Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 4, the Protestants – Educators and Evangelists)

In the previous posts we looked at Catholicism in Ireland in the first half of the 19th century, and the position of the Protestant churches, especially the Church of Ireland. This period was marked by a shift to a more militant and evangelical philosophy in that Church: a determination, in fact, to make one final push to convince Catholics that their earthly and heavenly salvation lay in abandoning the pernicious faith of their forefathers and converting to the biblical-based beliefs of Protestantism. Once Protestant, they would reform their wicked habits of drinking and fighting (as in Skelligs Night in the South Mall above, by James Beale, courtesy of the Crawford Gallery) and would naturally see the errors of nationalistic agitation. 

Faction Fighting, one of the evils that both Catholic and Protestants clergy railed against. The illustration, by W H Brooke, is from Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry by William Carleton

Irene Whelan, in her essay The Stigma of Souperism in The Great Irish Famine (The RTE Thomas Davis Lecture Series, edited by Cathal Póirtéir) writes about

the vast institutional and ideological machinery that lay behind the drive to make Ireland a Protestant country. This included not only a massive system of private philanthropy. . . but, more importantly, a fully developed political doctrine rooted in the belief that the source of Ireland’s social and political problems was the Catholic religion, and that the country would never be prosperous and developed until Catholicism and all its influences were eradicated.

From John Barrow’s A Tour Round Ireland, 1835

It is ironic that, in fact, major reform efforts were underway within the Catholic Church at the same time, to depress the more exuberant of the old traditions of patterns at holy wells and seasonal celebrations, or to convert them into Marian feast days (Lughnasa, for example, was conflated with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15). For an excellent description of the goings-on at Patterns, see this post from Holy Wells of Cork. The great scholar John O’Donovan wrote in 1837 the priests, I am sorry to see and say, [are] inclining very much to Protestant notions, and putting an end to all. . . venerable old customs. William Wilde (father of Oscar and a noted antiquarian and folklorist) bemoaned, The tone of society is becoming more and more “Protestant” every year. . . The priests. . . have condemned all the holy wells and resorts of pilgrimage. (Both quotes from K Theodore Hoppen’s Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity.)

The Holy Well, an engraving of a painting by Frederick Goodall

The recognised authority on the evangelical surge of this period is Desmond Bowen. In his book The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, 1800-70, (published in 1978 but not yet superseded in its detailed examination of the religious environment of this period) he lays out the main factors in the hardening of the sectarian divide and the deepening divisions between what were essentially two separate cultures, looking to the separate education systems and the activities of firebrand preachers supported by both British organisations and committed local landlords. Of British evangelicals he writes:

Although their first desire was the purely religious one of freeing Catholics from the bondage of their sin by bringing them the blessings of biblical Christianity, they soon found it advantageous to combine their religious crusading with English ‘cultural imperialism.’ How could the Irish peasantry read the bible unless they attended schools? And how could they attend Evangelical schools and not be culturally influence by the alien but superior way of life they found there? . . .Proselytising . . . sought to bring them the twofold blessing of a reformed faith and British civilisation.

Education, as we saw in Part 2, became a field of contention with the establishment of the National School System in 1839, vigorously opposed by the Church of Ireland. The Protestant Church Education Society was founded with the object of providing an alternative education system but it struggled financially and was unable to provide enough funding to become a viable alternative to the National Schools.

Poor children receiving clothing at a school in the West of Ireland

Up to 1839, schools on the Mizen were mostly miserable affairs with few resources and badly paid teachers. The Kildare Place Society was originally founded to provide non-denominational education to the poor, but after the establishment of the National School System, it affiliated with the Church of Ireland. This Society provided support to several schools on the Mizen Peninsula, including one in Ballydehob, another in Gortnagrough, and another in Rock Island. Other schools were maintained by the local Church of Ireland (e.g. parish schools at Gubbeen and Corravoley) and some received grants and aid from the Hibernian Society – an organisation specifically devoted to offering education with a proselytising ethos.

Now a private residence, part of this house in Durrus was the original school funded by the Association for Discountenancing Vice

Yet another Protestant education society was the charmingly-named Association for Discountenancing Vice and Promoting the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion, while another, The Irish Society, had a similar mission, to provide bibles to schools and to promote Protestant religious education.

A sermon by our old friend, William Magee (see Part 3)

All of these societies, to a greater or lesser extent, supported schools on the Mizen, most of them educating both Protestants and Catholics and stipulating that the curriculum would include biblical instruction. For those students who did not have access to a National School, these schools provided rudimentary instruction, but were frequently accused of offering that education contingent on conversion. During the famine, the provision of food supplies to children when attending schools became a particularly contentious activity – although it does strike one as a no-win situation – damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The Achill Colony. What do you think they served in the Temperance Bar?

The new spirit of fervent evangelism imbued many of the Protestant clergymen in West Cork Parishes. Protestant ‘colonies’ had been established in Achill in Mayo by the Rev Edmund Nangle and in Dingle by the Rev Charles Gayer. Highly controversial, these settlements provided food, education and employment to Church of Ireland converts and were lauded as model villages by the more enthusiastic of the Protestant missionaries. The Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, railed against them, accusing them of buying souls with the promise of financial security. There is a wonderful first-hand, and far from favourable, account of the Achill Island colony in Vol 3 of Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, etc  (pages 394 to 401) by the Halls. They describe a harsh and unforgiving Nangle (below) and a struggling colony that is despised by its neighbours.

West Cork was also a centre for Protestant missionary activities, who saw in its poverty and remoteness an ideal recruiting ground. The activities of the Irish-speaking Rev Edmund Spring on Hare Island and Cape Clear came under particular scrutiny due to the large number of conversions he claimed and his association with the Irish Islands and Coast Society, for whom he ran his parish as a ‘missionary station.’ He moved on to Cape Clear from Hare, in turn winning many converts but always under the accusation of offering ‘support’ to those who became his parishioners.

The Halls, Samuel Carter and Anna Maria, produced a superbly illustrated account of their tour of Ireland in three volumes. It’s an indispensable resource

On the Mizen, in Kilmoe Parish, the arrival of the Rev Thomas O’Grady signalled the advent of the spirit of evangelism and of many conversions. Patrick Hickey’s research indicates that there were five Protestant families in Toormore when O’Grady arrived, but by 1849, with O’Grady’s friend and successor, the Rev William Fisher, now as Rector, that number had risen to eighty.

Crookhaven on the eve of the Famine

How were these conversions won? By the example, dedication, hard work and self-sacrifice of these men, or by the souperism of the Rev Fisher? In the next post I will look at the conditions that led to the latter accusation: famine in Toormore and the building of Teampaill na mBocht.

The Achill Colony, a woodcut from John Barrow’s Tour of Ireland

Favourite Posts of 2018

At this end of the year we reflect with a critical eye on all our 2018 posts – there have been 102 of them – and select just a few which we think stand out in some way. A link is provided for each one, in case you want to have another look yourselves.

Firstly – not just one of our favourites, but the all-time most popular post we have ever published – Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window. Finola wrote this in January, and then went on to put together an article in the Irish Arts Review on the same subject later in the year. The window is in St John’s Church in Tralee, a Catholic church, but the project was a joint venture between the Catholic and Anglican congregations. It tells a story of reconciliation, from many angles. The window was designed and made by Tom Denny, one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists. Tom is a direct descendant of Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) who was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a complex history, and this post is well worth a careful read.

Another post which proved popular was Robert’s detailed account of an archaeological site in West Cork: Knockdrum Stone Fort. This place has everything – a substantial stone structure which probably dates from the first millennium AD; prehistoric Rock Art (one of our favourite subjects – the Knockdrum example is pictured above), likely to be around 5,000 years old; fabulous views (choose a clear day) – and a solar alignment discovered in 1930 by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville. In a complementary post, Finola reported on Boyle’s life and tragic death – and gave us insights into the science of archaeoastronomy, expanding on this in a Bealtaine post, following our own experience of Boyle’s discovered alignment at Knockdrum (the sun setting exactly over the fort is pictured below).

Way back in 2017 we started a series of occasional posts bearing the title . . . Off the M8 . . . We do a lot of travelling throughout Ireland (because it’s such a beautiful and historically rich country) and cover the ground between Cork and Dublin quite frequently. The M8 motorway has made this journey quite straightforward, but it has also provided the jumping off point for many an exploration to enhance the journey. One of my own favourite discovered places this year is the magical Glen of Aherlow (pictured above). We thank our good friends and travelling companions Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines  – for pointing us to this entrancing valley located between Slievenamuck and the Galtee Mountains in the western part of County Tipperary. We discovered there secret places and stories relating to obscure Irish Saints: have a look at the haunts of St Berrahert and St Péacáin in these posts from Robert.

When I moved from Cornwall to West Cork some years ago I was delighted to find out that our lively adopted village of Ballydehob had a great artistic heritage during the second half of the twentieth century, to rival that of Britain’s westernmost county. West Cork became a cosmopolitan centre for artists, writers, craftspeople and musicians, renowned in its day but never properly celebrated – until this year. I was one of a small group locally who decide to rectify this by establishing the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM): our first exhibition . . . Bohemians in Ballydehob . . . using donated artworks, ceramics, storyboards and posters, was staged in Ballydehob’s community building, Bank House, and – presided over by Curator Brian Lalor (one of the surviving Bohemians!) – was the first incarnation of the new Museum, which will be followed up by new exhibitions every year. The picture above (courtesy of Andrew Street) from my post, shows the Flower House which, during the 1960s and 70s, became an iconic focus for the town’s artistic colony.

It was a grand summer altogether, and we were out walking the roads and footpaths of West Cork as much as possible. On a fine day in May we set off to explore the Toormore Loop which is only one of an excellent comprehensive system of trails which has been put in place locally in recent years. This post – Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails – documents that adventure and, hopefully, will encourage all of you to enjoy this wonderful free resource and immerse yourselves in the nature that’s all around us.

The second most viewed post this year was Finola’s fascinating account of the Rock of Dunamase and the history that it embodies. It’s a place that, for some reason, took us a few years to get to – and it’s Off the M8! But – as you can see from the picture above – climbing the Rock will give you a most rewarding and spectacular view across several counties. The ruin on its summit is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History – the coming of the Normans to Ireland in 1169, and the famous marriage of Aiofe (daughter of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster) to the Earl of Pembroke, immortalised in the painting by Daniel Maclise (below, courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland). The fortification with its Great Hall on the Rock was a MacMurrough stronghold, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow.

Finally (for today, anyway) we look at Finola’s post which comprehensively explores another West Cork treasure: Heir Island – a Modern Paradise (pictured above and below). West Cork has such a diverse landscape, including the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay, each one of which is unique. Finola teamed up with her photographer friend Trish Punch and they were shown around the island by islanders Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews, who run the Heir Island Wildlife Project. This post is a great example of how the diversity of life on the island – and here in West Cork generally – brings together so many disciplines and interests: photography, history, wildflowers, wildlife, colourful houses, and art. Everything that Roaringwater Journal tries to encompass, in fact.

West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

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!

Nano Nagle – Lady of the Lantern

A Cork heroine: Nano Nagle was given the accolade ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman’ by RTE in 2005, and at that time it was suggested that she would be a Nobel Prize winner if she were alive today. Why? Because she devoted her own adult life to helping – and educating – deprived Catholic families during the ‘Penal times’ in which she lived: she was born in 1718.

Header, tailpiece and above: images from the audio-visual display which can be seen in Nano Nagle Place, located on Douglas Street, Cork – only five minutes’ walk from the English Market

While Nano Nagle was actively agitating for – and lived to see – some relaxation of the laws against Catholics, particularly the repeals of 1778, she died in 1784 and it was not until 1791 that the Roman Catholic Relief Act saw some significant lessening of discrimination – although one of the sorest points, the continuing requirement for Catholics to pay tithes to the Established (Protestant) Church, was not fully overturned until the Irish Church Act of 1869.

Above – the landscaped gardens at Nano Nagle Place, Cork, are a city centre oasis, and contain Nano Nagle’s tomb and the graves of the sisters of the communities which carried out Nagle’s work from the mid eighteenth century onward

Nano herself seemed able to work ‘above the law’: she was born in Ballygriffin, near Mallow, County Cork into a wealthy family and experienced an idyllic childhood. The Penal Laws of that time meant that education for Catholics was not available in Ireland unless they were willing to attend Church of Ireland schools, and Irish Catholics were forbidden from travelling to the continent to be educated. Despite this, Nano was educated in France, where she experienced an epiphanic moment and determined to devote the rest of her life to the service of the poor back home in Ireland. 

Above – part of a painting in the Nano Nagle Room at Díseart Institute of Irish Spirituality and Culture (formerly the Presentation Convent) in Dingle, Co Kerry. The painting, by Eleanor Yates, shows the moment when Nano, travelling from a ball in Paris, sees pauper children suffering on the streets and realises that her life mission should be to care for and educate the poor

When Nano’s father and sister died, she moved to live with her brother’s family on Cove Street, Cork – now named Douglas Street. There she began to carry out her mission and opened a girls’ school around 1750 focussing on reading, writing, catechism and needlework. She had to work in secret as, under the Penal Laws, operating a Catholic school could result in imprisonment. 

Nano Nagle Place in Cork City incorporates some of the earliest buildings dating from the time of the Ursuline Sisters: the buildings have been restored and extended to form the present day Centre

Within ten years Nano was operating seven schools across the city of Cork, teaching both boys and girls. When her brother’s family moved to Bath, Nano took a small cottage on Cove Street. By day she visited each of her schools, and by night she visited the poor. This was dangerous work:  the city streets were neither lit nor properly policed. Nano travelled by the light of the lantern she carried, and she became known as ‘Miss Nagle, the Lady of the Lantern’.

Today there are displays in Nano Nagle Place showing some original artefacts from Nano’s time, including an early Convent accounts book and Nano’s cap

In 1771 Nano Nagle used a family inheritance to build a convent for the Ursuline sisters, a teaching order, whom she invited from France. The Ursuline Order, however, is ‘cloistered’ – unable to leave the convent and only able to teach within the convent. Thus,  to continue with her work in the schools she had set up all over Cork, Nano founded her own order – The Society for Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart – in 1775. The name was changed in 1791 to The Presentation Sisters, and there were from that time two religious communities both established by Nano Nagle, working side by side on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street), all living in mutual harmony and support, and continuing the mission of Nano Nagle across the world and into the present day.

Above – the death notice of Nano Nagle, and a recent water sculpture adjacent to her grave in Cork. Below – Nano’s gravestone and some graves of Sisters from the communities which were set up in Douglas Street

The Nano Nagle Heritage Centre has been established on Douglas Street and is open to all. It houses a very good visual presentation on the history of Cork in Nano’s time – and of Nano herself. It has beautiful landscaped gardens – quite a surprise in this urban setting – and Good Day Deli: a restaurant serving excellent food. Nano’s grave can be visited, and has recently been given a sculptural treatment which blends well with the historic buildings and graveyard of the early convent.

We are very grateful to Dr Danielle O’Donovan, Programme Manager of Nano Nagle Place, for personally showing us around the Centre and explaining its considerable historical significance

A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland

Cork City in the eighteenth century (represented above and below in Cork’s Nano Nagle Centre) had an unhealthy reputation, according to one commentator – Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye – who travelled through Ireland in the 1790s and happily left us with some written descriptions of his journey.

Born into an ancient noble family in Nantes in 1767, de La Tocnaye fled the French Revolution in 1792 and self-exiled himself to idle London (his words). Then – armed with a sheaf of letters of introduction to people who might be useful along the way – he set out on a walking journey which lasted for ten years, through England, Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia. Remarkably, he was able to get his writings published as he went along and we are fortunate to have some of them preserved, after a fashion, through a translation into English by John Stevenson in 1917 of Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande 1796 – 1797.

It is necessary to quote from the preamble set down by this translator before we embark on the writing itself. Apologies if you feel – as I do – we might be missing out on a few of the more colourful observations from de La Tocnaye on Ireland because of Stevenson’s reservations. The end result is of great interest to us nevertheless.

. . . A word about the author’s style. He has none. A well-educated man, at home in the highest circles of society, and doubtless a brilliant conversationalist, he is evidently unaccustomed to writing . . . Therefore, in the rendering, it has been necessary, at times, to convey what he intended to say rather than what is actually set down . . . 

. . . He has a weakness for using the swear words of the country of his sojourn, and uses them unnecessarily and unwarrantably. Second-hand matter, in the form of stories ‘ lifted ‘ from Irish authors, or antiquarian information inserted out of compliment to his friends, has been omitted as of no interest to the reader of to-day; and certain little sallies in the French manner, innocent enough, but which in English print might wear the air of indecencies, have been modified or suppressed. For the rest, the translation is as literal as a care for readability in English will allow . . .

. . . Travelling on foot over the island, east, south, west, north, his whole baggage in his pockets, in two silk stockings from which he had cut the feet, or in a handkerchief slung en sautoir on the end of a combined sword-stick and umbrella, which he said ‘made the girls laugh’ he got to the very heart of Irish life . . .

Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall, Dublin c1750. Attributed to Joseph Tudor 1695–1759. (courtesy National Gallery of Ireland)

De La Tocnaye’s writings on his travels in Ireland alone amount to 90,000 words! Today I am taking just a few extracts to give you a flavour of what life was like here in the late eighteenth century – seen through the eyes of one observer. I have no doubt that more of this journal will follow on these pages in time.

Leaving Dublin, de La Tocnaye made a stop in County Wicklow:

. . . Following the course of the stream which flows from the lake, I came to Glendalough, a word which means ‘the valley of the two lakes’. It is remarkable that there is not a single ancient name in this country which has not its special signification. The appropriateness here is evident, for there are really two lakes, which join at the portion of the valley called ‘The Seven Churches.’ It is here in this desert place that are to be found the most ancient remains of the devotion of past centuries, remains whose antiquity reaches back to the early ages of Christianity. St Kevin here founded a monastery in the third or fourth century of the Christian era, probably on the ruins of a temple of the Druids, who sought always the wildest places for the practice of their cult. This was for long a bishopric, but now it is united to that of Dublin. Here are still to be seen the ruins of seven churches, and one of those round towers of unknown origin which are so common in Ireland . . . 

High Cross at Glendalough

De La Tocnaye goes on to pronounce, at length, on round towers (and Irish pishogues):

. . . They are all alike, having a door fifteen or twenty feet from the ground, generally opening eastward, some narrow windows, and inside not the slightest remains of a staircase, unless this may be found in a few projecting stones which may have served to support floors in which there must have been trap doors to allow of passing from one to another by means of ladders. These towers are always found at some distance from a church, and entirely isolated . . . Whatever these ancient buildings may have been, the Irish have now for them the greatest possible veneration. They come here from afar for pilgrimages and penitences, and on the day of the Saint, which is June 3, they dance afterwards and amuse themselves until nightfall. In this sacred enclosure are to be found remedies for many ills. Have you a pain in your arm ? — it suffices to pass the limb through a hole worked in a stone, and you are free from your trouble. There is another stone on which for another ailment you shall rub your back, and another one against which you shall rub your head. And there is a pillar in the middle of the cemetery which, if you can embrace, will make you sure of your wife. The Saint’s Bed is a hole about six feet long, hollowed in the rock — a very special virtue belongs to it. It is only to be reached after much trouble in scaling a steep slope of the mountain above the lake, but whoever has enough strength and resolution to climb to it, and will lie down in it, is sure never to die in childbirth. Belief in this virtue makes a great number of wives, and of girls who hope to become wives, come here to pay their devotions . . . All this seemed to come in very fitly at the beginning of my travels. I pushed my arm through the hole in the stone. I rubbed my back against the rock which cures the troubles of the back, and my head against another, thus ensuring my health for the remainder of my journey. I even tried to embrace the pillar, but I cannot tell with what result. As to the Saint’s Bed, I thought there was little danger of my dying from the malady against which it insures, and therefore I did not climb . . .

Round tower at Glendalough

Returning to de La Tocnaye’s comment about Cork City:

. . . I arrived at Cork, the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined. The people met with are yawning, and one is stopped every minute by funerals, or hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets in hundreds, and yet this town is one of the richest and most commercial of Europe . . .

View of Cork 1760

. . . There is no town where there is so much needful to do to make the place agreeable to a great number of the poor inhabitants. The spirit of commerce and self-interest has laid hold of all branches of the administration. For example, it would be very easy to furnish the town with a public fountain, but the person or company which has the privilege of bringing water in pipes to the houses thinks that by the building of such a fountain there would be lost a number of guinea subscriptions. Therefore, in order that the avidity of an obscure individual should be satisfied, thirty thousand inhabitants must suffer . . . I have seen poor people obliged to collect the water falling from the roofs on a rainy day, or to take it even from the stream in the streets. All the time there is perhaps hardly a place which it would be so easy to supply with water as Cork, by reason of the heights which surround it. There is even a spring or fountain about a mile away, which is called Sunday’s Well, which appears to me to have sufficient water for the supply of a public fountain in the centre of the town . . . The dirt of the streets in the middle of the town is shameful, and as if that were not enough, it would seem as if it were wished to hinder the wind and the sun from drying the filth, for the two ends of the street are terminated by prisons, which close the way entirely and prevent the air from circulating . . .

Cork Prison 1831 – engraving by W J Bartlett

Lest the people of Cork be offended, today, by de La Tocnaye’s descriptions of yesterday, rest assured that he had similar reactions to other places. Take Wexford, for example:

. . . From here I proceeded to Wexford, and without wishing it harm, I may say that it is one of the ugliest and dirtiest towns in the whole of Ireland. The excessive exercise in which I had indulged, and to which I had not been accustomed for a long time, compelled me to remain here eight days with a fever . . .

In spite of the title, this is a representation of Whiteboys from the 1780s. (courtesy National Library of Ireland)

That’s probably quite enough insults for one week! I have avidly ploughed through the writings of de La Tocnaye as he proceeded on his journey through Ireland, and there is much of considerable interest: we get from him a very good picture of life here two hundred years ago. Finola is writing today on the complexity of religious history in Ireland: I’ll close with a view from our French traveller:

. . . In every country of the world the peasant pays tithe with reluctance ; everywhere it is regarded as an onerous impost, prejudicial to the spread of cultivation, for the labourer is obliged to pay on the product of his industry. In Ireland it seems to me a more vexatious tax than elsewhere, for the great mass of the people being Catholic, it seems to them hard that they should be obliged to maintain a minister who is often the only Protestant in the parish, and who exacts his dues with rigour. Beyond the ordinary tithe he has a right, over nearly the whole of Ireland, to one-tenth of the milk of a cow, one-tenth of the eggs, and one-tenth of the vegetables of the gardens. One can easily understand that these conditions may be very severe when the minister exacts his dues in kind, and especially when it is considered that these poor miserable folk have, as well, to supply a subsistence for their own priests. They have often made complaints and claims in connection with this subject, and to these it was hardly possible to give attention without overturning the whole of the laws of the Establishment, as it is called; that is to say, the Established religion. From complaints and claims the peasants came to threats, and from threats to the execution of the things threatened. They assembled at night in great numbers in certain parts of Ireland, and in order that they might recognise each other safely, they wore their shirts outside their clothes, from whence came the name of White Boys. In this garb they overran the country, breaking the doors and gates of ministers’ houses, and if they could catch the cattle they mutilated them by cutting off their tails and ears. All the time they did no other violent act, and a traveller might have gone through the country with perfect security . . .

Tailpiece: Wexford Town in 1796 (courtesy Laurence Butler)