Persecution of Catholicism in Ireland: Letter of Fr Richard Conway, 1611

The following letter was sent by Fr Richard Conway SJ (1573-1626) to Fr Thomas White SJ. It was originally written in Spanish and comes from the wonderful archives of the Irish College of Salamanca (now hosted at Maynooth, but soon to go online). The translation below is by Fr William McDonald, who was Rector at Salamanca from 1871 until 1876 and was responsible for sorting the College’s archives.

The letter gives a fascinating insight into the persecution of Irish Catholics in the reign of King James I, which took a really furious shape after 1605. James I was the first Stuart monarch of the newly formed Kingdom of Great Britain. His most mementous policy in Ireland was the Plantation of Ulster, which saw the confiscated lands of the exiled Gaelic princes awarded to Protestant settlers from England and the Scottish lowlands. The section entitled ‘On the State of Civil Affairs’ refers to this.

22nd September, 1611.

A True Report of the Present State of Things in Ireland

Although from the first moment heresy entered into this kingdom, and while gradually establishing itself in it through the industry, arts, and craft of its partisans, the Catholics have suffered various calamities, extortions, and miseries, yet in these latter days, that is, from the year 1605 to the present 1611, we have suffered much more than ever, and the Catholic Apostolic Faith, which we inherited from our ancestors, was never before so combated, as our enemies have made war on it with fire and sword through public edicts, in which they command all Jesuits, seminarists, and other priests, and finally the bishops, to quit forever, as malefactors, this kingdom and all the territories and possessions belonging to the crown of England. But as it would be a long task to relate all that occurred in the persecution of the last seven years, and as it is generally known in Rome and the rest of the Christian world, I will content myself with briefly stating what has happened since July last of the present year, and indicating something of the purpose and designs of these adversaries of God, which though they try to conceal them, are plainly enough visible.

Of the Miserable Condition of the Ecclesiastical State.

There arrived in this kingdom a short time ago a Scotch minister named Knox [Andrew Knox was the Protestant Bishop of Raphoe and was particularly notorious for his cruelty to Irish Catholics – shane] who came from England with the title of bishop, and brought messages for our governors, by which they were commanded to renew and promulgate, in the king’s name, the edict issued some years past, with the same expressions and sentences as then, without subtracting a single one. On the contrary, they added some as well at the beginning as at the end: at the beginning, ‘that zeal for God’s honor was what moved his majesty to do this’; and at the end, ‘that all true and loyal subjects of his majesty should fear his indignation, and promptly obey whatever his edicts contained; and for this it was quite enough to hear they were promulgated by him and had his name signed to them.’

This last edict has appeared to us much more rigorous than the former one, and has given us much more to think about, because in it we were allowed five months from the day of its publication to get away, and provide necessaries for our journey; but now they don’t give us a day, or an hour, or a ship, nor is any means provided for our departure: they simply tell us to be off immediately from the kingdom. But I cannot conceive how the thing is to be done, unless they expect us to take wings, and fly through the air, or to swim through the sea; and I suppose if we only get drowned in the deep, our adversaries will be quite content.

In the same edict it is also commanded, under most severe pecuniary penalties, loss of property, and the weight of his majesty’s indignation, that all men and women, who have arrived at the years of discretion, must go on all Sundays and feast days to the Protestant synagogues, and be present at their sacrifices and ceremonies; and in the meantime, till this be put in execution, they have to pay the ordinary pecuniary fine established for all recusants (they call the Catholics thus who won’t attend their meetings and heretical rites). The priests are all on their guard, and none of them dares to go out of the house by day lest he might be recognised, and no place is secure for them there are so many nets and snares laid for them by their enemies, whose maddening thirst no liquor can satiate but the blood of the priests of Christ.

Item, they command all those who have sons studying in foreign parts, to call and compel them to come home at once within a fixed time, which will soon be up, and threatening severe penalties on those who will not comply with his majesty’s edict in this particular. Whence it may be gathered that their intention is none other but to completely extinguish the seed of Abraham; but the God of Abraham and of his children liveth, in whom we fix our trust, and we feel confident He would sooner convert the rocks and stones of Ireland into faithful children of Abraham than see our nation wanting in infinite numbers to succeed Abraham in his inheritance, and in priests zealous of God’s honour, to resist the power and machinations of hell by bravely following the standard of the Cross of our sweet Jesus, to the shedding of their blood, and the loss of their lives in the contest. Salve O bona Crux, salve, crimina pelle, tenebrasque fugeto. Exurgat ergo Rex iste, et Abrahae filius, et disipentur inimici ejus; et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie ejus. Amen.

In the cities of Dublin and Drogheda an inquisition was held for the discovery of priests, and the same was done in Limerick at the last assizes held there by the judges in the month of August, where also twelve men were appointed to inquire after the lay persons who absented themselves from the Protestant churches.

A lawsuit has been commenced against all those of our nation who possessed monasteries, although they have legal possession of them in the manner and form prescribed by the law, and have been in peaceful occupation of them since the time of Henry VIII. And as regards all dignities, bishoprics, prebendaryships, and ecclesiastical benefices, they have ordained that no native can possess or enjoy them. Even one Miler [Miler Magrath was Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor but subsequently apostatized and became the Protestant Archbishop of Cashel – shane], who was formerly a friar, and for the last thirty-six years has been the pseudo Archbishop of Cashel, of whom they always made much, has had to receive an Englishman as coadjutor and companion in his dignity.

Item, it is ordained that all parochial churches, wherever situated, whether knocked down by the heretics themselves, or fallen to ruin through lapse of time and the want of care, be repaired and rebuilt at the cost of the Catholics, and they have actually commenced to do so. From which you may see if God does not aid us with His all-powerful arm from on high, to what dangers and calamities the Catholic Church is exposed in this kingdom, and the terrible risks the faithful natives run.

On the State of Civil Affairs.

The whole kingdom is filled and thronged with Englishmen, who daily come over like swarms of bees, so that very shortly this island will be quite unable to contain, much less support, such a crowd. Wherever they appear, the first thing they do is to drive the natives from the lands and possessions inherited from their grandfathers and great grandfathers, and can be proved to have been held peacefully by them for the last 500 or 600 years; and even though possession be immemorial, nay even though it be by new favour and confirmation of the king made in legal form, and as the laws and statutes of these kingdoms require, notwithstanding all, if an Englishman pleases he can enter a lawsuit and take all per fas aut per nefas, and the poor native must give it up, and look out for himself somewhere else.

And what I here state, besides being of regular and daily occurrence, comprehends not only gentlemen of the ordinary class, but others also of much higher rank, and lords of title who see themselves despoiled of lordships and whole counties, and large and extensive inheritances and possessions; so that the natives have not a single foot of ground secure, and the English have everything at their will.

As to the cities, the principal ones, such as Dublin, Waterford, and Galway, which enjoyed many and great privileges, exemptions, and immunities, granted and confirmed by the present king’s predecessors, have been deprived and stripped of all without the slightest observance of law, or compensation of any sort; whence the inhabitants have become a prey to sadness and dejection of mind, believing that these are only the forerunners of much greater evils. Besides they have appointed a certain number of English constables with power and authority to strip of his garments any Irishman they might fall in with dressed in the ordinary style of the country; and so rigorously do they execute this commission, that whenever they meet with natives not dressed in the English fashion, they immediately tear off all the clothes they have on, and the very shepherds and pigherds caring their flocks in the woods and unfrequented places do not escape them: in a word, there is no evil nor misery they do not try to inflict on the natives of this kingdom. May God deign to open the eyes of these blind men, and cure their madness, converting their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

Of the Coming Parliament.

In a short time we expect the meeting of Parliament, and the heretics who have authority and the command of everything, are arranging matters so that no one shall be in it who is not to their taste.

And for this purpose they have already despatched their letters to the cities and important towns not to elect anyone as mayor for the coming year, nor hand over the authority to him, unless he first on oath recognise the Serene King of England as Primate and Supreme Head of the Church.

In all the counties they have also placed sheriffs of their own sort, except in one, and these can do a great deal with their authority and power, in arranging the affairs of Parliament well or ill.

And as the Parliament has to consist of four sorts of persons, the Upper House, as they call it, of the lords temporal and spiritual, and the Lower House of two representatives for each town, and two others for each county, it is easy to see the Protestants must necessarily be much more numerous than the Catholics; and this is the object of all the plotting and schemes of our adversaries.

From all which can be seen the miserable state to which not only the ecclesiastical but the civil affairs of this kingdom are reduced, and to what evils, calamities, and miseries its inhabitants are exposed, if the Almighty does not, in pity of our afflictions, look on us with an eye of mercy, and have regard to His people. As for us, we will endeavour, with the favour of our Lord, let the tempests of persecution and suffering be what they may, while His Divine Majesty [this is, needless to say, a reference to Jesus Christ, not James I – shane] gives us life and strength, never to be wanting to His honour nor that of the Catholic Church, and the spiritual good of our nation; and that we may be able to do so, let your Reverences aid us through charity with your sacrifices and prayers, for you see the great and manifest necessity we have of them.

Finally, the bishops of Limerick and Waterford have received power and faculties to summon to their presence all those who have been married in these dioceses since the day the present king took possession of the crown of these kingdoms, that they may inform before what minister they have been married, who baptized their children, and who buried their dead.

May the Lord, through His infinite mercy, grant us some relief, and protect your Reverences.


Posted on November 1, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. He says: “May God deign to open the eyes of these blind men, and cure their madness, converting their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.”

    Remarkable. In the circumstances I think I’d have been calling down fire from Heaven upon them and/or cursing them to Hell !!

    And we know that after the date of this letter things only got worse. Much worse. That’s one thing I always found about Irish history, studying it at school and in first year in University… it’s so depressing! No great victories or national triumphs, just an unending series of defeats and constant bitter struggles. No wonder our national psyche tends towards the depressive or morose.

  2. Jaykay, I used to hate history in primary school for the same reason. It was just so depressing. Nevertheless it’s consoling to know that no matter how bad we have it now, our ancestors seen much worse.

    • I always wondered what would have happened had the majority conformed, as in Wales. I think they’d still have been treated as second class citizens since there was always an underlying current of racism present in the English attitude, right from Giraldus Cambrensis and “hiberniores ipsis Hibernicis” notwithstanding. But their basic standard of life would have been better. As you say, our ancestors suffered a lot for fidelity. Their descendents are busily chucking that sacrifice overboard on their voyage to the brave new One World of another type of conformity. Hope they’ve pacthatthe long spoon.

  3. Jaykay, I agree. Keep in mind that the fact that we were Catholics bound us very closely with France and Spain — which were almost perpetual strategic enemies of England. Incidentally I think this is partly why the Irish are traditionally so enthusiastic about European integration (in contrast to England, which is very eurosceptic)

  4. Ooops… perils of using a mobile with touch pad on a train!! That last was: “packed that long spoon”.

    I was reflecting further on this over the weekend. I studied archaelogy in University and was always more interested in the the later periods rather than all the neolithic, bronze age & iron age stuff, particularly as we had excellent professors such as John Bradley on urban archaelogy, Hilary Richardson on High Crosses and sculpture etc. Since I was a bit of an architect manque I particularly loved the actual structures, mainly churches & monasteries, but also the remains of walls, fortifications etc. etc. I was tidying books over the weekend and came across my 1981 copy of Roger Stalley’s excellent “Churches and Monasteries of Ireland”.

    Anyway… this is a circuitous route towards the point, which is that, had Ireland “conformed” back in the 16th/17th centuries, it is very possible that we would have managed to save much more of our ecclesiastical heritage than has been the case, since it is likely that the many monastic churches (if not the actual monasteries themselves, for obvious reasons) would have been restored for worship – albeit it of the reformed variety. It is highly likely that outside the urban areas, which was most of Ireland in those days, this would have been in Irish: witness Queen Elizabeth’s translations of the BCP. Therefore the language could have been saved as well.

    Also, had the aristocracy conformed, the economic development of Ireland would most likely have proceeded quite rapidly uninterrupted by the constant wars and strife of that century (well, the Cromwellian invasion would probably have happened since Ireland would have remained loyal to the Monarchy, but he wouldn’t have been so savage on “fellow Protestants”), so that we would have seen many more examples of fine country houses such as Portumna castle in which the native aristocracy would have continued to foster the Gaelic culture.

    However, taking up your point, Shane, if “conformity” had happened, it is likely that any links with France and Spain would have withered and that we would have fought against them. We would of course still be a part of the UK – with the Irish parliament still in full swing, probably still in College Green – and therefore would have joined the EEC in 1973 but with a considerable dose of UK-style scepticism.

    I wonder how the battle of Fontenoy would have ended up had that been the case!

  5. Very interesting speculations Jaykay.

    The point about Irish being saved (like Welsh) is very true. In fact due to a lack of print facilities for Irish type, the government granted permission for Latin to be used in churches in Ireland instead, with the result that priests had a lot of latitude to give the service a Catholic ceremonial. (Irish Catholics were attending parishes churches up until the 1580s, and probably oblivious that a Reformation had even occured.).

    • Very interesting about the Latin, Shane. I think I remember reading that in the English universities there was a Latin BCP but of course it was the Lingua Franca anyway. Still, I should imagine that it gave the services a very traditional feel, especially in Oxford which was always pretty “high”.

      Imagine if they’d kept the 1549 BCP which permitted vestments and still used the term “Mass” (albeit in second place). It certainly would have been pretty indistinguishable, apart from no elevation and genuflections etc.

      Perhaps straying from the main point of the post a bit there…

  6. Dear Shane & Jaykay,

    As an Aussie of 75% Irish descent, I have enjoyed both the attached article and your erudite commentary above.

    May I venture a trivial inquiry? Reference is made to the cruel enforcement (by way of confiscation) of having the native Irish dress in the english mode: what was the Irish mode of dress at that time? Any descriptions, or links to sketches, of same would be appreciated.


    Tony Pead, Canberra, Australia

  7. Tony, thanks for your kind comment. As for Irish dress in that era, I am not very well informed on that topic but there is a useful article on it here (under the subheading ‘The Irish’):

  8. Hi Tony: the article that Shane linked to does seem to cover the subject quite well. I am certainly not an expert in such matters, but as the article says, in the towns the population seem to have conformed to the English manner of dress, except that they seem to have worn the “brat” or distinctive Irish mantle. There is is a well-known 17th century woodcut showing in 4 panels the dress of what is called “the civill Irish man (and woman)” and then “the wilde Irish man”.

    Hope this link works:

  9. The NMI at Collins Barracks has a section on historic Irish dress IIRC.

    I assume the main reason townspeople conformed to English/continental dress was because most of them were descendents of English/Norman settlers? (It was often illegal for natives to live within city walls – hence you have places throughout Ireland called ‘Irishtown’, places outside the city wall where the natives accumulated.)

  10. Yes, I think that’s the reason, Shane. They were certainly conscious of their English descent. and had a rather sniffy attitude towards the natives, as witness Galway’s ordinance that “neither O’ nor Mac shall strutte nor swagger through the streets of Galway”. But of course there would also have been the desire, then as now, to “keep up with the times” although I seem to remember reading somewhere that fashion in Ireland would have been a bit old-fashioned as compared to English and continental models. Hardly surprising, given the relative distances and the generally troubled nature of the country.

  1. Pingback: Short Account on the State of Ireland by the Archbishop of Cashel, Some Jesuit Fathers and other Important Persons to the Superiors of the Irish Colleges of Spain, 1612 « Lux Occulta

  2. Pingback: A Short Account on the State of Ireland by the Archbishop of Cashel, Some Jesuit Fathers and other Important Persons to the Superiors of the Irish Colleges of Spain, 1612 « Lux Occulta

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