THE term “penal days” is generally used to refer to the period after the Williamite Wars which saw the introduction of repressive legislation against Roman Catholics and Presbyterians by the establishment.
In Ulster, however, one could say that penitentiary times began after the Plantation in the early 17th century and lasted with varying degrees of intensity until the 18th century.
Even before that date, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, there had been sporadic persecutions, but the Tudors were rarely able to fully exercise their power throughout Ireland, although since the time of Henry VIII l The Protestant Church of Ireland was the established Church and those who did not worship under its aegis were liable to fines and imprisonment.
King James, on his accession to the throne in 1603, appointed Protestant bishops in all the seats of Ulster and these in turn took over previously Catholic churches and dioceses in order to create a Protestant church. anglicized.
The Catholic Church has gone “underground” to avoid persecution, and it is extremely difficult to get reliable information about where people worshiped.
Sometimes the veil is lifted, and we get a brief glimpse of what life was like for the dispossessed, and when we add to that what has been handed down through tradition, travelers’ accounts and popular memory, a reasonably reliable begins to emerge.
James I of England, although he was the son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, was not a friend of the Catholics of Ireland.
Persecution during his reign was intermittent, but the churches that had survived the ravages of the Tudor Wars were taken over by the established Church he headed, and Catholics were forced to find alternative places of worship as best they could. ‘they could.
The majority Roman Catholic Church was a pariah church, without territorial roots and without any material resources.
It is clear from the few available references that Catholics at this time resorted to remote, secluded places where they were unlikely to attract the attention of unfriendly officials and a hostile soldiery.
A directive issued by the Synod of Armagh in 1614 gives some idea of the conditions that may have been, and the fact that it was deemed necessary to condemn certain practices is an indication of the conditions that prevailed at that time.
The edict forbids saying mass in smoky or foul places, containing animal or otherwise dirty stalls or in gloomy or gloomy places.
When the congregation was large, Mass was sometimes said in the open air, and in these cases an attempt was made to protect the altar from wind and rain and any dirt that might fall on it, and to secure a reasonably flat site.
Given the inclemency and unpredictability of the Irish climate, the sites used must have been less than ideal, but they remained the most common sites where Mass was celebrated for at least 150 years.
It is also probable that the mass would have been said in particular houses of the parish. The kitchen table would have been put into use as an altar, and the priest celebrated mass in lay clothes, sometimes still dressed in horse boots and spurs, so that if danger threatened he could be quickly taken to safe place.
Periods of political turmoil, rebellion or war inevitably led to an upsurge in religious persecution. The rebellion of 1641 almost succeeded in wiping out the Ulster plantation, but the initial optimism inspired by Eoghan Roe’s victories turned out to be a false dawn.
Bishop Heber McMahon’s active involvement in the native Irish cause, his capture and eventual execution, and the triumph of Cromwellian arms again left the way open to persecution.
Thousands of native Irish were transported to the Caribbean as indentured servants. The Catholics at home have returned to the status of a hunted and dispossessed people, forced to abandon their temporary places of worship and to celebrate the Eucharist again on open-air sites.
Indeed, it is likely that the local “massive rock” traditions belong to this period rather than the early decades of the 18th century.
Archbishop Edmond O’Reilly of Armagh, writing at this time, reported that he had made small huts in mountainous areas, one here and one there, so that his flock would not be endangered.
Conditions did not appear to have improved much when Bishop Patrick Duffy of the Diocese of Clogher, writing as late as 1674, a decade and a half after King Stuart Charles II was restored to the throne of England, declared, “I dare not appear in public, but stay low in the mountains and the bogs.”
The priests celebrated Mass, administered the sacraments and visited the sick at night. They would hear confessions until about midnight, then offer mass.
The traditional image – and it is often fictionalized and inaccurate – is of the priest celebrating mass on a makeshift altar in a cave or other secluded location, while strategically stationed scouts stood guard.
The number of people attending these services was probably small so as not to draw attention to themselves or risk the capture and possible imprisonment or banishment of the priest among them.
The defeat of the Jacobite armies at the end of the Williamite Wars ushered in a new wave of persecution when the Protestant Ancestry passed a series of draconian criminal laws.
Although not always strictly enforced, they were hung like a sword of Damocles over the Catholic and dissident population for the next hundred years.
It will take the arrival of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, before the last of the penal laws are abolished with the passage of Catholic Emancipation in 1829.
:: Frank Rogers is the author of The Story of Ireland in Stained Glass and The History of the Convent Chapel, Enniskillen.