On February 28 1879 a desperate row erupted on peaceful Omey Island, near Cleggan, Connemara. The local curate Fr William Rhatigan burst into the local Protestant schoolhouse, run by the Irish Church Mission Society, saying he was ‘in search of his straying sheep’*. An argument broke out between him and the Rev William Lindsey MacNeice, the schoolmaster. Blows were struck. Who struck the first blow will forever be in dispute. But the evidence of Fr Rhatigan’s temper and strength is testified by the fact that it took the combined efforts of MacNeice, aided by his wife, his daughter Charlotte, his young son John Frederick, and two teachers from Claddaghduff, Messrs Davis and Coursey, to force him backwards out of the schoolhouse.
Immediately the rumour spread that the priest was ‘almost murdered’ by MacNeice and his family. An angry crowd stormed the schoolhouse. Stones and abuse were fired at the building and its occupants.
This unfortunate incident was the first shot fired across the bows of the successful Irish Church Mission Society who came to Connemara immediately after the Great Famine. In exchange for converting to the Anglican religion (or at least pretending to ), hungry and destitute people were offered food, shelter for orphans, education and in many cases, employment.
From the establishment of its original church and school at Castlekerke, the ICMS rapidly became a large organisation with 12 churches, four orphanages, and 64 mission schools throughout western Connemara. Undoubtedly it was responsible for saving and educating thousands of lives.
I thought that the Catholic Church would have looked after its own better, but at the time, as an organisation, it was weak on the ground. It had largely ignored the educational needs of the people of Connemara, concentrating much of its buildings and schools in the more prosperous east side of the diocese, such as at Tuam. It had also encouraged the people not to read the Bible, rather to allow its clergy to interpret it for them. Although it was later to translate the scriptures into Irish, only the ICMS had taken the trouble to translate the Bible into the language of the people. But the accusation can be made that however well intentioned the ICMS was, there was a sense at the time, and later, that this particular type of proselytising took advantage of a vulnerable people.
The dilemma facing the wretched poor of Connemara was intolerable and pathetic in the extreme. Pressurised by both churches for salvation of their souls, many understandably ‘jumped’ from one religion to the other as necessity dictated. The term ‘Jumper’ or ‘Souper’ came into use. The words still have a sting to day. And during the last quarter of the 19th century, the campaign for souls splintered communities, and divided families.
The Catholic Church was seething with rage and frustration at the progress made by the ICMS. Fr Rhatigan believed he was sent by the Archbishop and God to even the score. After his ejection from Omey school, he thundered from the pulpit at Claddaghduff that if any of his faithful “are insulted by a ‘jumper’ on the road you are to have ample satisfaction.” From that moment verbal and physical attacks on ICMS representatives and property became a regular occurrence. The schoolhouses at Belleek, Ballinaboy and Rossadillisk were burnt to the ground. Stones were thrown at Glenowen orphanage. There was rioting at Ballyconree. Rev John Conerney of Sellerna and his daughter were ‘severely wounded’ in an assault, the children of the convert postmaster of Cleggan were beaten by other local children. Other Protestants were stoned, their ricks of turf pushed into bog holes and their crops destroyed. Women with ‘blackened faces’ stoned converted women. Many of the ICMS schools and homes were in remote places, and the society appealed for help. One hundred extra policemen were sent to Clifden.
Shortly after the row at the schoolhouse, the MacNeice family set out to attend church at Sellerna. They were accompanied by two policemen with rifles. As they approached Claddaghduff, they were attacked by a stone-throwing crowd. The family was forced to seek refuge in Michael Lynch’s cottage. Some of the crowd followed them in, and began to viciously beat MacNeice. One of the policemen, Sub-Constable Shehan, fired his rifle into the ground to frighten the attackers. A rumour went around that a woman was shot. Shehan was knocked to the ground and kicked unconscious. A local priest, Fr Tom Flannery, ran to the scene and tried to calm matters. Charlotte MacNeice went to her father’s aid and was cut on the face with a stick. Fr Flannery eventually led the crowd away. The MacNeice family was taken into protective custody, and shortly afterwards left the area.
As a result of the attack on the MacNeice family, 16 men were accused of riotous behaviour and sent for trial in Galway. Fathers Rhatigan and Flannery set up the Connemara anti “Jumper” Defence Fund, to cover the legal costs of the prisoners. They were allowed out on bail on sureties of some of the ‘leading merchants and most respectable people in Galway’. The defendants didn’t bother turning up for trial, and that particular case just fizzled out.
William MacNeice never returned to Connemara. His son John Frederick entered the church and became Bishop of Cashel and Waterford in 1931; and four years later Bishop of Down and Connor and Dromore. He married Elizabeth Margaret Clesham, daughter of Martin Clesham, from Clifden. They had two sons and a daughter. One of the sons, Louis Frederick was the well known poet. He returned to Omey with his father in September 1927. It was his father’s first visit back since he had to flee and abandon his home in 1879. They searched among the stones to try to find where the old schoolhouse was. MacNeice wrote that Connemara was a place where: “The mountains had never woken up and the sea had never gone asleep and the people had never got civilised.’
The poet was back in Galway again on that fateful day September 3 1939; the day war was declared against Germany. The poem he wrote that day, The Crossbones of Galway, is now on a plaque on Nimmo’s Pier. It contains the following verse, which I am sure has more than a sense of irony for the poet and his family:
Salmon in the Corrib
And the water combed out
Over the weir
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.
More next week
NOTE :* I am leaning heavily on an article written by Clifden historian Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, and a new book Soupers and Jumpers - The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937, by Miriam Moffitt, published by Nonsuch publishing, now on sale €27.99.