Some would be inclined to believe that Catholics are natural enemies of the Union. After all, from the time of the Protestant Revolt, those who lived in the territories now making up The United Kingdom found themselves persecuted and marginalized for clinging to their faith. The Act of Settlement and The Act of Union included all sorts of anti-“Papist” clauses, and many Catholics felt rightly threatened by this new “British” identity and sided with the Catholic Stuarts in their repeated attempts to reclaim the throne and restore the independence of the individual kingdoms.
That having been said, as time progressed, many Catholics began to realize that there were benefits of being a part of the new Union and sought to find their place within it. One larger-than-life example of this was an extraordinary man from the Scottish Highlands who set out to prove that Catholicism and Britishness really could intertwine to change the world for the better and create a unique sub-culture that is alive and well in Britain today. His story should also have particular interest for Catholic Unionists when confronted with Nationalist historical spin.
Fr. Alexander MacDonell, later Bishop of Kingston, Ontario, was born to a lower-to-middle class Catholic family near Inverness in 1762. As a young man, he studied to become a priest in Europe and was ordained in 1787. One interesting occurrence in this period of his life took place when a group of French Revolutionaries stormed the seminary he was attending and tried to force MacDonell to dance around a liberty pole. Being a staunch royalist by nature, he feigned lameness so he could escape the indignity.
He returned to his native land as an outlaw "priest of the heather", enduring the harsh climate of living outdoors in the Scottish Highlands and subsisting off meager rations in order to minister to his flock. During the Highland Clearances, he boldly tempted fate by leading his clan into Glasgow in search of work and refusing to leave them after they had found it. He even said mass in a building with no guards posted, allowing Protestants to come and watch at will. Considering that this was only a few years after the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots and other fanatical mob attacks throughout British cities, the man obviously had guts.
Eventually, he petitioned King George III to allow him to raise a regiment comprised of Catholic Highlanders to serve in the British army. The king and the priest probably would have found that they had a lot in common if they ever met. Both were very religious; both were fiercely against revolutions; both saw duty as one of the foremost principles that guided their lives; both loved the military.
But George believed, with woeful narrow-mindedness, that Catholicism was fundamentally opposed to the interests of the Crown and the British state, and continually opposed movements to put his Catholic subjects on equal footing with his Protestant ones. Nevertheless, George was capable of showing favor to individual Catholics, and by hook or crook, Fr. MacDonell’s request to raise a Catholic regiment for the British army was granted. The determined priest even got the go ahead to serve as the chaplain for the regiment, officially called “The Glengarry Fencibles”.
During their service in Ireland during the Rising of 1798, they were one of the few regiments to come out of the war with no war crime charges, thanks in great part to Fr. MacDonell’s insistence on accompanying them on the battlefield. He would encourage the terrified Irish civilians to come out of hiding so he could say mass for them, and he made sure that the wounded rebels were cared for by British surgeons. He was very much a Unionist, and saw the great potential that a united Britain and Ireland could achieve, providing that the deep-seated anti-Catholicism ingrained in the British Isles could be overcome.
When the regiment was later disbanded, MacDonell approached the government and sought compensations for his clansmen in the form of a land grant in one of the British colonies overseas. Ungratefully, the officials tried to pawn off some poor property in the mosquito-infested West Indies. MacDonell was not impressed, and continued to petition for land elsewhere. Finally, they were given land in the territory of Upper Canada and made their homes in what is now Ontario. The chaplain continued to serve as a tireless spiritual shepherd, traveling long distances by horse and canoe to visit the scattered settlements and Indian villages. Since he spoke their native Gaelic and English, he was often used as the collective voice for his people.
When the War of 1812 broke out and Canada was threatened by an America invasion, the Glengarries were reformed to combat the assault. Once again, MacDonell was always in the heat of the action, proudly proclaiming that all the men of his clan were either “priests or soldiers.” A strapping, tall man with a booming voice, he seemed every bit a man-of-the-cloth and a man-of-the-sword. He made great strides in ecumenism in the region, working alongside Anglicans and Presbyterians as comrades-in-arms and making lasting friendship with Protestant clergymen. Some of his connections were even members of the Orange Order who learned to overcome their prejudices through interaction with the soldier-priest.
After the war, MacDonell was eventually raised to the position of Bishop of Kingston and enjoyed his years of retirement by participating in the creation of a local Tartan Society to preserve traditional Gaelic culture. Again showing his Unionist sentiment, the society changed its meeting date from the anniversary of Bannockburn to the anniversary of Waterloo to promote unity and own up to the realization that Napoleon had been more of a threat to the free world then Edward II ever had been. In commemoration of his countless services to British and Canada alike, King George IV sent Bishop MacDonell a ring which he proudly wore as a badge of honor. It was a symbol that Catholicism in Britain and her Empire had come a long way.
In conclusion, Catholicism and Britishness have often had a tense relationship, but also a dynamic one that brought out the best in both. Catholics have provided some of the most loyal citizens Britain has had, and it certainly would not be incongruent for us to continue to have attachments to her now, on the eve of a referendum that will decide her future as a nation. Of course, whatever political changes happen in the British Isles, the Catholic Church will continue to minister to the souls of the inhabitants. That is our strength; we are adaptable. Like Bishop MacDonell, I can say, first and foremost, that my mission is evangelism. Also like him, I can see very clearly the worthy aspects of the British identity and the connectivity between faith and patriotism.
So to my fellow Catholics in the UK: be patriots and flourish where you are planted. Love your country, who you have given so much to and gained so much from. You have come to far too turn back now. Help hold her together, not tear her apart. Pray for wisdom before you cast your vote.
(A version of this article appeared in “Open Unionism”: http://www.openunionism.com/regnum-defensores-alexander-macdonells-catholics-for-king-and-country/)
|Bishop Alexander MacDonell, "Regnum Defensor"|