The Protestant Archbishops of Tuam prior to the disaster of the Great Potato Famine 1845-1848 were content to live in peace alongside their Catholic neighbours. The position changed, however, under Bishop French (1819-1839) and Bishop Plunkett (1839-1867) both who pushed vigorously for the conversion of Irish Catholics and supported the activities of Protestant missionary societies. In fact Bishop Thomas Plunkett was so enthusiastic he was willing to ordain Irish speaking converts who would help Rev. Alexander Dallas at Doon.
The first station
As the mission station at Doon was the first of Dallas’s stations, it was used as a showpiece for fund raising purposes, and attracted many Protestant visitors from Ireland and England. It was renamed “Castlekerke” after the nearby castle on Lough Corrib.
Support for Dallas’s Mission
Dallas’s efforts were supported by the “ Special fund for the Spiritual Exigencies of Ireland”, administered by a committee under the chairmanship of the Duke of Manchester; in 1849 it changed its name to “The Society for the Irish Church Missions”. Further support from Bishop Plunkett led to the establishment of six additional mission stations at – Ross, Glann, Cornamona and Glengowla.
Success of the Missions
The missions appear to have achieved some temporary success by 1851, for instance, even Catholic sources acknowledged that 140 of the 150 families in Glann had become Protestant. Indeed by 1852 the society was able to boast of ten missions responsible for 42 mission stations with a total of 173 workers (ordained missionaries, lay agents, Bible readers and teachers) and 39 schools. The missions were Castlekerke, Lough Mask, Oughterard and Glann with two ordained missionaries, six readers and four teachers.
What was a “Station”?
A station was a building, usually a schoolhouse, but sometimes, as at Oughterard a church where the Bible could be read and religious service could be held. The missionaries at the time made strong claims as to the number of converts. Attendances at the services in Doon schoolhouse, were said to number some hundreds, and the numbers attending the school made necessary the building of a special schoolhouse boat, to supplement the old ferry boat taking the children from the Oughterard side of the lake. In fact, 1852 the building of a new school began at Cappanalaura, Glann, the ruins of which can be seen to day on the Forestry road below Butler’s residence. The Bishop of Tuam laid the corner stone of the school on the 19th of August and the school itself was to be licensed for religious services and was to hold up to 400 persons. This seems an extraordinary number given the size of the local population and one must also remember that there was also another Protestant school in Glann. The extra school children presumably came from the Maam Cross direction.
A visitor named J. G. Mc Walter, gives his impression of the local people and their religion. Of particular interest to him were the customs of the locals concerning their local holy well – St Feichin’s Well at Drumsnauv. “A short time before the year 1845 the people of this interesting district were all Romanists, sunk in ignorance and wallowing in all the vices and degrading superstitions of the apostasy. They assembled at the holy well, near the present parsonage, as at a fair, often tearing the hair from their heads and knotting it as a token of their visits, on the neighbouring bush branches, which were literally covered with bits of red rags to remind the patron saint of cures still unperformed. They assembled on Sundays mornings to play at cards for whiskey, and after a quickly mumbled Mass they hurried away to the card tables again, seldom separating without a fight”
Rev. John O Callaghan’s Account 1851
“ A few years ago the people of this place were sunk in ignorance and superstition – fond of drinking and fighting – but they are now surprisingly intelligent, peaceable and all, more or less, acquainted with God’s word. Of the hundreds of converts in this neighbourhood, there has not been one convicted of any crime for the last three years. So late, as Sunday week some Romanists, who were drinking in a sheebeen – house not far from this quarrelled, and one man was stabbed and badly wounded; and on every court day there are trials for fighting, stealing etc. on the part of the Romanists; while there has not been a single case of any quarrelling or fighting among the converts.”
The missionaries’ report largely ignores the fact that a famine was raging while their efforts were at a height. Yet, Dallas himself described the housing conditions in the area as follows:” The shelving of the mountain is dotted with little stones covered with a thatching of straw, or haulms, or turf sod… little better than the burrows constructed by the neighbouring rabbits – indeed, some of the huts, seen from a distance. seem like such holes magnified a few times. ”From these descriptions of extreme poverty of the people one can easily imagine why thepeople of this region were enticed by the spiritual and temporal aid offered by Dallas.