A Clonmany Rector’s Woes: Life in Inishowen in the 1820s

Clonmany Market House, venue for Lands of Eoghan Festival 8-10 September 2017

A remarkable insight into the life of a parish curate in the Church of Ireland has recently come to light. It is generally presumed by Irish historians that the clergy had a comfortable living, having a guaranteed income from the tithe. This was a levy on crops and produce which pre-dated the arrival of the Normans. Among tithe payers, the tax was not too popular, as it obliged all denominations to support the Established Church.

Apart from such considerations, the life of a country curate was not always a bed of roses. The letters of Rev Frances Lucas Molloy provide an interesting account of the ambitions, hopes and aspirations of a Church of Ireland curate in Clonmany throughout the 1820s. In August 1821, he petitioned the King for a transfer to another parish on the grounds of ill health. He had the support of the local physician, Dr. McDermott, who had diagnosed that he suffered from a hernia and was unable to carry out his duties because of infirmity. Such applications were not unusual and among the Chichesters, earlier incumbents of Clonmany, similar levels of dissatisfaction are evident, as they sought appointments in larger parishes to advance their church careers. Rev Molloy grew up in the

Rev Molloy grew up in the comfortable surroundings of a rural rectory in Co Monaghan, where he had a private tutor. He pursued a successful course in Arts at Trinity College, Dublin and graduated with a B. A. degree. He married Jane Hanna and they had three children. Sadly, two of his sons died before him.

Having received no reply from the King, he petitioned the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland seeking his support for a new parish. According to one of his letters, he had been offered a chaplaincy in the more salubrious climate of St Lucia but was unable to take up the post due to poor health. Bishop William Knox of Derry was sympathetic and approved of his plan to move to St. Lucia, if a suitable parish became available.

Molloy was a man who showed concern for the welfare of his parishioners and was highly regarded by his neighbours of the Catholic faith. He said he assisted them with job applications. They were welcomed at his rectory at Glebe House in Clonmany in times of personal distress. He cites one case which caused him a lot of anguish, when he arranged to send two young children to the Foundling Hospital in Dublin following the death of their mother. Perhaps unknown to him, the Hospital had a notorious reputation and death rates of 80% among child inmates were common in some years. The Dublin hospital was forced to close in 1830. He also claimed he helped to have children inoculated presumably by having forms completed and making appointments with the local doctor. Cholera was ever threatening in the 1820s and Ireland faced a major epidemic in 1832. Coastal areas along the Foyle and Swilly recorded large numbers of deaths as the epidemic spread inland along rivers and estuaries.as it moved inland.

His final letter was to beseech the Chief Secretary, Henry Goulburn for a transfer but he never succeeded in securing his dream posting to St. Lucia. He described his parish as having 1,000 families, only ten of which were Protestants. Whatever level of discomfort he experienced, much worse lay ahead, when anger over tithe payments, particularly in poor harvests, led to public unrest and disorder which was ruthlessly suppressed by the police and army. The Tithe War lasted from 1830 until 1833 and contributed to a serious breakdown in community relations in Inishowen. Attempts to change the system led to the Tithe Rentcharge Act of 1838 but reform of the tithe was not finally effective until the passing of the Church Disestablishment Act of 1869. The Church of Ireland was largely disendowed but bishops and clergy were guaranteed their existing incomes for life. This was one of the main achievements of William Gladstone’s administration.

Rev. Molloy died in 1856 at the age of 77 and is buried in Kilmacrenan, outside Letterkenny, without realising his dream of working in a more exotic environment.His grave is marked by a headstone which includes all family members.

Seán Beattie

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