SOME SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF THE DIOCESES
“Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.“
James Ussher was born on January 4th, 1581, in Dublin. He would become a linguist, religious scholar and Bishop of the Church of Ireland. He entered Trinity College on January 9th, 1594, at the amazingly young age of 13 and graduated in 1600. In 1602, he was ordained as a Deacon and Priest, in Trinity Chapel, by his uncle, the Archbishop of Armagh. In 1607, he became a fellow and Professor of Theology in the University of Dublin, becoming Vice Chancellor in 1614 and again, in 1617. In 1621, he was made the Bishop of Meath and in 1625, he was translated to Armagh, as Archbishop and Primate of All Ireland.
The final years of Ussher’s life were spent in England, as an exile. He had gone to that country in 1640 and was unable to return because of the 1641 rebellion. He was to live through the English Civil War between King and Parliament and the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. In the Civil War, he sided with the King but nevertheless remained on good terms with the Parliamentarians. He died in 1656, at the age of 75 and was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
Ussher’s most famous work was his “Annales veteris testamenti a prima mundi originae deducti (Annals of the Old Testament deducted from the first origins of the world), published in 1650. Based on his reading of Old Testament history, he made the astonishing claim that the world was created on the evening before October 23rd 4004 BC. Clearly, this is nonsense to modern minds. The book is not all bunkum, however and has much to commend it. It contains much scholarly research on the origins of the Persian, Greek and Roman civilisations, for example and his conclusions tally with later academic opinion.
Richard Chenevix Trench
The Most Rev Richard Chenevix Trench was born in Dublin on September 9th, 1807. He was sent to school at Harrow and then went on to Cambridge University (graduating at Trinity College, in 1809). After many diligent years in the priesthood, during which he studied and published, he became examining chaplain to the great Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in the Diocese of Oxford, in 1845. Following that, he was appointed to the Chair of Theology at King’s College, London. Eventually, in 1856, he became Dean of Westminster and then, in 1864, he returned to his native country to become Archbishop of Dublin and Bishop of Kildare. His period in office as Archbishop encompassed the era of Disestablishment. Although a strong opponent of the measure, he remained in office and was an influential voice in the newly independent church of the 1870s.
Trench was a great genius and was a scholar and poet. A follower of Wordsworth, he is well known for ‘The Story of Justin Martyr and Other Poems’ (1835), ‘Sabbation, Honor Neale and Other Poems’ (1838) and ‘Poems from Eastern Sources’ (1842).
As a philologist, in 1851, he published ‘The Study of Words’. He followed that work with ‘English Past and Present’ (1855) and ‘A Select Glossary of English Words’ (1859).
Dr John Stearne
Stearne was born on 26th November, 1624, in the home of his grand-uncle, Archbishop Ussher, at Ardbraccan, County Meath. He entered Trinity College, Dublin at the age of 15 and was made a scholar in 1641. Like many Irish Protestants, he became a refugee at the time of the 1641 rebellion. First, he went to Cambridge and after seven years there, he moved on to Oxford. In 1643, he was elected a fellow of Trinity, Dublin and in 1660 became a senior fellow. He became a lecturer in Hebrew but he is principally remembered as a physician. After he had returned to Dublin from England, he practised as a private physician. In 1660, he became President of Trinity Hall Medical School (built on a site now occupied by Trinity Place). That same year, a son was born, whom he named John. John would later become Dean of St Patrick’s, Bishop of Dromore and then, Bishop of Clogher.
A royal charter was granted to the Trinity School of Medicine in 1667 and the present Royal College of Physicians came into being. Along with the famous Sir William Petty and thirteen others doctors, Stearne became a fellow of the institution. He died on November 18th 1669 and is buried in College Chapel.
Dr Frances Blackburne
Blackburne was born at Footstown, County Meath, on 11th November 1782. After studies at Trinity College, Dublin, he was called to the bar in 1805. He was made Sergeant in 1826, Attorney General in 1830, Chief Justice, in 1846, and Lord Chancellor, in 1852. An opponent of O’Connell and his Repeal Movement, he was a supporter of the Union. As a believer in the rights of the Established Church, he thought, rather naively, that ‘England can never destroy the Irish Church because, if she does, she will sever the Union’. Like the Unionists of today, in Northern Ireland, he did not take full account of the perfidy of English politicians. He was the presiding judge at many of the trials of the Young Ireland Movement, in 1848. An arrogant man and a fierce Conservative, he tendered his resignation to Lord Derby, in 1867 and was stunned when it was accepted. Offered a Baronetcy, he refused it. He died aged 84, at Rathfarnham Castle, on 17th September 1867. Two years later, the British Government passed the Irish Church Act which might well have destroyed the Irish Church, had it not been for the loyalty and beneficence of many of its members.
Anthony Dopping was born in 1642, in Gloucester and was educated in St Patrick’s School, Dublin. His father had obtained an estate in Meath and his early years were spent against the background of rebellion and religious and political strife in Ireland. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, from which he obtained a BA, in 1660 and an MA, in 1662, when he became a fellow. He was conferred with a BD, in 1669 and a DD, in 1672. Between 1670 and 1679, he was Vicar of St Andrew’s, Dublin and also became Chaplain to the Duke of Ormonde. He was Bishop of Kildare in the years 1679-82 and during that time, he became Vice Chancellor of TCD. His time as Bishop of Kildare was an eventful period in Dopping’s life, as he married Jane Molyneaux, on December 27th, 1681. He became Bishop of Meath in the eventful years between 1682 and 1697, during King James II entered on a policy of promoting Roman Catholics and was then driven from the throne by his Protestant daughter, Mary and her husband, William of Orange (of ‘Glorious, Pious and Immortal Memory’). During the years of the reign of King James, Dopping was concerned with the potentially seditious meetings of Roman Catholic priests in his Diocese and he launched staunch attacks on ‘Popery’. During the Jacobite years, many Church of Ireland bishops and clergy left the country for the safety of England but Dopping was one of those who remained. He became Administrator of the Diocese of Dublin, in the absence of the Archbishop and he served tirelessly in the Roman Catholic dominated Parliament summoned by James and his Viceroy, Tyrconnell. He materially helped his fellow Protestants at a time of crisis and he stood firm in his Protestant convictions, when others faltered. When James fled, after the Battle of the Boyne, Dopping was part of the triumphal procession that led King William into Dublin. Subsequently, he fell out of favour with William when he opposed the soft line that the Williamite administration initially took towards the defeated Gaels and Roman Catholics. He died on April 25th 1697 and was buried in St Andrew’s, Dublin, where he had served as Vicar.
Dopping is interesting because of his role as a leader of the Church of Ireland in troubled times. He was a churchman and a politician (a member of the House of Lords of the Irish Parliament and serving on the Irish Privy Council at one point). A great preacher, he also was a wonderful scholar and many of his pulpit orations and his academic works were published.
What particularly marks Dopping out is his fastidious devotion to his job and his methodical administration of his Diocese, at a time when many positions in the Irish Church were held as sinecures by men who only wanted the income from their offices. Dopping cared for his Diocese of Meath in an extraordinary manner and he conducted Episcopal Visitations that produced written records, which still exist.
In 1693, Dopping’s Visitation produced some fascinating statistics. The Diocese essentially covered the same area as the Diocese we have today. It had no Cathedral City or Cathedral. 200 parishes were unevenly distributed among eleven rural deaneries. Some of the Deaneries had once been independent Dioceses, which had been amalgamated with Meath on the eve of the Reformation. Clonard had only 6 parishes but Skryne had 41. The important deaneries were clustered in the north-east corner of the Diocese.
Deanery Vicarage Rectories Curates
Duleek 10 6 9
Ratoath 6 6 1
Skryne 14 17 10
Slane 6 13 4
Kells 3 9 1
Clonard 1 2 3
Mullingar 4 12 7
Ardnoragh 5 2 2
Fowre 6 6 3
Ballimore 2 6 6
Clonmacnoise 7 2 –
TOTAL 64 81 46
There were clergy but they often had no buildings to minister in (if they were bothered) or else, the buildings were in a deplorable state of repair. The state of the churches was as follows:
Deanery Church Chancel
Out of Repair In Repair Good Out of Repair In Repair Good
Duleek 24 1 24 1
Ratoath 11 2 12 1
Skryne 37 1 3 38 1 2
Slane 22 1 22 1
Kells 13 12 1
Clonard 4 2 3 3
Mullingar 21 2 21 1 1
Ardnoragh 5 5
Fowre 12 1 2 12 1
Ballimore 14 14 2
Clonmacnoise 9 9
92% of churches were ruinous. Only 7% (13) were in an acceptable state of repair. Most of the churches in reasonable repair were close to Dublin. Many churches had been ruined or abandoned in the regular periods of religious and political upheaval of the 17th century. The 1641 rebellion had taken its toll and Meath was a continuing centre of recusant activity amongst the Old English of the Pale and the Gaelic-Irish. During the Commonwealth, some churches were restored. Unfortunately, the Williamite Wars of the late 1680s and early 1690s caused much destruction, as the defeated Jacobite Roman Catholics vented their spleen on buildings associated with the Reformed Tradition.
The questions that Dopping asked in his Visitation were:
How is the cure supplied and how often?
Who is the Parish Priest?
Who is the Popish Schoolmaster?
What is the number of Protestants?
What is the extent of the Parish?
Are the Church and Chancel repaired?
Is there catechising and a Book of Canons?
Are a Bible, Surplice and Book of Common Prayer Supplied?
Is there a reading desk, a font of stone and a pulpit?
Is there a Communion Table, railed in , with carpet of silk, a linen cloth and silver chalice?
Are there proper registers?
Are there bells, glazed windows, a paved floor? Is there a roof with slates or shingles?
What chapels are in the Parish?
Is there an Impropriator?
How long has the Church and Chancel been out of repair?
Is the churchyard fenced in?
Of the clergy, only seven out of fifty are described by Dopping as ‘deserving men’. The Vicar of Lynnelly was in debtor’s prison. The Rector of Athlone, by contrast, was a man whose lifestyle of poverty and priestly zeal was commended. Some were aged and unable to effectively minister. In Rathwire-Killucan, for example, the Vicar, The Rev William Barry, was ‘a very aged man’ and his curate, The Rev Henry Pordon, preached ‘as often as his age and infirmity ill permit’. There was only 60 clergy to serve 197 parish churches. One man often held many parishes, in a system that was known as ‘pluralism’. Sometimes they adjoined but that was not always the case. Only about 10% of the clergy were attached to a single parish. 58% had charge of between two and four parishes and 30% had between five and seven. There was a marked degree of absenteeism, with 27% of clergy non resident. The reasons for non residency given by the Bishop were: “the smallness of the livings, not able each to maintain a resident minister, the want of Protestants, the lack or inadequacy of Glebe land (remembering that many clergy farmed to make an income or let the land), the ruined state of Manse Houses, the unequal distribution of livings by Patrons, human inadequacies and the tiny size of some parishes”. Out of fifty Vicars serving the Diocese of Meath, seven lived permanently in Dublin. Three of that seven held ecclesiastical office in the capital; one was a curate in a Dublin parish, another a hospital almoner and Michael Jephson was Dean of St Patrick’s. 14% of clergy lived more than 20 miles from their parishes. With communications as poor as they were and travel times excessive, many parishes were without effective, hands on pastoral care. The Bishop appointed to only four out of every ten parishes and the ‘Advowson’ (right to appoint a clergyman) often belonged to the King or a lay person. The influential lay-people (often the owner of the ‘big house’) impropriated the income of some parishes. In 20 parishes there was no income provided for a clergyman because the lay Patron had claimed all the revenue. In another 29, the curate could only hope to earn £3 per year. Dopping himself reckoned that £50-£60 was required to comfortably accommodate a resident Rector. The Earl of Drogheda controlled 24 parishes. In Duleek, 14 out of 25 parishes were in his hands. Sometimes, the families who had a call on the parish income were Roman Catholics, like the Plunketts, Draycotts, Hacketts and Foxes. Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan, the Roman Catholic General of the Jacobite army, owned the Rectory of Ardnoragh and drew down revenue from it even after he had fled to France, flowing defeat at Limerick. Aednoragh had 262 acres of glebe. At one point, it yielded £80 but that had dropped to £30 in 1693.
In order to repair his Diocese, Dopping recommended building Rectories and the amalgamation of parishes that adjoined one another. Two thirds of parishes had never had a Rectory and of the 22% that had, many were in poor or ruinous condition. Only 8.5% of parishes had a habitable house in 1693.
In his plans for reform of his diocese (which he unfortunately was unable to carry out fully due to declining health), Dopping wanted to make more of the system of Rural Deaneries. He wanted to appoint Rural Deans to ‘inspect the manners of the clergy and people and certify the Bishops of all emergencies’. He wanted a system where clergymen could not hold parishes in more than one rural deanery.
Services were regularly and conscientiously held in only about 50 parishes. 47 had services every Sunday but many had to do with less frequent religious observance. In the Rural Deanery of Duleek, for example, 76% of parishes had no services and in Ballinmore that figure rose to 85%. Clonmacnoise fared best of the Deaneries, with 55% having regular services.
The exact numbers of Protestants is not known but often Doppings records of individual parishes note ‘No Protestants’. According to Petty, around 10% of the entire Irish population was Protestant in 1672. At the beginning of the 19th century, only 6.3% of the Diocese of Meath was Protestant. Athlone and Tullamore were the towns with the highest percentage of Protestants.
In order to remedy matters and make his Diocese more Protestant, Dopping made the sad mistake of advocating repression and ardent opposition to Roman Catholicism, with the expulsion of clergy. He wanted an end to the system of young Roman Catholic men going to train in seminaries on the continent. Alongside that policy, he wanted to see English schooling introduced for the sons of the gentry and artisans (an idea taken up in the Charter School movement). The masses would be reached through preaching and teaching in Irish. Protestant planters should be brought in and landowners should be obliged to plant one third of their land with Protestant tenants. What a different place the Diocese of Meath might be today if Doppings advice had been followed! He advocated also that there should be a move towards growing grain and move away from pasture, which was the favoured method of faming among the poor, Roman Catholic peasantry. He was particularly foresighted in wanting to end the dependence of many of the poor on the potato.
Bishop Doppings report on the Diocese of Meath in 1693 is held in Marsh’s Library, Dublin
A famous son of the Parish of Navan is Sir Francis Beaufort, who is well known to meteorologists. An Admiral of the British Navy, he helped to set up a system of telegraph signals from Dublin to Gaway, with the assistance of his brother-in-law, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Father of Maria). In 1805 he invented the wind classification scale that bears his name. The British Admiralty adopted the scheme in 1838 and it was adopted by International Convention in 1874.
The Rev. Jasper Joly (1819-1892) was born near Clonbollogue in Co. Offaly. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1857 but never practised. After ordination, he was appointed Vicar General of Tuam Diocese and held that position until it was abolished at the disestablishment in 1869. He was a member of the Royal Dublin Society. On August 29th 1900 his voluminous book collection was given to the National Library by Deed of Trust. It contains 23,000 volumes, including rare work on Irish history and culture. There is also a very large section of Scottish and Irish musical material and material relation to the Napoleonic era.
William Conyngham Plunkett, fourth Baron of the name (1828-1897). Born in Dublin, educated at Trinity, ordained in 1857. He was Chaplain-Secretary to Thomas Plunket, his uncle the Bishop of Tuam. He was a supporter of the Irish Church Missions. He married a daughter of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness and was appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s. He was Bishop of Meath from 1876 to 1884 when he moved to Dublin, Glendalough and Kildare. He was a supporter of Pan Protestant Unity and set up the Kildare Place Society to train Church of Ireland teachers. He supported the Protestant Church in Spain and was President of the Italian Reform Society in 1886. He was a scholar and a theologian. His statue is today standing in Kildare Place, just off Kildare Street, between the national Museum and the Shelbourne, at the back of Government Buildings.
Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929) was an historian and a noted Irish Nationalist in her day. She was born a child of the Rectory in Kells, and married the Rev. Richard Green in 1877, for whom she acted as a researcher. Her first work of her own was Henry II (1888). The Making of Ireland and Its Undoing (1908) followed but didn’t go down well with English reviewers. She supported Home Rule. Roger Casement was a friend and encouraged her in the formation of the ‘London Committee’ to raise money for the Irish Volunteers. The money was used to buy guns that were brought to Ireland on the Asgard, in the famous Howth Gun Running.
She disapproved of the nature of the Easter Rising. Subsequently in Dublin, her home at 90 Stephen’s Green was a place where fashionable people met to discuss events. She supported the Treat in 1921 and was nominated to the first Seanate of the Free State by WT Cosgrave, having helped found Cumann na Ngaedheal. She was supportive of Yeats, in the Senate, in his attempt to save the right to divorce. Her other writings include: Irish Nationality (1911), Ourselves Alone and Ulster (1918) and A History of the Irish State to 1014 (1925)
The Rev Edward Nangle (1799-1883) was born in Kildalkey, Co.Meath. He was a clergyman of Evangelical tasted. Educated at the University of Dublin (TCD) he was rector of Athboy and at Arvagh in Cavan. He had poor health. He was Secretary of the Sunday School Society of Ireland and acted for a Printer of Religious Tracts. He is most famous for his work on the Achill Mission, founded by him in 1831. Achill was a protestant proselytising ministry, operating from a colony that included a Church, hospital and a school. The buildings still stand at Dugort. Needless to say the Roman Catholic hierarchy was alarmed by his work – particularly after it had some initial success in attracting converts, through an Irish Language Ministry. Archbishop John McHale thundered against it. During the Great Famine (1845-49) the accusation of ‘Souperism’ was made and stuck. The mission was accused of using food as an enticement to convert. Nangle bought the estate of Richard O’Donnell for £17,500. In 1854 he published a useful introduction to the Irish Language. By the year 1879 his opponents had beaten him down and intimidated many of his followers. A remnant of protestant faithful remained at Achill but many emigrated.
A FAMOUS BISHOP – Bishop Thomas Lewis O’Beirne
In the year of the rebellion, 1798, the Diocese of Meath received as its bishop a man of remarkable ability, who inaugurated a new regime and who in his episcopate of 22 years brought the diocese from a position of what seemed almost hopeless disorder to a state of efficiency which it had not known since long before the time of the Reformation. He was a man of no ordinary powers and the story of his life is one of varied incident. That story has been embellished too, in a remarkable way by the fancy of romancers, who have drawn on their imagination to such an extent that two biographies might easily be written – one derived from authentic documents, giving the genuine facts and the other altogether mythical and quite irreconcilable with the former but drawn from published accounts, some of them contemporary or nearly contemporary with the subject of the biography.
Thomas Lewis O’Beirne was born in the County Longford, sometime about the end of the year 1747. His parents are said to have been of the farming class and in humble circumstances. They were, however, sufficiently well off to be able to dedicate two of their sons to the Roman Catholic priesthood, so that we may fairly conclude that the expression “humble circumstances” must be taken in a comparative sense. In those days, Roman Catholic priests were compelled to seek their education abroad and thereby to incur an expense much greater than would be necessary at the present day. There were, no doubt, methods by which young men of small means were enabled to earn sufficient during their college career to pay for their expenses but none of these methods seems to have been adopted by the O’Beirne brothers and we may therefore conclude that their parents were sufficiently rich to be able to pay for the education of their two sons at the college of St Omer, in France.
While he was at this seminary the health of Thomas O’Beirne gave way and he was ordered for a time to the south of France. On his return, he again fell ill and this time was sent back to his native country, in hopes that rest and fresh air would restore him to health again. It has been represented by some Roman Catholic writers that he was on this occasion virtually expelled. Cogan, in his Diocese of Meath, says:
‘O’Beirne during his stay in the south of France formed very suspicious friendships, associated with very irregular young men, most of whom were medical students, took to reading bad books, then swarming and perverting the heart of France and returned to college at the expiration of his leave of absence no longer the same – in fact, an altered and dissipated boy. Being attacked a second time with the same complaint, he was again ordered out by the doctor: but the president of the college (Doctor Kelly) consented on condition that he would go home to Ireland and on his return bring a letter from his parish priest, certifying that his conduct was correct and that he frequented the sacraments regularly”.
The only vestige of truth in this statement is the fact that if O’Beirne had returned, he would have been expected to have brought with him a letter from his parish priest. This was the usual custom and there was no reason for departing from it in O’Beirne’s case. How far the charge of dissipation and the rest is from the real facts of the case may be judged from a perusal of the following extract from a letter written by DrPlunkett, afterwards Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath and at the time one of the chief professors in the college. The letter, which was a long one, dealing with a variety of subjects, and by no means a mere letter of introduction was entrusted to O’Beirne, on his leaving St Omer for the last time. In it, Dr Plunkett says:
“The bearer, Mr O’Beirne, is a young gentleman of this house who returns to Ireland to recover his health by breathing the native air for some time. His promising parts and amiable qualities have made him dear to all members of the society in which he lived and particularly to me. I love and esteem him exceedingly. Every civility shown him, I shall acknowledge as conferred upon myself. As I am sure he would be glad to be acquainted with Mr Austin (a priest who at that time kept a school in Dublin), I hope you will procure him that happiness by introducing him.”
Abandoning the slander of a partisan writer and taking as our authority the contemporary document, we are justified in saying that he left St Omer’s having gained the affection of his companions and the approbation of his superiors. He, however, never returned. We have no further information beyond the fact that somewhat about this time he abandoned the church of Rome and joined the church of England. He did not, however, relinquish the idea of taking Holy Orders and he, therefore, continued his studies – only it was not at St Omer but at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he had for his tutor the Reverend Doctor Watson, who afterwards became Bishop of Llandaff and on the conclusion of his course he was appointed to the college living of Grendon, in the Diocese of Peterborough. He was accordingly ordained deacon by John, Lord Bishop of Peterborough, in Trinity College, Cambridge, on Trinity Sunday 1772 and was made priest in the same college chapel on June 6th in the following year. His name appears in the marriage register of Grendon parish as the officiating minister for the first time on November 29th 1792. Comparing these dates with that of Dr Plunkett’s valedictory letter given above (June 6th 1768), we see that there elapsed just four years from the time of his leaving finally the Roman Catholic seminary and his ordination as a clergyman of the Church of England.
He retained the vicarage of Grendon until 1776, when he was appointed one of the chaplains of the Fleet and in that capacity, sailed with Lord Howe to America. After his return, when the conduct of Lord Howe was called in question, O’Beirne wrote a vindication of his commanders action in a pamphlet entitled ‘A candid and impartial narrative of the transactions of the fleet under Lord Howe, by an officer then serving in the fleet’. While at New York, he preached a remarkable sermon in St Paul’s chapel, Trinity Parish, on the Sunday next following the Great Fire, in which the parish church was destroyed. This sermon attracted considerable attention at the time and served to bring the young ecclesiastic into notice.
The ‘romancers’ present this story somewhat differently. They place the appointment to Grendon at a much later period of his life and they say that he went to America as Lord Portland’s secretary, when that gentleman was appointed Governor General of Canada: that on the voyage the chaplain of the vessel died and that O’Beirne was allowed to take his place without question or the production is any credentials, it being assumed that he had received orders in the church of Rome before he left that community and that thus “O’Beirne imposed on the Duke, having represented himself as a priest returning to take charge of a parish in his native Diocese and that, in consequence he received no orders in the Protestant church”. This action of his on board the fleet is said to have been his “first formal act of apostasy”. All this is simply a tissue of falsehoods, invented by those whose aim was to cast discredit on one who had left their communion. The Duke of Portland was never Governor of Canada and O’Beirne never sailed with him as secretary. Before he crossed the Atlantic, he had been already ordained in the English church and had held an ecclesiastical appointment given him by the college in which he had pursued his studies. In every one of its particulars, therefore, the story is not only false but badly invented and impossible.
In O’Beirne’s lifetime, these stories had already been set on foot. Many on his own church believed he had Roman orders and, on the other hand, many Roman Catholic’s denied that he was ever ordained and spoke of him as ‘the mitred layman’. The matter was referred to in Parliament in 1825, that is to say about two years after the Bishop’s death. On the sixth of May in that year, the Roman Catholic Relief Act was under consideration and an amendment was proposed by Mr Brougham, regulating the appointment of men who were in Roman Catholic orders to positions in the English church. In his speech on that occasion he gave as one of his arguments that a man ordained as a Roman Catholic priest might obtain preferment and even become a Bishop without any Anglican ordination, which he seemed to think was necessary: and to show that this was not an imaginary case, he cited the instance that “Doctor O’Beirne, the late Protestant Bishop of Meath, was originally ordained a priest by the Pope of Rome. He was the a Catholic but afterwards becoming a Protestant, he was made a bishop without any further ordination.
A few days later (May 10th), Mr Secretary Peel referred to this assertion made by Mr Brougham and stated that he had a letter from Bishop O’Beirne’s widow and that “that lady desired him to state directly in answer to the observations in question that the bishop, her late husband, never was an ordained priest of the church of Rome. He had been brought up as a Roman Catholic and so continued until he was about twenty years of age, when, seeing reason to enter the Protestant church, he went to Cambridge. At that university, Dr Watson was his tutor and he was ordained for the first time as a deacon of the Protestant Established Church and some little time subsequently a minister of the Church of England”. Mr Brougham thereupon replied that the bishop had in the early part of his life received orders from the pope which had been afterwards repealed……….If Bishop O’Beirne had not received popish ordination, it was singular that this should be so generally credited. He (Mr B) in saying so, only said what was generally understood. His friends denied it and he was himself satisfied. It was probable the mistake might have arisen from the brother of Bishop O’Beirne having been a Catholic priest. This somewhat ungracious and halting acceptance of the word of Mrs O’Beirne shows what wide currency the story had obtained but it will be noted that her account exactly agrees with that given above, which was derived independently from authentic documentary evidence.
In 1776, the year in which he sailed to America, he published a poem on “The Crucifixion” which seems to have been admired. It does not appear that a copy is preserved either in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin or the National Library. On his return from the west, he was instituted (5th November 1779) to the crown living of West Deeping, in the Diocese of Lincoln. There is some doubt as to whether he actually took up residence there. The present rector of that parish informs me that the Rev White Bates was curate from 1745-1815, thus covering the time of O’Beirne’s incumbency and that during all that time “no rector ever took a marriage or a baptism or burial – at least there is no signature in the registers”
O’Beirne at this time took to literature and gained some applause as a political writer. A series of articles which he contributed to a newspaper under the nom de plume of “A Country Gentleman” attacking the administration of Lord North, is said to have had considerable influence bringing about the downfall of the ministry headed by that noblemen. He moved now in literary circles and “bore and active and respectable part in the polite literature of the day. Amongst the scholars of his day there was a constant fire of jeu d’espirits, ballads, epigrams, imitations of a Horace and copies of verse, kept up by Bushe, Ogle, Langrishe, Ned Lysaght and the wits of their day. Amongst these, O’Beirne was not the least. He was a fine Latinist and a copy of verses in that language, written by him, is amongst the best on the death of Burkewe can recollect. It was no less beautiful in an English dress from the hand of Bush” (Will’s Lives of Illustrious Irishmen?)
Among other productions from his pen at this time was a comedy entitled ‘The Generous Imposter’ adapted from Destouches play, “ The Dissapateur.” The Duchess of Devonshire collaborated with him in the composition and it was produced at Drury Lane Theatre in 1780 and was printed in he following year.
In 1782, Lord Portland was appointed to the Viceroyalty of Ireland and O’Beirne returned to his native country as his secretary and chaplain. He had not been many weeks in Ireland before he had an interview with his former teacher, Dr Plunkett, who had in the meantime become Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath. It would be interesting to know what was the subject that they had discussed. Possibly it had some connection with the “Roman Catholic Bill” just passed into law, which repealed some of the more irritating portions of the penal code. Possibly the interview was of a more private character and concerned matters of conscience and faith. Unfortunately, the only information that we have consists of tow entries in Bishop Plunkett’s diary. Under the date June 8th 1782, we have “I had an interview this day with Rev Mr O’Beirne, secretary to his grace, the Duke of Portland. “ This is followed by another entry, under the date June 18th : “I wrote this day to Rev Mr O’Beirne, at Dublin Castle”
In after years, when O’Beirne had become Bishop of Meath and had taken up his residence at Ardbraccan, the two prelates became neighbours and it is said that they occasionally met and that they lived on more or less friendly terms with one another. This is the tradition of the country. It is partly corroborated and perhaps partly contradicted by the following letters, which are the only documentary evidence that we possess. The first is from Bishop O’Beirne to Bishop Plunkett:
January 11th 1806
My Dear Sir,
In the 32nd page of this sermon there is an expression or two that you may interpret into something unpleasant to your feelings but I hope that with some things in which we both may differ from each other, we shall ever indulge mutual charity; and I request you to accept this copy of my sermon on the Thanksgiving Day as a testimony of that affectionate attachment which, as it began in early life, no circumstance is ever likely to affect or weaken, notwithstanding the different situations into which we have been thrown. In one thing I am persuaded we shall never differ, the earnest desire of inculcating the superintending providence of God, of promoting Christian morals and encouraging a disposition of peace and submission to the laws in this distracted country.
I am, my dear sir,
With every sincere attachment and respect,
Your very faithful humble servant,
The sermon to which reference is made was preached in Kells Church on the Thanksgiving Day for the Battle of Trafalgar. A hundred years later, when the centenary of that Thanksgiving Day was celebrated, the sermon was again repeated in Kells Church, before the Bishop of the Diocese and a large and deeply interested congregation. The passage to which reference is made in the bishop’s letter is as follows:
The contrary experiment has been made for us. A nation has tried what it is to be without religion, without morals, without s god in this world. The result has been that the most signalized of these desperate experimentalists, the favourite champion of infidelity and all its train of abominations, was the first to overturn its polluted altars, to abolish its impure rites. He has since changed his ground but he has preserved s consistency of character. From the extreme of irreligion, he has passed to the extreme of superstition (extremes that invariably meet) and he exhibits to the world a mockery of religion: a display of theatrical rites, blasphemously engrafted on the awful ceremonies of our religion: a spurious mixture of discordant morals, neither heathen nor Christian, which every sect and denomination who profess the Gospel agree to reprobate. If we have been preserved from this innovating spirit, if we have checked the inroads of infidelity and the religion established among us be yet untainted by the superstition that surrounds us, let us show our gratitude in the only way that promises to secure these inestimable blessings to us and to our children. The religion we profess is pure in faith, it must be equally pure in practice.
Bishop Plunkett replied to O’Beirne’s letter as follows:
3rd of May 1806
Unavoidable avocations and excursions have until this morning prevented me from acknowledging the receipt of your friendly letter and a copy of your Thanksgiving Sermon, handed to me by Rev Mr Butler. This, coming from your Lordship, as a ‘testimony of affectionate attachment’, I accept with thanks. I have perused it. When I say that I admire many fine passages, the offspring of a lively bright imagination and of a cultivated mind, deeply impressed with a sense of the awful dispensations of the providence of God, your Lordship, I am sure, does not expect I should admire the whole 32nd page. It is not that any expressions that it contains affect me personally. No. To be candid, my Lord, I assure you, I cannot without smiling read assertions that impute ‘superstition’ to the religion of Bourdalouse, Flechier, Massillon, Bossuet, Fenelon. But the numerous body of people with whom I have the honour to be peculiarly connected read with other dispositions. They consider such expressions as unprovoked abuse. In vain would I attempt to reconcile them to it by alleging custom, almost constant custom: much less could I pretendto convince them that unprovoked abuse is calculated to heal the bleeding wounds of our distracted country, to promote concord, to answer any one Christian or social purpose. The man who stands in my place is not free to disregard the feelings of his flock. Hence, I am placed with respect to your Lordship in a particular predicament – a predicament which casts a gloom upon and thwarts the intercourse I should wish to maintain. My own occasional feelings I can command, or even sacrifice, if necessary, to ancient friendship, and to the remembrance of former times. We differ from some things from each other but this difference, how great so ever, shall not extinguish a single spark of charity in my breast – prevent on my part the discharge of the slightest obligation which this first of all virtues prescribes. The great duties to which your Lordship alludes, and in which we perfectly agree, have employed no small portion of my time these six and twenty years past. The decline of life and the near approach of eternity will not lessen their importance to my mind, nor I hope diminish the attention they claim.
With sentiments of respectful and affectionate attachment,
I am, my Lord,
Your Lordship’s obedient and humble servant
As far as authentic evidence goes, O’Beirne’s first connection with the Duke of Portlandwas when he accompanied him to Ireland as chaplain in 1782. There is, however, a story which has found its way into some historical works, which tells of a previous introduction to the Duke, in an accidental way, at a country inn. It is said that O’Beirne was returning to Saint Omer’s College and that on his way he arrived at a village in England where the whole stock of provisions that the hotel possessed was a shoulder of mutton. He ordered this to be cooked for his dinner but while it was in the process of preparation, two other travellers arrived and as they wanted something to eat, it was after some discussion agreed that they should be O’Beirne’s guests and that all together should partake of the mutton. The travellers turned out to be Charles Fox and the Duke of Portland and they were so charmed with the young man’s conversation that the Duke invited O’Beirne to visit him in London, which he did and thus laid the foundation for all his future fortune.
No two writers agree altogether in the details of this story. The scene is laid by some in Wales and according to them, O’Beirne was not on his way to France but was going to London in search of literary employment. The incident of the shoulder of mutton, too, is sometimes suppressed and instead of it, we are told that Portland and Fox were conversing in French and that O’Beirne told them that is they had any secrets to speak about, it was well that they should know that he understood that language perfectly. It is evident from these variations that the story only represents the current gossip of the time, which each succeeding narrator embellished according to his fancy. We cannot disprove it, as in the case of the other stories. All that we can say is that it is highly improbable. It is more likely either that O’Beirne was brought under Portland’s notice by Lord Howe or that his political writings, which attracted considerable attention at the time, caused him to be chosen as secretary by the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant.
Lord Portland’s Viceroyalty lasted only a short time and on his return to England, O’Beirne also left Ireland and was appointed to a Crown living in England. The next year, 1783, he took the degree of S.T.B. at Cambridge and, later on in the same year, he married, at St Margaret’s, Westminster, Jane, the only surviving child of the Hon. Francis Stuart, third son of the seventh Earl of Moray. He had one son and two daughters, all of whom died unmarried.
There is still another story – apocryphal, like the rest – which refers to the period of O’Beirne’s life. In 1785, the Prince of Wales, afterwards King George , was married privately to Mrs Fitzherbert and it is confidently asserted that it was O’Beirne who officiated on that occasion. There is no documentary evidence, for in the certificate of marriage the name of the officiating clergyman is carefully cut out – presumably by Mrs Fitzherbert herself. The story seems to have arisen in connection with the supposition that O’Beirne had received ordination in the Roman Catholic church. It was assumed that Mrs Fitzherbert, being a Roman Catholic, would have been disposed to secure the services of a clergyman whose orders were, according to their ideas, valid. But there seems to have been no other grounds to go upon and the whole thing is a matter of conjecture. Sir William Cope, who seems to have been particularly well informed on the subject, gave it as his opinion that O’Beirne ‘never coud have married George IV to Mrs Fitzherbert’.
O’Beirne came to Ireland once more in 1791, when he was appointed Rector of Templemichael, in which parish the town of Longford is situated. This was his native county and it is even said that his brother was Roman Catholic priest of the parish during the time that he held the incumbency.
On the appointment of Lord Fitzwilliam to the Viceroyalty in 1795, O’Beirne once more became secretary and first chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant and almost immediately afterwards, he was promoted to the Bishopric of Ossory, from which he was translated in 1798 to the Bishopric of Meath. At the same time, he was appointed a member of the Privy Council. He now devoted himself to the affairs of our Diocese with wonderful energy and conspicuous success. He did not, however, give up politics altogether. He became a strong advocate of the Union and when a petition was presented from residents in the County Meath who objected to that measure, he drew up a ‘Protest’ which was signed by many owners of property in the district and was especially commended by the Bishop to his clergy because ‘they above all others are interested in the success of the measure’. It is at once an able and temperate exposition of the reasons which led O’Beirne and many others at that time to wish that the union of the two countries should be accomplished. It is as follows:
“We the undersigned Noblemen, Clergy, Gentlemen, Freeholders and Inhabitants of the County of Meath, having thoroughly considered the purport of certain resolutions published in the newspapers and assuming to be the sense of the county on the proposal of a legislative union with Great Britain feel it a justice we owe ourselves to protest against such assumption and to claim a right of expressing our own judgement on a measure that so materially affects our general and individual interests.
We cannot contemplate the various disasters and calamities that have so uniformly succeeded each other for such a series of years in this distracted country without being impressed with a conviction that something is essentially and radically defective in our political system and that some more effectual measures must be resorted to than have been hitherto provided, to remedy the evils to which the public state is so constantly exposed.
In the proposal of a legislative union, as promising to be conducive to this happy end, we see nothing to alarm us for our independence or our interests; nor can we comprehend how such a measure can be either injurious or degrading to either of the coalescing parties, while the terms, both as to constitution and commerce, are to be discussed and settled by each nation exercising its own independent powers of deliberation and decision.
We agree with some of the best and wisest men in both kingdoms in conceiving the strongest hopes that a union so attained would remove every cause of distrust and jealousy between the two countries; that it would consolidate the power and resources of the empire and preclude the common enemy from all hope of converting our divisions into an instrument of separation; that it would open a prospect of composing those religious dissensions to which we can trace so much of the public misery; and that it would introduce among our people English capital, English manufacture, English industry, habits and manners.
Under these impressions, we trust that, whenever His Majesty shall in his wisdom think proper to communicate to our legislature the result of the enlightened and temperate deliberations of the Lords and Commons of Great Britain on this momentous question, it will be received with the attention that is due to the common sovereign and to the parliament of a country with which we wish to be forever united in affections and interests; and we expect that, in giving it a full and dispassionate discussion, our representatives will represent to both kingdoms that they have nothing in view but the peace and prosperity of Ireland, as essentially inseparable from the peace and prosperity of the empire.
Bishop O’Beirne also drew up a memorandum which he presented to Lord Castlereagh, on the special subject of the union of the two churches. His argument is that ‘the maxim laid down by Archdeacon Paley has been greedily adopted and zealously inculcated in this kingdom by all the sectaries but particularly by the Roman Catholics. The established religion ought to be that which prevails among the majority of the people; the faith of the nation ought to be consulted and not that of the magistrate’. He shows that as long as the Church of Ireland remains distinct the maxim will keep alive the expectation of our adversaries ‘but let the distinction cease and the Church of England be the only church of the empire- let this be done and Paley’s maxim, whatever the intrinsic weight it possesses may be, will cease to apply’. He anticipates considerable opposition from some of his brother bishops. ‘The present primate’, he says, ‘as well in temper and manners as in many points of learning, may well rank with Primate Ussher. But the bench is not without some of a different description – violent, impracticable, condemning and opposing whatever does not originate from themselves and not likely to brook any appearance of subordination to the See of Canterbury, which would be necessary to this plan’. All this is a bygone controversy now but it is at least interesting to know what were the anticipations of those who advocated that important measure.
Another subject in which he took a very great interest was the establishment of the Roman Catholic College at Maynooth. He was strongly in favour of that institution, for he urges ‘if the Roman Catholic clergy must go for their education to countries hostile to England, they will imbibe those civil prejudices and that spirit of hatred and resentment, of which Spain and France have uniformly availed themselves, ever since the period of the Reformation, to raise up a party for themselves and to excite domestic disturbances in Ireland.’ He says that ‘one of the great objects of the institution was to bring the education of the Roman Catholic clergy, on whom the conduct and morals of the Roman Catholic body so exclusively depend, into contact with the government and to subject them, as far as might be, without outraging their religious prejudices, under its control’. A certain number of the Board of Trustees of Maynooth were at that time Protestants and O’Beirne proposes that the number should be increased. ‘At all events’, he says, ‘I hope and trust that the majority of the visitors will be Protestants and that the Archbishop of Dublin, as Metropolitan of the Province, and the Bishop of Kildare, as Diocesan, will be of the number. I should also hope that, to connect the institution in some way with the University of Dublin, the Provost would be a visitor and some of its professors or fellows acting trustees ……The present prejudices of the Popish Bishops may repugn at this introduction of Protestant prelates, but if the government is firm in requiring it, they will give way. He thinks that by this method it might be possible to establish a certain amount of independence in the Irish Roman Catholic Church, and that, as most of the Popish Bishops and the president of the college have been educated in France, ‘they will have the less objection to make the immunities of the Gallican Church, and the boundaries which it established between the spiritual and temporal power, and against the encroachments of See of Rome, the basis of their National Church in Ireland.’ The good bishop lived long enough afterwards to learn that most of these his anticipations were doomed to disappointment.
Bishop O’Beirne’s work in the Diocese of Meath will be treated in another chapter. A few words may be added here on his ability as a preacher. On this subject, we cannot do better than quote from one who actually heard him. In one of Mrs Piozzi’s letters to a friend, she says, ‘Give me a hint, dear sir, a taste merely, of that stream of calumny, which according to the Bishop of Meath, rolls down the streets of our favourite towns, taking a little fresh venom at every house it passes. She refers to a sermon preached by the Bishop at Bath and concerning it the compiler of ‘Piozziana gives the following note: –
The Bishop of Meath mentioned by Mrs Piozzi was O’Beirne, who has been some years dead. I heard the sermon in which he introduced the above quoted passage on calumny. The figure of the stream is a happy one but only of a piece with all his fine pulpit essays. His composition was invariably a rich specimen of the calm and correct in writing. His style, without being in the slightest degree gorgeous, was never less than elegant ; his metaphors were never broken nor misapplied ; every word seemed to drop from his pen precisely in its proper place ; and although each paragraph was as finished in itself as it could be, he had scarcely an auditor in what is termed a refined congregation who might not have imagined that he could have written exactly as the Bishop wrote. To this style, his manner was admirably suited. In his action and emphasis, he was never theatrical nor ever tame but from first to last abounded in gentle earnestness. The whole discourse was in truth so engaging and so full of charms that people used constantly to say what a pity it was that he made his sermons so short, whereas in fact, he never preached for less than half an hour at a time. This feeling on the part of his hearers was universal and no doubt a high compliment to his powers. The effect of what he delivered, particularly during his latter years, was heightened by his appearance. He wore not a little greyish-blue wig, as English prelates do, but long flowing snow white locks and had a face like Stearne’s monk, mild, pale and penetrating, with a little sparkling eye, as keen as a vipers, while his voice – one of exquisite moderation – did all that loudness and vehemence could have done, without ever sounding as if raised to its utmost. He was altogether a man of first rate natural talents.
Quite a number of the bishop’s sermons have been published and they fully bear out the high praise which is here given. The following list of his works is taken principally from Cotton’s Fasti:
A pamphlet entitled ‘The Gleam of Comfort’
‘The Crucifixion. A poem. 1776
‘The Generous Impostor’, a comedy 8 vo 1780
‘A series of essays (in a newspaper) under the signature of ‘A Country Gentleman’ 1780
‘A short history of the last sessions of Parliament’. (anonymous)
‘Considerations of the late disturbances’ by a consistent whig. 8 vo 1781
‘Considerations on Naval Discipline and Courts Martial’ 8 vo 1781
A ‘Fast’ sermon, Dublin 1794
Three charges delivered to his clergy in 1795, 1796 and 1797. 4to Dublin. (These charges were delivered while he was Bishop of Ossory. They deal largely with the subject of non-residence).
A circular letter to the clergy of the Diocese of Ossory. 4to 1797.
The foregoing charges and letter, with four occasional sermons, printed together. 8vo 1799
‘A Candid and Impartial Narrative of the Transactions of the Fleet, under Lord Howe.’ By an officer then serving in the Fleet. 1799. (This was a vindication of the conduct of Lord Howe, published seemingly on the death of that nobleman)
‘A sermon before the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge’ 4to 1801
‘The ways of God to be vindicated only by the word of God’. A sermon. 8vo. 1804
‘A charge to the clergy of the Diocese of Meath’. 8 vo. 1805
‘A letter to Dr Troy, on the Coronation of Bonaparte’ by Melancthon.
‘The wisdom and justice of ascribing to the hand of God every event of great moment and utility to mankind’. A sermon preached on the day of General Thanksgiving for a Victory of Trafalgar.
‘A letter from an Irish dignitary to an English clergyman on the subject of tithes in Ireland’. Anonymous. 8vo. Dublin 1813
‘Christian worship’ a sermon. 8vo Bath 1819
‘Sermons on Important subjects’. 2 vols 8vo
‘Circular letter to the Rural Deans of the Diocese of Meath’. 1821
Chapter XXXIII. History of the Diocese of Meath. John Healy. LLD. Vol II. Dublin. Association for Pomoting Christian Knowledge. 37, Dawson Street. 1908. Printed by Sealy, Sayers and Walker, Middle Abbey Street, Dublin.