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…

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…