An Irish Village

Monday, February 04, 2008

A chronicler of Dunlavin – Fr. John Francis Shearman

John Francis Shearman was born in 1831 at 19 High Street, Kilkenny. He was ordained at Maynooth in 1862 and took up his first curacy at Dunlavin. Fr. Shearman remained in Dunlavin for five years (1862-1867) before moving to Howth. He became parish priest of Moone in 1883, where he died two years later in 1885. He is buried under the floor of the chapel in Moone.
Shearman’s “magnum opus” was “Loca Patriciana” which was published in 1879. Much of his earlier work was never published however, and Fr. John O’Hanlon meticulously pasted Shearman’s handwritten manuscripts into volumes that were then bound. Volume 7 deals exclusively with Dunlavin, and much of Volume 17 also relates to Shearman’s time in Dunlavin. Much of Shearman’s work relates to early Christian relics around Dunlavin, but his wide ranging interests made him record all kinds of things varying from the site of the battle of Gleann Mama to the executions on Dunlavin green in 1798.
Apart from antiquarian and historical writing, the Shearman Papers also give us a picture of the Dunlavin area during his own time there. Shearman went out among the people and collected many stories about folklore, ghosts, popular religion (the Holy Well at Tornant) etc. He also gives townland by townland statistical breakdowns of farms, landholdings, valuations etc. during the 1860’s. The source is so vast that I have barely scratched the surface.
Writing in 1862, Fr. Shearman gives what he calls a “statistical memoir” of Dunlavin parish. He tells us that the parish comprises over forty thousand acres and contains a Roman Catholic population of about 4,000. He mentions the events of 1798 and continues “Since then, the systematic persecutions and evictions of hostile proprietors and Orange agents have depopulated Imaile [Imaal] and introduced Protestants from the obscure nooks and corners of neighbouring counties to usurp the places of the Irish Catholics who were themselves, a little more than a century before, the proprietors in fee, while the few who were tolerated were driven up the mountainsides”.
Shearman mentions the cross-county boundary links that existed in Dunlavin village, telling us that many people from Gormanstown and Kilcullen parish [both in Co. Kildare] attended Mass in Dunlavin church. He says that the district of Dunlavin has been “scarcely more fortunate” than Imaal with regard to Catholic depopulation. He mentions many townlands where Catholic tenants have been driven out, among them Rathsallagh, where the only Catholic to hold land was Mr. John Norton. Incidentally, this Mr. John Norton was among the witnesses who gave evidence to the Devon Commission in 1845 (witness 964). Although he seemed to “sit on the fence” with regard to some answers – he probably did not want to give too much information to the commissioners – this examination does give us a good insight of life and landholding in Rathsallagh and around Dunlavin in the 1840’s. Many of Norton’s points regarding leases and improvements made to the farm by tenants were reiterated by Mr. Edward Fenlon to the Besborough Commission in 1881, indicating that the situation had not improved a lot despite the 1870 Land Act.
However, back to the 1860’s. Despite the evictions, Fr. Shearman tells us that “On the whole in the Dunlavin part [of the parish] they [Catholics] are holding their own and even advancing apace, while in Donoghmore and Donard they aren’t so well circumstanced, as farms when vacated, as a general rule are given to Protestant adventurers which has had a demoralising effect on the Catholics”. Shearman contrasts this with “the uncompromising spirit by which they were animated during the struggle for emancipation, the abrogation of the tithes and the repeal movement”.
The inhabitants of the Glen of Imaal seem to have suffered a lot at the hands of Michael Fenton of Ballinclay whom Shearman describes as “a man actuated by a steady determination to uproot every Catholic”. Fenton seems to have been a target of Daniel O’Connell as Shearman says that he was “abused from great obscurity into great notoriety by the late Liberator.” I do not know what the O’Connell-Fenton incident was, but it merits further investigation at a later date.
Shearman’s observations on the evictions of Catholics and their general position in the upland part of Dunlavin parish ends on a gloomy note as he writes: “All this done in a remote glen of Wicklow in this year of grace 1862 – too remote to be reached by public opinion – a feeling well-nigh strangled in this region of serfdom. Should there be a man so daring as to raise his voice above the common herd he is set down as a turbulent spirit and entails on himself a persecution of the lowest and meanest character unworthy of the noble proprietors whose only excuse is that they act thus led only by the invidious whisperings of avaricious agents and their cowardly myrmidons.”
This passage shows us some of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Shearman Papers as a source. On the one hand, Shearman, the Catholic priest is obviously sympathetic towards the plight of the Catholics and we must beware of bias. I do not suggest that there was no plight for these Catholics, but Shearman’s language is very emotive. On the other hand, because these writings were never meant for publication Shearman felt free to use such emotive language and to write with a frankness that would not have been possible if the material was to be published. This frankness contrasts with the restrained erudite language used by Shearman in other parts of the Shearman Papers, notably the manuscript text of “Loca Patriciana” and later articles in Volume 17.
One intriguing reference to the local gentry made by Shearman concerns Lady Synge Hutcheson (a landowner in Imaal) who “essayed to establish a new religion and entailed on herself the ire of the parson as well as the priest. She kept a milk-white stud to carry the Messiah who she still expects to establish the millenium”.
Shearman gives an outline of the schools in the district. It is interesting to note that Cryhelpe school was built by the late Baron De Röbeck partly at his own expense but “principally with the free labour of his tenants.” The teacher, a mistress, in Tynte Park school (supported by Joseph P. Tynte for the children of his workers) is a Protestant and the children here are “remarkable for their negligence and apathy in the attention to their religious duties.” A Protestant school and an Orange lodge were established at Knockanagrigan.
Dunlavin village contained about 95 Catholic families in 1862, and about 25 Protestant families, according to Shearman. John Harrington, who was father of ten children had property valued at £136.10.0. Indeed, large families were very much the norm as one can see by looking at the townland by townland breakdown of Catholic inhabitants given by Shearman. In the “valuation” column of his stastical memoir, Shearman gives evidence that the cottiers were not quite totally wiped out by the famine. John Carroll and James Cleary are described as “cottiers”. Charles Ennis is a “workman” (no valuation) while John Doyle has a “cabin”.
Volume 7 of the Shearman papers gives an even more detailed townland by townland account of the local area. Much of the ancient history, legends and archaeological features of the area are noted, but much of the information relates to Shearman’s time in Dunlavin too. I have not had time to read through the two hundred plus pages of close Victorian handwriting but I will just take a few instances from volume 7.
Shearman’s love of archaeology caused him to become quite excited when a dig was made in 1863 on the farm of one Corney Kooney (Rooney?).Shearman described how “a moat was excavated and levelled.” The finds included “Kists [cists?], Urns and Bones (human).”
Locals would not go near the hollow in the road (called “Byrne’s Hollow”) which was located in the townland of Cowpasture on the road from Dunlavin to the house which was owned by Councillor Fisher but was burned to the ground by insurgents in 1798, because it “has a bad reputation for spirits after dark”. This is only one of a number of stories of the supernatural recounted by Shearman. Despite the presence of the church and the clergy, there was obviously a folk-belief and a folk-culture still alive in Dunlavin in the 1860’s. Fr. Shearman hardly preached about spirits, but the people believed in them! No doubt there was a gap between the official beliefs and the actual beliefs of many of the local people in the 1860’s.
Shearman mentions the building and enclosing of Tynte Park House and demesne. He describes Tynte Park as a “smiling paradise, its picturesque plantations and well-cultivated fields contrasting strongly with the nakedness of the adjacent country”. Obviously the chasm between landlord and tenant was very wide and land reform would remain an issue till the end of the century, though Tynte Park remained splendid in the 1890’s, as Rector Samuel Russell McGee’s description of one event in 1897 attests: ‘In the afternoon Colonel and Mrs. Tynte held a reception at Tynte Park, at which a large number of the surrounding gentry as well as the immediate parishioners were present. Tea was provided in a marquee in front of the house. During the afternoon a military band discoursed sweet music, and Tynte Park looked its gayest, the natural beauty of itself and the magnificent view of the Wicklow mountains being enhanced by the presence of a fashionable gathering’.
Shearman tells us that there were slate quarries in the townland of Plezica which were “extensively worked at the beginning of this century... they are now superseded by the Welsh Slate.” This confirms the information given by Liam Price who tells us that “Slatequarry” was an old name for the Plezica area. This is only one of a number of instances where the information provided by Shearman has served to confirm and elaborate on other sources of Dunlavin’s history. Another instance of this is Shearman’s account of the Holy Well near Dunlavin, St. Nicholas’s Holy Well. Shearman writes “Fifty years ago [this well at Tornant] was the scene of one of the most famed Mid-Leinster patterns. St. John’s eve was the day on which the pattern began and it lasted for three days. Tents and booths were erected and crowds came from Carlow, Athy and from the farthest parts of the King’s County. It was one of the leading patterns in the whole country but owing to the great abuses and riots consequent on these gatherings, the owner of the land Mr. Ennis and the P.P. Fr. John Hyland ultimately abolished it twenty five years ago.” Shearman gives more information on how the curative powers of the well were much sought after. Once again the gap between teachings (and actions) of the priests and the folk-beliefs of the people seems to be quite wide!
Obviously volume 7 of the Shearman Papers is a cornucopia of information for the local historian of Dunlavin. I have not even looked at the townland information for the sub-divisions of Dunlavin parish yet. (These sub-divisions are: Tober, Crehelp, Donard, Rathsallagh and Freynestown). Hopefully the snippets of information I have given in this article help to throw some light on life in Dunlavin during the decade, and also serve to show the variety and detail of the information recorded in the writings of Fr. John Francis Shearman, a man whom the local historian of Dunlavin, as well as of Kilkenny, certainly owes a debt of gratitude!