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…

Welcome to the Stranger: Asenath Nicholson in West Cork

Who was Asenath Nicholson? When I saw that a new play was to be performed during the Skibbereen Arts Festival this year, I became curious about the subject. The play, Welcome to the Stranger, is based on Asenath’s books, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, and Annals of the Famine in Ireland written about her sojourn in Ireland before and during the Great Hunger. As an eye witness account of the conditions she saw, it is invaluable. So why is she not a household name?

As I discovered, there is actually quite a lot about Asenath available online, much of it centred on the research of Maureen O’Rourke Murphy of Hoffstra University, who has written the definitive book on Nicholson, Compassionate Stranger, as well as editing Asenath’s own writings for re-release. Prof Murphy has provided a piece about the book to Irish Central, and the book itself has been comprehensively reviewed in the Irish Times by Christine Kinealy, Director of Quinnipiac’s Great Hunger Museum. Both of these articles summarise Asenath’s life and the significance of her account of her time in ireland, so pop over there now for a quick read, and then come back here. There is also a lecture by Prof Murphy online (entertaining and erudite), as well as a very well-done radio documentary (although I can’t find out who produced it). These take a bit longer so save them for later.

 

Rua Breathnach, the writer of the new play, is taking an interesting approach to depicting Asenath’s lengthy time in Ireland (four years in all) and the production is being staged and directed by his long-time collaborator, Rémi Beelprez. It will debut in Skibbereen on Aug 1, followed by a discussion session. Robert and I have our tickets already (you can get yours here) and are looking forward to seeing what Rua and Rémi have done with such rich source material.

Rua and Rémi

Seeking more information, I discovered that Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger is available online in its original form, and also in a clickable version, and of course I was immediately drawn to the chapters about her time in West Cork and in Bantry in particular. This was in February 1845, before the potato crop had failed for the first time, but here Asenath describes perfectly the conditions that prevailed among the poor which led ultimately to the catastrophic events of the next few years – the extreme poverty and lack of resources, the lack of employment of any sort, and the dependence on a single food source.

Bantry as it is now, a thriving and attractive market town

Her chapter section heading is “Arrival at the miserable town of Bantry.” Here is why she went there:

When about leaving Cork for Killarney I intended taking the shortest and cheapest route ; but Father Mathew said, “If you wish to seek out the poor, go to Bantry; there you will see misery in all and in every form.” I took his advice, went to Bantry, and there found a wild, dirty sea-port, with cabins built upon the rocks and hills, having the most antiquated and forlorn appearance of any town I had seen; the people going about not with sackcloth upon their heads, for this they could not purchase, but in rags and tatters such as no country but Ireland could hang out.

This and the other wood engravings* are by James Mahony for the Illustrated London News of 1847, and are from Niamh O’Sullivan’s book, The Tombs of a Departed Race; Illustrations of Ireland’s Great Hunger, available at The Skibbereen Heritage Centre. 

Asenath was in Ireland specifically to observe and record the conditions of the poor, but she was unprepared for what she saw in Bantry. She even feels moved to warn her readers, If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

The morning opened my eyes to look out upon sights which, as I write, flit before me like haggard spectres. I dressed, went forth, and made my way upon the rocks, found upon the sides of them some deplorable cabins, where smoke was issuing from the doors, and looking into one, the sight was appalling – Like an African kraal, the door was so low as to admit only a child of ten or twelve, and at the entrance a woman put out her head, with a dirty cloth about it; a stout pig was taking its breakfast within, and a lesser one stood waiting at a distance. The woman crouched over the busy swine with her feet in the mud, and asked what I wanted?. . .Looking in, I saw a pile of dirty broken straw, which served for a bed for both family and pigs, not a chair, table, or pane of glass, and no spot to sit except upon the straw in one corner, without sitting in mud and manure.

There was a new workhouse in the town, which Asenath describes as lofty and well-finished but it was closed and shuttered, though all things had been ready for a year ; the farmers stood out, and would not pay the taxes. Asenath goes on to say The poorhouse was certainly the most respectable looking of any building in Bantry; and it is much to be regretted, that the money laid out to build and pay a keeper for sitting alone in the mansion, had not been expended in giving work to the starving poor, who might then have had no occasion for any house but a comfortable cottage.

The ruins of the Schull Workhouse

As an aside, in the end the workhouse did open, but the conditions in it were appalling. You’ll find a link to Dr Stephen’s report (be warned, it’s heart-rending) in our post about the Schull Workhouse, which also contains lots of information about workhouses in general.

Asenath refers to ‘wading’ through the streets of Bantry. She describes a set of dwellings called Wigwam Row: a row of cabins, built literally upon a rock, upon the sloping side of a hill, where not a vestige of grass can grow, the rock being a continued flat piece like slate. The favored ones who dwell there pay no rent, having been allowed in the season of the cholera to go up and build these miserable huts, as the air upon the hill was more healthy. And there, like moss, to the rocks have they clung, getting their job when and where they can, to give them their potatoes once in a day, which is the most any of them aspire to in the shortest winter days.

As she walks, Asenath sings hymns and dispenses tracts and testaments, some of which she keeps in an enormous bearskin muff. She attracts attention everywhere she goes and the children of Bantry follow her around. Begging is endemic and she is frequently cheated. However, she comes to admire the Irish and particularly their sense of hospitality and their generosity to her and to each other. In a typical description she writes about a Bantry woman with whom she interacts: I looked at this woman, and at the appurtenances that surrounded her. “The whole chart of Ireland,” from lips that could neither read English nor Irish! She had a noble forehead, an intelligent eye, and a good share of common sense; she had breathed the air of this wild mountainous coast all her sad pilgrimage, and scarcely, she said, had a “decent garment covered her, or a wholesome male of mate crossed her lips, save at Christmas, since the day she left her parents that raired her.”

Famine Memorial, Dublin

We will leave Asenath on the road to Glengarriff, struggling to make headway as the magnificent scenery claims her attention, to the relief of her helper, John, who, burdened with her ‘purse’ and her muff, is able to take frequent rests while she catches up. She has given us a unique, first-hand, eye-witness account of Bantry in 1844 – one that contrasts tragically with the beautiful market town we have come to know well. She went on to travel the length and breadth of the country and to open her own soup kitchen in Dublin at the height of the Famine, this time dispensing bread, rather than tracts – let’s follow up with her in August at the play!

The interior of an Irish cabin in 1844 by Francis William Topham,  painting now in the Ulster Museum

This summer we also look forward very much (harrowing as it will be) to a major exhibition at Uillinn (the West Cork Arts Centre): Coming Home is an exhibition of the largest Famine-related art collection in the world. It’s on loan from Quinnipiac University in the US, and opens on July 20th. There will also be a very special Performance/Event at the Schull Workhouse by acclaimed Irish artist Alanna O’Kelly titled Anáil na Beatha, Breath of Life. Future posts!

*More about wood engravings, from Brian LalorThe process is an exceptionally important pre-photography development in visual communication terms and, in its day (early 19C), quite as radical as email. The reporter, O’Mahony, drew on the spot in pencil, the drawings were sent by postal coach and packet boat to London where a team of engravers worked through the night to meet the publishing deadline, on the small (generally 4” square) blocks of fruitwood that fitted with the type into a letterpress printer. For speed, they often had a number of engravers working on a single image by using separate blocks which were then bolted together. On the ILS 1844 image of Ballydehob (not shown) you can see the joins.

Forgotten Hero – Michael Davitt

Straide, Co Mayo - Michael Davitt's statue outside the museum dedicated to him

Straide, Co Mayo – Michael Davitt’s statue outside the museum dedicated to him

On our recent travels in Mayo we chanced upon a little museum in a rural situation. I was fascinated by the setting: housed in an old church adjoining the ruins of a 13th century abbey (which itself has some fine medieval carvings). The church has been restored specifically to accommodate the museum, which tells the story of Michael Davitt – who was born close to the site of the museum in 1846, and was buried right behind it in 1906.

Sixty years: a relatively short life – but years filled with remarkable achievement pursuing the causes of basic human rights and of freedom for Ireland. Years filled, also, with considerable hardships.

eviction

Eviction

The village of Straide, in County Mayo, was hard hit by the famine – The Great Hunger – when Michael was born: a disaster that led to starvation and forced emigration for millions of Irish people. The Davitts were no exception to this. When he was only four years old Michael witnessed his own family being evicted from their cottage because they were unable to pay the rent to the landlord. He watched while their few possessions were piled on to the lane and their home was flattened.

Michael Davitt Museum exhibits

Evicted families had little choice: starvation, the workhouse or emigration. The Davitts took the latter course, arriving in Liverpool in November 1850. From there they travelled on foot to Haslingden in Lancashire and settled in the closed world of a poor, Irish immigrant community with strong nationalist feelings and a deep hatred of ‘landlordism’.

At the age of ten, Michael was sent to work in a local cotton mill. At the age of eleven his right arm was entangled in the machinery of a spinning machine and had to be amputated. There was no compensation for accidents suffered by child labourers in the Victorian world, nor – indeed – very much concern or compassion for the conditions suffered by the working classes generally in the British Empire at that time.

Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Michael was fortunate as his plight was noticed by a local benefactor, John Dean, who helped him to gain an education in a Wesleyan school. When he left the school at fifteen, Michael Davitt secured a job in a post office and learned to become a typesetter. He also started night classes at the local Mechanics Institute and used its library, where he read extensively about Irish history, contemporary Irish life and radicalist views on land nationalisation and Irish independence.

One of Michael Davitt's campaigning newspapers

One of Michael Davitt’s campaigning newspapers

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Two years later he left his job to devote himself full-time to the IRB, as secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising covert arms smuggling to Ireland. He was arrested in London in 1870, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude in Dartmoor Prison.

Dartmoor Prison - hard labour

Dartmoor Prison – hard labour! (Harper’s Encyclopaedia)

While imprisoned he came to the conclusion, recorded in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, that violence was self defeating and he became an advocate of agitation through non-violence: years later  Mahatma Gandhi cited Davitt as a major influence in the creation of his own peaceful resistance movement.

Ghandi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Gandhi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Eventually in Westminster the Irish Parliamentary Party began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners and pressed for an amnesty for detained Irish nationalists. Partially due to public furore over their treatment, Davitt and other prisoners were released in 1877 on a ticket of leave: Michael had served seven and a half years. He and the other prisoners were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Ireland.

'Licence to be at large'

‘Licence to be at large’

For the rest of his life Michael Davitt was devoted to the causes he believed in. In Ireland the Land League became a reality and eventually Irish tenant farmers were enabled to buy their freeholds with UK government loans through the Land Commission. County Councils in Ireland were also able to build over 40,000 new rural cottages, each on an acre of land. By 1914, 75% of occupiers were buying out their landlords. In all, over 316,000 tenants purchased their holdings, amounting to 15 million acres out of a total of 20 million acres in the country. This set the pattern of small owner-occupied farms that we see all around us today in rural Ireland – a system that has long struggled to be economically efficient, but which allows independence and self-pride, which the landlord system certainly did not.

Independent Ireland

Independent Ireland

Michael Davitt was not able to see the realisation of his vision for Ireland, but he played an important part in the movements that enabled it: many historians say that his role was central to it. Such were his energies and beliefs that he involved himself in universal human rights movements, and advocated for more than just the oppressed Irish. He said women should have the right to vote; he spoke out for labour unions and helped found the British Labour Party. He served in Parliament, wrote numerous books, founded newspapers and travelled the world speaking for the underprivileged everywhere. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and supported the Boer fight for freedom in Africa.

I had never heard of Michael Davitt (Finola had): it seems his name was erased from Irish history for a while because of disagreements with other campaigners. Fortunately, that wrong has now been righted, and we have this museum in his memory – celebrating his life and work and open seven days a week all through the year. There is a life-sized bronze statue outside it. Recently a new bridge in Mayo has been named after him. As a man he didn’t seek personal acclaim: he wanted his funeral to be unassuming, yet over 20,000 people filed past his coffin. At Davitt’s grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it.

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland - courtesy Polranny Pirates

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland – courtesy Polranny Pirates

Davit wrote in his will: To all my friends I leave kind thoughts, to my enemies the fullest possible forgiveness and to Ireland an undying prayer for the absolute freedom and independence which it was my life’s ambition to try and obtain for her…

MichaelDavittStampHR

For his group, Patrick Street, musician Andy Irvine penned a song about Michael Davitt: his memory lives on…

O Forgotten Hero in peace may you rest

Your heart was always with the poor and the oppressed

A prison cell could never quell the courage you possessed