Sunday, 22 May 2016

Teampol na mBocht, a church
for the poor, built by the poor

Teampol na mBocht … the Church of the Poor, at Altar or Toormore, west of Schull, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On the way out to Mizen Head from Bantry on Saturday afternoon [21 May 2016], there was one sandy beach after another, with each golden stretch of sand on this peninsula in West Cork washed by waves of blue and white and basking beneath blue skies.

At Schull we stopped to enjoy the harbour, to stroll through the narrow streets with their brightly painted shops and houses, and to browse in Anna B’s bookshop and mull over coffee as we sat out on the street.

In the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in the Church of Ireland, Schull is part of group of parishes that includes the churches of Holy Trinity in Schull, Teampol na mBocht in Altar and Saint Brendan in Crookhaven.

Before reaching Crookhaven in time for lunch, we stopped at Teampol Na mBocht, or the Church of the Poor, in Altar, or Toormore, five miles outside Schull. The name Teampol na mBocht tells much about the origins of this church. During the Great Famine in the 1840s, the Rector of nearby Kilmoe, the Revd William Allen Fisher (1808-1880), set up soup kitchens and distributed aid. Funds donated to him were used to build the church in 1847, providing much needed employment in the area.

Fisher had inherited over 250 acres in Co Cork and 320 acres in Co Waterford, and was one of the principal lessors in Kilmoe parish at the time of Griffith’s Valuation. He was a son of Joseph Devonsher Fisher of Woodmount, Co Waterford. He was a fluent Irish speaker wanted to build the church by subscription, and John Ainsworth donated an initial £125.

In 1847, during ‘Black ’47, the Illustrated London News reported that in the village of Schull an average of 25 men, women and children were dying every day of starvation, dysentery or famine fever. At nearby Cove, the population fell from 254 in 1841 to 53 in 1851.

In Toormore, however, over the same period, the fall was relatively slight – from 370 to 343. Why this was is not known, but some believe that one factor was the relief carried out by Fisher.

As the crisis deepened, Fisher begged for help from well-wishers both in Ireland and England. As the money came in, Fisher set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing. But he wanted to do more than hand out charity. A man of his time, he firmly believed in the dignity of labour and wanted to provide paid work.

According to his son-in-law, Fisher ‘asked for and obtained the permission of some of those who had made him their almoner’ to use the gifts on a building project. This was originally to have been a new schoolhouse but, as more money came in, Fisher embraced a more ambitious plan that involved building a church for the townlands of Toormore and Altar.

Inside Teampol na mBocht, built in 1847 by the Revd William Allen Fisher (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The building was begun and completed in 1847. Local tradition says that in order to maximise the work and to give as much paid employment as possible to the poorest of the poor, Fisher decided that no horses or carts would be used in building the church.

The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site by hand alone. As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, “the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.”

Fisher called it ‘The Church of the Poor’ because it was the poor people who built it. Fisher loved the Irish language and was so fluent that the British Museum often sent him ancient manuscripts for translation. This also explains why Teampol na mBocht is the only church in the Church of Ireland Church that has an Irish name.

For many in the Church of Ireland, William Fisher is a saintly figure, a scholarly man who was happiest with his books, but who worked ceaselessly and selflessly for 40 years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever in 1880.

But for his detractors, Fisher was a ‘souper,’ whose many projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including building his church, had only one purpose: to win converts from the Roman Catholic Church to the Church of Ireland.

Certainly, Fisher impoverished himself on behalf of his parishioners. The Fisher estates in Co Cork, Co Waterford and King’s County (Offaly) was offered for sale in the Landed Estates Court in November 1865. The Waterford property was advertised again in July 1866 as it had been offered for sale in April that year but the sale had been adjourned for want of bidders.

The three-light Fisher windows in the chancel of Altar Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The walls of the church in Altar are of natural undressed stone bonded with earth. In an unfinished letter, Fisher explained that the church was “built in the pattern of the old Irish churches. The vestry and southern porch give it a cruciform appearance. It has a chancel, the arch entering which is a cyclopic arch, and the tops of the windows are the same. Its nave is 65 foot by 25 foot. Its gable is an equilateral triangle.”

The octagonal font is said to date from the 15th Century and came from Kilkirean Church on Cape Clear Island. It was donated by Tullagh Parish, Baltimore, and installed in 1935. The original font is said to be buried in the church grounds.

The organ was built in 1824 by Flight and Robson of London, and is one of the few remaining organs in Ireland built by that famous company, it was bought in 1918 to replace an old harmonium, and the cost, including installation, was £147.

At the east end, the three stained glass windows in the sanctuary were given by Fisher’s grandson, the Revd RBC Carson. The central window is dedicated to Fisher’s wife, Anna Waggett Fisher. The two outer windows commemorate Elizabeth Carson, Fisher’s daughter and the mother of the donor.

The plaque in Altar Church honouring the Revd William Allen Fisher (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A marble plaque on the north side of the chancel arch honours the Revd William Fisher. The inscription reads:

Sacred to the memory of
Rev. William Allen Fisher A.B.
Born 14th Nov 1808 Died 7th Aug 1880
For 38 years Rector of Kilmoe
his zeal for the spiritual and temporal
good of his people never abated
Faithfulness to his divine master
and benevolence to the poor of his
flocked ever marked his course.
To his untiring energy are due to the erection
and endownment of this church
“His being dead yet speakth”
Heb[rews] IX.4.

“I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me
write blessed are the dead
which died in the Lord henceforth
yea saith the spirit that they may
rest from their labours
and their works do follow them”
Heb[rews] XIV.13


At the west end of the church, the entrance porch has a stained glass window of Saint Michael the Archangel in the memory of Michael Allen, a parishioner who served in the Indian Mutiny.

Other plaques around the church record other gifts, donations and parishioners. In the vestry are portraits and photographs of the incumbents who have served Teampol na mBocht since it was built almost 170 years ago.

The window at the west end of the church commemorates Michael Allen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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