Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

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The Activity of Irish Priests in the West Indies: 1638-1669

By Matteo Binasco  *   

Matteo Binasco is a Research fellow in the Istituto di Storia dell’Europa Mediterranea in Genoa, of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy. Research for this article has been made possible through the funding received from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


This paper seeks to analyse the activity of Irish Catholic priests in the West Indies between 1638 and 1669. Demonstrating how Irish missionary activity was, from the beginning, hampered by the paucity of resources, inconsistency in the number of missionaries deployed, and lack of cooperation with other religious orders. Furthermore it investigates the missionary strategy conceived by the Irish priests and the way in which they portrayed the West Indies to the Roman authorities of the papal curia.

The activity of Irish Catholic priests in the West Indies during the seventeenth century has largely been neglected by scholars of the Atlantic World. Until the mid-1980s, the available literature relied on works written by the Jesuit Aubrey Gwynn, who pioneered early studies (Gwynn 1932: 139-286). However, his analysis presents a dated perspective that portrays the Irish priests as martyrs of the faith (Akenson 1997: 42).

 In 1997, Donald Harman Akenson, in his case study of the Montserrat settlement, simply dismissed the experience of the Irish Catholic priests as unimpressive because ‘the church authorities had a good deal more on their minds than a few Irish colonists on the far edge of the earth’ (Akenson 1997: 45). Giovanni Pizzorusso has challenged this perspective and demonstrated how Irish priests contributed to shaping the missionary strategy of the Holy See towards the West Indies, and more broadly, towards Catholic emigration within the Atlantic World (Pizzorusso 1995: 64-79). This article will evaluate both of these opinions. It will also seek to add further evidence to support the argument for the importance of the role played by Irish priests in the West Indies.

Any research on this topic must be set against the background of European expansion in the West Indies and the formation of a colonial society. From the mid-1620s, the interests of the Northern European powers - England, France and the Netherlands - were focused on the Lesser Antilles, a chain of islands that stretches from present-day Puerto Rico to the island of Trinidad. Within this area, English colonisation began in the Leeward Islands, a geographical classification that, although not officially used until 1671, included the islands of St. Christopher, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat.

In 1624, St. Christopher was the first island to be settled by the English, who subsequently established colonies on Barbados in 1627, on Nevis in 1628, and on Antigua in 1632. In 1627, the French also began to settle on St. Christopher, which was partitioned into one central part under English control, and two exterior French parts, renamed Saint-Christophe. The French extended their expansion by installing, in 1635, colonies on Martinique and Guadeloupe. For their part, the Dutch simply took control of St. Eustatius in 1632, Curaçao in 1634, and Tobago, favoured by their naval superiority and the foundation of the West India Company, in 1621 (Davies 1974: 39-47).

The islands under English control became primary locations for a successful economy based on the production of tobacco and cotton. The English Caribbean received a growing influx of white settlers, whose number, before 1660, was estimated to be around 190,000 (Canny 1994: 39-75). This emigration pattern was largely dictated by the absence of a large native population that could be used as a labour force, and consequently, the islands needed indentured servants (Beckles 1998: 222). A considerable number of these indentured servants were Irish, who, in the 1630s, began to be recruited to work in the English West Indies (Bridenbaugh 1972: 14). In most the cases they were from the province of Munster, home to the oldest and largest English plantation (MacCarthy-Morrogh 1986: 244-284), and decided to improve their economic and social conditions (Akenson 1997: 51-52).

A small number of Irishmen were also planters and landowners, such as Anthony Briskett, a Protestant from County Wexford. Between the late 1620s and the beginning of the 1630s, James Hay, first Earl of Carlisle, appointed Briskett Governor of Montserrat. In 1632, the Governor brought a group of Irish planters and indentured servants, who formed the backbone of the colony. [1] From the point of view of religion, Montserrat initially enjoyed stability, because Briskett tolerated Catholic practices (Pizzorusso 1985: 79).

The religious tolerance granted to the Irish Catholics in Montserrat was not associated with the presence of any priests. At the early stage of European expansion, Catholic missionaries limited themselves to operating on the Windward Islands, notably Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Christopher, because they were under the control of France, the only Catholic nation in that area. Both Louis XIII (1601-1643) and Armand Jean Duplessis, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), backed the scheme that envisaged colonial expansion and evangelisation (Boucher 1989: 28-30). In 1635, they founded the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique, whose associates had ‘to do their best to convert the natives of St. Christopher and other islands. In every settlement the associates had to support at least two or three ecclesiastics to preach the word of God’ (Du Tertre 1671 I: 47-48).

The French monarchy found a crucial ally in the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide. Founded in 1622, Propaganda was charged with the direction of missionary activity in Protestant and non-Christian countries. This task had to be pursued by coordinating worldwide missionary activity. [2] The policy of Roman ministry had to be adapted to the complex world of the West Indies. Beyond the natives and later the African slaves, Propaganda’s interest focused on Catholic settlers who, like the Irish, lived close to or within Protestant colonies, where they could be exposed to heretical influences (Pizzorusso 2007: 97-107).

I. The St. Christopher Mission (1638-1640)

In 1638, the first missionary enterprise for the Irish Catholics of the West Indies was organised, despite the fact that, in its initial phase, there was no intervention planned by Rome. In the early spring of that year, Malachias O’Queely, Archbishop of Tuam, (1630-1645), wrote to Propaganda to request missionary faculties and financial support for two priests of his diocese who were going to St. Christopher, where ‘a great number of Irish live mixed with Scots and English’.[3] Surprised by the news, Propaganda demanded more complete information from Edmund O’Dwyer, O’Queely’s Roman agent. At the end of April the agent replied, stating that in March two priests, Ferdinand Fareissy and David O’Neill, had accompanied ‘six hundred Irish of both sexes [who] came to those parts, thanks to a safe and functional communication line, recently established’. According to him, there would be great prospects of success for that mission, because of ‘the scarce presence of Protestant ministers’.[4]

The mission met with enthusiasm by Francesco Ingoli, first secretary of Propaganda (1578-1649), who considered it necessary in order to prevent ‘the island being made heretical by the English Protestants’. [5] However his initial eagerness soon faded. In December 1639, O’Queely reported to Propaganda that 3,000 Irish Catholics lived in St. Christopher and the neighbouring islands under English control. The Archbishop laconically added that the two missionaries were dead, victims of the climate and of wounds inflicted by the English. [6] Moreover, the Archbishop expressed, for the first time, concern for the indigenous population who might be converted by the Protestant ministers from Scotland and England who were beginning to arrive on the island. [7]

Ingoli, as Secretary of Propaganda, was among the first to analyse O’Queely’s reports. With less enthusiasm, the Propaganda secretary suggested that the Archbishop should find some suitable subjects who could speak two or three different languages. Ingoli exhorted O’Queely to appoint two priests, one of whom should be appointed Prefect, and to inform Rome of their names and of the viaticum that they needed. The secretary also suggested that missionary faculties be sent together with additional funds for the chalices, paraments and missals. Despite this planning, the sending of more missionaries seemed uncertain. This is clear from the words of Ingoli, who recommended O’Queely to send two missionaries who, by chance, could embark on a ship bound for St. Christopher.[8]

The data transmitted by O’Queely and O’Dwyer put Propaganda into contact with a complex reality. At first glance, the mission on St. Christopher developed within a milieu where, together with the Irish, there were English and Scottish settlers who professed a different religion. Due to the lack of a census for the 1630s, we cannot be sure of the numerical strength of the groups in question nor of their religious allegiance. It is likely that the Scots mentioned by O’Queelly were a small minority as Scottish migration to the West Indies during the seventeenth century was negligible. According to the census of 1678, there were only about 200 Scots on the islands, a sharp contrast with the 3,466 Irish reported to be living on St. Christopher, Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua. [9]    

Another detail provided by this exchange of correspondence concerns the linguistic diversity of the St. Christopher settlement. Ingoli urged that missionaries be sent who were able to speak at least two or three different languages - which, although not specified, were probably English, Irish and French. This means that the missionaries would have to operate within two distinct groups of Irish people: one composed of Old English and one of Gaelic settlers. With regard to French, we can assume that Ingoli considered the language necessary because of the political division that existed on the island.

The absence of records relating to the origin of the Irish settlers’ makes it difficult to determine the exact numbers of Gaelic and Old English on St. Christopher. As argued by Aubrey Gwynn, the reference made by O’Queely to the recent shipping line established to connect Galway with the West Indies may signify that many of the Irish Catholic emigrants at St. Christopher were from the province of Connacht, a predominantly Gaelic-speaking area, in contrast with those settled at Montserrat, where the majority hailed from Munster (Gwynn 1932b: 223). The presence of this emigrant flow from Connacht could be the main practical reason that led O’Queely to initiate the mission on St. Christopher.

Within a broader context, the Irish missionary experience on St. Christopher may be compared with the mission to the Scottish Highlands. This mission had been started in 1619, by the Irish Franciscans of St. Anthony’s College of Louvain, the core seminary for the education of the Gaelic friars. Therefore, since its inception, this missionary foray had been conceived in order to bring religious assistance to the Gaelic communities living in areas never served by permanent priests (MacDonald 2006: 66-67). In the spring of 1640, Propaganda tried to renew the mission by offering 170 crowns in aid. However, in October of that year, O’Queelly declared the money insufficient to send more priests, and cut off any chances to promote further missionary plans.[10]

Despite its outcome, the mission promoted by O’Queely served to inform Propaganda about various problems linked with Catholic migration, the Protestant ‘threat’ and geographical details in an area almost unknown to the Papal Curia. The report on St. Christopher complemented an existing information network comprised of maps, reports and admonitions which had begun to shape Propaganda’s knowledge and perception of the American continent since 1625 (Codignola 1995: 204-207). However, the Irish mission on St. Christopher stood as an isolated experience. It was the first and last missionary enterprise prompted by an Irish bishop, during a period of progress within the Irish Counter Reformation witnessed by the steady increase in regular and secular clergy (Ó hAnnracháin 2002: 57-58).

 II. The Transition Period (1641-1649)

The outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in 1641, followed by the onset of the Civil War in England in 1642, had crucial repercussions for the English colonies in the Atlantic World. Persecution of the Ulster Protestants boosted an increasing aversion toward Irish Catholics (Quinn 1991: 46-47). Religious tension coalesced with the political tension that engulfed the Leeward Islands, where, from 1643, old governors and settlers maintained a royalist position and refused to accept the new parliamentary governors (Pestana 2004: 25-29). Against this unsettled backdrop, the Irish Catholics enjoyed some form of religious assistance. At St. Christopher, they were visited by groups of French Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscan order (Cuthbert of Brighton 1971: 50, 54) active on the French part of the island since 1636 (Du Tertre 1671 I: 73). However, their zeal was deemed insufficient vis-à-vis the needs of the Irish population of St. Christopher, who, according to an unrealistic Capuchin estimate, numbered about 20,000 settlers. This ‘flock’ required native-speaking priests, who could instil religious discipline within a restless society (Pizzorusso 1985: 82).

In 1643 the Irish people of St. Christopher, backed by Philippe Longvilliers de Poincy, Lieutenant General of the French Caribbean Islands and Governor of Saint-Christophe, petitioned the French Jesuits to send missionaries. The request found an eager volunteer in the Jesuit Matthew O’Hartegan, (?-1666) agent of the Irish Confederate Catholics. On 30 March 1643 he wrote to Muzio Vitelleschi, (1563-1645) the Jesuit general, and demanded that two or more Irish Jesuits be appointed to St. Christopher to bring religious assistance to their fellow countrymen. O’Hartegan declared himself ready to go as he was well acquainted with the three languages, French, English and Irish, that were spoken on the island (Gwynn 1932: 192-193).

The organisation of this mission did not pass unnoticed as it was perceived as an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the Irish Catholic Church through the diplomatic networks set up by the Confederate Catholics. In mid-August 1643, Geoffrey Baron, another agent of the Confederate in Paris, wrote to his uncle the Franciscan Luke Wadding (1588-1657), one of the most influential figures of the Irish Counter Reformation, stressing that on the island of St. Christopher, there were almost 20,000 Irish Catholics. According to him, sending an Irish priest was an advantage because of the great number of Irishmen who resided there. [11] This mission saw no practical outcome, because at the time of the petition, the missionary jurisdiction over St. Christopher was disputed between the Jesuits and Capuchins (Pizzorusso 1995: 68). The latter, sustained by Propaganda, maintained authority on the French part of the island, and showed how the various religious orders were often at loggerheads (Codignola 1989: 57-58).

O’Queely and O’Hartegan’s proposals expressed the need to bring religious assistance to a distant Catholic community. However, there was no emphasis placed on the need to catechise the native peoples. The Irish priests displayed no interest in promoting evangelical enterprises like those carried out by the French missionaries in the first half of the seventeenth century (Codignola 1986: 70-73). The one similarity between the first missionary experiences of the Irish priests and later French evangelism was the wishful thinking regarding population estimates in this frontier territory close to the Protestants (Codignola 1995: 206). As the French missionaries overstated the number of natives, so the Irish priests exaggerated the number of Irish Catholics in the West Indies in order to draw attention and financial support. The 20,000 Irish people that O’Hartegan reported living on St. Christopher was an exaggeration, considering that this number was six times the estimate of the total Leeward population.(Pestana 229-234.)


III. ‘La mission irlandaise’ of John Stritch (1650-1661)

The beginning of the Cromwellian campaign in 1649 had a devastating impact on the activities of Catholic clergy in Ireland (Corish 1981: 47). The Episcopal hierarchy was swept away. Of the twenty-seven bishops resident in Ireland in 1648, only one was still in his diocese in 1653 (Cregan 1979: 85-87). Within this context, there were no resources to promote missionary initiatives. However, in 1650 the Irish Jesuit John Stritch of Limerick (1616-1681) was sent to St. Christophe to join his French confreres, who, in 1647, replaced the Capuchins expelled by De Poincy in 1646 (Pelleprat 1655: 36-37). The presence of Stritch corresponded to a precise strategy elaborated by the French Jesuit authorities, who aimed to provide an Irish missionary for his fellow countrymen residing in the English part of the island. [12]

Part of Stritch’s mission is documented through the first-hand account of Pierre Pelleprat, a Jesuit active on St. Christophe when the Irish priest arrived on the island. Stritch established a small chapel at Point-de-Sable, close to the English border, where most of the Irish lived. Their reception of Stritch seemed extremely positive as a large number of them immediately began to secretly visit his mission, thus ignoring the risks of being arrested by the English authorities (Pelleprat 1655: 37). During his three months residence at Point-de-Sable, Stritch administered the sacraments, heard confessions, and baptised the children. Soon Point-de-Sable counted 3000 Irishmen. Using St. Christophe as a base, Stritch also extended his missionary range and visited Montserrat where, disguised as a wood merchant, he secretly set up an altar, and celebrated mass in the tropical forest. Due to escalating English persecutions of his fellow countrymen, Stritch contacted Charles Houel, French governor of Guadeloupe, where, in 1653, he accompanied a number of Irishmen forced to leave St. Christopher. Until 1662, the year of his return to Ireland, [13] Stritch continued to visit Montserrat, but centred his work on St. Christopher. His mission seemed so successful, that, according to Pelleprat, his confrere had converted more than 400 English and Irish Protestants (Pelleprat 1655: 36-37).

The results of Stritch’s mission seemed too outstanding for one single man. Moreover, his secret meetings with the Irish Catholics of Montserrat were not so secret after all. In 1654, a set of depositions made by three witnesses to the Earl of Mulgrave revealed that Roger Osborne, successor of Briskett, tolerated de facto the presence of Stritch (Gwynn 1932: 224-228). The fact that the priest could say mass and administer the sacraments in the woods was a form of compromise which anticipated events that would unfold during the Penal Era (Akenson 1997: 45). Moreover, the figures associated with Stritch’s mission attracted criticisms. The inflated number of Irish Catholics visiting Stritch at Point-de-Sable had to be reduced to 1,500, according to the Dominican Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre. He also claimed that, before Stritch’s arrival, the Irishmen of St. Christopher had enjoyed the spiritual assistance of Capuchins, a few Dominicans, and several Irish priests, although this latter point is very improbable (Dutertre 1671 III: 298-301). Even within the Jesuit order, the extravagant figures of Pelleprat were debated. In 1661, André Castillon, Jesuit superior of the Paris province, informed Propaganda that Stritch had converted ‘thirty men, half Irish and half English’, almost ten times less than the number claimed by Pelleprat. [14]

The delay with which the Roman ministry was informed of Stritch’s mission is not surprising. Since its foundation, Propaganda had a turbulent relationship with the Society of Jesus that wanted to maintain absolute autonomy over its missionary enterprises (Codignola 1995: 203). A further striking aspect of Stritch’s activity is the complete absence of natives. This might be imputed to the fact that, throughout the 1650s, all the English settlements were vulnerable to the raids of the Caribs which likely prevented the Irish Jesuit to enter into contact with the natives (Bridenbaugh 1972: 172).


 IV. Few Other Missionaries at Work (1656-1664)

Indeed, this was the limited information that Propaganda collected. The 1664 report briefly summarized what Maddon did but not how he did it, especially vis-à-vis the Protestants and natives. There was no description of the island or of the natives, and no mention of the settlers’ conditions in the Caribbean (Pizzorusso 1995: 71). The dearth of specific descriptions clashed with the French missionary literature which, throughout the years 1640 to1655, promoted the idea that evangelical success was the key to colonial development (Boucher 1979: 22-24).

While the Leewark Islands were the obvious nucleus of Irish missionary activity, in the 1650s, Barbados also received some Irish priests. The Priests were amongst those who, after the taking of Drogheda in 1649, began to be expelled from Ireland and shipped to the West Indies (Gwynn 1930: 611). With the completion of the military conquest of Ireland in 1652, Oliver Cromwell (1600-1658) set the agenda for a policy which aimed to transport two categories of the Irish population to Barbados, those dangerous to the state and the poor (Gillespie: 182). Clearly the Catholic priests fell within the first category, by virtue of the edict of 6 January 1653 which banned from the country within twenty days, all ‘Jesuits, seminary priests and persons in Popish orders’. The decree targeted the Catholic clergy, between 1650 and 1654, who were thus forced into exile in Continental Europe (Millett 1968: 5-7). The imprisoned priests had little choice and those refusing the voluntary exile, were to ‘bee [sic] put aboard such Ship or other vessel as shall (with the first opportunity) set sail from thence to ye Barbado-Isles’ (MacCaffrey 1917: 179-181). However, between 1654 and 1657, only nine priests were ordered to leave for Barbados, a minority compared to the thirty who were brought to continental Europe in 1654 (MacCaffrey 1917: 189-190, 195, 197-198; MacCaffrey 1918:20-24, 29-30, 37, 39). Initially, in the eyes of the Cromwellian officers, the priests sentenced to Barbados were to be treated like indentured servants. In 1655, the Dublin Castle administration sent a letter to Daniel Searle, Governor of Barbados, stating the priests ‘may be so employed as they may not be at liberty to return again into this Nation' (MacCaffrey 1918:37).

What was sought in theory, did not unfold in practice. Four priests who arrived in Barbados in 1656 were given a hostile reception by the colonial authorities. On 21 May 1656, the Council of Barbados ordered the expulsion of the priests declaring that ‘they have 15 days liberty to seeke [sic] passage for their departure from this Island to any place without ye Dominions of ye Commonwealth of England’ (Gwynn 1932: 235). The harsh reaction against the priests was the natural reflection of the political measures taken by the Barbados governors to restrict the entry of further Irish Catholics. By the mid-seventeenth century Irish Catholics represented the largest block of servants, being replaced by black slaves (Dunn 2000: 69). The Irish were increasingly put under more stringent military control which aimed to repress possible rebellions. This explained the expulsion of the priests, who could potentially act as elements of cohesion within the Irish Catholic community (Beckles 1990: 508-513).

Due to the lack of sources, it is difficult to assess if transported priests had any contacts with other Irish clergy who voluntarily operated in the West Indies. It is clear is that Propaganda was unaware of the forced transportation of Irish priests. Their knowledge was limited to a petition of James Fallon, vicar apostolic of Achonry, [located in modern county Sligo] who, in 1656, demanded special resources to face the massive presence of Protestants in Ireland. These resources needed to be extended to suitable priests, even those in ‘America’, who required consecrating chalices and portable altars in places where there were no churches. [15] In 1657 Propaganda granted Fallon’s request to provide the needed supplies, but to no purpose, the priests had already returned to Europe. [16] This underscores the geographic distance between the decisions made by officials who lived in Rome and the faraway places they administered. Granting or denying resources was the only way Propaganda could keep a link with correspondents they rarely encountered (Codignola 1995: 207).

V. John Grace and the Last Irish Mission (1667-1669)

The last Irish mission in the West Indies in this period was promoted by Dermott Hederman, an Irish priest in exile (O’Connor 2008: 221-222). Hederman founded St. Barbara’s College in Paris in 1660 which provided for the education of twenty students. The first step towards establishing the mission was made in May 1666 through the support of William Burgat, procurator of the Irish clergy in Paris. Burgat requested that Propaganda grant St. Barbara’s college the authorization to ordain its students. In 1626, Urban VIII (1568-1644), gave the rectors of the Irish Colleges permission to ordain the students and dispatch them as missionaries in Ireland (Silke 1973: 189). In his letter, Burgat emphasised that John Grace, from the diocese of Cashel, required the missionaries to leave for St. Christopher where ‘many thousands of Irishmen’ lived. [17]

As in previous cases, the problems in communication between correspondents, missionaries and Rome became obvious. Indeed, when, in December 1666, Propaganda appointed Grace as ‘missionary in America for his nation’, the priest had left at least six months earlier. [18] Furthermore, the geographical range of Grace’s mission was largely unknown in Rome. [19] Evidence of this unfolded in February 1667, when Burgat demanded financial help and the expansion of priests to other islands. [20] In March of the same year Burgat clarified that further resources were needed in Guadalupe, Montserrat, Bermuda and Barbados. [21] Propaganda gave its consent with a subsidy of fifty crowns with the belief that the mission was giving satisfactory results. [22] However, that belief was unfounded. The Leewark islands were engulfed by the second Anglo-Dutch war in the years 1665-1667. Indeed, when Grace arrived at St. Christopher, he found the entire island under the control of the French, who, allied with the Dutch, had defeated the English in the battle of Point-de-Sable. As a condition of peace, the French tolerated the Protestant religion, as long as it was privately practised (Crouse 1966: 22-34). Although this shift in control of the island had no benefit for the Irish, who, according to Grace’s report in 1667, were treated by the French with the same harshness shown by the English. Grace also visited the Irish living in Martinica, Guadeloupe and Antigua, where he heard the confessions of more than 300 Irishmen, fifty of them on the verge of death. The priest laconically concluded that he could no longer carry on his task without the arrival of more missionaries and financial aid. [23]

Being an isolated priest with no assistance from a religious order or from the lay authorities left Grace little choice. He could not pursue grandiose ambitions (Pizzorusso 1985: 90). Gloomy warnings and pessimistic reports stressed the slight human and material resources. In 1668, when he requested a portable altar to celebrate Mass, Grace again asked for more missionaries to avoid ‘a sure massacre of souls’.[24] The same alarming tone repeated in 1669, when Burgat reported that Grace was back in France, but ready to return to ‘ten thousands Irish Catholics so oppressed by the English heretics’.[25]  

In the summer of that year, in a letter to Propaganda, Grace presented a discouraging view of the situation of the Irish Catholics in the West Indies. According Grace, Catholic religion was under constant threat in the English islands. The priests were often expelled by local authorities, and no one risked his own life to start a mission or to bring religious assistance to the Catholic population. He briefly described the status of Irishmen on each of the English islands. According to his estimates, the Irish community in Martinica numbered 200 people, who, despite the language difficulties, were assisted by French missionaries. In Barbados, the Irishmen were 8,000 of total population of 40,000. Guadalupe had 800 Irish Catholics, who lived in the most inhospitable part the island, rarely visited by French missionaries. Antigua had 200 Irishmen, while 2000 resided at Montserrat, a safe island for the Catholic priests, thanks to the tolerance of the Irish governor William Stapleton. 600 Irish Catholics lived scattered between Nevis and St. Christopher, where they endured Protestant persecution. The situation worsened on Tobago, Saint Eustatius, Saint-Martin and Sainte-Croix, where the Irish lived ‘mixed with the heretics’. [26] Grace’s report of his mission thus gave to Propaganda an exhaustive picture of the Irish Catholics, who, however, had no religious benefits from the priest’s mission (Pizzorusso 2007: 140). Furthermore the chance to renew the mission faded away because of Grace’s mysterious disappearance (Pizzorusso 1985: 90). Propaganda tried to maintain a close contact with Burgat, but his death in 1675 definitively brought to an end the possibility to promote further missionary initiatives. [27]

Grace’s mission had dual significance: firstly, it remained a solitary initiative by a priest with no resources. Secondly, his short experience informed Propaganda on the status of the Irish Catholics in the West Indies as a victimised minority that clung to their Catholic identity (Pizzorusso 2007: 140-142). Like his predecessors, Grace continued to overstate the number of Irish settlers who were described as oppressed, making no distinction between those who migrated freely and those who were forcibly exiled. Furthermore he categorized all the Irish as Catholics and saw them as a distinct confessional identity diametrically opposed to the Protestants.



It is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of Irish missionary involvement in the West Indies. At first it would be logical to surmise that their experience was marginal and raised very little interest among the Church authorities. Furthermore, all the correspondence transmitted by the priests emphasized the oppressed condition of the Irish settlers, without any distinction between the exiled and the free immigrants (Akenson 1997: 8, 46, 216). Another aspect which may downgrade the Irish apostolate in the West Indies was the numerical scarcity of the missionaries deployed there. Therefore, excluding the priests forcibly transported to Barbados, only six Irish missionaries, through four decades, voluntarily decided to reside in that area. This figure dramatically differs from the number of French missionaries who were active in the West Indies, and whose apostolate is extremely well-documented through a detailed corpus of missionary accounts. It is only through one of the latter, Pelleprat’s chapter on the mission of Stritch, that we have a brief overview of how the Irish priests tried to operate within the colonial communities of their fellow countrymen. Beyond this, there is a dearth of information which impedes our knowledge of how and to what extent, if any, the Irish priests acted among the natives of the islands and the African slaves.

Nevertheless, the Priests’ experience may be fully evaluated if we consider that all the missions began, developed and concluded throughout the years 1638-1669, during which Irish Catholic clergy were victims of the upheavals of the Civil War and of the Cromwellian conquest. These crucial decades in Irish history allow us to suppose that the Irish Priests’ motivation to pursue their apostolate in the West Indies was a genuine desire to assist their fellow countrymen within the context of defending their Catholic identity.

The available documentation indicates that the priests did very little to evangelize the native populations on the islands. This may be attributed to a number of factors. The first was the shortage of the Irish priests which forced them to focus on the settlers. Another impediment was the lack of financial support from both the State and private trading companies. Moreover, the activity of the Irish priests was carried out in the Leeward Islands, a risky area where the Caribs displayed a strong aversion against the English and Irish settlers (Akenson 1997: 29).

The scarcity of resources allows us to understand the importance of Propaganda’s involvement. As rightly underlined by Pizzorusso, the support given to the first mission in 1638 and to that of Grace in 1667 indicates a genuine willingness from the Papal Curia to maintain a close contact with the English West Indies. In the Grace’s case, Propaganda also appointed him as missionary for ‘his nation’. This means that the Roman cardinals considered the Irish in the West Indies as an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority (Pizzorusso 1995:75).

Despite their short duration and the lack of visible outcomes, all of the missions on which Propaganda received reports served to enlarge the knowledge of the Atlantic World of the papal curia. Thanks to these letters, the Propaganda cardinals could enrich their scant knowledge of the Irish clergy’s activity and, at the same time, they began to be informed about Irish migration to the Caribbean. This body of data would fit within a world-wide missionary knowledge which Propaganda, from its foundation, was constantly trying to collect in order to strengthen its centralizing role within the evangelization process carried out by the Holy See (Pizzorusso 2000: 483-495).


 * Research for this article has been made possible through the funding received from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


[1] We have no exact date for the first settlement of Montserrat and neither there are documents on Carlisle’s first concession to Briskett, who, likely in 1636, petitioned Charles I to have a new commission. See Public Record Office [hereafter shortened in PRO], C.O.1, vol.IX, no.23, Anthony Briskett, governor of Montserrat, to Charles I, Montserrat, [1636?].

[2] Propaganda was officially founded on the 22nd of June 1622, however the first general congregation of the cardinals was held on the 6th of January 1622. See Archives of the Sacred Congregation ‘de Propaganda Fide’ [hereafter shortened in APF], Acta, vol.3, fol.1rv, general congregation, Rome, 6 January 1622; APF, Miscellanee diverse, fol.1rv-4rv, Gregorio XV, Inscrutabili divinae providentiae, Roma, 22 June 1622.

[3] Malachias O’Queely, archbishop of Tuam, to Sacred Congregation ‘de Propaganda Fide’ [hereafter shortened in PF], [Tuam?] [1638], APF, Scritture Originali riferite nelle Congregazioni Generali [hereafter shortened in SOCG], vol.399, fol.84rv.

[4] Edmund O’Dwyer to O’Queely, to PF, [Rome], [20 April 1638], APF, SOCG, vol.399, fol.258rv, 269rv.

[5] APF, Acta, vol.13, fol.83v-84r, general congregation, Rome, 20 April 1638.

[6] O’Queely, to PF, [Galway?], [before December 1639], APF, SOCG, vol.400, fol.185rv.

[7]see O’Queely, to [PF], no place, no date, APF, SOCG, vol.400, fol.184rv

[8]APF, SOCG, vol.400, fol.184rv.

[9]Noël Sainsbury et al. eds., Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies (London: Stationery Office, 1896), vol.1677-1680, doc nr.741, pp.262-266.

[10]APF, Acta, vol.14, fol.84rv, general congregation, Rome, 23 April 1640; O’Queely, to [PF], [Rome], 12 May 1640, APF, Lettere, vol.9, fol.122v-123r; O’Queely, to [PF], [Galway], 6 October 1640, APF, SOCG, vol.295, fol.116rv, 123rv.

[11] Geoffrey Baron to Luke Wadding, OFM, Paris, 14 August 1643, Franciscan Library Killiney [hereafter shortened in FLK], MS D IV, fol.135, reprinted in Historical Manuscripts Commission [hereafter shortened in HMC] ed., Report on Franciscan manuscripts preserved at the Convent, Merchant’s Quay, Dublin (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1906), p.243.

[12]       Archivium Romanum Societas Iesu [shortened in ARSI], Francia, vol.13, fol.245v.

[13] ARSI, Francia, vol.7/1, fol.33rv-34rv; Gallia, vol.39, fol.182rv, 190rv-191rv, 204v-205r; Gallia, vol.103/II, fol.266rv-267rv; Gallia, vol.121, sub voce; Anglia, vol.4-a, fol114v; vol.16, fol.53rv; Aquitania, vol.7, fol.108r—109v, 119v.

[14] APF, SOCG, vol.202, fol.87rv-88rv, André Castillon, SJ, to PF, Paris, 13 December 1661.

[15] Petition of James Fallon, vicar apostolic of Achonry, to Pope Alexander VII, no place, [1656-1657?], APF, Fondo di Vienna, vol.13, fol.260rv-262rv.

[16] APF, Acta, vol.26, fol.97v-98r, general congregation, 11 June 1657, Rome; Gwynn, ‘Cromwell ‘s Policy of Transportation-Part II’, 298.

[17] 10 milia Ibernesi Cattolici angariati assai dagli eretici inglesi’, William Burgat, procurator of the Irish clergy in Paris, to PF, Acta, vol.35, fol.201rv, general congregation, 19 July 1666; APF, Acta, vol.35, fol.331v-332r, general congregation, 20 December 1666.

[18] Carlo Vittori Roberti, archbishop of Tarsus, nuncio in Paris, to PF, 15 October 1666, Paris, APF, SOCG, vol.371, fol.20rv-22rv; APF, Acta, vol.35, fol.331v-332r, general congregation, 20 December 1666, Rome.

[19]APF, Acta, vol.36, fol.30r, general congregation, 8 February 1667.

[20]Burgat to PF, [before 8 February 1667], [Paris], APF, SOCG, vol.257, fol.87rv-88rv.

[21]Burgat to PF, [before March 1, 1667], [Paris], APF, SOCG, vol.257, fol.91rv-92rv.

[22] APF, Acta, vol.36, fol.52rv, general congregation, 1 March 1667, Rome.

[23]John Grace to Burgat, St. Christopher, 11 March 1667, APF, SOCG, vol.257, fol.112rv.

[24] Burgat to PF, [before 7 May 1668], [Paris], APF, SOCG, vol.257, fol.114rv-115rv.

[25]Burgat to PF, 21 and 29 June 1669, Paris, APF, Congressi Irlanda, vol.II, fol.236rv.

[26]Grace to PF, 5 July 1669, Paris, APF, SOCG, vol.421, fol.fol.112rv-113rv, 115rv.

[27] APF, Acta, vol.45, fol.176v-177r, general congregation, 30 July 1675, Rome.



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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Matteo Binasco 'The Activity of Irish Priests in the West Indies: 1638-1669' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:4 (November 2011), pp. XXX-XXX. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_Mateo_Binasco.htm), accessed .

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