Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 7, the New Catholicism)

First Vatican Council

The Protestant Evangelical Crusade of the first half of the nineteenth century in Ireland was able to gain traction for two reasons. First, the Catholic Church, after centuries of suppression, was impoverished and underserved. While over 80 percent of the population was Catholic, there were relatively few priests, no seminaries to train new ones, no institutions of higher learning, few churches fit for purpose, few Catholic resources in Irish (the language of the people), and little access to primary education. Second, for the majority of the rural population, actual religious performance revolved not around church, mass and the sacraments, but around a variety of folk practices such as patterns at holy wells, stations, wakes, funerals and pilgrimages – events which started off with penitential prayers and offerings and often ended in drunkenness, revelry and even faction fights. Religious belief, meanwhile, was based on centuries of folklore, mythology and superstition mixed up with religion, so that saints and giants, pookas and devils, banshees and miracles, all became part of a rich melting pot of stories to underpin everyday behaviours.

Some of the main resources I consulted for this series. All excellent reading, and towering over them all is Patrick Hickey’s meticulously researched study of the Famine in West Cork

During the course of the nineteenth century all of that was to change. The first half of the century saw significant advances. Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the establishment of the National School System in 1931 (soon dominated by, and ultimately controlled by the Catholics) and the Tithe Wars of the 1840s all galvanised the Catholic population into a new assertiveness. Many new churches were built in West Cork, mainly plain, barn-style buildings which were nevertheless a great advance on tumble-down mass houses or the open air, and some of which are still in daily use.

And then Ireland was struck by The Great Hunger. Over the ten years from 1841 to 1851 one in every four people in Cork died or left. Proportionately, of course, the poorer and more remote districts were hit the hardest. In the maelstrom of disaster, Catholic priests and Protestant Clergymen worked to alleviate the situation for their flock often together but sometimes, disastrously, in opposition to each other, as with the Rev Fisher in Kilmoe, and the ‘colonies’ in Dingle and Achill, leading to enormous resentment about ‘souperism’ but also to panic among the Catholic hierarchy about the inroads that the evangelicals had managed to make.

Archbishop John McHale of Tuam, Gallican and fiercely nationalist: Cullen disapproved of him (image licensed under Creative Commons,  Attribution: Andreas F. Borchert)

Enter the towering figure of Paul Cullen, Archbishop and later Cardinal, who was to dominate Irish Catholicism from his arrival as Archbishop of Armagh in 1849 to his death in 1878. According to Bowen, because of the increasingly Gallican attitudes of MacHale and his Episcopal supporters and their failure to discipline their clergy or to hold the extension of Protestant authority, the Vatican came to an important decision. The Pope would send to Ireland an ecclesiastic totally committed to the Ultramontane cause, and he would restore order among the faithful. The ecclesiastic who came as papal delegate and Primate was Paul Cullen.

Cardinal Paul Cullen

Gallican, in this context, refers to a philosophy that respects the state in civil matters and religious authority on spiritual matters – a ‘render unto Caesar’ approach to which many Irish priests, trained on the continent, adhered. As Daniel O’Connell expressed it in 1815, I am sincerely a Catholic, but not a Papist.

Cross Keys, The Papal Insignia. This one was spotted in a small Catholic Church in West Cork; look out for it in churches built after 1850.

Ultramontane Catholicism was the opposite – it placed papal authority as central to the conduct of the church and its members. In part, nineteenth century Ultramontanism was a reaction to the horrors of the French Revolution but also to the nationalistic policies of Bismarck which imposed state supervision on church activities. Cullen was an arch-Romanist. In his engaging study Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity, Theodore Hoppen says, Cullen, one of the towering figures of modern Irish history, had spent virtually all his earlier career in Rome where he had been inoculated against liberalism in its continental form

Cullen’s first major initiative was the Synod of Thurles in 1850. Hoppen again:

Patterns now stood condemned as potentially immoral. Wakes were to be sanitised and all the other rights of passage – funerals, baptisms, weddings – brought under clerical auspices alone. . .

Before the 1850s were out he had imposed Draconian loyalty oaths upon the staff and insured that both Maynooth and the new Seminary founded for his own diocese at Clonliffe in 1859 were henceforth to produce only priests totally committed, at least in theological and social terms, to his own version of the clerical role. While this did nothing to encourage intellectual endeavour within the church, it proved highly efficacious in producing a steady stream of those dogged pastoral moralists who, armed with the rulebook at once precise and immutable, could alone have furnished the kind of religious justification and guidance which important sections of the laity increasingly demanded and required.

The reference to ‘sections of the laity’ reflects the emergence of a new rural class. All over Ireland population decline after the famine was hastened by mass evictions as landlords took advantage of the situation to consolidate their holdings. In the second half of the century a new class of ‘strong farmers’ emerged who were to become the backbone of rural life. Seeking respectability, conservative, passing on their farms only to the eldest son, finally approaching financially security and land ownership, they supported the hierarchical and puritanical expression of religion represented by this new Catholicism. Cullen came from, and kept in close contact with, this very group.

Pope Pius IX

Cullen was extremely well connected within the Vatican and indeed was a personal friend of Pius IX, still the longest-serving Pope and one of the most centralising and controversial. He could rely on Cullen for support – and needed it to get the infamous doctrine of Papal Infallibility passed at the First Vatican Council in 1868 (that’s my lead image for this post). It outraged not only Protestants but liberal Catholics too – a breed that still clung on to some influence as the century wore on, but were ultimately on the losing end of Irish religious history. Charles Kickham, for example, one of the Fenians and a revered writer, was a constant critic of Cullen’s ultramontane activities. Cullen dismissed him as a cultural Protestant.

Charles Kickham. This image is reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland (with permission)

Others, such as Charles Gavan Duffy, according to Bowen had to flee the kind of Ireland that Cullen had created, where the ‘power of the priest is the one unspeakable, unmentionable thing’. So long as their presence was felt in Irish Catholicism these people were to experience the full force of Cullen’s inquisitorial instincts.

Marian imagery starts to dominate much Catholic Church decoration in this period

It is at this time that the great period of Catholic church building commenced and triumphalist cathedrals and churches were erected all over Ireland, often on the highest piece of ground in the town. ‘Roman’ initiatives such as an emphasis on Marian worship (Cullen helped to usher in the ‘doctrine’ of the Immaculate Conception in 1854), Novenas and Sodalities, ‘Miraculous Medals’ (the Vincentians had distributed these in Kilmoe and they were much derided by the Protestant clergymen) and of course a continuation of the yearly missions or retreats where the faithful were encouraged in their faith (or whipped into line, according to your perspective) by specialist itinerant preachers. Often referred to as Cullen’s Devotional Revolution, forms of worship settled into the pattern we often now consider ‘traditional’ Irish Catholicism.

In this window from Killarney Cathedral a direct parallel is drawn between the baptism of Jesus and the conversion activities of Patrick

Stained glass and statuary of the period is a fascinating mix of the continental (the Italian holy statue factories must have been doing a booming business) and the local, as priests incorporated their own parish and diocesan patron saints into the overall decorative plan. Killarney Cathedral, started in 1842 but interrupted by the Famine, was ready for worship by 1855. Decoration was added as time went by, including a set of windows clearly designed with an Ultramontanist message in mind – they draw clear parallels between Irish saints and martyrs,  the life of Christ, and the ultimate authority of Rome. It’s quite a demonstration of verbal and visual sleight of hand, and a powerful message to the congregation.

And in this one the message is direct – look to Rome for spiritual guidance. A message from St Patrick himself

In Kilmoe, Fisher had built his own Church of Ireland church in Goleen in 1843 – the one that is now, for want of parishioners, in use as a sail making workshop. In contrast, the large Catholic ‘Star of the Sea and St Patrick’ Church stands on the hill, dominating the town and is very active. It was built in 1854, only a few years after the devastation of the famine, quite an amazing testament to the resilience of the population and the growth in influence and economic power of the Catholic church.

Goleen with the Catholic Church dominating the skyline

It is also, of course, a reminder that the Church of Ireland was finally disestablished by the Irish Church Act of 1869 under Gladstone.  

A typical Punch cartoon, this one showing Gladstone cosying up to the Irish.  And of course there’s a pig, potatoes, whiskey and a none-too-subtle reference to Rome – all the tropes of Victorian images of Ireland

This Ultramontanist Catholicism was the church I grew up in, walking up to mass every Sunday in the Holy Redeemer in Bray (built in 1895), going to confession on Saturdays, attending the Children’s retreats and participating in the Corpus Christi parade. Although I knew Protestants because we lived beside them, I had never been in a Protestant church. I attended a national school and an all-girls convent school run by the same order of nuns (the Loreto order) that set up convents all over Ireland in the nineteenth century. It always puzzled me that we called ourselves Catholics but the Protestants always insisted on calling us Roman Catholics. I understand why, now.

This is it, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Bray – note the sodality banners and the extreme ornamentation. It’s much plainer now, having been toned down considerably in the post-Vatican II era. (This image is reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland, with permission)

I’ve learned a lot about my own history in the course of this series and about the kind of attitudes I grew up with (and which, if I am to be perfectly honest, can still stir inside me in certain circumstances, despite the fact that I am now a non-believer). I suppose awareness of our history and constant vigilance against ingrained prejudice and facile assumptions has to be our watchword if we are not to perpetuate the mistakes and schisms of the past.

It’s worth enlarging this extraordinary print and having a good look. It’s an address to Cardinal Cullen, enumerating his many achievements. I love the bottom right image of him defeating the dragon. What evil does this dragon represent? I think you can choose one of several candidates. (This image is reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland, with permission)

And what conclusions have I come to about Fisher – was he a Saint or a Souper? He was both. He worked incredibly hard and succeeded in saving hundreds, Catholic and Protestant, from the worst ravages of the Famine, and he died of famine fever himself. But his enthusiasm for his own narrow definition of Christianity drove him to alienate his Catholic counterparts by seeing the Famine as God’s punishment on Romanist intransigence, and to conflate the need to save bodies with the imperative to save souls.

Fisher’s gravestone, in Mount Jerome, Dublin. I am not sure why he would have been buried there, since he died, I think, in West Cork. Perhaps he is simply commemorated on this stone, on the grave of his brother and sister-in-law (© IGP Archives)

I am left with an abiding sense of sadness that the events of the mid-nineteenth century, as symbolised for me by the story of Teampall na mBocht, have left a legacy of sectarian division in Ireland. Perhaps now we can leave Fisher – and all the other crusaders and reformists and counter-reformists – to lie in peace.

A reminder, in one of the Killarney windows, that Patrick was sent by the Pope

I’d like to end with the words of Carlo Gébler, reviewing John Kelly’s excellent book on the Famine, The Graves are Walking:

It’s tempting, with figures as obdurate and flawed as Trevelyan, to judge them by our standards and find them guilty of crimes against humanity – but. . . be advised: Kelly has no truck with this type of transaction. On the contrary, as he firmly but politely reminds us at every turn, all the participants in this miserable saga were made what they were by their period, should be judged only by standards of their time, and, however, we might wish it weren’t true, did believe they were doing right.

None of this is easy to accept, but part of growing up as a country is that we allow those we hold responsible for our woes the integrity of their beliefs, no matter the suffering they caused.

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 6, Counter-Accusation)

Today I am looking at what happened to Teampall na mBocht when the Catholics finally got the resources together to win back Fisher’s converts.  As we saw in the last post, the Rev William Allen Fisher built Teampall na mBocht (above) with money raised through his own efforts, confining the work to the poorest labourers. There is no evidence that he made employment on this project conditional on conversion, and his own accounts quantify payments to Catholics as well as Protestants (going by the evidence of last names, which can, of course, be misleading).

Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland (with permission) from a collection of prints by the Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics. The notes accompanying the image say: This image shows a Protestant clergyman standing at a pulpit with his right arm raised in anger while arguing with a Roman Catholic clergyman in the audience. Audience is divided into 2 groups determined by features. Those seated have more prominent features with upturned noses and those standing have more stern features with straight noses

However, he also supplied food to the Christian missionary schools in the area, the enrolments of which surged accordingly, and he enthusiastically welcomed those who wished to confess and be converted: the number of Church of Ireland adherents rose dramatically in the Goleen area during this period. He denied all charges that he ‘bought’ such conversions. The activities of a clergyman who also happened to be a large landlord using relief funds to build a Protestant church and fund Protestant mission schools, even if by doing so he saved many from starvation, were always going to excite odium within the minds of his Catholic counterparts.

Alexander Dallas, founder of the Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics Photo from Archive.org

The Protestant Crusade, with its colonies and schools and aggressive proselytising, had reached its zenith in the period leading up to and during the famine. Led by men like Alexander Dallas of the Irish Church Missions, or Bishop Robert Daly of Cashel, it never succeeded in winning the numbers of converts that its proponents and funders hoped for. What it did, in fact, was to drive a sectarian wedge deep into the heart of Irish society and create a legacy of bitterness and distrust.

Lord John George de la Poer Beresford, every inch the aristocratic Lord Bishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

Moderate and liberal Church of Ireland leaders such as Archbishops Whately of Dublin and Beresford of Armagh, tried to curb the worst excesses of the movement, worrying that that The ICM was doing “Irreparable mischief to the Church in Ireland”. While they both deplored the ‘Romish’ religion they hoped for conversions through Irish Catholics seeing what a model of bible-based virtue looked like, not by means of radical evangelical activities and proselytising. 

Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin, a complex and possibly misunderstood prelate

A Catholic backlash was inevitable and when it came it was as complete and heavy-handed as it was possible to be. Seeing the situation, and the number of converts in Goleen and Toormore, Bishop William Delany of Cork sent in the big guns, in the form of Fr John Murphy, AKA The Black Eagle of the North.

William Delaney’s rather magnificent statue in Cork. Note the Papal Insignia

Wait – the what? Yes, you heard me right! A scion of the famous and wealthy Catholic merchants, distillers and brewers (themselves accused of exporting grain during the Famine by none other than Fr Matthew) John James Murphy was the stuff of legend. Here’s a quote in full from one account (based on a well researched biographical sketch), because, well, you can’t make this stuff up.

The scene changes to a clearing in the virgin forests of Canada. There a French-Canadian priest has pitched his camp. He has no flour to make Hosts for the Holy Sacrifice and then down the little stream that bordered the clearing there drifted a birch-bark canoe paddled by an Indian. He shared his flour with the priest who was surprised at the soft cadences of the Indian’s English. And no wonder, for the Indian was born not on the banks of the St. Lawrence but on the banks of the Cork Lee. It was John James Murphy, one time an officer in the navy, now a hunter in Canada. In the course of his journeyings the Corkman had fallen in with a tribe of Red Indians and had thrown in his lot with them. They initiated him into their tribe, crowned him with feathers and dressed him in all the accoutrements of an Indian brave. To them and to all of the Five Nations he was known as the Black Eagle of the North.

In Black Eagle’s wanderings through the forests he came one day upon a green glade in the centre of which was a statue of the Blessed Virgin. And there in that silent glade there came back to him the faith and the teaching of his childhood. Perhaps the spirit of some martyred Jesuit was hovering around that neglected shrine.

So he returned to his tribe, washed off his war paint, relinquished his chieftain’s features and started off on a long trek, down the Hudson river, across the broad Atlantic, over the European continent to Rome, to commence his studies for the priesthood.

This account, by the way, omits to mention that in Murphy’s own words he also “dismissed his squaws.” The language, by today’s standards, is shudderingly horrifying throughout, isn’t it?

Murphy (above, illustration from Patrick Hickey’s Famine in West Cork) arrived dressed in black, wearing a tall black hat and flowing black cloak, and riding an enormous black ‘charger.’ He brought supplies of meal for the schoolchildren in the national school, took lodgings in Goleen, and set about sniffing out the converts. He marched them to Teampall na mBocht, mounted the wall, and proceeded to give a fiery sermon exhorting them to return to their true faith and insisting they recant at Fisher’s gate. His appearance and eloquence was electrifying and soon had the desired effect.

Interior of St Peter and Paul Church in Cork City, established and partly built by John Murphy’s considerable inherited wealth

Reinforcements arrived shortly thereafter in the form of a Vincentian mission. These missions, in which a group of priests from particular orders such as the Vincentians or the Redemptorists, would descend upon a town and preach every night for a week, were a staple of my young life. This one was reported to be a great success. Fr Hickey quotes from a contemporary report:

Our mission in West Schull (Kilmoe). . . is doing much good. A great number of the poor who were perverted in the time of the famine by relief given for that purpose by the Protestants, have returned already. The chapels, even in weekdays, are not able to contain the congregation and the confessional is crowded far beyond the power of our confreres to accomplish its work.

In fact, the famine was not over, and the Vincentians brought more than The Word of God (and the Fear of God) with them – they also distributed great quantities of food relief and some cash, both to individual families and to the schools. They established a chapter of the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the members busied themselves visiting the poor and distributing supplies. Fr Hickey says:

Food was now being used by the Catholic Church in order to hold on to its flock and win back the lost sheep. Did hunger tempt them to stray in the first instance? Were they now coming back because they were simply going to the church which would give them the most food, as some of them had bluntly told Fr Laurence O’Sullivan?

St Vincent de Paul. Most Irish people today recognise the Society of St Vincent de Paul as an active Catholic charitable organisation. The Vincentians, on the other hand, have declined in numbers to the extent that their Cork headquarters had to close for lack of vocations

Revs Fisher, Triphook (successor to Dr Traill), Donovan and Crossthwaite wrote a published statement which accused John Murphy and the Vincentians of failing to come during the horrors of famine and arriving only now in the harvest ‘to propagate Romanism’.

Fisher’s church in Goleen, now in use as a sail-making space. His pulpit would have been an important part of the church furnishings and I am pleased it has survived

It was a telling counter-accusation to the charges of Church of Ireland souperism, but in any case the heyday of the radical and fundamentalist evangelicals was nearing an end. A new era was dawning for the Irish, that of the Ultramontane Catholicism of Cardinal Cullen – the ethos that would drive Irish Catholicism for the next one hundred and fifty years. 

This photograph is captioned Late nineteenth-century evangelical preacher addressing a crowd under police protection, and is credited to Michael Tutty

Although I had hoped to finish this series with this post, I have learned so much now about the religious legacy of this extraordinary time in Irish history that I find myself unable to resist one final episode in the saga. In my next and last (I promise!) post in this series, I will endeavour to relate how the foundations of the kind of Catholicism I grew up with were laid down upon the contested ground of Teampall na mBocht and on the battle for the hearts of souls of the people of Ireland that such places epitomised. I shall also attempt to draw some personal conclusions from what I have learned, and to share with you some of the excellent resources I have used in this series.

Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland (with permission) from a collection of prints by the Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics. This print is captioned Two preachers standing in a street preaching to an audience. In the background a rabble sings, dances and jeers. The  notes given for this image in the NLI collections are: The differences between those converted to Evangelicism and the “unconverted” Roman Catholics are emphasised in this image. The captivated audience surrounding the preachers are dressed well whereas the rabble causing trouble behind them are badly dressed with the stereotypical Irish look about them

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 5, Famine in Kilmoe)

Gorta, by Lilian Lucy Davidson, courtesy Ireland Great Hunger Museum

The potato crop failed first in 1845. Patrick Hickey in Famine in West Cork relates the discussion at the annual Skibbereen Agricultural Show dinner in October. Much congratulatory talk about the progress that had been made in agriculture, was brought to an abrupt end when the inevitable topic of the potato disease raised its ugly head. While several landlords and farmers felt the crisis would pass quickly, and others placed their faith in the new dry pits championed by the Rev Traill of Schull, Dr Daniel Donovan brought them down to earth with a first-hand account of the calamitous conditions all around them. Fr Hickey puts it poetically when he says, As these gentlemen headed home that night the sound of their horses’ hooves on the stony road rang the death knell of pre-famine Ireland.

Planting Potatoes – each cottage relied on an acre or so to plant enough for a year

Relief Committees were struck and established food depots. In the Parish of Kilmoe the Rev Fisher and the Parish Priest, Fr Laurence O’Sullivan each contributed £5 as did other members of the committee. The ethos of the time was very much to tie relief with work and soon various schemes were proposed to the Board of Works and although one was initially approved no funding ever materialised. Distress was widespread.

The ‘lazy bed,’ in fact a labour-intensive cultivation method, has left its mark on the landscape all over Ireland

But it was the second failure of the potato crop in 1846 that precipitated a full blown famine environment. The workhouses started to fill, hungry people pawned anything they had and reports of death by starvation and fever started to pour in. The Parish of Kilmoe, which stretched from Schull to Crookhaven, encompassing Toormore and Goleen, was particularly hard hit. The Board of Works, inexplicably declined to fund any road or pier-building schemes. According to Hickey, The only refuge these hungry people had was the Kilmoe Relief Committee but even this was now in dire straits.

A ‘scalp’ was a just a hole dug in the earth. People resorted to living in such troughs when they had been evicted

How dire? I will let the committee speak for themselves – here are the proceedings of their meeting on November 3rd, 1846, sent to newspapers in the hope that it would elicit compassion and aid. It has all the impact of immediacy and desperation in the face of appalling official indifference, made all the more powerful by being sent by normally polite and government-supporting educated men.

Proposed by the Rev W A Fisher, Rector, and seconded by the Rev Laurence O’Sullivan, PP;

1. That this committee having repeatedly tried, but in vain, to arouse the attention of the government to the state of destitution and distress in this remote district, have determined to bring the matter before the public, through the medium of the press.

Proposed by Richard B Hungerford, Esq, JP and seconded by the Rev Henry P Proctor;

2. That the following statement of facts be forwarded: — “The parish of Kilmoe contains 7234 inhabitants, or 1289 families; we calculate that 7000 inhabitants require food, in consequence of the failure of the potato crop;  the parish produces very little corn. Potatoes feed the people, the pigs, the poultry, the cows, the horses; and enabled the fisherman to dispose of his fish, for which he did not this year get as much as paid the expenses of taking and saving it, as the poor, from the destruction of the potato crop, are unable to purchase it. Thus deprived of their only means of support, they are now literally famishing. All this, in substance, we have stated over and over again to the Lord Lieutenant, the Lieutenant of the County, the Commissary-General, and the Commissary at Skibbereen. We asked a depôt – we offered a store free of expense – we entered security – and when we had done all this, at the end of a month we received a letter from the Castle, with a paper on brown bread enclosed, to say we had better purchase wheaten and barley meal.

Proposed by the Rev Thomas Barrett, RCC and seconded by Mr John Coghlan;

3. That this committee feel quite unable to meet the views of the government. There are only two resident gentry in this district – there are no merchants here – there are no mills within twenty-three miles – there is no bakery within that distance – nor is there any way of procuring food, except through the medium of our committee, which, out of our limited funds of 165l., have kept up a small supply of Indian meal and even with our very best exertions, in consequence of our trifling finances, and being obliged to bring our supplies from Cork by water, we have been twice, for a fortnight together, without meal.

Proposed by Mr B Townshend and seconded by Mr J Fleming;

4. That our funds are now exhausted, and we have no means of renewing them, while the demand for food is fearfully increasing. We see no other way left to us but to try, to the medium of the press, to arouse the government to a sense of the fearful state of things which is inevitably impending. Rapine has already commenced and who can wonder? Many are living solely on salt herrings – many more on seaweed; and when our last supply of Indian meal was sold, they offered 3s. a stone – and would not go away without it – for some that was damaged, the very smell from which was so offensive that it was thought unfit and dangerous food for human beings.

Proposed by the Rev Laurence O’Sullivan, PP and seconded by Mr A O’Sullivan

5. That these resolutions be published in all the Cork newspapers, the Dublin Evening Post, Dublin Evening Mail, and the Times London newspaper and a copy be sent to Lord John Russell and Sir Randolph Routh, with a faint hope that something may be done without delay (for the case is urgent) to relieve our misery and want, else the public will soon hear of such tales of woe and wickedness as will harrow the feelings and depress the spirits of the most stout-hearted man.

Signed

Richard Notter, Chairman.

W A Fisher, Rector of Kilmoe, Sec

Upper: Memorial tablet to Richard Notter in the former Church of Ireland in Goleen. Lower: an example of the kind of ‘rapine’ predicted by the letter

Besides a stark description of conditions in Kilmoe, what these minutes show is that the relief committee was composed of both Catholics and Protestants, of clergy and lay men, drawn together in a common cause and working in a cooperative spirit. Perhaps as a result of this letter, a Board of Works road-building project was eventually implemented on the Mizen. These hated schemes were riven with administrative problems of all sorts, the most serious being a delay in paying the labourers.

Meal being delivered under armed guard

Because this is the story of Teampall na mBocht and Rev Fisher, I cannot dwell here on a detailed description of the harrowing progression in Kilmoe of the Great Hunger. Much has been written about the famine in West Cork, and I direct the reader to Patrick Hickey’s book, which has been my main resource. (In the final post I will supply a list of the resources I used for this study.) I confess that I find it difficult to write about the famine itself – it’s amazing how raw and emotional it becomes once I immerse myself in the subject. Anger wells up very quickly and I recognise a desire to find culprits to blame (there is no shortage of candidates) and to jump to judgement using a modern mindset and all the benefit of hindsight.

The Rev Traill, drawn by James Mahony for the Illustrated London News, in Mullins hut, while Mullins lies dying on the floor. Mahony stood “ankle deep in filth” to capture the image

For now, then, let’s get back to Kilmoe, William Fisher and Fr Laurence O’Sullivan, central actors in our drama. One digression, though, remember the Rev Robert Traill and how he railed against the wicked priests for opposing his tithes? He was very much part of the relief effort too, setting up ‘eating houses’ in cooperation with Fr Barry of Ballydehob (the regulation ‘soup kitchens’ did not provide food they considered nutritious enough) and travelling throughout his parish indefatigably providing assistance to all, Catholic and Protestant alike. When he came down with famine fever in 1847 he couldn’t fight it off, and died in April, mourned and honoured by everyone for his heroic efforts.

Soyer’s Model Soup Kitchen: Soyer’s soup recipe was recommended on the basis of low cost rather than nutritional value – see this post in the marvellous Come Here to Me blog for more on Soyer and his soup

Rev Fisher had a printing press and used it to great effect, sending requests for aid to everyone he knew. Money arrived, and it enabled him to help a great deal with the relief efforts. Like the Rev Traill, he also contracted famine fever but managed to recover. It was during this period of recovery that he started hearing confessions. He was strongly influenced by the Tractarian Movement, a return to High Church liturgies that came close to Catholic practise. He claimed that he simply made himself available in his vestry and that the people poured in, wishing to unburden themselves of their sins. Soon, his church, in Goleen, was filled with the newly-converted.

The former Church of Ireland in Goleen, now used for mending sails. Here, Fisher heard confessions and welcomed converts

In his book, The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, Desmond Bowen makes the claim that Catholics in the area were completely demoralised; they quarrelled with their priest who fled the community. However, Hickey points out that Bowen provides no source for that information, whereas Hickey tracked down Fr O’Sullivan’s movements and found that he left for only a short time (possibly ten days) to fund-raise (successfully) in Cork. Tellingly, he had withdrawn from the Kilmoe Committee as a result of dissension between the clergymen. Laurence O’Sullivan, in fact, remained in his parish throughout the famine and worked to raise and disburse funds as well as to feed his parishioners, also contracting famine fever which knocked him out of action for at least two months.

Fisher’s fund-raising efforts eventually enabled him to contemplate a building project. He considered first a school, and then a church. It would be built using only manual labour in order to ensure that the work was done by the poorest, and not farmers with horses and carts, and called Teampall na mBocht, Church of the Poor. At the same time, Fisher was donating money for food to schools (leading to a dramatic increase in enrolment) and trying to encourage a return to fishing by local fishermen. Hickey acknowledges, Whatever about the conditions of aid, implicit or explicit, Fisher organised the distribution of large supplies of food and this saved many lives.

Funeral in Chapel Lane, Skibbereen

However, from the point at which he broke away from the Relief Committee, Fisher seems to have been in conflict with his Catholic clerical counterparts. A typical product of the evangelical movements described in the last post, he was zealously committed to winning souls away from the superstition of Popery. The crux of the matter, of course, is whether or not the aid he provided was conditional on conversion. Many other West Cork Protestant clergymen laboured to alleviate famine suffering, but most remained on good terms with Catholic priests and won praise from them rather than opprobrium.

 

Fisher’s memorial tablet in Teampall na mBocht

Damning accusation were made by Fr Barrett against Fisher, that his zeal led him to confine his bounty to those of his creed, and to famine-constrained proselytes. He went on to state that when he protested to Fisher, that Fisher had said that had English contributors known that a Popish priest sat on the same seat as himself, sooner would they have cast it away than give a single shilling to relieve those whose religion he himself had sworn to be idolatrous, etc, and which he, in common with English contributors, believed to be the sole cause of blight disease, death, etc.

Also in Teampall na mBocht

Fisher, of course saw things very differently. He denied ever coercing anyone into converting. If he gives only a little charity, he wrote of the fate of Protestant clergymen, he is accused of living off the fat of the land, but if he denies himself and his family to relieve the poor he is publicly reprobated as one taking advantage of the misery of the poor in order to bribe them into a hypocritical profession of a religion that they do not believe. But despite his protestations his reputation among Catholics remained that of a Souper. Perhaps there is no smoke without a fire.

Fisher’s son-in-law, Standish O’Grady (above), whose own father had preceded Fisher as Rector of Kilmoe, wrote about him that, if ever a saintly man walked the earth, he was one. I never saw in any countenance an expression, so benignant or which so told of a life so pure and unworthy and a self so obliterated.

Fisher’s pulpit in Teampaill na mBocht

This is the central dichotomy at the heart of this story. Fisher was a deeply spiritual man, fired up by the desire to do good, as he saw it. The beneficial outcome of this was that, during the worst of the famine, he provided food and employment for hundreds, and saved probably thousands from death. He stayed in Kilmoe until his own death in 1880 – ironically from famine fever contracted during another, although less catastrophic, period of famine – and continued to labour tirelessly for his flock.

Fisher’s memorial window in the former Church of Ireland church in Goleen

If he did indeed administer the bible test as a precondition of aid, he did so in the honest and total conviction that what he was offering was true salvation, an escape from the worst excesses of Popery. In this, he was no different from the zealots who galvanised into action to win back those souls for the Catholic Church. In the next, and final (whew!) post, we will examine the Second Counter-Reformation that swept into West Cork like the cavalry coming over the hill, to set Kilmoe and its converts back on the true path – the path back to Rome, in fact.

St Brendan’s Church of Ireland, Crookhaven. One of the Kilmoe churches, still with no electricity

The black and white line drawings used in this post are from the Illustrated London News, mainly by James Mahony, a Cork artist contracted by the ILN to produce drawings of famine conditions in Ireland.

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

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…

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…