was to find his life changed. It was there that he joined Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. Although his father, Sir Edward, and other leading Protestants had long supported the right of Catholics to sit in parliament, but it was rare for a Protestant to actually become a member of the Association. Although William did not attend any meetings, his membership of the Association did him immense good in Ireland, and especially in his home county of Clare.
When a general election was called in 1828, despite his misgivings Sir Edward placed William in the borough of Ennis, while his elder brother Lucius was elected for County Clare. Now, with a definite purpose in his life, William threw himself wholeheartedly into parliamentary work. His maiden speech on the complex subject of paper money was made soon after his arrival at Westminster and, although badly delivered, according to his own account, the speech earned William widespread respect. In his autobiography he insisted that, though confident in many ways, he found public speaking to be very painful. But, eventually, through sheer will-power he learned to address large audiences, while he always kept notes close to avoid any lapses of memory.
When ‘The East India Company’ charter came up for renewal, William carefully researched the issue and produced a pamphlet on the subject, which impressed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. As a result, William was appointed to the committee on the ‘East India Company’, which was a great honour for such an inexperienced politician. Finally, Sir Edward had something to make him proud of his son. William, however, spoiled this new relationship with his father by not always voting for the Tories, as Sir Edward wanted him to. It was made plain to William, therefore, that he must vote for the government or resign his seat.
The political issue of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ had now reached its peak and Sir Edward’s friend, Vesey Fitzgerald, because he had taken up a post in the Tory government of Peel and Wellington, was forced to recontest his parliamentary seat for County Clare. Although Fitzgerald was a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he had now joined a government that was opposed to such a measure, and ‘The Catholic Association’ sought an opponent to run against him. William was, of course, invited to stand but he, naturally, refused. Finally, Daniel O’Connell himself took up the challenge and defeated the combined forces of the O’Briens and Fitzgeralds in this constituency. William, now in parliament, took no part in the campaign but quickly claimed to have been one of the first parliamentarians to recognise that O’Connell’s election must be followed by ‘Catholic Emancipation’. At the same time, however, William wrote scathing article concerning O’Connell’s intervention in County Clare. When a passionate supporter of O’Connell, Thomas Steele, replied venomously to the article, O’Brien challenged him to a duel. Neither man, however, was injured in the resulting fight.
When the Tory government led Peel and Wellington passes the ‘An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects’ in 1829, it allowed William in good conscience to support, as his father had demanded, the now-embattled Prime Minister. Now, with O’Connell finally in parliament, William kept his distance from the great man. In his opinion, after achieving Emancipation, O’Connell should have concentrated his efforts on ‘Irish Reform’ and not the repeal of the union. Therefore, in an effort to politically outflank O’Connell, William sought an Irish ‘Poor Law’, demanding outdoor relief for the weak and helpless. O’Brien’s bill on the subject, however, lapsed when he conceded his parliamentary seat in 1831.
The bitter quarrel between the Dromoland O’Briens and O’Connell’s supporters continued to fester. William’s brother Lucius was defeated in the 1830 general election by O’Connell’s supporter The O’Gorman Mahon. It was William, however, who organised the subsequent evidence that had Mahon removed from his seat for electoral corruption. In the resultant by-election, Sir Edward himself stood for Parliament but was no more successful than his son Lucius. The grave insults to Sir Edward made by O’Gorman Mahon’s brother provoked William to fight another duel. Although William escaped his opponent’s pistol, he could not avoid his mother’s fury at what she saw was his unchristian conduct. Henceforth, William made every effort to moderate his future rhetoric.
By the 1830s parliamentary reform had become the leading issue at Westminster and sitting for a ‘pocket borough’, William found himself to be in a weak position. While campaigning in Ireland, he missed one of the vital votes on the issue. While he favoured reform in general, William thought the Whig bill was inconsistent and too radical. He believed that some seats for good candidates who were unlikely to obtain sufficient votes should be retained. But, O’Brien deplored the Whig acceptance of the Tory refusal to allow an increase of Irish electorates according to existing population. With Vesey Fitzgerald assuming the Ennis seat at the 1831 election, William, after a promising parliamentary start, now found himself once again without an occupation. He was, however, saved from his frustration by the ‘Terry Alt’ outbreak of violence in County Clare, which was caused by increased rents and anti-Catholic proselytisers. The ‘Terry Alt Movement’ of 1828-31 has been one of the least studied of the pre-Famine rural revolts, partly because it was dwarfed by the great anti-tithe agitation with which it temporarily shared the limelight at the outset of the 1830s.
The name, “Terry Alt” itself is obscure. According to some the name arose from the marauders, perhaps more out of sport than malice, being in the habit of crying out- “Well done, Terry! Well done, Terry Alt!’” At its peak the outbreak was similar to a volcanic eruption, with a gradual accumulation of pressure before a great explosion in the late winter and spring of 1830-31, followed by a rapid subsidence into an orderly peace. But, during its explosive phase, in its heartland of County Clare, the movement was marked by a level of activity and a degree of popular mobilisation that were unprecedented.
What caused the rise of this movement appears to have been a rich and complex mixture of economic distress, sectarian hostilities, and political antagonisms. Formal parliamentary politics had a very unusual impact on the outbreak which, in its characteristic form of protest was both open and communal to an extraordinary extent. Although secret-nocturnal activity remained important throughout the outbreak, there were great daytime gatherings of diggers and sod-breakers, who were cheered on by large, enthusiastic crowds.
In his autobiography, O’Brien shows that he sympathised with ‘Terry’ objectives, but also saw the need for law and order. While other landlords fled to the cities and towns seeking refuge, William took the lead in fortifying Dromoland Castle and organising a defensive posse that consisted of his brothers and loyal tenants. He successfully persuaded his father to address the people in one of the ‘Terry’ strongholds, and on one occasion he personally led a party of dragoons in pursuit of a group of insurgents. Outpacing his allies, with only a small pistol he confronted the ‘Terries’ and caused them all to run away. Subsequently, when some of the ringleaders were captured and faced court, O’Brien did his duty as a fearless juryman, and ensured several transportation sentences were enforced. For a period of time he lived alone, unprotected and unmolested, in a cottage at Inchiquin, which lay at the centre of ‘Terry Alt’ power. He proved that although the ‘Terries’ were ruthless against traitors and informers of their own class, they accepted the gentry upholding the existing law of the land.
Eventually he moved to his grandfather’s estates in Limerick, and he was triumphantly elected to parliament for that county. It was a seat he was to retain until he was expelled from the Houses of Parliament after his insurrection in 1848.
William Smith O’Brien’s half-cocked rebellion of July 1848 ended in dismal failure, and the leaders were quickly rounded up. He was found guilty of sedition, convicted and sentenced to death despite the absolute fiasco into which that rising in Tipperary fell. Nevertheless, he had committed high treason and was rather fortunate that his death sentence was later commuted to one of transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, had decided that the best policy in regard to the “Young Irelanders” was not to make them martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom. It was much better, he felt, to send the prisoners into gentlemanly oblivion. While the Governor of Van-Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, preferred that the prisoners should be treated as normal convicts, he was obliged to offer O’Brien a ‘ticket-of-leave’. William, however, initially refused the offer because it had a condition attached to it, which would prevent him making any attempt to escape. Thus, while his fellow-revolutionaries, Patrick O’Donohoe, Thomas Meagher and Terence MacManus, set free immediately, William was moved to Maria Island, which represented the penal settlement’s remotest outpost. So, one year after the failure of his rebellion, William Smith O’Brien was sitting in a small cottage, isolated from the other convicts. He now found himself with enough leisure time to write a long-postponed autobiography. There were not many leaders of armed rebellions in Ireland, during the centuries of English domination, that had the opportunity to look back on their actions in the years that followed. But, an attempt by O’Brien to escape his confinement was badly bungled and, in August 1850, he was transferred to Port Arthur.
William now found himself housed in a cottage in Port Arthur, which has been preserved by the city authorities as a historic site. The cottage itself remains a pleasant enough building painted in a bright pumpkin-colour. The front rooms are set back from a pillared porch and the house has a garden at the rear. From its position on a ridge the cottage occupies a commanding site above the main penitentiary buildings and parade ground. Just off shore in Carnarvon Bay, O’Brien could see the ‘Isle of the Dead’, which was a burial ground for the convicts, as well as the penal colony’s officials, soldiers and their wives.
O’Brien was fortunate to be spared the worst horrors of convict life in Van Diemen’s Land, and the greatest hardship he had to endure at Port Arthur was his isolation. But he had books to occupy himself and he tended to the garden, as well as starting a journal for Lucy. William also took advantage of the time he had to correspond with his family and friends. These letters and O’Brien’s journal show the man to have had integrity, sensitivity and an unswerving patriotism for his country. His sense of patriotism combined a ‘gentleman’s’ sense of honour with an unshakeable conviction that his country’s cause was sacred. He wrote to his wife at this time, saying “No holier cause than that in which I was engaged ever led a patriot into the field or conducted him to the scaffold.” She, however, was less enthusiastic than her husband about the cause of Ireland’s freedom.
After spending three months in Port Arthur, William was urged by his sympathisers in Hobart to apply for a ‘ticket-of-leave’, which he did, successfully. ‘The Young Irelanders’ in general began, at this time, to benefit from the local distaste for England’s policy of transportation and they themselves had formed movements that sought representation for the people. In popular newspapers like the ‘Hobart Town Courier’ and the ‘Launceston Examiner’, the ‘Young Irelanders were described as patriotic heroes, who may have lacked good judgement in their actions. Nevertheless, this was a marked contrast to the vitriolic outpourings against ‘The Young Irelanders’ published in the ‘The Times of London’. Such was O’Brien’s standing in Hobart that he received a popular ovation when he arrived there, but nervous authorities would not allow him to settle in Hobart and moved him on to New Norfolk. William took lodgings in ‘Elwin’s Hotel’, (now the ‘Glen Derwent’) a pleasant rural inn on the river Derwent, and remained there for two and a half years, until he moved to Richmond. It was a matter of government policy that the ‘Young Ireland’ prisoners were required to live in separate districts, and Thomas Francis Meagher resided in Campbell Town and Ross, while John Mitchel lived at Nant Cottage, Bothwell.
On a regular basis, funds were sent to Smith O’Brien from his Cahirmoyle estate in Ireland. As it was with most of the other ‘Young Irelanders’ who had been transported, private means greatly alleviated the hardships brought on by their exile. Fortuitously, during the Crown’s proceedings against him, O’Brien had placed his estate in trust to forestall any possible confiscation of his assets. But, William’s correspondence from New Norfolk demonstrates that he punctiliously attended to his day-to-day business.
The ‘Young Irelanders’ had been heartened and inspired by the French Revolution in 1848, because the revolutionaries were able to rid the land of King Louis Philippe, and to keep existing property intact. The Irish leaders wanted the same result through their middle-class revolution, which would act as a strong barrier against a possible peasant uprising. But, this was a subtlety which the British government, unfortunately failed to grasp at the time. They did not quite accept that Smith O’Brien was not another leader simply speaking republican doctrine. On 20th August 1850, Smith wrote to an English supporter of Young Ireland, T. Chisholm Anstey, saying – “As for personal loyalty to the sovereign, I am not aware that I have ever during the course of my life uttered a word disrespectful to the queen and though in the event of a national war between Great Britain and Ireland I should have acquiesced in the establishment of a republic as the only form of government which circumstances have permitted. Yet my political principles have never been republican and I should have much preferred to any novel experiment a restoration of the ancient constitution of Ireland: the Queen, Lords and Commons of Ireland.”
Smith O’Brien had been badly disillusioned by the sheer inadequacy of the British Government’s policies towards Ireland during the Famine years, and that to prevent further disasters he wanted Ireland to be self-governed under the Crown. He had many harsh things to say about the government’s policies during the Famine and suggested that if the British Government had not caused it, they at least encouraged its effects on the Irish people. He claimed that Ireland’s people were now undergoing greater loss of life from British mismanagement of the famine than might result from the outbreak of revolution. But, Smith O’Brien’s had his critics, and they accused him of having a total disregard for the people by expecting them to take part in an uprising after suffering years of starvation. It appears that he had forgotten that history has taught us that successful revolutions take place, not when things are at their worst for the oppressed but, when they are getting better. It would, however, be a long time after 1848 that things really began to improve for the Irish people.
Naturally, on reaching ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, O’Brien’s first impressions of the Tasmanian countryside were not favourable, especially when suffering from serious homesickness. This new land may have had its beauty spots, mountains and flowing streams, but none as beautiful as the valleys, loughs, hills and forests of Ireland, many of which had been immortalised in song. Anyone who has read his correspondence from exile can see how much he was influenced by romance of his homeland, rather than attempt a totally objective observation of the magnificence of the semi-wilderness that was the Tasmanian bush. At the same time, he preferred to remain oblivious to the spiritual significance with which the aboriginal people of that land had invested their environment. But, because he was a landowner himself, William was extremely interested in farming conditions of his new home and local animal husbandry. At one point, he even considered following John Mitchel’s example by investing in a farm and bringing out his family to live there. Ultimately, he decided against taking his wife and several children out to this far-off land. He wrote bitterly, “Nothing has yet shaken my determination to abstain in whatever sacrifice to myself from placing my wife and children under the control of the brutes who govern the prisoner population of this colony.”
There is little doubt that O’Brien did suffer because of his separation from his family and friends in Ireland, but he was not short of good company and a lively social life in Tasmania. The journal that he kept and the many letters he wrote record the routine life that a country gentleman expects to live. He spent his time studying classical authors and wrote of his impressions. William also rode and walked about the countryside, and went to St Matthew’s Anglican church, where he struck up a good friendship with the Revd. Seaman. For a short time, he moved to the Avoca region in Tasmania and became tutor to the young sons of Dr. Brock, an Irish naval surgeon.
Although, at first, William felt cold-shouldered by the local gentry, by November 1852 he was able to write to his wife of “visits to the settlers in whose houses I feel that I am not only welcome but a cherished guest!” The home of the Fenton family, especially, became almost a second home for O’Brien. Captain Fenton had served in the Indian army but, like O’Brien himself, he was Irish and Protestant. His wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters found that they had much in common with William, including a shared taste for literature and music. ‘The Young Ireland’ movement had stimulated Irish balladeers to produce a prolific crop of patriotic verses and song, to which Smith O’Brien no doubt introduced his hostess and her daughters. In September 1852 wrote to his own wife, Lucy, and asked her to send “a copy of Bunting’s Irish melodies and the quarto edition of the Songs of the Nation which I have promised to Mrs. Fenton.”
Captain Fenton, however, had a more substantial reason for cultivating the company of William O’Brien. He was a member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council and he was a leading advocate for Tasmanian self-government. Knowing that O’Brien had represented his native Limerick in the House of Commons in London for seventeen years, Fenton realised he would have invaluable expertise to give him. In later years Fenton would become Speaker of the Tasmanian Legislature and was a member of the committee that drafted a constitution for Tasmania. O’Brien for his part drafted a model constitution and worked on his ‘Reflections in Exile’, published after his release as ‘Principles of Government’.
Supporters and well-wishers in Ireland, England and America, campaigned ceaselessly for O’Brien to be pardoned. He was a celebrated figure in many countries and, eventually, the British Government granted him a conditional pardon in the summer of 1854. He wrote to his wife at this time, rejoicing in the fact that he had been pardoned and that he had not been asked to retract or apologise for his past actions. “I had firmly resolved”, he wrote, “not to say or write or do anything which could be interpreted as a confession on my part that I consider myself a “criminal” in regard to the transactions of 1848.”
Before Smith O’Brien left Tasmania after spending five-years there, he was honorary guest at a series of functions and he was presented with congratulatory speeches in both Hobart and Launceston. In Melbourne ‘Long John’ O’Shaunessy, who would later be Sir John and Premier of the State of Victoria, organised a testimonial dinner for O’Brien and his friends. At the same time there were various local communities who honoured him, including those people who lived in the Bendigo goldfields.
In 1856, William’s final pardon came through, expedited because so many of those serving with distinction in the Crimean campaign were Irish. He was now free to return to Ireland, after having spent the intervening years in Brussels. When he came home at last, he found himself once again honoured and feted, receiving a hero’s welcome from Irish Americans when he went to the United States, where he met President James Buchanan. But, sadly, O’Brien’s final years were less happy. His health failed him and in 1861 his beloved wife died. Three years after this tragedy, in 1864, he himself died at the age of sixty. He was subsequently buried in Rathronan churchyard in County Limerick.
Six years after his death, a statue which stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, just north of the O’Connell monument, was unveiled. John Martin, MP for Meath, another veteran ‘Young Irelander’ and former Tasmanian exile, performed the ceremony. Neither O’Brien’s son and heir, Edward, nor Lord Inchiquin, who was head of the family, was present for the ceremony. While in exile, Smith O’Brien had insisted that his children should be educated in such a manner that they would take pride in their Irish heritage and serve their country, and yet, he had written to Lucy, “I have never endeavoured to force patriotic feeling upon the minds of our children”. Although his son, Edward, appears to have disagreed with his father’s politics, William’s spirit of service was nobly carried on by his daughter, Charlotte Grace. She devoted her life to improving conditions of travel and settlement for thousands of young Irish women emigrating to the United States, at a time when social services were either minimal or completely non-existent.
R. Davis, The Young Ireland Movement (Dublin 1987).
B. Touhill, William Smith O’Brien and his Irish Revolutionary Companions in Penal Exile (Missouri 1981).