The Priest and His Dog

Enniskerry in the first half of the nineteenth century had no shortage of strong characters representing the churches, with Revd Robert  Daly, the rector of Powerscourt parish and his namesake Revd Daly CC, the Roman Catholic curate for the area. It is likely to be Revd Daly CC, the Roman Catholic curate, who was the focus of the wrath of another protestant minister, Revd James McGhee in a curious letter “The Priest and his dog – A letter to the Roman Catholics at Powerscourt“, which was written around 1824.

The letter is a long ramble from McGhee, purportedly addressed to the Roman Catholic peasants of Powerscourt in response to a rebuke from the local priest to a previous missive of his, called “Blessed Turf and the Cholera“, addressed to “The Roman Catholics of Ireland”. The curate apparently told his parishioners that the best use of the previous pamphlet was that if they had a dog, the dog could carry it in his mouth and place it in the fire. McGhee responded with “The Priest and his dog“, which is full of biblical quotes and arguments that aim to reason with peasants why it was wrong for the priest to dismiss his previous pamphlet. The letter is incredibly complicated and hence doubtful that the poor peasants were the intended audience at all! It includes a mention of Lord Powerscourt when discussing why the peasants should trust McGhee. This is a ramble hypothesising that if Lord Powerscourt lodged money to pay a peasant’s debt, they wouldn’t check or doubt that he had done it – they would accept it on good faith.

The period 1824 – 1834 was a difficult one locally for relations between the two religious communities, with tensions centred around the role of education. The protestant rector, Robert Daly provided evidence to the 1824 Commission on Irish Education, as did the parish priest of Bray at the time, James Doyle. Daly, did not get on well with the curate at Enniskerry (also Daly) and Doyle seems to have had little control over his curate. The Roman Catholic curate refused to allow any of his flock to be educated in the Church of Ireland schools, and the 1824 Inquiry includes details of some local hedge schools where Catholic children were educated. After the time the Board of Education had been set up in 1831, and Curtlestown school became connected with the board in 1834, tensions on this topic may have eased somewhat, as both communities had access to adequate, or at least organised, education.

McGhee must have known Robert Daly, as they both penned a letter to the Dublin diocese at one stage. Daly became Bishop of Cashel and Waterford in 1843. However, McGhee remained a prominent anti-papist bemoaning, for example the secular approach favoured by the the Board of Education, in a letter written in 1831. He died in 1872.

I’ve been meaning for a long time to find out what this strange-titled letter was about, and finally got around to it recently. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about it or about Robert McGhee.

Reading on this topic:

  • E. Broderick, Bishop Robert Daly, Ireland’s ‘Protestant Pope’, History Ireland, Vol. 14, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 2006), pp. 23-28. (Good article on Daly’s later years).
  • R. J. McGhee, The Priest and his dog – A letter to the Roman Catholics and Powerscourt, available at National Library of Ireland, LOP 641 (13), (special access). The book containing this letter also contains several others, including The Blessed Turf and the Cholera.
  • Robert James McGhee, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • M. Seery, Enniskerry: A History – includes detail on the education inquiries 1824, 1834 and the Board of Education and their impact locally.

2 thoughts on “The Priest and His Dog

  1. Sean Connolly’s essay “The ‘Blessed Turf’: Cholera and Popular Panic in Ireland, June 1832” sheds a bit more light on this. In this, he describes that blessed turf was turf that had been blessed by priests, which was divided into four, given to four people to divide into four again and so spreading rapidly through the population. His essay describes a situation in 1832, when a cholera outbreak in some counties in Ireland led to the spread of “blessed turf” or similar token through the country as a means of warding off the disease. The incident was sparked off with a supposed visitation by the virgin Mary at the altar in Charleville, Co. Cork, and after setting out in June 1832, the message and supposed protection from cholera rapidly spread by word of mouth to the country reaching Dublin three days later.

    It would appear that a similar spread of “blessed turf” described in 1823/4 was precipitated by an earlier outbreak of cholera.

    *SJ Connolly, Irish Historical Studies, 1983, Vol. 23, No. 91, pp. 214-232

  2. Some more information on our Revd McGhee. Judy Cameron kindly filled in some gaps for me.

    McGhee was Powerscourt’s chaplain and was, as the article above illistrates, was an evangelical preacher. (Lady Powerscourt, after her husband’s death became increasingly evangelical and eventually moved to a ministry in Aungier St.) In order to address a growing need for evangelists, a church was built (Crinken Church, Shankhill), with the intention that McGhee would become the minister, but he opted not to. The church was built exactly a mile away from the church at the bridge in Bray, the minimum distance allowed for a new church. The church opened in 1840. There is more information on that church’s history on it’s website.

    There’s a map in the Powerscourt papers of land let to McGhee in monastery, 1832, but it appears he had gone by 1840.

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