The establishment of Killarney as the diocesan capital of Kerry, in succession to Ardfert, dates from the eighteenth century and the patronage of Lord Kenmare, the Catholic magnate who had preserved the ancestral estates intact through the centuries of turmoil. Killarney meant a move to the Gaelic south of the county, away from the Anglo-Norman north, to the protection of the family whose support for the policies of the Confederation of Kilkenny (mainly peace with Ormond) signified religious moderation and political compromise. The actions of Bishop Nicholas Madgett and his eighteenth-century successors reflected compromise with the government of the Hanoverian (Georgian) state, a distancing of the Catholic position from the exiled monarchy of the Stuarts whose prospects of a return to the throne of England seemed more and more remote as the century advanced.
Back in the 1660s, Lord Orrery, President of Munster, was concerned at the continued presence of the priests. Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland in 1649-50, and that of his lieutenants when he departed, was a ruthless one, and there were many martyrs from among the priests and prelates. Orrery (as plain Lord Broghill) was one of Cromwell’s leading lieutenants. Now Charles II was on the throne, and Orrery wrote the following:
“I have several complaints this week from divers parts of this province, of the great insolency the popish clergy are suddenly grown unto. They have lately set up several schools, which the Jesuits publickly teach in. Though I know they are the best school masters in the world, yet it is to be doubted they teach their scholars more than their books, and imbue them with ill principles.”
(Orrery, Charleville, to Ormond, 19 October 1666, in George Faulkiner, A Collection of the State Letters of the Right Honourable Roger Boyle the first Earl of Ormond, Lord President of Munster in Ireland, 2 vols. 1743, vol. 2, p. 74)
In the eighteenth century the penal laws against Catholics provided for the exclusion of Catholics from the franchise and from Parliament, and the registration of Catholic priests. However, even before the Catholic vote became a factor in the Kerry elections, which it did when Catholics were admitted to the franchise by the relief Act of 1793, and long before the triumphant election of Daniel O’Connell in Clare in 1828 necessitated an alteration in the law which barred a Catholic from sitting in Parliament, the priests were keeping a low profile and organising the church against the day when they could minister openly among the people.
If it is really the case that during the reign of George II Lord Kenmare (Browne), a Catholic, had the right to nominate the parish priest of Killarney and Kilcummin, and that he also enjoyed the right of presentation to the Protestant parishes of Killarney and Hospital (Co. Limerick), then Kerry’s situation under the Penal Laws is indeed unique. Bear in mind that Lord Kenmare, whose estate centred on Killarney, was one of the the two biggest landed magnates in Kerry. The other was Shelburne/Lansdowne in south Kerry. Charles Smith’s History of Kerry (1756) gives Lord Kenmare his due importance, but he could have emphasised that since the 1740s there were important pro-Catholic family representatives sitting for Kerry or its boroughs in the Irish Parliament. Foremost among these were Robert FitzGerald, MP for Dingle, and John FitzMaurice, MP for Kerry who assumed the Shelburne title in 1751 and changed his name to Petty to succeed to the title and estates. Of Robert FitzGerald and his activities on behalf of the Catholics during the reign of George II there is ample evidence in the Stuart Papers, and he was still in Parliament for the reign of George III when the first relief legislation was passed, FitzGerald taking a leading role in it. During the reign of George II FitzGerald had a hand in nominating Catholic bishops, such as MacMahon, the bishop of Killaloe: FitzGerald was related to the MacMahons and corresponded with them in Europe. We know less about John FitzMaurice, except that his family’s background was Jacobite and before that partizans of the earl of Desmond at the time of the overthrow of the Desmond palatinate during the reugb of Elizabeth. Ostensibly this all changed when John’s father Thomas married the daughter of Sir William Petty in 1692 and Thomas was raised to the earldom of Kerry in 1724; John’s son, Whig Prime Minister William Petty of 1782, was favourable to Catholic advancement and earned himself the sobriquet “the Jesuit of Berkeley Square” for his secretive manner and the minority course he furrowed in politics. If we remember the conditions in Kerry during the time of George II, we feel we understand him well. Bishop Magett was in office when historian Smith came to Kerry, and Smith made reference to those thatched chapels where Catholics convened for Mass. They were evidence more of poverty than persecution as Catholics enjoyed relative freedom to worship. Bishop Magett made the most of it, proceeding quietly to reconstitute the church along lines approved by the Council of Trent and stamp out superstition .