Friday, March 22, 2013

Stations in Ireland

   A curious custom in old Ireland was that of “stations.”  I’m not talking about Stations of the Cross performed by Catholics worldwide during the Lenten season.  The stations I’m referring to occurred twice a year at Easter and Christmas.  For a variety of reasons there were too few priests in pre-famine Ireland to minister to their flocks, and a dearth of space in which to worship.  The trouble began with Henry the Eighth’s interesting love life.  When the Pope refused him a divorce, he in effect divorced the Pope.  Henry seized the churches and property of the Roman Catholic Church in the British Isles and gave it to his new Anglican church.  But it wasn’t until Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland in 1649 that things got really nasty.  Cromwell was a brutal man, responsible for thousands of deaths in Ireland; under his command, Catholicism was banned, Catholic Priests executed and land owned by Catholics seized.

     The British followed this up with the Penal Laws that took away the few rights Catholics had left.  The effects of all this was a huge drop in the Catholic clergy.  Slowly though, they began to trickle back, and by 1697 there were about 1,750 priests in Ireland.  With the relaxing of laws against Catholicism, their numbers grew to 2,100 by the year 1750.  Twenty years later however, the number of priests had dropped to 1,600!  Even more alarming, the population in that period exploded.  By the year 1800 there were only 1,860 priests in Ireland to care for over 4 million people.  What had happened in the late 1700’s?  For one thing, wars in Europe kept crop prices high and though they were still poor, the Irish had enough to eat and their birthrate skyrocketed; secondly, Rome decided there were too many priests in Ireland for the poverty stricken population to support and restricted the number that could be ordained there.  Every year it got a little worse, in the west of Ireland the ratio was 3,000 to 1 and the rest of the country wasn’t much better.

Mass being celebrated in a cabin.
     The Irish clergy solved this problem by instituting the practice of stations.  A few weeks before the event, the priests announced they would be holding stations at the homes of several of their more prominent congregation members residing in outlying areas.  Everyone living near the appointed homes was expected to attend and give their confession, then stay to hear Mass, which would be offered from a portable altar the priest and his curate brought along.   In pre-famine Ireland, weekly Mass attendance was not a requirement; performing ones Easter duty was the mark of a practicing Catholic though those who dwelt in larger towns attended more often. Marriages and baptisms were commonly held at home also, only confirmations which were performed by the bishop were regularly held in chapels.  This custom continued right up to the famine when the dramatic decline in population from death and emigration restored a more balanced ratio between priest and laity, effectively ending the tradition of stations.
     I’ve often wondered if this practice sometimes unfavorably affected church records.  More than a few incomplete entries exist in the records of Baltinglass Parish in Wicklow.  The baptism of Bridgett McGarr for instance, left out her name and that of her father; I was only able to figure out it was hers by the date, address and the names of her mother and a witness named McGarr.  Her parent’s marriage was likewise muddled with the surname of the bride wrong, and a witness identified only as the wife of Pat Tallon.  Perhaps after returning to the sacristy the priest neglected to immediately record the sacraments he had performed and when he did so, he forgot some of the details—like the baby’s name!


  1. Alarming thought about the unintended impact upon those normally reliable church records, Ellie. The stations phase of Irish history sound similar to the scenarios on the pioneer fringes of the American frontier, where priests served more as traveling missionaries.

  2. Hi Jacqi! It certainly does bring that period of US history to mind. I'm sure some priests were more conscientious than others concerning their records, but it's something to keep in mind.