The Catholic Community in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries    
Monsignor Patrick Corish, 1981, 156 pages

Monsignor Patrick Corish, who died in 2013, was the Professor of Modern History in St. Patrick’s College Maynooth when he wrote ‘The Catholic Community in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’ in 1981.

Given the era which Corish examined, this short book is of particular interest for contemporary observers reflecting on the recent collapse of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Dramatic though the fall in the Church’s moral authority and social standing has been, it pales in comparison with what Catholics endured between 1600-1800.

Clerical and lay, rich and poor, the Catholic community suffered unprecedented hardship in these centuries.

In terms of political representation, Catholics lost their majority in the Irish Parliament in 1613, and would gradually lose all their political rights.

Political oppression was combined with economic subjugation. In 1641, 59 percent of Irish land was owned by Catholics. This fell to 22 percent in 1688 and 14 percent in 1703, and 5 percent by the time the Penal Laws were finally relaxed in the late 1700s.

Those same Penal Laws severely limited the rights of Catholics to exercise their faith. In the 16th century, Catholic churches had been ransacked and seized. In the 17th century, there were concerted efforts to wipe out the clergy.

After a decade of Cromwellian rule, the figures for the number of priests in some of the dioceses told the story well: eight in Ferns, seven in Dublin, six in Kildare.

Yet as Corish describes, by the latter half of the century it was clear that the ruling class no longer considered the mass conversion of Irish Catholics to be desirable. Instead, as one Protestant observer wrote, the system was designed “to make them poor and to keep them poor…to degrade them into a servile class”.

In spite of all this humiliation, the Irish Church retained its core structure and significance and was, as the author points out, unique across Europe.

Whereas some Protestant-controlled countries like England or the Netherlands had Catholic missions which catered to the population, Ireland had a Catholic Church, whose position in society was not dependent on any links to the State.

Throughout this period, Catholics sought to rebuild the parish system which had been impacted by the Reformation, and while England’s Catholic community had to wait until 1850 to reestablish its hierarchy, almost every Irish diocese had a bishop in place by 1730.

Corish’s account is not primarily focused on political developments or the status of the hierarchy, however, but on the life of the community writ large.

Historical accounts of Ireland’s Catholic past often present a contrast between a simple and devoted populace and the current and depressing reality.

What is most striking in Corish’s work, however, is not the differences between what the situation of Irish Catholics was then and the situation now, but how Catholicism was practised at the time.

Factionalism was a major problem, and serious differences existed between Old English Catholics and Gaelic Irish Catholics throughout the 17th century.

During Church synods in the early 1600s, churchmen expressed concerns that many families treated baptisms not as a sacrament, but “as a social occasion for the strengthening of kin-groups,” which forced the hierarchy to emphasise the need to limit the number of godparents to two.

“There were many other social occasions, for the laity baptisms and marriages, for the clergy patronal feasts, where the bishops complained of excessive, indeed ruinous, expense on the provision of lavish food, drink and entertainment for the great crowds, clergy and laity, who were expected to come and came,” Corish wrote, before adding that “[i]t was not easy to change this practice, for it reflected a deeply-felt need to appear flaithiúlach in the eyes of one’s peers.”

When the papal nuncio Archbishop Rinuccini travelled to Ireland in the 1640s, he was critical of the Irish clergy, many of whom had ceased wearing clerical dress.

Corish also notes that even among Catholics who were willing to suffer for their religion, actual religious education was sparse. Writing in 1688, a priest in the diocese of Achonry described Catholics speaking of three Gods: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, sometimes adding the Blessed Virgin as the fourth. Another popular oath, the priest recorded, involved swearing by the “seven all-powerful persons of the Trinity”.

In addition to painting a vivid picture of the conditions in which the Catholic community lived, Corish also provided fascinating insights into how they overcame these challenges.

This involved compromises in many areas. During the period when only the Anglican church was legally allowed to perform the rites of passage accompanying baptism, marriage and death, Catholics would pay small fees to local Protestant ministers which would leave them free to seek the sacraments from their own church.

In the educational field, Catholics resisted legislation preventing them from educating their children, and in so doing established extensive school systems outside of the state’s control.

It required the resolve of an entire community to do so, and it was this same unity and resolve which saw Catholic merchants rise to prominence with the support of their co-religionist customers, a support so obvious that a Cork Protestant complained in 1737 that “if a papist at the gallows wanted an ounce of hemp, he’d skip the Protestant shops and run to Mallow Lane to get it”.

Thus, slowly but surely, Ireland’s Catholic community gradually regained its rightful position. The opportunity presented by the various Catholic Relief Acts in the late 1700s were seized upon, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would be far brighter.

What does this teach us now?

For all that the Irish Catholic community has suffered in recent decades, it in no way compares to the violent persecution which it has previously withstood.

Corish’s book shows that hardly any of today’s difficulties – hostility from the establishment, social pressure to abandon faith, the dilution of Catholicism into a meaningless social ritual and widespread religious ignorance – are unprecedented.

It also shows that a community which has lost so much can recover and rebuild. It has happened before, and could happen again.

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including...