The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Widespread Proselytizing of Catholics During the Irish Potato Famine

February 11, 2005, 4:45 pm

The documentation shows that there was no need for starvation, as Ireland produced plenty of foods other than the potato. The poor who could not afford food or rent were left to starve and their homes were destroyed by their landlords. Against this backdrop of misery, Protestant missions were set up to take advantage of the Catholics’ desperation. They offered food and clothing if the Catholics would renounce their faith and convert. Indeed, sometimes the very people put in charge of distributing government relief withheld food unless the recipient converted.

We wish to note that the Quakers and other church groups did good charitable work in helping the starving Catholics. Some of the clergy died as a result of their efforts to help the victims.


Proselytize: To offer food or other material goods in order to coerce someone in need to renounce their religion and convert. Also referred to as "souperism" because the food offered in exchange for conversion was often soup.

"In brief, ‘souperism’ may be defined as the exchange of spiritual allegiance for material benefits of one kind or another: employment, education, food, and clothing, for instance." (Raymond Gillespie, ed: A Various Country -- Essays in Mayo History, p.127)

Adding to the misery were the notorious "Crowbar Brigades." Thugs hired by landlords, they physically destroyed the flimsy homes of tenants who could not pay their rent.

ENOUGH FOOD: No one needed to starve

Before going further, however, two facts should be mentioned: First that by a careful census of the agricultural produce of Ireland for this year, 1847, made by Captain Larcom, as a Government Commissioner, the total value of that produce was £44,958,120 sterling; which would have amply sustained double the entire people of the island. This return is given in detail, and agrees generally with another estimate of the same, prepared by John Martin, of Longhorn, in the County Down. . . . Second, that at least five hundred thousand human beings perished this year of famine, and of famine-typhus; and two hundred thousand more fled beyond the sea, to escape famine and fever. (John Mitchel, History of Ireland, p.573)

Even Reverend P.J. Callanan, one of the worst of the proselytizers, admitted in January 1849:

"It is true there is no scarcity of food, for the markets are abundantly supplied with foreign corn, and prices are unprecedentedly low; but this is of small consequence to those who have not the money to buy, and who, while one penny would purchase the sustenance of an individual for a day, that individual, unless relieved, must perish, because he cannot dispose of his labour for that penny." (John Lyons: Louisburgh A History, p.62)

It should be noted that some of these people were employed but not paid: "So early as seven o’clock on Friday morning a hundred of those wretched beings – walking skeletons – employed on the public works, crowded our streets in quest of their wages; all declaring ‘they were ready to fall for want of food; that they had not been paid their hard-earned pittance for the last three weeks.’" (Michael Mullen: The Darkest Years, pp.23-24)


This first excerpt says it all: it shows there was a devious plan in place to take advantage of the starving Catholics, now that the famine has "softened the heart of the poor:"

A report from the "General Irish Reformation Society," 1848: "…If ever there was a time for England to make a great effort for the evangelizing of Ireland it is the present – the poor are ready – the great distress has softened the heart of the poor. A famine shows the poor Romanist the incapacity and tyranny of their priest, and the humanity and integrity of the Protestant clergy." (Rt. Rev. Patrick Francis Moran, Bishop of Ossary, Ed: The Letters of Rev. James Maher, D.D., p.135)

Despite his recognition of this awful situation, according to Father Pat Fitzgerald, the Protestant Rev Callanan "would not give the charity placed in his hands to any person except on the condition of his attending his church." Father Fitzgerald further alleged that Callanan threatened a man named Ivers that he, Callanan, would ‘dismiss him from his employment and would pull down his house if the poor family did not go "to church – as opposed to Catholic chapel." These are but two instances of the widespread practice of proselytizing: offering charity to the starving in return for converting to Protestantism. (John Lyons: Louisburgh A History, p.78)

August 24, 1853: "614 Catholic houses have been thrown down and their inmates thrown out into the world, and an easy prey to the Protestant seducers, who offered money, food, and shelter in exchange for their religion; some 300 people have died of starvation within one period of six months . . . hundreds preferred to be evicted rather than give up their faith; many have died for their faith." (From the papers of Dr. M. Slattery, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, 1834-1857, Letter #18 from Rev. O'Dwyer of Doon)

"The Archbishop then enumerates the barbarous and fanatical acts of religious persecution against Irish Catholics during the last twelvemonth: -- the destitute poor allowed to die of starvation unless they consented to conform to the Protestant Church, and the very alms collected from indiscriminate charity exclusively employed to pervert the souls of the famishing." (Rt. Rev Bernard O'Reilly, D.D., Domestic Prelate of His Holiness: Correspondence of John Mac Hale, Archbishop of Tuam, p.17)

Evangelical Protestants had launched a zealous campaign to convert Catholics. "During the Famine, they redoubled their efforts. Their efforts became more organized when, in 1849, Alexander Dallas founded the Society for Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics, . . . by 1854 it had set up 125 mission stations in Ireland, an indication of the zeal of the missionaries and the generosity of their supporters. (Donal A. Kerr, The Catholic Church and the Famine, p.84)

The following comment was made by a Protestant couple: "It was impossible…not to appreciate the magnanimity of the poor, miserable, utterly destitute and absolutely starving inhabitants of Achill, who were at the time of our visit enduring privations at which humanity shudders, and to know that by walking a couple of miles and professing to change their religion they would have been instantly supplied with food, clothes, and lodging. Yet these hungry thousands – for it would be scarcely an exaggeration to say that nine-tenths of the population of this island were in the month of July last entirely without food – preferred patiently to endure their suffering rather than to submit to what they considered a degradation. Such fortitude we do believe to be without parallel in the history of any people since the creation of the world." (J.F. Quinn: History of Mayo, p.162)

Victorian writer Samuel Carter Hall, in 1842: "Out of a total of 6,000 inhabitants on the island, only ninety-two persons had converted in the nine years of the colony’s existence. Furthermore, he bore witness to the remarkable forbearance of the Achill people: in a year when ‘misery was at its height’ and starvation rampant, not a single sheep belonging to the colony was taken from the mountain, or its property or produce otherwise attacked or stolen. He charged Reverend Edward Nangle with having slanderously accused these people of violence, people who were obliged ‘to watch the colony fattened by the annual harvest at Exeter Hall’ while they themselves were starving. The same colony, in Hall’s words ‘on the one hand described them as idolators and loaded them with abuse and on the other hand offered them food, clothing, and comfortable lodgings on the sole and easy condition of becoming converts.’" (Raymond Gillespie, ed: A Various Country Essays in Mayo History, p.126)

The Protestant converts, on renouncing the faith of their fathers, obtain better dress, better covering, better food, than they had before. This, Sir, is a public, notorious factual and it is equally certain that they obtained these things on the express condition of publicly abandoning the religion in which they had lived, and hoped to die. ….We arrive at the knowledge of these facts from the confession of the delinquents themselves, who come publicly to express their sorrow for their crime, and to plead starvation as the apology for their fall. (Rt. Rev. Patrick Francis Moran, Bishop of Ossary, Ed: The Letters of Rev, James Maher, p.145)

Excerpts from clergy letters:

Michael Gallagher, parish priest in Achill, 1848: "poverty has compelled the greater number of the population to send their children to Nangle’s proselytizing, villainous schools . . . They are dying of hunger and rather than die, they have submitted to his impious tenets." (Donal A. Kerr, The Catholic Church and the Famine, p.86)

"….during the late visitation of famine, so many heroic souls were found, amongst your destitute brethren, to prefer the agonizing death of hunger to the bribe of the tempter, who proffered the food and the life of this world as the reward of apostasy. (Synod of Thurles 1850, Presided over by Cardinal Cullen, p.91)

Souperism was strongly associated with evangelical missionary work in the west of Ireland during the famine years, especially with the work of Alexander Dallas and the Irish Church Mission in Connemara. Nangle’s enterprise on Achill came a close second to Dallas’s because of the notoriety and publicity aroused by the methods by which famine relief was dispensed, and the huge increase in the number of converts reported in 1848 and 1849. Nangle never denied or apologized for the manner in which the colony dispensed famine relief. The growth of converts he interpreted as a sign of divine favor, in the same way as the catastrophe of famine was taken as a sign of divine disapproval. (Raymond Gillespie, ed: A Various Country Essays in Mayo History, pp.127-128)


According to Father Kieran O’Shea, "In 1847 alone, at least thirty-six priests died in Ireland from Famine related disease, sixteen of them during the month of May." The Kerry Examiner reported the obituaries of Father Jeremiah Falvey, curate Patrick Tuohy, Reverend Thomas Enright, and Reverend Michael Devine. The Kerry Evening Post reported the death of Reverend John Gallivan from fever. The Tralee Chronicle reported the death of Fr John O’Donoghue, and noted that "at the present moment, in this diocese, there are no less than eight Roman Catholic Clergymen on the bed of fever, contracted during their ministrations. . . . All this great work by the (Presentation) nuns took its toll on their health. Worn out by sheer exhaustion, many caught fever and some died. Amongst those who paid the supreme sacrifice were: Sisters Angela Love, Mary Joseph O'Kane, Philomena Moriarty, Ignatius Martin in Listowel; (and) Sister Catherine Vize, aged 27, Castleisland. " (The Kerry Archeological and Historical Society: The Famine in Kerry, pp.28 and 57)


George Lynch, Secretary of Kilgeever Parochial Relief Committee, writing from Louisburgh on February 15, 1847:

"It is impossible for me to describe to you the truly awful condition of the people of this remote parish --- reduced to mere skeletons – the deaths from want daily increasing. …They are burying the dead without any (coffins) in order to apply the price to the purchase of food." (John Lyons: Louisburgh A History, p.60)

Excerpts from the notes of an American Quaker sent to Ireland to investigate conditions (winter of 1847):

"As soon as we opened the door, a crowd of haggard creatures pressed upon us, and , with agonizing prayers for bread, flowed us to the soup house. A man with swollen feet pressed closely upon us, and begged for food most piteously. He had pawned his shoes for food which he had already consumed. The soup house was surrounded by a cloud of these famine specters, half naked (it was February) and standing or sitting in the mud, beneath a cold, drizzling rain. The narrow defile to the dispensary bar was choked with young and old of both sexes, struggling forward with their rusty tin and iron vessels for soup, some of them upon all fours, like famished beasts." (Joseph Sturge, Three Days at Skiberreen and its Vicinity, p.3)

"In every hovel we entered, we found the dying or the dead. In one of these straw-roofed burrows, eight persons had died in the last fortnight, and five more were lying upon the fetid, pestiferous straw, upon which their predecessors to the grave had been consumed by the wasting fever of famine. (Joseph Sturge Three Days at Skibbereen and its Vicinity, p.8)

James Berry writes that in the Spring of 1847 "some 600 of the starving peasantry thronged into the town of Louisburgh, looking for food or an admission ticket to the Westport workhouse; the Relieving Officer told them he had no power in these matters, that they should apply to the two paid guardians . . .who were to hold a meeting on the next day at Delphi Lodge…. The six hundred, in rags, sat on the street of Louisburgh through the night and many of them ‘were found stark dead where they lay next morning.’ About 400 set off for Delphi, through the Glankeen River, over the hills and finally arriving only to find that the vice-guardians were at lunch. The people sat among the trees, ‘and there many of them expired.’ When the two gentlemen appeared, they refused to grant any relief or tickets to the workhouse. The people set off for home in miserable weather, and at Stroppabue many were swept into the lake and drowned. The few ‘who survived the struggle. . .continued to fall and die until the last of them perished on the southern bank of the Glankeen River.

Berry goes on to say that on the next morning, the trail ‘from Glanced to Houston’s house was covered with corpses as numerous as the sheaves of corn in an autumn field." (John Lyons: Louisburgh A History, pp.62-63)

February 1847: "Lord Lucan’s crowbar brigade were out and about. They moved to Gallow’s Hill in Castlebar and threw the cottier occupants onto the road. They had to make their night shelters in ditches and drains. nature and the landlord was working against them."(Michael Mullen: The Darkest Years, p.33)

"On Easter Saturday morning, a cold and rainy day, the Crowbar Brigade moved through Linenhall Street, fully armed, and made their way to Rathbawn. Soon the houses were tumbling down. One young boy pleaded with the levellers. "My poor mother is dying in the bed. I know not what to do with her. . . After hearing the poor boy’s pitiful recital of his grievance we advanced with him to his mother’s bedside, which was in the kitchen, around the fire place of which were half crouched five children crying with fear and hunger. . . .we hurried out to the superintendent of the levellers, who we addressed on behalf of the skeleton we had just left, requesting for the love of God he would not tumble the house until the priest had performed his office with her."(Michael Mullen: The Darkest Years, p.76)

April, 1847: Now the Crowbar Brigade turns to the islands. The island of Innishturk . . . has been the scene of much lamentation and weeping within the last eight or nine days during a visit to the island by a section of his Lordship’s Crowbar Brigade, accompanied by the Deputy Sheriff and a posse of the constabulary….Our informant states that out of four cartrons on which stood eight villages, only a few houses were left standing for the accommodation of care-takers, and that between four and five hundred human beings were thus deprived of home and shelter, and left exposed to the cold sea breezes on an island surrounded by the Atlantic and nine miles form the nearest point of land. (Michael Mullen: The Darkest Years, pp.77-78)

Accounts like those above support the contention that the unrelieved starvation and the destruction of homes were part of a systematic attempt to get rid of the Catholics. Their suffering lasted over a long period of time as they and their families died of hunger and disease.

These events took place during a period of time when England ruled Ireland and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on Earth.


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