02 May 2015

The trustees of the Achill Mission:
the Victorians who funded Nangle

The Radisson Blu Farnham Estate Hotel ... the remaining part of the house designed by Francis Johnson for the Farnham family, who once employed a ‘moral agent’ on their estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We have had some wonderful insights into Canon Edward Nangle, his family, and the people, especially the women, who lived here in Dugort in the mid-19th century. With these photographs of the ‘Colony’ in Dugort, the American photographer John Michael Nikolai, has located their lives in the Achill we all know and love today. But he also helps to bring alive, in some way, those who lived in Achill 150 or 200 years ago.

We cannot understand their lives unless we understand where they lived. Nor can we understand how they lived, and how they could afford to live without understanding both their motives and the monetary and financial backing they received from their supporters.

As we are hearing this weekend, despite Canon Edward Nangle claims to descent from a distinguished Anglo-Irish gentry family, he was often impoverished for much of his life. So where did Nangle find the financing and resources for the “colony” here in Dugort on the slopes of Slievemore?

It is an aphorism, but nevertheless true, that he who pays the piper calls the tune. So, in understanding Nangle’s work in Achill, and the priorities in his mission agendas, we may find some of the influences by asking who funded his work, who provided the finances and resources for Nangle’s work and the buildings in Dugort?

Three key Victorian establishment figures helped to fund the foundation and the running of the Achill Mission: Henry Maxwell (1799-1868), Joseph Napier (1804-1882), and George Alexander Hamilton (1802-1871).

These three were the key funders and influential financiers of the Achill Mission, and it is sometimes worth asking whether their motives, their beliefs and their social concerns influences Nangle’s agenda and shaped his priorities.

A statue in Cavan commemorating Henry Maxwell (1799-1868), 7th Lord Farnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry Maxwell (1799-1868), 7th Lord Farnham, had been MP for Co Cavan, and came from a strong Church family that included many bishops. He was a grandson of Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath, who built Saint Mary’s Church, Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and a son of the Revd Henry Maxwell, 6th Lord Farnham. One member of his family was described as a “man in whom sectarian fanaticism spoiled a good patriot.”

Henry and his wife, Anna Stapleton (they were married in 1828), encouraged a number of Co Cavan families to move to Achill Island, including the Sherridans.

The Maxwell or Maxwell-Barry family were the local landlords of Bunclody, Co Wexford, a small town well-known to John F Deane and his family, and known to his parents’ generation, and to my grandfather’s family too, as Newtownbarry.

The Maxwell-Barry or Maxwell family had employed what was euphemistically known as a ‘moral agent’ on the Farnham estate. The main duties of the moral agent were to encourage the tenants to adhere to the main principles in Lord Farnham’s addresses to them, including observing the Lord’s Day, educating their children, giving their children a strict moral sense, and ensuring they abstained from cursing and the distillation or consumption of alcohol.

Farnham’s moral agents included the Revd William Krause, later he preacher at the Bethesda Chapel, in Dublin, known as the ‘Cathedral of Methodism.’ Krause was also an early influence on Nangle while he was the curate of Arva.

But the Farnhams were known too for introducing agricultural reforms that they tried to transfer to Achill, and this may have influenced some of the agricultural innovations on Achill.

The economic crisis in the 1850s that followed immediately after the famine proved to be the beginning of the downfall of the Farnhams. The Encumbered Estates Commission forced them to sell their Newtownbarry or Bunclody estates in Co Wexford, although they clung on to the Farnham Estate near Cavan on the road to Kilmore, for a few generations more.

Lord and Lady Farnham no children. They died an horrific death when they were killed in the Abergele train disaster in North Wales in 1868. After his death, a statue in his honour was erected in Cavan by his tenants. The statue now sits in front of the new Johnston Central Library on Farnham Street in the centre of Cavan town.

He was succeeded in the family title and the remaining estates by his younger brother, Somerset Richard Maxwell (1803-1884), 8th Lord Farnham. Their nephew, Somerset Henry Maxwell (1849-1900), who was the 10th Baron Farnham, could hardly stay away from Co Mayo. In November 1880, long before he inherited the family title, he led a relief force of Orangemen from Co Cavan to save the harvest of Captain Boycott at Lough Mask, Co Mayo, an escapade that led to the creation of the Property Defence Association to protect the livelihoods of landowners.

I wonder what past ‘moral agents’ would make of the fact that today the Farnham Estate is now a luxury hotel and resort, the SAS Radisson. Many of the family members lie buried nearby in the churchyard beside Kilmore Cathedral.

‘Lord Farnham’s Walk’ on the Estate Road ends at the lakeside on Farnham Lough and an attractive clearing known as the ‘American Garden’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sir Joseph Napier (1804-1882), who is commemorated on a plaque in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, was the original ‘Holy Joe’ – a nickname first given to him by Daniel O’Connell. He was a Conservative MP for Dublin before becoming the Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1858 and was also Vice-Chancellor of Dublin University.

A strong and often closed-minded evangelical, Napier initially opposed Catholic Emancipation. But he was balanced and consistent in his prejudices: he also opposed legislation providing for Jewish emancipation, proposals to open TCD to all religious persuasions, and the disestablishment of the Church Ireland.

Napier played a key role in the life of the Church of Ireland as a member of the Ritual Commission, opposing the rise of Tractarianism and the innovations of the Anglo-Catholic movement that, as I was saying earlier this afternoon, had a strong and enduring influence on TS Eliot. Napier, instead, sought to bring a strongly Protestant character to the Church of Ireland after disestablishment.

The elaborate memorial in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, to George Alexander Hamilton, who died in 1871 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The third key trustee, George Alexander Hamilton (1802-1871), MP, came from a clerical family in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, and was a son of the Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

Hamilton was a strong Orangeman, and stood against Daniel O’Connell in a number of elections. He too opposed Catholic Emancipation and was a strong defender of Protestant education in schools and at TCD.

We may ask whether the outlook and prejudices of these key figures influenced the methods and values of the Achill Mission, and whether their fall from power and privilege led to the loss of their patronage and whether it explains how the financing of the Achill Mission eventually dried up.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford was speaking on 2 May 2015 in the Cyril Gray Hall at the opening of an exhibition of photographs of Dugort Village Colony by the American photographer John Michael Nikolai, as part of the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend in Achill Island, Co Mayo.

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