The Last County - The Penal Laws

The state of the different churches in the county prior to its shiring is hard to ascertain. As the greater proportion of what was to become Wicklow was under the control of its Gaelic Lords, it can be assumed that this area was the domain of the Roman church. Although the Anglican liturgy was first read in Ireland on Easter Sunday 1550 in Christ Church Cathedral, it was not until the next century that its influence was felt to any great extent throughout the country.


Wicklow’s Monasteries and Churches

However, we have an idea of where some of the county’s monasteries were situated in 1540 from a Royal survey of that year. The monasteries of Baltinglass, (then spelt Bailtinglass and in county Kildare) and Arklow (Arctlo in county Wexford), were large monasteries owning much property in their surrounditig districts. Their considerable incomes were derived from rents charged on these properties. Apart from “a tenement”(1) at Churchestown “near Wyklowe” (2), which was little more than a hermitage, it was impossible to survey the remaining monasteries such as those at Kilpoole, Inhorollyn and Frankhous, described as being in O’Byrnes Country because “they lie among the Irish whence information cannot be obtained at present” (3).

Whatever the state of the churches before 1606 the claim of a papal report in 1613 that the Catholics of Ireland were “mostly steeped in a profound and blind ignorance of any faith they profess”(4), was likely to be as true for Wicklow as it was for the rest of the country.

A Slow Undermining of the Catholic Church

Wicklow’s shiring coincided with the Church of Ireland’s first plan to improve its organisation within the country. At this time due to its lack of numbers it had no great pool from which to draw its clergy. Its resources also being limited meant financial hardship for many aspiring Church of Ireland clergymen. The Catholic church, on the other hand, had a comparatively highly trained clergy with greater resources. Many of their priests were trained abroad and although the patronage power of the Gaelic Irish lords had lessened, there were still enough funds available from those who remained and from the old English families who were still Catholic.

The extent of the problems facing the Church of Ireland can be seen from their plan in 1604 to ensure that under no circumstances were benefices to be given in the future to “lay persons, children, parish priests and unworthy ministers” (5). Ministers and bishops were now expected to live in their parishes and dioceses. It was planned that nobody should be more than five miles from the nearest church. Gaelic speaking ministers arrived from Scotland and The Book of Common Prayer was translated into Irish. In Wicklow, which was still an Irish speaking area, the use of the vernacular in church services would have been an advantage to any new church. Also, the building of new churches and the arrival of new ministers gave the impression of a more vibrant religion than the older one, which was suffering from a series of restrictions that were later to become the penal laws. The fact that there are more than twice as many Church of Ireland parishes as Roman Catholic in Wicklow, gives an indication of how the former planned to increase its accessibility.

The period between 1604 and 1640 was to witness the slow undermining of the Catholic Church, while the Church of Ireland’s position strengthened, particularly with the granting of great tracts of land in Wicklow to English planters. By 1641 the percentage of land in Wicklow owned by Catholics had fallen below fifty percent (6); this reflected a country-wide policy of confiscation and planting. In 1642 the founding of the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny, to oppose the anti-Catholic bias of the government and administration, was the result of years of injustice and strife. In Wicklow the events leading up to its foundation and its eventual suppression in 1650 were to be the last attempts by the O’Toole’s and O’Byrnes to maintain their positions of strength. However faced with the military might of Coote, Ludlow and Cromwell, the Confederation, even with the support of the Royalists, crumbled (this is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 3).

Supression of the Jacobites

All religions were to suffer greatly at this time. Cromwell’s Puritans had as much enmity towards Irish Protestants as they had towards Catholics. All were relentlessly persecuted – Catholic, Church of Ireland and Dissenter. The Restoration was to prove to be a far more tolerant time until the reign of James II. Then the occurrence of oppression by Catholics of Protestants showed Ireland’s Protestants how tenuous their position as a minority was. They consequently flocked to support William of Orange in the hope of establishing a Protestant monarchy. After William’s victories at the Boyne and Aughrim (Galway) in 1690, it was with the desire to ensure that James’ supporters, or Jacobites as they were now called, would be contained that he and his wife, Queen Mary, began to introduce the penal laws.

Thus, these laws were passed in order to give a sense of security and power to the Church of Ireland minority which ruled the country, but their enforcement at any given time depended on political rather than religious considerations. If they had been as strictly enforced as the anti-Roman laws of the sixteenth century in England, they would probably have totally wiped out Catholicism in Ireland.

Banishment of Popish Clergy

The Banishment Act of 1697, which banished all ecclesiastics and “regulars of the popish clergy out of the kingdoms by 1st May 1698” (7), (regulars being members of clerical orders such as Jesuits and Franciscans), was the first major salvo of the penal laws. At their height the restrictions on the rights of Catholics were extreme and were made all the more so in the light of growing religious tolerance in the rest of Europe. The fate of Wicklow, being divided among the Catholic dioceses of Dublin, Ferns and Kildare and Leighlin, depended on the fortunes of their three bishops and their respective clergy over the next hundred years. In 1697 the list of priests in Wicklow, compiled through poll tax returns for that year was as follows:

Parishes of Bray, Rathmichael, Stagonillis, Powerscourt John Talbot, Richard Fitzsimons.

Parish of Delgany; Seneca Fitzwilliam, Richard Fitzsimons.

Wicklow and united parishes; Maurice Bryan, William Cavenah, Edmund Mc Gin, Bernardine Plunkett and Peter Cahel (Fryers).

Rathdrum; Phileman Mc Abe, Charles Byrn, William Cavenagh.

Arcloe; Patrick FitzWilliam, Edmund Mc Ginn, Charles Cavenagh, James Cocklan, Thomas Caho, Dominick Oran.

Ballymore; Owen Mc Antee.

Hollywood; Patrick Kernan.

Dunlavin; Patrick (Haggan?), Brian?

By early 1698 one hundred and fifty three priests had fled through Dublin along with Archbishop Piers Creagh of Dublin, thus leaving much of Wicklow bishopless. In the south, Michael Rossiter of Ferns stayed until his death, while Bishop Dempsey of Kildare and Leighlin also fled. It was to prove more difficult to deal with the diocesan clergy than the regulars. In 1704 Queen Anne passed a law whereby all had to be registered. By this law it was hoped that registered priests could be kept under a watchful eye and the absence of bishops would prevent ordinations. This, it was hoped, would ensure that all priests would die out in due course. The thirteen priests registered in Wicklow were as follows:




Richard Fitz-Symons46Bray
James Makee

(ordained by St Oliver Plunkett)

Charles Byrne53Rathdrum
William Cavenagh43Wicklow
Faelix McCabe50Glendalough
Murtagh Brenane44Carnew
Edmund Magin56Killaveny
Patrick Fitz-Williams58Arklow
Seneca Fitz-William42Kilquade
Daniel Byrne39Kilbride
Patrick Haggan46Dunlavin
Patrick Kernan59Dunlavin
Redmond Fitz-symons56Wicklow

Seven of the thirteen registered had been in the county since 1697. Bishop Rossiter, in order to legitimise his position, registered as parish priest of Killenick, county Wexford and unofficially kept on his position as Bishop of Ferns.

Keeping ‘Out of Sight’

As the century progressed however, absent or dead bishops were replaced. In 1707 Edmund Byrne became Archbishop of Dublin after Piers Creagh’s death abroad. John Verdon replaced Bishop Rossiter in 1709 and eventually, after Bishop Dempsey’s death in 1707, he was replaced in 1715 by Edward Murphy. This reflects the countrywide position; as long as the Catholic church kept out of sight it was allowed, for the most part, to carry out its business. Churches were moved to out of the way places such as Bride’s Head near Wicklow town. This was often done with the connivance of local authorities and the Protestant clergy. On the whole there was little animosity towards Catholics. The Church of Ireland were to a large extent opposed to the penal laws, but as they were answerable to their bishops who were, by and large, political appointees of the Hanoverian kings, the parish clergy had to be seen to implement these laws. By being held off the beaten track masses escaped the attention of external investigators and mercenary priest-hunters.

Although, except in times of Jacobite tension, there was little enforcement of these laws, their existence and the rewards offered still tempted many to avail of them. Probably the most infamous of these was Edward Tyrell, a priest-hunter active in the Dublin and Wicklow area around 1712. Edward Byrne had been the unregistered Bishop of Dublin since 1707, but it was not until 1712 that his identity became known to the authorities. Tyrell jumped at the chance to capture him and claim a reward. By September his search had led him to Wicklow town where, despite reports of Byrne having been there recently, he could not be found. In November Tyrell, who now seems to have been something of a nuisance to the local authorities, organised a raid on Thomas Byrne’s house in the town and Remond Byrne’s at ‘Kallaughler’ (8) in search of the bishop and other clerics returned from Europe. None were found; William Hamilton, a town burgess, in his report tells of Tyrell’s efforts giving them “no small trouble”. Shortly afterwards Tyrell was executed for bigamy while Byrne next appears in safe hiding in the house of Alderman Reily, a Protestant member of the corporation in Dublin.

Acts of Supression

In 1737 Bishop Gallagher of Rapoe was moved to Kildare and Leighlin. While Bishop of Rapoe he had tried to replace an unsatisfactory, registered priest with one Fr. Hegarty. The disgraced priest reported this violation of the 1704 registering act. The authorities arrested and shot Hegarty while he was escaping with the help of locals. Gallagher had no option other than to flee, but rather than leave the country he simply moved to the vacant Bishopric of Kildare and Leighlin. There was no attempt made to pursue him.

Bishop Gallagher’s was not the only case of a Wicklow bishop being on the receiving end of his own priests’ usage of the penal laws. In 1751 Bishop Nicholas Sweetman of Ferns excommunicated three priests in the diocese, one named Doyle, for “having entered clandestinely into Holy Orders by falsifying certain documents and had been giving grave scandal in the diocese for many years”(9). In revenge Doyle reported Sweetman to the authorities, stating that he was “an agent for enlisting men for foreign service and had been levying money on his priests for treasonable purposes”(10). Although arrested, Sweetman was later released.

Previously, in October 1714, when the Jacobite threat was still very real due to the accession of George I, there are two references to the suppression of Catholicism in Wicklow in letters from Thomas Ryves, the High Sheriff of the county, to the clerk of the Privy Council. Firstly, an unregistered priest Owen McFee (variously spelt elsewhere as Mc Fee and Mc Veagh) had been waiting in Wicklow Gaol for a number of months to be transported for saying mass. The delay was caused “for want of shipping” (11). It is possible that no ship was wiling to take part in the transportation of a priest. He had been convicted by Baron Pocklington at the summer assizes, who was also to report that in this county they were not much troubled with Popish Priests. He was also assured by a gentleman of the county “that they know of no Popish schools” (12). This McFee is possibly the same Owen Mc Antee registered in Ballymore Eustace in 1697. If so, his age at this time would be seventy-two which would suggest that there was not a great deal of risk to his captors involved in his arrest.

At an earlier time, when the newly-enacted laws were more stringently enforced, the risk was greater. On 4th of June 1702, before the full force of the laws were enacted, the Poririeve of Wicklow town ordered that a mass house”in the Libertyes … near the Barrack be closed.” The Catholic congregation, having threatened to report it to the Government, seem to have changed their minds. On 10th July Robert Fletcher, a town burgess, reports that a fire broke out on the Poririeve’s property engulfing eight houses. He lays the blame on the local Catholics as they “very much seem to resent his officiousness” (13). He also reports that despite the closing down of the mass house, worship was still practiced there every week.

Earlier that year on 3rd June, St. Kevin’s Day (1714), the annual pilgrimage to Glendalough was routed by Ryves and a posse comitatus who “pulled down their tents, threw down and demolished their superstitious crosses, filled up and destroyed their wells, and apprehended and committed one Toole a popish school master” (14). The mood in Wicklow at that tense time is summed up in Ryves conclusion that

“the Protestant inhabitants of this county are unanimous in their inclinations and resolutions, and will exert themselves with all the diligence and zeal for his Majesty’s service in putting all the laws in every respect strictly in force against the papists.”

A Folklore of Atrocities

Many atrocities were carried out during these years, but the numerous stories passed down in folklore are hard to verify. In a lot of cases they were fabricated from scanty evidence, such as the stories of priests being branded. This, no doubt, originates in the attempt by extremists to pass a law to that effect in 1720, which was defeated largely due to the efforts of Church of Ireland clergy. Some are more likely to be true.

In a book of notes on the history of Killiskey kept between 1895 and 1906 the minister, Hugo Richard Huband, tells of a find some years before while the bridge at Nunscross was being repaired. Close by, in the remains of an old wall of what had once been a nunnery, a skeleton was found. The place was known locally as the “place of the mourning” where Catholic funerals stopped and prayed when passing. Many local people knew of the skeleton’s existence and claimed it to be that of a nun. A bush growing beside it was out of bounds to Protestant children who would be visited with “divers kinds of penalties” if they touched it. These elements of worship and punishment of Protestants would suggest some form of martyrdom. As rebels were known to have prayed there in 1798 it makes it possible that this nun may have been a victim of an outrage during penal times.

In Conclusion

The success of the penal laws in Wicklow and the country as a whole has to be viewed through their three main elements; religious, political and financial. In religious terms, they had the opposite effect to that intended by their originators. Whereas in 1690 most lrish people were only halfhearted about their religious affiliation, by 1800 the majority were devout Catholics. Catholicism was now seen as a form of rebellion against British rule. Furthermore, it left many Protestants with a feeling of guilt over the injustices carried out in their name. As a deterrent against the resurgence of Jacobitism, it is doubtful if there was any real danger of there ever being another James on the throne.

However, on a financial and political level they were a success. By 1812 Catholics outnumbered Protestants in Wicklow by ten to one, but Wakefield notes only one Catholic land holder of considerable size, none on the Grand Jury, none commissioned in the militia and very few noncommissioned. In that they ensured the prosperity of the minority over the majority, the penal laws were a resounding success.


(1) White, Newport B., Extents of Irish Monastic Possessions 1540-1541, from manuscripts in London, Public Stationery Office (Dublin, 1943) p. 59.(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid. pp. 90-91.

(4) Wyse Jackson, Rev. Robert, History of the Church of Ireland, (Dublin 1953).

(5) Ibid.
(6) Simms, J.G., Williamite Confiscation in Ireland 1690-1700, Faber and Faber Ltd. (London).
(7) No. 1, Dublin Historical Association (Dublin 1976).
(8) Bourke, Rev. William P., Irish Priests in Penal Timesl66Q-1760, (Waterford, 1914), p.299.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid, p. 309. (There is some confusion as to the dates relating to Owen Mc Fee. Rev. Burke gives the year as 1716 while Leakey gives it as 1714.)
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ryves, Thomas, To the Clerk of the Privey Council, Oct. 301714, I.R.O.

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