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…

Mizen Magic 12: Autumn Colour

It’s not the trees that lend autumnal hues to the Mizen, as they do elsewhere. It’s the whole landscape – that combination of rock, heather, bracken, moor grass, brambles, filtered through the light and shade of our notoriously changeable climate – that creates the special colour palette we associate with autumn. It’s my favourite time of year.

Today, early, we drove up Mount Gabriel and looked over the whole of the Mizen, back to Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd, and across to the Sheep’s Head, the Beara, and away to the mountains of Kerry.

Upper: looking down to Dunmanus Bay from Mount Gabriel; Lower: looking across to Mount Corrin

But every day brings changes. What trees we have are not yet bare. The thorns, blackthorn and whitethorn are loaded with berries. The heather is hanging on here and there, providing a wonderful contrast to the yellow gorse.

Haws, Sloes, Heather and Gorse

The bog asphodel is fading now, but earlier in the month it had reached its peak orange state and looked spectacular consorting with the other bog and mountain flowers that were still blooming.

Upper: Bog Asphodel, Gorse, Scabious; Lower: Cappaghglass Bog

When you get a clear day, like today, there is nothing on earth like a walk on the West Cork hills, drinking in the colours and trying to store them in the memory. Or perhaps, in a blog!

Upper: Toormore; Lower: Derryconnell 

Upper: North Side of the Mizen; Lower: Crough Bay and Long Island

Scarecrow in an abandoned garden – quintessential autumn image!

Rock Island

Chough Country

WHERE not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storm or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

‘Tis pleasant by this stone,
Sea-wash’d and weed-o’ergrown,
With Solitude and Silence at my side,
To list the solemn roar
Of ocean on the shore,
And up the beetling cliff to see thee glide.

Though harsh thy earnest cry.
On crag, or shooting high
Above the tumult of this dusty sphere,
Thou tellest of the steep
Where Peace and Quiet sleep,
And noisy man but rarely visits here.

For this I love thee, bird.
And feel my pulses stirr’d
To see thee grandly on the high air ride,
Or float along the land,
Or drop upon the sand,
Or perch within the gully’s frowning side.

Thou bringest the sweet thought
Of some straw-cover’d cot,
On the lone moor beside the bubbling well,
Where cluster wife and child,
And bees hum o’er the wild:
In this seclusion it were joy to dwell.

Will such a quiet bower
Be ever more my dower
In this rough region of perpetual strife?
I like a bird from home
Forward and backward roam;
But there is rest beneath the Tree of Life.

In this dark world of din,
Of selfishness and sin,
Help me, dear Saviour, on Thy love to rest;
That, having cross’d life’s sea,
My shatter’d bark may be
Moor’d safely in the haven of the blest.

The Muse at this sweet hour
Hies with me to my bower
Among the heather of my native hill;
The rude rock-hedges here
And mossy turf, how dear!
What gushing song! how fresh the moors and still!

No spot of earth like thee,
So full of heaven to me,
O hill of rock, piled to the passing cloud!
Good spirits in their flight
Upon thy crags alight,
And leave a glory where they brightly bow’d.

I well remember now,
In boy-days on thy brow,
When first my lyre among thy larks I found,
Stealing from mother’s side
Out on the common wide,
Strange Druid footfalls seem’d to echo round.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee
My shred of minstrelsy
I carol at this meditative hour,
Linking thee with my reed,
Grey moor and grassy mead,
Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

I was pleased to find this poem. It was written by a Cornishman – John Harris – who was born in 1820 in Bolenowe. Perhaps he was an ancestor? His father was a miner at Dolcoath Tin Mine where young John also started at the age of 10. He began writing poetry as a child, usually in the open air where he was inspired by nature. After 20 years working in the mine, one of his poems was eventually published in a magazine. It attracted notice, and he was encouraged to produce a collection, which was published in 1853. The Cornish Chough is taken from that collection.

Above – choughs over Rossbrin Cove. The wonderful header picture was kindly given to us to use in a previous piece on the birds by our friend and neighbour Oliver Nares. Oliver and Susie are fortunate to have choughs nesting on their property and keep a good eye out for the welfare of the chough families which are raised there. We don’t have choughs nesting at Nead an Iolair (which means Nest of the Eagle) but we often see and hear them over us: they are the most acrobatic and joyful of birds.

The reason I have returned to choughs today is that they were the subject of an early post which I published on Roaringwater Journal on 6 October 2013 – exactly five years ago! Choughs – Cornwall’s emblematic birds – left that county fifty years ago but returned very recently as migrants from Ireland. We consider ourselves very privileged to be living in abundant chough country.

A Walk on Sherkin Island

You can’t live in West Cork without constantly being aware of the sea – it’s all around us. And the offshore islands are always in our view as we look across Roaringwater Bay. It’s easy to get to the inhabited ones: there are good ferry services that run year round, although they can be hampered by winter storms. In this picture – above – the Cape Clear Ferry is leaving Baltimore, while the Sherkin Ferry is arriving to collect passengers for that island, including us: on a whim we went across on a wonderful warm September afternoon.

It’s a short sea voyage to Sherkin – all of 15 minutes! But it’s always exciting to be on the water. That’s the lighthouse on Sherkin in the picture above: it was built in 1885 of cast-iron construction and is now fully automated, as are all of Ireland’s lighthouses today.

We did have an aim – to find a piece of Rock Art that may be the earliest physical evidence of human occupation on the island. It’s a cupmarked stone in the townland of Kilmoon, overlooking Kinish Harbour. It was a fair walk to the west, over deserted roads and through fields. After a bit of backtracking we managed to find the stone, well weathered but with its markings still visible. It is situated with panoramic views all the way round, taking in the peaks of Mount Gabriel, Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd on the mainland: surely it must have been placed with those views in mind?

This picture shows the cupmarked stone in its present setting, just inside a private garden (if you go, please make sure you seek permission from the owners of the house!), while the one above shows the panoramic distant view which the stone commands.

Here is the surface of the stone which is heavily blotched with lichen, but it is possible to make out the well defined cupmarks: there are 14 in all. If you want to find out more about cupmarked stones and how they compare with Rock Art in general, we wrote this post a while ago. It sparked off a whole lot of debate (have a look at the comments at the end of that post) – and there is still much to be discovered in a history that may go back 5,000 years.

Our main mission was accomplished, but we couldn’t resist taking in some other historical sites while on the island. Firstly, we had a good look at the Franciscan friary – situated in the townland of Farranacoush – which has a colourful history. Here is a description from the current Irish Franciscans site:

. . . Permission for this foundation was given by Rome to Finighin O’Driscoll in 1449, but it was not until just after 1462 that the Observant friars actually arrived. The friary became the traditional burial place of the O’Driscoll’s. In 1537 the citizens of Waterford burned the building in retaliation for acts of piracy by the O’Driscolls. The great bell of the friary was on display in Waterford as late as 1615. There is no evidence to suggest that the friars were disturbed by the events of the Reformation until the island was garrisoned by the English following the Battle of Kinsale. The friars soon returned and, except at the height of the Cromwellian persecu­tion, were active all during the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth centuries. The last friar, Fr Patrick Hayes, died soon after 1766 . . .

In the picture above – taken from the OPW information board – you can see the attacks of 1537 by ‘the citizens of Waterford’ on both the Friary (in the foreground) and the O’Driscoll stronghold of Dún na Long (beyond). The castle was subsequently partially rebuilt and was garrisoned by a Spanish force in 1601. It was then acquired and restored by the Becher family in 1655 and remained in their ownership until the late nineteenth century. We went to see what remains of the castle today.

Our visit to Sherkin only took an afternoon – albeit a golden one. There’s plenty more to see there – and other islands to be investigated. And an endless exploration of history to be had in the landscapes of West Cork.

Ballyrisode – Pirate Connections

Last week, Finola wrote about the discovery of what is probably an intertidal fulacht fia on the beach at Ballyrisode, not too far west of us down the Mizen Peninsula. Following the publication of her post, we received a host of comments and messages, including from our friend Dr Connie Kelleher – an underwater archaeologist and well-known specialist on the history of piracy in West Cork. Connie told us that she and a colleague – Áine Brosnan – had examined the site back in 2012 because they were looking for links to pirate connections!

Header – this really is the colour of the remarkably clear water in Canty’s Cove seen on a recent visit: this is probably due to veins of copper ore. Above – Ballyrisode Strand is notable for its secluded location and its impressive white sand

The mention of pirates took me back to my 2016 post – Cantyclick here now and have a read, then return to this page for more insights. One of my resources when researching for Canty was an article by John Hawke in Volume 5 of the Mizen Journal, published in 1997: Canty’s Cove – Legend and History. I only used snippets in my post then, as I concentrated on Canty’s lair on the Northside. Today I’ll expand on Canty’s exploits to the south and west, including his connections with Ballyrisode. Connie made a very valuable point in her comments to us that Canty was a Gaelic-Irish pirate on the opposite side of the peninsula to William Hull and active at a time when the English pirates were headquartered in Leamcon, Baltimore and Crookhaven; he appears to have remained in control within his own domain to at least 1629 but most probably into the 1640s.

Upper – a photo from ‘Northside of the Mizen’ clearly showing the protected promontory known as ‘Canty’s Garden’ in the twentieth century. It is likely that this is the site of Dunkelly Castle, and was the scene of Canty’s grisly treatment of his visitors. Lower – looking across Canty’s Garden today

The following stories were told to John Hawke in 1995 by James Camier, and were handed down from his father, William Camier of Enaghoughter Townland: they therefore go back a good few generations:

. . . Boats from America and elsewhere came into Dunmanus Bay, the captains were invited into his house by Canty, were dazzled by a special grog, robbed and pushed through the north door over the cliff into the cove to the north. On one occasion Canty wanted to stop an invasion by some outsiders at Ballyrisode. He had a daughter, who did not want him to go and tried to stop him, so he shot her. He then crossed by land to Ballyrisode and by moonlight fought a battle on the first strand, which he won. Gravestones to the dead stood on the shore. One day, the son of a captain previously murdered by Canty, who was also a captain, on returning from America was invited in by Canty. But, knowing more than his father, when Canty asked him to step outside he pushed Canty over the cliff . . . James himself remembers some gravestones, but these have been covered by encroaching sand over recent years . . . Graves existing on the second strand are of drowned sailors . . .

Sailor’s graves – or the site of a pirate battle? The fulacht fia is upper right in this picture

This very categoric piece of information suggests that James Camier (or perhaps his father) attribute the stones on the ‘second strand’ to sailors’ graves. These stones are probably the small upright stones which lie close to the fulacht fia today: they certainly resemble grave markers in size and shape. In the context of a Bronze Age fulacht fia such stones were probably part of a hearth or roasting-pit.

It is illegal to disturb any archaeological site (please note!). Our activities at Ballysrisode were confined to measuring and photography. However, we made a series of probes across the beach to test the depth of the sand (and imagine how many excavations have been made on that beach over the years by eager sandcastle engineers!). Our results show that there seems to be a consistent depth of only 50mm to 200mm over the main beach. Hmmmm… not enough to bury any pirate bones methinks. Also, it’s rather unlikely that any pirates would stay around to firmly fix substantial stone markers over the graves of their dead comrades (or enemies). But I would never want to stand in the way of a good tale.

I know this is slightly ‘off subject’ but it’s worth adding to the whole picture of Canty and pirates another tale from the Camiers:

. . . Canty’s Cove was always seen in the locality as a lonesome place at night and there are various stories of unexplained sightings – old longboats coming in and out, a man walking along the ledge on the far side of the Cove from the pier and suddenly disappearing, and of “white” hands helping the captain to tie up his seine boat . . .

I’m not sure that I’d be up for a visit to Canty’s Cove after sunset (above), but the beautiful white strands at Ballyrisode would be most attractive in the moonlight, and – who knows – it might be a good time to see if there is any ghostly pirate activity in this historically significant place.

In the picture below Rosie the Dog investigates the apparently haunted piers at Canty’s Cove: they were extensively upgraded in the 1940s