After Cromwell, Charlestown in Co. Mayo

The Banishment Act of 1697 was a cruel act brought in by our dear rulers at the time, The English Government. It was an injustice brought on in the wake of the barbaric atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell, who said that he was "persuaded that it was a righteous judgement of God upon those barbaric wretches". The horrors of Queen Elizabeth the 1st reign still apparent in a devastated land.

The Penal Laws appertaining to the Act forbade Catholics, not covered by the Treaty of Limerick to keep weapons, to sever links between Irish Catholics and Continental allies. They could not travel overseas for education and banning of anyone teaching in a school or involved in the running of a school in Ireland.

The Banishment Act required all registered clergy, all Bishops and Vicars General, to leave the Kingdom by May 1698. Some other Clergy were allowed to stay, but an Act of 1704 required them to register with the Authorities, limiting the number to one Priest for each parish and forbade the entry of further priests from abroad.

The priest-hunting days of Elizabeth 1st would return with the odious traitors and informers re-appearing with the smell of blood money. This Act was to "prevent the further growth of Popery" and to stop Catholics from buying land and inheriting it from Protestants.

The subordinate Protestant Parliament in Dublin in 1697, passed the Popery Act with the aim of expelling all Catholic Bishops and higher clergy. Priests who agreed to swear allegiance to the Crown and abjured the right to go about their priestly duties, to be secular, rather than religious and who registered with the Authorities, who could then monitor their activities, were permitted to stay. A small number agreed to these conditions rather than leave their flock without spiritual guidance.

The penalty for non-compliance was execution or transportation. Those who would not accept these conditions had to go into hiding. It was this period that saw "Mass rocks" flourishing. I visited one of these Mass rocks recently, with my friend Hugh Conway. It is situated in Masshill, near Joe Dan’s pub, Mullany’s Crossroads, near Lough Talt in South Sligo. We visited this historic place after a wonderful walk organised by the South Sligo Walking Committee.

By the turn of the century, Dr Patrick Donnelly, who ministered in South Armagh, was one of only two Catholic bishops said to be operating in Ireland. He, of course, had to operate in disguise - his normal disguise was that of a wandering minstrel - he assumed the title of Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. Patrick Donnelly was born in Desertcreaght, Cookstown, Co Tyrone in 1650.

Some part of his education was at the hands of the Jesuits, at their hedge school in Drogheda. He was ordained to the priest-hood by Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, at Dundalk in 1673.

Afterwards he travelled on foot (as a minstrel) in the counties of Louth, Armagh, Down, Tyrone and Derry, guiding, exhorting and advising his outlaw Priests and his unfortunate people. He did not escape detection and was arrested in 1706 and jailed for over a year, before being released for lack of evidence.

He immediately resumed his sacred mission and consecrated Edmund Byrne, as Archbishop of Dublin, as well as elevating another priest to the bishopric of Killala. Then it was back to his refuge in the sanctuary of Armagh’s Slieve Gullion, the Mountains of the Hill Slopes, where he rested between his duties and entertaining on the harp. He died in 1716, aged 66.

The great devotion in which he was held was illustrated in the funeral cortege afforded him by his loving people. Having to act secretly by night, for fear of the Authorities, they carried his coffin from parish to parish across the hills of Armagh and Tyrone, laying him to rest in his native parish and his own family grave, at Desertcreaght.

© Cathal Henry 2011

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