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The Penal laws were relaxed in 1774, modified again in 1778, and repealed in 1782.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.

Christmas Traditions: Christmas Mass

This is the altar at the Church my great-grandfather helped build, and where my grandfather lectured and my dad serves as parish council president. We attend Mass here every Christmas.

This is sixth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. Source: The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England by M. Bradford Bedingfield. 

Originally, there were three different Christmas Masses that made up the celebration of Christmas, which is why you will see “Midnight Mass,” “Mass at Dawn” and “Christmas Day Mass” celebrated at different times at many Christian/Catholic churches. While today we only attend one of those Masses, early Christians attended all three. Midnight Mass served pretty much the same thematic purpose as Advent does today (Advent as we know it can about the year 700…more on that later) as a time of looking forward to the coming of the Messiah as the light out of darkness. Mass at Dawn celebrates Christ coming into the world and likens him to the Sun. It is also the delivery of the message of the angels to the shepherds and hence, all people. Because in the Holy Land this Mass ended with a procession from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, Masses in other places ended with a procession into the crypt of the church. In this way, the people could be seen as rising from the darkness of death into light when they emerged for Christmas Day Mass, which focused on the birth of Jesus. These themes are still present in the three Masses of Christmas today.

What are your holiday religious traditions? (If you have any.)

I always go to Christmas Eve Mass, which is special to me, with my parents and sometimes grandparents.

Celtic Christianity

Image by Keith Talbot of KT Art

Up until now, I’ve focused mainly on the Druid religion in my posts. That’s because the majority of my characters are pagan. But in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Christianity was gaining a strong foothold in England, so I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Celtic Christianity, the religion to which some of my favorite characters adhere.

At the time of Arthur and Guinevere, there were three main branches of Christianity: Roman, Celtic and Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox)/Oriental. That Britain had its own unique brand of Christianity is perhaps not that surprising, given its relative isolation from the rest of Europe after the departure of the Romans in 410 AD.

I’m not an expert in Celtic Christianity, nor do I aim to be, but I did some research to learn more about the early days of this religion in Britain. It seems to have started sometime around the end of the fourth century and continued until the Synod of Whitby in 644, when the Roman Church prevailed. Here are the main differences between Celtic Christianity and the Roman sect:

  1. The Calculation of Easter – Along with the tonsure  (see #2), the date of Easter was the biggest controversy that kept the Celtic Church divided from the Roman tradition. The calculation of the date of Easter has always been very complicated, involving a lunisolar calendar (time in the solar year as well as the phases of the moon). As time went on, the calculations changed, but the updated information didn’t always reach Britain. So chances are good this controversy arose by accident, with the Britons thinking they were doing the right thing.
  2. The Tonsure – Tonsure refers to the way religious men (monks, ans sometimes priests) shaved their hair to show their religious calling. The Roman Church said the top of the head was to be shaved, with a circle of hair allowed to grow around it (think Friar Tuck). The Celtic custom was to draw a line over the head from ear to ear and shave the hair in front of it (picture a mullet with nothing in the very front). The Roman authorities claimed their style dated back to St. Peter and claimed the Celtic style was modeled on a pagan magus (likely a Druid). I fail to understand why this was such a big deal. And if the story of St. Peter is to be believed, just because he was balding meant all men who followed in his ministry had to be, too? That hardly seems fair!
  3. Baptism – At the time, most people entering the Church were adults (although infant baptism was practiced as well). The Roman and Celtic churches bickered over whether the candidate was to be sprinkled with water (as many churches do today) or immersed, and if immersed, should they be dunked three times or only one? At the time, both conferred First Communion and Confirmation at the time of Baptism. However, oil (chrism) was a scarce resource that had to imported to Britain, so it is said that sometimes Confirmation in the Celtic Church was performed without it, something the Roman authorities didn’t like. The Celtic Church also added on to the Baptism rite a unique, sacred foot washing ceremony, much like Jesus is said to have done at the Last Supper. (I would have love to have seen this. It sounds like it could have been very moving.)
  4. Consecration of Bishops – Bishops held office in Britain as early as 314 AD. In Roman tradition, three bishops were required to consecrate a new bishop, but in the Celtic Church it was less likely for three to be able to get together so they (gasp!) sometimes only had one bishop to consecrate a new one. There was also some quibbling over the proper prayers to be said at this rite.
  5. Naming/Consecrating Churches – In Roman tradition, churches were always named after dead saints, but the Celtic Church often named churches after their living benefactors, which caused quite the scandal.
  6. Differences in the Mass – I won’t bore you with the details (in fact I’m not enough of a theologian to really understand them), but suffice it to say there were regional differences in the prayers said at Mass and even the order in which things were performed. Priests even had latitude to make up their own prayers for many centuries, and chances were very good the Celtic Church incorporated a lot of the pagan traditions of the people. (Yet another reason for the Roman sect to want to suppress it.)

What does this tell me? For one, making a mountain out of a mole hill is a long and venerable tradition in the Church. And so is the desire for conformity. That is probably the thing that comes through the clearest in my Christian characters. They have their rules and they want everyone around them to abide by them. But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of Biblical values. They are also some of the kindest, most merciful people in my stories. Like every other group, you have your good ones and your bad ones – and frankly, the bad ones are most fun to write and read. I can’t wait to introduce all of you to Father Marius, who is the reason I did this research into Celtic Christianity to begin with. If I’ve done my job, you’ll love to hate him.

Do any of you know anything about Celtic Christianity (the ancient religion, not the modern revivals)? If so, I’d love to hear about it.