Penal-day Bishop

In the first half of the eighteenth century Clogher diocese was ruled in turn by Hugh, Brian and Ross MacMahon, natives of Dartry and closely related. In turn they became archbishops of Armagh. Hugh is buried in Drogheda in an unmarked grave. Brian and Ross, who were brothers, lie buried in Edergole in their native parish of Ematris (Rockcorry). In 1714, at the height of the Penal Laws, Hugh wrote an account of the diocese – its people and priests and his own difficulties. It was against the laws for him to be in the country, but still he was never arrested. His people, he says, were driven off the better land and forced to build their huts in the mountains and bogs. Formerly they had contributed generously to the support of their clergy, but now they were in dire poverty and ‘quite unable to help’. Marriages and baptisms could not be administered unless the banns were first proclaimed in the Protestant church and the minister’s fee paid. This stipend was exacted even from the very poor. A person was afraid to trust his neighbour lest he be forced to swear the names of those present at Mass. Priests celebrated Mass with faces veiled, lest they should be recognised. Sometimes Mass was celebrated in a closed room with only the window open. Still, ‘the greater the severity of the persecution the greater the fervour of the people’. Vocations were plentiful; he was able to ordain six priests and send them abroad for study and training. He had thirty?three parish priests, a few Franciscans and one or two Dominicans. One of his parish priests, Fr Edmund Maguire, was transported for assisting at a marriage.

There was a strange loophole in the Penal Laws: one priest was allowed to register for each parish on substantial bad for his good behaviour, which included living at a fixed address and not leaving his parish without permission. For purposes of the law, the parishes were those of the Established Church, which were substantially those of the pre-reformation period. It was on this shaky foundation that Catholics began to rebuild their parochial organisation, with unregistered priests taking the places of registered priests when these died.
For the second half of the eighteenth century Daniel and Hugh O’ Reilly – natives of Cavan, uncle and nephew – were successively bishops of Clogher. Near the end of his life, in 1774, Daniel moved residence from the vicinity of Monaghan to Carrickmacross, where Hugh also continued to live. The arrival of Daniel as bishop, from Antwerp where he was President of the Irish College, coincided with a relaxation of enforcement of the Penal Laws: after their defeat at Culloden the exiled Stuarts were no longer a serious threat to British ‘security’. But the laws remained on the statute book and made bishops cautious about exercising papal jurisdiction. Lord Clanbrassil, for example, threatened to have Bishop Hugh O‘Reilly put in jail if he found him in Dundalk. But generally the landlord and the priest seem to have been on good terms as it suited them both.
Around 1780, when it had become legal for Catholics to lease land on acceptable terms, substantial chapels were built in Carrickmacross and Enniskillen. Other parishes built as circumstances allowed. The laity was very much the leaders in this early building of chapels, as they were of the early movement for Emancipation. The clergy, perhaps because they were more vulnerable, kept a low profile. These chapels gradually replaced earlier ‘Mass houses’ or ‘Mass gardens’ over the years. The last Mass garden in use was at Clontibret, until St Mary’s Church was completed in 1859. In 1858 Bishop MacNally reported to Rome that there were ‘still people alive who remember that in their time there was scarcely a Catholic church or chapel in the entire diocese’. (He estimated that the Catholic population of the diocese at that time was over 260,000 – three times what it is today). The early chapels had no seats except perhaps some pews owned by the better-off families. The altar was against the sidewall. Many had galleries. Some were used as schoolhouses. Enniskillen and Carrickmacross were replaced around 1870 by churches of a new style and design. Other chapels were replaced later, but some of them, remodelled and repaired, are still in use.
With so many roads to advancement barred to them by penal laws, ambitious Catholics often turned to business: shopkeeping, brewing, dealing in cattle’ linen, provisions, shipping. Many of them made a lot of money. They lent money to landlords who were often short of it. They were to be found in the larger towns – Carolans in Carrickmacross, MacMahons in Ballybay, Kernans and Mihans in Enniskillen, Boyles in Ballyshannon. They formed a network of mutual support by arranged marriages. They educated their children well and got some of them into the legal profession at the first chance. They became the new leaders of the community: of the Kernans, Edward became bishop and Randal a famous barrister.

Well into the nineteenth century both clergy and people regarded at as normal that the parish priest would be a native of the parish. While this practice had some advantages in the unsettled conditions of the previous century, it is probably a much older tradition. It meant in effect that the people claimed the right to appoint. Bishop Hugh MacMahon had to compromise in the matter, but Bishop Murphy came up against the same problem a century later – and did not compromise. It is worth noting that Murphy himself had succeeded his uncle as parish priest of Tydavnet of which parish both were natives. And he appointed Edward Kernan parish priest of Enniskillen, his native parish, some years after his return from Salamanca.

In his Dictionary of the Clogher Clergy (1535?1835) in the Clogher Record, Fr P. Ó Gallachair writes: ‘By far the most numerous group of our post?reformation clergy bear the Fermanagh surname, Maguire’ and many of these were Franciscans.Next comes MacMahon, some of them Fermanagh?born as well.’ The old leading families held fast to the Faith and atoned for the faults of their forebears through the worst of the persecution. Towards the end, around 1770, some of them weakened. Conn MacMahon of Cavany, Scotshouse, a relative of the great Primate Hugh MacMahon at the start of the century, conformed to the Established Church. So also did the Rev. James MacMahon, receiving a pension from MonaghanGrand Jury. So also did the Maguire families of Tempo and Tullyweel in Fermanagh.
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