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Clerics and Clansmen: The Vicarages and Rectories of Tradraighe in the Fifteenth Century
By Luke McInerney

The Role of Kinship and Clan

It is clear from the Papal Registers that the parochial system did not operate smoothly but was beset by competition among local septs over church patronage and the awarding of appointments. The control laymen exercised over church property and patronage contributed to the general impoverishment of the church in Gaelic regions. The jurisdiction of the church in Gaelic lordships - ecclesia inter Hibernicos - had little connection to Dublin or the crown; most appointments to important benefices were made by the papacy. [35]

In Ireland during the fifteenth century a steady stream of provisions to the Roman Curia petitioned the Pope for appointment to benefices.[36] Petitions tended to be in the form of an applicant who sought a benefice that for some reason had ‘lapsed to the apostolic see’ (on the death of previous holder) or on account of the benefice being occupied by a cleric accused of illegitimacy (being a son of a priest or of an illegitimate union between parents) [37] or a crime. Supported by the canon law doctrine that the pope was ‘universal ordinary’ and could override the authority of bishops in granting or collating benefices, many Irish petitions from the fifteenth century were brought forwarded by ‘delators’ who denounced clerics for illegitimacy and abrogating church law in order to secure the appointment themselves.

In this environment it was not uncommon for septs who monopolised local church benefices for successive generations to control the vicarial tithes, and resist the appointment of non-kin clerics which threatened their entrenched position. The picture is a cycle of appointment, removal and reinstatement textured with allegations of ‘simoniacal bargains’, intimidation and even bigamy, or so read a papal mandate of 1466.[38] We must be careful, however, when drawing conclusions from cases in the Papal Registers. The mandates were conditional and did not automatically take effect and caution would suggest that allegations were often false and motivated by competition for coveted benefices. [39] Likewise, aside from vague allegations of misconduct and the susceptibility of clergy to ‘concubinage’, [40] there existed a powerful incentive for lordly families to capture benefices and intrude their preferred clerics into benefices. Typically this involved launching proceedings against incumbent clergy through a suit at the Roman Curia - an expensive and drawn-out process - that only wealthy high-status clerics could finance.

Underneath the veneer of church appointments by officials were the kinship bonds of sept and clan. Kinship mattered and this was true of the clerics at the churches in Tradraighe where control of the vicarage and procurement of tithes must have been a strong motivation for ambitious men of local septs. In Killaloe the patronage of certain rectories by lay lords such as the Uí Bhriain was not always done for reasons of piety, but often out of self-interest by appointing kinfolk to positions of authority over church revenues. It was with reference to the clan system that many of these appointments and removals were transacted, and it was also with reference to the clan system that many appointments and awarding of profitable benefices were cynically exploited. Dermot F Gleeson noted that:

‘It is plain from the evidence of the papal registers for the latter part of the fifteenth century that diocesan government by ordinary jurisdiction and visitation had in fact broken down. Benefices were obtained openly by the practice of nepotism; even occasionally by violence and crime. Simony was rampant, and pluralities were commonplace. A clerk in minor orders…might hold valuable benefices in two or more dioceses at the same time. Many such holders of benefices never received major orders, and the cure of souls which should have gone with the grant of the benefices must have been grievously neglected, even when a vicar was appointed to perform these duties.’ [41]

The bearer of ecclesiastical office amongst local septs must have played an important position in matters relating to their sept and parish at large, and it takes little imagination to realise that incumbency of a vicarage was highly sought after. If the history of the rectories and vicarages of Tradraighe is anything to go by, the clerics who controlled the churches were first and foremost clansmen of a local sept, and clerics representing church interests as a distinct second.

In terms of the condition of the clergy we find that many were described as ‘clerk’ probably indicating that they were received into minor orders and not ordained priests. Occasionally the mandates hint at the types of minor orders that various clerics held. Consider the 1427 mandate to ‘Cornelius Ogriffa’ and his assignment to Kilmaleery vicarage where he had been ‘promoted to the order of acolyte and to other minor orders, to minister therein and be promoted to all holy orders’. [42] Similarly we read in a mandate of 1496 that ‘Donatus Mathei Macnamara’ (Donnchadh mac Mathghamhain Mhic Conmara) was ‘first marked with clerical character by ordinary authority and subsequently dispensed by apostolic authority to be promoted to all orders and to hold a benefice even if it should have cure of souls’. [43] These mandates suggest that clerics were installed under the ordinary authority of the Bishop of Killaloe to perform pastoral functions and be collated to vicarages, but sought the ‘universal ordinary’ authority of the pope for promotion to higher orders. [44]

A survey of the Papal Register also shows that many of the allegations of simony (buying or selling ecclesiastical privileges) [45] and unlawful detainment of vicarages occurred amongst those clerics who held minor orders; minor clerics were more likely to have been driven by secular interests like kinship and patronage. At their level of education we can only guess in the majority of cases, although the mandates shed light on some individuals. In the year 1411 ‘Rory Olonyrgayn’ was assigned the vicarage of Kilnasoolagh and held the high-status post of official-general of the episcopal court of Killaloe. He was noted to have ‘studied canon law for about seven years in places where there is no university’. [46] Knowledge of canon and civil law was a necessity for career ecclesiasts based at the diocesan centre at St Flannans in Killaloe, despite the absence of a university in medieval Ireland. [47]

The control over appointments and the revenue that patronage brought was an enduring theme in the relationship between ecclesiastical administration and the Gaelic chieftains. The Papal Registers highlight various instances of the latter exerting a ‘strong hand’ over benefices and installing clerics with close kinship ties. A mandate of 1434-5 on behalf of Thady, the Bishop of Killaloe, stated that he was hindered by ‘James, bishop in the universal church’ - probably James O’Lonergan of Killaloe [48] – from ‘exercising the administration of his…church of Killaloe, and from taking the fruits [ie. annual revenue] of the episcopal mensa and the vassals and subjects of the said church from obeying him’. [49] Thady alleged that ecclesiasts and laymen, including ‘Mcnamara captain of his nation…and John Meicommead eiusdem nationis Adorendreis [50] … injure him in respect of certain tithes, fruits, possessions etc. of the said mensa’. [51] The mandate is suggestive of the sway Mac Conmara chieftains of east Clare held over the diocesan economy. The mandate hints at the economy of the bishopric with its mensal lands to support the office of bishop through producing foodstuffs, probably farmed by a caste of hereditary ecclesiastical tenants under the stewardship of an erenagh family.

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The Diocesan Economy of Killaloe
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The Mac an Oirchinnigh of Tradraighe