Was Bodkin’s severed hand a call to Rome?

Week V

An engraving of St Nicholas’ Collegiate church from Hardiman’s History 1820.

An engraving of St Nicholas’ Collegiate church from Hardiman’s History 1820.

Not only was the saintly Warden Bodkin’s hand in perfect shape and colour despite being lying in a vault for more than 140 years, when it was returned it was crudely ‘cut into pieces, the fingers off from the palm, split into pieces up to the wrist. The skin had been cut off at the breast’. Who could have done this sacrilegious deed? was it a fanatic Catholic seeking a return of St Nicholas’ Collegiate church to the Roman rite; or was it just an act of outrageous vandalism?

The Very Rev Warden Bodkin was known to be a saintly man, described by James Hardiman as ‘a man of exceptional sanctity’ who was buried in a vault near the Lynch’s tomb, approached by a passageway from the high altar, under the floor. A Mr Clare (or St Clare ) was a Galway contractor given the task of levelling the large flagstones in the church. Underneath the flagstones lay a labyrinth of passageways and vaults. Bodkin, a Catholic, was known not only for his religious devotion but for famously crying aloud, as he handed over the keys of the church to the Protestant Williamite representatives in July 1691: ‘My God, that my right hand may not decay until the key of this church be restored to the proper owners.’

As Clair and his men approached Bodkin’s tomb they could see that his body was incorrupt and in perfect condition except for a wound on his feet caused long ago by falling masonry. Crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the body in such numbers that it impeded the work on the floor. Our old friend Rumour began to circulate the news that Bodkin still kept the old keys of the church firmly in his right hand, ‘and other reports equally untrue’.

Yet despite the crowds work on the floor carried on as best it could. On the evening of the third day, Clare and his men stopped work, and gave the key of the church to the sexton Henry Caddy, and went home. I described last week how Clare was woken the next morning with cries that Warden Bodkin’s right hand was cut off his body.

Anger and despair

Clare and his men ran to the church and could scarcely believe what they saw. The body was hacked at the breast, and its right hand was missing. The only person who had the key of the church was Sexton Caddy who was immediately summoned. Clare demanded to know to whom he gave the key on the last evening or night. Caddy protested that he did not give the key to anyone. But Clare and his men were so outraged that they began to drag Caddy towards O’Brien’s bridge, with the intention of hurling him into the raging torrent if he did not immediately reveal to whom he gave the key. Caddy was terrified and admitted that he gave the key to a Dr McSweeney and the local pawnshop owner Mr Murray.

By now crowds began to gather equally fired up and mystified at the violation of Warden Bodkin’s body. They followed Clare and his men to Murray’s pawnbroker’s shop and demanded the return of the hand. Murray said he would only give it to his parish priest Rev Dr Roch. When the priest arrived he tried to calm ‘the much incensed and excited people’, and told them he would return to the church with the hand at 2pm.

This only seemed to generate even more passion. For some reason the priest did not go to the church with the hand ‘rolled up in paper’, until 4pm, when ‘by this hour the church and all the streets around were crowded by men, women and children.’ There must have been cries of anger and despair when the state of the hand, lacerated and in pieces, was revealed.

‘A kind of possession’

When all the fuss and frenzy died down, Clare was now left with a problem: should he return the hand and reseal the Bodkin vault, or bury the body in secret elsewhere? He sought advice from the bishop who in turn passed him on to the Vicar General Rev Lawrence O’Donnell. The vicar general replied: ‘Do not remove it. I think it is a kind of possession, whereas part of his prayer has been granted. It is likely the remainder of it be accomplished in its own time.’***

We will see. In the meantime the Rev Bodkin rests today resealed in his vault, invisible from curious eyes.

In good hands

This magnificent church, a cathedral in size and character, is celebrating its 700th anniversary this year. The building, better than any book, tells the story of Galway in its carvings of angels whose faces were broken by Cromwell’s men; the moving Victorian tributes by loving family members heartbroken at the loss of their loved ones; and the mythical beasts and gargoyles which animate its walls, illustrate the ghosts and demons of plagues, storms at sea, wars and death, which haunted our ancestors.

Despite the small Church of Ireland community, who pray there daily, and who welcome hundreds of tourists, St Nicholas’ Collegiate church is in remarkably good repair. There has to be a constant need of funds to preserve a medieval building of this size.

As for the return of St Nicholas’ Collegiate to the Roman rite, as the Rev Laurance O’ Donnell may have hinted at, I wouldn’t hold my breath. I understand that, in the late 1950s before Bishop Michael Browne began building Galway’s Catholic cathedral, he approached the Church of Ireland community and asked if they would sign it over to Rome. The small Protestant community very politely and very firmly said ‘no’.

The church was used for Catholic Mass by the congregation of nearby St Augustine’s during refurbishment of their church between April and December 2005. In gratitude for this the parishioners of St Augustines’ presented a processional cross to St Nicholas’. The church is regularly used by the Romanian and Russian Orthodox churches, and the Malankara Mar Thomas Syrian Church.

It is in very good hands, and long may it stay so.

NOTES: Because of the controversy surrounding this famous incident, Mr Clare gave a full statement to his solicitor, John C Conroy and Son, describing the whole incident, from which I have taken some of the above. To be found in full in By The Corribside, by Maurice Semple, published 1981.


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