Question of Class? Relations between Bishops and Lay Leaders in Ireland and Newfoundland, 1783-1807

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Using Ireland and Newfoundland as examples, this paper tries to demonstrate how class played a significant role in the relations between Catholic bishops and lay leaders in both societies. Sometimes unwillingly perhaps, members of the Catholic hierarchy in both Ireland and Newfoundland tended to be more the followers than the leaders in the political and social evolution of both societies, usually defending the political status quo until circumstances forced them to change course.

To understand properly the period in question, we must first briefly examine the two centuries leading up to it as well as some of the similarities and differences between Ireland and Newfoundland. From the outset it must be said that long before the period being studied, both islands were essentially British colonies, but with very different histories. Ireland, due to her geographical proximity to England, had for centuries posed a major threat to Britain's national security, particularly as a potential staging ground for either a Spanish or French invasion. On the other hand, while Newfoundland's cod-based economy was considered valuable to Britain's North American interests, due to its great distance, it represented no such threat.

Since the sixteenth century, Newfoundland and the rich sea life of the Grand Banks, especially cod, had been the central draw for European exploitation of the island where England and France were the chief rivals. Under the terms of the 1713 peace of Utrecht and the 1763 treaty of Paris, Newfoundland had finally became by 1780 a secure British possession over which London took a minimum level of interest. Fishing being a highly seasonal industry, there were few permanent settlers in Newfoundland before the eighteenth century, since most people returned to Europe after their annual catch. By the mid-eighteenth century, in order to protect their interests, a growing number of fishermen, mainly from the English West Country, began to settle in Newfoundland. By then, there was also a somewhat steady increase in Irish-Catholic seasonal workers, mainly fishermen from County Waterford who also began to remain there for similar reasons. By the mid-nineteenth century, due mainly to immigration occasioned by the great famine, their numbers became a comparative flood so that Irish Catholics soon came close to being the dominant population on the island. (1)

This gradual increase of Irish seasonal migration and ultimate settlement in Newfoundland also had it roots in economic, political, and social changes in Ireland. In the fishing industry, it started with the migration of shoals across the Atlantic to Newfoundland beginning in 1600, a migration which continued to increase throughout the next two centuries. Added to this was a gradual shift in the Irish-Catholic class leadership from an essentially land-based one in the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries, to its ultimate late eighteenth-century configuration which contained an increasing number of merchants, professionals, and mid-sized farmers. Land, however, and not business continued to hold the imagination of most Irish Catholics. This was largely due to the belief that a person could only become a "true gentleman" if he could lease property, which, due to the penal laws, was the only option open to most Catholics. Excluding a tiny minority of less than five percent who had not suffered forfeiture in the late seventeenth century, Irish Catholics could not legally own land. In fact, this attitude regarding land was so strong that many Irish merchants would sell-out as soon as possible so that they could become "landed gentry" and thus "gentlemen," even if this meant that they were only able to afford a limited thirty-three year lease on no more than a few dozen acres. (2)

In Ireland the seventeenth century also witnessed the final battles between the native ruling class made up of old Irish and recusant English nobility and gentry, who were mainly Catholic, and the settlement and new ruling class who were largely composed of Anglo-Protestant colonialists. …