After 1800

Diocesan and parish life was functioning again reasonably wel1 around 1800. There were 36 or 37 parish priests, including a Dominican and a Franciscan, and 18 curates, including five regulars. In four or five parishes the annual revenue was over £100; in four parishes less than £50. The bishop visited the parishes and administered Confirmation regularly. Priests’ conferences were held, from Easter to October, where a programme of theology was taught and examined on. The diocesan chapter had been reconstituted by Rome at the request of Bishop Hugh O’Reilly. The building of chapels continued. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had closed the Irish colleges on the Continent, but Maynooth College, set up in 1795, met about half the educational needs.

Neither people nor clergy were beyond reproach. The most common abuses, regularly and severely condemned by the bishops, were excessive drinking, horse?play at wakes and funerals, secret societies and party fights. At one time or another scandalous and violent conflicts took place in most parishes over politics or farms, or tithes or even religious matters. Sometimes a fight was just ‘for fun’. The first part of the nineteenth century, which Carleton describes, was the worst period. There was an improvement later in the century, though abuses did not completely die out. But our own day has experienced the revival of secret societies linked to violence, that not even the Pope’s appeal in Drogheda in 1979 could put a stop to.

Irish was the vernacular until well into the 1800s and the priests taught catechism and preached in Irish. ‘Let him learn it’, Bishop Kernan wrote of a curate in Truagh who had forgotten his Irish, around 1830. In the early 1700s Michael O’Reilly’s catechism, in Irish and English, appeared and for over two centuries was the basis of instruction. There was also a wealth of religious poetry in Gaelic which people knew by heart, not to speak of Donlevy’s catechism. At the same time, the Irish language was losing ground after 1690. We have only to Took at the old headstones in our graveyards: all in English after 1700. English was the written language and language of business.

Bishop Murphy’s attempt to set up a diocesan college in Monaghan shortly after 1800 failed after some years, though it produced some priests. The idea, however, did not die. A small farm near Monaghan was bought from Lord Dartry as a site and Bishop Kernan laid the foundation stone of the College in 1840. But funds ran short, Dr Kernan died, and the Famine came; so the College was not ready for occupation until 1848. Building continued for ten years and more under Bishop


MacNally until it had accommodation for sixty students and was a show?piece for the country. As well as accommodating students and staff, the Seminary, as it came to be known, was the centre for priests’ conferences and retreats and for the liturgy of Holy Week. Bishop Donnelly made several attempts to get a religious order to take over the Seminary, but failed. He took a very active interest in it and its academic standards were high. It entered for the Intermediate examinations in 1880 with sensational success, the telegram announcing the result to Donnelly earned an ‘Hurrah’. The following year the Seminary got five prizes. (The Convent School got six.) His comment was, ‘Very good in the circumstances’.

In the 1880s under Act of Parliament, the Fermanagh R.C. Board of Education was set up giving Catholic schools a share in the income from the ‘college land’ which had been set aside in every county in the Plantation of 1609 for the support of grammar schools. The Board remains the governing body of the Seminary and St Michael’s, Enniskillen.
The earliest Catholic school that we have identified in Clogher after the Penal Laws was set up at Urbleshanny in Tydavnet parish in 1791 by Fr James Murphy – the parish priest, soon to be bishop. When the National Board of Education was set up in 1831 many schools already in operation were affiliated to it and more new schools built so as to avail themselves of the Board’s grants. (These schools were visited regularly by inspectors and the standard of teaching improved greatly.) Priests generally were active, some more than others, in promoting national schools. The Established Church did not approve of them in the first years.

Against the background of Mass celebrated in private houses or in Mass?gardens – if the householder could not take the risk or if the congregation was too big – the practice of ‘stations’ developed. During Advent and Lent the priest(s) of the parish came on an appointed day to an appointed house, preached or catechised, heard confessions and celebrated Mass. In this way, all the parish was visited regularly and many people, who for some reason might not attend Sunday Mass, heard the word of God and received the Sacraments. The practice was extended to cover ‘month’s mind’ Masses. So as not to make the practice too onerous on the people, priests were admonished, in the statutes, to be content at stations with a light breakfast and not to remain for dinner. The practice, so much a part of pastoral care in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was still alive well into the present century.

As far as we know, house?stations were not held in Summer, at least in the early 1800s. Possibly this had some connection with the old practice of people taking to the mountains and bogs – the fearann barr – to graze their cattle during the Summer months. Possibly too, it explains the tradition of Mass?rocks – ‘Carraig an Aifrinn’ and ‘Carraig na hAltóra’ – in remote places far from normal habitation. It should not be surprising if the priest visited his flock at least occasionally to celebrate Mass for them. Maybe he took his holidays with them!

A decline mainly in rural population accompanied the depression of the 1920s. The standard of living was poor, tuberculosis claimed many young lives. Emigration continued, mostly of young people whom no country can afford to lose. Belfast was no longer employing labour as in the nineteenth century. In fact, many Catholic families who had settled there were driven out and back to Monaghan or other places by the pogroms. Following the Treaty, many Monaghan Protestants were unhappy at the prospect of life under a Dublin government and moved into Northern Ireland. The Table of figures for 1958, for some of the parishes which suffered most severely, indicates the extent of the decline. The figures in brackets are for the year 1922.

Name of parish  Catholic Population  Emigrants
   1958  1922  1953-8
Carn (Pettigo) 1717   316
Carrickmacross 3816 4922 287
Clones 3453   335
Clontibret 2509 4773 267
Donaghmoyne 2505 5280 391

In 1922 Donaghmoyne had the highest Catholic population; Clontibret was third highest.

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