Patron Saint of Atheists?

This is the story of a man who became patron saint of two different places in Ireland – but is also considered the patron saint of atheists.

Wait – what? Atheists have a patron saint? Isn’t that like a complete oxymoron?

I think I’d better get on with the story. When we were in Lismore recently I visited the enormous and architecturally-interesting Catholic church called, (like the Church of Ireland Cathedral down the road) after St Carthage (AKA Mochuda or Mochua). In this church there is an impressive rose window, which I decided to feature on our Facebook page the other day. In doing so, I found I had to decipher the names of the saints, in an ancient script around their haloes. All of them were familiar to me except one – St Otteran. My quest to find out more about him led me to this story.

The Saints of Ireland, from top left, Patrick, Bridget, Declan, Dympna, Mochuda, Attracta, Otteran, Ita. I love that there is an equal number of male and female saints, even if the depiction is not very imaginative

Otteran is also spelled as Odhrán or Oran – I will use Oran for simplicity for the rest of this post. According to some accounts he was born in Britain, but his monastic career was first noted when he was an Abbot in Meath. However, he is revered in Tipperary where he established a monastic settlement and is honoured today as patron saint of the Silvermines Parish. There is a ruined church and a holy well dedicated to him in Latteragh, near Nenagh. See this lovely post about his church and holy well from our friend The Tipperary Antiquarian. He lived there for 40 years, therefore he must have been aged already when he went with St Columba (AKA Columcille) to Iona.

Photo courtesy of The Tipperary Antiquarian

St Columba voluntarily banished himself to Iona in 563 when he lost a judgement over a plagiarism incident. He took 12 disciples with him, Otteran being the oldest and therefore the first to die. 

Columba blesses Derry as he prepares to depart from Iona – from a large stained glass window in St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

Columba went to visit him on his sick bed and that night he had a dream of two warring angels – a good angel and a bad angel, fighting over Otteran’s soul. Sure enough, he died the next day, and was the first person to be buried on the island.

St Oran’s Cross, believed to be from the 8th century has recently been restored (story here)

A small church with a wonderful Romanesque doorway is dedicated to him, but more importantly, the graveyard that eventually grew up around it was called Reilig Oran.

This image, and the one below, has been borrowed  with thanks (I hope she doesn’t mind) from a lovely Blog called Flickering Lamps. This post is “Rèilig Odhrain, the ancient cemetery on the edge of the world”

Iona, located as it was on the extreme West coast of Scotland, was in those days a major stop along the marine highway. Irish, British, Scottish and Norse and Danish ships stopped. The Vikings did more than stop by – they sacked the monastery on two occasions, murdering the monks at a site afterwards called Martyr’s Bay.

Sráid nam Marbh is the Street of the Dead. It is a Medieval paved road (very rare) leading from the Bay of Martyrs (the Vikings did it) to the Reilig

As the fame of Columba and his monastic settlement grew, the Island acquired a mystical reputation as a preferred place to be buried. According to tradition, 48 kings are buried there, including MacBeth and Duncan –  kings of France, Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

This image, of grave slabs taken inside for safekeeping, is from the official Historic Environment Scotland page 

The Scots eventually surrendered the island to Magnus, King of Norway in 1098 and the Norse Vikings continued to transport their kings to Iona for burial at Reilig Odhráin from all over their territory.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

And their territory was vast, and included several settlements in Ireland – Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all started off as Viking sea-ports. In Waterford, honouring the burial place of their ancestors, the Vikings chose St Oran as the patron of their city. Thus, an Irish man who had never set foot in Waterford became one of its revered icons. Later, he also become patron of the diocese, along with Carthage of Lismore and of course St Declan of Ardmore. And don’t forget, he was already the Patron Saint of the Silvermines area in Tipperary.

Waterford celebrates its Viking and Norman heritage

But I said he is also the Patron Saint of Atheists – how could that have happened? Well, mainly it’s because there are two different stories about how he died on Iona, and it’s the second one that’s part of true Hebridean lore.

Image courtesy of A Tribute to Alexander Ritchie 

When Columba arrived he set about building a church. But the builders became very frustrated because every morning when they arrived on site what they had built the day before had been knocked down. Columba prayed a mighty prayer and the answer came to him – what was required was a ‘foundation sacrifice’ – that means a human had to be buried alive under the church. According to some accounts, Oran was in fact Columba’s son, and Columba felt, therefore, he would be the most powerful sacrifice. According to others, Oran actually stepped forward and offered himself, in the assurance that this guaranteed his place in heaven.

Image courtesy of St Barnabas Orthodox Mission Kenya

He was buried and the church walls stayed up. However, three days later, while the monks were at prayer in the church, he arose, poked his head up and announced that he had seen what was on the other side. God is not as we imagine him, he said, There is no hell, and, while he was at it, nothing like heaven either. St Columba was horrified and ordered that earth be heaped on him to keep him down. There is even a Hebridean saying Uir, Uir, air suil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh, which translates as Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab. More succinctly, an old Irish saying, apparently, is to say Throw mud in the mouth of St. Oran, when somebody is uttering uncomfortable truths.

St Columba as a monk (right) along with Patrick and Bridget, from St Mary’s Catholic church in Ballinrobe. Columba is usually shown with a book, since he is so strongly associated with the story of the copied manuscript. This window is by the Harry Clarke Studios

St Oran’s body, according to tradition, is still under the foundations. Or maybe not – another version has it that Columba had him reburied in consecrated ground and that once that was done he troubled them no more with his blabbing of the secrets of the next world. That consecrated ground became St Oran’s Graveyard – this ensuring his immortality in Waterford at least, if not in heaven.

Images from the Kickstarter Page (this one and the final GIF) for the movie The Grave of St Oran by Jim Blatt, based on Neil Gaiman’s poem

It turns out I am far from the only one who finds this tale, and its various nuances fascinating. None other than Neil Gaiman has written a poem, In Reilig Oran.

Neil Gaiman’s poem – a signed print is available here

And now that poem has been made into a stop-motion animation by Jim Batt, called The Grave of St Oran. The kickstarter campaign page will give you an idea what it will be like – and apparently it’s finished but I can find out nothing more about it. So look out for it coming at some point to a screen near you. This GIF is offered as a teaser on their project page (see link above). It depicts St Oran gazing out to sea – perhaps he is contemplating the decision he is about to make.

There are so many layers in this story, so many familiar tropes of mythology, heroic tales and biblical stories, but I don’t believe I have ever heard one quite like this before. Pointing out that none of this story made it into the Life of St Columba by Adamnán, The Blogger Nihil Obstat puts it this way in his post The Silencing of St OranThe moral of this story is the same 15 centuries later. If even the most devoted follower of the faith reveals a revelation not in support of the preached version they are quickly silenced. And saints have their ugly or suspect  actions edited out of their official biographies.

A high status individual is buried in St Oran’s Graveyard

Among the many feelings it’s left me with, though, is a strong desire to visit Iona. Future post!

Harry Clarke, Egerton Coghill and the St Luke Window in Castletownshend

Remarkably, there are three Harry Clarke stained glass windows in one small West Cork village – in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church, in Castletownshend. The smallest of the three windows is the St Luke, inset into the south wall of the chancel. It is a miniature masterpiece, designed with extraordinary attention to detail by Harry, and executed in his studio.

Egerton Coghill, left, with his painting companion Herbert Baxter*

The iconography that was chosen was specific to the subject – St Luke as Patron Saint of Painters. That’s because this was a memorial window to Egerton Coghill – more correctly Sir Egerton Bushe Coghill, 5th Baronet Coghill. Egerton had grown up in Castletownshend, one of a large family of Coghills who lived in a rambling house called Glen Barrahane, and who seemed to be related in multiple ways to all the other families who lived in and around Castletownshend. His father (Sir John Jocelyn, one of Ireland’s earliest photographers) was the brother of Adelaide, who had married Thomas Henry Somerville, mother of the Somerville family that included (among others) Edith (see Stories and Stained Glass), Boyle (see Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer and Boyle’s Bealtaine), and Hildegard. Hildegard eventually married Egerton, her first cousin. To Edith and Boyle, therefore, Egerton was both first cousin and brother-in-law.

To Edith he was also a childhood playmate, a best friend and a great supporter and artistic mentor. In periods of distress for her he encouraged her to concentrate on her work – first art and then writing, and he loaned her money when the going got tough. Everyone loved him, it seems. He gave up a career in engineering to devote himself to painting and his limited private means allowed him to study abroad. When he and Hildegard fell in love their families were delighted, but they had to wait seven years to be able to afford to marry.

Egerton and Hildegard on their wedding day

As a painter, Egerton was strongly influenced by the Impressionists. He painted en plein air, drawn to landscape and to muted colours. He loved to capture the scenery around Castletownshend, or the village itself, as in this charming depiction of the main street.

The Mall from Malmaison (Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum)

He was accomplished and well-known in his day, exhibiting widely and selling well. A scholarship at Oxford, for landscape painting, is named in his honour. Now, he seems to have faded from memory, and images of his paintings are hard to find online.

Field of Rye, Barbizon (Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum)

Egerton’s older brother, Neville, was killed at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars – Robert has developed a talk on West Cork Links to the Zulu Wars and will no doubt write a post about Neville eventually. One of the windows in St Barrahane’s (not a Harry Clarke) is dedicated to his memory. When Neville died, Egerton inherited the title and moved back permanently to Castletownshend with Hildegard and his children. Egerton himself died unexpectedly in England in 1921 during the upheavals caused by the War of Independence at home in Ireland, so it was some time before his body could be brought back to St Barrahane’s for burial. According to Edith, The whole country came to the funeral, and all the men competed for the privilege of putting a shoulder to the coffin, for even a few steps.

When Edith and Hildegard were able to consider a permanent memorial for their beloved Egerton it was naturally to Harry Clarke that they turned. Edith had been entranced immediately by Harry’s work when she travelled up to Cork, on the advice of her brother Cameron, in 1916 to view the windows in the Honan Chapel. She wrote to Cameron afterwards to thank him. She was nothing short of stunned by Harry’s windows and “the quality of burning and furious brilliance that I have never seen anywhere else. . . his windows have a kind of hellish splendour”.

Edith in her Master of the Foxhounds habit, about the age she was when Egerton died

Since then, Edith had worked with Harry to install the Nativity window in 1918 (it was his first public commission) as a memorial to her grandparents, and again in 1921 on the Kendall Coghill window (Egerton’s bachelor-soldier uncle and a universal family favourite) about which I wrote in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. She now asked him to take on this new commission, and Harry, who had known and liked Egerton, promised to pay special attention to this project.

St Luke, Patron Saint of Painters, is depicted with a palette and brushes, with the Madonna’s face appearing on the palette

The design he came up with is exquisite, and every detail is important. St Luke, perhaps better known to most of us as one of the four gospel writers, is also the Patron Saint of Painters. This is based on the tradition that he painted the first image of Mary, and that image became an early Christian icon. In Harry’s design, Luke holds a painter’s palette and brushes, and the image of Mary appears like a ghostly presence on the palette.

Luke, with St Cecelia to the left and St John, holding a chalice, to the right

Luke himself is a typical Harry creation, with his huge eyes, forked beard, and expression full of compassion. His right hand, with long tapered fingers and a sleeve point (Harry loved those), holds a brush. His hat and garments are elaborately rendered in blue, scarlet and purple. His sandals, thong style, are complex twists of leather straps.

Besides the Luke and the Madonna images, there are four other sacred figures in the window. One of the unique joys of this window is that you can get close enough to it to see these tiny figures clearly, since it is at eye level (it helps to be tall). The first, on the left side of the window is St Fidelio, dressed as a bishop (below). I have been unable to find any information at all about St Fidelio, but obviously this saint had some meaning to Egerton, or to the Somerville sisters, or perhaps it was a reference to Egerton’s faithfulness. However, it could, like St Cecilia, be another musical reference, to Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. In fact, most of the figures appear to relate to secular aspects of Egerton’s life, while thinly disguised as the kind of saintly images suitable for a church window. I can almost hear Harry, Edith and Hildegard chuckling over the choices, knowing that Egerton, who had his full share of boisterous Coghill humour, would thoroughly approve of the coded messages.

To the left of Luke’s shoulder is St Cecilia. Egerton loved music, had a fine voice, and performed happily in the musical theatre that was a staple of family life within the Castletownshend circle. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favourite. But this is also a nod to Edith – Cecilia is shown playing an organ while the organ that Edith played for over 50 years occupies the loft at the other end of the church.

Finally, at the top of the window, across from each other, are St John and St Barrahane. Barrahane, after whom the church is named (and who is pictured also in the nativity window) is the local saint, and the Coghill house was called Glen Barrahane in deference to that tradition. The tonsured monk is holding up a church (below). John was both his father’s and his grandfather’s (Baron Plunkett) name.

Egerton’s coat of arms, the dedication plaque, and Harry’s signature round out the window.

At this time, the Harry Clarke Studio was experiencing enormous demand for his work. To satisfy this demand he employed a group of highly talented artists and craftsmen, all of whom were trained to faithfully execute his designs, with Harry supervising closely. Thus it was with this window – most of it in fact was made while Harry was out of the country. The fact that he did not personally do most of the etching, staining and painting on this window does not in any way detract from its identification as a true Harry Clarke window – in every meaningful sense this was his creation and his signature indicates that he took full credit for the final product.

If you go to St Barrahane’s, make sure that you open the gate in the altar rails and go right up to the little window in the chancel. People have been known to miss it. It’s a unique opportunity to get nose-to-nose with a Harry Clarke. And when you do, spare a kind thought also for Egerton, a fellow artist, beloved by all who knew him, and honoured in this exquisite work of art.

*The four black and White photographs are from Edith Somerville: A Biography, by Gifford Lewis. I could find no copyright information on them so am assuming they are available for use, with gratitude to the author and publisher, Four Courts Press

How Well Do You Know West Cork?

1 Where was this taken?

We started a series this year on our Facebook Page that has proven to be very popular. We post a photograph of West Cork and ask our Friends if they can identify the place. It turns out that it is really hard to stump West Cork folk!

2 You know we love colourful houses, and this juxtaposition of green and pink is particularly eye-catching. Where would you see it?

So we thought we’d give our non-Facebooking readers a crack at this too. Of course, many of you are not from West Cork, so this is a post you can just sit back and enjoy.

3 This is a cross roads that’s made for dancing!

Some of the photos have featured in our posts, like the one above where Robert and I joined in the dancing at the crossroads. You may remember that post, although it was a while ago.

4 The statue is gazing down at a holy well site – but which one?

And where would we be without a holy well photograph, having shared so many of our adventures over the last few years with Amanda and Peter of Holy Wells of Cork? Amanda is nearing the end of her journey to visit every Cork well now, but is still managing to uncover all kinds of fascinating stuff about the wells she catalogues.

5 This is a wonderful ancient monument – do you know which one it is?

Archaeology has to feature, naturally, as it’s an ongoing preoccupation of ours. West Cork is rich in ancient sites and we have visited and written about so many of them, including the one above.

6 Taken from an iconic vantage point – can you identify it?

And you’re on the right track if you keep thinking ‘archaeology’ for the photograph above. This is a site you may have visited, even if you don’t live here full time.

7 A river runs through it – but where is this?

We aren’t used to looking at this side of the bridge above. In fact, you may not even know this is a bridge. Chances are, if you’ve been in West Cork, you’ve driven over and past this numerous times.

8 A lovely farm house in a remote valley. Recognise it?

Mount Gabriel seems to pop up in many of our photographs, probably because it is so prominent on the landscape. And so it is in the one above – see the air traffic control domes (it may help to biggify)? But I’m willing to bet you won’t know where this shot was taken.

9 Which headland is our friend, Susan Byron, on?

I think you might know this one. If you’ve been there, it’s pretty much unforgettable. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in Ireland – and that’s saying something.

10 Close to our hearts

And finally, a photograph of our own view from here at Roaringwater Journal International Headquarters, Nead an Iolair. From it, can you tell where we live, and what we are looking across to in this shot?

Leave your answers, or any comments you might have, in the comments section below, or if you like, on our Facebook page. Good luck, Dear Readers!

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 3, The Protestants – Tithes and the Second Reformation)

While the Church of Ireland was the Established Church in Ireland since the time of Henry VIII, it was not the only Protestant group operating in Ireland. Methodists, in particular, had won many converts since the days when John Wesley himself had come preaching (above). However, like Catholics, breakaway and Dissenter communities were disadvantaged in comparison to the Church of Ireland.

Bandon Methodist Church, established in 1821

This privileged position, while it came with all the advantages conferred by reliable revenues, political power and access to education, was also accompanied by the constant awareness of being a minority, often an unwelcome one, and by the decadence and laxity that generations of wealth can confer.

1864 Map of the Church of Ireland Dioceses

Dr Kenneth Milne, writing in The Church of Ireland: An Illustrated History (Published by Booklink, 2013) describes the situation thusly:

. . . plurality and non-residency came to be regarded as endemic. There is evidence that there were many faithful (and often impecunious) Church of Ireland clergy, but their existence has been somewhat masked by the prevalence of ambition and negligence among many others, particularly of the higher rank.

While it was to the bishops that one would have looked to remedy the situation, they themselves were frequently non-resident, at least for long periods, preferring the amenities of Dublin (or sometimes London and Bath, for most of the more remunerative sees were given by the crown to Englishmen as part of that great web of patronage that lay at the heart of government and was the norm). Such episcopal failings were by no means peculiar to the bishops and other dignitaries of the Church of Ireland, and were common throughout Europe, but what made the Irish episcopate more vulnerable to criticism was its remoteness (in more sense than one) from the great majority of the populations, and the fact that it drew it emoluments, often very considerable indeed, from lands to which its entitlement was often in dispute. In addition, it demanded tithes paid by a resentful population who, be they Roman Catholic or Dissenter, were also encumbered with contributing towards the support of the ministry of the Church to which they gave their fealty.

The Tithe Collector – collectors were employed on behalf of the clergy and were called Proctors. They took a cut, so there was a strong incentive to collect

Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was followed by a period of intensified conflict over tithes, known as the Tithe Wars. (Tithes had been a source of great conflict forever – see Robert’s post for La Tocnaye’s observations about tithes in the 1790s.) A large anti-tithe meeting was held in Skibbereen in July 1832 and the speech made by Father Thomas Barry of Bantry was reported in full. Here are some extracts from it, reported by Richard Butler in his paper St Finbarr’s Catholic Church, Bantry: a history for Volume Three of the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society:

The Rev. Thomas Barry, P. P., in seconding [an anti-Tithe] resolution, announced himself as a mountaineer from Bantry, and was received with a cead mille failthe [sic], which was sufficient to affright all the proctors in the kingdom from their propriety. . . .

But (continued the Rev. Gentleman) . . . If to assist the people in their peaceful and constitutional efforts for the removal of grievances to hear the insolence of power in defence of the poor man’s rights, invariably to inculcate on the minds of my flock the most unhesitating obedience to the laws, and at the same time, to raise my voice boldly and fearlessly against injustice and oppression. If these constitute the crime of rebellion, then do I rejoice in acknowledging the justice of the charge. [tremendous cheering.]

. . . Some time since I commenced building a chapel in Bantry, which, owing to the poverty and privation of the people, I have been unable to finish, although thousands are extorted from them for the Parson and the Proctor – the Churchwarden applied to me for Church rates – I desired him to look at the Chapel, and there he would find my answer: he begged of me not to give bad example by refusing to pay, and I told him, that I was well convinced that the example which I gave in this instance was particularly edifying. – (great laughter and much cheering.) – The proctor came next, and threatened me with distraint for the amount of tithes with which he charged me, and which I must do him the justice to say he never previously demanded. I told him to commence as soon as he pleased; and so gratified did I feel at the honour which he intended for me, that I was resolved to make a holyday day for him (laughter and cheers.)

– The Rev. Gentleman sat down amidst the most enthusiastic cheering.

This meeting was but one in a series in West Cork throughout the 1830s. Patrick Hickey, in Famine in West Cork, reports on meetings in Bantry and at the foot of Mount Gabriel – meetings attended by thousands, each parish under the leadership of their priest. In Bantry, the various tradesmen of Bantry marched in procession, each trade with its own banners. On one side of the tailors’ banner was a portrait if Bishop Doyle with the inscription, ‘May our hatred of tithes be as lasting as our love for justice’ and on the other side a portrait of Daniel O’Connell. At the Mount Gabriel meeting a procession of boats came from the islands and the men of Muinter Bheara arrived under the command of Richard O’Donovan of Tullagh and many Protestants (including Methodists and the descendant of Huguenots) attended.

One of the most outspoken of the Church of Ireland community against the anti-tithe movement was Rev Robert Traill, Rector of Schull (above). In doing so he was following the example of his father, the Rev Anthony Traill, who had used a particularly brutal proctor, Joseph Baker, to collect his tithes, while he himself resided in Lisburn. Fearing, of course, the loss of his income, Rev Robert railed against the meetings, declaring that in doing so he waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness. When cholera broke out after one of the monster meetings he wrote that is was God’s punishment for the agitation stirred by the iniquity of these wicked priests. He had reason to be afraid – the rector of Timoleague had been murdered and throughout the country killings, assaults and riots had occurred. It was a challenging time to be a Church of Ireland rector. (Remember Rev Traill, by the way, and don’t cast him as a villain in this story – he will feature again for his heroic role during the famine – yet another twist in the complex role of the Protestant church in this part of Ireland.)

The battle at Carrickshock, Co Kilkenny (from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England). This confrontation over tithes resulted in several deaths and sent shock waves through the country

Eventually (see Part 2) the Tithe Wars eased, a compromise (if not a solution) was reached and outright protests ceased. Let us turn our attention now to what was happening within the Church of Ireland in matters of doctrine.

An enormous stained glass window in Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Cork is dedicated to Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, by a grateful people

Latitudinarianism – lovely word, isn’t it? It refers to the live and let live philosophy that was generally adopted by Protestants in the 18th century. Actually a reaction against the Puritan insistence on a single form of Truth, it was sometimes called Broad Church and was a mode of thought that tolerated variations on thought and practise and sought to peacefully co-exist with other forms of worship. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, this emphasis on compromise and moderation was gradually being replaced with a new evangelical fervour, leading to a movement known as the Second Reformation.

This movement, it is often said, was kick-started in Ireland by William Magee, Archbishop of Dublin and fervently committed to the Second Reformation. He gave a firebrand sermon upon his inauguration in 1822 in which he accused the Catholics and the Methodists thus:

. . . the one possessing a church without which we can call a religion, and the other possessing a religion without which we can call a church: the one so blindly enslaved as to suppose infallible ecclesiastical authority, as not to seek in the word of God a reason for the faith they possess; the other so confident in the infallibility of their individual judgment as to the reasons of their faith that they deem it their duty to resist all authority in matters of religion. We, my Brethren, are to keep free of both extremes, and holding the Scriptures as our great charge, whilst we maintain the liberty with which Christ has made us free, we are to submit ourselves to the authority to which he has made us subject.

In this sermon, which created a furore at the time, he was essentially giving voice to prevailing Protestant opinion at the time regarding the other churches, and also to the claim of the Church of Ireland to be the only national church. It is important to note here that the Church of Ireland considered then, as it does to this day, that far from being an imported or imposed religion, it was, and remains the only true successor of the original faith of the Irish. This was first argued by James Ussher (portrait below by James Lely) in the seventeenth century.

The Church of Ireland, Ussher said, was not created by Henry VIII, but that St Patrick was Protestant in his theology and that the real problem was the interference of the Pope. (Ussher, by the way, is the same prelate who established that the world is only 6000 years old, another statement that continues to resonate in fundamentalist circles – but that’s another story.) In this origin story, it was important to “rescue” the true Irish church from Rome and restore it to the vision of St Patrick. The current catechism on the St Patrick’s Cathedral website continues this tradition. To the question “Did the Church of Ireland begin at the Reformation?” the answer is “No – the Church of Ireland is that part of the Irish Church which was influenced by the Reformation, and has its origins on the early Celtic Church of St Patrick.”

William Magee bust in Trinity College

Magee’s assertions were sincerely held positions. Although a cultured and erudite man, and tolerant in many respects, he was violently opposed to Catholic Emancipation, seeing the conversion of Romanists to Protestantism as a far better option both for them and for the country. His sermon effectively marked the end of any leftover latitudinarian attitudes in Ireland and heralded the arrival of a new era for the church of Ireland, in which educational, evangelical and proselytising activities were seen as essential. Next week we will see what effect those activities had on the already deepening divide between Ireland’s faith communities in the pre-famine period.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin – along with the position of being the Established Church, all the ancient churches became the property of the Church of Ireland, including this one. Magee delivered his famous sermon here

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 1, Introduction)

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 2, The Catholics)

 

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 2, The Catholics)

Most of what we think we know about traditional Catholic practice in the period leading up to the famine is wrong. The religious environment of the first half of the nineteenth century in Ireland was very different from what we experience today, and different too from what we understand as ‘traditional’ Catholicism and Protestantism in Ireland. In imagining this period we have been over-conditioned by our own experiences of Ireland in the twentieth century – a country in which each town or village was dominated by a large Catholic church, in which the priest was a man of great influence, the population (90% Catholic) went to mass every Sunday and participated in sodalities, novenas and retreats regularly, and in which children attended schools where Catholic Doctrine was integrated into the curriculum. It’s a picture of a devout, disciplined, orderly and mono-cultural society. Meanwhile, the Protestants attended a mysterious ‘service’ (mysterious because it was a sin to go inside a Protestant church), practised birth control, often spoke in a different accent from us, and appeared to us not to take their religion as seriously as we did.

The Mass Rock, as depicted in a stained glass window 

None of this, it turns out, was the norm in most of Ireland, and definitely not in the isolated parishes of West Cork, in the period leading up to the famine. Let’s look at the situation for Catholics first, as we lead up to the story of Teampall na mBocht (link to Part 1 at the bottom of this post).

The Information post for the Bronze Age wedge tomb at Altar shows a scene in which the wedge tomb has been repurposed as a mass rock

Catholic Emancipation, won by Daniel O’Connell in 1829, finally lifted the numerous legal restrictions under which Catholics in Ireland lived their lives since the enactment of the first and subsequent Penal Laws from the early seventeenth century. The legacy of those laws was fully and poignantly alive in Kilmoe Parish – the townland in which Teampall na mBocht was built is called Altar, after a prehistoric wedge tomb across the road from the church which had served as a Mass Rock. It was a powerful symbol, a reminder that Protestants had been free to build churches and hold services under shelter, while Catholics were not. An alternate name for Teampall na mBocht is The Altar Church (see lead image)

The Bronze Age wedge tomb known as The Altar

While some of the worst constraints of the Penal Laws had been lifted in practice during the 18th century, the Church of Ireland remained the official Established Church. This meant that the whole population was required to support it through ‘tithing’ – everyone, no matter their religion, had to pay a tax equal to one tenth of their earnings. Especially after Catholic Emancipation, the inequity of this led to several years of conflict known as the Tithe Wars. In 1838 an Act of Parliament changed the way tithes were collected. While this had the effect of dampening the worst of the conflict, it increased rents, since tithes were passed on to landlords.

Daniel O’Connell campaigned vigorously against Tithing – here he is depicted at one of his Monster Meetings

The fact that the Church of Ireland was predominantly the church of the ruling classes, the landlords, the government officials and the wealthier sections of society served to underscore and deepen sectarian divisions and mistrust between the communities. The uneven distribution of wealth was stark – while there were certainly poor Protestants, and wealthy Catholics, Catholics in general were vastly over-represented, as a percentage of the overall population, in the ranks of the impoverished.

Toormore Bay, the scene of the action of this story. This photograph illustrates well how much of the land was rocky and barren

Poverty was, perhaps, the defining condition of the majority of the Catholic population of the Mizen Peninsula in the period leading up to the famine. There were few proper churches and few priests. Accounts exist of open air masses, attended by great numbers, kneeling reverentially in the mud and rain (see final image). Others crowded into whatever miserable huts or mass houses there were. Most stayed away – mass attendance hovered between fifteen and forty percent. Stories abound of those who could not go because the family did not have enough clothes between them to send even one person.

James Mahony’s drawing of the Village of Mienies, near Drimoleague, showing the extreme destitution of the inhabitants

Despite this, new Catholic churches were starting to be built, some where none had existed before and some to replace tumbledown structures. Because of lack of money to erect buildings to withstand the elements, some, in turn, became unfit for purpose fairly quickly, such as this one (below) near Roaringwater Pier, now reimagined as a grotto.

Wealthy Catholics in Cork City built the magnificent Church of St Mary on Pope’s Quay in Cork, opened with great fanfare in 1839. James O’Mahony, who became known later for his harrowing sketches of the famine in West Cork, painted the opening in all its magnificence (below). This work was exhibited in Skibbereen as part of the Art and the Great Hunger Exhibition this summer.

But most Catholic churches erected during this period were far simpler. Five were built in all on the Mizen. St Brigid’s in Ballydehob is a good case in point. Begun in 1825, before Emancipation, it was funded through a Herculean collection and subscription effort, with much of the money coming from local landlords who were not themselves Catholics. While the presence of a church increased mass attendance, levying an entrance charge was customary, both to repay loans for building the church and to maintain the priest. Many could not afford to pay this entrance fee so either stood outside for the duration of the mass, or stayed away.

Ballydehob in the 1840s showing the Catholic Church on the hill. Construction was solid enough that the church remains to this day, little changed (see next image)

In far-flung areas ‘dues’ were also to be paid to priests who rode in at Easter and Christmas on horseback to say mass and hear confessions. Fr Hickey in Famine in West Cork refers to the account of Father Michael Collins of Skibbereen: Many confessed but paid nothing…In brief he was admitting that the priests were losing contact with some of their flock, especially the poor who could not afford a half penny for Sunday Mass.

So if poor rural Catholics were not always able to attend mass, how did they stay connected to their idea of themselves as Catholics and how did they participate in religious observances? The answer appears to lie in a host of practices that centred on feast days, such as St Patrick’s Day, May Eve or Halloween, in ‘patterns’ (the complex customs that accompanied a visit to a shrine or holy well), in ritualised wakes and funerals, and in a vast set of semi-religious/semi-folk beliefs (often based in pre-Christian traditions) that influenced daily actions. Many of these beliefs and practices continue to resonate today, especially in country areas – just take a quick browse through Holy Wells of Cork.

This holy well, being inspected by Amanda for her blog, is at Callarus Oughter on the Mizen

At the same time, National Schools were slowly replacing the hedge schools to provide basic instruction to the children of Ireland. The National School System was established in the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation to provide education to all children, regardless of religion – it was emphatically and specifically non-denominational in its intent. However, it didn’t work out that way. Herein lies one of the great tragedies of Irish history – the failure to establish a non-sectarian national education system.

All that’s left of the Boys’ School at what was once the thriving community of Roaringwater

While Catholics, on the whole, seized upon the opportunities provided and threw themselves enthusiastically into the task of raising money and building schools (to be open to all religious persuasions), Protestants went into near-panic in their opposition, mainly focussed on the prohibition of teaching the Bible as part of the curriculum. Opposition rallies and meetings were held all over the country and several organisations were established to provide alternate education – but more about this in Part 3. Since parents had to pay to send their children to the schools (there was no guaranteed external source of funding to cover all costs) the schools benefited mostly the better-off and the poorest children did not receive the education they so badly needed.

This school at Clonmeen, near Banteer in North Cork, was built in 1837 to replace the previous hedge school. It served as both a dwelling for the teacher and a school. Few of these original very early schools have survived

What we see in the Mizen in the first half of the nineteenth century, then, is the antithesis of that disciplined and orderly ‘traditional’ Catholic society that I described in the first paragraph. Among the poor people of the Mizen (and the majority were poor) illiteracy rates were high; vast numbers lived on the knife-edge of starvation and could afford neither mass nor school; Catholicism, although fiercely adhered to, was for most people a haphazard collection of beliefs and customs. But the happenings at Teampall na mBocht (yes, we’re still getting to that) were one of the catalysts for change in the Catholic Church, change that led to what we now think of as the ‘traditional’ Catholicism which is very much a post-famine phenomenon in Ireland.

The Protestant Churches, too, had experienced some seismic shifts in philosophy and practice in the same period. In Ireland, those changes in direction set them on an inexorable collision course with their Catholic neighbours. The ultimate catalyst for this clash was the famine. As some clergymen saw it, those impoverished, ignorant, superstitious, underserved, non-church-going slaves of ‘popery’ were in need of salvation as much as food. Next week, we’ll get to know what was going on with that side of things.

People gathered for an outdoor mass in the 1860s in Donegal. Apart from the decent clothing, this scene may have come from the 1840s on the Mizen

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 1, Introduction)

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 1, Introduction)

It’s an unassuming little building, quaintly situated on a piece of rocky land by the sea just west of Schull on the Mizen Peninsula. Nothing in its appearance now hints at its contentious past, although it certainly manages to look very attractive in this watercolour by Paul Farmiloe.

The church is often described as ‘Celtic’, ‘Romanesque’, or ‘based on an ancient Irish model’. This is curious as it has no precedents that I know of in ancient Irish architecture, except perhaps for the small triangular window arches, such as this one (above) from St Flannan’s Oratory in Co Clare.

The interior is quite beautiful in its simplicity and in the repeated use of the motif of an unusual and striking stepped-triangular design for the chancel arch, the windows and the doors.

The name, perhaps, seems unusual – in fact it is the only Church of Ireland building named in Irish, Teampall na mBocht, the Church of the Poor. Yet this one small building, constructed at the height of the famine of 1845 to 50 was once the focus of a firestorm of accusation and counter-accusation.

The story of Teampall na mBocht is central to the history in Ireland of what is known as souperism. To take the soup or to be a souper is the worst thing you can accuse a person of – it means to sell out your principles for worldly gain and is based on ugly incidents during the Great Hunger where Church of Ireland and Methodist Ministers were accused of offering food in exchange for conversion. Souper was originally used to describe the person offering the soup, but in modern parlance it is usually reserved for those taking it. As we shall see, accusations of souperism were levelled in both directions – by and against the Catholic Church – during this period.

The stained glass windows were a later addition. The East, Ascension window is by Joshua Clarke and executed in 1919. Although Harry Clarke was working with his father at this time there is no evidence that he had a hand in this window, which is not in his style. However, Harry learned much in his father’s studio that is evident in this window, including attention to detail, the use of good glass and sumptuous colour

The term ‘famine’ is in itself controversial, since many assert that it cannot be used except where food sources have dried up. They point out that food continued to be grown and exported during the period of the potato blight. I use the word here, along with the term ‘Great Hunger’ since it is the terminology used in most of the sources I consulted. Also, as will be seen, it accurately describes the situation in Kilmoe during this period, in which there was literally no local food to be found by any means.

The above image was retrieved here

The story is a complex one, and as I have tried to navigate it my chief source has been the magnificent volume Famine in West Cork: The Mizen Peninsula, Land and People 1800-1852 by Patrick Hickey. The book is now out of print but available through the internet. Fr Patrick Hickey, or Father Paddy as he is known locally, published his study in 2002, a monumental work of unparalleled erudition and thorough research. Himself a Catholic priest, his study is even-handed and fair, giving credit where it is due on all sides, and filling in the vital historical background to present a picture of these remote communities and the religious, educational, economic and social conditions prevalent at the time.

Others too have studied this little church, including the journalist and writer Eoghan Harris who based the action of his play Souper Sullivan on the events I will describe. Harris is himself not shy of controversy and has long waged a lonely battle against what he sees as the black-and-white victim-narrative version of Irish history. He poses the question – “So why is the heroic story of the spalpeens of Teampul na mBocht not a cherished part of Skibbereen’s Famine memory?”

In this multi-part post, I hope to address Harris’s question, and tell a story that captures this terrible time in all its complexity. But first – the bare facts.

In 1848, at the height of the famine in West Cork, Rev William Allen Fisher, using funds raised chiefly in England, employed starving locals to build a Church of Ireland (Protestant) church in his parish of Kilmoe. In doing so, he surely saved several hundred from starvation. His admiring son-in-law, none other than Standish O’Grady, described his devotion to the poor of his parish and his heroic efforts on their behalf and pronounced him a Saint. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, accused him of buying souls with food and held him up as the worst example of Souperism. (There’s a slightly fuller version in Robert’s post Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails.)

And yet – it had all started out well enough, with the Rev Fisher and Fr O’Sullivan the local parish priest working together to alleviate the awful situation. How did it all go so wrong? Who were the actors at the heart of the drama? What was the prevailing social and religious environment in the district at the time? What lens can we use to view this part of our past?

Stay tuned…