Wednesday 29 July 2020

The Aran Bread War and the “Stolen Children”

A Holy Show in 1868/9

19th century bread baking.

Religious tension and bigotry has been a part of Irish history since the day Henry the eighth decided to split with Rome, in an effort to father a legitimate male heir.

Like the rest of Ireland, the Aran Islands would suffer from the consequences of this which saw a Protestant Cromwellian garrison established in Cill Éinne and the killing of many of the male inhabitants of the village.

The destruction of the monasteries and the confiscation of church land would finally bring to an end the golden age of “Ara na Naomh” Aran of the Saints. What the Vikings had started, Henry and his daughter Elizabeth would finish.

Religious difference in Ireland was used to suppress those at the bottom of the social ladder and get them arguing with one another, while being exploited by the wealthy and powerful.

The Protestant Wolfe Tone and the Catholic Michael Davitt, in different eras, were very much aware of this but their efforts to unite those of every creed and none, were less than successful as religious intolerance ruled.

The people of the three Aran Islands had remained faithful to the old Roman Catholic religion, despite concerted efforts to get them to see the error of their ways.

For much of the 19th century, tensions had ebbed and flowed but with the building of the new Protestant Church at Cill Rónáin in the 1840s, battle lines became more entrenched. 

Church of St Thomas in Cill Rónáin. Opened in 1846

The first modern Catholic Chapel on Árainn was built by Fr Gibbons at Eochaill in 1833, just a few years after Catholic Emancipation.
The new law saw an easing of the old highly anti Catholic penal laws.

For the most part, despite great efforts by the rector, Rev William Kilbride, conversions were few and in some cases, temporary and the little Church of St Thomas was attended by just a few government employees and two local Protestant families.

Archbishop John McHale had unwittingly given an opportunity for proselytism in his Archdiocese, by condemning  the newly opened National Schools which were intended to be non denominational. Many Protestant bishops were of the same mind and the new schools would eventually fall under Catholic and Protestant domination.

Connemara was a hotbed of religious conflict during the 19th century with some very violent clashes. Indeed Rev Kilbride arrived in Árainn in 1855 after suffering a number of assaults in the line of duty. He had also served for a year at the famous Achill colony mission of his friend, Rev Edward Nangle.  Kilbride was himself a convert from Roman Catholicism as was his older brother, Rev Henry Neville Kilbride.

Rev Edward Nangle of Achill. A friend of William Kilbride

After the purchase of Inishboffin island around 1855, by a convert to Roman Catholism, Henry William Wilberforce, the local Protestant schoolmaster from Cork, Thomas Blake Chard (1827-1913) was driven from Boffin and was invited by Rev Kilbride to open a school on Árainn. 

There was much controversy about the Aran school and its use in proselytising, and as the numbers attending dropped, in 1863 or so,  Chard decided to open a shop in Cill Rónáin, which by all accounts was very successful.

 He would add a bakery in September 1868 and was patronised by both locals and government officials. Previously the islands were often left for weeks without bread, due to weather conditions.

Rev Kilbride was fond of taking his neighbours to court but given that he was living among people who resented both him and his religion, perhaps he felt he had to show strength in the face of a certain amount of intimidation. It reached ridiculous levels in later years when he brought a lad to court for stealing apples.

He appears to have become immersed in cultural hobbies which included the Irish language, translating of hymns and exploring some of Aran’s many historic sites. He also had an excessive love for land and this was to lead to much resentment. 

The collapsed roof of  Teampall Mhic Dara circa 1900.

Rev Kilbride had made great efforts in 1868 to highlight the deteriorating condition of the roof of  the church on Oileán McDara in Connemara.
Our photo shows Teampall Mhic Dara after the roof had fallen in.
It has since been magnificently restored.

The most fanatical hunter after misguided Catholic souls was the land agent from Dublin, Thomas Higginbotham Thompson. Although he only visited the islands in order to collect the greatly inflated rents, he usually arrived with a heap of holy books, sometimes assisted by his daughter and transient bible readers.

By the 1860s there was an uneasy peace between the local Catholic Parish priest, John Moran and his Protestant opponent, Rev William Kilbride. Fr Moran had arrived in 1854, replacing the man who served so heroically through the terrible Gorta Mór, Patrick Harley. 

This uneasy peace was interrupted by a series of tragedies that befell a young Aran woman, widowed twice and left with four children to look after. 

Catherine Cheevers was the daughter of a house carpenter who lived in Cill Éinne with his wife and two sons. As Cheevers is not an island name, we can speculate as to what brought him to Aran but the building of the Protestant Church and rectory in the 1840s, are strong possibilities.  As he was living in Cill Éinne, it’s also possible that he came to Aran to work on renovating Killeany Lodge. We are however, just speculating about this.

Rev Kilbride and his niece outside the long gone rectory. He died in Dec 1898.

In Galway in the 1850s, Catherine married a soldier of Scottish Presbyterian descent, named Simpson, who was later killed during the Crimean war 1853-1856. Their daughter, Mary Anne Simpson was born around 1855/6 and it was said that she was baptised a Protestant, like her father. This was later disputed.

Captured Russian canons from the Crimean war. Presented to the Town of Galway in 1857
Simpson may have served with the Galway based Connacht Rangers, who fought against the Russians at the siege of Sebastopol. Officially known as the 88th Regiment of Foot, after their fearsome displays during the Napoleonic wars, the Rangers were branded “The Devil’s Own” by the Duke of Wellington. We have not been able to trace Simpson and his name is not among the ten Crimean dead, listed on a memorial at St Nicholas’ church in Galway.

The Rangers had acquitted themselves with honour and only on one occasion showed a reluctance to fight. That was on St Patrick’s day 1855 which they felt should be reserved for celebration. The iconic canons that once graced Eyre Square were captured from the Russians during this war.

Claddagh fishing boats passing Nimmo’s Pier (1830)  and about to reach home.
Catherine Cheevers’ second husband, Comyn Clancy, was a Claddagh fisherman.

In July 1856, Catherine married Comyn Clancy, who we believe was a Claddagh boatman. They had three children together, Margaret, John and Martin. In May 1862, Comyn was lost off a boat taking kelp from Ardfry Bay. Lost with Comyn was Myles Joyce but their crewmate, Val Conneely was saved by the coastguard.

 Catherine was pregnant at the time, her son Martin being born later. The three Clancy children were baptised Catholics.

The Claddagh fishing village Galway, in the 19th century.

Finding life difficult, Catherine returned with her four children to Árainn and was given shelter by her parents and brothers. Her sister was also married in the village of Cill Éinne. Some have suggested that Catherine’s mother was an Aran woman.

We can assume that Catherine would have been in receipt of some soldier’s widow pension but we can’t be sure of this. In any case, Catherine decided around 1865 to head for America and try and set up a home for her children. 

Portland Maine where Catherine Cheevers set up her new home.

All was well until Catherine’s father died in January 1867 and her mother became too feeble to care for the children. Her two brothers tried to cope but eventually they decided that it would be best if the four children were sent to an orphanage.

As the eldest child was a baptised Protestant, in March 1867 they discussed this with Rev Kilbride. 

Encouraged by their neighbours, they approached the Parish Priest, Fr Daniel Lydon, who had arrived on Árainn in 1866. According to later reports, Fr Lydon said he could not help and advised them to send the children to the workhouse in Galway.

Daniel was alleged to have said that he had experience of the workhouse in Ballinrobe and that the children would be treated as well in the workhouse, as the children of well off farmers are treated in their own homes. This was patently untrue.

It would appear that the discussion became heated after the priest asked if he was expected to raise the children in his parlour and the two brothers stormed out. And now the story takes a decisive turn which would lead to much controversy.

Ignoring the priest’s advice, the two brothers visited the local Protestant rector, William Kilbride and he set in motion the chain of events that would lead to the children being taken into care by the much respected and much hated (depending on your religion) Irish Islands and Coast Society.

The Islands and coast Society was a Protestant Evangelical organisation dedicated to outlining the ‘errors’ of ‘Romanism’ and seeking converts through missionary work and the education of the young. It had all the hallmarks of what was contemptuously known as a “Birds Nest”

Impressive logo of the Islands and Coast Society.
Glendalough Co Wicklow.

The land agent Thomas Thompson was a director of the Society and Rev Kilbride was one of its salaried superintendents.

It was at this stage that the Protestant schoolmaster and shopkeeper, Thomas Chard, appears in the story. The children needed somebody to accompany them to the society’s secretary in Dublin, Mrs Edmund C Pendleton, so Rev Kilbride allegedly asked Chard, to take the children on the train. It was later claimed that Patrick Cheevers put the children on the train in Galway and that Chard had no act or part in their journey.

Patrick Cheevers would claim later that his sister who was married in Cill Éinne was approached by one of her neighbours who told her that the children would be well looked after if they returned to the island. He claimed this neighbour was acting on behalf of Fr Lydon. The Cheevers refused the offer.

It appears the two Cheevers brothers changed religion and were fiercely condemned by the priest. No Catholic would or could employ them so Kilbride organised for Michael Cheevers  to emigrate to America and Chard employed Patrick in his bakery. Patrick would later marry Catherine Matthews in the Protestant Church in Cill Rónáin in 1870. Catherine was the daughter of Chard’s Catholic baker, it seems.

The four children met with Rev Kilbride and his wife Máire Johnston. They had married in 1844 when William was 19 and Mary was 24. The Kilbrides had no family of their own.

 The four children stayed on the island for three weeks and later it was claimed that the priest was well aware of what was planned but had made no effort to help out.

After their uncle had brought the children to Galway, it was claimed that Thomas Chard took them on the final leg to Henrietta Pendleton in Kingstown. This put Chard in the firing line. It was later claimed that Thomas Chard had no act or part in the children’s removal and that employing Patrick Cheevers was the reason he was boycotted.

When Fr Lydon discovered that the children had gone to a “birds nest”, he made several complaints but he seems to have stopped short of all out condemnation and the instigation of a boycott of Chard and his shop. This would happen later but the two Cheever’s brothers were boycotted on orders from Fr Lydon. 

In the summer of 1868 the ageing Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale, arrived with his senior clergy to give Confirmation. We covered that visit last month. Here At this stage the children had been gone for over a year.

There can be no doubt but that the fate of the four children was discussed. Fr Lydon most likely, was under pressure to recover the children. It would have been known that Chard was almost finished building a bakery and that this presented a target to be attacked. Although the children were later referred to as the Aran orphans, it might be more accurate to describe them as Claddagh orphans.

Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale

Archbishop John McHale would have seen the whole episode as an affront to his authority and it’s likely that he decided to send somebody to Árainn, who would take the battle to the enemy. Shortly after, McHale sent the newly ordained James Corbett (1844-1919) from Kilmaine, to Cill Rónáin as curate.

James had a reputation for controversy and his love for a good fight was to be shared in later years by his Irish/American nephew and World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, “Gentleman Jim Corbett”.

Gentleman Jim is said to be the father of technical and tactical boxing, where brain is as important as brawn. His uncle and namesake was a man who thought similarly and he immediately decided to hit the Protestant community where it would hurt most, in their pockets. 

In October 1868, just weeks after the bakery opened, with powerful sermons he ordered his flock to boycott Chard’s shop and the gloves were off. This boycott was a great benefit to Chard’s competitors and we are reminded of the writer Liam O’Flaherty’s contention that sermons against Poitín were often followed by generous church donations, by the publicans of the islands. A serious charge but who knows?

Chard claimed that there were seven other shops in Cill Rónáin and including traders, twenty in all around the islands. He claimed that until the boycott, all but two were happy to buy their bread wholesale from him.

In November 1868, Chard’s Catholic baker approached Fr Lydon in an effort to have the very damaging boycott suspended. He claimed that people were afraid to visit the shop in daylight and that Fr Corbett had started patrolling around the area.

He later claimed that Fr Lydon had offered to pay him to leave the island. The baker, William Matthews, refused. 

The most powerful men on the islands were the Protestant and Catholic clergymen, the land agent Thompson and the Catholic Middleman in Cill Muirbhigh, the Justice of the Peace, James O’Flaherty. The local Sergeant of police appears to have wisely stayed out of the affair. 

Grave of James O’Flaherty J.P. who died in 1881.
He was accused of having no religion which might be why his Catholicism is highlighted on his headstone.

This was at a time when the only regular mailboat connection with Galway was the “Aran Yacht” jointly owned by O’Flaherty, Thompson and Kilbride. The middleman, James O’Flaherty J.P. had another boat also which made occasional trips.

Just as Gentleman Jim and Mohammad Ali annoyed an opponent into making a mistake, James Corbett had goaded Kilbride, Thompson and O’Flaherty into a reckless response. They now declared, on November 10th 1868, that as long as Chard was boycotted, their boats would not carry any bread to Aran.

Thompson would later claim that it was done against his better judgement and how right he was.

Fr Corbett must have been delighted with this public relations bonanza and he was quick to exploit the cruel oppressive attempt to starve the islanders, with a series of letters to the papers.

                              The Bread War had started.

The first part of the war involved numerous letters to the Galway Vindicator, which were taken up by other publications, both at home and abroad. As in most wars, truth was a casualty as both sides spun the story to their own advantage.

The initial letter was written anonymously by somebody called “Arranite”. It was an appeal to the bakers of Galway to intervene as they had up to this time, he claimed, been supplying £1000 worth of bread to the islands every year.

It’s almost certain that “Arranite” was a shopkeeper himself, who resented having to compete with Chard’s shop with its daily supply of fresh bread. He condemned the local bakery and praised the Galway bread. Thompson would later claim that “Arranite” was not an Aranman but a mainlander who settled on the island. 

As in many cases of dispute, then and now, monetary gain and jealousy can often distort the truth. The claim that Chard’s alleged proselytising was the reason his shop and bakery were condemned by his competitor, “Arranite”, is surely bogus.   

Fr James Corbett is more honest in his condemnation and it’s clear that he regarded the spiritual affairs of all the islanders as belonging to himself and Fr Lydon and once baptised a Catholic.......always a Catholic. It would seem that giving a job in his bakery, to Patrick Cheevers, was the main reason that Chard fell foul of the priests.
A series of letters now followed and every grievance of the islanders was aired for all the world to see. That two Christian groups would be at war over bread, a central theme in sacred literature, would add to the public’s scandalous interest in the affair.

Both Rev Kilbride and Thomas Thompson wrote a number of letters after the initial “Arranite” letter in December 1868. The papers also published letters from both Fr Lydon and Fr Corbett, with “Arranite” contributing now and again, in order to keep the pot boiling. Arranite was in some ways, a 19th century Troll.

The controversy got worldwide attention, especially in places where Irish emigrants had settled and Thompson, Chard and Kilbride were denounced on all sides with lesser attention being paid to the Catholic middleman, James O’Flaherty.

Very emotive language was used by both sides with the Cheevers brothers being accused of selling the children to Kilbride and he selling them on to a “Bird’s Nest”. Those who had changed religion were described as perverts, soupers and jumpers.

One of the most bizarre elements in the whole affair was a petition to the Viceroy Spenser  by Fr Corbett and Fr Lydon for a Royal Navy gunboat to be placed in Galway Bay, in order to protect British subjects.

Many other grievances came to the fore, one of which had been a pet issue of the local Protestant medical officer, James Johnston Stoney. This was the exploitation of the islanders by Thompson and his seaweed factory. Dr Stoney highlighted how a ton of hard won weed was usually being weighed at 23 cwts to the ton and sometimes more.

At one stage Stoney had to write a letter declaring that he was not the author of the anonymous letter by “Arranite” which had brought the bread war to public scrutiny. Who Arranite was, is difficult to say but he or she certainly got people writing. Dr Stoney would die suddenly in 1869 as he battled a fever outbreak.

Fr Corbett became a celebrity for his efforts and it’s hard not to think that he enjoyed the notoriety. He was only about 25 years of age at this time. Archbishop McHale would have been proud of his efforts and James probably knew that.

In one of his letters to the paper, Fr Corbett managed to drag up an incident on the South Island, of a girl who had been seduced by a local lad. That the young lad might have been the one seduced, was never a possibility, it seems. Threats of eviction were introduced as the priest insisted that the lad should marry the young woman.

In a responding clarification of the matter, Kilbride declared that Fr Corbett had induced the lad into the girl’s house and then tried to force marriage on him.

The young lad’s father heard him shouting for help inside the locked door of the house and succeeded in smashing the door with a rock, in order to rescue his son. A chase then ensued as the priest tried to discipline the lad’s father. The priest, who hailed from Mayo was at a disadvantage while chasing an Inis Oirr man, whose life of constant hard work would have made him as lively as a goat.

Kilbride then slyly introduced the fact that the priests used to stay in the house of the young girl, when visiting Inis Oirr, planting a very unfair seed of suspicion, in the minds of the readers.

It reflects badly on both the priest and the minister, that no consideration appears to have been given to the rights of the two young people on the South Island, before naming them in public.

The illjudged banning of bread on the supply boat finally came to an end in January 1869 but the issue of the “stolen” children had by then taken on a life of its own. 

Fr Corbett began to investigate where Catherine Clancy might be in America and had newspaper adverts in different Irish American newspapers inserted, in a bid to find her.

Unknown to Fr Corbett, Catherine had married for a third time to a man named Edward Cooke in Portland in August 1866 and had a small baby by then. When Catherine did find out what was happening in Ireland, she tried to have the children sent out to her but was told she would have to claim them herself in person.

By now the tale of the “stolen children” had become notorious among Irish/Americans and a fund was immediately started in order to get Catherine home to Ireland and back again to Portland.

The Irish in Boston were particularly generous and the campaign appears to have been led by a man named Michael Gill. We have been unable to confirm if Michael had Aran blood but with a name like that, it’s highly likely.

Michael’s letters to the American papers were both emotive and in some ways, libellous and it’s likely they resulted in generous donations to the fund. One of the most memorable lines is his description of the Trinity College graduate, Rev William Kilbride, as “Kidnapper Kilbride”, a phrase worthy of any tabloid newspaper headline writer.

Ruin of  the Episcopalian church of St Thomas in Cill Rónáin. A monument to times past.

Catherine returned and recovered her four children and the papers carried reports of their time spent with the “Islands and Coast Society”

They were first taken in by the Hon Secretary of the Society, Henrietta Pendleton in Kingstown. Henrietta was a poet and the widow of the Rev Edmund Pendleton who had died of fever during the Great Hunger. Soon after, all four moved to Cork to stay with a Bible reader named McCarthy. 

The reports differ depending on which paper is commenting but the children were said to be very unhappy in Cork where they got very little schooling, outside Bible reading. It was claimed that they had to walk barefoot, a mile and a half to school. This would not be unusual at the time in Ireland and for many years afterwards. 

They spent a year and a half in Cork before moving on to a family named Perrin in Wicklow. When it was realised that Catherine was on her way home to claim them, they were moved back to Mrs Pendleton in Dublin.
Example of the type of letter, supporting Catherine Cheevers.

While most of the Irish papers showed some restraint in listing the children’s ordeal, some letters in American papers did not. There were claims that the children were only given meat on a Friday and that they had been ordered to spit on the crucifix, and declare the Pope the Anti-Christ.

These claims were most likely fabricated in order in inflame feelings as it’s not credible that any Christian would instruct a child to spit on the crucifix. However, declaring the Pope the Anti-Christ and mocking the Friday fast, are not unheard of, even today.

Catherine returned in 1870 to America, with her four children and was reunited with her husband Edward Cooke and small child, Michael, in Portland. She had missed four years of her older children’s lives, Mary Anne Simpson aged 14, Margaret (12), John (10) and Martin (6) Clancy.

Although the Aran bread war was to see Fr Corbett come to prominence in the Archdiocese, this was not his first brush with controversy. In 1858 the Christian Brothers in Tuam had been ordered to vacate the school which they had been renting from a notorious Landlord, the Protestant Bishop Plunkett. In the heated times that were in it, the Brothers decided to vacate the premises the day before their eviction and avoid confrontation.

It being the eve of St John’s night, when bonfires are lit all over Ireland, it comes as no great surprise as to what happened next. 

                Protestant Bishop Thomas Plunkett of Tuam.
    Fr Corbett was a suspect in the destruction of the school in Tuam,  from which the Bishop had evicted the Christian Brothers, in 1858.

As evening began to fall, fifteen year old James Corbett and some of his classmates, visited their old school and before long, the building was ransacked and in flames as a near riot situation developed. The police were later condemned for not intervening but as most of them were Catholic, it comes as no great surprise. A huge, angry crowd had gathered and perhaps the police took the wise option.

The Roman Catholic Chapel at Eochaill, with the grave of Fr Daniel Lydon, who died in 1870

The Baptism font at Eochaill Chapel

James Corbett would go on to become Parish priest of Partry and played a pivotal role in seeking justice for the wrongly convicted prisoners, after the horrific Maamtrasna murders. We mentioned this outrage before when we did a piece on the wrongful conviction of a Cill Rónáin man, Bryan Kilmartin in 1882. Here

Catherine Cheevers’ return trip to America would coincide with the death of Fr Daniel Lydon in 1870. He lies overlooking the North Sound and Connemara, in the grounds of his Parish chapel in Eochaill. He was just  50 years old. 
(Edit. We have since been told that Daniel is buried inside the church and that the limestone slab was moved here during reconstruction work in the early 20th century. This work involved the replacing of the old thatch roof) 

The religious confrontations of those days are but a distant part of Aran history now and a younger generation must wonder at what it was all about. 

Catherine Cheevers had four children with Edward Cooke and although the trail has run cold, it’s possible she married again for a fourth time. 

While some will wonder at Catherine deserting her children, it’s important not to judge too harshly. Being poor and widowed in those days often meant a choice of either destitution or remarriage. She did what she could.

 Catherine seems to have been a strong woman and we suspect that she dropped about ten years from her age as soon as she landed in America. 

Given that she had eight children, it’s likely that some of her descendants are still around. She later left Portland for Massachusetts. We know that her daughter Catherine Cooke, died from T.B. in Boston in 1893. She was just 21 years old.

The whole episode was not of Catherine’s making and she and her children were drawn into a power struggle between two clergymen who were in turn under pressure from a fanatically religious land agent and a proud and vain Archbishop. 

The death of her father was unexpected and it appears that while she did send money home, it appears that for some reason she didn’t say where she was living, or if she did, her family refused to say.

Although Chard and his son would later be accused of sharp practise in taking over a farm in Manister, on this occasion it would appear that he was a victim of religious intolerance and commercial jealousy.

Many years ago an old man in Cill Rónáin remarked that while the Chards were tough business people, there were some of “our own” who were much more ruthless and much less honest. The last of the sons, Richard, died in Aran in the 1927 and his sister, Mary Francis died in Cill Rónáin in1935. Richard was unmarried and had been arrested by the Black and Tans in 1920. He was released shortly afterwards.

Samuel Chard was the postmaster in Kilronan when the famous meeting of the Gaelic League was founded in the old schoolhouse in August 1898. Present with Samuel Chard at that first meeting were P.H. Pearse, Murty Farragher, Roger Dirrane, David O’Callaghan, Eddie and Willie Costello, Coleman Gill, Joe McDonagh, Thomas Kean, Marcus Flaherty etc etc. It also included a great number from the smaller islands, as well as all the teachers. 

Rev Kilbride lived in Cill Rónáin for 44 years and was in many ways more knowledgeable about the islands than most. He saw seven different Parish Priests during these years.  There would be a few more controversial incidents during his Aran years, which we may return to again. 

In 1879/80, he made accusations about improper famine relief against the Parish priest, Fr John Concannon, which were proved entirely false after an official enquiry. He had been taken in by a few cute locals who falsely told him they had been denied relief by Fr Concannon, in order to get extra relief from Kilbride. He comes across as a bit naive.

Snow covered grave of William and Máire Kilbride in Protestant churchyard, Cill Rónáin .
Their grave is on the right, beside a young Scottish boatbuilder, James Sim, who died in 1904, at the age of 24. He was the manager of the boatyard which the C.D.B established.

The Bread War would highlight the need for a better and more secure boat connection between the islands and Galway.

Both William Kilbride and Daniel Lydon are resting in their respective church grounds on Árainn. Two outsiders who played a huge role in Island life and are still remembered today.

Ml. Muldoon. July 2020

1 comment:

  1. The inscription on Marie's gravestone is in Irish. Anyone know
    what it says?