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…

Art and the Workhouse

Trump was not the first man who thought that separating desperate families applying for asylum provided an additional deterrent – that distinction belonged to the workhouse system in which men, women and children were kept apart once admitted.

Two distinct artistic projects centre on the remains of local workhouses in West Cork in the coming week. Both are associated with the highly anticipated Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger Exhibition at Uillinn.

Robert contemplates the memorial plaque at the famine graveyard in the grounds of the Skibbereen Community Hospital – the former site of the Workhouse. The towering wall remains from that time

How do we address the ghastly system that was The Workhouse? How can we look back on the barbarity of the political and economic philosophies that dreamed up such an institution and perpetrated such depths of misery on starving people? How do we remember without stirring up old hatreds and move instead to a place of compassion and healing, a place of determination not to repeat such atrocities in this country? Perhaps one way is though art. Two distinct artistic approaches have been underway in West Cork for some time and each will culminate this week.

What’s left of the Schull Workhouse. It was destroyed by the IRA during the War of Independence. The dreaded reception area is on the right, and in the initial photograph

Before I talk about the two projects, take a moment here to revisit my 2014 post on the Workhouse. It explains the Workhouse system and has links to more information. You might also, if you haven’t already done so, read what Asenath Nicholson had to say about dire poverty and the Bantry Workhouse.

Jean Leary was one of the 110 Skibbereeen girls – here she is celebrating her 50th wedding anniversay in Australia. Thank you to her great, great……granddaughter Judith Constable for sharing this photograph. Judith will be travelling from Australia to attend the unveiling of the memorial on Friday

Artist Toma McCullim’s project centres on the Skibbereen Workhouse and is called 110 Skibbereen Girls. The Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme provided passage to Australia for young women. The young women from Skibbereen left a difficult present for an unknown future, and it is estimated that perhaps 10,000 Australians trace their descent to them. There is an excellent account of the project in the Irish Times and another in the Examiner.

Photograph courtesy of Aoise Tutty

I participated in a Walk and Talk with Toma in the grounds of the former Skibbereen Workhouse, now the Community Hospital. It was a deeply moving experience, as Toma asked us to imagine ourselves in the position of one of the girls, and talked us through the events of their lives. We started at what was once the Women’s Entrance and walked up to the graveyard.

We chose an apple and mine represented Alice Fitzgerald. It was all too easy to slip into the past with Toma, and a very emotional experience. Photograph courtesy of Aoise Tutty

Toma is a gifted educator: her tour immersed us in the lives of the young women in an imaginative and emotive way. The pièce de résistance, however, was when her phone rang, and on the line from Australia was a descendent of one of ‘our’ girls. It was a telling moment, somehow underscoring the resilience and heroism of the girls who had made such a difference in the land of their adoption.

The phone call from Australia

It is at the Women’s Entrance that the commemorative sculpture will be unveiled next Friday (July 20th, 2018) by the Australian Ambassador. All are welcome.

Installation underway

The following day (Saturday, July 21, 2018) we have another workhouse-based art project. It’s called Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) and it’s a multi-media performance by Alanna O’Kelly. Here’s the description:

The audience will proceed into the ruins of Schull Workhouse, where they will be immersed by fragmented sounds, layered imagery and light, surrounded by the silence and vastness of the countryside, and the stories of the thousands who were silenced by the Great Hunger. The performance will run as a series of vignettes that will reference some of the stories of the Great Hunger in West Cork, both historic and contemporary.

The only current inhabitants of the Schull Workhouse

Some friends are participating in the performance and, based on their experience in rehearsal, are urging everyone to go to what promises to be a deeply moving and artistically striking event. Robert and I have our tickets (they are available on Eventbrite).

Schull Workhouse ‘Mortuary Hospital’

I never thought I would get to attend something like this at the Schull Workhouse. In my Workhouse post I described the ‘aura of decay and sadness’ that resonates there, an echo of the misery that was visited upon the inmates. I am looking forward very much to seeing how Alanna uses the site in her performance piece, as expressed here:

She has a deep interest in place, people, community, our past and its effect on our present, the shaping of our culture, our identity and relationship to the world community and she is drawn to the particularities of place and context.

Workhouses stand out in Irish history as the most hated, feared and despised buildings in the land. The gaunt remnants that dot the countryside act as a constant reminder of a dark time in our collective memory. Perhaps through art we can begin to focus on a more hopeful and healing integration of that period: both a rejection of those values and compassion for those who suffered. We need, in Ireland, that kind of negotiation with our past.

Ireland-Canada: Famine, Fenians, Friends!

I’m Irish but spent forty years in Canada and I am still learning about the many deep, and too often tragic, links between my two countries. Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, (above) is coming to the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen this week to talk about Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. So in honour of that occasion I’ve been reviewing some of the connections between our nations.

‘Departure’ – the harrowing sculpture by Rowan Gillespie on the Dublin quays

Although my own experience as a Canadian immigrant was a happy one, not all emigration stories are founded in choice and success. There’s a park in Toronto called Ireland Park. Lovely, you say – how nice that we have a memorial in this wonderful city. But Ireland Park commemorates a dark past – the year of 1847 when almost 40,000 immigrants fleeing the Irish Famine arrived in the coffin ships, overwhelming the city.

John Behan’s Coffin Ship Famine memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo

They brought typhus, chaos, starvation and death and were soon filling the fever sheds built by the heroic citizens of the fledgling city. Catholic and Protestant arrived, and Catholic and Protestant co-operated to help them survive. It’s a tale of heroism and suffering and it echoes strongly  to this day, when we think about the refugees pouring into Greece and Calais – those people were once us.

Take a look at snippets from the haunting documentary film ‘Death or Canada’ (one here and another here) – it will give you a sense of what was involved for the incoming famine victims and for those on the ground.

Rowan Gillespie’s ‘Arrival’ in Ireland Park, Toronto

On a more muscular note, I have written elsewhere about the Fenians in Canada. Taking the fight for Irish freedom to ‘British soil’ in North America, there were many raids and one pitched battle organised by the Fenians in Canada. Ironically, the Battle of Ridgeway helped pave the way for Canadian Confederation.

One of the Fathers of that Confederation was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a complex character who started off in the Young Ireland Movement. In his early days he was a firebrand revolutionary and that’s how he is chiefly remembered here – as one of a group of poets and writers committed to the liberation of Ireland from British rule. In this he would have seen common cause with that old Unrepentant Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee: the young revolutionary and the elder statesman

However, life in the United States, to which he was eventually forced to flee, while it radicalised Rossa even further, made a conservative out of McGee. He settled in Canada and became an ardent advocate for Canadian nationhood; however, he turned against violent rebellion and espoused a form of Home Rule, thereby earning the enmity of the Fenians who eventually ordered him assassinated. His funeral, held on what would have been his 43rd birthday, saw 80,000 people line the streets of Montreal to mourn a man that had given so much to his adopted country.

Image © Library and Archives Canada

I have written extensively about the Air India Disaster of June 1985. The beautiful memorial in Ahakista has become a place of focus for the families of the victims, who still come every year to remember those who died so tragically on that day. As a Canadian and an Irish person it has become a special place for me – at once a reminder of the terrorist threats that touch on all our lives and the warm and human response that we in West Cork delivered when it all came close to home.

And now we discover that Justin Trudeau, through his mother, is descended from the Bernards of Bandon. This is quite a pedigree – according to The Irish Times In 1661, Francis Bernard married Mary Freake and had six daughters and two sons, the research shows. Mr Trudeau is descended from their younger son, Arthur Bernard, who was High Sheriff of Cork in 1697 and MP for Bandon from 1713-14. My own wanderings around churches have paid off here – take a look at this memorial in St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Bandon – it’s for Francis Bernard – Arthur’s older brother!

So there you are, Ambassador Vickers – one Canadian-Irish woman’s take on some of what binds us as nations. Oh – and for those of you who don’t know who Kevin Vickers is, this is no regular ambassador, no career diplomat. This is a genuine Canadian hero! We look forward to welcoming him back to West Cork and to hearing him speak on Irish-born Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. I wonder if he’ll arrive on his Harley?A famous Canadian painting depicts the Fathers of confederation – and there’s D’Arcy McGee in the front row, second from the right. Image © Canadian House of Commons.

 

Rossa: The Skibbereen Years

Rossa aged 32

This is the third post in a series about Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. In the first, March Back in Time, I introduced the man and described the thrilling re-enactment of the famous 1863 demonstration in Skibbereen. In the second, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? I looked at his activities in America and the British bombing campaign he coordinated, as well as the influence of the Fenians in general on American and Canadian history. For more on the question of whether he can be considered a terrorist or a freedom-fighter, or both, I refer readers to the excellent research of Shane Kenna, author of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Unrepentant Fenian. In particular, Kenna’s  thoroughly researched article available on The Irish Story website, ‘One skilled scientist is worth an army’ – The Fenian Dynamite Campaign 1881-85 is a useful summary of the arguments.

The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is an incredible resource for local history and specialises in the Great Famine. Their Walking Trail and its associated app and book have been immensely helpful in preparing this post (and many others).

My aim on this post is to outline the events in Rossa’s young life that led to his radicalisation and, since much of that time was spent in Skibbereen, to see what traces remain in this West Cork town that can help us to understand the man.

2012-05-19 16.04.23

We have to start with the Great Famine of 1845 to 1850, although that’s a hard place to begin. It’s hard because it’s almost impossible to read about it without welling up with emotion and rage. The details are harrowing in the extreme and Skibbereen was the epicentre of the disaster. When Rossa arrived here, aged 16, to live with an aunt, he had witnessed his father die of famine fever after being forced to labour on one of the infamous Board of Works schemes. As was happening all around him, his widowed mother and his siblings were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and made the wrenching decision to emigrate. He had had a normal happy childhood and now everything was torn from him under the most appalling conditions.

Cillín near Durrus

Famine graveyards full of mass burials and unmarked graves are scattered throughout West Cork, like this one near Durrus

In Skibbereen, in Black ’47, the 16 year old saw the worst of the Famine – the carts piled with bodies taking them every day to mass graves, the soup kitchens, the sickness and despair.

Famine soup Kitchen

This building in Skibbereen was used as a soup kitchen during the famine. Thousands of people were fed a watery soup that had little nutritional value but had the advantage of being cheap to make

Meanwhile he saw that tons of food was being exported from the surrounding countryside. He helped an old friend to bury his mother, Jillen Andy. Later, in prison, he would hold that memory and write a moving poem about the experience. It’s a long poem and it begins this way:

 ‘Come to the graveyard if you’re not afraid,
I’m going to dig my mother’s grave. She’s dead,
And I want someone that will bring the spade
For Andy’s out of home, and Charlie’s sick in bed.’

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Rossa became a shopkeeper in Skibbereen while at the same time founding and organising the Phoenix National and Literary Society which, although supposedly a educational group, had the aim of liberating Ireland by force of arms. It eventually merged with the Irish Republican Brotherhood after Rossa formed an alliance with James Stephens. ‘Fenians’ was the general term applied to the IRB and other such nationalist organizations.

Phoenix Soc meeting place

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads us on a walking tour. One of the places he points out is the meeting rooms above what is now a hairdressers, where Rossa and his fellow members of the Phoenix Society used to gather

Business and politics didn’t mix well and life was a constant economic struggle. His store is still there, now a jewellers run by the genial Mr O’Leary.

Rossa shop

Rossa married a local woman, Honora Eager, and they had four sons, before her untimely death. I can find no image of Honora, known as Nanno, and can only imagine the devastation to the little family caused by her demise.

Ellen BuckleyThe following year he met another local woman, Ellen Buckley, who was only 18 at the time and who married him despite the fierce opposition of her parents. She was beautiful and well-educated – and strong willed, obviously. She took on the task of being a mother to his four sons and she bore another son, known as Flor Rossa. But then she also died, leaving Rossa devastated once more. He was in America when it happened and she was buried in Castlehaven graveyard. Her grave is marked with a large headstone – which bears no reference to Rossa, only to her parents. Flor was eventually buried there too, having died as a young man.

The remote and beautiful Castlehaven graveyard, final resting place of Rossa’s second wife, Ellen Buckley. Note that her gravestone makes no reference to Rossa.

annie-mays-bar-skibbereen-920x450

Members of the Buckley family still farm near Skibbereen and run Annie May’s bar and restaurant, a favourite with locals. Photo courtesy of Skibbereen.ie

Rossa’s third wife was Mary Jane Irwin from Clonakilty. Once again, she was young, well-educated, and married him despite the opposition of her parents.

The young Mary Jane Irwin, and Mary Jane in her mourning dress at Rossa’s funeral. Still beautiful. She supported the family with her poetry readings and recitals while Rossa was in prison

She would go on to have thirteen children with Rossa and they would be married for over 50 years – by all accounts a successful and happy union. Their happiness was short-lived at first. Rossa spent several years under atrocious conditions in English prisons, while Mary Jane wrote poetry and speeches and travelled across America and Ireland raising money for the cause and supporting the family.

Rossa and daughters

Rossa, Mary Jane and their daughters.

Shortly after his third marriage Rossa moved from Skibbereen and only returned once, in 1904. This was the occasion of the unveiling of the Maid of Erin statue: a fascinating monument that commemorated two failed uprisings against British rule, while Britain still ruled!

North St and Maid

The Maid of Erin statue was originally in the middle of the intersection but was disruptive of traffic so was moved closer to the town hall

But the Rossa family connection to Skibbereen remains strong, and this summer we were delighted to meet two of his great-grandsons, Williams Rossa Cole and Ross Williams Cole, in town to record footage on the Rossa commemorations for a documentary they are making on the life of their great-grandfather. You can read more about them in this Examiner article. And take a look at the trailer for the documentary!

Rossa boys in Skibbereen

The final stop on any Rossa trail in Skibbereen has to be the park that is dedicated to him. Robert recorded the grand opening by Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland. It’s a striking monument in stone and steel reflecting the unbending and steadfast commitment of Rossa to his own brand of patriotism, forged in tragedy and hardened in the crucible of prison.

Rossa Memorial

The steel columns have cut-outs of quotes and images silhouetted against the sky. Among these quotes are the poignant final words of Jillen Andy. The poem was composed in prison, not written but memorised because he had no paper. It was a talisman he held close to his heart for when his courage faltered: he conjured up again the image of the wasted body of Jillen, dead of famine sickness as a result of the egregious lack of compassion and mismanagement of resources by the British Parliament and it cemented his resolve once more.

How oft in dreams that burial scene appears,
Through death, eviction, prison, exile, home,
Through all the suns and moons of twenty years,
And oh! How short these years compared with years to come.
Some thing are strongly on the mind impressed
And other faintly imaged there, it seems;
And this is why, when reason sinks to rest.
Phases of life do show and shadow forth in dreams.
And this is why in dreams I see the face
Of Jillen Andy looking in my own,
The poet-hearted man, the pillow case,
The spotted handkerchief that softened the hard stone.
Welcome these memories of scenes of youth
That nursed my hate of tyranny and wrong,
That helmed my manhood in the path of truth,
And help me now to suffer and be strong.

The complete text of Jillen Andy is here.

Welcome these memories

Perhaps we can leave Rossa now to the judgement of history. And perhaps with one last image of him and Mary Jane in happier times. Rest in Peace, you Unrepentant Fenian.

Rossa MJ ans 2 daughters