§ 2.—Edict Against The Clergy.
Whilst some Catholic soldiers remained in the island, the Puritan persecutors did not display the full excess of their fury. Their first care, therefore, was to rid themselves of that check to their ferocity. Every facility was given to the foreign courts to transport the Irish soldiers to their service. "The agent of the Spanish government (writes a contemporary author in 1654), transferred thousands and thousands of them every month partly to Spain and partly to Belgium." Borlase estimates the number of those transported in the year 1654 alone at 27,000; and another historian adds, that altogether no fewer than 40,000 Catholics were thus banished from Ireland to the Continent, to be a standing monument of the persecuting spirit of Puritanism, whilst they, at the same time, filled all Europe with admiration of their valour.
The troops being thus removed, on the 6th of January, 1653, the first edict of persecution was published against the Catholic clergy. By it all ecclesiastics, secular and regular, were commanded, under penalty of treason, to depart from the kingdom within, twenty days; and should they return, they incurred the penalties and confiscations specified in the 27th of Queen Elizabeth, that is, they were "to be hanged, cut down while yet alive, beheaded, quartered, embowelled, and burned; the head to be set on a spike, and exposed in the most public place." In addition to this, the new act commanded that every person who, after the twenty days thus specified, should harbour or receive into his house any ecclesiastic, " would incur the confiscation of his property, and be put to death without hope of mercy.''
Thus did the persecutors seek to deprive the fold of its pastors; and we cannot but here adopt the words of Dominick de Rosario, "Right well did England know that her triumph would never be secure as long as the ministers of the Catholic religion, who kept watch over the flock, were suffered to live in the land." ( Loc. cit. 229.)
An example of the severity with which this edict was carried into execution, is recorded in the narrative of the condition of Ireland in 1654.
"When this edict was published the superior of the Jesuits was lying sick of fever in the house of a respectable citizen, unable to move in bed, not to say to journey on foot or on horseback; a petition was, therefore, presented to the governor of the city that he might be allowed to remain some few days till his strength should return. But the governor replied, though the whole body of the Jesuit was dead, and life remained only in one hand or one foot, he must at once quit every inch of Ireland. The sick man was forthwith seized in bed, hurried along for about seventy Irish miles in the midst of a severe winter to a seaport, and there, with two other Jesuits and forty secular priests, was cast into a vessel bound for Spain."
The annual letters of the society of Jesus (anno 1662), having referred to the just-mentioned decree, adds:—
"It is easy to imagine what whirlwinds of dangers then assailed the Catholic community in this island; and yet the assault evidenced how little the persecutors gained by that edict, for the more their fury raged against the priests, the more courageous did these become to encounter every danger; and although very many of them in each city of the kingdom were cast into prison, of whom some were hanged on gibbets, some expired, overcome by the sufferings of their filthy dungeons, some were sent into exile to Spain, and others transported as slaves to the Barbadoes, yet those who escaped from the enemy's pursuit were not deterred by such impending dangers from the discharge of their ministry; and others who, scattered through the various academies of Europe, were engaged preparing themselves for the Irish mission, on seeing the harvest now ripe for the sickle, and hoping for more abundant spiritual fruit amidst these temporal disasters, in greater numbers than was known for many years, abandoned their studies and entered on their field of labour. In the mean time the magistrates, lest the edict might fall into oblivion, and in order to strike greater terror into those who might give shelter to the clergy, caused it to be proclaimed anew each year throughout the entire kingdom; whence it happened that the greatest part of the priests, unwilling to create danger for their flocks, lived in caverns, or on the mountains, or through the woods, or in remote hiding places, and often, too, were obliged to pass the winter without any shelter, concealed amidst the branches of the trees. This deplorable condition of the kingdom fills all the Catholics with terror."
This decree was carried into execution with the greatest rigour, and no mercy was shown to whosoever was found to violate it. Dr. Burgatt presents us with the following details as to the number of the clergy who were sent into exile, or suffered extreme penalty at this direful period:—
"In the year 1649," he writes, "there were in Ireland twenty seven bishops, four of whom were metropolitans. In each cathedral there were dignitaries and canons; each parish had its pastors; there was, moreover, a large number of other priests, and innumerable convents of the regular clergy. But when Cromwell, with exceeding great cruelty, persecuted the clergy, all were scattered. More than three hundred were put to death by the sword or on the scaffold amongst whom were three bishops; more than a thousand were sent into exile, and amongst these all the surviving bishops, with one only exception, the Bishop of Kilmore who, weighed down by age and infirmities, as he was unfit to discharge the episcopal functions, so too was he unable to seek safety by flight. And thus for some years our island remained deprived of its bishops, a thing never before known during the many centuries since we first received the light of Catholic faith."
To discover the clergy that remained in the kingdom, spies and informers scoured the country on every side, impelled partly by hatred to religion, partly by the proffered reward. Five pounds was the sum held out by government for the apprehension of a priest, together with a third part of the property of the person on whose lands he should be discovered; moreover, the profession of informer was declared an honourable one, and such persons were, by virtue of the edict, to receive the special favour of the Crown, and to be promoted to offices and dignities, as men well deserving of the State.
Owing to this diligence of the persecutors, the number of the Catholic priests that escaped their search was comparatively few:—" The prisons were everywhere filled with prelates, priests, and religious, some of whom were executed on the scaffold, others were privately butchered, whilst the greater number were sent into exile." Thus writes the Superior of the Jesuits in 1652.
Another writer, to whom we have more than once referred, describes the state of Ireland in 1654, and contrasts the comparative ease with which the Catholic clergy had in former years evaded the penal statutes, with the difficulty of remaining concealed amidst the present perils, and adds:—
"Now the whole aspect of the kingdom is changed; difficulties and dangers are met with at every step; no human industry can enable us to avoid them, but all must be left to a watchful Providence. The cities and towns are now wholly occupied by the heretics, and the Catholics are banished from them; the castles and country residences of the gentry are converted into barracks, or if not, are held by heretical new-comers. No one is allowed to travel through the country without being examined at every mile by the soldiery; you have to show the letters patent of the magistrate of the district from which you come, and in them your age, stature, beard, colour of hair, condition of life, and many other special characteristics are mentioned, and if you are found wanting in any one of them, you are immediately arrested as a spy or a priest, nor is there any hope of the soldiers' sentence being reversed, for each soldier has the juridical right by martial law to arrest any person he may suspect, and inflict capital punishment. The same martial law authorizes them to enter the house of any Catholic, at any hour of the day or night, and explore every corner of it, under the pretence, forsooth, of detecting and arresting priests. And lest any of the soldiers should he enticed by bribes to allow any priest to escape, the English Government offers a larger reward of each discovery than could be hoped for from the oppressed and impoverished Catholics. The soldiers, therefore, partly impelled by hatred for the Catholic religion, and partly urged on by avarice and the hope of lucre, never cease by day or by night to beset the houses of the Catholics, and explore their most secret recesses; moreover, they hire spies, and keep them in various quarters, that they may thus receive information of any rumour that may be heard of the arrival of a priest in the neighbourhood."
Taken from - MEMOIRS OF THE MOST REV. OLIVER PLUNKET, WHO SUFFERED DEATH FOR THE CATHOLIC FAITH IN THE YEAR 1681.