Friday, February 14, 2020

St. Valentine in Dublin

Happy St. Valentine's Day! 

The Shrine of St. Valentine,
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Whitefriar Street Church,
Aungier Street, Dublin.
Once again, it is time to celebrate the love in your life on the feast day of the martyr Valentine. Saint Valentine is widely known as the patron saint of love and lovers, engaged and happily married couples, and he is also, oddly enough, the patron saint of beekeepers. It is said that Valentine is the patron saint of love because he was executed for continuing to bless marriages at a time when Christianity was outlawed.

Dublin, Ireland, has a special association with the patron saint of love because the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel — popularly known as Whitefriar Street Church — has a shrine in honour of St. Valentine which holds a reliquary bearing some of his remains.

So, how did Saint Valentine end up in Ireland?

In 1835, Father John Spratt, an Irish Carmelite priest, visited Rome. Father Spratt was not only responsible for the building of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street in Dublin — on the site of a 13th century Carmelite Monastery — but over time he had become internationally renowned for his preaching skills and for his work with the poor and indigent in the Liberties area of Dublin.

While in Rome Father Spratt was asked to deliver the homily at The Church of the Gesù, the famous Jesuit church in Rome. He so impressed the elite of the Catholic Church that as a token of their esteem Pope Gregory XVI presented Father Spratt with a reliquary containing some of the remains of St. Valentine.

On 10 November 1836, the St. Valentine’s reliquary arrived in Dublin. Following a solemn procession to Whitefriar Street Church, it was received by the Most Reverend Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin.

After the death of Father Spratt in May of 1871, the reliquary was stored away and it was not until the church underwent a major renovation in the mid-20th century that the reliquary was installed under the altar of the shrine which had been constructed in the church to honour St. Valentine.

The reliquary that holds the saint's remains.
Notice the book on the altar in which you may write requests for blessings from St. Valentine.
Saint Valentine is most often depicted in the colour red, as he is here in the shrine. Red roses are associated with Valentine, as is the crocus flower. On his statue at Whitefriar church, Valentine holds a crocus in his hands. The crocus flower is said to represent cheerfulness and gladness, and also love. There is a long held belief that if the petals of a crocus are laid on the matrimonial bed after the wedding ceremony, the couple will be blessed with a long and happy marriage.

Today, this Shrine of Saint Valentine is visited throughout the year by couples who come to pray that the saint might bless their relationship with long lasting love. The shrine is also the site for the Blessings of Rings ceremony for those about to be married. On any given day when you visit the shrine you will find a book atop the altar cloth into which you might write requests to Saint Valentine to bless you with much love in your life.


Friday, January 3, 2020

The existence of Irish Catholic Parish Registers: A Stroke of Luck

A while back I read a blog in which it was claimed that in the 17th century Irish Catholics “were taught not to make records”. Taught not to make records? This is a ridiculous and fallacious notion! Still other researchers have claimed that, prior to 1829, the law said it was illegal for Catholic priests to keep parish registers of births, marriages and death. In fact, in the text of the Laws for the Suppression of Popery, a.k.a the Penal Laws, not one word makes mention of parish registers. As is often the case, the matter was much more complex than you might imagine.

While the laws against ‘popery’ did have a significant negative impact on the production of parish registers, the problem of record keeping in Irish Catholic churches existed long before penal laws were put in place.

In the early 17th century, pre-1640, five Synods1 of the Catholic Church in Ireland decreed that all parish priests were now required to keep records of baptisms, marriages and deaths2. Seemed simple enough; each priest was to organise a system of registers for recording the dates and particulars (including payment made) for the life passages of the Catholic faithful in his respective parish. However, this order was taken hold of by very few priests across Ireland. In fact, by the second half of the century, at the provincial synods of Tuam (1658), Armagh (1660) and Cashel (1661), it became abundantly clear that record keeping had been irregular at best, and non-existent at worst. The process of publishing banns, granting dispensations, and registering marriages and births had completely broken down. Even if a few did exist at one time, today there are no extant parish registers from this period.

On 17 June 1670, Roman Catholic Archbishop Peter Talbot convened his first national synod at Dublin3. This synod once again reminded parish priests of their responsibility to keep registers, specifically those of baptism and marriage. However, ongoing non-compliance meant that, at the provincial synod at Ossory in 1672, once again parish priests had to be told, in no uncertain terms, that keeping registers was their responsibility. Clearly, the message was not making its mark, so in 1676 the Synod specifically legislated into canon law the regulation that registers were to be kept. You may be surprised, even amused to discover, that despite this legislation, non-compliance continued to be an issue. As the Synods at Kilmore in 1687 and at Dublin in 1685 proved, priests needed to be reminded of their duty under canon law to keep parish registers.

Some registers may have been kept, only to have been lost or discarded; however, evidence suggests that many parish priests remained resistant to fully comply with the order to keep parish registers. Still others were entirely unwilling to engage in the practice. Clearly both Rome and the Irish hierarchy were less in control than they might have liked to admit. The fact that many parish priests still failed to comply with the express order of their bishops came sharply into focus after passage of the penal laws in 1691.

Passage of the Laws of Suppression

The Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, posited that Penal Laws had two general purposes: to persecute Catholics for adhering to their religion, and to reduce them to a condition of extreme poverty and brutal ignorance. Burke said of the penal laws, ‘[A] machine of wise and deliberate 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'.4 The following list details some of what was expressly FORBIDDEN to Irish Catholics under the Laws of Suppression of Popery:

  • Forbidden exercise of his religion.
  • Forbidden education,
  • Forbidden to take up a profession.
  • Forbidden any role in public office.
  • Forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
  • Forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.
  • Forbidden to own a horse of greater value than £5.
  • Forbidden to purchase land.
  • Forbidden to lease land.
  • Forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
  • Forbidden to vote.
  • Forbidden to keep any arms or armour for his protection.
  • Forbidden to hold a life annuity.
  • Forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.
  • Forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.
  • Forbidden to inherit land or anything else from a Protestant.
  • Forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year.
  • Forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.
  • Forbidden from being guardian to a child.
  • An Irish Catholic could not, upon death, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.
  • He could not attend Catholic worship.
  • He was compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.
  • He could not home school his own child.
  • He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.
  • He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.
  • He could not send his child abroad to receive an education.

Although no mention is made of a prohibition against the creation of parish registers, one can well imagine the effect these extreme laws of suppression might have had on any parish priest who had even considered obeying canon law with respect to record keeping. It is a plain fact that, while a mass could be celebrated in secret in a local home, along the hedgerows or in an obliging farmer's barn, where no sign of the faithful might be left behind, parish registers comprised solid evidentiary material that could be used against both the priests and the members of their congregations. It would stand as absolute proof of their having broken penal laws by engaging in the sacraments of the Catholic faith.

Between 1691 and 1829, when the penal laws were entirely repealed, contravention of the laws by Catholics could mean punishment. The penalties meted out were by nature so extreme — whipping, imprisonment, banishment, transportation, forfeiture of lands, among others — that it is no wonder Catholic priests had no interest in keeping registers, or anything else for that matter, that could be used as evidence against them and members of their flock.

The situation did not much improve in the 18th century. In 1750, Bishop of Kilmore, Dr. Laurence Richardson complained to the Vatican that the failure to keep parish records was chief among the abuses he had to deal with in his diocese. The bishop of Meath and the Archbishop of Cashel similarly admitted, in 1780 and 1789 respectively, that registers were not being kept in the parishes of their dioceses. It is worth noting these princes of the church appeared to be indifferent to the possibility of punishment under penal laws for common clergymen and ordinary Catholics in Ireland. It is not difficult to imagine their wealth and social position might keep them above it all.

Although there was some improvement toward the end of the 18th century, the keeping of parish registers across Ireland remained inconsistent until the full repeal of the laws of suppression. Some parishes in the province of Leinster, particularly in the archdiocese of Dublin, fared better. There you will find registers dating to the mid-18th century. However, in the provinces of Ulster and Connacht, the keeping of parish registers in the 18th century was a rarity indeed.

The repeal of 1829 sees the beginnings of improvement in parish register keeping; however, on the horizon, in the mid-19th century An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger of 1845-52, would deal another blow to parish registers. Particularly in the west country, record keeping fell by the wayside, most especially for priests who were striving simply to keep their congregants alive.

The fact that we have any Catholic parish records for the island of Ireland is quite frankly a stroke of luck.

So...where do we go from here. Click on the blue link to visit my blog article 'Documenting the lives of your Irish Ancestors' for lots of helpful research information.


1. A Catholic synod is a council usually comprising bishops and archbishops of the church, but may include some priests, who convene to discuss and make decisions about various matters facing the church, most often of doctrinal or adminstrative importance. 

2. Forrestal, Alison. Catholic Synods In Ireland, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998, page 92.

3. Ibid, page 77.

4. O'Brien, Conor Cruise. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke, Chicago, 1992, page 480.

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