Chapter Five: THE IRISH

 The Irish 'problem' in emigration, as seen through colonial eyes, was that 'the Irish' represented one, indistinguishable mass of 'alienness', that threatened their vision of peaceful and profitable pastoralism. A number of negative characterisations of 'Irish-ness' were lumped together to form a single generalised 'mob' of objections in the squatters' minds. All Irish bore these attributes in the colonists' imagination. 

The arrival of many thousands of Irish emigrants was interpreted as if it were the approach of a massive storm front, a wall of mounting black cloud, that would deluge the existing small society of 'British' settlers in social disruption and disorder. 

Chief among their fears was the supposed religious fanaticism of Ireland, the Irish people's adherence to one universal Catholic Church ruled by one absolutist Roman Pope. The Irish population's assumed allegiance to a foreign power (the Vatican), and their apparent unquestioning obedience to their priests (the Confession), were serious concerns for Protestant proprietors from England and Scotland.

Factual or not, it all conjured up sinister images of political sedition and future discontent. The Irish were mostly Catholic. They were therefore, by default, a vanguard of civil disobedience and potential religious hegemony.

Suspicions of Irish emigration being an Irish-Catholic invasion by stealth did not seem far-fetched in this 'climate' of public opinion. Community leaders like Anglican Bishop Broughton, and the prominent Presbyterian J.D. Lang, spoke often of the inherent dangers of non-Protestant immigration. Their concern at eventually being outnumbered provided fertile ground for conspiracy theory.

The Bishop, and Chairman of The Immigration Committee in Sydney, feared that "means had been taken to cast a damp upon the disposition of the English emigrant, insomuch that few or none were found willing to come, while at the same time every encouragement was given to the impulse of the Irish" to emigrate. Furthermore, he believed, he was not alone in this 'understanding'. "His situation [as leader of the Church of England in the Colony] enabled him to know that this persuasion was very extensively prevalent...He received numerous communications drawing his attention to it".(1)

These views had become such common currency that the Governor of New South Wales felt it necessary to quietly rebuke his public officers, reminding them that such wild anxieties and speculations were not the official policy of his administration. "He would take this opportunity", he said at a meeting of his legislative Council in 1840, "of deprecating any distinction being made between English and Irish immigrants. The question should be, is a man a good shepherd, or labourer; if he is, never mind whether he is Irish or English, Roman Catholic or Protestant".(2)

Irish Protestants

The Bishop and others on the Immigration Committee already had sufficient real information on hand to make more sensible readings of the situation. The Lists of Immigrants that their Boards at Sydney and Melbourne compiled on the arrival of each bounty emigrant ship from Britain were comprehensively detailed to give reassurance on the relative numbers of Protestant and Catholic (In the previous chapter examination of this issue revealed a ratio of 58% to 42% in favour of the preferred Protestantism).

From this data, it is fair to say a couple of things about the 9,984 adult emigrants that disembarked at Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845. The first is that, if they were Catholic, they were probably Irish. The second is that, it does not follow that if they were Irish, they were necessarily Catholic. This is evident from Graph 7 below.

Graph 7: CATHOLIC EMIGRANTS. A plate-graph demonstrating the respective religious loyalties of adult bounty emigrants to Port Phillip in the period 1839-1844, according to their region of origin.

Only 110 of the bounty emigrants who professed Catholicism came from England, 7 from Wales, and 61 from Scotland, totalling a miniscule 178 (or 0.04%) of all 4,437 Catholics landed. The balance came from Ireland. But with those 4,259 Irish Catholics also came another 1,959 emigrants who were Irish Protestants.

Out of the total number of 6,219 adult emigrants to Port Phillip who gave Ireland as their birthplace, the ratio of religious allegiance was actually 31.5% (or nearly one third) Protestant to 68.5% (or two thirds) Catholic. This was a higher proportion of Protestant Irish than was the case in the Irish population itself, suggesting the selection process undertaken by emigration agents was not biased towards Catholics at all.

In 1835 a revised census of pre-Famine Ireland was published by the Commissioners of Public Instruction. They were particularly interested in the "State of the Irish Church", which is to say, the implanted 'established' Church of Ireland -- a denominational graft of English Anglicanism which had failed to thrive despite confiscated Catholic property and annual subsidies from Parliament. 

In their Report the Commissioners found that "The total population of Ireland...of whom the religion could be 7,943,940." This total was made up of 6,427,712 "Roman Catholics", 852,064 professing the "Established Church", 642,356 Presbyterians, and 21,808 "Other Protestant Dissenters". They concluded "Thus the members of the Established Church are about 103/4 per cent of the total population, the Roman Catholics nearly 81 per cent, and the Presbyterians a little more than 8 per cent."(3)

As already noted, the 4 to 1 majority of Catholics over Protestants in 1835 Ireland is in plain contrast to the 2 to 1 ratio of Irish emigrants to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845. In relative terms, a greater number of Irish Protestants in proportion to their overall population numbers were prepared to emigrate than Catholics. This pattern of emigration, with Catholics more reluctant to leave traditional practices and places than Protestants, is historically consistent with parallel (and much larger) migrations to Britain and North America.

According to historian Kerby Miller in Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, it was not until the mid-1830s that the absolute numbers of Catholics began to outstrip the number of Protestants leaving Ireland. Prior to this point, "typical emigrants were still relatively affluent Protestant farmers and artisans from the northern province". However, "by the early 1840s a majority were comparatively poor Catholic sub-tenants, farmers' sons, and labourers from the three southern provinces", and "more Irishmen now took ship at Cork than at Belfast".(4)

Bounty emigrants coming to Port Phillip had a similar religious profile to those paying their own fares to America. Map 5 provides a comparative impression of their religion and origins.

Map 5: IRISH LOYALTIES. A map of the relative proportions of Catholics and Protestants from those Irish counties which contributed more than 100 emigrants to the bounty scheme.

In the southern counties the picture is strongly Catholic, with the darker blue shading indicating more than 80% of emigrants from those areas professed that loyalty. The northern counties are much less uniform, with the purple shading indicating Protestant loyalties between 40 and 60%. There were no instances of a Protestant dominance above 80% in Ulster.

While this map is emigrant-specific, it does reflect the religious divide in Ireland to some extent. In the pre-Famine period, the province of Munster had a small minority of Protestants, whereas Ulster was more evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant denominations. And, as the map suggests, in the north both Catholics and Protestants were now prepared to consider the move.

Irish Catholics

If they had thought carefully, the members of the colonial Immigration Committee, and the officers of the respective Immigration Boards in Port Phillip and Port Jackson, would have acknowledged that one third of the Irish emigrants they received were Protestants. What they may not have known was that the other two thirds who were Catholics did not necessarily come from one doctrinally conformist tradition either. 

The post-Famine image of a powerful denomination able to enforce compulsory Mass attendance and automatic obedience to clergy was not the only version of Catholicism prevailing in pre-Famine Ireland.

In the midst of 'The Troubles' in modern Ireland (1968 onwards), three historians began to study the 1835 Report of the Commissioners of Public Instruction  with renewed attention to the statistical detail it contained. The results of this research by Emmet Larkin, David Miller, and Sean Connolly, has transformed the way the influence of the pre-Famine Catholic Church is understood.

The monolithic impression gained from late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland (along with the significant Irish diasporas in North America and Australasia) of Catholics cowering beneath an inflexible Church hierarchy did not apply, at least not uniformly, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The pre-Famine Church was in reality a recovering but still impoverished institution. It was impoverished as a result of anti-Catholic legislation and recovering only slowly as those repressive Penal Laws were gradually being repealed. In the 1830s and 1840s it remained, in large part, depleted in manpower (clergy) and property (churches), although it was making attempts to remedy both of these shortfalls.

In summary, the demands of a rapidly multiplying Catholic population far outran its available resources. One convincing measure of the limits to the Church's effective control of its parishioners was the number of trained Catholic priests. This dilemma is represented in Map 6, which shows the number of people per priest in Irish dioceses.

Map 6: CATHOLIC CLERGY. A map of Catholic dioceses in Ireland showing the number of Catholics to be served by each available priest, according to data from the Commissioners of Public Instruction compiled in 1835. Source: SJ Connolly, 2001, Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland 1780-1845, Dublin, Four Courts Press, pp. 60, 259, 261.

As the tincture of red leaches out of Map 6, so too does the effective reach of the official Catholic Church in the first half of the nineteenth century. The overall average of potential parishioners per priest in Ireland in 1835 was one to 2,991. The best arch-diocese was Dublin in the east with one priest per 2,451; the second best was Armagh in the north with one priest per 2,805; then Cashel in the south with one priest per 3,188; and coming last was Tuam in the west with one priest per 3,675 Catholics. To put these figures in historical context, the comparable ratios for European countries in the Irish Catholic Directory for 1839 included one to 800 for France, one to 750 in Austria, and one to 900 in Prussia.(5)

The inevitable consequence of this 'paucity of priests' in Ireland was a dramatically lower observance of sacramental duties associated with Church membership -- an ever widening gap between those in the east who were practising Catholics and those in the west who were, at best, nominal Catholics. The official Church was forced to make compromises to accommodate this reality, with the institution of 'Stations', and a reduction in ritual obligations. In Emmet Larkin's words:
"Confession and communion, for example, were administered twice a year at the Christmas and Easter Stations in the homes of the more substantial laity, and baptism, marriage and last rites were also often celebrated at home...The chief obligation that defined a practicing Catholic before the Famine, therefore, was not attendance of mass on Sundays and obligatory holy days, but fulfilling one's Easter duty, which entailed going to confession and receiving communion annually between Ash Wednesday and Ascension Thursday".(6)
These were significant concessions in recognition of the chronic shortage of priests, but did little to prevent a diminishing effect on the moral authority of the official Church in many rural and Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland. David Miller's map of the rates of regular Mass attendance in 1834 provides a striking illustration of non-compliance with devotional requirements. 

Unlike the other maps and graphs presented throughout this text, Map  7 is not calculated from the raw data. It is basically a map taken from a map -- not an accurate, drawn-to-scale reproduction of the original, but a general impression of it. Miller's map was itself a statistical smoothing of 'lumpy' and sometimes incomplete 'parish by parish' information he extracted from the Commissioners' Report. Map 7, in its revised and very approximate form, is nevertheless included here for the vivid historical truth it portrays.

Map 7: MASS ATTENDANCE. An impression of an original map that was drawn from data in the 1835 Report by the Commissioners of Public Instruction in Ireland. Source: DW Miller, 'Mass Attendance in Ireland in 1834', in SJ Brown & DW Miller (eds.), 2000, Piety and Power in Ireland 1760-1960, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, p. 173.

As the tincture of green fades out of the map from east to west, so too does the level of active devotion in Catholic Ireland. From the fervent attendance of 80 to 100% in Leinster to the sporadic attendance of 0 to 20% along the Atlantic coastlines of Munster, Tuam and Armagh, there was a declining range of Catholic practice that occupied most of the rural hinterland (where four fifths of the Irish population lived).

'Celtic' tradition

In a social environment where "the religious practice of a section of the laity failed to reach even the minimum level prescribed by canon law", it is perhaps not surprising that the Catholic poor continued to rely on traditional or customary beliefs and practices as their primary source of spiritual consolation and comfort. They resorted to their religious 'heritage', of 'unorthodox' but popular rituals associated with holy places (springs, wells, Iron Age forts and mounds), and veneration of the inhabitants of the 'underworld' (fairies, 'the good people').

This was an alternative and much older religious culture to that promoted by the Catholic Church. It was a system of local "beliefs and practices that were only superficially Christianised or belonged wholly to the non-Christian supernatural". And in the opinion of historian Sean Connolly, these "survivals from earlier religious traditions" were "not merely a colourful folk tradition" but "seriously held magical beliefs" -- they formed "a very real part of the mental world of large numbers of Irish Catholics in the decades before the Famine".(7)

Before the seventeenth century brutalism of Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads, Ireland had enjoyed a uniquely subtle 'layering' of spiritual history. Thanks to the (relatively) tolerant evangelising of early Christian missionaries, previous religious use of holy sites was not completely extinguished by subsequent practitioners with different beliefs.

This sense of almost uninterrupted continuity is appropriately illustrated by the diary entry of a twenty-first century 'pilgrim who walked along St. Declan's Way in southern Ireland. She describes her discovery one afternoon,
"...of a circular wall with a couple of stone steps down to the shallow water in the bottom of the well, then a channel of water running into a second stone cavity and out into a narrow stream surrounded by boggy ground. It is called Tober Iosa, which means Well of Jesus, but it actually goes back to pre-Christian days...Near the well is a rough stone altar, on which stand three pieces of stone. On the centre one which is over 1200 years old is a carving of a small cross in a circle. This altar was used as a mass rock 300 years ago when, due to the Penal Laws, it was difficult and dangerous to hold a Catholic mass...Beside the well is a holly tree. To the Celts, holly represented balance and [because of its non-deciduous green foliage] ensured the rebirth of the year...Like at St. Brigid's Well, dozens of ribbons and pieces of material have been tied to the tree...token pieces of cloth...petitions..."(8)
The resilience of ancient customs is demonstrated by another tradition uniquely Irish. The word Pattern is a corruption of the word Patron, an abbreviation of the phrase Patron Saint's Day. It was the name given to assemblies of 'the faithful' at particular sites considered sacred or holy. 

They generally took place on the festival or 'patron day' of the saint for whom the well or shrine was (re-)named. And they were often an unashamed "combination of ritual observance and boisterous celebration". In his Priests and People, Sean Connolly cites a contemporary observer's summary of the widespread pre-Famine practice.
"It is quite usual to see young men and women devoutly circumambulating [sic] the well or lake on their bare knees, with all the marks of penitence and contrition strongly impressed on their faces; whilst again, after an hour or two, the same individuals may be found in a tent dancing with ecstatic vehemence to the music of the bagpipe or fiddle".(9)

The mixture of 'Christian devotion' and unrestrained 'partying' provides an important clue, both to the common people's persistence in these centuries old practices, and to the Catholic Church's unofficial toleration of them (turning to outright censure in post-Famine decades). The fun, or pagan, part of the Pattern was the proliferation of whisky-sellers' booths set up around the site on the day, the coming together of neighbouring communities "to make merry, which in frequent interpretation is to drink and fight", and "to do what the others do and to see the women". 

For the participants, there was no contradiction between beginning the day with "a circuit barefoot or on bare knees over sharp stones or up a steep slope" (a practice that also predated Christianity), and ending it with drunkenness and dancing and an all-in brawl between families or villages (with the infamous 'faction fight' usually anticipated weeks in advance).

The other clue to the popularity of the Pattern lies in the 'coincidence' of saint's days to significant points of the agricultural year. There was a fundamental similarity between Catholic and pagan calendars. The older, Celtic year was divided into twelve, based on the summer and winter solstices, the spring and autumn equinoxes, and the dates partway between these four major festivals. 

Fifth and sixth century Catholic missionaries expelled the Druidic custodians of Celtic sanctuaries, renaming the sites in honour of Christian saints. However their underlying ritual significance survived because of critical linkages to the seasonal turning points they originally represented. The agricultural cycle of life did not change and neither did most of the religious practices of rural Ireland.

For example, the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the beginning of the northern-hemisphere Spring, was celebrated on the first of February as St. Bridgett's Day. It marked the start of preparations for sowing the next season's crops. Similarly, the festival of Lughnasa, in honour of the Celtic god of light, occurred at the end of July. It marked the beginning of harvest. These ancient rituals were embedded as regular landmarks of the seasonal changes that governed the peasants' existence, year in, year out.

On May Eve, which descended from the Celtic festival of Bealtaine, the beginning of summer was observed. Amongst other things, it meant moving the cattle from winter stalls to home fields, or from home fields to rougher pastures some distance away. St John's Eve in late June was the festival of midsummer, after which the power of the sun grew weaker and the days shorter. Bonfires were lit and the precious few cattle were driven through the smoke or embers, their coats singed with burning branches to protect them from disease or ill-thrift.

These were crucial times of the year, that if not recognised and duly observed, could result in economic disaster. The distinction between what was practical and what was supernatural was blurred. The distinction between what was magical (unorthodox popular religion) and what was miraculous (orthodox official religion) was irrelevant.

This section has been a very brief and simplified introduction to the alternative spirituality pursued by a large portion of the Irish population before the Famine. Hopefully, it is sufficient to indicate that the variance between the two forms of supernaturalism should not be dismissed as mere rural quaintness or social oddity.

The Catholic Church took the practices of Patterns (and Wakes and eventually even Stations) very seriously. Irreverent and unruly behaviour was the obvious tip of the theological iceberg. But the heart of the issue for prelates and clergy, was the effective diversion of fervour and piety away from them, towards a competing supernaturalism. 

As early as 1768 the statutes drawn up for the diocese of Cork attempted to address the problem for parish priest in distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate forms of spirituality. So subtle was the deception thought to be that clergy were advised not to further confuse the issue by reading stories from the apocryphal parts of the Catholic scriptures, or refer to miracles not properly authenticated, or to any prophecy predicting the future.

While some 'reforming' bishops did try to enforce similar anti-populist provisions in the pre-Famine decades, the Church's efforts had a limited and uneven effect until the post-Famine era. It was not till the latter half of the nineteenth century, when agricultural catastrophe had stripped Ireland of nearly 2,500,000 people (1 million died, 1.5 million emigrated), that what Emmet Larkin describes as a "Devotional Revolution" occurred uniformly across the Irish Catholic Church. Prior to that calamitous event, the Church could not claim anything like doctrinal obedience and regular attendance among all those who professed themselves to be 'Catholic'.

It is not possible to calculate the percentage of Irish-Catholic emigrants to Port Phillip who were customary or unorthodox believers, and those who conformed to the Roman or Tridentine model of official Catholicism. The information supplied by the Lists of Immigrants is simply not detailed enough to differentiate between them. Emigrants were classified as either "Protestant" or "Catholic".

However, as Irish Protestants were made up of both "Anglicans" and "Presbyterians", it is reasonable to assume that Catholics too were made up of at least two versions, or interpretations, of Catholicism. On the one hand, an official 'Roman' group of regular Mass attenders. On the other, an unofficial 'Celtic' group whose religious practice had been tied, in the main, to an older tradition.

In conclusion, the colonists' fear of Irish-Catholic emigration (and the Bishop of Australia's dread of "the Genius of Rome") was based on a myth of ecclesiastic hegemony, on a 'papist dominion' which did not exist. The Irish did not form a monolithic threat. They were a diverse lot, even in religious terms. One third of actual arrivals were Protestant. And the other two thirds had, in all likelihood, a range of experiences of what it meant to be 'Catholic'.


(1) 'Legislative Council', The Sydney Herald, Monday 26 October 1840, p. 2
(2) As above
(3) 'State of the Irish Church', Article X, First Report of the Commissioners of Public Instruction, 1835, The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal, Volume LXI, Edinburgh, Longman Rees & AC Black, p. 495
(4) Kerby A Miller, 1988, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 193 & 199
(5) Emmet Larkin, 2006, The Pastoral Role of the Roman Catholic Church in Pre-Famine Ireland 1750-1850, Dublin, Four Courts Press, p. 10
(6) As above, p. 4
(7) Sean J Connolly, 2001, Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland 1780-1845, Dublin, Four Courts Press, pp. 16, 113
(8) Rosamund Burton, 2011, Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, p. 67
(9) Sean J Connolly 2001, p. 144
(10) As above, p. 123




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