Politics, Religion and the Penal Laws in 19th Century Ireland

In the beginning of Consequences, Lord Montgomery and Daniel O’Connell (a historical person) discuss politics over dinner. Here’s a little more information on what was going on at the time in case their conversation left you a little confused.

Today we think of Ireland as primarily a Catholic country – except for Northern Ireland which is mostly Protestant. The roots of this division, which is both religious and political, began in the 16th century. You may recall that Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic Church in 1533, effectively creating the Church of England, which is one of many Protestant sects to arise around the same time. (Many say that Lutheranism was the very first.)

The history of English rule in Ireland is very complex dating back to the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169. For purposes of this article, suffice it to say the Irish were never thrilled to have the English on their soil and always had an active resistance to them. By the 16th and 17th centuries as the Protestant Reformation grew in power and scope, most of the English gentry were Protestant and in 1695 passed a series of laws aimed at penalizing anyone who practiced the Catholic faith (hence the name, penal laws). These effectively kept Catholics out of power by imposing severe penalties upon Catholics:

  • Education of or by a Catholic was punishable by banishment, forfeiture of property or even death, depending on the nature of the crime.
  • Teaching of the Catholic faith or being a Catholic bishop or archbishop was punishable by transportation to a colony (usually here in America or Australia); converting a Protestant or returning from transportation was punishable by death.
  • A Protestant could take away a Catholic’s land pretty much at any time unless the Catholic had been a tenant who leased the land for at least 31 years.
  • Catholics could not buy or lease land for long periods of time, own firearms, own a horse worth more than five pounds, serve in the military, law, commerce, or any profession.
  • No Catholic could vote or hold office.
  • The eldest son could only inherit land if he became Protestant.

(See this page for a full list of the laws.)

The Penal laws were relaxed in 1774, modified again in 1778, and repealed in 1782. In 1792-1793 a relief act was passed that allowed Catholics to serve in the military and in professional positions and made the Catholic faith legal once again. They could now vote, serve on juries and had regained most of their civil rights. However, Catholics could not hold seats in Parliament.

In 1823, a Catholic man named Daniel O’Connell, Lord Montague’s dinner guest at the beginning of the novella and later a dear friend of Catherine McAuley, established the Catholic Association, which worked for Catholic Emancipation. They achieved their goal in 1829, just two years after Catherine opened the House of Mercy.

An Irish Penal Rosary. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This prejudice is why Lord Montague specifies he doesn’t want Catholics to apply for the open maid position that Margaret takes. It is also why he freaks out when he finds the Penal Rosary tied to the stays of her dress. Penal Rosaries are smaller versions of the traditional Catholic rosary that could be prayed with less chance of detection while the Penal Laws were in effect.

Tour the House of Mercy

The very last scene of Consequences takes place in the House of Mercy on Baggot Street in Dublin, Ireland. I was fortunate to spend a week there several years ago (we even slept in an adjoining building.)

Part of our reason for being there was to help the Sisters create materials for a fundraising campaign that would fund an endowment to keep the House of Mercy open in perpetuity. One of those materials was a digital tour. I highly recommend checking it out because it gives you a better sense of the House than I ever could. Be sure to click the tabs for all four stories of the House.

I will, however, share a photo of the room in which the last scene took place and also some of my favorites.

The House of Mercy. I love this photo because it gives an idea of how big it is.

Catherine McAuley’s bedroom and also the room in which she died. This is where the last scene in the novella takes place.

A glimpse inside the receiving room.

The choir stalls where the Sisters sat in the chapel.

Me (years ago) kneeling at the Communion Rail inside the chapel.

The view of Catherine’s tomb from inside the House of Mercy. It’s in an interior courtyard of the House and dozens of Sisters are buried in the lawn around her.

Catherine’s tomb

Catherine’s grave inside the tomb.

Tour Coolock House

If you’ve gotten to the part in Consequences where Margaret visits Catherine McAuley at Coolock house, you may be wondering what it really looks like. After all, there was only space in the story to describe the outside, the entryway and one room.

Luckily, I was able to tour it several years ago and I have pictures! Also, there is a nice video of it on Youtube. (I didn’t have anything to do with that.)

Coolock House is today a residence for the Sisters of Mercy, so there were obviously private rooms we could not see.

The gatehouse c. 1870. Image Source: https://www.ceist.ie/a-new-look-at-coolock-house/

Coolock House c. 1906. Image source: https://www.ceist.ie/a-new-look-at-coolock-house/

The exterior of Coolock House. Those are my travel companions on the steps. The two older ladies are Sisters of Mercy and the one in blue is my friend to whom the novella is dedicated.

 

The entryway staircase that features in the novella. See the bell to the right? That’s in my book as well.

 

A sitting room that was the inspiration for the one Catherine and Margret meet in.

 

This was the chair Catherine was sitting in for that scene. They are authentic to the house in the period in which Catherine lived there.

A garden at Coolock House. The view is directly to the left of the front door if you are facing it.

Part of Catherine’s personal tea set.

The Life of Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

If you’ve read my novella, Consequences, or even just the back cover copy, you’ll notice it takes place during the life of Catherine McAuley, a woman most people, especially outside of Ireland, have never heard of.

I found out about her nearly 18 years ago when I started working at my current day job. We can trace our history directly back to Catherine and her ministry. Here’s a brief summary of her life and if you want more details, I recommend the definitive biography of by Mary Sullivan titled The Path of Mercy.

Early Life and Culture

No images of Catherine McAuley exist from her lifetime. This is believed to be the most accurate depiction of her as a laywoman.

Catherine was born on September 28, 1778, into comfortable, middle-class circumstances. But at an early age she began to notice the poor and disadvantaged who were all around her on the streets of Dublin. Crop failures destroyed the agricultural economy and caused terrible famines. Desperate people migrated to the cities to work in factories, where they suffered horrifying working conditions, and those without work often ended up in poorhouses.

It was a time of extremes in Ireland. Social and religious prejudice was pervasive, especially against Catholics like Catherine. The ruling class was Protestant and education was available only to those with property and land, both of which most Catholics did not have thanks to earlier Penal Laws (more on those in a future post) that stripped Catholics of most of their rights. Wealth and poverty sat side by side but there were few resources available to help the poor.

Catherine felt great sorrow when she observed the suffering of the poor, especially disadvantaged women and children. As a girl, her own situation offered her many comforts, although after the death of her father Catherine’s family suffered economic hardships.  She felt called to change the environment in which she found herself and found supporters among both Catholic and Protestant connections.

Catherine’s Life Changes

The House of Mercy with a statue of Catherine out front.

When she was 25, Catherine was invited to live with a Quaker family, the Callaghans, at their country estate, Coolock House. She stayed with them for nearly 20 years, never marrying and taking care of them into their old age. At the age of 44, after having already created a network of services for poor people near Coolock, Catherine received a large inheritance when the Callaghans died within a short time of one another.

With that money she built a large home on Baggot Street in Dublin, bordering a fashionable neighborhood, to serve as a shelter and educational center for young women from poor neighborhoods. Skeptics called the house “Kitty’s Folly,” because her intentions were so daunting. On September 24, 1827, she opened the House of Mercy house on Baggot Street, where it stands today.

The Sisters of Mercy

A painting of Catherine made after her death depicting her as a Sister of Mercy.

The purpose of the House of Mercy was to prepare residents, nearly all women and children, for employment, self-sufficiency. Catherine’s determination and example attracted companions willing to give their time and money to help, but the Church didn’t like that they were lay women and insisted they form a religious order. In 1831, these women became the religious congregation known as the Sisters of Mercy, called “the walking sisters” because of their active involvement among the community.  Thus, in an era when the cloistered life was the norm for women in religious congregations, Catherine McCauley, at the age of 52, founded not only a charity, but also a religious congregation and a new form of religious life.

Catherine McAuley believed that God intended for the poor and the sick to be loved and cared for through action, prayer and philanthropy.  She never wavered from that mission in spite of the difficulties she faced. The Sisters of Mercy fought tuberculosis, cholera epidemics and the ravages of disease, prejudice and poverty. Terrible economic conditions forced many Irish to immigrate to other countries, and the Sisters extended their mission accordingly. The community expanded to 14 locations in Ireland and England before Catherine’s death in 1841.

Today the Sisters of Mercy sponsor a diverse range of ministries and professions.  Their mission is to serve the poor, the sick, and the uneducated through direct service, especially for women, children and the elderly, and to advocate for changes to the systems that create poverty and suffering.

Virtue Recognized by the Catholic Church
On April 9, 1990, Catherine was declared venerable by the Catholic Church. This is the first major step on the road to sainthood and means that her life and writings were closely examined and she was found to possess “heroic virtue.” Additional inquiries into her life will continue until two miracles are declared as occurring by her intercession, at which point she will become a saint. This could take hundreds of years, especially with advances in science making miracles more and more difficult to prove. (The process is much more complex than this, but this is the nutshell version.)

International Domestic Workers Day

In the 10 years I’ve been blogging (10 years today, actually!), I’ve never done two posts in one day because I don’t want to annoy you, my lovely readers. However, I am making an exception today because it is not only publication day for my new novella, Consequences, but also International Domestic Workers Day, which ties in closely with the plot and themes of the book.

Did you know that the men and women who clean our houses, tend our gardens, care for our children, aging parents and the disabled have practically no rights under U.S. Law? As such, many live below the poverty line and they are still routinely subject to unfair labor practices, abuse and even human trafficking. Read my op-ed in The Hill to learn more.

I knew nothing about this before I started research for this book. But since, I have become very passionate about it. I’ll be posting updates as things in Washington D.C. and other states happen because I intend to stay involved in this issue.

What You Can Do
If you employ domestic workers, know the law where you live and be sure they are paid and treated fairly. If you need help, Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network is there to guide you.

Contact your representatives and urge them to fight for a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, especially Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jayapal, who sponsored the 2019 bill. Congress holds the keys to a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights moving forward. Let them know that you support fair labor and employment practices for all and will no longer be silent while domestic workers are treated like second-class citizens.

Consequences is Out Today!

All decisions have consequences. Some are deadly. Others never let you go.

  • What would you do if your current living situation put you in mortal peril but you had no one to turn to?
  • How would you feel if someone you trusted betrayed you to someone with ill intent?
  • What would you do if someone came to you seeking help but you said no?
  • How would you feel if you never found out what happened to that person?

These are the questions at the heart of Consequences, my first historical novella, which is out today. This 35-page story is based on an actual event in the life of Catherine McAuley, a 19th century lay woman (later turned nun) who founded the Sisters of Mercy.

I first heard the story of the domestic servant whom Catherine turned away more than 15 years ago. That act was so in contradiction with who Catherine was and what she stood for that it stayed with me all this time. (It’s said it haunted Catherine as well.) I finally decided a few years ago to tell a fictional account of that servant’s story, to try to better understand what may have happened. Here’s the back cover copy:

Famous for her hospitality, Venerable Catherine McAuley only ever turned away one woman who came to her for help, and that decision haunted her for the rest of her life.

This is that servant’s story.

Dublin – 1824. When a fellow maid is forced to temporarily vacate her position under scandalous circumstances, Margaret finds herself in an elevated position under the watchful eye of their master, the infamous Lord Montague. He believes in total obedience from those in his employ and when she dares to fight back, Margaret is left with no choice but to flee or face his wrath. Desperate, she seeks out a pious spinster named Catherine McAuley who is known for her charity to the poor. The decisions both women make upon meeting will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, as well as everyone in their orbit.

Based on a true story, this heart-pounding historical tale will leave you wondering just how much has really changed in the last two hundred years.

The story is only available in ebook because it is too short to justify the cost of printing a hard copy. It is only available on Amazon (at least for now) and is free to Kindle Unlimited members and $2.99 to everyone else.

Don’t have a Kindle? Don’t worry! Just download the Kindle app to any smart phone, tablet or other device and you’ll be able to read it.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about the historical people and places behind Consequences to give those who have read it more context and hopefully entice those of you who are on the fence to buy it.

Special note for book clubs: If you are in a book club, I encourage you to make this one of your selections. It’s short (should take only about 60 mins to read), cheaper than a physical book and as long as everyone has a way to read it electronically, it would be a great one for discussion. Here are some questions to foster discussion. (Warning: they contain spoilers!) I also have ideas for themed food and music to go along with your discussion.

I’m more than happy to meet via Zoom, Facetime, whatever to talk with your group! Email me at nicole (dot) evelina (at) att (dot) net if you are interested.

Consequences Novella Now Available for Pre-order!

You may remember a year or so ago (okay two) when I mentioned I was writing a short story for an anthology to aid survivors of human trafficking. Well, the anthology didn’t come to pass, but my story did and it will hit virtual shelves June 16 in ebook format.

It turned out to be a novella, which means its slightly longer than a short story, but by no means a novel–about 10,000 words. It should only take about an hour to read. (If you have another tablet or reader you can always download the Kindle app.)

Pre-order now. The story is free to Kindle Unlimited members and only $2.99 to everyone else.

What’s it about?

Famous for her hospitality, Venerable Catherine McAuley only ever turned away one woman who came to her for help, and that decision haunted her for the rest of her life.

This is that servant’s story.

Dublin – 1824. When a fellow maid is forced to temporarily vacate her position under scandalous circumstances, Margaret finds herself in an elevated position under the watchful eye of their master, the infamous Lord Montague. He believes in total obedience from those in his employ and when she dares to fight back, Margaret is left with no choice but to flee or face his wrath. Desperate, she seeks out a pious spinster named Catherine McAuley who is known for her charity to the poor. The decisions both women make upon meeting will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, as well as everyone in their orbit.

Based on a true story, this heart-pounding historical tale will leave you wondering just how much has really changed in the last two hundred years.

Why June 16?

June 16 is International Domestic Workers Day. Though we may think of abuse of servants as a thing of the past, unfortunately it is not. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that doesn’t have any official national law or international compact protecting domestic workers or ensuring fair labor practices for them. Plus, thousands are trafficked every year. I chose to Consequences on this date to shed light on this terrible problem.

Unpublished Short Story Makes it into the Quarterfinals of the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Competition

An unpublished short story that I wrote, Consequences, has made it into the Quarterfinals of the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Competition. The quarterfinals represent the top 356 stories out of over 1,500 submissions.

Consequences is historical fiction that tells the story of a real-life event in the life of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy religious order. Before she became a Sister, Catherine used her inheritance to build a refuge for poor women and children called the House of Mercy across from the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. One day while the House was still being constructed, a young domestic servant who was “in moral peril” due to poor treatment by her master came to Catherine seeking refuge. Catherine did everything she could to find a place for this girl to go, but failed. Instead of taking her into her own home, for some reason that has been lost to history, Catherine, a normally overly accommodating woman, turned the servant away. She never saw the girl again and it haunted her for the rest of her life. (Catherine is now on the path to sainthood in the Catholic church, being declared Venerable – step 1 of 3 to becoming a saint – in 1990.)

Consequences is the servant’s story or at least what I imagine it to be. I first heard about this story nearly 20 years ago and the paradox of Catherine’s normally charitable and saintly life with her actions in this incident has long stuck in my mind. I knew it was something I had to explore. Consequences was written for an anthology that has not taken shape. Hopefully I will be able to share it with you in the future, but I don’t want to put it online because then it would be considered published.

This is the best short story I’ve ever written, so I’m really proud of it. We’ll see if it goes anywhere in this competition. It looks like the semifinalists will be announced some time next month.