The Religious Struggle in Doon in the 19th Century

The beginning of the 19th century ushered in a lot of controversy on the religious front as the Catholic Church emerged from the Penal Times and began to assert itself as the leader of it's people. At that time the Protestant Church intensified its attempts at the conversion of the native Irish Catholics to the Reformed Church.
Doon did not escape from this religious struggle and we have a good record of what happened in the parish and the near neighbourhood. This information is contained in the Skehan Papers which are preserved in Thurles, and also accounts and letters in the newspapers of the time, especially The Limerick Reporter and The Tipperary Vindicator.
To try to understand this whole episode one would have to go back to before Catholic Emancipation to set the scene. Up to then Catholics could not, in theory, practice their faith or own the land that they worked. On the land ownership question, they were in the same situation as their Protestant neighbours in that practically all were renting their lands from absentee landlords. With regards to practicing their faith the Catholic population, by the turn of the 19th century, had some kind of church buildings for Mass and other devotions and were also setting about building more permanent churches.
Up to Catholic Emancipation, in 1829, the Established Church was the only recognised Church, and according to the law, everybody had to support it, irrespective of their beliefs. This was done by the collection of Tithes. Although there were only 27 Protestant families and over 332 Catholic families in Doon parish, 1 all the Catholic tenant farmers had also to support the Protestant Ministers and carry the expense of maintaining the Protestant Church as well as their own.
The Protestant community, who were content to carry on as an exclusive minority when they had the laws of the land supporting only them, now noticed the winds of change and felt threatened. The more zealous among them believed that they needed more members in their church, and at this time a great missionary zeal was springing up. In England large sums of money were being collected to send Evangelical Preachers out into the world to save and convert the people to the reformed religions. Where better to send these Protestant Missionaries than to Ireland where there were all these Roman Catholics to be converted.
The Bible Society, which had been established in 1804, spread its branches into different parts of they country, and by means of the schools and popular missions, it was determined to save the Irish Catholics. In 1822 the Scripture Reader Society was instituted to further this campaign. The means adopted by the new preachers was not supported by many of the Protestant Bishops and their regular clergy. The Catholic clergy, in the meanwhile, were dropping the reserve they had hitherto maintained, and were beginning to speak out publically in defence of their religion.
Such a man was Fr Patrick Hickey who was appointed parish priest of Doon in 1824. The Protestant rector at this time was Rev Mr Charles Coote who was not unsympathetic to the Catholic Community and it's priests.
Fr Hickey was taking a public stance on the Tithe war and encouraged his flock not to pay these unjust demands. The following account by W. R. Le Fanu, who spent his youth in Abington and was related to Charles Coote tells us of an altercation between these two church leaders:

"Of Doon, a parish which adjoined Abington, our cousin, the Rev Charles Coote, was rector. At the very commencement of the agitation he had given much offence by taking active measures to enforce the payment of his tithes.
It was thus his fight began. He had for years been on the most intimate and friendly terms with Father Hickey, the parish priest, who held a considerable farm, for which Mr Coote would never allow him to pay tithe. When the agitation against tithes began, Father Hickey preached a fierce sermon against them, denouncing Mr Coote from the altar, telling the people that any man who paid one farthing of that "blood-stained impost" was a traitor to this country and his God. "Take example from me boys," he said; "I'd let my last cow be seized and sold before I'd pay a farthing to that scoundrel Coote".

On hearing this, Mr Coote wrote to ask him whether the report he had heard was true; he replied that he was proud to say that it was true, adding, "You may seize and sell my cattle if you can, but I'd like to see the man that would buy them." Coote who was a brave and determined man, was so indignant that he resolved to fight it out with the priest.
He gave orders to his bailiff, (Mr Coote was also a local magistrate) and next morning at break of day, before any one dreamt that he would make the attempt, one of the priest's cows was taken and impounded. Public notice was given that, on a day and hour named, the cow would be sold in Doon; counter notices were posted through the country telling the people to assemble in their thousands to see Fr Hickey's cow sold. Mr Coote went to Dublin to consult the authorities at the Castle, and
returned next day, with a promise from the Government that they would support him.
Early on the morning fixed for the sale I was sitting at an open window in our breakfast-room, when my attention was roused by the sound of bagpipes playing "The Campbells are Coming". On looking in the direction whence the sound came, I saw four companies of Highlanders headed by their pipers, marching down the road, followed by a troop of lancers and artillery with two guns.
On this little army went to Doon, where many thousands of the country people were assembled. At the appointed hour the cow was put up for sale. There was a belief then prevalent among the people that at a sale unless there were at least three bidders, nothing could be sold; under this mistaken idea, a friend of the priest bid a sum, much beyond her value, for the cow; she was knocked down to him, he was obliged to hand the money to the auctioneer and the tithe was paid. During all this time, except shouting, hooting at the soldiers, and "groans from Coote," nothing was done; but when the main body of the troops had left the village shots were fired, and volleys of stones were thrown at four of the lancers who had remained after the others as a rear guard. They fired their pistols at their assailants, one of whom was wounded.
The rest of the lancers, hearing the shots, galloped back and quickly dispersed the crowd. It was weary work for the troops, as the day was very hot and bright, and their march to and from Doon was a long one, that village being certainly not less than fifteen miles from Limerick.
On their return they bivouacked and dined in a field close to us, surrounded by crowds of the peasantry; many of whom had never seen a soldier before; after a brief rest the pipes struck up, "The Campbells are Coming" and they were on their march again".2

With the onset of the Famine a renewed effort was made at converting the Catholic population and exaggerated figures were sometimes sent back to England claiming many converts away from Catholicism. This probably was to encourage them to keep sending money, which was needed.
In the early fifties a Fr John 0' Dwyer was curate in Doon, being appointed in 1843, he later became parish priest in 1865. Thomas Atkinson M.A., who became parson and prebendary of Doon in December 1838 on the death of Charles Coote, was not unfavourable to the drive by the zealous preachers, who were descending on Doon and other areas at that time.
Fr O'Dwyer accused Mr Atkinson of encouraging the preachers into coercing his parishioners to recant on their Catholic religion by bribery and threats. Mr Atkinson countered by claiming that Fr O'Dwyer incited his people to attack and stone all the converts to Protestantism.
The country at this time was in a desperate state of depression with starvation and want on every side. The Landlords were evicting many people because of their inability to pay their rents and rates etc. The workhouses were completely overcrowded and it is against this background that one should try to understand the happenings of the time.

Extract from a letter to the editor of The Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator from John O'Dwyer C.C Doon on January 14th, 1851:
"Mr Atkinson goes on to complain of persecution, and he describes it in a paragraph containing many untruths, but which I am content to count as two, for the sake of keeping this letter within measurable bounds. He first states his congregation had been "assailed Sunday after Sunday, by immense mobs, throwing stones and other missiles, and several were severely injured by stones and blows". The diabolical falsity of these charges will clearly appear from what I will say.
"All this," says the slandering Parson, "has been proved time after time in public courts" - Ah, Mr Atkinson, is there a shred of decency, or honesty, or shame, or truth, remaining in you? Are you not convinced that not one of these charges has been proved in any court, unless indeed, in that court below, where falsehood is proof, and truth is ignored? Tell me who has come forward and proved in any public court, even once, that stones have been thrown at your congregation, or at any of them "Sunday after Sunday", or any Sunday, or on any day?
Tell me his name? Tell me who has proved or when or where it has been proved in open court, that "several" or any single individual of your congregation has been "severely wounded", or wounded at all by "stones " or "blows" of any kind? And if it has been proved in any single case, as you say it has been "over and over again" - Tell me who has been convicted? I defy you to point out one person who has been fined so much as one penny, or confined for one hour, for any of those acts, which you say this parish has witnessed".3

There is no doubt that some poor people took advantage of the offers of food, clothing and shelter when they had nowhere else to turn, and also that they received scant sympathy from Fr O'Dwyer.

Extract from same letter, January 14th. 1851:
"Want and hunger on the one side, and plentiful offers of money and support on the other, may have influence on a few whom a morbid indifference to religion, and an inveterate propensity to vice have enchained in wicked habits, and made reckless of character. But all the gold in the purses of those English bigots, to whom Mr Atkinson and his lying tribe have made victims of gullibility, combined even with famine, would not have any influence on the faith of the vast bulk of the people of
the district. What might follow Mr Atkinson is only the gleaning after the gallows and the convict ship - a portion of society whose loss is a gain to it - "the weeds thrown out of the Pope's garden." And if Mr Atkinson set up Mahommedanism, instead of Protestantism, and expounded the Koran instead of the Bible, he would get as many proselytes as he has, by means of the corrupt, unchristian, unnatural course he has openly, boldly and aggressively pursued".4

Further on Fr O'Dwyer writes from the same letter dated January 14th 1851:
"Even the respectable portion of our Protestant neighbours are disgusted with the disreputable, disgraceful course adopted to draw depraved characters to their religion".5

Fr O'Dwyer goes on to describe how only people who are Protestant or who have lately embraced the Protestant faith are getting gainful employment. He then goes on to describe the plight of two local farmers.
Two such broken down farmers, who held a few acres of land in this parish, entered at Mr Atkinson's third gate last summer, but not until they had the most ample promises that they would find every thing inside as favourable to their wishes, in a temporal way, as they desire.
They were in a deplorable way at the time. They had not a four-footed beast, and it is well known they had not a morsel of food for themselves and children, and their lands lay untilled, with rents and poor rates due. In the course of the first week after their debut in church, each of them came to me, with sick consciences, offering me preference of their souls if I should ensure to them the means of living and holding their lands until harvest. As I neither could, nor would, enter into such a stipulation, Mr Atkinson got them at his first bargain. One of them said to me -"Sir, I can't rest after what I did - I know I sold my soul to the devil; but what could I do- I am living on nettles and a little meal I get for a few eggs, those days past? How can I see my children die with hunger? Sure I know I ought to die for God Almighty; but what good is that? I feel the chains of the devil too strong for me, and I feel them getting stronger every day; and I think worse of my children that won't know the difference, for they never can make me believe their worship to be true. My two poor children are fed at Mr Atkinson's house every day they go to his school".
He added that Mr Atkinson sent for him and told him to hold on, and that his land would be stocked and tilled, and he need be under no terror about the rent and poor rates whilst he (Mr Atkinson) was at his back. We lost this Esau since we would not engage to feed him until harvest.
But his lands were tilled and sown, the rent was paid for him, the heavy arrears of poor rates were liquidated, and the meals came regularly into his house. The other farmer too was equally favoured by the humane Parson. These would be charitable deeds if performed in other circumstances; but, done as a bribe to these, and as a decoy to others similarly situated, they become the deeds of Satan. But Mr Atkinson will say that his proselytes are shunned and abhorred by society, and can get no employment, or men to till their land if they have any.
They are shunned and abhorred certainly by Catholics, and Protestants of respectability. But they had no employment before their perversion; they saw nothing before them but starvation or the workhouse (which some dread more than starvation); and any of them that had land could not give one farthing to a labourer to till that land. It is by remaining Catholics they lose all employment, and not by becoming Protestants. It is by remaining Catholics that the poor farmer cannot get men to till his land, and not by becoming a Protestant.
Before their perversion they had no employment; after their perversion they got employment immediately. Before his perversion the miserable farmer could not employ either horse or man; after his perversion he could employ both. And yet the only reason Mr Atkinson holds forth, to gull the English into contribution to aid his execrable bribery, is, that if he does not employ the perverts, they are not employed, and if he does not till their lands, they are not tilled. But he does not add that even if they remained Catholics they would not be employed and their lands would remain untilled. Perhaps Mr Atkinson would try to evade the charge of bribery by saying that he made no express stipulation before hand with the perverts".6

Fr O'Dwyer goes on to say; "This traffic on souls, by the paid servants of the Parsons, is as public as the daily purchase of cloth or groceries in the shops of Limerick".7

The curate then relates an incident which happened two years earlier. "About two years ago, the undernamed persons came before the congregation assembled at Mass, and made the following declaration:
"We attended the Protestant meeting lately in Oola. We were promised money for going there, and we got money at it. There were ministers there. Mr Atkinson was one of them. It was poverty that compelled us. We are now sorry for going there, and we wish to repair the public scandal we gave, and we beg the pardon and prayers of the congregation.
(The above statement was signed by sixteen parishioners, twelve men and four women). One of these went To Mr Atkinson in a few days after getting the bribe at the meeting, reminded him that he "joined his meeting" and required more money. Mr Atkinson gave him ten shillings, but gave it through the hands of another, he adding that it was not as a bribe he gave it. "But sure I know well it was, though he said that; said the poor man. I refrain from giving that poor man's name for the present, as he is in terror of Mr Atkinson, who has lately got to be the immediate landlord of nearly all the cabins in Gurtavalla (the land of the perverts.) That townland lately came out of a lease, and Mr Atkinson through his man, got possession of almost all the untumbled cabins. He admitted all the perverts back into their own, but those of the Catholics he closed and locked up. So that Mr Atkinson now fills the different offices of parson, steward, victualler, and landlord over these poor victims of his demoniac zeal.
He not only holds their souls in his keeping, but their stomachs and their houses also. He is lord and master of their morals, their bodies, and their cabins and there are some spared cabins for others who may be disposed to look upon a snug cabin near a bog, with something to eat within it, as "an inducement to change their religion".8

Fr O'Dwyer then encloses some letters from parishioners to prove that the Rev Atkinson was bribing people to leave the Catholic Church. The following letters are included:

Witness - John O'Neill
I can certify that, previous to the last meeting held at Mr Atkinson's house, in Doon Glebe, I knew the Bible readers go about Gurtavalla and other localities to get as many as they could for the meeting, and I heard them tell several poor people that as many as would go out of a family to that meeting would get one shilling a piece. I know a great many poor Catholics to go there, and twenty from Gurtavalla, who never went near them since; and I heard many of the poor creatures that stop with them say "They know they are doing wrong, that it is misery that forced them; but they hope God won't take them short". And now they have a new Protestant school opened here, and they have brought meal and a great number of saucepans to give out stirabout; and I know the teachers to go about to entice the starving children to come to them and they would give them plenty to eat but they have not got one since. I am ready to prove the above in any way required.

Pat Cronin Gurtavalla, January 12,1851.

The following was read from the altar to the congregation at the time of it's date;
I, Edmond Grace, being now bound for America, wish to be reconciled to the Holy Catholic Church, which I left solely through want, and the support I got from the parsons. But my conscience was never reconciled to their teaching.

Dated at Doon, this 18th day of September, 1850. Edmond Grace.9

By July 1851 controversy still rages and Fr O'Dwyer refutes the Rev Atkinson's claim that there were 900 converts in Doon, "I challenged him to show the twentieth part of that number, or more than seventeen cabins (containing one, or generally not more than two proselytes in each), in the whole parish of Doon. - Unable to grapple with those simple facts, he has recourse to the following extraordinary subterfuge - that he referred to the district of Doon, and not to the parish of Doon" and he points out an imaginary "district of Doon, stretching from Tipperary to Limerick" ( over twenty miles), and of an indefinite breadth! I answer, it has never been heard of that the term " Doon " was applied to any territory in this neighbourhood outside the parish of Doon. The parish of Doon comprises every other known denomination of Doon within it. So if the parish of Doon does not contain ( as I have asserted) forty-five proselytes to Protestantism, the district of Doon, or any other territory to which the term Doon is applicable, does not. "Doon is Doon" and can never be stretched outside the bounds of the parish of Doon. The capital of this renowned parish is the village of Doon, containing seven slated houses and twenty four thatched cabins, on the side of a mountain, without a post office, dispensary, market, or fair, not honoured with petty sessions court or even by a head constable!
Yet, forsooth, because in a remote skirt of a parish, on the brow of a bog, there are 30 proselytes-purchased by food!- scattered among seventeen cabins, or hovels, over which Mr Atkinson has got himself constituted immediate landlord, (for what purpose I need to say; but he has now the lock and key of their houses, stomachs, and consciences)," an extensive country" of indefinite size, containing important villages, with courthouses, post offices, chief police stations.&c., must all sink into shade before the splendour of Doon, and must be called by its name!"10

The battle of words takes a turn on July 28th, 1851:

Doon Glebe, July 28th, 1851.
Rev Sir - We attended a public meeting in Liverpool on the 14th March last, at which we made certain statements concerning the conversion of large numbers of Roman Catholics in the district of Doon, the persecution the converts had suffered, and the instigation of those persecuted by the Roman Catholic Priest of the district, and by you in particular. These statements have been impugned through the public papers in letters signed "J.O'Dwyer" &c. We hereby challenge you to meet us in a public discussion on these points in Liverpool, before the same audience who heard our statements, and show cause why you should not be convicted at the bar of public opinion of having borne false witness against the work of reformation in the district of Doon.
We are your obedient servants
Thomas Atkinson, Rector of Doon. W.A. Barby, Curate of Tuagh
To the Rev J. O'Bwyer, R.C.C. 11

And here is the reply from Fr O'Dwyer:

Doon August 4th, 1851
Rev Sir - In reply to your note of the 28th ult,. conveying to me a "challenge to a public discussion in Liverpool", I have to request that you appoint the day and the hour of "meeting" that I may avail myself of the opportunity of fully unmasking, before an English audience, the hypocrisy, knavery, and bribery, of the present system of pretended "religious reformation in Doon" and convict you in the face of the world (if you are reported correctly in the newspapers, and if the public letters bearing your signature are genuine) of having extorted money by fraud and calumny, to maintain your abominable traffic in souls under the guise of religion. Of course I have no objection to Mr Darby's joining you in the discussion, since you have coupled him with you in the "challenge"
J. O'Dwyer C.C.
To The Rev T. Atkinson, Rector,
Boon Glebe. 12

It is hard to imagine in this year of 1990 that events in Doon would arouse interest in Liverpool of all places one hundred and forty years ago. In December 1852 Fr O'Dwyer wrote to Bishop Slattery telling him about the progress of his plan to counter the proselytising.

Extract from letter to Bishop Slattery from Fr O'Dwyer December 5th 1852:
"I am happy to inform your Grace that the plan adopted here to recall the unfortunate perverts is succeeding very satisfactorily. The conversion is, perhaps, slow, but I have made it a rule to err rather on the side of slowness than of haste in this matter".13
Fr O'Dwyer goes on to relate that so far from the month of October to this date, he has received fourteen persons back into the fold, who had previously attended Protestant worship and that figure did not include nine children.
We now move forward to 1853 to find that the Catholic Clergy in Doon are under enormous pressure from Bishop Slattery, who in turn, is getting enquiries from Rome itself about the alleged number of converts from popery in the parish. In a letter dated August 22nd, 1853 they are asked to supply the names of all the people who apostasised over the last three, four or five years.
Fr O'Dwyer answering for Fr Hickey who is not available that day points out that (extract from letter to Bishop Slattery from Fr O'Dwyer, August 24th 1853) "out of 989 houses, which were in the parish in the year 1847, only 375 now remain, the rest 614 Catholic houses, have been thrown down, their inhabitants, for the most part, have been cast out in the bleak world without employment, food and shelter, a prey to the seducers who swarmed this parish offering them money, food, clothing, and lodging in exchange for their religion".14

He goes on to say that starvation was so bad in the parish that over 300 persons died in a one six month period, but that his flock were still steadfast in their faith.
"The Rev Mr Atkinson, the Protestant Parson here was one of our committee. He saw and sedulously watched everything, he was intimately acquainted with the sad state of the people. I have no language sufficient to describe the fiendish hatred he sustained for our holy religion. He had no family, he was very wealthy, had ample means, not less than eight hundred pounds a year. When he found that the time was rife, he commenced the work of proselytism. Crowds of Bible Readers were hired and set to work. The police had orders from government to patronise and protect them. They thus boldly entered the cabins and huts of the poor. They held out the most alluring temptations to creatures on the very threshold of death.
They increasingly tempted them and offered with a profuse hand food, money, clothes and shelter. Their pay was to increase in proportion to the havoc they made among souls. In short the most bareface lies, the most exaggerated calumnies were put forth in the public prints and circulated in England to draw attention to Doon and procure funds for the perversion of the people".15

It seems that the worst is over this year as Fr Hickey goes on to say that "only one person has left his flock lately, but that several who listened to the tempter and took the bribe returned to our fold and did penance", he also said in his letter that he had received into the fold not less than 33 persons who had never belonged to the Catholic Church, he concluded by saying that, "it is my firm belief that the assaults made on the faith have had the happy effect of exacting a livelier sense of religion among the people".
"Although our flock has been lessened to nearly one-third of it's former members, by emigration and famine, the number of those who frequent the Holy Sacraments monthly and weekly appears to have increased, and on the last festival of the Assumption of our Lady over 300 persons approached the Holy Communion in this chapel. The people evince a strong desire of entering into Pious Confraternities and seven hundreds in this parish have already associated themselves to these sodalities especially those of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order of the Living Rosary and I am particularly gratified in informing your Grace that the devotions of the month of Mary have been attended every evening in May by crowds of people, even from the remotest parts of the parish."16

Charles Philip Coote MA collated May 10th installed May 15th 1813. Lived in the Glebe House, he was exposed to extreme difficulties and great personal danger during the Tithe War and there is little doubt that his life was shortened by the anxiety which he underwent. He died in Dublin in 1838.

Fr Patrick Hickey was born in Cassestown in October 1788. He was ordained in Maynooth in 1814 He became PP of Doon and Castletown on 19th March 1824 and remained there until his death on 15th July 1864.

Thomas Atkinson MA collated December 1st and installed December llth 1838. He was assistant curate in Toem 1825-35, curate in Thurles 1835-37, curate in Toem 1837 Parson and Prebendary in Doon 1838 to his death in 1865.

John O'Dwyer was a native of Ballingarry and ordained in Maynooth in 1843. He was curate in Doon from 1843 to 1862 and became P.P. in 1865 to 1872. He died in 1872 and was buried in the church in Doon.

With the transfer of Fr O'Dwyer in 1862 to Cashel, the death of Fr Hickey in 1864 and of Rev Atkinson in 1865 the situation in Doon was changing. Fr O'Dwyer came back as parish priest and in that same year, 1865 he saw the nuns firmly installed. He himself died two years before the Christian Brothers arrived to set up a boy's school.
Looking back in retrospect it is hard to imagine the trials and misery that our ancestors from both sides of the community went through. One would be inclined to say that the Protestant community lost but is it Doon itself that has lost? Because it possibly would be that much better if the empty church at the end of the village was still being used by a vibrant Protestant community that had so much to offer to their Catholic neighbours.

1 Skehan Papers, St Patricks college, Thurles
2 Seventy Years of Irish Life, W.R. Le Fanu
3 Limerick Reporter & Tipperary Vindicator, January 1851
4 ibid
5 ibid
6 ibid
7 ibid
8 ibid
9 ibid
10 Limerick Reporter & Tipperary Vindicator, July 1851
11 ibid
12 Limerick Reporter & Tipperary Vindicator, August 1851
13 Skehan Papers, St Patricks college, Thurles
14 ibid
15 ibid
16 ibid

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