Protestant missionaries who came to West Kerry to win converts, but saved many lives during the Famine, have never been recognised for their humanitarian work, according to author Bryan Mac Mahon who was speaking at an event held in the chapel of An Díseart during Dingle Literary festival.
He was addressing one of the many packed rooms of literary gems in An Díseart, where he discussed the Protestant campaign to win converts in West Kerry in the 1800s.
In a broad discussion on his book ‘Faith and Fury’, Bryan MacMahon noted that the Protestant mission to win converts in West Kerry – and the furious response from the Catholic Church – was highly divisive in the community from the early to mid-1800s.
By the end of the 19th Century the Catholic Church had won the battle for souls and, Mac Mahon said, “because history is written by the victory” the Protestant proselytising mission around the time of the Famine is often remembered in terms of soup kitchens and the ‘soupers’ who were treated as outcasts because they converted for food.
However, that view is a distortion of reality according to MacMahon who pointed out that Protestant churchmen saved a great many lives by using their contacts, connections and resources to source supplies food during the worst years of the Famine.
In ‘Black 47’ – the worst year of the Famine – Rev Charles Gaynor recorded that he was providing food for 3,000 people daily and that the population on the Great Blasket would have starved but for the aid provided by the Protestant missionaries.
In 1848 Rev Gaynor died of typhus that he contracted during his efforts to aid – and to convert - famine victims. “To me they are Famine heroes. That’s not recognised, and it should be,” MacMahon.
In a separate event, held in An Díseart chapel on Sunday, present day famine and the African migrant crisis were discussed when Ruth Ní Fhionnáin interviewed author and journalist Sally Hayden, who has investigated and written extensively on the subject.
Hayden said that while EU states claimed to have done everything they possibly could to help migrants making the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Africa, personal stories she has heard from refugees detained in Lybia show the reality is that “routes to safety are being shut down”. Meanwhile, the response to the Ukrainian war proved European countries have a far greater capacity to accommodate refugees than they were previously willing to admit, she said.
The talks by Bryan Mac Mahon and Sally Hayden were among a plethora of packed house events held in An Díseart, Dingle Bookshop, Ionad an Bhlascaoid, the Skellig Hotel and elsewhere during the course of a very successful festival that attracted audiences from across the country. The one disappointment was the non-appearance of author John Banville who was due to speak at a headline event on Saturday.
The final chapter on the festival was the launch in Ionad an Bhlascaoid of ‘Cinn Línte: Breaking Verse’ by Daerina Ní Chinnéide who brought the house down with a rap-like presentation of her poetry with musical backing from Steve Cooney and Rónán Ó Snodaigh.
The cover has been closed on the fourth Dingle Literary Festival but many of the events are still available for viewing on the Dingle Literary Festival website: dinglelit.ie.