Fisher’s Folklore (Saints and Soupers Part 8)

Over the course of a marathon seven posts, I wrote about the Rev William Allen Fisher, revered by his kin and congregation as the energetic and saintly saviour of hundreds of famished souls during the Great Hunger, and reviled by his Catholic clerical counterparts as one of the worst examples of a Protestant Clergyman who bought conversions with food and employment. Balanced precariously on the fence of fairness, I concluded that he was both a Saint and a Souper, conflating, as he did, the imperative to feed the body with his mission to save souls.

Paul Farmiloe’s lovely sketch of Fisher’s church, Teampall na mBocht in Toormore

It is difficult to overstate, from this remove, how normal his kind of evangelical Protestantism was for the time in which he lived and worked. Ultimately, though, he was on the losing end of history. Not only did the Protestant Crusade, of which he was an enthusiastic proponent, fail to convert broad masses of ‘Papists’ but the burgeoning social and economic power of the Catholic Church ensured that those individuals who had converted to the Church of Ireland felt the full might of episcopal condemnation. Indeed, to be accused of being a Souper remains to this day one of the worst insults that can be said to an Irish person. 

In this church-dominated narrative, which all of us were fed in school in the 50s and 60s (betraying my age there – and I am in that blurry photo above), there was no room for allowing that a conversion to the Church of Ireland could possibly be through genuine conviction or a change of heart. No, such conversions – or perversions as they were labelled at the time – came as a result of taking advantage of people driven mad with hunger. Knowing as we did that Catholicism was the one true faith, how could we accept that anyone in their right mind could abandon it? It’s always been interesting to me, by the way, that at the same time as we were taught to excoriate those who converted away from their own faith, we were happily offering up our pennies to fill the collection boxes that every school had for Ireland’s extensive Missions Programs, in which Irish priests and nuns (including members of my own family) spread out across the world with the intent of wresting souls away from other religions. 

In the second half of the 1930s the Folklore Commission collected stories and local traditions from over 50,000 schoolchildren in Ireland (like the boys in the 1930s classroom above) – now all available online. I was curious whether stories of the Rev Fisher had persisted in local memory and I turned to this collection to look, specifically to the schools in the vicinity of Toormore. And yes – here it all was, occasionally in remarkable specificity, still very much alive ninety years after the events had taken place. 

Mary O’Sullivan from Toormore National School contributed this detailed piece:

The only landlord that any of the old people around here heard tell of were Mr Baylie and Mr Fisher. Although a Protestant, he was a very good man, and all his tenants were catholics, in fact the Catholic curate of the parish was living in a cottage on his lands – where Mr Hogan now resides. All his tenants were living in peace and comfort until he was forced to sell all his property to the church body, one of whose agents was a minister named Mr Fisher.

The first act that he did was to issue notices that any catholic that did not pay the running half gale within a month would be evicted. All the catholics paid, and the next notice issued intimated that any catholic that did not go to church on the following Sunday would be evicted.

Some of the catholics remained steadfast, but as Fisher had the law in his own hands he had no trouble in evicting all those who he knew had the best of the lands. Those farms he divided into smaller lots, and gave to those whom he got to go to church.

There were two catholic schools in Toormore at that time, one for boys and the other for girls. These were closed so that the children should go to the Altar Protestant school. As the time went on the people got poorer as a result of evictions, and Mr Fisher keeping constantly going amongst the poor people with his charity and prayers he got some of them to go to church to save themselves from starvation. But others endured the greatest privation and kept the faith. Some of these that were evicted were given houses by their old landlord Mr Baylie.

Mr Fisher was supposed to have contracted what was called a slow fever, he was taken from the Altar to Dublin where he died.

I found that last paragraph interesting as I know that Fisher is on the same headstone (below) as his brother in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin but had been unable to find any account until now as to why he would not have been buried in his own churchyard in Goleen. I also need to point out that there is no evidence, or accusations in contemporary accounts, that Fisher evicted tenants or used eviction or a threat of eviction to force conversions. Finally, if anyone knows what a ‘running half gale’ refers to, do let us know as I have been unable to track down the term.

Eileen O’Driscoll, also of Toormore, had this version

The famine years lasted from 1845 to 1847. In this district the people had plenty of corn but they had to export it to England to pay the rent and the potato crop failed. The potato was their principal food for breakfast dinner and supper. Lots of them died of hunger and the fever came all over the county and swept them in hundreds. There were men hired for carrying them to the nearest burial ground which was Kilhangil. They had a special car for that purpose. They called it a bogey car. This man carried nine or ten at the time and dug a big hole and covered them over without any coffin. There was then a relief sent from England to all Parish priests and ministers. In this parish the the minister took hold of the clothes that were sent and some of the poor Catholics died of hunger before they would take anything from the Protestants and others took the clothes and turned Protestant. Mr Fisher was the minister of this parish and also the landlord of Toormore and Gorttyowen. He got the clothes and distributed them to anyone that went to the Protestant church on Sunday. Many Catholics availed of this offer and they were called “soupers or turncoats” The Bishop became angry and he sent a very strict priest to the parish. His name was Fr. Holland. He gave very harsh sermons to the people and we are told that when Mr Fisher got up on Monday mornings he found lots of clothes outside his door. A lot of the people still kept on getting the clothes. Fr. Holland said that he would curse the people that went to the protestant church. He got permission from the bishop to do so. One Sunday as he was speaking in Ballinaskeagh Church a man stood up and said he would go in spite of any Bishop to what churches he like himself. The man died before the end of that day, and his son was killed by his own horse within a week. This frightened the people and it forbade a great number from attending the Protestant Church any more There was one man in Toormore that went to the Protestant Church but he also went to Mass before going there. Mr. Fisher found this out. He met him one day and asked him why he was going to Mass and also going to Church He said he was going to Mass to save his soul and that he was going the Church for to save his body Mr. Fisher bought Mr. Bailey’s property which was Toormore, Gorttyowen, and the Altar. He evicted all the Catholic out of Gorttyowen Toormore but left those that remained souper in their holdings and they are known as Toormore soupers.

There is so much to unpack here. In this version of the story the main inducement to convert is the provision of clothing, rather than food. In Saints and Soupers Part 6 I related that Bishop Delany of Cork had sent the firebrand Fr John James Murphy (AKA The Black Eagle of the North) to sort out the situation and he had succeeded in winning back (or browbeating) many of the converts. There was indeed a Father Timothy Holland in Goleen, but it was several years after the Famine, from 1863 to 1867, and his fierceness and effectiveness has obviously lived on in folk memory and become intertwined with that of Fr Murphy. (Perhaps it was Fr Holland who lined up all the newly married parishioners and married them again in case they hadn’t been ‘properly’ married the first time – see the comments at the end of Part 7.)

The story of the man who asserted his independence of choice only to be struck down, along with his son, is a trope of many Irish stories, often revolving around the wilful destruction of a fairy fort or a holy well. Finally, Kilhangil, nowadays a particularly beautiful and peaceful spot (below), may be familiar to you from the post Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels

A pithy entry from Mary Lucey of Ballyrizard relates information from her father, Tim.

Mr Fisher was landlord of Toormore. He was a very bad man and he hated the Catholic Religion. All Catholics who would not become Protestants were evicted. Most of them kept the faith but some turned Protestants for the sake of keeping their land. 

Once again, eviction takes centre stage, this time as the outcome of refusing to turn Protestant. Hating the Catholic Religion is equated with being a very bad man.

Kathleen McCarthy from Lowertown School (that’s Lowertown townland, above) wrote about many aspects of the Famine, including this section on Fisher.

The famine times were from the beginning of eighteen forty seven to the end of eighteen forty eight. The conditions of the Catholics was terrible at that time. Their potatoes were destroyed with the blight, and they had to sell their wheat to pay the rent. In this district three quarters of the people died with hunger.

The English sent yellow meal to the Protestant minister in Toormore to distribute among the people but it was the Protestants who got the most of it. Any Catholic who would turn a Protestant would go to the minister’s house every day and they would get a bowl of soup to drink and meal to take home. Nearly every Catholic in Toormore turned Protestant in that time and their descendants are there today, Protestants and bearing Catholic names. Toormore is known as “the land of soupers” on account of the number of people that turned Protestant for a bowl of soup. There lived one man in Toormore called John Barry and he had seven children. Six of the children died with starvation and he would not go to Fisher for anything for them.

This is the first account we have of Taking the Soup, and the labelling of Toormore as ‘the Land of the Soupers’. The story of the man who would rather let his children starve to death than take the soup is a familiar one. While these John Barrys were held up, in our history lessons, as a model of steadfastness and an exemplar of Catholicism, I remember being horrified that any father would act in this way. Perhaps it’s one of the thousand little cuts that eventually ushered me out of the church.

A cloakroom in a traditional schoolhouse

Annie Donovan collected information from Jeremiah Donovan of Gunpoint who was 97 when he was interviewed. There is a long and detailed description of the conditions and burial practices during the Famine, and it includes this short piece: 

The Catholics were starving with the hunger and Fisher who lived in Toormore at that time gave meal and soup to any Catholics that would go to him. Nearly every person in Toormore went to him for the soup and yellow meal, and they turned Protestants also. They were called “Soupers” and the village of Toormore was called “The village of the Soupers” since and their descendants are still living in Toormoor with Catholic names.

This is a particularly interesting account, since Jeremiah would have lived through some of the events he relates, as a young boy. There is also the same reference as in Kathleen McCarthy’s essay to ‘Protestants with Catholic names’ – a poignant reminder that in Ireland one’s last name is often a pointer to one’s religious affiliation. 

Peter Clarke’s beautiful sketch of the church that Fisher built at Toormore, also called the Altar Church and Teampall na mBocht (Church of the Poor)

A long but anonymous entry from Gloun School (on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – the old school house at the end of this post is associated) goes into great detail about various aspects of the Famine, mainly centring on evil landlords, and contains this:

At the time of the famine, some Catholics turned Protestants. They became perverts to get soup which the Protestants minister gave out. The name of the minister of Toormore was Mr. Fisher.

Some of the “soupers” were William O Donovan and John O Donovan both natives of Toormore. William O Donovan’s daughter, Mrs Coughlan, still lives in Corthna. John Donovan’s grandson is a shop-keeper in Schull, whose name is Joseph Woods. Another man who was a “souper” was Joseph Daly, a native of Toormore. He afterwards became a minister. Before he became a “souper” he was so holy it was said that he could walk upon the waters. He tried to do it once, before a crowd but he sank. He also answered Mass in Ballinashker Chapel barefoot once. His son lives in Schull. Ever since Toormore is sometimes called “the land of the soupers” and the Protestant Church is called ” Teampall na mboct” which means”the Church of the poor”.

I think this piece, more than any other, is illustrative both of the long memory of these events and of the classroom ethos of devout Catholicism in which this child writes – an atmosphere in which it has been normalised to name and shame the ‘Soupers’ and their descendants several generations on. This is divisive sectarianism at its most abhorrent, and it’s just as important to understand this, as it is to chuckle at the funny verses and old folktales that the children also write about.

The old school house at Lissacaha near Gloun

There’s more, but I think this gives you a flavour. Rev William Fisher has left a complex legacy. Some of it springs from his own actions – we haven’t exonerated him from bigotry and over-enthusiastic proselytising (another possible future post, in the light of new information). But it’s also based in the narrow, blinkered, self-righteous Catholicism that encouraged the condemnation of neighbour by neighbour, in the name of religion. It would be good to think we’ve moved beyond that now, 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 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 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

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