Bad Times for the Irish Papists

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER IX (3) start of chapter

But Pat was irrepressible. He would come and remain, and prosper too, notwithstanding that he was fulminated against in order and proclamation, and though the fecundity of his race was officially deplored as a great and embarrassing evil. The fact was, the Irish were hard-working and useful, and those who appreciated their value encouraged their coming and remaining, despite of Governor, and Fishing Admiral, and Home Government. Wisdom slowly dawned on the benighted authorities, who were compelled to tolerate what they could not prevent. But such was the state of things in the colony for a long series of years, and actually within the memory of living men, that a house could not be put up, or even thoroughly repaired, without the sanction of the Governor! The wonder should not be why Newfoundland has not made more rapid strides than it has, but that it has progressed so rapidly as it has done. 'Let no one blame Newfoundland, then,' says Dr. Mullock,(3) 'for not having hitherto advanced as rapidly as other colonies. I boldly assert that there was never more energy shown by any people than by the inhabitants of this island. The Government that should foster them considered them intruders, and banished them when it could.' The gifted Prelate thus completes the picture:

They had not the liberty of the birds of the air to build or repair their nests—they had behind them the forest or the rocky soil, which they were not allowed, without licence difficultly obtained, to reclaim and till. Their only resource was the stormy ocean, and they saw the wealth they won from the deep spent in other lands, leading them only a scanty subsistence. Despite of all this they have increased twenty-fold in ninety years, have built towns and villages, erected magnificent buildings, as the cathedral in St. John's, introduced telegraphs, steam, postal, and road communications, newspapers, everything, in fact, found in the most civilised countries, and all this on a rugged soil, in a harsh though wholesome climate, and under every species of discouragement.

We have seen that the 'Irish Papist' could not be discouraged out of the country, in which he was not without the ministration of the priest, who, though he had no fixed abode in the island, usually came out in a fishing-boat, and so disguised as to escape the vigilance of the hostile authorities. Protestants suffered from no such disadvantage. Their's was the recognised religion of the State, and its ministers were stationed in the principal settlements. This indeed was the state of things throughout the continent of America, wherever, in fact, the British power was recognised. Catholics were under a ban, hunted, persecuted, or grievously discouraged, while Protestants enjoyed in its fulness the advantages of a protected Church and a dominant religion. This should be always taken into consideration when estimating the progress of those who were guilty, in the eyes of their jealous rulers, of the double offence of being Catholic and Irish.

In the year of grace 1784 liberty of conscience was proclaimed in Newfoundland, and the Catholics at once , took advantage of the boon. In that year the Rev. James O'Donnell, 'the founder and father of the Church of Newfoundland,' landed in the island. A native of Tipperary, he had spent a large portion of his life in the Irish Franciscan Convent of Prague, in Bohemia, and afterwards presided over the convent of his order in Waterford, and subsequently as the provincial of the order in Ireland. He was the first regularly authorised missioner in Newfoundland since it had been ceded to the British in 1713; and to his wisdom, firmness and sagacity are due the practical settlement of the Irish in that colony. The following document is rather a strange commentary on the proclamation of liberty of conscience and freedom of worship of six years before. It was written by Governor Milbank, in answer to an application by Dr. O'Donnell for leave to build a chapel in one of the outports:—

The Governor acquaints Mr. O'Donnell that, so far from being disposed to allow of an increase of places of religious worship for the Roman Catholics of the island, he very seriously intends, next year, to lay those established already under particular restrictions. Mr. O'Donnell must be aware that it is not the interest of Great Britain to encourage people to winter in Newfoundland, and he cannot be ignorant that many of the lower order who would now stay, would, if it were not for the convenience with which they obtain absolution here, go home for it at least once in two or three years; and the Governor has been misinformed if Mr. O'Donnell, instead of advising their return to Ireland, does not rather encourage them to winter in this country.
On board the Salisbury, St. John's, Nov. 2, 1790.

What a proclamation of intolerance and stupidity! We doubt if, considering the period at which the world had arrived, there was ever penned a more discreditable epistle. We shall now see how this cruel mistrust was repaid by the distinguished minister of religion who was its object.

It was in the year 1799, shortly after the memorable Irish Rebellion, that the circumstance occurred which exhibited in the most conspicuous manner the value of the influence and authority of a zealous and courageous pastor, and the wisdom of encouraging, rather than discountenancing, the presence of a Catholic clergyman in the midst of an Irish population. Many who had been compelled to fly from their native land in consequence of the rising of 1798 found refuge in Newfoundland, bringing with them the exasperated feelings engendered by that disastrous conflict: nor was the state of things in the colony such as to soothe the bitter hatred which they cherished in their hearts. Amongst them a conspiracy was formed, its object being the destruction of the Protestant colonists; and such was the success with which the conspirators pushed their machinations that they secured the sympathy and promised co-operation of a large portion of the regiment then stationed in St. John's. Their plans were laid with great secrecy and skill, and the day was appointed for carrying their fatal designs into execution.

The time chosen was when the people had assembled at church, and, it not being then the custom for the military to carry arms into the sacred building, it was considered by the conspirators that those who would thus go unarmed could not offer much difficulty in the execution of the fearful plot.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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