Croppies stay home. MATT TREACY on closure of churches at Easter

Perhaps it is just me, but the first thing that sprung to mind when I read that the Gardaí had sealed off Mullahoran in Cavan yesterday to prevent people attending Mass, was how similar their reason given was to other places in other times.

According to the official statement issued, the Gardaí were stopping people travelling towards the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, not because they wanted to prevent people attending the Mass, but to deal with an “anti-atheist protest.”

To anyone familiar with the rich history of policing in the former totalitarian states, this was like something that might have been issued by the authorities in Munich in 1938, or Gdansk in 1953.

They used to refer to such things as “provocations” back then. Same thing really.

Was there to be such a protest yesterday? And even if there was, what had this to do with people going to the Church? And what higher authority decided that this was a “provocation” after the fashion of the anti lockdown protests, and not an immune protest like those organised by Ruth Coppinger and others?

Did the Gardaí believe that someone at Mullahoran was going to maybe advocate that members of the force be targeted? Or that violence would be threatened against atheists? Or proceed to lead those present on a rampage through the highways and byways of Cavan attacking shops and passers-by? Because if they did then of course they would have been obligated to intervene and prevent such events, just as they did in west Dublin not so long ago ….

As TDs Mattie McGrath, Carol Nolan, Richard O’Donoghue and Michael Collins implied last week, there would seem to be an ideological aspect to the manner in which Catholic public practise is being particularly singled out for attention by the state. As they also pointed out, the Irish state is almost unique in all of the world in the manner in which it has closed Churches. The courts in other European jurisdictions have upheld the right under basic human freedoms, for people to practise their religion. Just as American courts upheld the rights of Catholic and Jewish congregations in New York last year. The fact that Governor Andrew Cuomo who enforced those restrictions is now under investigation for his part in the mass deaths that took place in New York nursing homes, says all you need to know about his real concern for preventing the transmission of Covid 19.

Fr. Hughes of Mullahoran has compared the current restrictions to those that were in force during the Penal Law times. Indeed I have seen a number of people quote the 18th century Dublin political philosopher Edmund Burke on the nature of those laws. It is something worth pondering, if it is contemplated that the objective of some of our political leaders is not dissimilar to that of the framer of those laws.

Burke described the Penal restrictions on Catholics as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

An illustration from the Young Ireland publication depicting mass in the mountains during penal times

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Burke was formally a member of the Church of Ireland, as he had to be in order to pursue his profession but his mother was a Catholic. Burke indeed may have understood what this meant more than did some of the founders of the United Irishmen who in most Irish nationalist history are contrasted to the detriment of Burke.

Wolfe Tone was a member of the Catholic Committee which opposed the Penal restrictions, but his 1791 ‘An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland’  based the case for Catholic emancipation on rather curious grounds. Catholics, if granted legal rights, would have to prove their loyalty, and that they respected property rights which enshrined the centuries of dispossession by the colonists, of which descent most of the United Irishmen were.

The best way to overcome Catholic bigotry would be to replace what Tone described as the “wretched, rambling kind of institution, that deserves not the name of education” with a more enlightened variety. Once so liberated, the Irish Catholics would abandon their bigotry. Just as they were doing under Tone’s ideological soul mates the French Jacobins, then busy in the violent suppression of Catholicism in France.

The United Irishmen were only able to gain a mass following by recruiting to their cause the pre-existing subterranean resistance of the Irish people to the attempted destruction of all vestiges of Irish culture which included the religion of the vast majority of the people as well as our language and other manifestations of that nationality. We were a people forcibly separated from our land. And as the ballad of the 1790s ‘Ó Bhean an Tí’ made clear, it was the taking back of the land that was the objective of the people. “Beidh an talamh gan chíos ón bliain seo amach.”

A nationality that did not require definition nor organisation by external forces or ideological reconfiguration. The armies of the resistance were the “secret societies” that long pre-existed the Dublin and Belfast Jacobins. And it was they who bore the overwhelming cost of the terror unleashed by the British and their settler allies in 1797 and 1798 at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

And so to return to Ireland more than two centuries later, Fr. Hughes’ reference to the lack of support he perceives to be forthcoming from the leaders of the Church is also redolent of other times. In 1798 there were Bishops who turned their backs on the people, just as there were the many priests who as Seamus Heaney described in his Requiem for the Croppies, “lay behind ditches with the tramp.”

There are no ballads about Archbishop Troy of Dublin who excommunicated the priests who stood with the people as “vile prevaricators and apostates from religion.” People do remember, however, in song Father Murphy of Old Kilcormack who defied the “hirelings” at Boolavogue.


Penal crosses were devotional artefacts mainly made of wood.  The cross was an important symbol for Catholics whose religion was under threat.  They date from the early 18th and the mid 19th centuries.  These crosses were carved in a simple naive style with a crude carved figure of Christ.  They are often dated on the reverse. The example illustrated here from the Museum collection depicts the figure of Christ with a halo and above this the letters INRI – Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – Jesus the Nazerene, the King of the Jew. Credit Waterford Museum

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