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Life through the lens of Ireland’s first Jesuits

A new book of letters by Irish Jesuits in the 17th century shows that although the Jesuits were only few in number at the time, they were making their mark across Ireland. Irish Jesuit Annual Letters, 1604-1674 is edited by Dr Vera Moynes and published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission. The book will be launched on Friday 13 September 2019 by Simon Ditchfield, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of York, at 5.30pm in the commission’s offices at 45 Merrion Square, Dublin 2.

In this interview about her work on the book with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications, Vera Moynes tells how the Jesuits in Ireland were singled out in royal proclamations read aloud by town criers, in edicts ordering all Catholic priests and Jesuits to leave Ireland or face execution. There were other orders in the country larger in numbers but they were not named individually as were the Jesuits.

The German-born historian and archivist notes that this may be because the Jesuits were very effective in settling legal issues for the local people and helped them sort out family issues. They also gave what, in effect, would nowadays be called ‘counselling’, along with spiritual guidance and support. There were roughly twenty Jesuits in Ireland who ran houses in towns and cities such as Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Dublin.

All this is gleaned from the letters which every Jesuit leader around the world was to write annually and send to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. Twenty-five of the annual letters from Ireland to Rome in the 17th century have survived in Rome. Most were written in Latin, though a few of them are in Portuguese. Vera and thirteen translators have rendered them into English for this book, which shows the writers to be confident and detailed observers of life in Ireland. It also provides a vivid picture of the plight of Catholics during one of the most violent and turbulent centuries in the country’s history.

In the book, there are first-hand accounts of the famine in Connacht, the massacre in Drogheda, as well as of exorcisms and reported miracles across the land. In her interview Vera singles out a few of her favourite ‘finds’ during her work. One is the story of a townsman, perhaps from Cashel, who finds himself present when a town-crier proclaims a royal edict in the market place warning priests to flee the land and ordering Catholic to worship only in Protestant churches. The man is arrested and put in chains because he refuses to take off his cap, as was required when a royal edict was pronounced. She quotes his response verbatim, which remarkably saw him being set free: “I only came to the market to buy three ells of cloth to make a tunic, not to hear the likes of this!”

Vera also talks about her second book commissioned by the Jesuits, The Jesuit Irish Mission: A Calendar of Correspondence, 1566–1752, where she translates not just the annual letters but all of the correspondence sent to Rome by Irish Jesuits or written by Irish Jesuits to their own superiors in Ireland, from around the world. This book was published by the Roman Curia Archives and launched earlier this year in Rome. Read more here.

Finally Vera discussed the international conference taking place the following day, Saturday 14 September, in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, on the Jesuits in 17th century Ireland, with a line-up of international speakers. All are welcome.