Volume 7, Number 4
Activity of Irish Priests in the West Indies: 1638-1669
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
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:
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 classificationthat, 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
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
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
 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
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’. 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’.
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
 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.
 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
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.
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. 
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 shippingline 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
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
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. 
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:
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
III. ‘La mission irlandaise’ of John Stritch
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.
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,
 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.
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
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
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:
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.
 In 1657 Propaganda granted Fallon’s
request to provide the needed supplies, but to no
purpose, the priests had already returned to Europe.
 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.
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.  Furthermore, the
geographical range of Grace’s mission was largely
unknown in Rome.  Evidence of this unfolded
in February 1667, when Burgat demanded financial help
and the expansion of priests to other islands.
 In March of the same year
Burgat clarified that further resources were needed in
Guadalupe, Montserrat, Bermuda and Barbados.
gave its consent with a subsidy of fifty crowns with the
belief that the mission was giving satisfactory results.
However, that belief was unfounded. The Leewark islands
were engulfedby 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.
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’.
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’.
In the summer of that year, in a letter to Propaganda,
Grace presented adiscouraging 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’.
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.
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
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
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).
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,
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.
Malachias O’Queely, archbishop of Tuam, to Sacred
Congregation ‘de Propaganda Fide’ [hereafter
shortened in PF], [Tuam?]
, APF, Scritture Originali riferite nelle
Congregazioni Generali [hereafter shortened in
SOCG], vol.399, fol.84rv.
Edmund O’Dwyer to O’Queely, to PF, [Rome], [20 April
1638], APF, SOCG, vol.399, fol.258rv, 269rv.
APF, Acta, vol.13, fol.83v-84r, general
congregation, Rome, 20 April 1638.
O’Queely, to PF, [Galway?], [before December 1639],
APF, SOCG, vol.400, fol.185rv.
O’Queely, to [PF], no place, no date, APF, SOCG,
SOCG, vol.400, fol.184rv.
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.
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.
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.
Societas Iesu [shortened in ARSI], Francia,
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.
APF, SOCG, vol.202, fol.87rv-88rv, André Castillon,
SJ, to PF, Paris, 13 December 1661.
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.
APF, Acta, vol.26, fol.97v-98r, general
congregation, 11 June 1657, Rome; Gwynn, ‘Cromwell
‘s Policy of Transportation-Part II’, 298.
‘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.
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
Acta, vol.36, fol.30r, general congregation, 8
to PF, [before 8 February 1667], [Paris], APF, SOCG,
to PF, [before March 1, 1667], [Paris], APF, SOCG,
APF, Acta, vol.36, fol.52rv, general congregation, 1
March 1667, Rome.
Grace to Burgat, St. Christopher, 11 March 1667, APF,
SOCG, vol.257, fol.112rv.
Burgat to PF, [before 7 May 1668], [Paris], APF,
SOCG, vol.257, fol.114rv-115rv.
to PF, 21 and 29 June 1669, Paris, APF, Congressi
Irlanda, vol.II, fol.236rv.
to PF, 5 July 1669, Paris, APF, SOCG, vol.421,
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© Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011
01 November 2011
07 Diciembre 2011
Activity of Irish Priests in the West Indies: 1638-1669' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America"
7:4 (November 2011),
Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_Mateo_Binasco.htm), accessed