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…

A Tale of Four Churches

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe is a magical place. The story of its four churches leads us from the dawn of Christianity in Ireland through turbulent times and many centuries when religious differences and sectarian strife marked all aspects of life in Ireland.

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church  2, Mass Rock 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church 4, Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church. 2, Mass Rock. 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church. 4. Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

We love going down to the Medieval church at Kilcoe or wandering the boreens along the Roaringwater River. Those boreens are now part of the Fastnet Trail Network and last weekend, at the Launch, we were treated to a talk about the locality from Fr Patrick Hickey, Parish Priest of Timoleague and a noted scholar of West Cork History. This blog post was inspired by that talk – thank you, Fr Hickey!

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Kilcoe gets its name from St Coch, a nun said to be a colleague of St Ciarán of Cape Clear, who preached Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick, in the 5th Century. It is possible she founded a church here, but what we do know is that one was built in Medieval times – a building that still exists although the ivy is doing its best to take it over.

It’s a beautiful and atmospheric place, on the water, overlooking Roaringwater Bay. Two castles are in view: Kilcoe and Rincolisky, a McCarthy and an O’Driscoll Castle respectively. Each has a fascinating history that deserves a post of its own sometime. Some special features remain in this ruined church – windows with carved ogees, a lovely arched doorway, a piscina (for washing vessels) or stoup (for washing hands), a recess for storing vessels and the remains of a possible altar.

We don’t know exactly when this church was built or by whom, but we do know it was in ruins by 1615. Perhaps it was destroyed by the same forces that laid siege to Kilcoe Castle after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – a period that marked the end of the Old Gaelic Order in West Cork.

The Medieval church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background.

The Church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background

The rise of the Protestant Ascendancy class in the aftermath of that fateful battle privileged the Church of Ireland (transplanted Anglicanism) over the Catholic faith and a series of new laws, gradually getting harsher, were designed to suppress ‘Romanism’. This culminated in the enactment, in 1695, of the infamous Penal Laws. While attendance at mass was initially tolerated, churches could only be built from wood and away from roads. Eventually, priests were expelled from Ireland and after that mass had to be held in secret, with priests moving from hiding place to hiding place. At Roaringwater Pier Fr Hickey talked of the typical cargo of the smuggling ships that plied their trade from there: each ship to arrive from France would be carrying tobacco, brandy – and a priest!

From this period we find the Mass Rocks scattered around rural Ireland, identified on the basis of local tradition. The one at Ardura Beg is just up from a tiny pier that would have offered possibility of a quick escape. Many stories have come down of lookouts warning of the approach of the ‘red coats’ and the miraculous ways in which priests would make their escape. (See here and here for examples.)

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Places of worship must be located where they are accessible and the first two are close by the sea, which afforded the easiest travel routes in Ireland for most of its history. However, roads were constructed eventually and the next two churches were located along these new routes. The first one, we’ll call it the Old Church, was built along the new road that led from Skibbereen to the Beara Peninsula. After 1778 the anti-Catholic laws were gradually relaxed, although it was not until 1829 that full Catholic Emancipation was won by Daniel O’Connell. The Old Church was probably built around 1800 and was a simple ‘barn-style’ edifice which served an impoverished and famine-stricken populace for a hundred years.

Left, the Old Church near Roaringwater Pier. Right, an example of a simple ‘barn style’ church in West Cork

By the turn of the 20th Century it was deemed unfit for purpose. Nowadays it is a gentle green space, lovingly tended and in use as a grotto. Children were buried there – it was not a cillín, but a consecrated graveyard – and a memorial remembers them now.

Grotto and Chirdren Memorial. A place for contemplation

Grotto and Children’s Memorial. A place for contemplation

Catholic Emancipation ushered in a long period of church building by the newly-confident Catholic majority. The new road from Skibbereen to Ballydehob was constructed at the end of the 19th century and the New Church was built there in 1905, right beside the bridge over the Roaringwater River.

Kilcoe Church and Bridge

Bridge over Roaringwater River

The two styles of churches common at the time were Neo-Gothic, Influenced by continental cathedrals, and Hiberno-Romanesque which took its inspiration from the Early Medieval Romanesque style of Old Ireland and featured wonderful doorways and round towers. The Kilcoe New Church, the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, was built in the Neo-Gothic style, with a large rose window at the eastern end.

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Originally the side-aisles did not have seats – poorer people could stand there for mass, while those who could afford a penny would occupy the pews. As the church fund grew, thought was put into ornamentation and stained glass was commissioned for several windows. The rose window was executed by the Harry Clarke Studios in 1943 and shows scenes from the life of Christ and of Mary.

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Altar and side windows were the work of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass. The choice of stained glass – from Dublin-based Celtic Revival artists rather than the English or Continental firms that supplied most church glass at the time –  was a choice that demonstrates the nationalistic feelings that were rife in West Cork at the time.

Irish History is written large on her landscape. In this one small area – these sites are within a couple of kilometres of each other – we see encapsulated sixteen hundred years of history, starting with St Coch and ending with the latest incarnation of a church at Kilcoe. Their beauty and their peaceful settings have been hard won. They should serve to remind us that peace and tolerance must always be cherished and safeguarded.

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church