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Walk a few miles in their shoes

Bryan MacMahon tells Tadhg Evans that his new book, 'Faith and Fury', restores the long-lost voices on both sides of a bitter religious divide in Corca Dhuibhne between 1825 and 1845

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Bryan MacMahon with a copy of his new book, ‘Faith and Fury’. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Bryan MacMahon with a copy of his new book, ‘Faith and Fury’. Photo by Domnick Walsh

Bryan MacMahon with a copy of his new book, ‘Faith and Fury’. Photo by Domnick Walsh

kerryman

It's tempting and not all that hard to leave history untouched, and it only gets easier as the years tick by. Few among us feel compelled to dig into events from 180 to 200 years ago, and their happening in a small, rural place would only dull interest further - for most people.

"[But] Anything like that, hidden history, forgotten voices, lost lives, there's an attraction in that for me," says author Bryan MacMahon. "To reveal it and do justice to those who have been unfairly treated.

"Souper is an ugly term, an insulting term, it sends a cold shiver down people's backs. It doesn't do justice to people who converted for genuine reasons, and I believe there were a lot of them."

That's the background, in part, to 'Faith and Fury', the product of a deep study by MacMahon into the Evangelical Campaign in Dingle and West Kerry between 1825 and 1845; an exciting, colourful, and acrimonious - though rarely physically violent - time in the county's west. To borrow from publisher Eastwood Books' description of the subject matter, this was a successful missionary campaign but provoked a passionate reaction from the locality's Catholic Priests.

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"I'm aware of it a long, long time in terms of the building and remains of buildings around the [West Kerry] area, and plaques in Churches as well," MacMahon tells The Kerryman. "They sparked my interest in this, but also because I did a book on the Famine in North Kerry, and I could see that there was a lot of activity in Dingle: a lot of agro, a lot of ill will, and one prominent court case, just before the blight arrived. So I started to work back from 1845 to the origins of the whole tension and aggression in the town of Dingle and places west of it."

It's a period that hasn't been widely written about since but received extensive newspaper coverage at the time, and as MacMahon immersed himself in these writings and archived material over four consecutive winters, a compelling pre-Famine story took form and begged him to be told.

There were the women in the campaign's background, building on ideas and utilising the social media of its time, letter writing, to appeal for funds from sources dotted around Ireland and Britain, most notably England. The men were more public at the pulpit, in the newspapers, and also utilising their own press. There was Reverend Charles Gayer, the effective Rector of Dingle; and the Reverend Thomas Moriarty, the main player in Ventry (Ceann Trá) and a man who utilised his mastery of the native language to keen effect.

He had already converted by his own decision and asked "Am I not Irish, heart and soul and tongue?" He was Irish, and he believed that the Protestant Church was the true Irish Church: independent of the Pope and Rome and, he claimed, closer than Catholicism to the Gospels and the Bible and the Scriptures and St Patrick.

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Reading the Bible in a cottage, with one man who
was not fully committed standing at the door. Picture courtesy of Kerry County Library

Reading the Bible in a cottage, with one man who was not fully committed standing at the door. Picture courtesy of Kerry County Library

Reading the Bible in a cottage, with one man who was not fully committed standing at the door. Picture courtesy of Kerry County Library

These colourful times began with laypeople spreading the Irish-language Bible in the hope that the word of God was all they needed to turn hearts. For the people, hearing from and seeing a book in their own language - a tongue the Devil couldn't understand, it was believed - was attractive, while spreading the word worked more efficiently in a part of the world where 'bothántaíocht' had embedded itself.

"They then set up informal schools...hedge schools really, going around from community to community, teaching people how to read the Bible for themselves," MacMahon says. "That was liberating for a lot of people; they had never had this option before…they found it more attractive than the existing Catholic teaching, which I suppose was based on doctrines of the Church, rules, regulations. The Evangelical presentation appealed more to their hearts."

But there was a reaction - a counter-reformation of sorts, as MacMahon describes it - with Fr John O'Sullivan, then a Curate in Dingle, standing out as a key player during his first posting. Though Fr O'Sullivan went on to do great things in the Parish of Kenmare, he was initially controversial in his hard-line attitude.

The prospects of salvation and damnation were of deeper importance to more people then - and with two sides claiming they brought salvation and accusing the other of following a blueprint for damnation, this was always likely to be a charged time of conflicting opinions. There were denunciations, from the Altar, of the Ministers by the Priests. The word 'boycott' hadn't yet come into use, but that's effectively what was asked of Catholics to implement against the converted; whether ordinary people obeyed those calls was a different matter. Though newspaper readership was more limited then than you may assume, The Kerry Examiner and Kerry Evening Post did take opposing sides and made their respective cases forcefully, with the Tralee Chronicle staying neutral - or attempting that, anyway. The harsh words culminated in Reverend Gayer taking a successful libel case against the Kerry Examiner.

It was a time of absolutes - no grey areas - and as MacMahon says, there were parallels with today. Though physical violence rarely took hold, hate speech, incitement, othering, media manipulation, cancel culture, and name-calling of prominent figures were there then as they are now.

"Where there's conflict, there's news, there's energy. And there were some remarkable individuals involved in this," MacMahon says.

"I'm asking 'what if' the soupers were genuine converts?...There were some advantages with being associated with the class of people, you know, it was an upper-class movement, stemming from the landlord, Lord Ventry, and then people who lived in big houses and lived very secure, wealthy lifestyles…you became part of that community by converting, so you can't rule out that it might have been appealing to attend St James's Church rather than to attend St Mary's Church in Dingle.

"[But] There were charismatic, there were honest, there were devout, sincere, authentic people... They presented a simpler kind of religion. The Catholic Church was full of rules and regulations and penances and rituals; they simply said, 'read the Bible, it's all in the Bible'. You don't need Priests, rituals, sacraments, superstitions.

"They were genuinely committed to Protestantism. As one woman put it, "Don't call me turncoat; call me turned heart."

  • Faith and Fury is available in Kerry book stores and can be ordered online at www.wordwellbooks.com.

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