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Good Words 1860
Reminiscences of Mission-Work in Ireland


BY AN IRISH RECTOR.

NO. I.—MARY M'DONNELL's FUNERAL.

I DO not defend the strong and harsh language which many injudicious Protestants have sometimes used in writing on the Roman Catholic controversy, or in dealing with Roman Catholics themselves. Yet in one, who for thirty years has had the best opportunities of knowing thoroughly the practical working of Romanism among the peasantry of Ireland, and the depth of ignorance, and gross, miserable superstition by which a warm-hearted and most lovable people have been enslaved, it is not easy to keep without the limits of that wrath which assuredly worketh not the righteousness of God. The fact is, the people of England and Scotland know little of the real spirit of Romanism as it manifests itself in the more remote parts of Ireland, which for centuries have been wholly given up to the influence of the priesthood. They know less of Ireland than of most countries on the continent of Europe. What many know of Romanism is only from books written for sentimental and ignorant Protestants. And thus the language used by the most truthful and devoted missionaries, who have literally hazarded their lives to deliver their countrymen from the bondage which once crushed themselves, has been considered by good and just men on the other side of the channel as exaggerated, and the mere outbreak of fanaticism and sectarian bigotry, rather than the righteous expression of those who mourn over the loss of the true and right when contemplating the false and the wrong, and who, loving their neighbours as themselves, mourn over the poor travellers, wounded and left half-dead. And thus a sympathy is often expressed towards Roman Catholic priests and their violent adherents, as if they were ill-used men, while it is withheld from those who, amidst overwhelming difficulties, have dared, in this land of Christian liberty, to read God's Word, to exercise their personal responsibility as men, to become acquainted with their Father and Saviour, and to enjoy peace and spiritual freedom from seeing and knowing the truth with their own spirits, disciplined by the living Spirit of God. It is my intention to give a series of sketches in Good Words, from pages in my old notebook, illustrative of Irish missionary labour; and I can assure my readers that not one fact will be stated which is not accurately correct, and characteristic of Irish life, and which, if necessary, I am not willing to defend against any who may call in question my statements in their most minute particulars.

As illustrative of the treatment which some converts may receive from their bigoted countrymen, let me now tell you the story of Mary M'Donnell's Funeral.

Among the many efforts for the spiritual benefit of my Romish countrymen, there is a society, called the Islands and Coasts Society, labouring very unobtrusively for many years. Its objects are the most uncivilised and benighted portions of the population, situated on the remote islands, and along the coasts; and I can bear personal testimony that God has blessed it, not only in introducing civilisation, improved habits, and education into many a desolate place, neglected by all others, but also in bringing many of the population to the light of life.

John M'Donnell was an intelligent young man, who taught a Roman Catholic school on one of these wild western islands, and who, by intercourse with one of this society's Scripture-readers, was brought to the knowledge of the truth; and he again was instrumental in teaching it to his wife and family, who became true Christians. They suffered very much from persecution, and the privations consequent upon immediate loss of employment, so that, with his young family, he had to leave his native home; but having been well tried and proved, and being found duly qualified, he was subsequently employed as Protestant schoolmaster in a distant post. After four years, his wife, the companion of his toil and troubles, the joint-partaker of his precious faith, was taken very ill, and, through the kindness of a Christian lady, removed to Dublin, where a physician pronounced her in the last stage of consumption, from which he could hold out no hope of recovery. On discovering this, she expressed the greatest wish to return to her native island; she would be laid in the grave of her fathers, and mingle with the dust of her kindred. This is a feeling very strong in the breast of the Irish peasantry; and, whatever philosophy may have to say about it, I believe it is a good nurse of kindly affections. I so thoroughly sympathise with it, that I once paid the hire of an ass, when the parish vestry refused to do it, to take the body of a deceased pauper, at the request of his pauper wife, thirty miles across the country, to lay his bones beside the bones of his own people. Mary M'Donnell anxiously desired to be buried in the old churchyard, not only from love to her kindred, but also to testify, on her dying bed, to her bright hope in the gospel, and the sincerity of her profession of the Protestant faith, so oft denied by her friends and neighbours, and whose opinions she could not disregard, though removed from their reach for evermore. The strength of this desire to die vindicated from unjust reproach, on the part of persecuted converts, can only be estimated by those who know their feelings by having shared them. Their friends and neighbours try to persuade themselves and others that they are hypocrites, and that at the hour of death they will call for the priest to anoint them; for they hold the maxim true, that, however men may live, no man is willing to die a hypocrite. There is nothing a sincere convert more anxiously looks for at the hour of death, than the opportunity to witness to the truth in which he lived, and to wipe out from his memory the odium attached to hypocrisy. This feeling is right. But a serious difficulty here presented itself. She was very near her end, very feeble, and one hundred and seventy miles from home; but she undertook it, and her husband conducted her by canal and car. When she arrived within thirty miles of her journey's end, her strength was exhausted, and the time of her departure was evidently at hand. Her neighbours heard of her landing, and of the state of her health, and very many went, with a zeal worthy of a better cause, to meet her. They entreated her, up to the last moment, they intimidated her, to have the priest sent for before she died. She told them in feeble accents, but unshaken faith, of her great High Priest over the house of God—that He died for her iniquity, that His blood cleanses from all sin, that through Him she could come boldly to the throne of grace, that He is able to save to the uttermost, that she needed and would have no other, and above all things, had sought, and thanked God for having found the opportunity of proving that this was the conviction in which she had lived, and was prepared to die. There was no doubt, then, of her sincerity, but it gave more deadly offence than her supposed hypocrisy. She had despised priestly absolution, oil, tow, candle-light, holy water, and the rest of it. The harbour was above a mile from the next friendly house; her neighbours and relatives refused her admission; the husband, after some time, found three honest Protestant men, and the four formed a sad procession, bearing the dying woman on their shoulders to the house of one of them, and, sad to tell, followed by a large crowd of men, women, and children shouting and execrating them the whole way. Her relatives had, however, free access to her, and visited her several times, hoping to work upon her fears and her weakness; but God sustained her, and she was firm and faithful. She yielded up her soul to Jesus very early the following Sabbath morning. On that very day, at the mass, the priest spoke in awful terms of her death, and of her intention to be buried in the graveyard which was esteemed holy, and where thousands of red rags tied on the bushes bear testimony to the multitudes of pilgrims who flock from all parts to "the saints' bed" for the cure of diseases, the removal of spells, for penances, and for pardons. I am ashamed to repeat the language used that day, reported to me by one of the congregation. Most of the congregation proceeded from the chapel direct, surrounded the house where the body lay, and spent the rest of the day in shouting, so that nothing could well be heard in the uproar. The Roman Catholic magistrate, himself present in the mass-house, sent a messenger to say he would attend the funeral next day with a police force, but that it could not take place in the burial-ground named without danger of bloodshed; so it was agreed to bury her in another graveyard, less sacred in their estimation, seven miles distant from her fathers' grave, for which she had travelled so far; thither she was borne on the shoulders of the few Protestants who dared to perform this last service, and escorted by the magistrate and police in front, and by the coast-guard officer and his men in the rear, to protect the living and the dead from the crowds of excited people; and she was buried at the point of the bayonet, amid shouting and yelling, in a little quiet sandy place near the harbour at which she had landed a few days before. Her body was not allowed to rest there till the morning of the resurrection. On that very night it was torn up from the grave, and, with its coffin, rolled on the sand beyond the precincts of what was considered the consecrated ground. I have it from the lips of one of the most faithful I ever knew of God's people—Captain Forbes, since removed to his rest—that the priest, on being questioned afterwards, in his presence, as to his part in the transaction, avowed it before several, with expressions which I must not name. This fact—an aggravated, grievous, and I rejoice to add, in its enormity, an unusual one—exhibits the nature of the ordeal through which converts have to pass, and of which I shall have to give many other illustrations. It is not too much to ask that Christian men who read this statement will lift up their hearts in prayer to God that He would raise my countrymen from this low estate of cruel superstition.

(To be continued.)


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