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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

How Rome Robbed Poor Ireland Of Is Money

The Enslavement of a Nation: the Romanising of Ireland
Dr Clive Gillis

“By 1914 the Irish Church faced the financial future with a serenity and an optimism that could only be matched in Ireland by Arthur Guinness and Sons Limited,” says one writer.

Rome had amassed obscene wealth in the midst of poverty.  After the famine, a schoolmaster’s salary was £80 per year and an agricultural labourer earned about 6d a day.  The ticket of escape to New York was £10 steerage.  In 1825 the incumbent of Armagh RC Cathedral had struggled to squeeze £20 from his penniless flock for the rebuilding of St Paul’s in Rome.  Yet in 1900 his successor, Cardinal Logue of Armagh, held a cathedral bazaar to fund adornments and raised £33,380 16s 10d, from which £3,353 19s 11d was deducted in expenses. These included £658 paid to poor priests burdened by “doing temporary duty for the collectors”.

Dues, Dues…..

Before the Famine it tended to be individual priests who amassed wealth rather than the Church.  One wrote in the 1840’s, “The relative position of the people and clergy has been greatly changed … The people have become very much poorer … the clergy have adopted a more expensive style of living.  The best Catholic house in the village and the best style of living appears to be the priests … The demands of priests on the people have greatly multiplied … The laity complain Dues, Dues, …. The altar is occupied for an hour every Sunday for the transactions (in money and kind) of the priests.”

‘Stations’, that is, visits to the homes of comfortable Roman Catholic farming families who were too remote to travel to Church was a major source of wealth.  The priest heard confessions and celebrated mass before sitting down to a lavish meal with entertainment and invited guests.  Once sober enough to travel, he collected his fee and moved on.

The station could include baptisms and marriages, and, as the fees became ever more exorbitant, priests began to exploit the people’s superstitions, breaking spells and charms.  An MP reported that sermons were “poor … the doctrine of the Trinity is rarely known …. among them”.  Greedy priests provided cut-price stations to the lowly in “wretched filthy cabins”.  Sadly, station confession brought drunken priests dangerously close to young women.

Quarrels over wills

The British Government also provided financial help.  Indirectly, the Charitable Bequests Act of 1845 hindered relatives’ challenges to the wills of spinsters buttered up by priests or to the wills of decreased priests who had become rich by hoarding.  But wills were often so unreasonable that Archbishops hesitated.  One wrote to Rome in 1864, “A parish priest of this diocese died some time ago leaving about £10,000, two thirds to establish a convent of Sister of Mercy in his parish, one third to establish Christian Brothers … He had an immense number of relatives, all needy, but left them only £200 pounds cash for 3 nephews; £100 a niece; and provided for another niece in a convent.  He was under many obligations to one brother of him, yet left nothing to his family.  I think it conformable to natural justice to give something more to his family, say £500 … if not done the family may go to law.”  Why £500?  Because, if contested, “the whole £10,000 might be lost … If not lost, at any rate at least £500 would be lost in expenses”!

Anti-Maynooth Committee

Direct Government funding of education helped Rome.  The grant to the Seminary at Maynooth in1845 caused a storm in its day, giving a £30,000 lump sum for improvements and an annual grant of £26,000 in perpetuity.  The proceedings of the Anti Maynooth Committee record the remarks and speeches of many fine Protestants “of firmness who will not be trifled with”.  Prime Minister Peel had given them only five days between first and second readings to stop the bill.  The Committee were shocked that, “For the first time since the Reformation our representatives have consented to a permanent connection between the State and Popery.”

Subsistence farmers without disposable income were wiped out during the famine.  Land was consolidated into parcels large enough to be profitably farmed.  England with its booming industrial revolution presented a huge market.  Roman Catholic farmers in Ireland serviced this high demand for a quarter century.  Rome greedily eyed their increasing disposable income.  She got hold of the money during an outpouring of hatred for the English. The money was ploughed into the erection of hundreds of ostentatious Roman catholic buildings.  Smart Archbishop Cullen of Armagh, besides straining every advantage from the Charitable Bequests Act, strengthened his own hand at the Synod of Thurles in 1850, enabling him to claw back monies from the estates of rich priests and retain doubtful bequests from the laity.  He also tried to end stations and appointed priests with business acumen to concentrate on winning bequests.

Magnificent churches

Wealth now passed into the hands of the Church rather than individual priests.  In 1868, in a report to Rome, an archbishop wrote, “there is hardly a diocese in Ireland where there are not two or three magnificent churches in the course of erection not to speak of convents and schools which are rapidly spreading in every direction over the land.”   When new technology ended the farming boom by allowing Argentinean Beef, Canadian grain, Australian mutton and New Zealand Butter to be transported long distances, the Roman Church was financially bomb proof.  It owned so much real estate as security that the banks were falling over themselves for her business.

An expert estimated that in 1900, 90% of the population possessed only 50% of the wealth.  From 1850 to 1900 Rome had pocketed £50 million pounds, worth over £3,000 million pounds today.  Many hundreds of churches and institutions were built, £60,000 (£3.7 million pounds today) being a fairly typical outlay on a new church.

The Irish priesthood flourished.  There were 1,850 in 1800.  By 1900 there were 3,700 despite a reduced population.  This lucrative escape from poverty attracted many dubious men into the priesthood.  A zero exporter of priests in 1800, by 1900 Ireland was sending 10 priests abroad for everyone employed at home.

Richer and even richer

As the farming boom came to an end in the late 1870’s, the Church continued to grow even richer despite the general economic downturn.  An expert says, “as Catholics share of the national income declined the Churches share of it appeared to increase … cathedrals, churches, chapels, convents, monasteries, seminaries, parochial houses, Episcopal palaces, schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals and asylums all mushroomed in every part of Ireland … Bazaars, pilgrimages, altar societies, sodalities, confraternities, special collections on almost every Sunday and holiday of the year and clergy collecting and canvassing the far flung Irish missionary empire became an integral part of the Irish Catholic way of life.”

Roman Catholic lawyer Michael McCarthy, whose contemporary illustrated books give a vivid picture of Ireland in 1900 exposes the details of Rome’s financial bloodsucking.  He employs irony both in the text and the illustrations.  The vast newly erected Dublin Clonliffe College, a stately home for training priests, carries a quote from a will: “To the Superior of Holy Cross College Clonliffe £100”.  Under a photograph of gaunt faced men and women staring out of a Dublin back street stands the comment, “No legacies find their way into this retreat”.

The sisters Hamill

Banks were eager to lend financially naïve priests and nuns large sums of money.  Scandals soon became noised abroad.  New church law appeared overnight to limit this spate of financial collapses.  The huge variety of institutions receiving bequests lead to internal infighting amongst rival orders.  It also gave the testators considerable clout.  For instance the two spinster sisters Hamill, “only survivors of a family of seven” were sitting on £100,000 and knew it.  Their request to receive mass in their own private oratory went all the way up to the pope by the expectant exertions of their local bishop.  After receiving a personalized permission “with the pope’s autograph” the fickle sisters changed their will at the behest of what the bishop branded “envious clerics and even nuns” who had mischievously told the Hamills the bishop already had “too much money”.  Even the Rector of the Irish College in Rome was unable to dissuade the ladies.

And so at the end of this momentous century where did the ultra conservative Church of Rome in Ireland invest for total security in the future? Besides land and the railways there is no doubt Rome favoured investment in Protestant Britain’s own Government bonds.  Where else with so many financial sharks around?

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