Archive of the Month
Divided Loyalties in a West Cork Parish: the Revd George F. Stoney of Berehaven
by Dr Miriam Moffitt
This month’s ‘News behind the News’ heads south to the Beara peninsula where we examine the dismissal of the Revd George Frederick Stoney from his position as curate in the parish of Berehaven. On his departure in March 1868, Stoney was presented with not one, but two, printed addresses which differed considerably in tone. An examination of these addresses, supplemented by parish and newspaper records reveals how wealth and social standing exerted considerable influence in this west Cork parish, 150 years ago.
Printed addresses featured regularly in the pages of the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette since its inception in 1856 (named Church of Ireland Gazette from 1900). These pieces generally lamented a clerical departure, containing the text of a lavishly–printed address which had been presented to the departing clergyman, as detailed in a previous Archive of the Month which is available here.
These were usually written in rather quaint and over–enthusiastic language and signed by persons of note within the parish, and often accompanied by a response from the clergyman in question. Although a vast amount of personal, family and social history is hidden behind these published addresses, few people have investigated the background and development of the stories they reveal. Such is the case of the two addresses presented to the Revd George Stoney as published in the Gazette of 23 April 1868. These offer glimpses of the workings and political interactions of a rural parish, while a third address (published in the Gazette of 22 September 1869) provides additional insight into his character. As the episode relating to the Revd Stoney coincided with the more attention–grabbing disestablishment crisis, it serves as a reminder that while large issues of historical importance capture the attention of the reading public, stories that appear less significant can provide valuable recovery of the complexity of the past.
With the disestablishment debates dominating the newspapers throughout the years 1868 and 1869, it is likely that little notice was paid to the experiences of the Revd George Stoney who was dismissed from his curacy in Berehaven in March 1868, and who ministered in his former parish of Ballyjamesduff in County Cavan until his death 17 months later. While in Beara, Stoney ministered at the chapel–of–ease at Allihies, where the population was largely comprised of the mining families from the nearby copper mines. The parish church, dedicated to St Peter, was sited in the town of Berehaven (now Castletownbere), Berehaven Miners church (also known as Kilnamanagh church) was located 12 miles further west.
The Revd George Frederick Stoney was born in 1826 and baptised in the parish of Terryglass, County Tipperary, where his father, the Revd Ralph Stoney, ministered from 1810 to 1856. The Stoney family (also known as Butler Stoney) held land throughout north Tipperary and were especially connected with the parish centred on the ancient ecclesiastical settlement of Lorrha, five miles from Terryglass. Canon Leslie’s succession lists show that George Frederick entered Trinity College Dublin in 1844 aged 18, was only ordained in 1857 and was appointed to the perpetual curacy of Ballyjamesduff in the diocese of Kilmore in August 1861. Stoney’s absence from Ballyjamesduff is not mentioned in the succession lists for the diocese of Kilmore, but entries in the Irish Church Directory for 1868 and 1869 confirm his presence at Berehaven Mines and also note his continued association with Ballyjamesduff.
The copper–mines at Allihies in west Cork were owned by Berehaven’s leading landowner: Henry Lavallin Puxley of Dunboy Castle. They were open since 1812 and had attracted an influx of Cornish miners. Changes introduced by a new manager appointed in the aftermath of a miners’ strike in 1864, combined with a sharp fall in the price of copper, led to a drastic reduction of the workforce. Although there was an attempt to replace some Irish workers with Englishmen, most of the miners were natives of Beara and Roman Catholics. Allegations were frequently made that the better positions were awarded to English workers and that the Irish miners were exploited and forced to live in squalid conditions. These charges were validated by the Revd Stoney in a letter published in the Cork Examiner of 04 March 1868 which detailed the ‘real agonising poverty of the people’. In this letter, Stoney laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Henry Puxley; he attested to the ‘wretchedness or eye–revolting poverty’ of the workers and advised Puxley to pay greater respect to ‘the men whose toil amassed his father’s fortune and his own’. Stoney’s subsequent letter, published in The Nation on 16 May 1868, was even more direct in its criticism of the mine–owner and more stark in its description of the lives of the miners.
The Revd John Halahan, rector of Berehaven, was not impressed to learn that his wealthiest and most influential parishioner had been publicly disabused by his junior colleague and parish curate. The parish depended on the support of persons like Mr Puxley and was currently seeking donations from ‘the Lord of the Manor’ to improve the church in Berehaven which was ‘totally devoid of all architectural beauty’ in contrast to the ‘gorgeous buildings being raised up in all directions by our Roman Catholic countrymen’.
Halahan knew the parish well, having served in Berehaven as curate from 1847 until his appointment as rector in 1862, a position he held till his death in 1920 – a total of 73 years in the one parish! Stoney, by contrast, was a mere two years in Beara; he lacked a support base within the Protestant community and, residing 12 miles outside the town, had little contact with the more influential parishioners who frequented the parish church. He must have been aware, however, that the parish, and especially his own miners’ church was heavily dependent on Mr Puxley who gave £40 a year towards the curate’s stipend and who supported it in other ways. For example, Puxley had purchased a harmonium in November 1866 at a cost of six guineas. The Puxley connection with the miners’ church was reinforced by Sunday School excursions to the manor and the congregation was larger than usual whenever the sermon was preached by the Revd Herbert Lavallin Puxley, the mine owner’s brother.
On 13 March 1868, nine days after his letter appeared in the Cork Examiner, Stoney was dismissed by his senior colleague, the Revd Hallahan. Stoney’s entry in the preachers’ book reveals that he was prevented from delivering a farewell sermon. We can only speculate as to why the bottom of the page was torn off thereby removing the remainder of Stoney’s comments.
On Friday the 13th I received my salary from the Rector, and notice that he would officiate at 3:30 on the following Sabbath, thus preventing me preaching my farewell sermon …
Although the Revd Stoney had fallen out of favour with his rector, the wider population of mine–workers appreciated his courage and, on the day of his departure, a large crowd accompanied him from Allihies to Berehaven. The Cork Examiner of 24 March 1868 commented that ‘It is an unusual thing with a Protestant clergyman in Berehaven to be a favourite with the people, and disliked by those of his own creed, but his letter to the Examiner gave offence in high quarters’. Therefore, while some of his co–religionists were relieved to see him leave, Stoney’s departure was a cause of dismay in other quarters.
The Revd Stoney received two addresses on his departure from west Cork, one signed by Fr Arthur Moynihan, Roman Catholic curate of Bere Island ‘on behalf of the people of Berehaven’, the second from his mining parishioners who termed themselves ‘The Church of England Protestants of Berehaven Mines’. The tone of these addresses is quite different, as is the manner in which the Revd Stoney responded. Fr Moynihan’s address was political in nature; it praised Stoney’s ‘honest and manly character’ and his ‘noble independence’, before referring to the ‘sad sight of suffering fellow–beings and of scenes of wretchedness’ prevalent in Beara. It was contemptuous of the rector’s dismissal of Stoney: ‘We would be very sorry to think that your independent action amongst us would be the cause of hastening your departure … pitying the weakness that can choose such means’.
Stoney was extremely direct in his response, appearing indifferent to political implications. He acknowledged the ‘mental agony’ inflicted on him by the ‘barb of tyranny and oppression, rampant in Berehaven’, but rejoiced that he had ‘fought a good fight … though anathematized by the fashionable bigotry of Castletown aristocracy’.
The address from the congregation at the miners’ church was more circumspect and completely apolitical; these people were, after all, dependent on Puxley for their employment. Their address did not praise their curate’s intervention on their behalf, nor even hint at discontent with the mine owner or with mine–workers’ conditions. Instead, they inferred criticism of his dismissal by the rector and emphasised Stoney’s pastoral skills, and his ‘expositions and explanations of divine truth [which] have always been sound, orthodox and comprehensive’. The address continued in this vein, stressing Stoney’s piety and character:
All those who have had the pleasure and privilege of living under your Christian ministration for the last two years know well how zealously and piously you have discharged your parochial duties, not only guiding others in the path of life, but walking in it yourself, following your own instructions, recommending your teaching by your practice, and setting a bright example to all …
Stoney, mindful of the miners’ vulnerability, avoided all criticism of their employer in his response. Whereas his reply to the townspeople spoke of local tyranny, oppression and bigotry, his bland response to the miners told that his departure was ‘accompanied by melancholy, embittered by circumstances’, after which he merely spoke of their kindness to himself and his wife, and assured them that they would always have a place in his heart. The disparity in tone between these responses is striking. When responding to the townspeople, Stoney openly acknowledged that his ‘humble efforts to mitigate the sorrows, and alleviate the distress of the destitute Miners of Berehaven’ led to his dismissal. His deft footwork in sidestepping the miners’ role in his departure when corresponding directly and publicly with said miners suggests a reluctance to expose them to risk.
Nationalist papers seized on this episode, regularly detailing the plight of the miners and depicting Stoney as a hero. Detailed lengthy accounts of the episode were published in The Nation of 14 and 28 March and on 02 May, which reproduced a letter from the Revd John Halahan where he tried to justify the curate’s dismissal but failed utterly in his attempt. The episode received extensive coverage in the Cork Examiner and also in the Nenagh Guardian which had a wide circulation in north Tipperary, Stoney’s place of origin. Following his ejectment from Berehaven, the Revd George Stoney resumed duty in his County Cavan parish of Ballyjamesduff and subsequently look temporary charge of the nearby parish of Shercock where he died on the evening of 18 August 1869 following a short illness. He was 43 years of age and left behind a widow and two young children. Three days later, his funeral left Shercock at 4 am, travelled by road to Kells, then by train to Dublin and onwards to Parsonstown (Birr). Very late on the evening of Saturday 21 August, his remains were interred in the graveyard adjacent to Lorrha church.
A month later, the Gazette published an address which the ‘Loyal Orangemen of Shercock’ presented to the widow of the Revd Stoney in which they lauded her late husband’s ‘value as a Christian Minister, a sterling Protestant, and a true friend of our Loyal Institution’ and, in her response, Jane Stoney accepted their sympathy and wrote of her husband’s respect for ‘the brave and pious Orangemen of Shercock’.
This is one of the rare occasions in which, within the space of 18 months, the Gazette published three very different addresses affirming the character of the same clergyman. In the first, a Roman Catholic priest congratulated the Revd Stoney for his efforts to alleviate the exploitation of a largely Catholic workforce; in the second, the Revd Stoney’s mining parishioners attested to their confidence in his doctrinal views and his clerical ability and, in the third, a group of Orangemen expressed their gratitude for his support of their institution. It is hard to disagree with the observation made in the Nenagh Guardian of 25 August 1868 that ‘the genial disposition of the deceased made him a general favourite in his native neighbourhood, and indeed, wherever he went’.
As a post script, we may note that John Halahan, rector of Berehaven, maintained a close connection with the Puxley family and, in September 1897, his daughter Eliza married Henry Edward Lavallin Puxley, son of Henry Lavallin Puxley and heir to Dunboy Castle. Henry Edward Puxley died three years later, leaving two young children who spent a large portion of their childhood with their Berehaven grandparents, John Halahan (dean of Ross from 1913) and his wife. The mines at Allihies had long been sold, passing out of the Puxley family in 1870.
The uncovering of this episode confirms the usefulness of the Gazette in locating, exploring and understanding the experiences of the Church of Ireland community over the last 150 years. The first signpost to events in Berehaven was the publication of two addresses in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, additional information on background and context was found in the parish records held in the RCB library. Investigations into seemingly insignificant incidents such as outlined above can shed light on the experiences of past generations, revealing the complex relationships that existed within the Church of Ireland community, and outside of it.
The stories uncovered in the ‘News behind the News’ series are typical of those available to us through the pages of the Gazette. The content of the Church of Ireland Gazette (the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette to 1900) may be explored in full by using the search box on link to the digitized version of the Gazette available here