The Catholic Church in Ulster, 1600–1800

The Reformation, which had its formal beginnings in Ireland in the 1530s, made little impact on Ulster until the early seventeenth century. The disruption to Ulster society in the late sixteenth century, culminating in the Nine Years’ War (1593–1603), left the Roman Catholic Church in a weakened position, in terms of its structures, personnel and physical fabric. Many places of worship, especially the friaries and other religious houses, had been used as strongholds during the war, resulting in considerable damage to them.

The final eclipse of Gaelic power in 1603, followed by the official and unofficial plantation schemes made possible the extension of Protestantism to the region. There were attempts by some of the Protestant bishops to involve Irishmen in the pastorate of the Church of Ireland, while in a number of areas there is evidence that some of the Irish conformed. On the whole, however, Protestantism failed to win the hearts and minds of the Irish population, the great majority of whom remained adherents of Catholicism, and increasingly the Church of Ireland came to be seen as the church of the settler population.


In the early 1600s the Catholic clergy were targeted by government officials with frequent complaints of harassment and persecution by the authorities. Fines were imposed on ‘recusants’, i.e. those who would not attend the Established Church, and some of the funds raised were used to finance the construction of Protestant churches. However, despite these difficulties, the Catholic Church continued to maintain a witness.

By the late 1620s many of the northern dioceses has a resident bishop for the first time in decades, while Catholic worship was being conducted freely in many areas. For example, in Strabane, County Tyrone, Mass was openly said with the connivance of the Scottish settler population in the late 1620s. In 1631, it was noted that there were several mass-houses on the estates owned by the London companies in County Londonderry.

In north Antrim the Catholic Church received support from Randal MacDonnell, the 1st Earl of Antrim, who allowed Bonamargy friary to be used as a base for the Franciscans. He was also a patron of the important Catholic pilgrimage site at Lough Derg in Donegal.

For many of the Irish, the spread of Protestantism as a result of the Plantation was a major concern. In 1636, the Catholic bishop of Raphoe wrote to Rome ‘not without deep sadness of heart’ at ‘how thick [were] the weeds which the persistent heresy daily sows’ through the influx of Protestant settlers to his diocese.

In the mid to late 1630s the civil and religious policies pursued by the administration in Dublin led by the Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth, had a destabilising effect across all levels of society. Several of the leading Irish landowners in Ulster, most notably Sir Phelim O’Neill, began to make plans for an uprising, which began in October 1641. Before long the war had become an all-Ireland conflict, which continued for the rest of the 1640s.


Under the Cromwellians, the remaining Gaelic landownership in Ulster was virtually wiped out in the 1650s. The difficulties for Catholics and the Catholic Church continued in the second half of the seventeenth century with waves of persecution and repressive measures taken against the clergy, who were at different times forced into hiding. In 1680 Oliver Plunkett, the archbishop of Armagh, was found guilty of treason on the basis of perjured evidence and executed at Tyburn, London.

The religious situation was compounded by the social and economic struggles faced by Catholics. In 1675, Plunkett had observed: ‘Sometimes it happens that a parish which one year has two hundred Catholic families will not have thirty the following year … because the Catholics being, as a rule, leaseholders, often lose their leases, which are then given to Protestants or Presbyterians or Anabaptists or Quakers.’

The accession of James II, a Catholic, to the throne in 1685 briefly raised hopes among the dispossessed and impoverished Catholic gentry of being restored to the estates they had lost. However, the promotion of Catholics to important positions in the judiciary and in central and local government only served to heighten Protestant fears. Events in England and the Continent brought matters to a head.

In 1688, the Dutch prince William of Orange arrived in England and was declared king in what was known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’. James II sought refuge in France and the following year landed in Ireland with a large French army. However, the ensuring conflict between the Jacobites and Williamites resulted in the defeat of the former. The subsequent Williamite land settlement did not impact on Ulster to the same extent as other parts of Ireland, since here Catholic landownership was already limited.


Beginning in 1695, legislation known as the Penal Laws was passed in the Anglican-dominated Irish Parliament, which not only impacted upon Catholics as individuals, but upon the Catholic Church as an institution. As a result of the Penal Laws, Catholics were forbidden from, among other things, bearing arms, entering the legal profession, owning a horse worth more than £5, buying land and leasing land for more than 31 years. Finally, in 1728, Catholics were denied the vote.

By conforming to the Church of Ireland Catholics could avoid these restrictions, though only a fraction did so and these were often members of the gentry anxious to hold on to their estates. One of the most prominent converts was Alexander MacDonnell, earl of Antrim, who conformed in 1734. Among the very few Ulster landowners to remain Catholic were the Whytes of Loughbrickland, County Down, who seem to have worked with local Protestant landowners in safeguarding their estate.

The situation for Catholic in Ulster is revealed starkly in a list of names of those ‘generally esteemed’ to be worth more than £100 per annum, compiled around 1730. These lists show that the denominational bias was overwhelmingly in favour of the Church of Ireland, followed some distance behind by Presbyterians, with Catholics coming in a distant third with only eight individuals named (out of more than 500), half of whom were in Co. Cavan.

Penal Law Act

With regard to the Church, the Banishment Act of 1697 required all members of the Catholic clergy – bishops, priests and regulars – to leave Ireland by 1 May 1698. Although 400 priests did leave, most did not. The Registration Act of 1704 stipulated that the clergy were to register with a magistrate and provide details such as place and date of ordination, age, current residence and parish for which responsible.

A total of 189 priests registered in Ulster and those who did so were permitted to administer the sacraments in their own parish. The enforcement of the Penal Laws against the Church was uneven and in large parts of the country priests, and eventually bishops, were able to operate with relative impunity.

At times, landlords used their authority to prevent the construction of a Catholic place of worship. For instance, a 1727 lease of a farm in County Fermanagh included a prohibition on erecting a mass-house or dwelling for a ‘Popish Priest or any Preacher or Teacher dissenting from the Church of Ireland’. The poor provision of Catholic places of worship in Ulster is shown in a 1731 report, which revealed that the number of ‘mass houses’ here lagged some way behind the rest of Ireland.


In the course of the 1700s a more regular succession of bishops in Ulster was established and efforts were made to improve clerical education and discipline. The Church was able to re-establish diocesan and parochial structures, though rather than attempt to replicate the medieval parish network, its parishes were drawn to meet local needs. With its institutional re-emergence, the Church’s record-keeping improved, though few Catholic registers for Ulster pre-date 1800. More substantial places of worship were erected, some of which are still in use today.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the gradual repeal of the Penal Laws began. Catholic Relief Acts were passed in 1778 and 1782, which removed most of the restrictions on property rights and education. In 1793 Catholics were again allowed to vote. By this time a Catholic middle class was beginning to emerge in Ulster and the Catholic Qualification Rolls provide some evidence for the involvement of Catholics in the linen industry and professions.

The late 1700s witnessed increasing sectarian violence in parts of Ulster. During the turbulent 1790s, there was considerable support from the Catholic population for movements such as the Defenders and United Irishmen.

However, the Church itself was generally united in opposition to disaffection, with a comparatively small number of priests becoming involved in revolutionary activities. A major development in this decade was the establishment of a seminary at Maynooth with government assistance.

Following the 1798 Rebellion, the Church believed that Catholics would be better off under a United Kingdom parliament and supported the Act of Union in 1800. A number of petitions were issued indicating this, including one from Lower Creggan, Co. Armagh. However, some of the assurances given were not fulfilled initially and it was not until the Emancipation Act was passed in 1829 that Catholics were allowed to sit as MPs.