Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical letter to the universal church calling for financial relief and prayers for the hunger-stricken Irish. His appeal made a powerful impact on the Catholic world. Money poured into Dublin, the best-known See, from the church’s worldwide organisation. Especially notable were the relief efforts mounted by Catholics in America and in Europe, particularly France and Italy. This largely unknown Catholic relief work kept thousands alive during the worst periods of An Gorta Mór.
The role of the Catholic clergy in quelling potential disturbances by hungry peasants is stressed. The priests, however, were attacked by the British press and accused of being agents provocateurs in the murder of landlords, notably the murder of Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown House, Co Roscommon, in 1847.
Rome under British pressure – and influence also seemed to take a similar view, much to the anger of several members of the Irish Hierarchy. The opposite of what was alleged was true and in 1848, – the clergy played a prominent role in preventing Smith O’Brien’s rebellion from becoming anything more than a moral gesture.
During this period, the Catholic Hierarchy was divided on a number of issues including repeal of the union and education. Fundamentally, they were split between those who trusted the good intentions of government and those who did not. Because of its internal divisions, the Hierarchy was slow to issue a collective statement on An Gorta Mór. They eventually did so in very strong terms in October 1847 though it had no effect on influencing the government. In 1850 at the Synod of Thurles, the Hierarchy issued a ferocious denunciation of state policy during An Gorta Mór.