Recusancy in Ireland

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The Recusancy referred to those who refused to attend services of the established Church of Ireland. The individuals were known as "recusants".[1] The term, which derives ultimately from the Latin recusare (to refuse or make an objection),[2] was first used in England to refer to those who remained within the Roman Catholic Church and did not attend services of the Church of England, with a 1593 statute determining the penalties against "Popish recusants".[3]

The native Irish and the "Old English" (who had come to Ireland at the time of the Normans), while subject to the English crown, were overwhelmingly opposed to the Anglican and dissenting churches, and the vast majority remained Catholic, which had tragic implications for the later history of Ireland (such as the Irish Penal Laws). The Catholics of Ireland suffered the same penalties as recusants in England, which were exacerbated by impatience with the rebellious nature of the Irish, English contempt for a subject race and the desire for Irish land and property.[4]


In 1559 the Irish Parliament passed both the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, the former prescribing to all officers the Oath of Supremacy, the latter prohibiting the Mass and commanding the public use of the Book of Common Prayer. Whoever refused the Oath of Supremacy was dismissed from office, and whoever refused to attend the Protestant service was fined 12 pence for each offence. A subsequent viceregal proclamation ordered all priests to leave Dublin and prohibited the use of images, candles, and beads. The "Recusancy Acts", which began during the reign of Elizabeth I and which were repealed in 1650,[5] imposed a number of punishments on those who did not participate in Anglican religious activity, including fines, property confiscation, and imprisonment.[6]

After 1570, when Elizabeth was excommunicated by the pope, persecution increased; and the hunting down of the Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, the Desmond Rebellions and the desolation of Munster, in addition to the torture, trial before military tribunal, and hanging of Archbishop Dermot O'Hurley outside the walls of Dublin. Many others who kept to the Catholic religion were treated in the same fashion.[7]

After 1615 the government deposed and fined Old English Catholic public officials in Munster and Leinster and imposed a governor upon Waterford as an example.[8] Later acts also targeted Catholic recusants, including statutes passed under James I and Charles I, as well as laws defining other offences deemed to be acts of recusancy.[9]

After the Williamite Wars the English Parliament enacted that no one should sit in the Irish Parliament without taking the Oath of Supremacy and subscribing to a declaration against Transubstantiation. Catholics were thus excluded; and in spite of the declared wishes of King William, the Irish Parliament not only refused to relax the Irish Penal Laws in existence but embarked on fresh penal legislation. All Catholic bishops, deans, vicars-general, and friars were to leave the country and if they returned, to be put to death. Secular priests at home could remain if they were registered; in 1709, however, they were required to take an oath of abjuration which no priest could conscientiously take, so that registration ceased to be a protection. They could not set up schools at home nor resort to Catholic schools abroad, nor could they receive legacies for Catholic charities, nor have on their churches steeple, cross, or bell.[10]

The laity could not set up Catholic schools, nor teach in such, nor go abroad to Catholic schools. They were excluded from Parliament, from the corporations, from the army and navy, from the legal profession, and from all civil offices. They could not act as sheriffs, or under sheriffs, or as jurors, or even as constables. They could not have more than two Catholic apprentices in their trade; they could not carry arms, nor own a horse worth more than 5 pounds; they were excluded even from residence in the larger corporate towns. To bury their dead in an old ruined abbey or monastery involved a penalty of ten pounds. A Catholic workman refusing to work on Catholic holy days was to be whipped; and there was the same punishment for those who made pilgrimages to holy wells. No Catholic could act as guardian to an infant, nor as director of the Bank of Ireland; nor could he marry a Protestant, and the priest who performed such a marriage ceremony was to be put to death. A Catholic could not acquire land, nor buy it, nor hold a mortgage on it; and the Catholic landlord was bound at death to leave his estate to his children in equal shares. During life, if the wife or son of such became a Protestant, she or he at once obtained separate maintenance. Viceroys were constantly appealed to give no toleration to Popery; magistrates, to enforce the penal laws; Priest hunters were rewarded for hunting down and murdering priests, and Catholic priests who converted to Anglicanism were rewarded with a government pension.[11]

Despite their gradual repeal, restrictions against Catholics were still in place until full Catholic Emancipation in the 19th century.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2007: Recusancy
  2. ^ Recuse at Online Etymology Dictionary
  3. ^ Collins, William Edward (2008). The English Reformation and Its Consequences. BiblioLife. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-559-75417-3. 
  4. ^ Burton, Edwin, Edward D'Alton, and Jarvis Kelley: 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, Penal Laws III: Ireland.
  5. ^ Spurr, John (1998). English Puritanism, 1603–1689. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-333-60189-1. 
  6. ^ See for example the text of the Act of Uniformity 1559
  7. ^ O'Malley, John W. et al. (2001). Early modern Catholicism: Essays in Honour of John W. O'Malley, S.J. University of Toronto Press. p. 149. ISBN 978-0-8020-8417-0. 
  8. ^ Lennon, Colm , The Lords of Dublin in the Age of the Reformation (1989)
  9. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911
  10. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911
  11. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911
  12. ^ Wood, Rev. James. The Nutall Encyclopædia, London, 1920, p. 537

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