Sources: ‘We hope that the tempest is soon calmed’—early Irish Jesuits

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Volume 26

A new calendar of documents, commissioned by the Irish Jesuits for the bicentenary of the order’s restoration in 1814.

By Vera Moynes

An anti-clerical edict proclaimed by the president and council of Munster on 18 August 1604 contained the following description:

‘[the] Jesuittes, Seminaries and massinge priestes have bene … so much harkned unto and beleeved in their Imposteries as they have had meanes to woorke theeir owne evell treacheries and most wicked intendientes by thassistance of the Deceaved multitudes. [They] aboundantly swarme in all places especially within the corporate Townes as that whilest they are resident amongest them the quiet of the Contrey wilbe uncerten.’

The three named classes of clerics were thereby expelled from the realm, and rewards were offered for their capture on a sliding scale, with Jesuits fetching £10 and the priests of the Mass only £5. This would render the multitudes open to receive ‘the happy foode of true Doctrine’. The edict was repeated in Dublin a year later. There were only nine members of the Society of Jesus in Ireland at that time—why this furore about them?

A new calendar of documents, commissioned by the Irish Jesuits for the bicentenary of the order’s restoration in 1814 (it was suppressed by Clement XIV in 1773), will allow deeper insights into the order’s works in Ireland and into how they drew such opprobrium upon themselves. It spans the years from 1566 to 1752 and includes all letters and reports that were exchanged between Rome and Ireland, stored either in the archives of the Jesuit curia or in the Irish Jesuit Archive, Dublin.

Above: On this 1641 list (fourth down on the left) is David Galway SJ, a former merchant who for a long time served in his native Cork. He was judged to be better at practical work than at speculation; he was well experienced and an assiduous preacher but he was ‘not that circumspect in conversation’, at the time a dangerous characteristic. Because of his good command of Irish, he was sent on preaching missions to the southernmost Hebrides in 1619 and other years. He died in Cork in 1634, after working on Cape Clear Island for a time. (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu)


Early missions to Ireland

Ignatius of Loyola first sent two of his companions on a mission to Ireland in 1542, but after spending 34 days in Ulster their report held out no hopes for the establishment of bases. In 1561 the Irish Jesuit David Wolfe and his companions opened the first schools in Limerick and Kilmallock, but their mission was constantly in danger; Wolfe was imprisoned, and one of his assistants, the Jesuit student Edmund Daniel, was executed in 1573. It was with the so-called third mission from 1598 onwards that more Irish men became available, establishing footholds in Dublin and east Munster, and later branching out to Limerick and Galway. The edict explains one of the reasons why so much fear attached to them: they lived among the people and were not cloistered. They would later found schools and sodalities in these towns. It does not mention that they also conducted missions to the hinterland of Leinster, Munster and later Connacht, as part of their remit of improving the people’s (and the clergy’s) principles of faith. Principally, they preached (which could last for hours), they gave out the sacraments, dispensed from marriages within the kin and arbitrated in private disputes. None of these activities were special to the Society of Jesus, but because Ireland pre-suppression only had a Jesuit novitiate in the 1640s every Irish Jesuit was perforce trained on the Continent, to teach and dispute matters of conscience.

Above: The numbers of Jesuits in Ireland fluctuated widely in the period from 1561 (David Wolfe SJ’s mission) to 1755 (the last recorded number before the suppression of 1773), against a dramatic backdrop spanning the late Elizabethan consolidations of power beyond the Pale, the edict of 1604, which was repeated over the following decades, King Charles I’s absolutist regime of the 1630s, the Ulster Revolt of 1641, Papal Nuncio Rinuccini’s mission to Ireland (1645–9), the Cromwellian Wars (bringing the destruction of ten Jesuit houses and the men’s dispersal to the Continent), the Stuart Restoration of 1660, and the long series of penal laws in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The majority of these men were members of Old English trading families; only around 70 of the known 287 Irish Jesuits on this early mission were of Gaelic descent. It meant a lesser connection with Gaelic Ireland but a strong one with the well-to-do merchant classes and with the Old English nobility. This is another reason why the order gained such a reputation vis-à-vis the older established orders, even if—as Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin has pointed out—‘a certain mythology of the Jesuits … has often operated to magnify and, in the process, perhaps to obscure the contribution which the Society actually made’.


‘Meddled with politics’

Above: Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus—he first sent two of his companions on a mission to Ireland in 1542. (Collegio Internazionale del Gesù, Rome)

To some extent the Jesuits’ image was also picked up from particular men who contravened Ignatius’s strictures against disobeying civil magistrates and taking sides in factions, rules that were enshrined by the order’s seventh general congregation of 1616. The Jesuit curia repeatedly warned Irish superiors about this, but nonetheless they frequently ‘meddled with politics’, from David Wolfe SJ in the 1560s and ’70s, who was committed to the cause of James Fitzmaurice, insurgent member of the Munster Geraldines, to James Archer SJ, who was drawn to the side of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and whom the Jesuit authorities did not allow to return to Ireland after 1602, and to William Malone SJ, who became superior of the Irish mission in 1647.

In Malone’s case, the Jesuit Superior General Vincenzo Carafa’s letters to him grew more recriminating between August and November 1648, at one time ordering him to leave his post and come to the Low Countries because rumours had reached Rome that the Irish Jesuits had not been obeying the papal nuncio, Gianbattista Rinuccini, who had served an interdict on church services in towns that supported a truce with crown forces under Baron Inchiquin. Instead, most Jesuits had appeared to be more loyal to the local bishops and to the Confederate supreme council in Kilkenny. If he did receive the letters, Malone seems to have ignored them, reporting about anything but the interdict.


Personal foibles

The following year, Malone and the others had to justify themselves to a Jesuit visitator sent to investigate the matter. This man’s letters to Rome are enlightening not only on the score of political involvement but also on lack of discipline and personal foibles: the men’s not always wearing clerical dress was castigated, as was their prized ownership of watches (which they spent much time on), their habit of greeting ladies with a kiss and their show of patriotism for their places of origin. One other point of criticism by the visitator, Mercule Verdier SJ, was more serious: a certain discrimination against men of Gaelic stock, and the fact that ‘many men do not study or learn the Irish language, although [it is] most useful’ (24 June 1649).

Above: Pictorial map of Galway c. 1651, including the Jesuit residence (circled) between modern-day High and Middle Streets. (James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway)

The majority of documents calendared are copies of letters from the Roman superior general, providing reflections of the situation on the ground. As far as business correspondence goes they are largely dry, dealing with finances; with obtaining faculties for giving dispensations; giving permission to found sodalities, accept alms and read forbidden books; arranging for the placement of Jesuit agents in geographical hubs such as Brussels or Paris; and promotions or transfers.

It is among the 500 items written in Ireland that immediacy and drama can be found. In November 1605, Fr Walter Wale SJ reported on the royal repeat of the above edict, publicly proclaimed that October in Leinster and Munster; in one unnamed town, he recounts that a man who refused to bare his head when hearing the proclamation was let free unexpectedly on saying, ‘I came to the square to buy three ells of cloth to make a tunic for myself, not to hear suchlike things’. Caught between an impossible task—expelling priests and restricting Catholic worship—and a disarming answer, the authorities relented, and the anecdote must have made its way across the country, tempering many other stories of harassment and persecution.

Much later in the century, on 24 March 1642, when the Ulster rebellion had escalated to civil war, Irish superior Robert Nugent SJ wrote:

‘There is no human way of expressing the all-round misery of this kingdom. Nothing is seen or heard of here … than depradations, slaying of children and women as much as men: fires destroying the furniture and all the property of whole families. In short, such is the fury on both sides, the English and our own people, that it could only be pacified by the extinction … of one or the other … Our little flock is dispersed and each lives privately among friends … But God’s will be done.’

Two months later, having been urged by the Confederates to do so, he sent two of his men to France and the Spanish Netherlands to beg for help, and once again gave the superior general occasion to regret that his men had become involved in politics, opening the door to ‘envious calumny’ (9 August 1642).


Archbishop Oliver Plunkett

While the vast majority of these letters are by Jesuits, a handful are by other clergy or laymen writing to the superior general. Among them are two letters from the archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, Oliver Plunkett, who had been trained by the Jesuits at the Irish College, Rome. He wrote in November 1672 with respect and affection to Superior General Giovanni Paolo Oliva, praising the Jesuit schools in Drogheda, frequented by 150 Catholics and 40 Protestants. This was at the height of toleration, and Plunkett was largely optimistic about the future of Catholicity in Ireland. With the smallest degree of foreboding he said, ‘When the wind is favourable we need to pull up the sails and navigate, when it is contrary or stormy we will lower them and withdraw to a refuge under some mountain or rock. This piece of paper fails me (and paper is scarce)—but I will never be lacking nor fail you.’ A year later he was forced to go into hiding, and nine years later he was executed for treason at Tyburn, London. As a measure of the secrecy imposed on the Jesuit letter-writers, neither of these events are mentioned in the 2,644 documents calendared.

The use of cypher, the fear of interception and the loss of letters when they were not sent with safe messengers or got lost along the two- to three-month route between Ireland and Rome are recurrent themes. ‘Cypher’ seemed mostly to consist of being vague, more than once exasperating the recipient. Irish writers did not go into detail about their abodes, and usually did not name their benefactors or people in whose disputes they arbitrated. Where the seventeenth-century anti-clerical edicts—now severely enforced, now not—had given plenty of reasons for such secrecy, the series of penal laws of the early eighteenth century not only made it more difficult for the priests but also further disenfranchised Catholics as a whole, and the merchant classes in particular.

Letters from the superior of the Irish mission, 66-year-old Waterford man Anthony Knoles SJ, paint a clear picture of the latter: in the course of 1714 he describes how chapels have been closed, priests (many of whom were acting as parish priests or curates, or serving private families) are either in hiding or imprisoned, and how he himself had to leave Waterford a few months before and as a result felt richer in God’s gifts than for many years before (6 April 1714). Back in Waterford in July, he says that

‘I heard from the companions who all had to cease doing their usual work and go into hiding-places (latibuli), while merciful God may determine to open the path of his devotion. And although things are not equally severe in every town, it is bad enough everywhere that priests cannot let themselves be seen either in chapels or publicly. We hope that the tempest is soon calmed, because there is some leniency to be seen among the magistrates, however scanty’ (3 July 1714).

By the 1730s conditions were more benign again for the men, with the correspondence much dominated by the Irish College in Poitiers, France, a house of refuge and seminary that had been established in 1676 from a royal bequest. Owing to mismanagement and a colossally bad investment in Mississippi shares in 1720, the college was a source of constant squabbling between the mission superior and the rector, which successive superiors general sought to settle. Such were the many differing cares and changing fates of the Jesuit Irish mission.

Later this year, 25 of these documents, the surviving annual reports from the Irish mission (so-called ‘Annual Letters’, 1604–74), will be published with translations as a companion volume to this.


Vera Moynes is an archivist at the National Archives of Ireland.



L. McRedmond, To the greater glory: a history of the Irish Jesuits (Dublin, 1991).

V. Moynes (ed.), The Jesuit Irish mission: a calendar of correspondence 1566–1752 (Rome, 2017).

T. Ó hAnnracháin et al., ‘The Jesuits in Ireland: before and after the Suppression’, Studies 103 (412) (2014/15) (special issue).


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