Our country, once the island of saints, was now wholly become a prey to the persecutors. As Judea of old its cities were desolate, its altars were overthrown, everything sacred was trampled on, its priests were led to the scaffold, and the inhabitants that yet survived were subjected to a worse than Assyrian captivity:—
"Neither the Israelites were more cruelly persecuted by Pharoah, nor the innocent infants by Herod, nor the Christians by Nero, or any other of the pagan tyrants, than were the Roman Catholics of Ireland at this fatal juncture."
In the history of the Jesuit missions in Ireland, this sad period of our country's suffering is thus depicted:—
"The heretical enemy having overcome every obstacle, and possession of the whole kingdom, raged with such fury against all ecclesiastics and everything dedicated to religion, that the Turks or the very demons from hell could not display greater impiety or ferocity. Everywhere the public crosses and other emblems of the Catholic religion were overturned, the altars were destroyed, the chapels profaned, and used as storehouses or stables; the stained glass windows, on which the sacred history of our Saviour's life, and the images of saints were represented, were everywhere demolished; the sepulchres and monuments of the dead were broken open and scattered, that no memory should remain of the Catholic religion ; the bells were thrown down and broken; the sacred images and vestments were torn to atoms; the statues of the Blessed Virgin and the saints were dragged through the public streets, with ropes around the neck, besmeared with filth, and hanged from gibbets; the priests and religious were treated with a thousand indignities, cast into prison and butchered; the Catholics were despoiled of their goods, laden with oppressive burdens and treated as slaves. I could mention a thousand horrible instances of such cruelty; and many, too, were the miraculous interpositions of Providence to avenge their impiety. Frequently were seen in the public squares heaps of Catholic books and sacred ornaments and images to be destroyed by fire; the Catholic citizens were expelled from their houses and possessions; and the most noble families were subjected to the lowest and most degrading offices; children and youths were torn from their parents; aged matrons and noble ladies were seized on as servants and employed in the most menial occupations. Truly this persecution of the Catholics was direful, envenomed; cunning, astute; the heretics feigned that they did not persecute individuals, but only the superstitions and abominations of popery (this was their language). However, these things they persecuted in individuals, and individuals suffered death for them. There was no restraint on the soldiery when pursuing the Catholics; the persecutors were at the same time accusers, witnesses, and judges; by day and by night they burst into the houses of the Catholics; they broke open rooms and desks and private drawers under the pretence of searching for ecclesiastics, and even when no resistance was offered them, they invented whatever suited their designs, and took away with them whatsoever they pleased. It was a capital crime for any ecclesiastic to enter a city, or town, or garrison, to offer the holy Sacrifice, or to administer the sacraments; and for doing so many suffered death ; the same penalty was incurred by whosoever received a priest into his dwelling. No individual could sleep in any of these places without signing his name and receiving an express permission from the governor; those who came were minutely examined, as to who they were, whence they came, what there business, &c."
All the religious houses were levelled to the ground, and the religious themselves either led to the scaffold or sent into banishment. In the acts of the general Chapter of the Dominican order, held in Rome in 1656, we read of the Irish Province:—
"Abundant was the harvest that in our own times ripened there for the heavenly Master, of those forsooth who suffered extreme torture for the Catholic faith; of forty-three convents that our order possessed in that island, there is not one now remaining, all, through the heretical fury, being consumed by fire, razed to the ground, or devoted to profane use. In the year 1646, we numbered 600 friars there, now not a fourth part remain, and even they are exiles from their native shores, the others being all either crowned with martyrdom or condemned to a lengthened death in the islands of Barbadoes."
The sufferings of the Jesuits were not less severe. Before the Puritan invasion they were eighty in number, they possessed six colleges, eight residences, besides many oratories and schools; but in the universal desolation only seventeen fathers remained, and they too lost everything, not even retaining an image or a book, or the breviary itself: and when the holy Sacrifice was to be offered up, it was only in some cave or granary, or obscure corner, and anticipating the morning aurora, the house and windows being closed, and few being admitted. The fathers being dispersed and scattered, sought a refuge in various places; some in the towns and huts of the poor, others in the mountains and woods, with difficulty dragging along a miserable existence, that they might assist and console the Catholic outcasts; some there were who, in the disguise of rustics or mendicants, visited the cities and towns, and now in one house, now in another, offered the Holy Sacrifice, and administered the Sacrament. From a petition presented to the Sacred Congregation in 1654, we learn that all the Franciscans and Capuchins were likewise banished, some few alone remaining in the island, who lived " as shepherds or herdsmen, or tillers of the soil."
At the same time the convents of the nuns were destroyed, and their inmates, wheresoever they had not consulted for their safety by flight, were treated with inhuman barbarity De Burgo has preserved the memory of two (page 572,) who were crowned with a glorious martyrdom. One, almost in her hundredth year, was discovered in her place of concealment, and despoiled of everything, even of her very garments; the barbarians, moreover, inflicted on her many severe wounds, and she lived only long enough to be borne by her maid to a neighbouring oratory, that she might expire before the altar of our Lady; the other, who was younger in years, fled from the hands of her pursuers, and some days afterwards, was found frozen to death in the hollow of a tree, in an adjoining wood, in which she had taken refuge.
Dr. John Lynch, in his Cambrensis Eversus, published in 1662, likens the sufferings inflicted on the Irish Catholics by the Puritans, to those meditated by Antiochus against the Jews: he applies to them the words of Tobias, (iii. 4,) " We are delivered to spoil and to captivity and death, and are made a fable and a reproach to all nations." And again, those of St. Jerome: "The bishops are taken prisoners, the priests slain, the churches thrown down, horses stabled at the altar of Christ, everywhere grief, everywhere lamentation, and death in a thousand shapes." But, he adds, "we have long been familiar with such scenes, and as nail drives nail, our fresh wounds efface the memory of our former ones."—(Vol. i. p. 9.)
It would be difficult to find any parallel for all the sufferings which our country thus endured. The writers of this period continually re-echo the passage of the Lamentations:—" The child and the old man lie without on the ground : my virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword: thou hast slain them in the day of thy wrath: thou hast killed and shewn them no pity." The author of Cambrensis Eversus just referred to, (pp. 21-5,) well remarks, that the cruelty of the Puritans combined the malice of all preceding persecutions, and no better parallel can be found for the dread desolation of the whole kingdom, than what we read in Sacred Writ, when the chosen people saw their temple razed, their sanctuary polluted, their cities laid waste, and the people become a bye-word among the nations. To cite any further extracts from the contemporary writers when commemorating this sad scene of universal destruction, would be merely to repeat, the same phrases; for, so general was the ruin, that it admitted of but little variety in depicting it. We shall therefore conclude this article with the words of Bruodin:—"Ireland being entirely subjugated, and scourged by God with pestilence, famine, and the sword, the churches were everywhere profaned, the altars overthrown, the sacred images broken to atoms, the crosses trampled under foot, the priests banished or led to the scaffold .... and no words can express how many and how great were the evils which the Catholics that survived were compelled to endure."—(p. 639.)
Taken from - MEMOIRS OF THE MOST REV. OLIVER PLUNKET, WHO SUFFERED DEATH FOR THE CATHOLIC FAITH IN THE YEAR 1681.