Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Crime to be Catholic, Part 1

It's no secret that the Catholic Irish and Protestant English/Irish have been butting heads for centuries, but I really didn't understand the depth of the persecution until very recently. Heck, I most likely still don't grasp it fully, but I did receive a bit of a wake up.

For Lent I made the pledge to recite my rosary daily.  I have a very old family rosary that was passed on to me (which I blogged about previously), and this was the rosary that I would use to pray. I really didn't know much about it apart from that it was passed down through our ancestor William Quirk.  It was obviously hand-carved and the date 1816 was carved into the back.  There had been some various people that tried to help me discover the origins of the rosary, but as I didn't even know the origins within Ireland of William Quirk, I have had to take everything with a grain of salt.  Placing the rosary in a specific location doesn't lock in where William is from, but it could be a clue.  Either way, I still didn't know much about it.

So I typed in "19th century Irish rosary" into a Google search and came to a site called the  There as I scrolled down the page was a crucifix that looked almost exactly like mine...including a carved date on the back!

It was called a Penal Cross, so the first thing I thought of (before reading just a little further) was "Did this mean one of my ancestors was a criminal?"  Talk about adding some spice to my Irish line!  The answer was no...and yes.  An explanation, because heaven knows I needed one!

I have no proof that William Quirk or any of his family were criminals, but they were guilty of criminal actions.  What were their crimes?  They were Catholic, and apparently this at one point, became a crime punishable by death.  They couldn't pray openly so they prayed in secret and this is where the Penal Cross comes into play.

A Penal Cross was usually attached to a chaplet (one decade of a rosary) and a metal ring on the opposite end.  The ring would be slipped over the person's thumb and the Penal Cross and chaplet were concealed up the person's sleeve.  They would pray a decade of the rosary and then move the ring from their thumb to their index finger and then so on as they completed each decade.  This is how they kept track of where they were in their prayers.  The Penal Cross was designed with shortened "arms" of the cross because if they were any longer they would break off.

Many of these Penal Crosses/Chaplets were purchased during a pilgrimage to Lough Derg in County Donegal and the date on the back of the cross was to indicate the year of the pilgrimage. I don't know if this goes for all Penal Crosses and my research is certainly incomplete.  I would find it difficult to believe that these crosses only were received/purchased if you made a pilgrimage.

Some differences with my rosary and the chaplets I've found...well, my obviously Penal Cross doesn't have the symbols that often come on the front of the crucifix.  This doesn't mean that it wasn't a Penal Cross (it obviously least obviously to me) but it's not "typical".  Also on the back of the cross I do have a cross carved onto the top of an "H" and then the date, but the "IHS" is not there...just the "H" and frankly it doesn't appear that the "I" and the "S" were worn off.  My Penal Cross is attached to a 5-decade rosary...not a chaplet and it is missing a center and the first 5 beads that should be just above the cross.  I have no idea why it's different.

So more mysteries attached to the rosary.  While I didn't concretely locate it's origins, it did open my eyes to what my ancestors had gone through.  While on I read the following and tears ran down my face:

"In 1726 the Lord Chancellor, Richard West, declared that: 'The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic'.  The right to vote was removed from Catholics by act of Parliament in 1727.  Other Penal Laws included the closure of Catholic schools (which forced education of Catholics underground) and the barring of Catholics from entering a profession, the army, or attending Catholic worship - however they were required to attend Anglican service." (

I knew there was hatred, and I knew that the majority of the Irish Catholics were the poorest and worked the land.  That the rents were raised and they were run off the land and left without means to exist, but I didn't realize that through legal means that it had made it illegal to be Catholic and to force them to even pray in a church not their own.  I gripe about my church often enough (especially right now with the whole birth control garbage going on), but this really made me appreciate how strongly my family had to have felt about their faith.  They were persecuted for it and gosh darn it they weren't going to give in.  No English-made law was going to keep them from their faith.

Even though this rosary isn't a Penal Chaplet, the Penal Cross on it reminds me of what they went through to keep their faith despite great odds.  Somehow saying my prayers on this rosary has taken on a deeper meaning.

Since I originally began writing this post, I have been in contact with some wonderful people at Lough Derg.  Lough Derg made my week by telling me that this is indeed a Lough Derg Penal Cross.  You can be sure that I will be putting a pilgrimage on my to-do list when I get to finally visit Ireland!  Thank you, thank you, thank you to Prior Mohan and Maureen!  If you would like to find out more information about Lough Derg you can check out their website by clicking here.  You can also LIKE them on Facebook here!