‘God grant peace to America’

Week II

Despite Fr Peter Conway’s row with the Protestant rector of Headford, the Rev Dean Plunkett (and there were some appalling battles against Protestants to come ), he got on surprisingly well with the landlord of the whole area, the impressively named Richard Mensergh St George, Esq, also the High Sheriff. Initially, when Conway asked him if he would donate land for a church for his Catholic tenants, the request was turned down flat. But out of the blue, St George invited Conway to his house one day and offered him an acre of ground ‘anywhere on his estate’, rent free forever;  furthermore, he gave an additional seven acres of land for a priest’s house, and a subscription of £20 for a school.

Apologising for his initial refusal St George said that for years “I have been badly advised and made use of by a party”, whom he mysteriously did not name. The two men became warm friends, to the extent that in Fr Conway’s will he left a fine silver tray to St George.* 

But death was a long way off for the young, energetic Fr Peter Conway, then 41 years of age. With land secured for his church, he set off from Galway harbour on September 26 1860 on board the SS Connaught, sailing for Boston by way of St John’s, Newfoundland. His plan was to collect money from Galway emigrants who were settled there and in New York. 

The 380-foot, iron-hulled, side-wheeled steamer was one of the largest, and most luxurious ocean-going liners of its day. This was only her second voyage. On board were 50 first-class passengers, 417 in steerage, and a full crew of 125. However, Conway found it very uncomfortable. He described it as ‘the worst ship that was ever built, the builders should be prosecuted by the Irish nation for endangering the lives of over 600 persons.’ Fr Conway was disturbed enough by his observations, that he embarked at St John’s Newfoundland, and made his own way to Boston by train.

Dramatic news

When he arrived he was greeted by the dramatic news that, during the final leg of her journey, the Connaught had caught fire during a violent storm. Although lifeboats were lowered they were smashed against the sides of the ship by the waves. All seemed  lost, and  the passangers and crew awaited their fate on the deck of the buring ship. Miraculously a small merchant ship, the Minnie Schiffer,  saw the flames and came to its rescue. According the eyewitness accounts, the hulls of the Connaught were so hot they boiled the waves as they crashed against her.

A line was thrown across decks, transferring women and children first; then male passengers and crew, until everyone was on board the rescue ship, which was  practically sinking with their weight. Nevertheless they watched as the Connaught disapeared beneath the waves.

Incredibly, a little more than 50 years before the Titanic, nearly 600 people had been transferred from one of the largest ocean liners of the time to a tiny ship without  incurring a single loss of life. The rescue ship arrived at Boston’s India Wharf the following day.**

Civil War

Fr Conway collected sufficient money for work to start on the church; and returned to America again in 1864 where he travelled extensively, and again raised substantial sums of money. It was the time of the Civil War.  Conway visited the main hospital for wounded soldiers in New York. He could not help contrasting ‘the clean white counterpanes, blankets, sheets, comfortable beds, well-ventilated rooms, and the medical arrangements’ with his own poor efforts to relieve the suffering of famine victims by Lough Mask, and the efforts by the British authotities to help the aged and the sick at home.

He also heard a story that must have gladened his heart. Emigrants, who arrived in the States during the Civil War, were often immediately recruited into whichever army was at the port of arrival. Conway’s brother Hal fought on the Confederate side. He lay wounded in a Baltimore hospital. Fr James Gibbons, a great friend of Fr Conway, who had known the Conway family in Ireland, had been called to comfort the man, who was delirious with fever. Fr James managed to calm him, and heard he was from Mayo. He asked the sick man if by any chance he knew his friend Fr Conway. Not only did Hal know Fr Conway, but that he was his brother, and he and Fr James had been classmates together in Ballinrobe.

By June 7 1863 there was sufficent money to start building St Mary’s in Headford, which today stands as a very fine example of Victorian architecture, and is well worth a visit. Archbishop John McHale laid the foundation stone. The Catholic population of the town and its surrounds came out in style to celebrate to occasion. There was an excursion from Galway which arrived by the Eglinton steamer (a notice in the local newspapers warned that it would leave  Woodquay at 9am sharp to be in time for High Mass ), and four triumphial arches spanned the main street of Headford town at intervals.

One was dedicated to the St George family, with the words ‘God Bless Mr and Mrs St George’. It sported a Union Jack. But pride of place was given to the Stars and Stripes arch, on which was written ‘God grant peace to America.’ 

Next week Fr Conway and the 1857 Mayo Election

NOTES: *In a codicil to the will, Conway wrote that if Mr St George preferred his ‘two young horses’ he was to get them, and the silver plate was to be given to his sister Mrs Regan, Ballinrobe.

**The wreck of the SS Connaught has been recently located by the Endurnce Exploration Group, off the coast of Boston.  A TV documentary is being made. Divers are searching for a hoard of £10,000 gold pieces believed to have been on board. Apparently the wreck was instantly recognisable by its paddle-wheels ‘still standing’ on the ocean floor.  

I am leaning heavily on Brendan Kyne’s article in the excellent A Journey of Hope, published to mark the 150th anniversary of St Mary’s Church, now on sale from the presbytery, Headford, and bookshops at €20.


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