Archive of the Month
Ms 1132: Sermons of The Revd George Sealy
A Valuable insight to Religious Life in St Paul’s, Cork, Late 18th and Early 19th Century
By Bryan Whelan
In October 2021, the RCB Library received a most–welcome communication from Rosemary Kempshall in the UK. Rosemary wrote to say that she had in her possession a large volume of sermons written by the Revd George Sealy, a Cork clergyperson, from the late 18th and early 19th century.
The sermons, along with other materials including letters, receipts and bills, had been bequeathed to Rosemary upon the death of her uncle many years ago. The items had remained in her possession for some time, and it was only with the onset of the pandemic that Rosemary decided to investigate them. As Rosemary mentioned in her initial communication with the RCB Library, Sealy was not a relative of hers, so it was a substantial task to determine exactly who he might have been.
The vast majority of the sermons are highly detailed works focused exclusively on detailed theological concerns, taking a small part of a biblical verse and expanding on this theme for the benefit of the rector’s parishioners. Identifying the area where Sealy was ministering was relatively easy, as there are extensive notes of where and when the sermons were preached. In attempting to determine the best place for the safe donation of such a unique collection, Rosemary asked Catherine FitzMaurice of Bandon Genealogy, noting that all the sermons were preached in the Cork area. Catherine suggested that Rosemary contact the RCB Library.
Among the 1,134 manuscript collections that the RCB Library currently holds, there are numerous collections of sermons. These are primarily sermons from contemporary or 20th century clergy, so the Library was particularly pleased to receive such a unique collection from Cork in the late 18th/early 19th century, which are relatively rare. It should also be stressed that these sermons reflect the theological concerns of a cleric who was not a bishop or a dean – they are the writings of a parochial priest and what he discussed and cogitated in an urban centre far away from the administrative heart of the Established Church in this period.
Who was the Revd Sealy, this rector who kept such a wealth of material and such detailed notes as to where and when his sermons were preached? And what was the link between him and Bath, where the documents had been stored prior to their bequeathment to Rosemary’s family. Thankfully, there is quite detailed biographical information pertaining to the rector, found mainly in the first volume of W. Maziere Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross … (Dublin, 1863). In the entry for St Paul’s listed therein, Brady notes Sealy’s career in this urban parish, began 9 October 1794 ‘on presentation of Right Honourable Richard Longfield’, who sat in the Irish House of Commons for Cork City at this time. Brady picks noteworthy examples of Revd Sealy’s career, mostly taken from notes found in the vestry minute books for this parish, which are housed in the RCB Library. We learn that George Sealy, son of George Sealy, esq., of Bandon and Anne, daughter of Revd Richard Baldwin, of Kilbrittain, ‘was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, and afterwards was ordained Priest by the Bishop of Cork, on 4 March 1781’ (p. 306). The previous year saw Sealy licensed to the curacy of Kilbrittain and Rathclaren on 24 March 1780. In addition to his time in St Paul’s, Brady notes that from 1791 to 1838, he was vicar of Inchigeelah, a small parish described by Brady (p. 122) as having a Protestant population of 54 in 1830. Brady married Alicia Lane, daughter of an Antony Lane, esq., in 1791.
Rosemary was at a loss to explain why these sermons were found in Bath, but Brady’s biographical information gives the answer. We know that Sealy was the son of Anne Baldwin, and Brady informs us that Sealy ‘took the name of Baldwin on succeeding the property of his maternal uncle, Winthrop Baldin, esq., of Bath’. Indeed, the links between the Sealys and the Baldwins resulted in good fortunes for the parish of St Paul’s beyond the nature and character of its rector at the time, with the parish vestry book noting on 22 April 1817: ‘The thanks of the parish are voted by vestry to Winthrop Baldwin, esq., of Bath (the maternal uncle of Rev. Dr. Sealy), for his gift of £200 towards a new roof for the church’. This repair allowed the church to reopen for divine service on 21 December 1817. Anne Baldwin was the daughter of Revd Richard Baldwin (c 1681–1742) who had an extensive career in the Established Church beginning in the early 18th century until his death in 1742, serving the parishes of St Mary’s, Shandon, Athnowen, Kilbrittain, Rathclaren and Kilcully. It is perhaps significant that some of the sermons in Revd Sealy’s collection were preached in Kilbrittain and Rathclaren.
In planning to catalogue this unusual collection, care was taken to adhere to its existing logical arrangement and to organise the material in a way that would best suit present–day and future researchers. The decision was made to organise the collection chronologically, according to the date of the first sermon, although this was complicated somewhat by the fact that some of the sermons are clearly working documents, and often include corrections and revisions, as well as references to earlier sermons, some of these having been dated prior to when Revd Sealy began his career with the Church. The collection handlist includes the title of the sermon, the number of the biblical verse, as well as any interesting notes if applicable.
The result is Ms 1132, the detailed list of which can be viewed here. This substantial collection contains 107 sermons, as well as one item of assorted material. The sermons are concerned nearly exclusively with theological meditation on a biblical verse, or a snippet of a verse, and contain very little information about the day–to–day life of the congregation, or about events happening on a national or international stage. Despite this, we can piece together the life of a clergyperson working in urban Cork city in the late 18th and early 19th century, about the frequency of services offered at this time, as well as what rural parishes the rector visited, and an idea of how often he was able to do this.
One interesting aspect that came to light during the cataloguing process was a distinct contrast in handwriting in particular items. Some earlier sermons were written in a neater hand and were often organised slightly differently to the later sermons, which were more commonly identified by a more illegible scrawl, often with numerous examples of revisions and corrections. It is difficult to determine with any certainty the reason for this difference – it may be that Sealy was less concerned with writing in a neater hand as time progressed, but it may also suggest that Sealy worked under the guidance of an older cleric, whose sermons he used at the beginning of his career before beginning to write his own. Some of these sermons mention Kilbrogan parish with years (1771 and 1773) before Sealy’s ministry. This might indicate a link with the Revd St John Browne, who served this parish as rector (along with Murragh) during this period. However, many of the other sermons that state years prior to Sealy’s ministry mention other parishes associated with other clergy.
While the vast majority of Ms 1132 is of an exegetical nature, there are some examples where Sealy touches upon matters of local and international interest. Sermon No. 95 in this collection begins with ‘[t]he services of the illustrious statesman’ and seems to be a eulogy written on the death of a participant in the final days of the Peninsular War. This text is dated 17 April 1814, which matches the date given of the formal announcement of Emperor Napoleon’s abdication, however it is unlikely perhaps that this news would have reached the rector on this date. Might this text have been read to commemorate the death of Major General Andrew Hay on 14 April 1814? Although informal news of Napoleon’s abdication had reached Bayonne in France by 13 April 1814, fighting continued into the next day and Hay, who was defending the church of St Etienne in Bayonne, died in battle. Unfortunately, the preachers’ books do not provide any further corroborating evidence, as they simply record the date of the sermon, the person who preached, as well as the money collected (in this instance, it was £1.2.37).
In a similar fashion, Sermon No. 67 from this collection – which reflects on Psalm 92:1 (‘It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High’) features a brief eulogy to an unnamed individual, described simply as ‘a very amiable female’ who whose remains were committed ‘this very morning’ (although no date is specified). It is a brief eulogy to a woman described as a ‘joyful mother of children’, and is noteworthy as bar the previously mentioned eulogy to the ‘illustrious statesmen’, we have no further detailed examples of the rector noting local or international events in his sermons. There is a brief mention of the death of a parishioner of ‘advanced age’ included in the form of a small slip inserted to Sermon No. 77 in the collection, but again no mention of a name is included, nor the date of the burial.
The date of the last sermon is 26 July 1829 in a sermon on the text of Luke 1:78–79 (‘… the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness …’). This matches with the Preachers’ Book held in the RCB Library (RCB Library P.349.08.1) which records Revd Sealy as preaching to his parish on this date. By this time the rector was signing his name ‘Revd Sealy Baldwin’, capturing his maternal links. Although the rector is an occasional attendee at vestry minutes after this date, the vast majority of meetings are chaired by the curate at the time. Indeed, Brady notes that ill–health resulted in the rector residing in Bath from 1823 to 1824. By 1833, Sealy is listed as ‘non–resident due to old age and infirmity’, and is noted that his permanent residence at this time is in Bath. Sealy died 29 May 1838, and was buried beside his wife in the Abbey Church, Bath.
Ms 1132 is a very important addition to the manuscript collections held in the RCB Library. It allows researchers and theologians a valuable glimpse at the concerns and theology that occupied the mind of a parochial cleric of the Church of Ireland far away from the administrative heart of the Established Church in the late 18th and early 19th century and it tells us what type of sermons were being preached to the faithful during this period. The collection should also be of considerable value to historians who wish to see the religious and social fabric of Cork city and the parish of St Paul’s in particular.
We are grateful to Rosemary for donating this unique and important collection to the RCB Library, as well as to Catherine FitzMaurice of Bandon Genealogy who suggested that the Library might be the best place to preserve and store this collection, ensuring that these sermons will continue to be of benefit to historians and researchers wishing to study the religious history of Cork in the future.