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

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)