What did John Bodkin, the last Catholic warden of St Nicholas Collegiate Church, mean when, handing over the keys of the church to the Williamite soldiers in July 1691, he cried: “My God, that my right hand may not decay until the key of this church be restored to its proper owners?”
Did he mean that when the Williamite occupation was over the church be handed back to the warden and its citizens, or did he refer back to the Reformation of 1536, and wish that the church be returned into Roman Catholic hands?
Evidently the latter meaning was very much in the minds of the workmen who three days after discovering the incorrupt body of warden Bodkin (which had laid in a tomb in the labyrinth of small vaults and passageways near the main altar for 129 years ), made the further startling discovery that the warden’s right hand was missing. Furthermore, the body had been grossly interfered with. Lime had been used in an attempt to destroy it (It only succeeded in discolouring some skin parts ) but flesh was removed from the chest, and, of course, the right arm was missing.
Remember the night before Mr Clare and his team of workmen, who were conducting refurbishment on some of the old vaults, gave specific instructions that the Bodkin tomb be covered up with boards (the body was untouched at this time ), the church cleared of curious onlookers (since the discovery of the body gave some credence to Warden Bodkin’s wish, it had excited a huge crowd to descend on the church, making work difficult ), and everyone told to go home while Mr Clare considered what was to be done. The church was cleared of people, and its door firmly locked. The key was given to the sexton Henry Caddy.
Mr Clare was woken at 6am the next day by John McMahon, the foreman carpenter, to tell him that the body had been desecrated. McMahon said he dreaded being in the church as he was a Presbyterian, and that as the people ‘held this relic sacred would be likely to accuse him of the deed.’*
The workmen were alarmed and nervous, but furious with sexton Caddy who was the only one with the key. Caddy was immediately sent for and questioned about the body. At first Caddy denied having anything to do with the desecration. The men threatened to throw him off the bridge into the torrent if he didn’t tell them the truth. Poor Caddy remained silent until the men actually began to drag the unfortunately man to the river. So terrified was the sexton that he confessed that he had given the key in the middle of the night to Timothy Murray and Dr McSweeney.
Belief in the supernatural
At this stage Mr Clare calmed the men down, and insisted that he went alone to Mr Murray’s office and see what could be done. Upon being challenged, Murray agreed that he had the hand but would only return it to his parish priest Rev Dr Roch. The priest was sent for.
In the meantime word that the hand of Warden’ Bodkin was missing spread through the town like wildfire. We Irish are a spiritual people with a passion and a belief in the supernatural.** The discovery of Bodkin’s body had already fired people’s imagination, and work on the restoration of the Bodkin tomb and others had to be halted as hundreds came to peer down at the body in the vault. But now, the hand was missing, exactly as the old warden had prayed. Was Galway about to witness a miracle? Was St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church, built by the Tribes of Galway in the 12th century, seized by the Reformation in the 16th century, about to be returned to the Catholic community? People dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to the church. The crowds were so dense and excited that the Rev Dr Rock thought it better not to produce the hand straight away. He addressed the people and told them to return to their homes and places of work and that he would come back and replace the hand at 2pm. ‘This had the desired effect. Many people went away, but at 2 o’clock they returned, bringing with them thousands anxious to see the hand restored as promised.’
‘A kind of possession’
For some reason ‘the Rev Gentleman delayed coming up to 4 o’clock. By this hour the Church and all the streets around were crowded by men, women, and children. Shortly after 4 o’clock the Rev Gentleman arrived and brought the hand rolled up in paper, but cut to pieces. The fingers off from the palm, split into pieces up to the wrist.’
‘During the day the carpenter got a coffin made into which I put the body. At lifting the body, I found that the skin had been cut off the breast. The amputated hand I put into the coffin with the body. Many persons there stated it was the fourth time that a coffin had been worn out by the remains. I then closed the coffin and vault in such a way that there can be no access to it except by ripping up the floor.’
The strange case of Warden’ Bodkin’s hand had also been excerising the Catholic church authorities. It had been suggested to Mr Clare, shortly after Bodkin’s body had been discovered, that it might be better if the remains be taken away and buried quietly somewhere else***. Clare sought the opinion of the local bishop who in turn referred the matter to the Vicar General, Rev Laurence O’Donnell. The Vicar General replied: ‘Do not remove it. I think it is a kind of a possession, whereas part of his prayer has been granted. It is likely the reminder of it be accomplished in its own time.’
And so Warden John Bodkin rests today. The story of his hand is one of the great legends of Galway, in exactly the same way as the Lynch Window is. But unlike the Lynch Window saga, and the hanging of a son by a legalistic and stern father, the Warden Bodkin story is true.
*I am taking this from By The Corribside, by the late Maurice Semple (published by the author 1981 ) who is quoting from a statement given to a Galway solicitor by Mr Clare, the foreman who discovered Bodkin’s body in March 1838.
**The pagan festival of Samhain is still honoured in the Celtic world. It was an important time in the old calendar, marking the end of the grazing season. Herds and flocks were brought together and only animals required for breeding were spared slaughter. Their meat was preserved for the bleak winter months ahead. On the eve of Samhain, the spirits run riot. Magical forces are believed to issue from caves and mounds tempting men into their realms. The Christian church robustly attempted to eclipse this disturbing time by imposing two very powerful feast days: November 1 the Feast All Saints, and on November 2 All Souls. But we are happy to acknowledge both traditions. Our children reap the benefit of our old beliefs as they ‘trick or treat’ on Saturday evening.
*** There has always existed a genuine accommodation among the two main Christian traditions in Galway. Even after the Reformation Catholics were allowed to be buried in their family vaults at St Nicholas’s.