The 17th of March as most know is the feast of St. Patrick in the Catholic Church. The story is well known, that Patrick was a Roman in Britain, who did not take the faith seriously and dabbled in various adventures, which led to him being caught by slave traders and sold into slavery in Ireland. He became more devout, went back to England persevered in the faith and was made a Bishop. From there he returned to Ireland and evangelized the whole of the emerald isle. Dom Prosper Guéranger has this to say about St. Patrick:
There are some who have been entrusted with a small tract of the Gentile world; they had to sow the divine seed there, and it yielded fruit more or less according to the dispositions of the people that received it: there are others, again, whose mission is like a rapid conquest, that subdues a whole nation, and brings it into subjection to the Gospel. St. Patrick belongs to this second class; and in him we recognize one of the most successful instruments of God’s mercy to mankind.
As such while England was pagan, and the Franks and Germans had not heard the name of Christ, the island of Ireland was a Catholic nation.
Over the years Ireland would endure much suffering. Henry II (the murderer of St. Thomas Becket) made Ireland a vassal of England, and one of his successors, Edward I, (if you remember Braveheart. Actually don’t remember Braveheart, it has little to do with history), further subjugated the island. However in ensuing years, England was embroiled in the 100 years war in France, and other local controversies, so that its eye was turned away from Ireland, and the Irish ruled themselves for many years. The Norman settlers who first came under Henry II went into decline, and were called “Old English”.
Now, after King Henry VIII made rebellion against the Church (of which I will have more to say soon), he then attempted to institute the Anglican Church in Ireland, and persecuted monasteries and priests who adhered to the Pope and would not obey Henry. King Edward continued Henry’s policy, but with less vigor, as he was busy with rebellions all over England over the new prayerbook, which he put down with brutal force. However with the accession of Queen Mary, a Catholic, the persecutions disappeared.
When Elizabeth rose to the throne things changed. She was not a great Protestant, but a staunch persecutor of Catholics, and she was to become as cruel and uncompromising a tyrant as Henry VIII her father. When Spain and Pope St. Pius V moved against her, and she was officially excommunicated persecution began again in Ireland. Priests were murdered, and she employed assassins to eliminate Irish resistance.
The Irish bounced back, and recruited the Spanish for aid against the English. The Spanish taught the Irish tactics and supplied them with matchlocks and gunpowder, but the actual numbers of spanish foot on the ground were more limited. This began the 9 years war, from 1594 to 1603. The Irish won many victories, and this led to further rebellions all over the country. There are a lot of interesting side stories in this account, particularly the earl of Essex’s attempted coup in London, but those are for another day. The breaking point for old Ireland came at the battle of Kinsale, in 1600. The combined Irish and Spanish forces had Elizabeth’s army pinned down, and held the high ground. It was now a matter of the Spanish forcing them to open battle. The English were sure that they were finished, but then something unexpected happened. The Irish, who were not used to open warfare, made a charge on their own, and failed to heed either their generals or the Spanish troops. Giving up the high ground and fighting in the open, the English were able to defeat the Irish army. The Spanish, highly disappointed by the Irish outcome, declared they would never get involved with Irish affairs again. The English however were over extended and could not muster up the tax money to continue the war. They were already fighting a proxy war in the Netherlands, and on top of that King James, the new monarch, was determined on a peace policy. So the war came to an end.
Mountjoy, the general in command of the English forces, and the victor of Kinsale, had heavily attacked the Irish nobility in Ulster, the home of the O’Neills. The O’Neills of Ulster, the closest relations to the old Irish royalty, also had private armies and much land. Mountjoy destroyed the O’Neil’s inauguration stone. The importance of this for the Irish can’t be underestimated. By destroying the inauguration stone, it was symbolic of destroying the clan itself. In addition King James imposed as part of the peace terms that the O’Nell’s give up their private armies, and submit to English over-lordship rather than Irish. Thus they, as well as a number of other nobles, left the country for Spain or France, to take up service in the conflicts of the Reformation on the continent. In their absence the English made themselves more welcome.
The boiling point for much of the modern history of Ireland began in this period. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England as James I. Though Scotland and England were technically at war, they now shared the same monarch. James’ plan was to smooth over tensions and prepare the way for a band new kingdom. To this end he came up with a new flag, like what is used today in the UK, named after James’ name in Latin (Jacobus) the “Jack” or the Union Jack. Some of James’ Scottish Lords (and later English) had proposed to him a joint Scotch-English venture, to colonize Ulster, Armagh, and other north Irish counties, and this colony is known broadly as the “Ulster Plantation.” The scheme called for Scots and English lords to seize large tracts of land in Ulster, throw the Irish Catholic tenants out, and replace them with Presbyterian tenants from their own estates. The plantation continued throughout James’ reign, and was rife with abuses, tyranny, and outright confiscation of land, raping of Irish women, and persecution of the Church. It went into a new phase when King Charles I ascended the throne in England. For Charles was determined that the Church of England should shine with the beauty of holiness and decided that the Book of Common Prayer should be imposed on all three of his kingdoms, England, Ireland and Scotland.
Amongst the Presbyterian settlers this caused great irritation as it was imposed by the King’s representative in Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, the duke of Stafford. Wentworth was no friend to Catholics or dissenting Protestants, in spite of English Civil war propaganda that alleges that Wentworth was inspired by the Jesuits to bring an Irish army to kill all protestants in England. Virtually all Jesuit conspiracy theories originate from that particular conflict, but that is for another day. In the mean time, Wentworth planned on confiscating even more land from Irish Catholics, until he was drained of resources by a conflict elsewhere.
In Scotland, the Presbyterians entirely revolted against the prayerbook as well as the imposition of Bishops (which they held as popish and blasphemous) and successfully revolted against Charles I. England had no standing army, and Charles had dissolved parliament, preventing him from the funds necessary to raise an efficient army. So he raised an inefficient one and the Scots trounced it (In most respects, this worthy documentary makes the conflict clear).
Irish Catholics, as well as the Old English (who stayed true to the Catholic faith), saw the success of the Scotts in the “Bishops’ wars” (as they were called), and thought they could replicate the success. So they revolted against Charles I, but unlike later movements, not for an independent Ireland, but rather for the king to grant toleration of Catholicism, similar to the Scots. At first the rebellion was limited, but in 1641, when Wentworth was recalled to England (and eventually killed by the Parliament through a bill of attainder), the rebellion fulminated into a full guerrilla war. The last resident O’Neill of ulster, who led the rebellion, could not keep control of his men and they went to settle old scores. In the aftermath of the Ulster Rebellion of 1641, about 3,000 Protestant settlers were killed, and another 6,000 driven from their homes died of starvation and the elements. Now, although this number paled in comparison to the Irish killed by the English over the years, or treated in a worse manner, this both evoked an outcry in England, and the numbers of the dead grew in the telling. It got reported as high as 100,000, then 200,000, with grotesque woodcuts appearing depicting the fate of English settlers, written up and engraved by people who had never even been to Ireland. This fired up a number of protestants as well as a young M.P. for Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell, and would instill a lasting desire for revenge.
This was sidetracked by the English Civil War, which lasted from 1641-1649 collectively and would continue to be fought out in Ireland. I will have much more to say about these in a future podcast, but for our purposes, the English were busy blowing themselves up, to take notice of the Irish.
Thus, the Irish created a confederacy, and numerous Irish veterans of the Continental Wars returned home, including Owen Roe O’Neill (Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill), and his veterans who had fought alongside the Spanish. The confederacy was largely funded and armed by Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, whose mission was to help preserve the rights of the Church in Ireland, preferably under the King’s suzerainty. With his funding Owen Roe O’Neill defeated the Scottish army sent to defend presbyterian colonists in Ireland, and many felt that reconquest of Ireland was just around the corner. Therefore they rejected overtures by the Marquis of Ormonde, the King’s representative in Ireland.
Yet this changed as the English civil war drew to a close on the side of the Parliament, and now the Englishmen begin fortifying their holdings. Ormonde lost Dublin, and other possessions, and came back to Kilkenny hat in hand. On 30 January, 1649, Charles I was executed by the rump parliament, and the outrage pushed the Irish confederates closer to Ormonde. This time all the confederates, even Owen Roe O’Neill who hated Ormonde, agreed to forge a new alliance. Now the invasion came from another front. The royalists fortified the city of Drogheda, which was actually a protestant town. The commander, an English Catholic named Arthur Aston, said “Anyone who could take Drogheda could take hell.” Unfortunately, he hadn’t figured on Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell landed in Ireland with 10,000 men. He had become the de-facto general of the New Model Army, after the resignation of Sir Thomas Fairfax after the king’s execution. More importantly, even the Rump parliament was scared of the power of the army, and wanted it shipped abroad to help them gain more control at home. Ireland was the perfect target, so the new supreme commander of the New Model Army, Cromwell was sent. His task was to establish complete control of the coasts, and work his way inward. Therefore Drogheda, the largest center of royalist resistance, both Catholic and Protestant, became the target. Long remembered as a bloody massacre, Cromwell killed just as many Protestants as he did Catholics there, some 3500 men in total, not to mention a number of civilians. Cromwell tried hard to control his troops, because he didn’t want indiscriminate massacres to tarnish his image and lead to more resistance. He had hoped that a conciliatory policy would bring easy capitulation. Drogheda did not capitulate, and the unfortunate thing for Aston, a veteran of the 30 years war, is that he did not take into account that Drogheda’s stout walls were not designed to withstand cannon, they were from the 1400s. Thus Cromwell reduced the city, and massacred everyone taken in arms, plus some. While certainly the historical reports of tens of thousands of civilians are embellishments (more than likely based on what happens next at Wexford), modern attempts to minimize it have also gone to the other extreme.
The next target was Wexford. This city too, held out, but then realized there was no hope and thus entered peace negotiations. While Cromwell and the mayor of the town negotiated, English troops exploited a tower which was unoccupied connected to the city, and his troops were able to overrun the town. Without any attempt to curb their behavior from Cromwell, the citizens of the town were indiscriminately massacred. Cromwell’s own accounting admits less than 1 and 20 could challenge any property in their homes. It wasn’t rebuilt until the 19th century. Cromwell’s own accounting of Wexford reveals an uneasy conscience, he clearly could not reconcile what had happened in his mind. Nevertheless he made no attempt to control his troops.
The priests in the town were hung or shot on site. This was a common feature of Cromwell’s campaign. When petitioned by the citizens of one town for their religious freedom which Cromwell had promised he would grant, he replied: “If by religious freedom they mean the liberty to exercise the Mass, wherever the Parliament of England hath sway, it shalt not be granted.”
Cromwell’s campaign continued, and the Irish confederacy fell to infighting, tearing themselves apart. Only Owen Roe O’Neill championed a free Catholic Ireland with all settlers expelled, the others wanted to compromise to save their lands or fields without regard to the faith or the condition of the people. He died, and his nephew, Hugh Dubh O’Neill took over. But the confederacy was split too thin, and although Hugh O’Neill defeated Cromwell and his army twice (famously at Clonmel), the advance continued. Cromwell departed for England when Charles II was crowned in Scotland and led an army against the Parliament, but his son-in-law Henry Ireton continued the conflict.
Ultimately the Irish lost. Not only were the English there to say, but they also put in place the Cromwellian Settlement, re-issued later as the Act of settlemnt, which forced all native Irish to land west of the Shannon (which was rocky and unfarmable), while the English took over all the good land. This does not mean every Irishman went west of the Shannon, but those who stayed were little better than slaves, and often sold into slavery for the slightest transgressions. Speaking Gaelic instead of English could bring one death, all the way into the 20th century. The British were able to test the schemes of control they would later use to establish empire around the globe first in Ireland.
Works of Catholic scholars and philosophers were burned, priests murdered, churches destroyed, Douay Rheims bibles were burned and many of the works of the acclaimed Franciscan, Bl. John of Duns (Scotus) were lost for all history. The Mass was made illegal, and often said in the wilderness. There was a short break in these policies under the restored monarchy of Charles II and James II, but whatever little improvement of the Catholic condition resulted, it was undone after the battle of the Boyne when William of Orange was confirmed with his wife (and James II’s daughter Mary) as joint monarchs.The Mass was again illegal, and Ulster was made a thoroughly Protestant area, even though a century before it was the heart of Irish Catholic resistance.
Priests would drive carts dressed as merchants, and on the outside it looked like shelves for their wares, but on the inside the carts contained an altar, and everything necessary for Mass.They would park in the woods and let out the word to all the people, and families woke up at 5 in the morning, and walked for miles to make it to Mass in some forsaken wilderness. Moreover, education of Irish was also illegal. We could talk about more conflicts, but it would belabor the point. Ireland won its struggle for freedom in the early 20th century, after the movement of the Volunteers, thanks to figures like Michael Collins, and Develerra (who later fought each other).
In the meantime however Many Catholics gave up their lives, their property, their family for the true faith, for the Mass (which was in Latin), devotion to the most pure mother of God, and to attain eternal life. Dom Guéranger writes of Ireland:
Her [Ireland] saints are scarcely to be numbered, and went about doing good in almost every country of Europe: her children gave, and are still giving to other countries the faith that she herself received from her beloved patron. And when the 16th century came with its protestantism; when the apostasy of Germany was imitated by England, Scotland, and the whole north of Europe, Ireland stood firm and staunch; no persecution, however cleverly or however cruelly carried on against her, has been able to detach her from the faith taught her by St. Patrick.
He wrote that in 1830, and this continued to be true until a little event 132 years later, an ill portent, otherwise known to us as Vatican II. Irish Catholics survived the Vikings, they survived Anglicanism, Puritanism, and Cromwell. No protestant group, whether missionaries, oppressors or both, could penetrate her Catholicism except for the wolves in sheep’s clothing preaching another Gospel after Vatican II. This destroyed the Church from the inside and out, coupled with clergy sex abuse scandals, and other mismanagement by bishops which have now nearly brought the faith in Ireland to an end.
The Mass of the Church, in Latin, which so many of Ireland’s saints died rather than give up, was taken away, and replaced with the Novus Ordo. Her Churches have emptied, the country is given to secularism and immorality. Even abortion was legalized, under a Catholic president. One of the last remaining Jesuit Churches are being sold in Ireland (read here,) and liturgical abuse and heterodoxy are completely ignored by the clergy, if not actively pushed by them. And amongst the Irish in this country, St. Patrick’s day has degenerated into pagan festivals of green beer, secular parades, where our bishops even relax lenten disciplines in order to do what? Not to glory God. Cardinal’s preside over parades featuring gay pride marchers, another manifestation of the in-your-face homosexual movement, and blithely support every outrage against the faith in the name of “St. Patrick.” Not only would St. Patrick be ashamed, so are 1500 years of Irish martyrs, saints and holy nuns and monks! St. Patrick pray for the restoration of the faith!
Also note an audiobook on St. Patrick by Noah Moerbeek, who has been a generous benefactor in the past:
Catholic Audiobook: The Life of St. Patrick