Many Catholics today are unaware of the immense contributions of the Ultramontanes of the nineteenth century to the resurgence of Catholicism worldwide. Prof. Fernando Furquim de Almeida (1913-1981) studied the movement and produced dozens of articles detailing its work. We have edited these articles and will be featuring them. They highlight the actions of Ultramontane leaders in England, Spain, Italy, France and Ireland.
No history of the Church in the nineteenth century would be complete without a chapter devoted to Ireland. Catholics in the Emerald Isle endured three hundred years of oppression, violence, persecution and misery. Finally, in 1829, they managed to wrest from England the Emancipation Act. It restored their freedom and protected the rights that they shared with their Protestant compatriots.
The world had become accustomed to seeing the Irish as a stubborn people. They clung to resistance instead of peacefully accepting English dominion as a fait accompli—despite the advantages that submission would bring. While Irish stubbornness became proverbial in Europe, even Catholics forgot that such stubbornness was the expression of unbreakable fidelity to the Church. The Irish lost their property, historical monuments and their most elementary liberties. Their children could not pursue professions. Nonetheless, they kept intact the Religion received from their ancestors.
When England loosened its oppressive regime somewhat, indomitable Irish Catholics rose as one man. They joined the young lawyer Daniel O’Connell in one of the nineteenth century’s most admirable Catholic campaigns. Despite widespread skepticism, that campaign quickly broke all shackles of tyranny and restored the Church in Ireland to the status it had once enjoyed.
Irish Catholicism remained little known outside the country even after the Emancipation Act. It all seemed to be the personal work of O’Connell, who thus enjoyed immense prestige.
When visiting Ireland in 1830, the young French historian Charles de Montalembert spared no sacrifice to meet that great leader. He hoped to discover the source of the strength O’Connell had spent fighting for the Church.
O’Connell resided in the ancient Abbey of Derrynane, one of the island’s wildest and most inhospitable places. Getting there involved a long and arduous horseback journey that required the help of an experienced guide. Montalembert hired a fifteen-year-old boy, and they mounted the same animal. They talked about various subjects during the ride, and the guide’s opinions amused Montalembert.
However, when the young man began to speak about piety, his listener, moved by emotion, listened in silence. The Irishman spoke about Our Lady, and the consolations Catholics receive from Marian devotions. He pointed out that the Blessed Mother’s protection made Catholics superior to Protestants even on this earth. After comparing the poor white-washed churches along the way with the heretics’ magnificent temples, the guide closed by saying: “Glory be to God and praise be His Holy Name. God sees them as He sees us; in the next life, they will have their reward, and we will have ours.”
After hearing this admirable profession of Faith, the speechless Montalembert got off the horse and made a point of embracing the guide. They talked about Religion for a long time. At nightfall, they prepared to camp. Before going to bed, the guide began to sing. To his surprise, Montalembert noticed he was singing the Litany of Our Lady.
This pure and undivided Catholicism, manifested with the most remarkable simplicity, explains Irish fidelity during centuries of oppression and O’Connell’s success in fighting for the Church’s freedom.
* * *
Before the persecution, Ireland was an inexhaustible source of saints and missionaries sent all over Europe from the innumerable abbeys that dotted the country. These missionaries helped build the Middle Ages. Such was its renown that medieval people called Ireland the Isle of Saints. Numerous small round towers scattered on its soil long confounded archaeologists’ expertise until they discovered that the structures were remnants of the steeples of old churches and abbeys.
The history of the Church in Ireland intertwines with the nation’s history. The legends and poetry of its origins blended so organically that today it is impossible to separate the legends and the reality. This circumstance reveals the vitality of Irish Catholicism.
National tradition claims for Ireland the glory of having had the first king to die for Our Lord Jesus Christ. The story goes that a king named Connor, who reigned over the island at the time of the Passion, asked his wise men to explain the eclipse that signaled the Savior’s death to the universe.
The magicians explained that at that very moment, the Son of the Living God, unjustly condemned by His persecutors, was dying. Connor immediately left his palace, sword in hand, and began cutting down trees, exclaiming: “This is how I would like to kill the executioners of the innocent one!” He died of grief due to his inability to defend the Son of God. This beautiful tradition seems to be confirmed by the island’s rapid conversion without martyrdom and its immediate generation of countless saints.
The apostle of Ireland was the sixth-century Saint Patrick. Patrick’s mother was a Gallo-Roman Christian and a close relative of Saint Martin of Tours. She was reduced to slavery and married her master’s son. Kidnapped by pirates, Patrick was sold in Ireland, where he spent six years as a shepherd. He managed to escape and return to Gaul. There, he dreamed daily of little Irish pagans stretching out their arms to him, asking him to go and save them. He soon prepared for his return to Ireland as a missionary. He went to the abbeys of Marmoutier and Lérins and accompanied Saint Germain d’Auxerre on a mission to England. As the voices of Irish children continued to ring in his ears, he decided to go to Rome, where Pope Saint Celestine officially sent him to Ireland.
Saint Patrick achieved little in his early apostolate. Gradually, however, his penances, preaching and countless miracles overcame the resistance of the pagans. At the end of his life, the holy missionary had the joy of seeing all of Ireland converted, its customs replaced by Christian laws, and a large crowd of Irish people clothed in monastic habits.
Saint Patrick’s apostolate was aided by Saint Bridget, who founded the first monasteries of nuns on the Isle of Saints. As a sign of gratitude for more than a thousand years, Irish nuns at this monastery in Kildare kept lit ‘St. Bridget’s fire’ to honor her on the day of her death forward. This fire was extinguished only when the Protestants devastated the country.