CHAPTER VII. RELIGION IN IRELAND DURING THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY

Very often benefices were conferred on boys who had not reached the canonical age for the reception of orders, sometimes to provide them with the means of pursuing their studies, but sometimes also to enrich their relatives from the revenues of the Church. In such cases the entire work was committed to the charge of an underpaid vicar who adopted various devices to supplement his miserable income. Frequently men living in England were appointed to parishes or canonries within the Pale, and, as they could not take personal charge themselves, they secured the services of a substitute. In defiance of the various canons levelled against plurality of benefices, dispensations were given freely at Rome, permitting individuals to hold two, three, four, or more benefices, to nearly all of which the care of souls was attached. In proof of this one might refer to the case of Thomas Russel, a special favourite of the Roman Court, who held a canonry in the diocese of Lincoln, the prebends of Clonmethan and Swords in Dublin, the archdeaconry of Kells, the church of Nobber, the perpetual vicarship of St. Peter's, Drogheda, and the church of St. Patrick in Trim.[22]

This extravagant application of patronage and reservations to ecclesiastical appointments produced results in Ireland similar to those it produced in other countries. It tended to kill learning and zeal amongst the clergy, to make them careless about their personal conduct, the proper observance of the canons, and the due discharge of their duties as pastors and teachers. Some of them were openly immoral, and many of them had not sufficient learning to enable them to preach or to instruct their flocks. It ought to be remembered also that in these days there were no special seminaries for the education of the clergy. Candidates for the priesthood received whatever training they got from some member of the cathedral chapter, or in the schools of the Mendicant Friars, or possibly from some of those learned ecclesiastics, whose deaths are recorded specially in our Annals. Before ordination they were subjected to an examination, but the severity of the test depended on many extrinsic considerations. Some of the more distinguished youths were helped by generous patrons, or from the revenues of ecclesiastical benefices to pursue a higher course of studies in theology and canon law. As the various attempts made to found a university in Ireland during the fourteen and fifteenth centuries[23] proved a failure, students who wished to obtain a degree were obliged to go to Oxford, from which various attempts were made to exclude "the mere Irish" by legislation,[24] to Cambridge, Paris, or some of the other great schools on the Continent. If one may judge from the large number of clerics who are mentioned in the papal documents as having obtained a degree, a fair proportion of clerics during the fifteenth century both from within and without the Pale must have received their education abroad. Still, the want of a proper training during which unworthy candidates might be weeded out, coupled with the unfortunate system of patronage then prevalent in Ireland, helped to lower the whole tone of clerical life, and to produce the sad conditions of which sufficient evidence is at hand in the dispensations from irregularities mentioned in the Papal Letters.

As might be expected in such circumstances, the cathedrals and churches in some districts showed signs of great neglect both on the part of the ecclesiastics and of the lay patrons. Reports to Rome on the condition of the cathedrals of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise[25] indicate a sad condition of affairs, but they were probably overdrawn in the hope of securing a reduction in the fees paid usually on episcopal appointments, just as the account given by the Jesuit Father Wolf about the cathedral of Tuam[26] was certainly overdrawn by Archbishop Bodkin with the object of obtaining papal recognition for his appointment to that diocese. The Earl of Kildare represented the churches of Tipperary and Kilkenny as in ruins owing to the exactions of his rival, the Earl of Ormond, while the latter, having determined for political reasons to accept royal supremacy, endeavoured to throw the whole blame on the Pope. Both statements may be regarded as exaggerated. But the occupation of the diocesan property during the vacancy of the Sees by the king or the nobles, the frequent wars during which the churches were used as store-houses and as places of refuge and defence, the neglect of the lay patrons to contribute their share to the upkeep of the ecclesiastical buildings, and the carelessness of the men appointed to major and minor benefices, so many of whom were removed during the fifteenth century for alienation and dilapidation of ecclesiastical property, must have been productive of disastrous effects on the cathedrals and parish churches in many districts. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that such neglect was general throughout the country. The latter half of the fourteenth century and particularly the fifteenth century witnessed a great architectural revival in Ireland, during which the pure Gothic of an earlier period was transformed into the vernacular or national composite style. Many beautiful churches, especially monastic churches, were built, others were completely remodelled, and "on the whole it would not be too much to say that it is the exception to find a monastery or a parish church in Ireland which does not show some work executed at this period."[27]