"Usury I put down, as the great pivot of all their (the Irish people's) disasters - the main and primary spring that sets on motion the whole machinery of Ireland's calamities."
IN OCTOBER 1819, a priest, summoned to the bedside of a dying parishioner in Ross Carberry, Cork, refused him the last Sacraments unless the man made restitution for his ill deeds. The parishioner had not murdered, stolen, lied, risen in rebellion against the government, worshipped idols or committed adultery. He "retailed his goods, that is, flax seed, worth not more than nine shillings, to the poor, in the Spring, for sowing, and obliged them to pay in Autumn twelve shillings and sixpence; gaining therefore three shillings and sixpence, upon every nine shillings, for six months; or more than seventy-seven per cent. per annum. Though that seed would be certainly of less value at the time of making the payment: for it would not sell at all in the autumn." He raised the price by three shillings and sixpence for allowing them to pay later.
The priest told the man that it was a clear case of usury and one of the mortal sins, not because the percentage was above the legal amount, but because any interest at all was forbidden totally by the Christian faith. "I required of him to remit to all his customers what he gained or would have gained in this manner. He not only complied, but requested, that I would announce this his last will, to the congregation."
The man received absolution and died. For Jeremiah O'Callaghan life would never be the same again. It would be eleven years before he held another parish, eleven years in which he lived at the centre of a storm which carried him from Ireland to Paris, Rome, New York, Montreal, Quebec, England and Vermont. That storm rages with vastly amplified ferocity today and has not abated one bit.
How it came about was that O'Callaghan learnt to his surprise that his Parish priest intimated the affair to his Bishop, William Coppinger of Cloyne and Ross, who suspended Father O'Callaghan and went as far as having the sentence read from the pulpit to Father O'Callaghan's congregation. The sides were set for the battle.
It is an interesting aside that the sums involved, due to the centuries of inflation (itself caused by interest) are so pitifully small. If we go further back to another watershed in the whole sorry history we will find even more pathetically minuscule amounts. William Cobbett, in "A History of the Protestant Reformation" refers to an Act of Parliament enacted in Henry VIII's reign which says, that "no person shall take for beef or porkabove a half-penny, and for mutton or vealabove three-farthings a pound, avoirdupois weight, and less in those places where they be now sold for less." This preamble to the Act continues, in its reference to the four meats: "These being the FOOD OF THE POORER SORT."
But to take the story from the beginning let us sketch something of his background. By his own admission Father Jeremiah O'Callaghan was born in 1780, a year from which, co-incidentally, he dates the momentous changes in Irish society he came to combat almost entirely alone, the spread of the practice of charging interest on loans. Before that year, which marked the death of a Bishop MacKenna, there was unanimity, at least in County Cork, among clergy and the populace, on the prohibition of interest
Definitely the practice was well established in both England and the Continent centuries before the date it took hold in Ireland, even though taxation had long since been exacted from the Irish in order to service the interest on the British National Debt. In a chapter of historical overview in his book "Usury" O'Callaghan mentions about the monarch William III of Orange that he "...mortgaged the taxes for a loan (£1,500,000) in that year, which swelled in the short space of 27 years to thirty millions..." and which in 1824 amounted to some £800,000,000. Of course the Irish debt alone is now over IR£20 bn (written in 1989).
Father O'Callaghan was ordained by Bishop William Coppinger in 1805, serving "ten years mission in the County of Cork from Skibbereen to Charleville and thence to Imakilla ...". He held no particular views on economic matters as they were not yet a major feature of the society nor a subject of controversy. When some debate did arise on the issue, a minor conference of priests was convened in Ross Carberry in 1805 which O'Callaghan attended. There, a frail old cleric armed with lists of quotations from Genesis down to the latest rulings of Canon Law on the abomination of usury, was faced with a rather personable young priest whose argument, which Father O'Callaghan accepted at that point, amounted to "but those were the old days, times have changed, these are modern times....etc, etc". The young priest carried the day and Father O'Callaghan felt that he had actually proved his point.
It was only later, while working in another parish where an older cleric proved, to his satisfaction, that the eternal doctrine of the Church was the prohibition of any interest at all, that he then took up intellectual cudgels over the issue. Writing to Bishop Coppinger, from Newtown-Charleville on 27th of January 1818, he stated his conviction of the prohibition of interest and sought his Bishop's ruling on the case. "The only reply his Lordship condescended to make, was to translate, by the return of the post, Mr. O'C.'s jurisdiction from Newtown to Ross Carberry, in the other end of diocese, ..". He was moved on.
Then came the fateful encounter with the dying merchant and thus began what was to be eleven years of wandering, uncertainty and controversy for the Priest from Cork. He did not realise that he had put his foot in the cow clap, at just the wrong moment in history (is there ever a right moment?). "In June of 1820, I submitted this complaint and accusation (that the Bishop himself took interest on loans) to the most Rev. Doctor Everard, the Metropolitan of the province, but received no reply; he dying soon after; I then appealed to the Primate Archbishop Curtis, who, in a letter, dated Drogheda, March 15 1821, replied that it was not his duty to entertain the subject." Finally Jeremiah O'Callghan wrote, on the 15th August 1822 from Ross Carberry, to Pope Pius VII for a decision. Rome maintained silence for seven months.
Father O'Callaghan, believing in the reputation of the United States as the land of the free, travelled to America on March 2nd 1823 (the year in which Daniel O'Connell formed the Catholic Association to fight elections). The priest was not to know that the history of this new state, just over thirty years old, would be the tale of the snuffing of its dissenter, puritan, Christian spirit by commercialism and banking, a history which the poet Ezra Pound documents all too clearly, if idiosyncratically, in his vast opus of poetical and prose works.
The Priest stayed in New York and Baltimore but was appalled to discover that the Americans were more immersed in interest than the Irish. He was later to write, in 1834, "To New York the very focus of usury, the great emporium of North and South America, flock greedy speculators from all the extensive regions. You would see there Jews, Quakers, Tunkers, Socianins (presumably Christian sects), with nominal Christians prostrate in full devotion to the idol, Mammon; money-changers, bankers, brokers, auctioneers of all hues, climes, and creeds on the alert to hook the simple prey; in Wall Street of that city Satan seems to have fixed his eternal abode."
The highest ecclesiastical authorities in Quebec and Montreal saw eye-to-eye with him on the question of usury but hesitated to give him a job. Perhaps the good Father was a firebrand, the situation delicate and they didn't need someone to rock the boat at that point. There is no doubt that there was something quixotic in the Priest's nature which did not always sit well with the realities of power politics, even religious power politics.
The Vatican had but recently denounced usury in no uncertain terms but was just at the point of coming around to what it regarded as making an accomodation with the inevitable. There was no way of going back on Christian doctrine, established, as Father O'Callaghan proves so ably in his book "Usury: Proof that it is Repugnant to Divine and Ecclesiastical Law and Destructive to Civil Society", in the Old and New Testaments, the sayings of the Church Fathers and Canon Law. It was possible to soft-pedal on the issue, not kick up a stink, be sensible. After all, isn't Christianity the religion of forgiveness and tolerance? So while the good Father found sound statements of doctrine in the letter dated July the 5th 1823, from Pius VII to him, in his recapitulation of the Five Rules of Usury of Benedict XIV "bearing date 1st November 1745 ........ which contain the universal and perpetual doctrine of the Catholic Church on usury" (a clear statement of the prohibition of any interest), no-one went as far as to reprimand his Bishop, reinstate O'Callaghan or find him a new parish.
An accompanying note, from Cardinal Consalvi on behalf of the Holy Office, advised him to submit to his bishop and "If you duly weigh the contents of that letter; if you with docile and humble mind embrace them; if you follow them in every respect, there will be no reason the above-mentioned Prelate could in justice be angry with you on the doctrine of usury. Laying aside, therefore all party spirit and ambitious views, go to the bishop, and profess that you hold all just obedience to him, your lawful superior, in such manner, that you will not at all, either in writing or preaching, inculcate or teach any thing contrary or foreign to these sentences. By this easy and rational mode of proceeding, I hope you will gain from him the grace of reconciliation."
Father O'Callghan immediately inserted both documents in his book which was being printed in its first edition in New York. Returning to Ireland he offered to comply with the ruling to Bishop Coppinger who flatly refused to have anything to do with him. Denied yet again the chance of working as an ordinary parish priest, Father O'Callaghan felt that he had no option but to go to Rome himself. En route he left a copy of his book in the Fleet Street office of William Cobbett. Cobbett admired the book so much that he republished it himself and assigned all profits to the author. Indeed the two men later struck up a warm comradeship and the following year Cobbett employed O'Callaghan as a tutor for his children.
Cobbett wrote, on 31st December 1824, in his "A History of the Protestant Reformation", itself a detailed account of the rise of interest-taking and banking in British, American and world history, "The Rev. Mr. O'Callaghan, in his excellent little work, which I had the honour to republish last winter, and which ought to be read by every man, and especially every young man, in the kingdom, has shown, that the ancient philosophers, the Fathers of the Church, both Testaments, the Canons of the Church, the decision of Popes and Councils, all agree, all declare, that to take money for the use of money is sinful."
Of course Cobbett's book was much beloved in Rome, coming as it did from an Anglican, yet vindicating the Catholic Church most eloquently. Cobbett by his nature was a brave defender of the under-dog, which undoubtedly the Catholic Church in England and Ireland was, after its long imperial history.
Father O'Callaghan arrived in Rome on the 10th December 1824 shortly before Pope Leo XII's opening of the Grand Jubilee of 1825. He presented a copy of his book to the Holy See and asked to be told whether he was right or whether he ought to return to Ireland and accept his Bishop's ruling. The Cardinals wrote to the Bishop asking his version of the case. Bishop Coppinger wrote back denying that he had ever received "any one shilling of interest in the course of his life." Two of the Bishop's agents corroborated his story. However he wrote nothing on the practice of usury or his own position on it, except to defend the practices of the trader whom O'Callaghan originally had refused absolution before repentance and restitution.
That defence consisted of the assertion that the trader was allowed compensation for the risk involved in such a time loan. It is this point that is used today in Catholic Moral Theology. His second reason was even more pragmatic "That the clergy would, by now opposing a deep rooted and general custom, fall into contempt and be despised upon all questions." Here speaks the voice of a priesthood with its back to the wall, threatened by the emergence of an epoch it did not fully understand, content that the flock should lead the shepherd.
O'Callaghan did not achieve his goals in Rome and set out for home in May 1825, paying the fare by selling some of his linen.
He visited Rome again four years later on 29th April 1829, offering to allow his parishioners to practice legal interest, "that is to say, the interest allowed by human laws for money loans," provided the Sacred Congregation said to him that he could "with safe conscience do so." Four days later a Father Boylan told him that the Propaganda had "no disposition to recede on the decisions already given." He could neither go forward nor backwards. The hierarchy would not actively support his lone crusade nor allow him a ruling declaring the taking of interest to be permissible. O'Callaghan left Rome for the last time on the 27th July 1829.
The following year he set sail for New York on the 28th April and there Bishop Fenwick of Boston appointed him to Vermont. In that same year, the new pope, Pius VIII, on the 18 August 1830 reversed the centuries' old ban on usury and ushered in the new age of banking-friendly Catholicism.
The story has a delightful coda, for Jeremiah O'Callaghan, after his eleven years of peregrinations around the planet seeking redress for his wrongs and looking for a parish, found his flock in Burlington, Vermont and committed himself to them with such total devotion that they came to call him "the Apostle of Vermont". Thus, unknown in his native Ireland, he appears with honour among the biographies of his adopted country's citizens. He did not neglect to re-publish his book on usury several times over the years - in 1834 and 1856, this last including an account of President Jackson's war against the second United States' Bank (more properly a war for control of the bank). He also turned his hand in with a few pamphlets on other matters but never straying very far from the affair which had so turned his life around.
The good priest fought over an issue which, because of the moving of the goal posts, seems now almost quaintly archaic. Indeed O'Callaghan's own writings, in this context, are bibical and ecclesiastical in extremis and fall uneasily on modern ears. For example, how redolent the term usury itself is with hook-nosed Shylocks slinking out of the ghetto to extract extortionate interest out of gullible gentiles and innocent goyim. How horrified we are at the anti-semitism lurking beneath the concept. How glad we are to be in this modern, more civilised age. How we deplore illegal and usurious Gombeen men, last sleazy remnants of an almost extinct species, charging their exorbitant rates to un-employed council tenants.
It is vital to understand however that O'Callaghan did not fight against a usurious 54%, for example, but against usury per se - the charging of interest at all. The Protestant reformer Calvin, in his naivety, had allowed in various cases, hedged around with restrictions and qualifications, 4%. He had opened a door, unwittingly perhaps, which humanity (first capitalists, then you and I, with our deposit accounts etc) proceeded to drive the proverbial horse and cart through. This transition, from an age when any interest at all was forbidden, to an age when excessive interest was frowned upon ("Where is Calvin's mild 4% nowadays?" housebuyers and South Americans might well ask) is concealed in our dictionaries, in which usury is generally defined as excessive or extortionate interest. One volume, however, preserves the original definition - "the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology". It says "Usury lending money at interest," and mentions nothing of excessive, exorbitant or exortionate at all.
His words on Ireland reflect a deep awareness of the roles of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Cromwell and William III of Orange in both, the emergence of money-lending from the underside of society to centre stage drama, and the Irish nation's terrible afflictions:
"Usury I put down, as the great pivot of all their (the Irish people's) disasters - the main and primary spring that sets on motion the whole machinery of Ireland's calamities."
Sad to say it is an awareness far from the minds of Irish nationalists. Father O'Callaghan sums up, quite astutely, the reasons why he was seen as obscurantist. "Catholic citizens murmured, that the prevention of interest exposed themselves to great disadvantages in the scale of society, with regard to the Protestants, whose religion was more accomodating than theirs." Opposition to usury was perceived as fuddy-duddy traditionalism standing in the path of a dynamic commercial society which was everywhere pushing back the frontiers, pressing on to new scientific discoveries, inventions and industries, new colonies, everywhere bigger and better vistas, new horizons.
He died in 1861 having lead the relatively secure existence of a parish priest for the last twenty-five years of his long life. It is to Father Jeremiah O'Callaghan's credit that he was able, in the end, to live his life fully, becoming much beloved of the ordinary people of Vermont, belying cynics' attempts in anyway to imply that he was merely a controversialist.
That might have been that, if it had not been that a group of people from Scotland, Ireland, England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Denmark, USA, South Africa, Malaysia, and Mexico, etc., became Muslims and discovered the rich Islamic teachings on the prohibition of usury, but more significantly on the correct definitions of usury and a practical non-usurious model of trade and living. For details of that see: the Open Trade Network.