Somebody recently asked about ‘a priest in the family’ which prompted me to write this post.
History can be enchanting or boring – some like it and some don’t. With that in mind, I’ve been as brief as will allow an overview for context and links for those who like to know more.
A Priest in the Family
Having a priest in the family was perceived as a status symbol in the 20th century. If there were priests in a previous generation, then it may be ‘expected’ in the next.
Under British Rule
Ireland of the early 1800’s was under British rule including the ‘Penal Laws’ and although priests existed, they were outside the law until Catholic Emancipation culminated in the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.
Although the laws remained, enforcement had somewhat lessened – this is the main reason why so few catholic records exist in Ireland before 1810. St Patrick’s College, Maynooth was established on 5 June 1795, for the education of Catholic priests in Ireland. Until this time under the penal laws they had to travel to Europe to study. The first priests where ordained in Ireland in June 1800
Poverty in Ireland
It is difficult to convey the true level of poverty of the general population of the early 1800’s in a way that is easily understood in today’s terms. Suffice to say ‘having a priest in the family’ was an aspiration of those who could afford his education. This placed them above those who had enough to survive and a couple of classes above the majority of the population, the labours / cottiers and the very poorest who were without work, without a plot to grow food or a roof over their heads
There was an ‘old saying’ defining it as a status symbol in the early/mid 1900’s – one was considered to be ‘comfortable’ with a ‘priest in the family and a pump in the yard’.
To understand ‘comfortable’ in this context, it is necessary to know the prevailing conditions.
An Altered Landscape
Millions of Irish people had starved to death or emigrated. The ‘Land Question’ continued, many of the wealthier landowners had lost their land through the Encumbered Estates Court which was established in 1849. Following their endebtedness as a result of the Great Hunger approx 8,000 estates were sold. This land was often purchased by speculators who inflicted further hardships on tenants through rent increases and were considered worse than their former landlords.
The Irish Question – Land
It was not until The Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 that the Irish tenant had some rights. Further legislation improved conditions over the next 30 years. It was the Wyndham Act – the Land Purchase (Ireland) Act (1903) that finished off landlordism control over tenants and made it easier for tenants to purchase land.
The 20th century landscape of the Irish population had changed dramatically
The Struggle Continued
Another 30 years of struggle, world war, rebellion and civil war would pass before the effects of this legislation filtered down and the majority of the Irish population began to benefit.
It is only at this point that an ordinary Irish catholic could aspire to have ‘a priest in the family’.