Archive of the Month
Parish “Number 1”: Shrule, County Longford
by Dr Miriam Moffitt
How do you go about writing a parish history? What records does the RCB Library have that will help you? For August’s Archive of the Month, we look at the resources available in the RCB Library.
The Representative Church Body Library currently holds 1,114 collections of parish records covering a variety of time spans (some dating back to medieval times, but most from the late 17th–century onwards), and a wide variety of sources and a multitude of human–interest stories. In spite of the loss of approximately 500 collections of early registers in the tragic fire at the Public Records Office of Ireland during the civil war in 1922, more material survives than is often supposed. An insight to the detailed lists of the collections held by the Library (colour–coded yellow) is available through this online resource
As the colour–coded list reveals a massive amount of material has been transferred from the local custody of parishes to the Library’s central holding, where it has been systematically organised. Founded in 1931 when the Church of Ireland accepted from Miss Rosamond Emily Stephen (1868–1951) her gift of the Library of the Irish Guild of Witness, the Library began its remit as a reference library of printed books. However, archival and curatorial responsibilities soon evolved in the context of the PROI tragedy in 1922, and the Library also became the focus of the Ecclesiastical Records Committee of the General Synod, by providing a home for stray church records.
The very first collection of parish materials that came into its custody were those for the County Longford parish of Shrule in the diocese of Ardagh: RCB Library P.001. We have taken as an example the County Longford parish of Shrule in the diocese of Ardagh, simply because it is listed as Parish Number 1 in Library’s parish record collection.
Shrule’s early 19th–century parish church (the actual date of which is unknown) is dedicated to St Catherine and located in the town of Ballymahon. The starting point for tracing its history is the RCB’s listing of parish records, easily consulted through its standardised index system. A listing of the holdings relating to Shrule can be found here. This is supplemented by diocesan records which are also held in the RCB Library; to view the records of the diocese of Elphin and Ardagh, click here.
As can be seen from the listing of parish records, the baptismal, marriage and burial registers dating from the early 1700s were destroyed in 1922, so that the surviving baptismal and marriage registers date from 1878 and 1845 respectively. These registers not only provide the normal records of the parish, but also useful incidental information, such as the fact that, as late as 1890, a 19–year old parishioner was unable to write, although parish schools were regularly mentioned in the parish vestry minutes.
Another useful starting point in exploring a parish is the listing of clergy who ministered there. Clerical succession lists were initially compiled by Canon James B. Leslie (1865–1952) in the early 20th century and are arranged by parish and diocese. They have been expanded and updated to the present day and, in many instances, the lists have been published. Leslie’s Clergy of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, revised by Canon D.W.T. Crooks (currently rector of Taughboyne in the diocese of Raphoe) identifies the clergy who served in Shrule from 1520 and provides a short biography of each. The entry for the Revd James Topham, rector of Shrule from 1869 to 1881 gives details of his ministry and includes the inscription on his gravestone.
Until the mid–19th century, the parish was the unit for local administration in Ireland. Parish vestries were thus responsible for many local administrative tasks, taking responsibility for matters that are no longer considered part of church life, such as the building of roads, the distribution of poor relief, policing by payment of a parish constable and maintenance of a parish stocks. Examples of these activities and many more besides are found in the chronologically–organised minutes of Shrule vestry:
At a vestry lawfully cawld at the Ch[urch] of Ballymahon for the parish Shrule op[on] the 1st Day of October 1734 purshuant to [the] Act of parliament made in the first yr of the reign of our Sovereign George th[e] Second instituted an act for the better repair of the high roads.
It is unanimously agreed upon and wth the consent of the Minister, churchwardens and the rest of the parishioners of Shrule, that Mr William Berwick and Mr Ed[ward] Tiennan –––– , to be overseears of the High Roads this Enshewing year … and also Lewis Connar Director, witness our hands the day and year above mentioned.
The minutes record that £2 5s. was paid in 1783 ‘for maintenance of Mary Byrne’ and 10s. ‘for the care of a pair of stocks’ and detailed information is provided about the distribution of charitable monies at Christmas 1783 and in April 1785. The minutes of 24 April 1832 reveal that two persons were nominated ‘to take up and provide for the maintenance and education of all such children as shall be deserted and posted in sd parish.’
The destruction of the early parish registers makes it difficult to reconstruct the parish community in the period before the middle of the 19th century, but a surprising number of alternative sources are available. A typed copy of a letter written by the Revd Edward Hughes (rector 1717/18 – 1735) in 1731 provides a rare list of parishioners. This letter to the rural dean was, in effect, an appeal for bibles and prayer books as ‘most of them want that most usefull [sic] necessary good book’. This is accompanied by a copy of an undated letter from a Mary Allen to the minister, churchwardens and principal inhabitants of Ballymahon, requesting that she be supported by the parish.
The vestry minutes record persons added to and deleted from the register of vestrymen from the early 1700s, but this does not seem to be comprehensive. A more complete list of inhabitants was compiled in 1826 for the purpose of collecting tithes. Arranged by townland, it contains persons of all religious denominations.
The vestry minutes contains a list of the names, addresses and subscriptions of 43 persons who contributed to the cleaning and painting of the church is 1854. A further listing was compiled in 1890 which gives the names of those who contributed towards the total refurbishment of the church. Subscriptions to the Longford Protestant Orphan Society (1878) also provide the names of some parishioners, but is unlikely to include everyone.
The vestry minutes contain information about the management of the fabric of the church, glebe, schoolhouse and sexton’s residence. Thus in 1821 the parish was granted a loan of £1,140 from the Board of First Fruits to enlarge the parish church:
Parish of Shrule is only to pay the interest of seven hundred pounds of the aforesaid sum annually and the interest of the remaining sum of four hundred and forty pounds is to be paid by Captain Shouldham under the same regulations agreeable ot his proposed donation at a former vestry.
Annual visitation returns, completed by the rural dean on behalf of the diocese, capture the operation of the parish; these describe of the physical state of the church, and provide information on the number of parishioners, parish schools. For example, the 3–page visitation return for 1874 stated that Shrule had 186 parishioners, with 35 children attending the parish school. The parochial nominators at this time were John Bond, F.W. Smartt MD, and Richard Shaw; John Bond and Richard Shaw were also diocesan synodsmen for the parish. The rural dean considered the condition of the church, churchyard, bible, prayer books, communion plate, table cloth and napkin were ‘good’, but the condition of the surplice was only ‘middling’. The return informs us that two services were held each Sunday, with an average congregation of 95 on Sunday morning and 69 in the evening.
Vestry minutes provide interesting information about tensions, both within the parish and between the parish and diocesan authorities, often over the appointment of clergy. It is clear that the vestry believed that diocesan authorities paid little heed to the wishes of the parish in the matter of clerical appointments. Following the death of the Revd James Topham (rector 1869–81), the minutes record that ‘the vestry are left completely in the dark as to the election of a minister, their respected secretary not having been consulted on the matter’, believing:
That they are of opinion that the testimonials &c of applicants should be placed before the Select Vestry (which includes the Nominators) for their consideration.
The Revd Thomas Parke, successor to James Topham, ministered in Shrule from July 1881 but, a mere eleven months later, we find a notice of his death in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of 20 May 1882. Vestry minutes reveal that that the vestry had difficulty obtaining possession of the glebelands from his widow.
As a previous dedicated online presentation has shown here, Preachers’ Books often contain a wealth of incidental information, some of which is rather unusual. In Shrule, the Revd Robert Lynn, rector of Shrule from 1882 to 1885 categorized the weekly collection according to size of donation. Lynn’s analysis confirms the attendance at church of a large number of less well–off persons. For instance, 71 persons attended the noon service on 3 September 1882 with 64 persons contributing to the collection: 2 persons gave 1s., 7 persons gave 6d., 8 persons gave 3d., 30 persons gave 1d., and 17 persons gave ½d.
The Revd Lynn was father of Dr Kathleen Lynn who, decades later, would become a political activist and founder of St Ultan’s Hospital Dublin. Kathleen was eight years old when she came to Shrule; the Sunday School roll book confirms that she attended almost every week; the attendance of her sister, Annie, is also recorded.
The Revd Lynn also produced a 3–page printed parish report for the year 1882–3, the only document of this type document found among the Shrule records in the RCB library. It contains details of the parish school, Sunday School, glebe house, glebe lands, and a balance sheet for the year.
Additional insights into the workings of the parish and indeed the interconnection of parishes in rural Ireland may be gleaned from the pages of the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette (Church of Ireland Gazette from 1900), currently searchable online from 1856 to 1936 by clicking on this link. For example, the Gazette of 15 December 1862 tells that separate male and female schools were in operation, funded in part by local contributions amounting to £50. At this time there were 43 girls and 41 boys on the rolls, with an average attendance of 16 and 17 respectively. We read in the Gazette of 31 July 1896 for example that the parish took part in the Ardagh Choral Festival and a report of the Ardagh Diocesan Council in the Gazette of 14 December 1900 tells how Shrule church was in need of repair, which is surprising as it had been extensively renovated only ten years earlier. An article in the Longford Independent of 22 November 1890 outlining these renovations is pasted into the vestry minute book to record that ‘the old–fashioned wooden screen which divided the chancel’ was removed, as also were ‘the antiquated pulpit and reading desk, which although strong and serviceable were not up to present requirements or taste …’.
Diocesan magazines are a useful source of information regarding the social aspect of parish and diocesan life. For instance, the Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh Diocesan Gazette of January 1918 told of the erection of a memorial to a parishioner, a jumble sale, and a collection in aid of the Red Cross Fund taken up at the Harvest Festival. The impact of the war is also revealed in the vestry minutes where reference is made in September 1919 to the erection of a memorial to two members of the parish who perished in the war. Local knowledge confirms the existence of a plaque to Henry Dunphy Wilson and James Ruttledge, while there is also an intriguing copy of the portrait of the British nurse, Edith Cavell (1865–1915) whose execution during the War was considered a horrific war crime.
The parish records confirm the significant political and social upheaval experienced in Shrule during the 41 years of the Revd Purefoy Poe’s tenure (1891–1932) which resulted in a considerable decline in the Protestant population of the parish. Although a photograph taken in 1909 indicates that the parish school was in a healthy state, the vestry had discussed the problem of maintaining a parish school owing to the ‘fewness of children’ in as early as January 1883. The Gazette of 22 August 1913 tells us the parish was granted £20 for school repairs and vestry minutes confirm the school was still open in 1923. However, in the diocesan files we find an undated letter to the bishop written c. 1930 which states that the school was then closed [D2/12/65].
In the diocesan records, we also find in the Revd Purefoy Poe explaining in 1928 that ‘we have now very few families even counting families outside the bounds who attend Ballymahon’. Two years later, he asked for permission to discontinue the Sunday evening service as he was often faced with empty pews. He explained that ‘There are very few Protestants living in Ballymahon itself, or close to it. Some 18 in total number including all ages. … The total number (including people living in other parishes) who usually attend is some 40 or 43, … the average attendance at morning service is about 17.’ [D2/12/65/2–3].
Hints regarding the relationship between parish members and the wider, largely Roman Catholic community may be gleaned from vestry minutes. In March 1921, the laity was in favour of restricting the use of the church ladder to Protestant parishioners – the only objection coming from the rector, the Revd Poe. It had been proposed ‘that the church ladder be lent to any parishioner (Protestant) on consent of the churchwardens being obtained’. The minutes, which were written by the Revd Poe, continued:
The chairman objected on the grounds that the ladder should be kept exclusively for use at the church and school, it having been bought for such use, and that if it were lent at all it would appear be unneighbourly to lend to Protestants only. The proposal was accepted by the vestry, the chairman dissenting.
Revd Poe managed to get this decision overturned two months later when it was agreed that the ladder ‘might be lent with permission of the churchwardens to people living in or close to the town irrespective of religion; … to be returned in good condition to churchwardens by whoever asked for the loan’.
Following Poe’s death in 1932, Shrule was amalgamated with the adjoining parish of Tashinny, under the care of the Revd Francis Sadlier Stoney, rector of latter, whose death in 1940 was recorded in the Preachers Book of Shrule parish. [By sheer coincidence, the Revd Francis Sadlier Stoney was a nephew of the Revd George Frederick Stoney, who featured in the Archive of the Month in April 2018].
Shrule is now part of the Ardagh union of parishes and weekly services continue in St Catherine’s church Ballymahon. To visit the parish website see here.
As we have seen, a wide range of information can be gleaned from parish and diocesan records. Often, these records can be supplemented by architectural drawings – although unfortunately in the case of Shrule, these are not extant, but the Consents to Alterations volumes (created by central church structures) help to supplement these [RCB MS RCB/2/82], and for an index and background to this source see this link.
Further information is sometimes provided from unlikely sources. For instance, a letter from the Inland Revenue to the parish rector in 1849 relating to the payment of the Crown Rent included details of Shrule’s history in the period immediately after the Tudor Reformation, telling that that ‘the Crown granted, in 1569, the monastery of the B.V. at Abbeyshrule with the Mensal Land to Sir Robert Dillon.’
Obviously, the range and extent of records in the RCB varies from parish to parish: in some instances the holdings are more comprehensive; for other parishes, less so. Shrule is just one parish: there are another 1,113 more in the RCB collection for you to explore and investigate. Who knows what you will turn up!