Friday 24 November 2017

Review: The Archbishops, Bishops and Priests who served in the Archdiocese of Dublin in the 17th Century by J Anthony Gaughan

Kingdom Books, €15

Fergus O'Donoghue, SJ

This short book (the first in a series of four about Dublin clergy) is far more than just a list. It takes us back to a time when there was a lot of risk and little honour in being Archbishop of Dublin, and when the daily ministry of priests could be dangerous.

There were bitter disputes between some diocesan clergy and some religious orders, but the humble Irish Catholic Church of the 17th Century had little time to spend asserting its rights and privileges. It had to forget about its dignity and concentrate on survival.

The one certainty in the life of Irish Catholic clergy was that the civil authorities did not want them. Policy, as set by Dublin Castle under instructions from London, varied from reluctant toleration to outright persecution. Dublin was a very small city, with a population that was increasingly Anglicised and Protestant, so it was one of the most uncomfortable places to be a Catholic priest.

Life was easier in the rural parts of the diocese, especially in Co Wicklow, but it was never completely secure: between 1624 and 1678, six official proclamations ordered the expulsion of Catholic priests from Ireland. The authorities always wanted to keep an eye on the Catholic clergy, so a lot of the information published here by Father Gaughan (himself a priest of the diocese) comes from the government's own lists, which read like a very early census.

Dublin Castle administrators, in 1617, were so confident, they thought firm government would suppress Irish Catholicism "within three years". The situation in the 1650s (after Oliver Cromwell's complete conquest of Ireland) was so bad that there were hardly enough Dublin Catholics to support three parishes and there was only one diocesan priest in the city.

The Leinster Synod was held in the woods of Glenmalure in 1652. Roger Begg was "a prisoner, ordered for transportation 1654". Father Stephen, a Capuchin, worked in Swords from 1649 to 1658, and ministered chiefly at night and preached in Irish.

There was no possibility of training priests in Ireland, so Irish seminarians had to study in Catholic countries and there is a very international ring to the list of places where they were ordained: Ghent, Lisbon, Louvain, Seville and even Olmutz (now in the Czech Republic).

Once the young priests came home, their ministry often depended on the support of their families, so we read about James Eustace, who "resided with Colonel Richard Eustace in the parish of Ballymore Eustace" in 1697. Another priest "celebrated Mass in Barnewell's Castle at Bremore". Most of the clergy did not live in such comfortable surroundings: Patrick Luttrell lived "at William Daly's at the Sign of the Sun in Cooke Street".

There is so little information about many priests that they need only one or two lines, such as "present at Diocesan Synod 1688" or "stated to have ministered in Tipper and Haynestown 1630". Blackrock, Co Dublin, was Newtown-on-the-Strand. Booterstown, Donnybrook and Dundrum were one parish, which was almost entirely rural. Owen Tee, who was reported to be "living in the mountains" in 1697, probably experienced more of rural life than he really wanted.

Archbishop Peter Talbot was a former Jesuit, who loved controversy. His family owned Malahide Castle, but his aristocratic background did not save him from imprisonment in Dublin Castle, where he died in 1680. His successor, Archbishop Patrick Russell, was arrested after the Battle of the Boyne and died in Dublin Castle in 1692.

Edmund Byrne was consecrated as Archbishop in Newgate Gaol in 1707 and kept such a low profile that, after his second arrest in 1718, he was released because the authorities were unaware of his identity. By then, the Penal Laws were almost complete, but Catholics were worshipping less furtively than before and there were "Mass houses" in many parts of the diocese.

This book tells us the stories of many good priests, who ministered in very hard times. Their Church survived because it learned to be humble, to be good at listening to what people needed and to be very adaptable. This is a lesson that needs to be learned again.

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