September 14, 1607 dawned dim and gray over Donegal, with low dark clouds rushing in from the east, from over Britain. A lone ship lay waiting in the bay to take the hero Hugh O’Neill and fifty other Gaelic chiefs to exile on the Continent in a dark act of history that would be known as the Flight of the Earls. The English were coming, and the Plantation of Ulster had begun.
It was a deliberate act of cultural colonization. English and Scottish planters, financed by London and chosen for their staunch Protestant beliefs, swarmed into the north of Ireland in great numbers. They drained and cut and tilled the land, renamed, rebuilt and fortified the towns, and planted the seeds of a Scots-Irish culture that was to take deep root. Truculent, hard working, and fiercely independent, the Scots-Irish and their descendants around the world have done much for history (including producing 12 US presidents), but the Plantation of Ulster also yielded a fatal harvest that is still being reaped.
The exiled earls sailed first to Spain, England’s nemesis and therefore Ireland’s natural ally. Finding little help there, they moved on to Rome, arriving on April 29, 1608. Pope Paul V gave them a hero’s welcome, and it was there that most of the group stayed.
On June 5th of that year, O’Neill, his son-in-law, and six other Irish nobles were given the further honor of being the canopy bearers at the Pope’s Corpus Christi procession, which raised some eyebrows. Said Tadhg Ó Cianáin, an eyewitness to the event:
"The Italians were greatly surprised that they should be shown such deference and respect, for some of them said that seldom before was any one nation in the world appointed to carry the canopy. With the ambassadors of all the Catholic kings and princes of Christendom who happened to be in the city at that time it was an established custom that they, in succession, every year got their opportunity to carry the canopy. They were jealous, envious, and surprised that they were not allowed to carry it on that particular day."
It was a rare bright moment in the cloud-filled life of Hugh O’Neill. Only a short time after coming to Rome he died of disease, and is buried under the high altar in a prominent Roman church. When he passed away, the news coming from his homeland can only have been bad, and he must have wondered if it were the end of the Catholic faith in Ireland.
He needn’t have worried. 400 hundred years later, on May 22, 2008, the Irish were again honored by a Pope. Deacons Colin Crossey from the Diocese of Down and Connor, and Shane Gallagher from the Diocese of Raphoe participated in Pope Benedict’s Mass at St. John Lateran, and four other Irish seminarians flanked the Pope as he processed with the Eucharist from the Basilicas of St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major.
Monsignor Liam Bergin, Rector of the Pontifical Irish College, commented that "The honor shown to the Irish Earls 400 years ago, by Pope Paul V, has been revisited on Irish College seminarians who will assist Pope Benedict in this procession tomorrow. As this anniversary is being marked in Ireland and beyond by historical and cultural events, it is appropriate that the religious dimension is also acknowledged and that the welcome given to the Catholic princes four centuries ago, by the Holy See, be joyously celebrated today."
Many clouds have passed over Ireland’s land and soul in the last 400 years, but events like the Corpus Christi procession helps put them all in perspective. As the Irish blessing goes, “May there always be enough clouds in your life to make a glorious sunset at its end.”
With information from Zenit News Agency, May 21, 2008
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