Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 4, the Protestants – Educators and Evangelists)

In the previous posts we looked at Catholicism in Ireland in the first half of the 19th century, and the position of the Protestant churches, especially the Church of Ireland. This period was marked by a shift to a more militant and evangelical philosophy in that Church: a determination, in fact, to make one final push to convince Catholics that their earthly and heavenly salvation lay in abandoning the pernicious faith of their forefathers and converting to the biblical-based beliefs of Protestantism. Once Protestant, they would reform their wicked habits of drinking and fighting (as in Skelligs Night in the South Mall above, by James Beale, courtesy of the Crawford Gallery) and would naturally see the errors of nationalistic agitation. 

Faction Fighting, one of the evils that both Catholic and Protestants clergy railed against. The illustration, by W H Brooke, is from Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry by William Carleton

Irene Whelan, in her essay The Stigma of Souperism in The Great Irish Famine (The RTE Thomas Davis Lecture Series, edited by Cathal Póirtéir) writes about

the vast institutional and ideological machinery that lay behind the drive to make Ireland a Protestant country. This included not only a massive system of private philanthropy. . . but, more importantly, a fully developed political doctrine rooted in the belief that the source of Ireland’s social and political problems was the Catholic religion, and that the country would never be prosperous and developed until Catholicism and all its influences were eradicated.

From John Barrow’s A Tour Round Ireland, 1835

It is ironic that, in fact, major reform efforts were underway within the Catholic Church at the same time, to depress the more exuberant of the old traditions of patterns at holy wells and seasonal celebrations, or to convert them into Marian feast days (Lughnasa, for example, was conflated with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15). For an excellent description of the goings-on at Patterns, see this post from Holy Wells of Cork. The great scholar John O’Donovan wrote in 1837 the priests, I am sorry to see and say, [are] inclining very much to Protestant notions, and putting an end to all. . . venerable old customs. William Wilde (father of Oscar and a noted antiquarian and folklorist) bemoaned, The tone of society is becoming more and more “Protestant” every year. . . The priests. . . have condemned all the holy wells and resorts of pilgrimage. (Both quotes from K Theodore Hoppen’s Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity.)

The Holy Well, an engraving of a painting by Frederick Goodall

The recognised authority on the evangelical surge of this period is Desmond Bowen. In his book The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, 1800-70, (published in 1978 but not yet superseded in its detailed examination of the religious environment of this period) he lays out the main factors in the hardening of the sectarian divide and the deepening divisions between what were essentially two separate cultures, looking to the separate education systems and the activities of firebrand preachers supported by both British organisations and committed local landlords. Of British evangelicals he writes:

Although their first desire was the purely religious one of freeing Catholics from the bondage of their sin by bringing them the blessings of biblical Christianity, they soon found it advantageous to combine their religious crusading with English ‘cultural imperialism.’ How could the Irish peasantry read the bible unless they attended schools? And how could they attend Evangelical schools and not be culturally influence by the alien but superior way of life they found there? . . .Proselytising . . . sought to bring them the twofold blessing of a reformed faith and British civilisation.

Education, as we saw in Part 2, became a field of contention with the establishment of the National School System in 1839, vigorously opposed by the Church of Ireland. The Protestant Church Education Society was founded with the object of providing an alternative education system but it struggled financially and was unable to provide enough funding to become a viable alternative to the National Schools.

Poor children receiving clothing at a school in the West of Ireland

Up to 1839, schools on the Mizen were mostly miserable affairs with few resources and badly paid teachers. The Kildare Place Society was originally founded to provide non-denominational education to the poor, but after the establishment of the National School System, it affiliated with the Church of Ireland. This Society provided support to several schools on the Mizen Peninsula, including one in Ballydehob, another in Gortnagrough, and another in Rock Island. Other schools were maintained by the local Church of Ireland (e.g. parish schools at Gubbeen and Corravoley) and some received grants and aid from the Hibernian Society – an organisation specifically devoted to offering education with a proselytising ethos.

Now a private residence, part of this house in Durrus was the original school funded by the Association for Discountenancing Vice

Yet another Protestant education society was the charmingly-named Association for Discountenancing Vice and Promoting the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion, while another, The Irish Society, had a similar mission, to provide bibles to schools and to promote Protestant religious education.

A sermon by our old friend, William Magee (see Part 3)

All of these societies, to a greater or lesser extent, supported schools on the Mizen, most of them educating both Protestants and Catholics and stipulating that the curriculum would include biblical instruction. For those students who did not have access to a National School, these schools provided rudimentary instruction, but were frequently accused of offering that education contingent on conversion. During the famine, the provision of food supplies to children when attending schools became a particularly contentious activity – although it does strike one as a no-win situation – damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The Achill Colony. What do you think they served in the Temperance Bar?

The new spirit of fervent evangelism imbued many of the Protestant clergymen in West Cork Parishes. Protestant ‘colonies’ had been established in Achill in Mayo by the Rev Edmund Nangle and in Dingle by the Rev Charles Gayer. Highly controversial, these settlements provided food, education and employment to Church of Ireland converts and were lauded as model villages by the more enthusiastic of the Protestant missionaries. The Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, railed against them, accusing them of buying souls with the promise of financial security. There is a wonderful first-hand, and far from favourable, account of the Achill Island colony in Vol 3 of Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, etc  (pages 394 to 401) by the Halls. They describe a harsh and unforgiving Nangle (below) and a struggling colony that is despised by its neighbours.

West Cork was also a centre for Protestant missionary activities, who saw in its poverty and remoteness an ideal recruiting ground. The activities of the Irish-speaking Rev Edmund Spring on Hare Island and Cape Clear came under particular scrutiny due to the large number of conversions he claimed and his association with the Irish Islands and Coast Society, for whom he ran his parish as a ‘missionary station.’ He moved on to Cape Clear from Hare, in turn winning many converts but always under the accusation of offering ‘support’ to those who became his parishioners.

The Halls, Samuel Carter and Anna Maria, produced a superbly illustrated account of their tour of Ireland in three volumes. It’s an indispensable resource

On the Mizen, in Kilmoe Parish, the arrival of the Rev Thomas O’Grady signalled the advent of the spirit of evangelism and of many conversions. Patrick Hickey’s research indicates that there were five Protestant families in Toormore when O’Grady arrived, but by 1849, with O’Grady’s friend and successor, the Rev William Fisher, now as Rector, that number had risen to eighty.

Crookhaven on the eve of the Famine

How were these conversions won? By the example, dedication, hard work and self-sacrifice of these men, or by the souperism of the Rev Fisher? In the next post I will look at the conditions that led to the latter accusation: famine in Toormore and the building of Teampaill na mBocht.

The Achill Colony, a woodcut from John Barrow’s Tour of Ireland

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…