Fixing the Time for Easter: The Role of the Irish Church

St. Laserian’s Cathedral in County Carlow (now a Protestant church) was built on the site of a 6th Century monastery.

As discussed in a forthcoming novel, the nascent Christian Church often adopted pagan imagery and places of worship as its own when suppressing or extirpating these earlier faiths wasn’t an option.  This ‘rebranding’ (the Queen of Heaven to replace Mother Nature, etc.) was articulated best in 601 when Pope Gregory the First exhorted his clergy not to destroy places of pagan worship when instead they could ‘bless and convert them from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.’    In Ireland, this practice resulted in the establishment of Saint Gobban’s monastery in Old Leighlin, County Carlow where a centuries-old debate within the Church would be put to rest.  At issue was a most fundamental question:  When is Easter?

Following the death of Jesus, a split arose in the Christian community concerning the date on which the resurrection was to be observed.  One faction held that it should fall on the Jewish Passover (a date determined by the lunar calendar) as it was at the Passover meal that Jesus revealed to his disciples his role as the sacrificial lamb.  Another faction within the Church held that the date must always fall on a Sunday regardless of the lunar calendar.  The argument was that on that day the tomb was found empty; thus, Sunday was sanctified above all other days and celebrating the resurrection on a weekday would diminish Easter’s significance.  By 325 C.E., the Sunday proponents had won the day, so to speak, but splits in the Church remained as Eastern Christians were still guided by the Jewish, lunar calendar regarding when Easter Sunday should be observed.   Constantine urged Church leaders to fix a date specific for all of Christendom and the Council of Nicaea, convened in that same year, agreed with him that all Christians should observe the SAME Sunday, but which one?  That question was answered five years later when the pope sent Saint Laserian to St. Gobban’s Monastery in Old Leighlin, County Carlow, Ireland.   Saint Laserian oversaw a conference that eventually fixed the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.   He stayed on in Ireland as abbot of the monastery which grew to 1500 monks.  By the 13th Century, the site had been transformed into the Cathedral of Saint Laserian, parts of which survive to the present (albeit under the control of the Anglican Church).


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Parliament’s Oath of Renunciation and the Irish Church

  In the wake of King James’ defeat at the hands of the Protestant King William of Orange, some Catholic priests fled Ireland, some were induced to convert to Protestantism (for a payment of 40 pounds a  year), and some were arrested (a reward of 100 pounds was paid if one turned in a bishop, 30 pounds for a Jesuit).  Many priests, however, went underground or otherwise operated below London’s radar.  Not content to have any Catholic clergy remaining in Ireland, in 1703 Parliament passed a law that required all Irish Catholic clergy to register with the authorities so that ‘the government be truly informed of the number of such dangerous persons as still remain among us’.   1089 priests came forward to register their identities.  Within a few years, Parliament passed the ‘Popery Act’ which aimed to insure that the Protestant succession to the throne was recognized by all.  It required that Irish Catholic clergy take an oath of allegiance known as the Oath of Renunciation (or Abjuration).  Although the Pope forbade the taking of such an oath, 33 Irish clergy did do so, thus affirming the right of Protestant Queen Mary and her heirs to rule.

One is tempted by these facts to get caught up in condemning those clergy who caved to pressure, but instead we should  marvel that so many didn’t at a time when Rome was hardly in a position to protect her servants any more than the Catholic aristocracy could for many of them had fled Ireland with the defeated James.  So, for me, the story here is to be found in the lives of 1056 priests who clung to their faith in the face of adversity or, to paraphrase Lillian Hellman, refused to cut their conscience to fit the fashion of the times.


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Richard Martin – M.P. for Galway, Animal Rights Advocate and Irish Nationalist

ballynahinch-castle-f5ae5e152bca71124f90f7fb65a16bd7Ballynahinch Castle, the home of ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin and now a hotel.

Richard Martin, a wealthy Protestant born into one of the 12 tribes of Galway and raised on land that once belonged to Grace O’Malley, was an M.P., supporter of Catholic Emancipation and humane landlord.  Martin owned 200,000 acres in County Galway which made his estate, in the 1830’s, the largest in Ireland.  During the 1839 potato shortages in Galway, the Crown’s eyes on the ground – Captain Chads – sent 13 reports back to London praising Martin (and others) for his efforts to alleviate the distress.  Richard Martin is noteworthy for something else: he was an animal rights activist at a time when such things were not in fashion.  He earned the nickname ‘Humanity Dick’ when the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, recognized his Parliamentary efforts in aid of animals.  Richard Martin later founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

Richard Martin’s Irish estates were lost during the Famine and he died in France, exiled from his homeland because of debts and scandal.  But his legacy lives on in the minds of those who remember those landlords who, though of Norman or Protestant stock, stood with their tenants against the evils of religious discrimination and against London’s apathy in the face of mass starvation.  


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A Medieval Book of Hours

As described in a forthcoming novel, a medieval Book of Hours contained a section entitled the Office of the Dead  – no, that’s not a department in Kafka’s bureaucratic hell, but a collection of prayers that were recited by devout Catholics at home during  the 8 ‘offices’ of the day.  Praying for the souls of the dead was considered a sacred duty in the Middle Ages, and is today for the Mass includes intercessory prayers  Yet many Catholics think that the concept of Purgatory (from the Latin verb purgare, to cleanse) is outmoded.  Not true.  It is as much a part of Catholic doctrine as it always was.  In the interests of time, and because a dear friend does not believe that this is still so, I have extracted below the relevant sections from The Catechism of the Catholic Church/Faith (1992). *  Note that Purgatory is for those who die guilty of unrepented, venal sins – the theory being that one can’t enter the presence of G-d until such sins are purged through the cleansing fires of purgation and with the intercession of the living.


No. 1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

No. 1031  The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:607

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.608

No. 1032  This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”609 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.610The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

It is beyond the scope of this blog, and beyond my meager understanding of theology, to fully explain the concept of Purgatory.  Suffice it to say that Purgatory is a sort of celestial waiting room for those who died in grace to the extent that they are assured salvation.  It is also a place for second chances where venial sins can be effectively ‘worked off’.  What form does the punishment/purgation take?  Who knows! Augustine had ideas as did St. Jerome, St. Gregory and others – all of it fascinating (at least to me).  I think a lot of the negative press about the concept of Purgatory misses a crucial point: in advancing the notion that there was a connection between the living and the dead, the Church made the living part of their loved one’s redemption.  That’s a powerful and beautiful thought – through prayer and good works in this life, you/we can affect the future of those who’ve passed over, for Purgatory isn’t a place where one works off the wages of sin ALONE.  Loved ones in the living world can help.  Why is this important?  Because you’ll only have loved ones to intercede for you if you lived a worthy life – one of kindness, humility, love, and generosity.  So, it’s a carrot of sorts – one meant to encourage us to live well and leave behind people who will care enough to pray for our souls.  Powerful stuff that.  And it gives the living, who often feel helpless and alone after the death of a loved one, something to DO – a way to be useful to those who’ve passed over.  Let’s put aside the abuses resulting from the sale of Medieval indulgences and all that and simply appreciate that, when remembering the dead becomes more than telling stories, one is reminded not only that the dead are still very much a part of our lives, but that we are still a part of theirs.

* The CCC is a codification of official Catholic doctrine promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 (30 years after Vatican II).  It sets out the Church’s official position on a variety of matters.  It is available (in English) on the Vatican’s website and many other places.  Purgatory as an essential doctrine was recognized by the Council of Trent (among other bodies) where the concept of the living helping the dead through the intercession of prayer was recognized.


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Mary Gardens

annapolis-mary-garden-18Annapolis Mary Garden

As discussed in a forthcoming novel, there are a number of flowers associated with the Virgin Mary.  Flowers and herbs were named for Mary because of the color or shape of the bloom or foliage.  Some examples are Lady’s Mantle, whose leaves resemble a spread cloak; and lilies of the valley, whose flowers are tear-shaped and were thought to have sprung up at the foot of the cross where Mary wept.   Lilies of the valley also bloom in May – Mary’s month – so named because in pagan faiths May was associated with the Greek Artemis and the Roman Flora.  And, as the Romans crowned a statute of Flora with a garland of flowers on May 1, so a statue of Mary is crowned on this date.  This practice, common since the 16th Century, was formalized by Church rite in the 19th Century.  The Church adopting the month of May for Mary is the sort of re-branding discussed in the novel.

Other flowers are associated with the Virgin because their bloom time coincides with liturgical feasts days or because they were associated with specific religious sites.  An example of this latter category is the marigold (or Mary’s Gold).  In medieval times, the golden flowers of this plant were left as offerings at pilgrimage sites by pilgrims too poor to leave gold coins.

One of the earliest Mary Gardens planted in the U.S. was on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (St. Joseph’s Church in Woods Hole); this seaside garden is still maintained today.  Another lovely example of a Mary Garden may be found in Knock, Ireland.*

For those interested in further research, the library at the University of Dayton (a Marianist University) maintains the world’s largest research collection on the Virgin.  See also:  The Liturgy of Flowers in a Mary Garden by Andrea Florendo (2004).

* In 1873, 15 men, women and children over a period of two hours in the early evening (and in the pouring rain) saw a life-sized vision of the Blessed Mother (and saints) floating outside a gable wall of the Knock parish church in Ireland.  Six years later, a commission of enquiry found the testimony of the witnesses to the apparition credible.  In 1936, a second commission of enquiry was established to interview the three surviving witnesses (2 in Ireland, 1 in New York) .


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Clare Island’s 1846 Distress Call

This is a copy of a May, 1846 correspondence from Francis O’Malley of Clare Island that has been preserved in the Irish National Archives.  In it he pleads for relief for the inhabitants of Clare Island, an island off the coast of County  Mayo.  Mr. O’Malley writes that a great number of families will face death without food as there has been no means to ‘procure one days provision’ of food since December.  He asks for public work projects and outright relief as there is an outbreak of yellow jaundice and he fears that ‘the peace of the Island will be destroyed from necessity’ – i.e., from want of food.   It should be pointed out that the letter was written in May, a month during which a crossing to the island would have been possible for anyone wishing to determine the veracity of Mr. O’Malley’s claims.

What happened?  Did Clare Island receive the help Mr. O’Malley asked for?  Of course not.

Sir Richard O’Donnell (a gentleman who would go on to actually distinguish himself as one of the less hard-hearted of landlords), as Deputy Lieutenant of the District charged with determining the veracity of Mr. O’Malley’s claims, dismisses them out of hand in a follow-up letter to his superiors.  In support of this dismissal, Sir Richard cites to the fact that there are few ‘paupers in the poor house’ from Clare Island, concluding from this scant evidence that there must be no suffering on the island!  The assumption, of course, is that those starving on Clare would cross the water to Westport town and commit themselves to the horrors of the poorhouse rather than die at home.  For anyone who has spent time on the island, such a belief is ridiculous.  Clare Island inhabitants are proud and independent.  Many have lived on the island for generations; they are of the land and the land is part of their very identity.  Even the spectre of death wouldn’t separate them from the land they love; Sir Richard, a native of Newport only a few miles to the north, would have known that.

So, did Sir Richard correspond with Mr. O’Malley himself?  Not that the records show.  Did he visit Clare Island or send a subordinate to survey the situation?  Not that we know.  In fact, only days earlier Sir. Richard had written a letter stating that ‘the gentry of the barony’ did not feel that a relief committee was necessary for the district at that time, ostensibly because they believed the Famine wasn’t all that serious.

One can only imagine how many suffered and died on Clare Island in the weeks and months to follow as a result of Sir Richard’s stubborn refusal to investigate Mr. O’Malley’s claim.


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The Famine, the American Civil War and the Fenians

John O’Mahony, who was tasked with establishing the American-based Fenian Movement.  O’Mahony derisively referred to Irish Americans as ‘tinsel patriots’ but understood the necessity of American money and influence if Ireland was to achieve independence.

Although Irish had struggled, in one form or another, for independence from Britain throughout its 800 year subjugation of Ireland, it was the horror of the Famine that gave birth to the international independence movement known as the Fenian Brotherhood*.  The Fenians (of which the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a precursor to the IRA of modern times, was part) had much in common with the Irish secret societies which had come before in that they advocated violence in pursuit of Irish independence, but the Fenians went one step further.  Whereas previous secret societies had been agrarian-based and mostly local, the Fenians saw the struggle for Irish independence as one where diaspora Irish could not only have a voice but play a part.  Brilliant, if twisted, marketing:  Irish Americans might not be able to fight the British directly, but they could subsidize those who did by providing cash, arms, political influence and secrecy.  Think of it as a perverse take on the penitential power of the survivor:  through actions taken in America, Irish Americans could help free their brethren suffering under British rule much as the actions of the living could affect the fate of loved one’s awaiting judgment in Purgatory.

American aid for the Fenians ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of working class Irish Americans during the decade following the Famine.  The economic recession that gripped America in the early 1860’s might have temporarily dried up financial support, but the American Civil War provided military training for thousands of Irish Americans and legitimized the belief that resolving sectarian violence by force was justified.

The Civil War also inflamed Anglo-American relations.  Although Great Britain was officially neutral during the war, its shipyards built two warships for the Confederacy and an international tribunal subsequently awarded the U.S. 15.5 million dollars for damages done by these British-made ships.  Would the British more overtly aid the South?  Fears ran high at times.  Confederate president Jefferson Davis believed that Britain’s dependence on Southern cotton would be a decisive factor in garnering British diplomatic and military support for secession.  Unfortunately, he did not factor in Britain’s long-standing tension with France and her growing distrust of Bismarck’s Germany – both of which claimed London’s attention and resources.  For his part, President Lincoln endeavored to portray the War Between the States as only that: an internal conflict, not a matter within the purview of international law.  As to the issue of slavery, it had been outlawed in Britain for thirty years (G-d bless the memory of William Wilberforce and his colleagues), so to support a Southern economy so dependent on the slave trade would have been a hard sell for London at home.  Then there’s the 1861 Trent affair during which a U.S. naval vessel fired on a British (neutral) ship carrying two Confederate emissaries to Europe.   Although the British fleet was put on a war footing as a result and there was much saber rattling in Whitehall, Lincoln sagaciously released the captured men, confident that this conciliatory move, coupled with the fact that the North was providing Britain with 30% of its grain imports at the time, would defuse tensions.  He was right – in this as in so much else.  Still, for the first years of the war it appeared that the South might win or at least not lose.  If that happened, would London weigh in?  If so, what would France do?  All of this uncertainty meant that anti-British sentiment during the War ran high – a boon to the efforts of the Fenians who made great strides at the time on the public relations front.  Their efforts in the 19th Century may have failed to free Ireland, but they laid a foundation of support in America that materially sustained the Fenians and their IRA offspring during the Troubles to follow.  Thus history came full circle, for it was Famine survivors who had been forced by British action and inaction to emigrate to America who were to prove such an effective weapon in the war for Irish independence.

* named for the Fianna, a mythical military unit led by the warrior Finn MacCool who protected Ireland from foreign invasion.


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