The Preacher and the Pre­late

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

In 1831, a young cler­gy­man, Edward Nan­gle, landed on Achill Island on a mis­sion to res­cue the 6,000 wretched in­hab­i­tants from hunger, il­lit­er­acy and the “filthy and blas­phe­mous ab­sur­di­ties” of their Catholic faith. Nan­gle is the preacher of Pa­tri­cia Byrne’s grip­ping true story of sec­tar­ian con­flict ig­nited by the so-called Sec­ond Re­for­ma­tion. The pre­late of the ti­tle is John McHale. A resur­gent Ro­man Church em­bold­ened by the grant­ing of Catholic Eman­ci­pa­tion de­cided to fight fire­brand with fire­brand, and ap­pointed the Rot­tweiler McHale as Bishop of Tuam. “Any­body but him!” the prime min­is­ter im­plored the Pope, but both sides were locked in for a vi­cious cage fight.

The Sec­ond Re­for­ma­tion be­gan with a fever­ish new-found zeal among hard­line Protes­tants in Bri­tain and Ire­land to evan­ge­lise na­tive peo­ples around the world, and by the 1830s the move­ment’s mis­sion­ary out­posts stretched from en­fee­bled China to en­slaved Africa to the in­fer­tile foothills of weather-beaten Achill off the Mayo coast. Edward Nan­gle saw the need for a mis­sion­ary out­post much closer to home, al­though Achill was worlds apart from the life he’d known at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin.

Un­trou­bled by self-doubt, Nan­gle NON-FIC­TION Pa­tri­cia Byrne

Mer­rion Press, pa­per­back, 272 pages, €14.99 saw him­self as a new Martin Luther, pick­ing up on Luther’s big idea of en­gag­ing with the peo­ple in their na­tive tongue. He took his im­me­di­ate lead from the “neat for­mula” of Ca­van landowner John Maxwell-Barry, who had brought thou­sands of Catholics into the Protes­tant fold in the 1820s. The au­thor out­lines the for­mula as: “Break the hold of Catholi­cism on the ten­ants, pro­mote evan­gel­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion with good moral liv­ing, and im­proved es­tate ef­fi­ciency would fol­low. It was a win-win for land­lord and ten­ant.”

So Nan­gle ar­rived on Achill bran­dish­ing a car­rot and stick. The car­rot was that con­verts to Protes­tantism and good moral liv­ing would be re­warded with proper school­ing, funds to build sturdy slate-roofed homes, the pro­tec­tion of the mis­sion, and de­liv­er­ance from the evil of pa­pish su­per­sti­tion. The stick was Nan­gle him­self. He was no Martin Luther.

Hav­ing made his points about the fail­ings of the Catholic Church, Luther’s in­stincts were to­wards moder­a­tion, con­cil­i­a­tion and com­pro­mise. Nan­gle de­spised moder­a­tion and con­cil­i­a­tion as shows of weak­ness.

His de­fault mode was con­fronta­tion and he took de­light in ridi­cul­ing the most deeply-held be­liefs of the peo­ple he was try­ing to win over, taunt­ing them, for in­stance, that con­sum­ing the com­mu­nion wafer made them bar­baric can­ni­bals. Most of the voices of rea­son and me­di­a­tion in Byrne’s pow­er­ful ac­count come from women, whose proper place all too of­ten was to stand by their man, right or wrong. Where these wives, moth­ers, in­sid­ers and in­trigued out­siders could some­times spy an olive branch, Nan­gle would only see rods for the backs of the re­cu­sant pa­pists. His sep­a­ratist Sec­ond Re­for­ma­tion mis­sion turned Achill into a Vic­to­rian re­make of a Cromwellian Plan­ta­tion.

Word trav­elled quickly that the island had be­come a Petri dish for the im­plan­ta­tion of a for­eign cul­ture, and be­fore long the island be­gan at­tract­ing out­side at­ten­tion. To­day it would be classed a con­flict zone like So­ma­lia or Ye­men, and the place would be Bill to fund a Catholic sem­i­nary at Maynooth in 1845, cit­ing his “grief and alarm”. The Great Famine struck that same year.

Byrne writes: “He [Nan­gle] had warned that the pass­ing of such a wicked mea­sure would most cer­tainly draw down God’s judg­ment and his warn­ing had proved cor­rect with the emer­gence of the potato blight. Edward now felt vin­di­cated in his pre­dic­tion, see­ing di­vine vengeance, ‘the fin­ger of God’, in the rot­ting potato crop.”

Nan­gle’s be­hav­iour dur­ing the Great Famine is part of the liv­ing his­tory of Achill to this very day. His ac­cusers charge him with tak­ing cyn­i­cal ad­van­tage of the dev­as­ta­tion all around him, forc­ing des­per­ate starv­ing peo­ple to sell their souls, and the souls of their chil­dren, for bread and soup. His de­fend­ers point out the un­de­ni­able truth that the mis­sion’s soup kitchens saved hun­dreds of lives.

Nor does the Catholic Church emerge cov­ered in glory. One young girl called Brid­get Lavelle, who had em­braced the mis­sion, was lured home on a lie that her sis­ter was dy­ing. “So my lady, we have you at last,” said the par­ish priest as the trap was sprung.

“The priest had come down heavy on the fam­ily, re­fus­ing to hear their con­fes­sions un­til they had re­moved their daugh­ter from the Achill Mis­sion,” writes Byrne.

When the girl fled to Dublin to stay true to her new faith, she learned to her hor­ror that the priests on Achill had put about the false ru­mour she’d left be­cause she’d be­come preg­nant.

This is a dra­matic tale crammed with in­ci­dent, in­clud­ing an early mur­der that set the tone for decades of sec­tar­ian strug­gle to come. Parts could be lifted from to­day’s news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing book-cook­ing char­ity scan­dals, un­car­ing vul­ture funds, rou­tine evic­tions and en­demic home­less­ness.

Told with pace and panache, The Preacher And The Pre­late is an ex­tra­or­di­nary and im­por­tant read.

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