Reformation and Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


I HAVE so far called the event, usually termed the Reformation, a politico-religious revolution, and treated of it only as such. With phases of religious belief or the propagandism of new religious doctrines, unless in so far as they affected political events or effected marked national changes, I do not purpose dealing in this story. As a matter of fact, however, the Reformation was during the reign of Henry much less of a religious than a political revolution. The only points Henry was particular about were the matters of supremacy and church property. For a long period the idea of adopting the new form of faith in all its doctrinal sequence seemed quite foreign to his mind. The doctrine, firstly, that he, Henry, was supreme king, spiritual as well as temporal, within his own realms; the doctrine, secondly, that he could, in virtue of such spiritual supremacy, give full rein to his. beastly lusts, and call concubinage marriage; and lastly, that whatever property the church possessed, bequeathed for pious uses, he might rob and keep for himself, or divide as bribes between his abetting nobles, legislators, and statesmen—these were the "reforms," so-called, upon which the king set most value. Other matters he allowed for a time to have their way; at least it was so wherever difficulty was anticipated in pulling down the old and setting up new forms of worship.

Thus we find the king at the same time sending a "reforming" archbishop to Dublin while sanctioning prelates of the old faith in other dioceses, barely on condition of taking the oath of allegiance to him. Doctrine or theology had scarcely any concern for him or his statesmen, and it is clear and plain to any student of history that if the Catholic Church would only sanction to him his polygamy, and to them the rich plunder they had clutched, they would never have gone further, and would still be wondrous zealous "defenders of the faith." But the Catholic Church, which could have avoided the whole disaster at the outset by merely suffering one lawful wife to be unlawfully put away, was not going to compromise, with him or with them, an iota of sacred truth or public morality, much less to sacrifice both wholesale after this fashion. So, in time, the king and his party saw that having gone so far, they must needs go the whole way. Like the panther that has tasted blood, their thirst for plunder was but whetted by their taste of church spoil. They should go further or they might lose all. They knew right well that of these spoils they never could rest sure as long as the owner, the Catholic Church, was allowed to live; so to kill the church outright became to them as much of a necessity as the sure "dispatching" of a half-murdered victim is to a burglar or an assassin. Had it not been for this question of church property—had there been no plunder to divide—in all human probability there would have been no "reformation" consummated in these countries. But by the spoils of the sanctuary Henry was able to bribe the nobles to his side, and to give them such an interest in the utter abolition of catholicity and the perpetuation of the new system, that no king or queen coming after him would be able permanently to restore the old order of things.

Here the reflection at once confronts us—what a mean, sordid, worldly-minded kennel these same "nobles" must have been! Ay, mean and soulless indeed! If there was any pretense of religious convictions having anything to say in the business, no such reflection would arise; no such language would be seemly. But few or none of the parties cared to get up even a semblance of interest in the doctrinal aspect of the passing revolution. One object, and one alone, seemed fixed before their gaze—to get as much as possible of "what was going;" to secure some of the loot,and to keep it. Given this one consideration, all things else might remain or be changed a thousand times over for all they cared. If any one question the correctness of this estimate of the conduct of the English and Anglo-Irish lords of the period before us, I need only point to the page of authentic history. They were a debased and cowardly pack. As long as Henry fed them with bribes from the abbey lands, they made and unmade laws "to order" for him. He asked them to declare his marriage with Catherine of Aragon invalid—they did it; his marriage with Anne Boleyn lawful—they did it; this same marriage unlawful and its fruits illegitimate—-they did it; his marriage with Jane Seymour lawful—they did it. In fine they said and unsaid, legitimatized and illegitimatized, just as he desired. Nor was this all. In the reign of his child, Edward, they enacted every law deemed necessary for the more complete overthrow of the ancient faith and the setting up of the new.

But no sooner had Mary come to the throne than these same lords, legislators, and statesmen instantaneously wheeled around, beat their. breasts, became wondrously pious Catholics, whined out repentantly that they had been frightful criminals; and, like the facile creatures that they were, at the request of Mary, or to please her. undid in a rush all they had been doing during the two preceding reigns—but all on one condition, most significant and most necessary to mark, viz.: that they should not be called upon to give back the stolen property! Again a change on the throne, and again they change! Elizabeth comes to undo all that Mary had restored, and lo! the venal lords and legislators in an instant wheel around once more; they decree false and illegitimate all they had just declared true and lawful; they swallow their own words, they say and unsay, they repeal and re-enact, do and undo, as the whim of the queen, or the necessity of conserving their sacrilegious robberies dictates!

Yes; the history of the world has nothing to parallel the disgusting baseness, the mean, sordid cowardice of the English and Anglo-Irish lords and legislators. Theirs was not a change of religious convictions, right or wrong, but a greedy venality, a facile readiness to change any way or every way for worldly advantage. Their model of policy was Judas Iscariot, who sold our Lord for thirty pieces of silver.

That Ireland also was not carried over into the new system was owing to the circumstance that the English authority had, so far, been able to secure for itself but a partial hold on the Irish nation. It must have been a curious reflection with the supreme pontiffs that Ireland might in a certain sense be said to have been saved to the Catholic Church by its obstinate disregard of exhortations addressed to it repeatedly, if not by the popes, under cover or ostensible sanction of papal authority, in support of the English crown; for had the Irish yielded all that the English king demanded with papal bull in hand, and become part and parcel of the English realm, Ireland, too, was lost to the old faith. At this point one is tempted to indulge in bitter reflections on the course of the Roman pontiffs toward Ireland. "Hitherto"—so one might put it—"that hapless nation in its fearful struggle against ruthless invaders found Rome on the side -of its foes. It was surely a hard and cruel thing for the Irish, so devotedly attached to the Holy See, to behold the rapacious and bloodthirsty Normans, Plantagenets, and Tudors, able to flourish against them papal bulls and rescripts, until now when Henry quarreled with Rome. Now—henceforth—too late—all that is to be altered; henceforth the bulls and the rescripts are all to exhort the broken and ruined Irish nation to fight valiantly against that power to which, for four hundred years, the Roman court had been exhorting or commanding it to submit. Surely Ireland has been the sport of Roman policy, if not its victim!"

These bitter reflections would be not only natural but just, if the facts of the case really supported them. But the facts do not quite support this view, which, it is singular to note, the Irish themselves never entertained. At all times they seem to have most justly and accurately appreciated the real attitude of the Holy See toward them, and fixed the value and force of the bulls and rescripts obtained by the English sovereign at their true figure. The conduct of the popes was not free from reproach in a particular subsequently to be noted; but the one thing they had really urged, rightly or wrongly, on the Irish from the first was the acceptance of the sovereignty of the English king, by no means implying an incorporation with the English nation, or an abandonment of their nationality. In this sense the popes' exhortations were always read by the native Irish; and it will be noted that in this sense from the very beginning the Irish princes very generally were ready to acquiesce in them. The idea, rightly or wrongly, appears to have been that this strong sovereignty would be capable of reducing the chaotic elements in Ireland (given up to such hopeless disorder previously) to compactness and order—a good to Ireland and to Christendom. This was the guise in which the Irish question had always been presented by plausible English envoys, civil or ecclesiastical, at Rome. The Irish themselves did not greatly quarrel with it so far; but there was all the difference in the world between this the theory and the bloody and barbarous fact and practice as revealed in Ireland.

What may be said with truth is, that the popes inquired too little about the fact and practice, and were always too ready to write and exhort upon such a question at the instance of the English. The Irish chiefs were sensible of this wrong done them; but in their every act and word they evidenced a perfect consciousness that the rectitude of the motives animating the popes was not to be questioned. Even when the authority of the Holy See was most painfully misused against them, they received it with reverence and respect. The time had at length arrived, however, when Rome was to mourn over whatever of error or wrong had marked its past policy toward Ireland, and forever after nobly and unchangeably to stand by her side. But alas! too late—all too late now for succeeding! All the harm had been done, and was now beyond repairing. The grasp of England had been too firmly tightened in the past. At the very moment when the pope desired, hoped, urged, and expected Ireland to arise triumphant and glorious, a free Catholic nation, a recompense for lost England, she sank broken, helpless, and despairing under the feet of the sacrilegious Tudor.