Archive of the Month
A Bolt from the Blue – Predictable and Unpredictable Events in a Midland Parish
by Dr Miriam Moffitt
Churches, especially tall ones, attract lightning. Most famously, York Minster was set on fire in 1984 by a lightning bolt – seen by some as the hand of God. Less famously, but from our point of view, of more historical interest, on Sunday 9 June 1912, just as the Sunday service drew to a close, lightning struck the tower of St Mark’s Church in the county Offaly parish of Ettagh in the diocese of Killaloe
Our attention is first drawn to the episode via a notice in the Church of Ireland Gazette which provides considerable detail of the episode. This tells how lightning circled round the church before striking the tower, and describes how Mrs Charlotte Lee, wife of the parish rector, Canon Joseph William Lee was seated at the organ and felt the force of the blast. Unlike York, however, Ettagh church suffered little damage: no–one was seriously injured, although a stone from the tower hurtled down into the porch, the end of a pew was split in two and some internal window–sills were splintered. Subsequent vestry minutes reveal that the County Fire Office later granted £12 6s 6d towards repairs, £5 of which was forwarded to the 14th earl of Huntington for repairs to the east window, erected in 1877 in memory of his grandfather. Just a little bit less than the £2.25m it took to restore York.
The purpose of this month’s ‘News behind the News’ is to look in more detail at the parish of Ettagh and the community who lived there in 1912 and what their fate was over the next 100 years. Happily, much evidence is available in the records held in the RCB Library which enables us to see how the dynamics of power, influence and patronage worked in a rural parish in early 20th century Ireland. (Click here for a listing of parish records relating to Ettagh held in the RCB Library).
Ettagh Church was almost 100 years old when struck by lightning, having been built in 1813 by the architect James Pain, whose architectural plans are held in the RCB Library.
The parish was united with the nearby parish of Kilcolman (except for the years 1849–73) and relied on the support of a number of prominent families such as the Lloyds of Gloster House and the Westenra/Huntingdon family of Sharavogue House. Both families represented King’s County in parliament (Trevor Lloyd 1741–48, John Lloyd 1768–90, Hardress Lloyd 1807–18, John Westenra 1835–52). Among the other influential parishioners was Joseph Studholme who purchased Ballyeighan House in the 1850s. Records in the RCB Library confirm that the influence of these families can be traced, not only in the parish’s finances, but also in the working of its select vestry. Ettagh’s vestry minutes tell that the church plate had been donated by the Lloyd family: the paten was inscribed ‘The gift of Medhop Lloyd, Esq., to the Church of Ettagh, 1716’; the chalice: ‘Repaired 1860, at the expense of John Lloyd. Esq., and the church renewed, Rev. Telford MacDonagh, A.M. Rector’, and the flagon: ‘In Dei opt. max. Gloriama et in recordiationem pam perennemque Elizabethae Studholme Lagenam hanc S. Marci Ecclesliae apud Ettagh, in Diocesi Laonensi Filii, Filiai DD, MDCCCLXXVII’. [trans, Great glory be to God, this flagon is in ongoing and eternal remembrance of Elizabeth Studholme, St Mark’s, Ettagh, Diocese of Killaloe, 1877].
We also learn that a significant refurbishment of the church took place in 1861, funded largely by the Westenra/Huntingdon family using the proceeds of a bazaar held in the grounds of Sharavogue House, situated a mile and half from the church. A list of pew allocations compiled at this juncture shows that those at the front of the church were allocated to prominent families with specific seats at the rear of the church reserved for servants from the various large houses in the parish (on the allocation of pews, see Archive of the Month December 2016).
In 1877, during the incumbency of the Revd John Atkins Davis (brother–in–law of Joseph Studholme), that the church would be entirely refitted and an appeal for funds launched, spearheaded by the earl of Huntingdon, Joseph Studholme Esq., John Lloyd Esq. and Paul Studholme Esq. This refurbishment introduced a three–light east window showing the women at the sepulchre and the angel of the resurrection, installed in memory of Col. Westenra (d. 1875), father of the countess of Huntingdon.
Over the following decades, the remaining plain–glass windows were replaced with stained glass, provided by these families. Two memorial windows were installed in 1906, one depicting St Patrick dedicated to the late earl and countess of Huntingdon and one of the angel announcing the nativity to the shepherds, dedicated to the late Joseph Studholme, Esq. Joseph Studholme’s widow donated two more windows, the first in 1911 to the memory of her late brother, the Revd John Atkins Davis, a depiction of St Ita after whom the parish was named and, in 1918, a depiction of St Columcille, dedicated to her son, Lieut. Lancelot Studholme, who had fallen at the Somme. Another window depicting St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, was installed by Ettagh’s parishioners in 1916 in memory of Charlotte Louisa, late wife of Canon Joseph Lee, parish rector from 1896 to 1923.
Further gifts the parish church included a stone pulpit (from the Palmer family of Ballinlough House), brass lamps (from Mrs Newbold, neé Studholme), a font ewer (from the Hamilton family of Boveen). In 1910, J.L. Studholme Esq. presented a frontal for the communion table, made of white silk with four green orphreys embroidered with gold fleurs de lis, and a red superfrontal embossed in gold and mixed fringe flowers in gold and colours, for which episcopal approval was sought.
The presence of wealthy supportive parishioners was both a strength and a weakness as parish finances relied on a small number of land–owners. Families like the Lloyds played an on–going role in parish events, not only providing financial support and serving as parochial nominators and select vestrymen, but also in throwing open their house for parish events such as the annual excursion of the Girls Friendly Society. Their presence also provided a number of Protestant staff to boost the local parish population; this is confirmed in the registers of baptisms and marriages where many entries relate to persons employed as coachmen, gamekeepers, gardeners or chauffeurs. For instance, the backgrounds of the eight children whose baptisms are listed page 16 of the parish register were: peer (2), gentlemen (2), farmers (2), labourer (1) and sexton (1). This trend is reflected in the marriage register where, for example, the two entries on page 28 record the marriage of two servants from Gloster House in 1885, then after a gap of five years, the next entry recorded the marriage of the earl of Huntington’s daughter to T.E. Pasley, a baronet.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Ettagh was described as having ‘an unusually large and yeoman Protestant population’.
St Mark’s parishioners strongly supported the political union with Britain and, at the introduction of Gladstone’s first home rule bill in 1886, the vestry minutes recorded:
that this meeting hereby protests against the proposed legislation of the present Government which if carried would repeal the union between this kingdom & Great Britain & would they firmly believe seriously endanger the rights of property & the civil & religious liberties of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects.
A similar resolution was passed when Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill was introduced in 1893 which added the following prescient comment:
We also believe that these changes wld tend to impoverish, if not expatriate, many of those, on whose support the maintenance of our Church, under God, depends, & wld thereby disable her in the efforts she is making to supply the spiritual needs of her people, and is making this protest, not as adherents of a party & not on behalf of a class, but as members of a church numbering more than 60,000 Irish men who while holding various political opinions & following many different callings are united in a common allegiance to the throne & a common desire for the honour & welfare of their native land.
Although the Home Rule question had been bubbling away from the 1880s, the granting of Home Rule was not guaranteed until the parliamentary arithmetic of Asquith’s Liberal government (1910) ensured its passage through the House of Commons. As the House of Lords’ power of veto had been removed by then, the apparent inevitability of Home Rule strengthened the concerns voiced in 1886 and 1893, though we do not know how Ettagh’s parishioners reacted to the introduction of the 1912 Home Rule Bill as the vestry minutes make no reference to the proposed political changes.
Let us examine the concerns voiced in 1893 and 1896 which claimed that the impending political changes would threaten the viability of the parish and ‘impoverish, if not expatriate’ its prominent parishioners? It is clear that over the next two decades the population of the parish declined significantly. But this is not wholly attributable to the political changes; some of the more prominent parishioners did not reside permanently in the region and, regardless of their wealth, could not ensure the Ettagh’s continuance. The select vestry had noted in 1907 that ‘Some pews being vacant for many years, owing to non–residence in the parish, it was thought desirable to ask parishioners if they would move forward to sittings allotted by the churchwardens’. [Later amendments to this list were made in pencil at an unidentifiable date]
Moving the congregation further up the church, however, could not solve the problem as parish numbers were in decline; an average of 50 persons attended Sunday service in 1888; by 1925, average attendance was down to 25; by the 1950s and 1960s, the weekly congregation was in single figures. This was to be expected when the profile of baptisms is examined; eight children were baptised in the decade between 1910 and 1919 but, three decades later, that number was halved and continued to fall; four baptisms took place between 1940 and 1949, and two in the following decade.
What was the fate of the prominent parish families after 1922? The Westenra/Huntingdon family clearly wished to maintain a connection with the locality and spent almost £5,000 rebuilding Sharavogue after it was extensively damaged in an accidental gas explosion in 1910. The earl and countess of Huntingdon regularly resided in Sharavogue over the next ten years but relocated to Leicestershire in 1920. Their furniture, livestock and farm machinery were advertised for sale in 1924 and Sharavogue was demolished shortly after. The family connection with Ettagh had come to an end and, although generations of his family had been buried in the family vault in Ettagh, the funeral of the 14th earl took place in England in 1939. In contrast, the Lloyd and the Studholme families remained in the parish. The 1903 marriage of John Hardress Lloyd to an Australian heiress provided a welcome cash injection but, as there were no children from this marriage, the property passed to a nephew in 1952. It was purchased by a Roman Catholic religious order six years later and has subsequently been resold. Lancelot Studholme, the only surviving son of Joseph Studholme, was killed in action in 1916 and Ballyeighan house remained in Studholme family under the surname Ruttledge.
After the political and societal upheavals of 1916 to 1923, the involvement of these wealthy families in parish affairs markedly decreased and, at the same time, other less prominent landowners also left. Their departure resulted in the removal of many families employed in large houses and estates; the last baptism of a child born to an employee of a large houses took place in 1925. From this time, the children presented for baptism came from Ettagh’s small number of farming families and the viability of Ettagh became increasingly questionable. The union of Ettagh and Kilcolman was dissolved in 1923 on the death of the Revd Canon Lee. Ettagh was united with Shinrone parish and remained part of the Shinrone Union until 1975, after which some of its windows were removed to the nearby parish of Aghancon. Due to structural constraints, it was impossible to relocate Ettagh’s windows in their entirety and some of their beauty was lost.
The concerns expressed by Ettagh’s select vestry in 1886 and 1893 became a reality when the bishop of Killaloe presided over the de–consecration of St Mark’s Church, Ettagh on 9 November 1975. What had been described as ‘one of the neatest and most comfortable churches in the diocese’ ceased to function as a place of worship. Perhaps Ettagh’s parishioners may have come to accept the inevitability of Home Rule in the years between 1893 and 1912 which might explain why the vestry minutes made no mention of the issue. However, the reality of the total severance from Britain that came in 1922 probably hit them like a bolt from the blue – as unexpected an event as the lightning strike on their church.
The uncovering of this episode confirms the usefulness of the Church of Ireland 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 Ettagh was the reference to the lightning strike in 1912, 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 (Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette up until 1900) has been digitized for the years 1856 to 1933 and may be explored in full by using the search box at this link