Home/ Historical Writings / Church & Denominational History / Rev. James Maccaffrey / History of the Catholic Church
History of the Catholic Church
Book 2 History of the Catholic Church
Chapter 7 Religion in Ireland During the Fifteenth Century
Annals of the Four Masters. State Papers, 11 vols., 1832-5. Papal Letters, 9 vols. De Annatis Hiberniae, vol. i., Ulster, 1912; vol. ii., Leinster (app. ii. Archivium Hibernicum, vol. ii.). Brady, The Episcopal Succession in England, Scotland and Ireland (1400-1873), 3 vols., 1876. Theiner, Vetera Monumenta Scotorum (1216-1547), 1864. Ware's Works, 2 vols., 1729. Wilkins, Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, iii. vol., 1737. Reports of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records, Ireland. Reports of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. De Burgo, Hibernia Dominicana, 1762. Gilbert, The Viceroys of Ireland, 1865. Id., Facsimiles of National Manuscripts of Ireland, 4 vols., 1875. Lawlor, A Calendar of the Register of Archbishop Sweetman, 1911. Bellesheim, Geschichte der Katholischen Kirche in Ireland, 3 Bde, 1890. Malone, Church History of Ireland from the Anglo-Norman Invasion to the Reformation, 2 vols., 3rd edition, 1880. Brenan, An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, 1864. Gogarty, The Dawn of the Reformation in Ireland (I. T. Q.), 1913, 1914. Green, The Making of Ireland and its Undoing (1200-1600), 1908. Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors, 1885. Wilson, The Beginnings of Modern Ireland, 1912.
From the beginning of the fourteenth century English power in Ireland was on the decline. The Irish princes, driven to desperation by the exactions and cruelties of the officials, adopted generally a more hostile attitude, while the great Norman nobles, who had obtained grants of land in various parts of Ireland, began to intermarry with the Irish, adopted their language, their laws, their dress, and their customs, and for all practical purposes renounced their allegiance to the sovereign of England.
Owing to the civil war that raged in England during the latter portion of the fifteenth century the English colonists were left entirely without support, and being divided among themselves, the Geraldines favouring the House of York, and the Ormonds, the House of Lancaster, they were almost powerless to resist the encroachments of the native princes. Nor did the accession of Henry VII. lead to a combined effort for the restoration of English authority. The welcome given by so many of the Anglo-Irish, both laymen and clerics, to the two pretenders, Simnel and Warbeck, and the efforts the king was obliged to make to defend his throne against these claimants, made it impossible for him to undertake the conquest of the country. As a result, the sphere of English influence in Ireland, or the Pale, as it was called, became gradually more restricted. The frantic efforts made by the Parliament held at Drogheda (1494, Poynings' Parliament) to protect the English territory from invasion by the erection "of a double ditch six feet high" is the best evidence that the conquest of the country still awaited completion.  In the early years of the reign of Henry VIII. the Pale embraced only portions of the present counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath and Kildare, or to be more accurate, it was bounded by a line drawn from Dundalk through Ardee, Kells, Kilcock, Clane, Naas, Kilcullen, Ballymore-Eustace, Rathcoole, Tallaght, and Dalkey. Within this limited area the inhabitants were not safe from invasion and spoliation unless they agreed to purchase their security by the payment of an annual tribute to the neighbouring Irish princes; and outside it, even in the cities held by Norman settlers and in the territories owned by Norman barons, the king's writ did not run. 
Recourse was had to legislative measures to preserve the English colonists from being merged completely into the native population. According to the Statutes of Kilkenny (1367) the colonists were forbidden to intermarry with the Irish, to adopt their language, dress, or customs, or to hold any business relations with them, and what was worse, the line of division was to be recognised even within the sanctuary. No Irishman was to be admitted into cathedral or collegiate chapters or into any benefice situated in English territory, and religious houses were warned against admitting any Irish novices, although they were quite free to accept English subjects born in Ireland  (1367). This statute did not represent a change of policy in regard to Irish ecclesiastics. From the very beginning of the Norman attempt at colonisation the relations between the two bodies of ecclesiastics had been very strained. Thus, in the year 1217 Henry III. wrote to his Justiciary in Ireland calling his attention to the fact that the election of Irishmen to episcopal Sees had caused already considerable trouble, and that consequently, care should be taken in future that none but Englishmen should be elected or promoted to cathedral chapters. The Irish clerics objected strongly to such a policy of exclusion, and carried their remonstrances to Honorius III. who declared on two occasions (1220, 1224) that this iniquitous decree was null and void.  As the papal condemnations did not produce the desired effect, the archbishops, bishops, and chapters seem to have taken steps to protect themselves against aggression by ordaining that no Englishman should be admitted into the cathedral chapters, but Innocent IV., following the example of Honorius III., condemned this measure. 
Notwithstanding its solemn condemnation by the Holy See this policy of exclusion was carried out by both parties, and the line of division became more marked according as the English power began to decline. The petition addressed to John XXII. (1317) by the Irish chieftains who supported the invasion of Bruce bears witness to the fact that the Statutes of Kilkenny did not constitute an innovation, and more than once during the fifteenth century the legislation against Irish ecclesiastics was renewed. The permission given to the Archbishop of Dublin to confer benefices situated in the Irish districts of his diocese on Irish clerics (1485, 1493) serves only to emphasise the general trend
of policy.  Similarly the action of the Dominican authorities in allowing two superiors in Ireland, one of the houses in the English Pale, the other for the houses in the territories of the Irish princes  (1484), the refusal of the Irish Cistercians to acknowledge the jurisdiction of their English superiors, the boast of Walter Wellesley, Bishop of Kildare and prior of the monastery of Old Connal (1539) that no Irishman had been admitted into this institution since the day of its foundation,  prove clearly enough that the relations between the Irish and English ecclesiastics during the fifteenth century were far from being harmonious.
In the beginning, as has been shown, the Holy See interfered to express its disapproval of the policy of exclusion whether adopted by the Normans or the Irish, but later on, when it was found that a reconciliation was impossible, the Pope deemed it the lesser of two evils to allow both parties to live apart. Hence the Norman community of Galway was permitted to separate itself from the Irish population immediately adjoining, and to be governed in spirituals by its own warden (1484); and Leo X. approved of the demand made by the chapter of St. Patrick's, Dublin, that no Irishman should be appointed a canon of that church (1515).  But though the Holy See, following the advice of those who were in a position to know what was best for the interests of religion, consented to tolerate a policy of exclusion, it is clear that it had no sympathy with such a course of procedure. In Dublin, for example, where English influence might be supposed to make itself felt most distinctly, out of forty-four appointments to benefices made in Rome (1421-1520) more than half were given to Irishmen; in the diocese of Kildare forty-six out of fifty-eight appointments fell to Irishmen (1413-1521), and for the period 1431- 1535, fifty-three benefices out of eighty-one were awarded in Meath to clerics bearing unmistakably Irish names.  Again in 1290 Nicholas IV. insisted that none but an Irishman should be appointed by the Archbishop of Dublin to the archdeaconry of Glendalough, and in 1482 Sixtus IV. upheld the cause of Nicholas O'Henisa whom the Anglo-Irish of Waterford refused to receive as their bishop on the ground that he could not speak English. 
But though attempts were made by legislation to keep the Irish and English apart, and though as a rule feeling between both parties ran high, there was one point on which both were in agreement, and that was loyalty and submission to the Pope. That the Irish Church as such, like the rest of the Christian world, accepted fully the supremacy of the Pope at the period of the Norman invasion is evident from the presence and activity of the papal legates, Gillebert of Limerick, St. Malachy of Armagh, Christian, Bishop of Lismore, and St. Laurence O'Toole, from the frequent pilgrimages of Irish laymen and ecclesiastics to Rome, from the close relations with the Roman Court maintained by St. Malachy during his campaign for reform, and from the action of the Pope in sending Cardinal Paparo to the national synod at Kells (1152) to bestow the palliums on the Archbishops of Armagh, Dublin, Cashel, and Tuam. Had there been any room for doubt about the principles and action of the Irish Church the question must necessarily have been discussed at the Synod of Cashel convoked by Henry II. to put an end to the supposed abuses existing in the Irish Church (1172), and yet, though it was laid down that in its liturgy and practices the Irish Church should conform to English customs, not a word was said that could by any possibility imply that the Irish people were less submissive to the Pope than any other nation at this period. 
After the Normans had succeeded in securing a foothold in the country, both Irish and Normans were at one in accepting the Roman supremacy. The Pope appointed to all bishoprics whether situated within or without the Pale; he deposed bishops, accepted their resignations, transferred them from one See to another, cited them before his tribunals, censured them at times, and granted them special faculties for dispensing in matrimonial and other causes. He appointed to many of the abbeys and priories in all parts of the country, named ecclesiastics to rectories and vicarages in Raphoe, Derry, Tuam, Kilmacduagh, and Kerry, with exactly the same freedom as he did in case of Dublin, Kildare or Meath, and tried cases involving the rights of laymen and ecclesiastics in Rome or appointed judges to take cognisance of such cases in Ireland. He sent special legates into Ireland, levied taxes on all benefices, appointed collectors to enforce the payment of these taxes, and issued dispensations in irregularities and impediments.
The fiction of two churches in Ireland, one the Anglo-Irish acknowledging the authority of the Pope, the other the Irish fighting sullenly against papal aggression, has been laid to rest by the publication of Theiner's Vetera Monumenta Hibernorum et Scotorum, the Calendars of Papal Letters, the Calendars of Documents (Ireland) and the Annats. If any writer, regardless of such striking evidence, should be inclined to revive such a theory he should find himself faced with the further disagreeable fact that, when the English nation and a considerable body of the Anglo-Irish nobles fell away from their obedience to Rome, the Irish people, who were supposed to be hostile to the Pope, preferred to risk everything rather than allow themselves to be separated from the centre of unity. Such a complete and instantaneous change of front, if historical, would be as inexplicable as
it would be unparalleled.
Nor is there any evidence to show that Lollardy or any other heresy found any support in Ireland during the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. During the episcopate of Bishop Ledrede in Ossory (1317- 60), it would appear both from the constitutions enacted in a diocesan synod held in 1317 as well as from the measures he felt it necessary to take, that in the city of Kilkenny a few individuals called in question the Incarnation, and the Virginity of the Blessed Virgin, but it is clear that such opinions were confined to a very limited circle and did not affect the body of the people.  About the same time, too, the dispute that was being waged between John XXII. and a section of the Franciscans found an echo in the province of Cashel, though there is no proof that the movement ever assumed any considerable dimensions.  Similarly at a later period, when the Christian world was disturbed by the presence of several claimants to the Papacy and by the theories to which the Great Western Schism gave rise, news was forwarded to Rome that some of the Irish prelates, amongst them being the Archbishop of Dublin and the Bishop of Ferns, were inclined to set at nought the instructions of Martin V. (1424), but the latter pontiff took energetic measures to put an end to a phenomenon that was quite intelligible considering the general disorder of the period. The appeal of Philip Norris, Dean of Dublin, during his dispute with the Mendicants, to a General Council against the decision of the Pope only serves to emphasise the fact that throughout the controversy between the Pope and the Council of Basle Ireland remained unshaken in its attachment to the Holy See.  Although the first measure passed by the Parliament at Kilkenny (1367) and by nearly every such assembly held in Ireland in the fifteenth century was one for safeguarding the rights and liberties of the Church, yet the root of the evils that afflicted the Church at this period can be traced to the interference of kings and princes in ecclesiastical affairs. The struggle waged by Gregory VII. in defence of free canonical election to bishoprics, abbacies, and priories seemed to have been completely successful, but in reality it led only to a change of front on the part of the secular authorities. Instead of claiming directly the right of nomination they had recourse to other measures for securing the appointment of their own favourites. In theory the election of bishops in Ireland rested with the canons of the cathedral chapters, but they were not supposed to proceed with the election until they had received the congé d'élite from the king or his deputy, who usually forwarded an instruction as to the most suitable candidate. As a further safeguard it was maintained that, even after the appointment of the bishop-elect had been confirmed by the Pope, he must still seek the approval of the king before being allowed to take possession of the temporalities of his See. As a result even in the thirteenth century, when capitular election was still the rule, the English sovereigns sought to exercise a controlling influence on episcopal elections in Ireland, but they met at times with a vigorous resistance from the chapters, the bishops, the Irish princes, and from Rome. 
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, however, and in the fifteenth century, though the right of election was still enjoyed nominally by the chapters, in the majority of cases either their opinions were not sought, or else the capitular vote was taken as being only an expression of opinion about the merits of the different candidates. Indirectly by means of the chancery rules regarding reservations, or by the direct reservation of the appointment of a particular bishopric on the occasion of a particular vacancy, the Pope kept in his own hands the appointments. Owing to the encroachments of the civil power and the pressure that was brought to bear upon the chapters such a policy was defensible enough, and had it been possible for the Roman advisers to have had a close acquaintance with the merits of the clergy, and to have had a free hand in their recommendations, direct appointment might have been attended with good results. But the officials at Rome were oftentimes dependent on untrustworthy sources for their information, and they were still further handicapped by the fact that if they acted contrary to the king's wishes the latter might create serious trouble by refusing to restore the temporalities of the See. Instances, however, are not wanting even in England itself to show that the Popes did not always allow themselves to be dictated to by the civil authorities, nor did they recognise in theory the claim of the king to dispose of the temporalities. 
It is difficult to determine how far the English kings succeeded in influencing appointments to Irish bishoprics. About Dublin, Meath, and Kildare there can be no doubt that their efforts were attended with success. In Armagh, too, they secured the appointment of Englishmen as a general rule, and in Cashel, Waterford, Limerick, and Cork their recommendations, or rather the recommendations of the Anglo-Irish nobles, were followed in many instances. Outside the sphere of English influence it does not seem that their suggestions were adopted at Rome. At any rate it is certain that if they sought for the exclusion of Irishmen their petitions produced little effect. During the early years of the reign of Henry VIII. more active measures seem to have been taken by the king to assert his claims to a voice in episcopal appointments. In the appointments at this period to Armagh, Dublin, Meath, Leighlin, Kilmore, Clogher, and
Ross it is stated expressly in the papal Bulls that they were made ad supplicationem regis. 
Unfortunately several of the ecclesiastics on whom bishoprics were conferred in Ireland during the fifteenth century had but slender qualifications for such a high office. On the one hand it was impossible for Rome in many cases to have a close acquaintance with the various candidates, and on the other the influence of the English kings, of the Irish princes, and of the Anglo-Irish nobles was used to promote their own dependents without reference to the effects of such appointments on the progress of religion. The Archbishops of Dublin and Armagh, and the Bishops of Kildare and Meath were more interested as a rule in political and religious affairs than in their duties as spiritual rulers. They held on many occasions the highest offices in the state, and had little time to devote their attention to the government of their dioceses. Absenteeism was as remarkable a characteristic of the Church in the fifteenth century as it was of the Established Church in the eighteenth, and in this direction the bishops were the worst offenders. Very often, too, Sees were left vacant for years during which time the king's officials or the Irish princes, as the case might be, wasted the property of the diocese either with the connivance or against the wishes of the diocesan chapters. Of the archbishops of Ireland about the time of the Reformation, George Cromer, a royal chaplain, was appointed because he was likely to favour English designs in Ireland, and for that purpose was named Chancellor of Ireland; John Alen, another Englishman, was recommended by Cardinal Wolsey to Dublin mainly for the purpose of overthrowing the domination of the Earl of Kildare; Edmund Butler, the illegitimate son of Sir Piers Butler, owed his elevation to the See of Cashel to the influence of powerful patrons, and Thomas O'Mullaly of Tuam, a Franciscan friar, passed to his reward a few days before the meeting of the Parliament that was to acknowledge Royal Supremacy, to be succeeded by Christopher Bodkin, who allowed himself to be introduced into the See by the authority of Henry VIII. against the wishes of the Pope.
But, even though the bishops as a body had been as zealous as individuals amongst them undoubtedly were, they had no power to put down abuses. The patronage of Church livings, including rectories, vicarages, and chaplaincies enjoyed by laymen, as well as by chapters, monasteries, convents, hospitals, etc., made it impossible for a bishop to exercise control over the clergy of his diocese. Both Norman and Irish nobles were generous in their gifts to the Church, but whenever they granted endowments to a parish they insisted on getting in return the full rights of patronage. Thus, for example, the Earl of Kildare was recognised as the legal patron of close on forty rectories and vicarages situated in the dioceses of Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Limerick, and Cork, and he held, besides, the tithes of a vast number of parishes scattered over a great part of Leinster.  The Earl of Ormond enjoyed similar rights in Kilkenny and Tipperary, as did the Desmond family in the South, and the De Burgos in Connaught. The O'Neills,  O'Donnells, O'Connors, McCarthys, O'Byrnes, and a host of minor chieftains, exercised ecclesiastical patronage in their respective territories. Very often these noblemen in their desire to benefit some religious or charitable institution transferred to it the rights of patronage enjoyed by themselves. Thus the monastery of Old or Great Connal in Kildare controlled twenty-one rectories in Kildare, nineteen in Carlow, one in Meath and one in Tipperary,  while the celebrated convent of Grace-Dieu had many ecclesiastical livings in its gift.
Owing to these encroachments the bishop was obliged frequently to approve of the appointment of pastors who were in no way qualified for their position. The lay patrons nominated their own dependents and favourites, while both ecclesiastical and lay patrons were more anxious about securing the revenues than about the zeal and activity of the pastors and vicars. Once the system of papal reservation of minor benefices was established fully in the fifteenth century, the authority of the bishop in making appointments in his diocese became still more restricted. Ecclesiastics who sought preferment turned their eyes towards Rome. If they could not go there themselves, they employed a procurator to sue on their behalf, and armed with a papal document, they presented themselves before a bishop merely to demand canonical institution. Though, in theory, therefore, the bishop was supposed to be the chief pastor of a diocese, in practice he had very little voice in the nomination of his subordinates, and very little effective control over their qualifications or their conduct.
Very often benefices were conferred on boys who had not reached the canonical age for the reception of orders, sometimes to provide them with the means of pursuing their studies, but sometimes also to enrich their relatives from the revenues of the Church. In such cases the entire work was committed to the charge of an underpaid vicar who adopted various devices to supplement his miserable income. Frequently men living in England were appointed to parishes or canonries within the Pale, and, as they could not take personal charge themselves, they secured the services of a substitute. In defiance of the various canons levelled against plurality of benefices, dispensations were given freely at Rome, permitting individuals to hold two, three, four, or more benefices, to nearly all of which the care of souls was attached. In proof of this one might refer to the case of Thomas Russel, a special favourite of the Roman Court, who held a canonry in the diocese of Lincoln, the prebends of Clonmethan and Swords in Dublin, the archdeaconry of Kells,
the church of Nobber, the perpetual vicarship of St. Peter's, Drogheda, and the church of St. Patrick in Trim. 
This extravagant application of patronage and reservations to ecclesiastical appointments produced results in Ireland similar to those it produced in other countries. It tended to kill learning and zeal amongst the clergy, to make them careless about their personal conduct, the proper observance of the canons, and the due discharge of their duties as pastors and teachers. Some of them were openly immoral, and many of them had not sufficient learning to enable them to preach or to instruct their flocks. It ought to be remembered also that in these days there were no special seminaries for the education of the clergy. Candidates for the priesthood received whatever training they got from some member of the cathedral chapter, or in the schools of the Mendicant Friars, or possibly from some of those learned ecclesiastics, whose deaths are recorded specially in our Annals. Before ordination they were subjected to an examination, but the severity of the test depended on many extrinsic considerations. Some of the more distinguished youths were helped by generous patrons, or from the revenues of ecclesiastical benefices to pursue a higher course of studies in theology and canon law. As the various attempts made to found a university in Ireland during the fourteen and fifteenth centuries  proved a failure, students who wished to obtain a degree were obliged to go to Oxford, from which various attempts were made to exclude "the mere Irish" by legislation,  to Cambridge, Paris, or some of the other great schools on the Continent. If one may judge from the large number of clerics who are mentioned in the papal documents as having obtained a degree, a fair proportion of clerics during the fifteenth century both from within and without the Pale must have received their education abroad. Still, the want of a proper training during which unworthy candidates might be weeded out, coupled with the unfortunate system of patronage then prevalent in Ireland, helped to lower the whole tone of clerical life, and to produce the sad conditions of which sufficient evidence is at hand in the dispensations from irregularities mentioned in the Papal Letters.
As might be expected in such circumstances, the cathedrals and churches in some districts showed signs of great neglect both on the part of the ecclesiastics and of the lay patrons. Reports to Rome on the condition of the cathedrals of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise  indicate a sad condition of affairs, but they were probably overdrawn in the hope of securing a reduction in the fees paid usually on episcopal appointments, just as the account given by the Jesuit Father Wolf about the cathedral of Tuam  was certainly overdrawn by Archbishop Bodkin with the object of obtaining papal recognition for his appointment to that diocese. The Earl of Kildare represented the churches of Tipperary and Kilkenny as in ruins owing to the exactions of his rival, the Earl of Ormond, while the latter, having determined for political reasons to accept royal supremacy, endeavoured to throw the whole blame on the Pope. Both statements may be regarded as exaggerated. But the occupation of the diocesan property during the vacancy of the Sees by the king or the nobles, the frequent wars during which the churches were used as store-houses and as places of refuge and defence, the neglect of the lay patrons to contribute their share to the upkeep of the ecclesiastical buildings, and the carelessness of the men appointed to major and minor benefices, so many of whom were removed during the fifteenth century for alienation and dilapidation of ecclesiastical property, must have been productive of disastrous effects on the cathedrals and parish churches in many districts. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that such neglect was general throughout the country. The latter half of the fourteenth century and particularly the fifteenth century witnessed a great architectural revival in Ireland, during which the pure Gothic of an earlier period was transformed into the vernacular or national composite style. Many beautiful churches, especially monastic churches, were built, others were completely remodelled, and "on the whole it would not be too much to say that it is the exception to find a monastery or a parish church in Ireland which does not show some work executed at this period." 
The disappearance of canonical election, the interference of lay patrons, the too frequent use of papal reservations, and the appointment of commendatory abbots and priors, led to a general downfall of discipline in the older religious orders, though there is no evidence to prove that the abuses were as general or as serious as they have been painted. Even at the time when the agents of Henry VIII. were at work preparing the ground for the suppression of the monasteries, and when any individual who would bring forward charges against them could count upon the king's favour, it was only against a few members in less than half a dozen houses that grave accusations were alleged. Even if these accusations were justified, and the circumstances in which they were made are sufficient to arouse suspicions about their historical value, it would not be fair to hold the entire body of religious in Ireland responsible for abuses that are alleged only against the superiors or members of a small number of houses situated in Waterford or Tipperary. Long before the question of separation from his lawful wife had induced Henry VIII. to begin a campaign in Ireland against Rome, the Mendicant Friars had undertaken a definite programme of reform. In 1460 the Bishop of Killala in conjunction with the Franciscan Friar, Nehemias O'Donohoe, determined to introduce the Strict Observance
into the Franciscan Houses,  and from that time forward in spite of obstacles from many quarters the Observants succeeded in getting possession of many of the old Conventual Houses, and in establishing several new monasteries in all parts of Ireland, but particularly in the purely Irish districts. The Dominicans, too, took steps to see that the original rules and constitutions of the order should be observed. In 1484 Ireland was recognised as a separate province, though the houses within the Pale were allowed to continue under the authority of a vicar of the English provincial, while at the same time a great reform of the order was initiated. Several houses submitted immediately both within and without the Pale, amongst the earliest of them being Coleraine, Drogheda, Cork, and Youghal. The various religious orders of men did excellent work in preaching, instructing the people, in establishing schools both for the education of clerics and laymen, and in tending to the wants of the poor and the infirm. In the report on the state of Ireland presented to Henry VIII. it is admitted that, though the bishops and rectors and vicars neglected their duty, the "poor friars beggers" preached the word of God.  That the people and nobles, both Irish and Anglo-Irish, appreciated fully the labours and services of the Friars is evident from the number of new houses which they established for their reception during the fifteenth century. The convents of Longford, Portumna, Tulsk, Burishool, Thomastown, and Gola were established for the Dominicans; Kilconnell, Askeaton, Enniscorthy, Moyne, Adare, Monaghan, Donegal, and Dungannon for the Franciscans; Dunmore, Naas, Murrisk and Callan for the Augustinians, and Rathmullen, Frankfort, Castle-Lyons and Galway for the Carmelites.
The abuses that existed in the Irish Church at this period arose mainly from the enslavement of the Church, and they could have been remedied from within even had there been no unconstitutional revolution. As a matter of fact those who styled themselves Reformers succeeded only in transferring to their own sect the main sources of all previous abuses, namely, royal interference in ecclesiastical affairs and lay patronage, and by doing so they made it possible for the Catholic Church in Ireland to pursue its mission unhampered by outside control. It ought to be borne in mind that the faults of certain individuals or institutions do not prove that the whole organisation was corrupt, and that if there were careless and unworthy bishops, there were also worthy men like the Blessed Thaddeus MacCarthy of Cloyne, who though driven from his diocese by the aggression of the nobles, was venerated as a saint both in Ireland and abroad. The great number of provincial and diocesan synods held in Ireland during the period between 1450 and 1530 makes it clear that the bishops were more attentive to their duties than is generally supposed, while the collections of sermons in manuscript, the use of commentaries on the Sacred Scriptures and of concordances, the attention paid to the Scriptures in the great Irish collections that have come down to us, and the homilies in Irish on the main truths of religion, on the primary duties of Christians, and on the Lives of the Irish Saints, afford some evidence that the clergy were not entirely negligent of the obligations of their office. Had the clergy been so ignorant and immoral, as a few of those foisted into Irish benefices undoubtedly were, the people would have risen up against them. And yet, though here and there some ill-feeling was aroused regarding the temporalities, probates, fees, rents, rights of fishing, wills, etc., there is no evidence of any widespread hostility against the clergy, secular or regular, or against Rome. The generous grants made to religious establishments, the endowment of hospitals for the poor and the infirm, the frequent pilgrimages to celebrated shrines in Ireland and on the Continent, the charitable and religious character of the city guilds, and above all the adherence of the great body of the people to the religion of their fathers in spite of the serious attempts that were made to seduce them, prove conclusively enough that the alleged demoralisation of the Irish Church is devoid of historical foundation.
Nor could it be said that the Irish people at this period were entirely rude and uncultured. Though most of their great schools had gone down, and though the attempts at founding a university had failed, learning had certainly not disappeared from the country. Clerics and laymen could still obtain facilities for education at the religious houses, the cathedral and collegiate churches, at the schools of Irish law and poetry, and from some of the learned teachers whose names are recorded in our Annals during this period. Many of the clerics, at least, frequented the English universities or the universities on the Continent. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries one can point to several distinguished Irish scholars such as O'Fihely, the Archbishop of Tuam, who was recognised as one of the leading theological writers of his day, Cathal Maguire the author of the Annals of Ulster, Bishop Colby of Waterford, the author of several commentaries on Sacred Scripture, the well-known Carmelite preacher and writer Thomas Scrope, Patrick Cullen Bishop of Clogher, and his arch-deacon Roderick O'Cassidy, and Philip Norris, the determined opponent of the Mendicants, and the Dominicans John Barley, Joannes Hibernicus, and Richard Winchelsey.  The catalogue of the books contained in the library of the Franciscan convent at Youghal about the end of the fifteenth century affords some indication of the attitude of the monastic bodies generally towards education and learning. In addition to the missals, psalteries, antiphonies, and martyrologies, the convent at Youghal had several copies of the Bible together with some of the principal commentaries thereon, collections of sermons by well-known authors, several of the works of the early Fathers and of the principal theologians of the
Middle Ages, the Decrees of Gratian, the Decretals and various works on Canon Law, spiritual reading-books, including the life of Christ, and works on ascetic theology, the works of Boetius and various treatises on philosophy, grammar, and music, and some histories of the Irish province of the Franciscans. 
Similarly the library of the Earl of Kildare about 1534 contained over twenty books in Irish, thirty-four works in Latin, twenty-two in English and thirty-six in French,  while the fact that Manus O'Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell, could find time to compose a Life of St. Columba in 1532, and that at a still later period Shane O'Neill could carry on his correspondence with foreigners in elegant Latin bears testimony to the fact that at this period learning was not confined to the Pale. Again it should be remembered that it was between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries that the great Irish collections such as the Book of Lecan, the Book of Ballymote, the Leabhar Breac, the Book of Lismore, etc., were compiled, and that it was about the same time many of the more important Irish Annals were compiled or completed, as were also translations of well-known Latin, French, and English works. 
Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
the Second Week after Easter
Search Historical Writings