In a week when The Irish Times reports an unseemly brawl between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks who physically battled over turf and influence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, I was reminded of the unfortunate battle for the souls of Catholics in the aftermath of the Great Famine. This episode in Connemara’s long history still engenders passionate feelings today. The expression ‘they took the soup’ is still very much alive. At the time the campaign for souls splintered communities, and divided families. In a new book Soupers and Jumpers* Miriam Moffitt reminds us that Catholics and Protestants were convinced that their religion - and only theirs - was the ‘one true faith,’ and that anyone who lived, or more importantly died, outside their particular belief system could not enter heaven. From the middle of the 19th century, the poor of Connemara and the Dublin slums were targeted by the well intentioned Anglican Irish Church Missions.
Undoubtedly these desperate and vulnerable poor initially benefited from food, education and other forms of relief. While many who converted to Protestantism did so genuinely, and remained in their new religion for years or generations after; it is believed that most poor Catholics merely assumed the trappings of the new religion simply to survive, or for their children to be fed and sheltered on a regular basis.
The Achilles’ heel of the Catholic Church in most of Connemara at the time was its failure to provide free or moderately priced education for the poor. Only 200 children out of Connemara’s vast school-age population were enrolled at school in 1835. This created a ready market for the Irish Church Mission.
Another attraction to Protestantism was the translation by the Irish Church Missions of the scriptures into the language of the people, namely Gaeilge. Catholic bishops always discouraged its laity from personally reading the Bible. Although it was not forbidden, they preferred instead that it was read and interpreted by the clergy. While later he reversed his decision, the Catholic Archbishop Mac Hale of Tuam made a big fuss of having the scriptures translated into English, effectively closing personal access to the Bible from great swathes of the people.
In the years following the Famine, a total of 64 mission stations was established in west Connemara, some of which functioned for decades while others were relatively short-lived. But their impact was significant.
The Irish Church Missions insisted that conversions were won on the basis of doctrinal convictions, a claim contested from the outset by Catholic authorities. Even after the Famine, when living conditions had improved, there were considerable long-term benefits attached to conversion. There was the prospect of good housing in mission cottages, and employment as Irish teachers. By 1850, the Irish Church Mission was confidently reporting that Connacht had ‘upwards of 10,000 converts ‘with hundreds of thousands’ of additional enquirers.
Mission publications teem with testimonies of devout converts, such as James Kelly who was taught to read by Pat Connor of Glan mission school, near Oughterard. He proclaimed that “ Once I got a taste of the Scriptures, all the priests in Oughterard could not keep me from them.”
Another Glan convert was even more emphatic. Patrick Mac Donagh promised that he would do his best to “lay the saving truths of the Gospel before my Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen, and to expose the blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits of the Church of Rome. So help me God.”
As we have seen on many occasions in our own lifetimes that all too often the innocent sufferers of war and famine are children. After our own Great Famine, large numbers of destitute children were wandering in Connemara. Some had lost both parents, in other cases parents were unable to provide for their needs. Without question the Irish Church Missions saved the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of local children. Through its Connemara Orphans’ Nursery, and a separate children’s home Nead na Farraige at Spiddal, a series of orphanages were opened supported by donations collected in England. At nine in the morning and five in the afternoon, each child was given two meals of stirabout and rice, and a piece of bread at one o’clock. Plus, of course a large helping of the Bible.
Many children, such as Michael and Biddy Higgins, entered Clifden orphanage as extreme cases of starvation. Their parents and other siblings had died from hunger and disease. Poor Michael, 11 years of age, never recovered from the effects of cholera. Others were more fortunate. Patrick Gannon, 12 years of age (but because of hunger looked no older that 10 ) was kept for a while by a poor relative after both his parents died of hunger and disease. A report states that he is an intelligent boy who soon learned to read the scriptures. He was confirmed, in his new faith, and ‘was a very promising child’.
Seven years old Catherine Coyne was also taken in by a relative until she was given to the orphanage. She told her teacher that after both her parents died, she walked 16 miles away from her home begging along the way. She was described as being ‘very intelligent, and learning to read’.
The mission’s orphanage and the Catholic Church waged an on-going battle for custody of these destitute children. The Irish Church Mission claimed that priests tried to prevent parents placing their children with them where they ‘learned about Jesus from the Scriptures’. One mission supporter rejoiced that these children were ‘wrestled from the bondage of popery’.
Tempers became frayed on many occasions. Last weekend at the Gogarty Festival at Renvyle House Hotel, journalist and broadcaster Jim Carney told us about the unseemly brawl which engulfed the Rev William Mac Niece and his family (William was the grandfather of the poet Louis Mac Neice ) when the local curate, Fr William Rhatigan stormed into his school on Omey Island.
I’ll tell that story next week.
* Soupers and Jumpers - The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937 by Miriam Moffitt, published by Nonsuch Publishing, now on sale €27.99