The anger and violence that erupted against the Protestant Irish Church Missions and their schools and orphanages in western Connemara towards the end of the 19th century, makes for harrowing reading today.
The Freeman’s Journal reported that ‘Schoolteachers have been in dread of their lives, and are obliged to keep in their houses, and in some instances to do without food.’ According to Canon Roberts of Moyrus, ‘trembling converts were dragged from their beds and asked at knifepoint to choose death or Catholicism.’ Canon Roberts claimed that a priest would interrupt the mob at this point, saying, ‘Give him his last chance; if he promises to be at Mass next Sunday spare him, and then if he breaks his promise we’ll settle him.’ Canon Roberts continued, ‘Too often a poor trembling hypocrite was thus added to the Roman congregation.’
During the last two weeks I wrote how the Catholic Church was caught off guard in their response to their Connemara flock in the bitter years that followed the Great Famine. The era of the much lauded Archbishop John McHale was coming to an end. In his old age he had lost much of his drive. Schools, orphanages and other church refuges tended to have been built in the more prosperous end of the dioces, mainly at Tuam. Connemara was much neglected. The Famine had devastated the area as it had elsewhere. Orphaned children were wandering alone, or were taken in by relatives. But they themselves were often too poor to feed their own family. An extra mouth was a burden. The Protestant Church took advantage of the situation. It opened a series of schools, orphanages and offered the prospect of employment to thousands of destitute children and adults. It undoubtedly saved the lives of many. But the price, at an age when both the Protestant and Roman churches believed that they, and they alone, held the teaching necessary to enter heaven, was the invitation to convert to Anglicism. Many did so, and did so happily and sincerely. Others, however, probably pretended to do so, in order that they or their children could avail of shelter and food. They were known as ‘Soupers’ or ‘Jumpers’, a tag that still has unpleasant connotations today.
Naming and shaming
Some of the violence meted out to Protestant clergy and their families, and to the converts themselves, was also part of the growing empowerment of the people through the Land League. Founded by Mayoman Michael Davitt in the autumn 1879, it gave to a subdued and a frustrated people a powerful voice through the masterful Charles S Parnell. Whereas he abhorred violence, some members of the Land League committed murder, burnings and vandalism.
Miriam Moffitt, in her excellent book* tells us that the Bishop of Galway John MacEvilly repeatedly wrote to the Primate, Paul Cullen, and to Tobias Kirby, Rector of the Irish College in Rome, criticising the state of the Tuam diocese in the mid 1870s. MacEvilly said that a strong hand was needed ‘to halt the as yet unchecked proselytisers, the outrageous Fenian, and the insubordinate and drunken Tuam priests’. His complaints were answered to some extent by Fr William Rhatigan, the parish priest of Claddaghduff. Fr Rhatigan instigated the beating up of the MacNeice family on Omey Island, and openly preached violence against Protestant converts and their clergy. He also led a crusade of ‘naming and shaming’ converts; and published a list of their names in the Galway Vindicator on August 2 1879. He claimed he could get hundreds who would testify that they were bribed to change their religion. He published a number of testimonies including that of John King who said he would never have converted to Protestantism were it not for the offer of five shillings.
Duties of a parent
Fr Rhatigan pledged that not a single word was altered from these testimonies, and each statement was signed by the witness. He boasted that he “could get hundreds to prove bribery, corruption and hypocrisy on the part of those who are agents of that gigantic humbug, called the ‘Irish Church Mission to Roman Catholics in Ireland.’”
I got a glimpse of the agony and conviction of one mother, Mary Mally (Malley? ) of Sellerna, who chose to leave behind her daughter (who was later baptised a Catholic ), while she followed her conscience, and emigrated to America. There she was welcomed by 13 cousins, all former converts from Catholicism. Mary felt compelled to live a Protestant life even though it was far from home and her daughter.
Fr Colleran, the curate of Claddaghduff, when he baptised Mary’s daughter some time later, commented cynically that Mary Mally, was “remarkable for her Jumper proclivities, but Providence in His great charity ordained that she should not discharge long the duties of a parent. She set out for distant shores some seven years ago where she lives to this day.”
Poor Mary. It was not a happy time in the history of our two main churches.
*Soupers and Jumpers - The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937, published last month by Nonsuch Ltd, now on sale €27.99