Project Canterbury Some Archbishops of Dublin
by T. S. Lindsay.
Dublin: Church of Ireland Printing Co., 1928.
Ireland in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
SOMETIMES we are disposed to regard our own period, and the condition and prospects of our Church now, with feelings of discouragement, almost of despair. No doubt one can discern dark features; there is room for much improvement, and there are many things, very obvious, of which no good patriot, or good Christian, could be proud. And "far hills are blue"; one thinks of the glories of the past when Ireland was the Island of Saints, and one is prone to imagine that, since that golden age, matters have been steadily growing worse.
But Lightfoot wisely said that the best cordial for drooping spirits is the study of history. And no one can learn the conditions of our people's life in those "good old times"--their character, their religion, their comforts and pleasures--and remain a pessimist. I believe that our country, and indeed the world at large, is healthier, happier and better to-day than it ever was before, and that our own Church is more vigorous and has more hopeful prospects.
Let us look at the state of things in the 17th and 18th centuries. What is the testimony of history and of those who visited and observed Ireland then?
Politically, the country was, for the most part, in as disturbed and disaffected state as ever it was in the 19th or 20th century. The English had, in the 12th century, been invited by the Irish to come over and govern their land, even then distracted, torn with the internecine strife of warring clans. They had entrenched themselves here, had regarded Ireland as a mere appanage of England, had ruled her with a rod of iron, had taken advantage of her dissensions and her weakness to possess themselves of her best lands, had jealously suppressed her exports in the interest of their own industries, and had forced upon an unwilling people the reformation of their Church. The method of government was harsh and unsympathetic, the whole desire of England was to wring money from the unfortunate people; they were at the mercy of grasping officials; there was no newspaper press like that of our day to ventilate public opinion or to expose the infamous jobs that were of constant occurrence; and when disorder arose, it was never properly dealt with. No wonder that the country was kept in a state of seething discontent, that there was a deep-seated disaffection, and that from time to time the people were goaded into rebellion, always sternly repressed by a superior force. The most terrible of these rebellions was in 1641. Sir John Temple, the Irish Master of the Rolls, published, in 1646, a horrifying account of it from the English point of view. He describes the awful massacres of the English, the nameless and savage atrocities committed by the barbarous natives, the heartrending cruelties, with every circumstance of brutal indignity, that the miserable Protestants had to endure. He is convinced that the wrongs were all on our side. He says that the natives regarded with jealousy the prosperity of those who had bought their lands, a prosperity due entirely to the industry and enterprise of those who had tilled them, erected comfortable dwellings and lived in decency and steady toil. With these he contrasts the degradation of the Roman Catholics. " They lay," he says, " nastily buried, as it were, in mire and filthiness, the ordinary sort of people bringing their cattle into their own stinking creates, and there naturally delighting to lye among them." Temple's book is, no doubt, onesided, for he gives no hint of the grievances under which the Roman Catholics lay, nor of the provocations that gave rise to their hideous revenge. But if he does not tell the whole truth, all he does say is certainly true, for testimonies to the same effect abound all through these miserable centuries.
Such fearful outbreaks begat measures of severe repression and led to the enactment of the dreadful Penal Laws. But these were intended, not, as is often supposed, to crush Romanism or to wreak vindictive retaliation on the rebels, but to restrain the unruly element in the nation from disturbing the public peace. Yet, however well meant, their effect was to produce a constant fever of political agitation, to keep the sore open and plaster it with salt and pepper, and to destroy that spirit of harmony, of common patriotism and of friendly co-operation which were so essential for the advancement and prosperity of the country.
The political situation in the 18th century was, perhaps, a shade less dark than it was in the 17th, but it was bad enough. Corruption in high places was rampant, and jobbery universal. The Irish Parliament was packed with place-hunters whose votes had been bought, and every one of them sought, not to serve his country, but to secure for himself a fat sinecure. The people had no voice whatever in the management of affairs--indeed, they were no more competent to form an opinion than children in the nursery to regulate their lives,--but those who did rule them did so harshly and cruelly, and, as was plain to all, with a single eye to their own interests. One has but to read Swift's Drapier's Letters to realise, on the one hand the heartless rapacity of the English Government and their entire disregard for the welfare of the unfortunate Irish, and on the other hand the deep-seated anger of the people, sometimes rising to fury and manifesting itself in outrages on innocent settlers, but always suppressed with a high hand. "But," says Lecky, "perhaps the most deplorable characteristic of the time was the complete absence of all public feeling, of all hope, of all healthy interest in public affairs. The Irish nation had as yet known no weapon but the sword. It was broken, and they sank into the apathy of despair."
Lecky goes on to say that the commercial and industrial condition of the country was, if possible, more deplorable than the political, and was the result of English measures which for deliberate and selfish tyranny could hardly be surpassed. The English landowners became alarmed at the importation of Irish cattle, and in 1663 it was forbidden. In the same year another Act was passed not less fatal to the interests of the country, and Ireland was deprived of all trade with the British Colonies. Then the Irish took to sheep-farming, and for a time the manufacture of wool flourished. But this interfered with the English woollen industry, and in 1699 all export of wool, to England or to any other country, was prohibited, "by an Act," says Lecky, "of crushing and unprecedented severity. The effects of this measure were terrible almost beyond conception. The main industry of the country was, at a blow, completely and irretrievably annihilated. A vast population was thrown into a condition of utter destitution. Several thousands of manufacturers left the country, and carried their skill and enterprise to Germany, France and Spain. The Western and Southern districts are said to have been nearly depopulated. Emigration to America began on a large scale, and the blow was so severe that, long after, a kind of chronic famine prevailed."
Nor was the moral and social condition of the Irish people in those sad centuries brighter than the political and the industrial. Of education there was little, and that little was bad. Very few could read and write; there were hardly any schools; the one University was miserably poor and scandalously mismanaged. The people were but half civilized; a bitter feud perpetually raged between the adherents of the two religions; they could no more mix than oil and water, and the Protestants were little better than the Papists. The biographer of Philip Skelton, who was appointed Rector of Pettigo in Co. Donegal in 1750, describes the parishioners whom he found there. "They were sunk in profound ignorance. One could hardly have supposed, on viewing their manners, that they were born and bred in a Christian country." Skelton declared that they scarce knew more of the Gospel than the Indians of America, so that he felt like a Missionary sent to convert them to Christianity. He found most of them in the most abject state of starvation. In one house the people were eating boiled "prushia" weed. In another a woman with a new-born baby and a number of children round her had nothing but blood and sorrel boiled together, and the husband, who herded cattle for a farmer, secretly bled the cows for that purpose. Skelton used to go to the Pettigo markets on Mondays and buy a sack of meal for his parishioners, and to "guard it with a club, for the people of the adjacent parishes strove to take it by force; for hunger makes people desperate."
To say that the standard of comfort was low would be grossly to understate the case. Go round the country now and you will see well-built labourers' cottages, comfortably furnished and with neat gardens before and behind. Then the people lived in small mud hovels roofed with rotten thatch, ill-lighted, ill-ventilated, with hardly any furniture, and that of the rudest kind, to which pigs and hens had free access, and whose atmosphere was heavily charged with the fragrant odours that arose from the manure heap or the cess-pool outside the door. Around sported a flock of almost naked children, unwashed and untaught. And ill-health was miserably common. The food was scanty and unwholesome, the dwellings insanitary, medical skill very low, and, such as it was, seldom at hand; diseases now extinct, such as smallpox and the plague, decimated the population, poor and rich; the only remedies they knew were the fraudulent nostrums of herbalists. The country swarmed with beggars, ragged, whining and verminous, and the only form of charity open to the kind-hearted was to give them alms. Swift describes it in his day:--"It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and the cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by 3, 4 or 6 children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms."
Drunkenness, for such as could afford the indulgence, was almost universal and uncondemned, indeed it might be said that it had the seal of public approval; certainly it never entered anyone's mind that as the enemy of national goodness and weal it ought to be checked. And illicit stills, in great numbers, supplied the poisonous and maddening liquid to the poor. In the Life af Skelton we read:--"The private stills in the Parish of Pettigo being at that time innumerable made the whiskey cheap and plenty, which caused the people to be addicted to drunkenness, a vice among others prevalent there. At burials in particular, to which they flocked from all quarters, they drank most shamefully. It was the custom with them, as soon as the corpse was buried, to meet in a field adjacent to the churchyard and pour whiskey, like cold water, down their throats. Twenty gallons of strong spirits of whiskey have been often drunk at such a meeting. When their blood was sufficiently heated they then fell a boxing with one another, probably the near relations of the deceased, and thus cut and bruised each other most terribly. Many have been killed at such riotous meetings, either by quarrelling or whiskey."
Along with beggary and drunkenness was their natural companion, dirt. Soap was a rare commodity and the luxury of the rich, and even with them washing was not an every-day ceremony. One old lady said that she attributed the good health that she had enjoyed throughout her long life to her invariable habit of taking a bath twice in the year, whether she required it or not. But the poorer sort had not even that. Bishop Berkeley, a keen observer, said:--"Indolence in dirt is a terrible symptom; alas! our poor Irish are wedded to dirt on principle. It is, with some of them, a maxim that the way to make children thrive is to keep them dirty. And I do verily believe that the familiarity with dirt, contracted and nourished from their infancy, is one great cause of that sloth which attends them in every stage of life." The streets of towns and villages were indescribably unclean. And Dublin was no exception. Mahaffy records that "there was some debate between the Provost and the Chancellor, whether students should be required always to wear their gowns when they went, by permission of their tutors, into Dublin. Bedell thought not, 'because the streets were very foul,' the Archbishop suggested the undignified alternative of 'taking them under their arms.'"
And what of religion? Did the old Church do her duty, boldly rebuke vice, strive to raise the moral standard of the people and set a high and pure example to them of Christian living? She did not. The Church was then like an ill-kept garden; here and there a bed with some flowers and few weeds, but for the most part a tangled wilderness of briars and thistles. Some Dioceses were better managed, or less neglected, than others; some clergymen, like him of Auburn, "allured to brighter worlds and led the way."
But, on the whole, the Church of Ireland, through these centuries, was in a very lamentable state. The spiritual life of a diocese greatly depends on the bishop, and the system of appointing bishops in Ireland was rotten to the core. They were nearly always place-hunters, many of them Englishmen with no knowledge of Ireland, whose one aim was to gain large emoluments and high position without any need to trouble themselves with work. "'Tis become a custom with us," wrote Archbishop King, "that whoever pretends to any preferment, he immediately posts away to London. We have crowds there, and I find more are going, and some have waited two years, hunting for promotion." But the more ambitious divines only fell in with the English practice. "No man," said Dr. Johnson, who was very jealous for the honour of his Church, "can now be made a bishop for his learning and piety; his only chance is his being connected with someone who has parliamentary interest." A story is told of Paley, who had to preach at some great function at St. Paul's, at a time when three Sees were vacant. The younger Pitt, who had become Prime Minister at the age of twenty-five, was among the congregation. So were a number of Deans and Archdeacons, all anxious to keep themselves in the great man's eye. Paley gave out his text. "There is a lad here"--a pause--he turned and looked at Pitt--"who hath five loaves and two fishes"--another pause and a wave of his hand round the Cathedral--"but what are they among so many?"
But if the method of appointing bishops was bad in England, it was worse in Ireland. For in England they were, at least, of the native population, and spoke the language of the people. But in Ireland they were exotics, men who, too often by assiduous flattery of English Ministers, had got into overpaid Irish Sees. Men capable of this were not likely to be shining examples to their clergy. In truth they were, in many cases, men of evil life and notoriously bad character. Swift's bitter jest will be remembered. "Excellent and moral men had been selected upon every occasion of vacancy. But it, unfortunately, has uniformly happened that as these worthy divines crossed Hounslow Heath on their road to Ireland, to take possession of their bishoprics, they have been regularly robbed and murdered by the highwaymen frequenting that common, who seize upon their robes and patents, come over to Ireland, and are consecrated bishops in their stead."
But when these prelates had got well into their Sees, their grandeur and haughtiness were extreme. It is related--the story is of later times, but might well be true of the earlier--that one of the Down clergy had occasion to visit Bishop Mant on some business, and, whether by accident or design, arrived at his palace at the hour of luncheon. He was directed to wait in the hall until his lordship was ready to see him. He had come from a distant part of the diocese, and had breakfasted early, and as he waited his appetite was whetted by the sight of lackeys with powdered hair, plush breeches and white stockings, carrying dishes with silver covers into the dining-room. When the Bishop had quite finished the clergyman was ushered into the library, and, the interview over, was dismissed with frigid politeness. On his way home he remembered that Mant had written a Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, and wondered what comment he had made on the text, "A bishop should be given to hospitality." And this was what he found:--"There were few inns in those days."
An even more spicy story is told of a contemporary of Mant. When Lord Robert Loftus was Bishop of Clogher he dined one evening with his kinsman the Marquis of Ely, and the Rector of the parish was invited to meet him. This despised cleric, being rather late and hurrying up the long avenue to Ely Lodge, met the Bishop's carriage, which had deposited his lordship at the house, and asked the coachman to turn and drive him up. Having reached the drawingroom and duly made his obeisances, he incautiously told the Bishop how he had arrived, and offered his thanks for the service. The Bishop said nothing, but next day sent the carriage to Dublin to be re-upholstered! The story is probably more ben trovato than vero, but it illustrates the absurd airs of these ecclesiastical potentates throughout the period.
Many instances of evil prelates are on record; perhaps the most remarkable is that of the Earl of Bristol, who was Bishop of Derry from 1768 to 1803. He was a man of great wealth, and splendidly lavish with his princely revenues, which he spent in building great mansions in England and Ireland. He drove round the country and through the Continent in almost regal state, and his title, to this day, gives a name to many palatial hotels abroad. But he was really a mocking and dissolute pagan; his life was unsavoury, and his habits and associates discreditable. The last thing he thought of was doing his duty as a bishop, and for twenty-five years before his death he never visited his diocese even once. The bitter denunciation of Ezekiel might have been applied to such as he:--"Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? As I live, saith the Lord God, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand." And, under such rulers, how could one expect to find a godly, devoted and hard-working clergy, or any spiritual life in the Church?
In England, in the latter part of the 17th and the whole of the 18th century, religion was at a low ebb--that period has been called "The Great Ice Age." Puritan zeal had died away; the Royalist triumph, with its attendant orgies of vice, had made an avowed atheism fashionable, and this faded into indifference. Quiet and satisfaction reigned; the clergy were ignorant and vulgar; the educated laity were, for the most part, sceptics and scoffers; the upper classes set an example of unbridled profligacy, and the lower orders were sunk in materialism and ignorance. Such religion as did show signs of feeble life appealed to the reason, not to the heart; it consisted of frigid arguments for the truth of Christianity; it made no attempt to stir the emotions or the affections; it roused no enthusiasm, it was like the fig-tree, with a fine show of leaves but on which fruit of good works for the glory of God and the welfare of men might be sought in vain.
Religion in Ireland was in as evil a plight. All the evidence points to the frosty deadness of winter, with no sign of even latent life--apathy, formalism, carelessness, when men were too indifferent even to disbelieve. Such records of the state of parishes as we possess are melancholy in the extreme. At the Reformation, when the great majority of the people refused to shake off the papal yoke at the bidding of England, in numberless parishes there were few, if any, to attend Divine Service, and although the Church retained the buildings, they fell into ruin. We have, for example, Archbishop Bulkeley's Account of the Diocese of Dublin, in 1630, and although in a few parishes like Finglas and Holmpatrick he found the church in good repair, and Divine Service regularly held, yet in the great majority, at least in the Fingal district, we read such reports as, "Church altogether ruinous," "Church out of all repair." Then in the Cromwellian Settlement churches were desecrated and destroyed in the most wholesale way. And those that remained were treated with an irreverence that would shock us nowadays. One would imagine that the Cathedral Church of Dublin Diocese would at least have shown an example of some decency. But how does Bishop Bramhall, in a letter to Laud in 1633, describe it? "In Christ's Church, the principal church in Ireland, whither the Lord Deputy and Council repair every Sunday, the vaults, from one end of the minster to the other, are made into tippling rooms for beer, wine and tobacco, demised all to Popish recusants, and by them and others so much frequented in time of Divine Service that though there is no danger of blowing up the assembly above their heads, yet there is of poisoning them with the fumes. The table, used for the administration of the blessed Sacrament in the midst of the Choir, made an ordinary seat for maids and apprentices." Nor was there much improvements in the days of Archbishop King, seventy years later. Then we find the Chapter-house was used as a toy shop, and the Crypt was still let to tapsters and dealers in tobacco.
In the chapter on Bishop Bedell I have touched on the miserable state of Kilmore Diocese in his day. His biographer says:--"He found his Diocese under so many disorders that there was scarce a sound part remaining." And he records how the good bishop "was very sensibly touched when an Irishman said to him in open Court, That the King's Priests were as bad as the Pope's Priests. These were so grossly ignorant, and so openly scandalous, both for drunkenness and all sorts of lewdness, that this was indeed a heavy reproach."
Perhaps I have painted too dark a picture of the religious state of Ireland in these centuries. That there were bright patches cannot be denied. There were a few able, vigorous and godly bishops, like Bedell, King of Derry and of Dublin, and Wettenhall, of Cork, who stayed at home and did their difficult duty manfully. And there were, no doubt, many pastors who, ill-paid, obscure, with no stimulus but the love of Christ and the Holy Spirit's inspiration, guarded and fed their flocks with faithfulness and devotion. And there were, here and there, lay people who were steady Church members, who read their Bibles and tried to do the will of God.
But they were exceptions. And when we now look round at our splendid Bishops, our exemplary clergy, our Synods and Councils and Vestries, at our Churchwardens and choirs and parish officials, lay people devoted to the work of Christ and His Church, at our Missionary activities, and our manifold organisations for fathers and mothers, for our young people and for our children, we may well thank God and take courage.