Archive of the Month
”What is a Preacher’s Book?” by Maeve Mullin
Archive of the Month – September 2015
For the digitized copy of the earliest preacher’s book for the parish of Clones click here
Alongside baptism, marriage and burial registers, Church of Ireland parishes kept further records including vestry minute books, churchwarden lists, account books and preacher’s books. Preacher’s books typically recorded the date a service was held, the names of the clergy officiating, the number of the congregation receiving Communion, the amount collected and also a column for ‘observations’ or ‘comments’. The comments often related to the weather, collections for charity and in some cases significant extra snippets of genealogical value.
The Representative Church Body Library in Churchtown, Dublin, holds over 1000 collections of parish registers from all over the country, and many of these include runs of preacher’s books. One such example is the parish of Clones, county Monaghan (and diocese of Clogher) which as the hand–list of parish records compiled by the Library available here shows includes no less than 12 volumes, the first one commencing in 1841, and the last ending in 1980. Further more recently–compiled preacher’s books after 1980 continue to be maintained at local level.
It is the first volume (RCB Library P804.8.1) beginning on 11 April 1841 – Easter Sunday of that year – that is the focus of this online presentation, providing us with a case study from which to fully appreciate the value of detail provided by a typical preacher’s book. The volume includes entries from 1841 up to December 1863. The specific columns recorded in this book are ‘date’, ‘preacher’, ‘reader’, ‘no. of communicants’, ‘observations’, ‘£’, ‘s’ and ‘d’. The number of communicants is filled in approximately once per month, usually on the first Sunday of the month. The collection money columns of pounds, shillings and pence are filled in for every service.
The entry for Sunday 18 April 1847 (RCB Library P804.8.1, pp 37–38) furnishes us with a comment of genealogical value where it states that ‘Dean Roper breathed his last’. At the ensuing service, Charles Welsh acted as both preacher and reader on that date and the collection totalled 4 shillings and 5 pence.
Later in the volume, on 1 February 1863 (RCB Library P804.8.1, pp 135–136) our knowledge is again embellished by the entry of that Sunday’s service with the comment that ‘old Mrs. Fitzgerald’s Funeral’ took place. This information is verified in the parish burial register for the period (RCB Library P804.4.2) which further records that Elizabeth Fitzgerald of Bailieborough, aged 90 years was buried on that day by the Revd Thomas Hand.
In other collections, especially in parishes where the parish registers may have been destroyed or are missing (as a result either of the tragic fire at the Public Records Office of Ireland in 1922, or some other circumstances) occasionally the preacher’s books provide evidence not available anywhere else. The preacher’s book from Malahide, county Dublin, for example includes details of baptisms such as that recorded for Ada Machin on 25 Jan 1891, daughter of Edward and Anne Machin, informing us that she had been born on 31 Oct 1890 (RCB Library P365/8/3).
Further down on the same page the remarks column includes entries detailing that Mrs Machin and Mrs Burton were ‘churched’ – the tradition whereby mothers were re–introduced to the church after childbirth and when the thanks of the congregation were given for their safe delivery and return to worship.
Returning to Clones, important biographical information comes to light in the earliest preachers’ book which covers the period of An Gorta Mór (the Great Famine). The Hand family feature prominently in the local history narrative of the Clones area, as in 1847 the Revd Thomas Hand arrived in Clones to take up his ministry in the parish – indicated by the comment that he is being ‘Read in’ on September 19th 1847 (RCB Library P804.8.1, pp 39–40). The record further records that he preached for the first time at Clones on the same day.
A sense of the impact of prevailing economic and social conditions is further conveyed by the falling collections recorded in the volume during the period in question. Comparative census figures for Clones town and Clones rural district were examined for the years 1841 and 1851 in a report for the House of Commons in 1852 (Census of Ireland for the year 1851: Part I showing the area, population and number of houses by townlands and electoral divisions for county of Monaghan. 1852, , XLVI.357, p. 265). This showed a population decrease of 1% in Clones town between 1841 and 1851 but a 34% decrease in population for the surrounding district, demonstrating the heavy toll of An Gorta Mór on Clones parish. There may have been a population decrease in Clones town that was masked by people gravitating to the town from the hinterland. Clones parish was no different to other parishes in county Monaghan and elsewhere in Ireland as it was severely impacted by the failed potato crop and the ensuing economic depression. Clones workhouse admitted its first inmates on 23 February 1843 (see Peter Higginbotham Workhouse website www.workhouses.org.uk/Clones). The same dire situation is further reflected by the parish preacher’s book, where we observe the average Sunday collection in Clones declining steadily over this period – mirroring the general economic situation in the parish, and this may be seen by perusing the full record, available here [repeat link to main document].
Thomas Hand’s wife Cassandra was moved by the poverty and destitution she witnessed in Clones and she would lead a lace making initiative as a famine relief measure (for background, see the Casandra Hand Centre, Clones, County Monaghan website www.cassandrahand.ie/Cassandra-Hand). The lace–making tradition has survived and continues today.
Turning to other collections in the Library, and events of national interest which impacted at a local level, the preacher’s book for the parish of St Stephen’s in Dublin (RCB Library P46/8/17) tells a very interesting story of the local impact of the 1916 Easter Rising on the church and congregation.
Known locally as the Pepper–canister church which dominates the vista on Mount Street, the preacher’s book covering the year 1916 records how the parish schools and parochial hall adjacent to the church were ‘seized by the rebels on Easter Monday 12:30 [and] retaken by military on Wednesday evening’.
On Sunday 30 April 1916 it was further noted that there was ‘fighting very close to church during service’ when ‘3 bullets hit Ch[urch]’. By the evening however, the worst was over, with the surrender of the rebels.
The witness statement of Mr James Grace recorded in the Bureau of Military History archives corroborates the evidence provided by the St Stephen’s preacher’s book in which he mentions the fighting that was going on nearby to St Stephen’s church on the roofs of the houses of Herbert Street, as the extract below demonstrates:
Maeve is a Masters student on the Irish History programme in Maynooth University. She is also a professional genealogist based in Dublin with a qualification in Genealogy from UCD. Maeve has been a member of the Genealogy Advice team in the National Archives, the National Library and on the Kerry Genealogy Roadshow with Ancestor Network Ltd. A native of Glaslough, County Monaghan Maeve has recently been researching the experiences of men and women from Glaslough in the First World War.
For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood