Thursday 13 December 2018

Remembering spalpeens who built Teampul na mBocht

Eoghan Harris cartoon July 29
Eoghan Harris cartoon July 29
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

To be too far ahead is to be alone. As I found out over the past 40 years whenever I wrote about evangelical Irish-speaking missionaries, RIC men and Protestant victims of the Old IRA.

But decent people are doing their best to swim against the tide and more and more I meet kindred spirits, as I did last Sunday evening in Skibbereen.

Sitting into my car outside Costcutter filling station, I was accosted by a fine-looking man who asked me if I was the guy who sometimes wrote about the past in the Sunday Independent.

As that question could conceal all kind of agendas, I was pretty cagey until I established his credentials.

He was Joe Riordan. He was on his way to Durrus to put flowers on the grave of 20-year-old Constable Isaac Rea of the RIC, who, on foot patrol, had been shot by the IRA in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and died on December 27, 1920.

The IRA volunteer who shot young Rea dead was Joe's grandfather, John Riordan, a British army veteran and later training officer of the West Waterford Brigade who had played a prominent part in the Piltown Cross Ambush.

Joe told me he wasn't sure what kind of reception he would get from Isaac Rea's descendants.

This reminds us that RIC men and Protestant farmers shot as "spies" do not simply disappear from history.

Like the two RIC men shot in cold blood by Dan Breen at Soloheadbeg, they leave spouses and children and relations behind.

Their descendants don't see them as alien oppressors but as brave men doing their duty to the death.

Joe Riordan's pilgrimage to put flowers on the grave of a young Protestant Irishman killed by his grandfather is a role model of respect, a reminder that nobody should be forgotten.

Certainly those who died in the Great Irish Famine in West Cork are not forgotten thanks to people like Terri Kearney of Skibbereen Heritage Centre and Philip O'Regan who conducts poignant Famine walks.

Last week added a visual dimension. Ann Davoren, director of the Uillinn Arts Centre, is currently hosting Coming Home, the largest exhibition of Famine-linked art works in the world.

Dr Niamh O'Sullivan, who curates the exhibition, contributes a terse and terrifying essay on the Famine in a supplementary book, Coming Home.

Breandan Mac Suibhne's essay, Entering the Gray Zone, which deals with a unique Famine memoir by Hugh Dorian from Donegal, does not dodge the class tensions of the Famine.

Dorian's nationalist narrative blames the British government but he did not hide the savage social divisions on the Irish side.

Mac Suibhne points out that Dorian recorded that some did well and "brings the landgrabber and meal monger into view".

Mac Suibhne also quotes Professor Cormac O Grada on the danger of a version of Famine history "in which the descendants of those who survived all become vicarious victims".

This reminds us that the Famine can't be reduced to a simple victim narrative of brutal British and landlord oppressors on one side and innocent Irish victims on the other side.

The Famine was also a class war between strong farmers and starving spalpeens, and a shotgun decided who lived or died.

Cathal O Donnabhain, an avid reader of Irish history, points up the complexity by a window display in his Skibbereen bookshop.

A basket of potatoes and a turnip and a sign: "They say that the people who survived were those who minded their turnips."

Enforced emigration also offered escape from the horrors at home. My Roscommon great-grandmother's two sisters did well as domestics in America and their children prospered.

Artist Toma McCullim both commemorates and celebrates the story of 110 Skibbereen girls sent to Australia kitted out in pinafores and spoons.

So why no celebration of William Fisher, Rector of Kilmoe, and the heroic spalpeens who built the tiny church of Teampul na mBocht at Toormore on the Mizen Peninsula during the Great Famine?

In 1846 the burden of Famine relief fell on the shoulders of Fisher, who had been tempted to follow John Henry Newman into the Roman Catholic Church.

Fisher was a fluent Irish speaker who formed a close bond with the local spalpeens. As Famine scourged the area, he sent out appeals for aid on his small printing press.

Quakers in Manchester sent him a substantial donation. Being wise to the ways of middlemen, they stipulated the money must be spent on a public work where no cart, horse or wheel would be used - clearly an attempt to freeze out strong farmers and funnel aid to the spalpeens.

In the terrible winter of 1847, Fisher led the labourers of Toormore to build a simple Celtic-style church by the sea which he called Teampul na mBocht, the Church of the Poor.

Fisher's dedication of the church with an epistle of James, which stresses the duties of the rich to the poor, shows his radical mind.

Not surprisingly, the spalpeens who had built the church with their bare hands were willing to attend services in the Irish language led by the young and charismatic Fisher.

By the spring of 1847, some 600 converts were worshipping in Teampul na mBocht. Again, not surprisingly, local farmers who had been excluded from the work were not pleased.

Neither was the Catholic Church in Cork. In the spring of 1847, Fr John Murphy, a charismatic figure, too, set off from Cork on a crusade to win back the "soupers" of Toormore.

Fr John was a formidable foe: nephew of the Bishop of Cork, and the son of James John Murphy, the leading Catholic merchant.

Ironically, Murphy was one of the principal exporters of grain - causing the famous temperance preacher Father Mathew to publicly excoriate him as one of the "capitalists of the corn trade".

But in spite of Fr John's wagons supplied with twists of snuff, sugar and tobacco; despite his strong preaching outside Teampul na mBocht, backed by strong farmers wielding stout sticks; despite even the efforts of Irish-speaking Vincentians, the majority of the "soupers" refused to desert Fisher and Teampul na mBocht.

This epic story was the inspiration for my play Souper Sullivan, staged at The Abbey in 1985 and by Jim Brick in Galway, where it was movingly interrupted by cries from a woman who identified herself as from a "souper" family from Goleen.

Eventually, most of the converts, pressurised and isolated in a Roman Catholic area, were forced to emigrate and erased from memory.

So why is the heroic story of the spalpeens of Teampul na mBocht not a cherished part of Skibbereen's Famine memory? Of the many reasons here are two:

First, history is written by the winners and local Catholic folklore cast the converts into the shadows.

Second, local Protestants were reluctant to publicly remember Fisher, as doing so could be depicted as provocation by Roman Catholic militants.

Presumably the same desire not to disturb sleeping dogs lay behind the decision to replace the official name, Teampul na mBocht, with the anaemic 'Altar Church'.

The church still stands as a mute testament. Surely it's time to stop tip-toeing past Teampul na mBocht?

Sunday Independent