As the wars in Munster were solely on account of religion, it is needful to keep sight of the “Reformation.” In the year 1575, a very singular letter was addressed to the Queen of England by Sir Henry Sidney, then lord deputy, in which the writer undertakes an exposition of the state of his province in matters ecclesiastical.1 He takes as an example the diocese of Meath, ”the best peopled diocese, and best governed country,“ he calls it, of this realm, of which the queen’s bishop at that time was one Brady. Sir Henry says there were in that diocese two hundred and twenty-four parish churches, of which one hundred and five were served by “very simple and sorry curates,” and of these curates only eighteen were found able to speak English, ”the rest Irish priests, or rather,” as he prefers to call them, “Irish rogues.” In many places the very walls of the churches were down, “very few chancels covered, windows and doors ruined.” And if such be the estate of the church in Meath diocese Sidney leaves her Majesty to conjecture in what case the rest is. “Yea, so profane and heathenish,” he continues, “are some parts of this your country become, as it hath been preached publicly before me, that the sacrament of baptism is not used among them; and truly I believe it.” Spenser’s account of the state of religion is still more dismal; the clergy, “generally bad“ — “the churches even with the ground” — ”the bishops keeping the benefices in their own hands and ”setting up their own servants and horseboys to take up the tithes and fruits of them.” In all the world had not been seen “such an overthrown church.” “The kingdom in general,” says Dr. Mant, “was at this time overwhelmed by the most deplorable immorality and irreligion.” Statements these which to those unacquainted with the peculiar phraseology of the writers might convey an impression of hideous national crime. But “religion” and “the church” meant, with them, only the Protestant religion and the queen’s clergy. The universal Catholicism of the people was accounted only as so much irreligion; for the same Spenser informs us that the popish priests, “lurking secretly in the houses and in comers of the country doe more hurt and hindrance to religion with their private persuasions than all the others can do good with their publique instructions.” And he much marvels at the zeal of these priests, which he says “it is a great wonder to see;” “how they spare not to come out of Spaine, from Rome and from Remes, by long toyle and dangerous travayling hither, where they know perill of death awayteth them, and no reward or richesse.“ Dr. Leland, while he deplores the gloomy prospect, as he calls it, admits that “where the reformed clergy could neither be regarded nor understood, the priests spoke to their countrymen and kinsmen in their own language, and were heard with attention, favour and affection.“ And Doctor Mant, after lamenting the general “irreligion” admits, as it were incidentally, that “It is true there existed in the kingdom other intrusive missionaries sent by the bishop of Rome, as opponents of the sovereign, the laws, and the church of the kingdom.” 

The overthrow of church buildings mentioned by Sidney and Spenser, may be accounted for by their being generally turned into fortresses by the queen’s troops; “for in the churches dedicated to the saints it was most usual with them to reside,” says an Irish chronicler.2 And as the Irish loved no strong places upon their borders, they made no scruple, when occasion served, of burning and destroying them like the other castles of the English. We have seen how the cathedral of Derry and Armagh fared in the wars of Shane O’Neill; and about the same period3 the church of Athenry, in Galway, was laid in ashes by the Mac-an-Earlas, sons of the Earl of Clanrickard; and when men cried out sacrilege and parricide, for their mother lay buried there, one of them fiercely answered, ”If his mother were alive in the church he would sooner burn her and it together than any English should fortify there.” 

On the whole we may collect that little or no progress had yet been made in reducing the Irish people under the Queen of England’s jurisdiction, either temporal or spiritual. The peerages created by King Henry had begun to be regarded in their true light as badges of servitude, and despised accordingly. Thomond, like Tyrone, could endure no earldoms within its bounds, and on the death of the first earl of that title, had compelled his successor to nominate a Tanist after the manner of his fathers, and to comport himself in all respects like an Irish prince. Some years later Mac Carthy-More flung to the winds his coronet of Clancarthy,4 assumed the title of King of Munster, and “invaded the Lord Roche’s country with banners displayed” as an Eugenian chieftain ought. 

But file great Anglo-Irish family of Fitzgerald were the most powerful antagonists of English authority in Munster. Gerald, the head of that tribe, (and by his English title, Earl of Desmond,) was then the most potent chieftain of the south; had a vast following, royal privileges, many fair castles and wide domains; and through his palatinate of Kerry, and from the Shannon to the Blackwater, from Carrig-a-foyle to his good town of Kilmallock, and eastward to Youghal, the Geraldine administered justice, levied war, and held his state like a sovereign prince as he was. His attachment to the ancient religion caused him to be looked to as the champion of the Catholic cause in the south. The earl and his countess had received, with distinction, Leverous, bishop of Kildare, when deprived of his see for refusing the oath of supremacy; and in defiance of the statutes against harbouring priests and friars, gave an asylum to all such as were persecuted under the atrocious penal laws of the Pale. 

It was evident to the councillors of Elizabeth that until this chief could be reduced, reformation and English law would make small way in Munster; and, therefore, in the year 1567, while Desmond and his brother John were at the court of England upon a peaceful visit, they were both seized by order of the queen, and committed prisoners to the Tower. 

Now it was hoped that some progress could be made. Sidney procured the appointment, successively, of Sir John Perrot and Sir Wm. Drury to the office of “Lord President” of Munster, a functionary whose duty seems to have been to excite feuds amongst the native princes, and so strengthen the influence, and, as far as possible, establish the rule and religion of England upon their ruin. And wherever local dissension or treachery afforded any opportunity of exercising authority, they proceeded to hold a kind of courts, and make the unfortunate Irish amenable to the laws enacted in the Pale Parliament. Sir John Davies explains the functions of these lords president in the case of Fitton then holding that office in Connaught, who governed, he says, “in a coarse of discretion,” partly martial and partly civil; in short, as best he might. 

Perrot and Drury, but especially the latter, carried this course of discretion to a terrible length in Munster. The Act of Uniformity and that against harbouring Catholic priests, were strictly enforced wherever these justiciaries could establish their power; and, unhappily, the south was so torn by the wars of native chiefs, that the English officers, though not supported by large military force, were enabled to usurp much authority. Thus, in an expedition made by Drury, in 1678, he bound forty citizens of Kilkenny, in a kind of recognizance, to come to church every Sunday and hear service in English; (for a reformed bishop had at length established himself in St. Canice’s;) and during the same circuit “he executed twenty-two criminals at Limerick, and thirty-six at Kilkenny, one of which was a blackamoor, and two others were witches; who were condemned,” says Cox, “by the law of nature.”5 What were the offences of the other culprits, or by what law they were condemned, we are not apprized; but they had probably three times asserted the spiritual supremacy of the pope. 

In the same year we find a notable instance of the abhorrence in which the reformers held all “superstition,” and how they proceeded in abating it. Matthew Sheyn, queen’s bishop of Cork and Cloyne, publicly burned at the high cross of Cork the image of St. Dominick belonging to the Dominican friary of that city.6 

And now we might sup full of horrors, with the ecclesiastical historians of the period, in detailing the cruel persecutions and painful deaths of the national clergy, wherever the unsparing arm of that ferocious English Reformation could reach them; — how Patrick O’Hely, bishop of Mayo, and Cornelius O’Rourke, a pious priest, were, by order of Drury, placed on the rack, their hands and feet broken with hammers, needles thrust under their nails; how they were at last hanged: — how Dermod O’Hurley, archbishop of Cashel, was arrested by order of Adam Loftus (then Chancellor of the Pale, and Queen’s Archbishop of Dublin, Armagh having proved too hot for him, as we saw); how he was loaded with irons until the Holy Thursday of the following year, dragged before the chancellor and treasurer, questioned, tortured, and finally hanged outside the city walls before break of day: — how John Stephens, a priest, having been duly convicted “for that he said mass to Teague Mac Hugh,” was hanged and quartered. All this and much more may be found in the martyrologists of the time.7 But what is material for us to remark is, the fact that such methods of conversion were then the only known methods; — that this island had now become one of the battle-grounds on which Europe in those centuries fought out the cruel quarrel of her rival faiths; — that Philip of Spain was at this very moment striving to crush liberty and Protestantism in the Low Countries, almost as fiercely as another foreign tyrant was warring against liberty and Catholicism in Ireland; — that, a few years before, in the streets of Paris, was done that deed of horror which makes St. Bartholomew’s a day that mankind, while the earth stands, will tremble to name;— that hideous rumours of intended extermination — Catholics to be massacred by Protestants, Protestants by Catholics, — affrighted the general ear of Christendom — and, further, that Pope Pius the Fifth had lately, by a solemn bull, deposed the Queen of England from her throne, and absolved her subjects, as far as a bull could, from their allegiance; which, indeed, he had precisely as good a right to do as she to deprive him of his spiritual supremacy. 

This confounding of spiritual and temporal authority, upon both sides, led to all those terrible persecutions and “religious wars,” as they were called, which devastated Europe for more than a century. 

1 Sir. H. Sidney’s Letters and Memorials.

2 MS. translation of Life of O’Donnell in R.I.A. p. 51.

3 1576.

4 Cox. This writer calls the title Glanear

5 Witchcraft and conjurations of evil spirits had so much increased about this time that the queen’s government, amongst other acts for reforming Ireland, was obliged shortly after to procure a special law against those crimes, (the 28th Eliz. c. 2.

6 Ware. Bishops of Cork and Cloyne.

7 O’Sullivan. Hist. Cath. — O’Daly. Ralatio persecut. Hibern.Arthur-a-monasterio, (quoted in Brenan’s Eccl. Hist. of Ireland.) Theatre of Catholic and Protestant Religion, &c.