Calvinists in Connaught

In May 1852 the Overseas Missions Board of the Calvinist Methodists (in Wales – Ed.) decided it would be a good thing to establish a mission to the Irish and that it should be based in Connaught. In order to find out what would be the pros and cons of such a venture two senior members of the denomination, the Reverend Henry Rees of Liverpool and the Reverend David Charles of Trefeca, were sent to Ireland. For a fortnight in July of that year the two Welshmen travelled through the country noting the things they saw.

The results of their research were published in the –Trysorfa– (one of the earliest periodicals in Welsh – Ed.) during 1853 and from them we get a picture of Ireland about two years after the Great Famine. Yet, though the effects of the Famine were everywhere to be seen, they make very little reference to it. They were prepared to go along with the official view that the famine had ended in 1847 and that it was the laziness of the Irish and, naturally enough when you remember the purpose of their trip, the attachment of the people to the Catholic faith that were the reasons why the country was in such a pitiable state. While they were passing by the Catholic College in Maynooth their Protestant ire was aroused to fever pitch:

’’We are unable to look on Maynooth without the most disturbed feelings as we recall that here is the lair of the beast of Rome where it rears its young cubs who in due time will dart here and dart there to destroy the souls of men.’

So the Irish had fallen into the pit of Hell and had no hope of salvation until they rejected Catholicism. Their report has many comparisons between the high living standards of Protestants and the pitiful state of Catholics.

In Athlone it is stressed:
’’That half the inhabitants of the town – that is the more respectable half – were Protestants…who lived in houses with slate roofs, but that the rest lived in thatched houses that had a look of filth and poverty.’’

In the same way, in their descriptions of the people, they mirrored those that filled the magazines and newspapers of Wales and England in declaring that the Irishman was a creature who was half animal. In Athlone again:

’’They shouted, they clamoured and they howled, making all kinds of gestures – they were like a gathering of the insane.’’

While in Galway:
’’We feel as if we have come to the dwelling of the beast, they are as poor as animals, and their big teeth fork out of their wide jaws.’’

But in spite of all of this they felt that there was hope for Ireland:

’’The cleansing and civilising effect of the Gospel is the only cure.’’

That is to say, a good dose of Calvinism!

They commend those who were working to improve the situation such as the Presbyterian Minister in Ballina, Mr. Armstrong, who had opened a school to teach sewing to 70 girls. The girls were paid a wage in order that:

’’They will take their wages home, and in this way their parents will learn how to live better and their minds will be won over to the Protestant school.’’

Obviously they saw nothing out of the way in using money as a means of proselytising!
While they were spending a Sunday in Oughterard a wave of homesickness came over the two Welshmen as they thought of the faithful at home in Wales getting ready to go to chapel while:

’’We were in exile in a foreign corner of the mountains of Connemara.’’

They noticed how all morning crowds of people were going to Mass and they feared that they would have to go with them if they did not find a Protestant service. But they were saved from such a humiliation:

’’As we were wondering if we should go in or not we thought that we could hear singing. We recognised the tune straight away. The conclusion was obvious: 'There are Protestants here,' we said to each other!’’

They had discovered a Sunday School that was held in a house nearby under the guidance of the local schoolmaster.

In the afternoon they were able to attend a service in the Established Church. As some people mistook them for clergymen from England they were invited to preach. They declined, emphasising that they were not in ’episcopal orders’.

They spent the rest of the trip visiting Limerick, Tralee, and Killarney before heading East again as they visited Cork and Dublin. On July 21 they set sail for Liverpool and home. At the end of their report they say that three things in particular had struck them, namely:

’’The Jail, the Poorhouse and the Barracks – the natural fruit of the beast of Rome, in our view.’’

Although they recommended setting up a mission, nothing more was heard of the venture and the trip to Ireland by our two Brits from Wales was soon forgotten.

The author of this article, Einion Thomas, formerly Archivist at the Dolgellau Record Office, Gwynedd, Wales, is now based at the University of Wales, Bangor. His article was written in Welsh.

Translation:Wales Famine Forum. 1999.

Cymraeg / Welsh.

Gaeilge / Irish.

Published in The Green Dragon, No 9, Winter, 1999.