When Henry VIII was proclaimed by Parliament head of the Church, first in England and later in Ireland, many people, including some bishops, did not recognise that this was schism. Had not the Pope given Henry the title ‘Defender of the Faith’? Later the Council of Trent (1545?63) helped to clarify the issues and had given shape and direction to the ‘Counter?reformation’. In the reign of Elizabeth I, with England moving closer to the Continental Protestants, Catholics had come to realise beyond doubt that their Faith was at stake.
The harsh reality of their new situation only came home to Catholics of these parts in the dispossession and plantation of Ulster which followed the defeat of O’Neill and O’Donnell and Maguire at Kinsale. King James1 appointed his own bishops who took possession of the diocesan and parish structures and property of the Catholics. In the previous century Miler Magrath had been appointed bishop by Queen Elizabeth, but he seems to have confined himself to an annual visit with his retinue, combining a hunting holiday with collection of revenue – cows or horses or money. In Fermanagh after the Plantation only a remnant of the old aristocracy was left with title to about one fifth of the land, mainly in the barony of Magherastephana. The natives in general were now tenants of the new landlords. From now they only went to the old parish church to bury their dead.
In this critical period it was the friars, more than the depleted and disorganised parish clergy, who kept the Faith alive. Even when their houses were broken up they remained ‘strolling priests’ among the people, likely their own relatives. The Magherastephana branch of the Maguire family, living in Aghavea parish, set up a house of Dominicans at Gola on the edge of the estate on the shore of Lough Erne. (Again, the site is intriguing). These Dominican friars played an important role in South Fermanagh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, keeping the name of Gola alive after they had to abandon it. Father Patrick Kiran, ‘Prior of Gaula, and Family of St Dominic’ died in 1747 and is buried in Donagh cemetery, as is Fr Felix Mulligan, ‘rector of Dromolly’ who died in Co. Fermanagh, 1753, also a Dominican. Fr George Mohan, O.P., cried parish priest of Tullycorbet in 1817. The Franciscan ministry was important in Monaghan and Lough Derg as well as Fermanagh. The last Guardian of Lisgoole, listed in 1831, was Fr Louis Sweetman, a curate in Clones parish.
By the start of the seventeenth century the native Irish, whatever their previous shortcomings, had chosen to remain in the 01d Church and, if necessary, to pay the price in suffering persecution. They could not know how long and painful was the road they had chosen. It was providential that a dozen or more colleges had been set up for the education of priests, diocesan and regular in France and Spain and the Low Countries, so that Ireland did not run short of priests, even in the worst times of the persecution. In 1985 we still have some priests here who were educated in Paris and Salamanca.
Under the native way of living, ‘féile’ – generosity, hospitality – was the quality that poets had successfully extolled for centuries as the leading virtue in princes. Lord Maguire’s home in the early 1600s was ‘Ráth na Féile’, recalled by Stranafeley townland between Lisnaskea and Brookeborough. But in the money economy following the Plantation this open-handedness became improvidence. What was left of the old ar1stocracy soon got into debts and mortgaged or sold their lands to people who had a better sense of property. Still it may be due to them in some measure that generosity is still esteemed among us.
One personality exemplifies the extraordinary renewal of the Faith that had taken place in a generation or two – Connor Lord Maguire of the older Magherastephana branch. Because he was a leader of the old stock his example must have been of the greatest importance for other Catholics. He was arrested in Dublin and tried in London for complicity in the rising of 1641, having been refused trial by his peers in Ireland. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. While there can be little doubt about his complicity in the plot to seize Dublin Castle, it is clear from the account of his trial that what his prosecutors really had against him was that he was a papist. After sentence he was denied the ministry of a priest and tormented to deny his Faith. Again and again he begged them, ‘For God’s sake, give me leave to pray . . . to depart in peace . . . Give me a little time to prepare myself’’. They found in his pockets only some beads and a crucifix, which were taken from him. There were also some papers which he carried in his hand on his way to Tyburn, mainly prayers’ in preparation for death. There was, too, a letter from a certain Grey, ‘your own poor afflicted servant’, and a short note ending ‘Mo mhíle beannacht chugat, a mhic m’anma’ (‘My thousand blessings unto you, son of my soul.’)
For two hundred years persecution ebbed and flowed. The Cromwellian period was a bad one. On the death of Owen Roe O’Neill, the unfortunate Heber MacMahon, bishop of Clogher, had been persuaded to take charge of an army. It was routed in Donegal and Heber was captured in Glendorcha near Ederney and executed in Enniskillen. Some years earlier, Fr.Edmond Mulligan, a Cistercian priest, was caught near Killeevan and executed. There are ballads and folklore stories of other priests being put to death, but in the absence of evidence they can be discounted. Priest hunters, indeed, were not popular with anyone. Whenever persecution eased for a period Catholics took advantage of it. St Oliver Plunkett, before his arrest, travelled inside and outside his diocese, confirming and ordaining. And he held a synod in Clones.
The period of the Penal Laws, following the Jacobite wars and the Treaty of Limerick, was also bad. These laws, enacted by an Irish Parliament, offered material rewards to Catholics who conformed to the Established Church. But their main intent and thrust was to impoverish them so that they could never again engage in war against the English Parliament, as they had done in supporting Charles I and James Il. And left without bishops or means of renewing their priests it was hoped that Catholics would disappear in a generation or two.
In Clogher, as in the country generally, the change in the ownership of the land (through confiscation) was the biggest social and economic change between 1600 and 1700. In 1600 Catholics owned it nearly all; a century later, while still in a big majority, they owned very little of it – perhaps a fifth. They had become tenants, at best, of a handful of Protestant landlords; and tenants they remained until the Land Acts of the last century made every farmer a landlord.