Rev. Robert Potter (Louisburgh Church of Ireland Rev during the famine)
During the 1800’s many areas of Ireland, especially the west coast of the country, experienced famine and hardship. These areas were dealt a severe blow during the years 1846-1852 when the potato crop failed year after year.
Because most of those living in the west were farmers or labourer’s the famine hit hard. For people who depended almost solely on the potato for food, its failure, meant severe hardship. As the years went on, and the failure of the crop continued, it decimated villages, with a million dying of starvation and more emigrating. The idea of Laissez-faire by the British government, who controlled Ireland, meant that the fate of the people lay in the hands of the landlords, the gentry, and the church. Where there was an absence of landlords or gentry, the church were the main providers of aid to the starving multitude.
Louisburgh is a small village in the west of Ireland, in the parish of Kilgeever. Before 1842 it had a population of 12,000 covering an area of 50 square miles. The main landlord for the Louisburgh area was Lord Sligo, but there were others, including Sir Samuel O’Malley and Lord Lucan. The people of Louisburgh were mainly farming class. This class of people lived on a small plot of land and depended almost solely on the potato. The Browne family of Westport were landlords, and there was one member of the gentry class, Mr. James Garvey of Tully living in the Louisburgh area. As it was an area of such remoteness, with such a great distance to the nearest town, Westport, it was a village which was severely neglected.
“Thank God, the clergy of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches all meet each other, throughout Ireland on the broad platform of humanity, like friends and brothers, at the present awful crises. This is the case at Louisburgh…”
Rev. Robert Potter, The Mayo Constitution, January 19th, 1847.
Rev. Potter was born in 1794. In October 1811, aged 17 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. Around 1826 he left his curate in Ballinrobe, and succeeded Rev. Charles Seymour in Louisburgh, Mayo. From this time to his death in 1847 he was a champion for the poor people of Louisburgh. From 1831 onwards there are details of letters written by Potter to the different local newspapers seeking relief for the people of Louisburgh and the neighbouring islands.
From September 1845 the newspapers had begun reporting details of the failure of the potato crop and how blight had taken over. By 1846 it was evident that many areas were being left to fend for themselves and so the churches intervened on behalf of the people. By April 1846 Rev. Potter and Louisburgh Parish Priest (PP), Fr. Patrick McManus had letters and articles published in newspapers detailing the absolute hardship of the people of the area, as well as the fact that very little assistance was forthcoming. In one such correspondence with the Connaught Telegraph Fr. McManus wrote to the Relief Commission, informing the commissioners that no address was known for the Lieutenant of Mayo, and that he was thought to have been in England. This resulted in lack of support to the people of Louisburgh at a time of absolute need. The letter is one of desperation as the priest begs for some sort of relief, so the people would not starve to death. Two more articles in the Freemans Journal detailing the need for assistance were recorded, one detailing that in a village of over 12,000 people, only enough employment was available for 300 with about 5000 in absolute want. In November of the same year an article from The Connaught Telegraph told of Rev. Potters comments on the mismanagement of the Relief Committee in the county. A further article in The Mayo Constitution in January 1847 details a letter from Rev. Potter pleading with the government to bring relief to the area in the form of employment, and food for those too hungry to work, or they would face ‘inevitable doom’. Both men were fighting for the men, women and children of their village who, it seemed had been abandoned and left to fend for themselves.
There are many accounts of the clergy becoming exhausted and sick, many dying of different diseases, like typhus and cholera while administering help during the famine years. Rev. Potter was one such clergyman who meet this fate in 1847. Fr. McManus too died after an illness a year later.
An article in The Mayo Constitution in November 1853 the new P.P of Louisburgh, Fr. Michael Curley thanked the Protestant community of Louisburgh for their help in building a new Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, Rev. Potters successor did little to harbour these amicable feeling, and became notorious for offering soup to all who attended his congregation. During his first years after his appointment to Louisburgh in 1847, Rev. Callanan ensured that tensions between him and the PP at the time Fr. Thomas McCaffrey was under strain. Callanan was accused of attempting to convert local Catholics to Protestantism by the offer of food, but there are also accounts of Callanan threatening his Catholic employees with dismissal if they did not attend his church. To the vulnerable, starving Catholic of Louisburgh this offer was a massive temptation, and the Rev. Dr. P.J. Callanan’s congregation grew. In the eyes of the Protestant Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Thomas Plunkett, Callanan’s work deserved to be recognized and he was granted an acre of land seven miles from Louisburgh, in Bunlehinch, where he could build another church. The land Callanan received was in a very remote area, and after the initially success numbers to the church soon dwindled. Callanan happily handed the church over to the Society for Protection of Rights of Conscious. A bridge was soon erected to join the church to the local people; this is known as the Clapper Bridge and remains to this day. This ‘Colony of Jumpers’, as it was known locally did little to help the reputation of the Society in this remote part of Louisburgh, as most of the local people were severely opposed to it. The word ‘jumper’ came from the Irish word d’iompaigh which means to change over and is pronounced ‘jumpee’. Dr. Plunkett suggested the amount of people attending the Church of Ireland in 1852 was 1094, with 840 converts, however this number may be exaggerated. News of this proselytizing reached Pope Pius IX. He was obviously anxious to put a stop to this practice in the West of Ireland. The Pope wrote to the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale with his worries about how these “spiritual enemies” were leading those of the Catholic faith to Protestantism. Archbishop McHale arrived in Louisburgh in July 1853 for confirmations. He attended the Colony at Bunlehinch in 1853 when it seemed fortunes had changed for the Catholic Church. In an article from September 1853 in The Connaught Telegraph, Fr. Curley, Louisburgh PP, spoke of how Rev. Callanan had converted the poor, starving soles, but now that fortunes of the Catholic Church had changed there would no longer be a need for this. Rev. Callanan’s zeal for conversion dwindled as the years went on. When he left the village in 1860 the people of the village were sad to see him go.