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)

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…

Off the M8 – Lismore Quest

It’s half an hour’s drive off the motorway, leaving at Fermoy – but well worth the diversion. Lismore, County Waterford, is an ancient town. St Carthage arrived here in 635 and established a great centre of learning famous throughout Europe; the Vikings ransacked it in the ninth century, after which the Norman Prince John, son of King Henry II, arrived in 1185 to build the Castle, which passed through the ownerships of Walter Raleigh and the Great Earl of Cork, before becoming the Irish residence of the Duke of Devonshire. So there’s lots to see, and lots of history to take in: be prepared for many visits!

Our quest was to find a grave in the churchyard of St Carthage’s Cathedral. I am currently preparing a talk on the links between West Cork and Zululand (believe me, this is relevant)! The principle subject of this talk is a ‘soldier artist’ – William Whitelocke Lloyd, who was born and brought up in Strancally Castle, County Waterford, but lived for most of his adult life in Glandore, West Cork, (where you will find a pyramid). What should we find in St Carthage’s? Another pyramid! But that’s incidental to the main story here.

The Cathedral is said to be on the site of the original monastic foundation, and there’s some pretty ancient stonework inside it, including the quite remarkable tomb of the McGrath family which dates from 1486. The present building, however, comes mainly from the early seventeenth century when the Earl of Cork carried out major works, but also retained some earlier structure.

We did find the Whitelocke Lloyd grave, a little forlorn, close to the north west corner of the Cathedral. It has not weathered well and the inscription is not easily decipherable; a fallen cross lies broken across it. If you want to find out about this man’s exploits in the Zulu wars of 1879 – 80 and his career as an artist – for which he had no formal training – and why he is buried here with no family around him (his wife Catherine Anna Mona Brougham, daughter of the Dean of Lismore lies in a matching grave in Casteltownshend) you’ll have to come to my talk!

The somewhat forlorn grave of William Whitelocke Lloyd in the grounds of the Cathedral (above) and (upper pictures) two examples of the watercolour sketches of William Whitelocke Lloyd carried out while he was on active service in Africa. They were faithful records of the terrain and the conditions which the soldiers endured. Whitelocke Lloyd was ‘discovered’ by the Illustrated London News who used his drawings to produce engravings for publication – one is shown below.

Today’s post is largely a miscellany of the splendours we discovered in and around St Carthage’s Cathedral, and we hope this will inspire you to go there yourselves: it’s only two hours away from home – a mere hop and a skip.

Finola was delighted to find this rarity in St Carthage’s Cathedral – a window by the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Byrne-Jones.

As with many Anglican churches, there are numerous elabortate memorials on the walls of St Carthage’s Cathedral. Here are just three examples, above.

In the Cathedral reposes this McGrath family tomb – one of the finest examples of sixteenth century stone carving in Ireland. Below – one of the earliest grave inscriptions, dating from 1718.

Robert’s Talk – West Cork and the Zulu Wars – will be given at the Talks in the Vaults series, Bank House, Ballydehob on Tuesday 13 November, at 8pm

Autumnal Day Out – Myross Pyramid

Following what might be described as a Mediterranean summer which went on beyond all expectations well into October – where I suppose it became an Indian summer – we have just had the first truly autumnal days. Mist has descended over the islands of Roaringwater Bay and everything – trees, grass, nature – is dripping wet. This doesn’t put a stop to our travels, but we do see everything in a different light.

Last week I reported on a surprising find, a pyramid-shaped tomb in the idyllically off-the-beaten-track burial ground at Glandore over the hills not too far away from Nead an Iolair. This led to a large number of comments and responses, including some that told us about another West Cork pyramid, at a graveyard in Myross parish, only a little bit further along the coast. Thank you to all our correspondents: you sent us out on a fruitful search in this mellow season of mists.

The townland of Myross is an island, of sorts. A stretch of water runs between Blind Harbour in the west and Squince Harbour in the east, and old stone causeways give access at either end. On the day of our visit there was hardly a sign of life, and the fog prevented us getting any idea of the fine ocean views which can evidently be enjoyed from the ancient graveyard. Nevertheless, we felt the day that was in it empathised with the muted atmosphere of this silent place.

At the centre of the burial ground stand the ruins of a substantial church, in very poor repair. Some of the masonry has been reinforced with brick piers and timber posts, but the structure is fenced off to indicate the risks of its instability. Inside the church are an old font, and a piscina. The illustrations here are from a massive work – The Diocese of Ross and its Ancient Churches by Charles Webster, Dean of Ross, published by the Royal Irish Academy in 1932.

W Mazier Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Record of Cork, 1863, records that the Church of Myross was in use in 1615 but in ruins by 1699. Subsequent researches tell us that a little further to the east is the townland of Carrigihilly and here survives another ancient burial ground: local tradition asserts that here was a Cistercian Monastery – Maure Abbey (Abbey de Sancto Mauro) – founded in 1172 by Dermot MacCarthy, King of Desmond. We didn’t get to Carrigihilly on our autumnal day out: another expedition to the area beckons.

The focus of our visit was, of course, a second pyramid in West Cork – and there it is! More modest in size, perhaps, than the Glandore example, but standing out, nevertheless. Unlike the one at Glandore, there is no visible inscription on the masonry, much of which is quite overgrown. Tradition has it, however, that this tomb is a burial place for the O’Donovans, who are well represented in this part of West Cork, even today.

Keeping the pyramid company in this Myross graveyard are other significant chest tombs and unusual ‘gabled’ tombs, also uninscribed, and a small number of carved gravestones dating from the nineteenth century, very weathered but partly legible. It would be fascinating to know something of the lives of those who are interred in this remote and atmospheric West Cork location.