By Mary Kyne
In the month of January 1852 Rev. Michael Aloysius Kavanagh wrote his name for the first time on the Baptismal Register in the Church of the Immaculate Conception Oughterard. One of the first steps taken by him was to draw up a series of principles to guide his people regarding the attitude they should adopt toward the proselytizers. The aggressive effrontery of these people was a source of regret to many sincere Protestants. Dr John Forde, who visited Oughterard, refers to them as follows in his “ Memorandum Made in Ireland in 1852” – “I heard more than one Catholic complain a good deal to the annoyance of the domiciliary visits of the Scripture readers: and one Protestant accused these young men of being often deficient in both courtesy and good sense, in their dealings with the poor people in their houses. Their zeal, greatly exceeded their knowledge and far outstripped their discretion”
By a curious irony Fr Kavanagh’s counsels have been preserved for us by our active supporter of proselytism, the Rev. J. Denham Smith, in his book, “ Connemara Past and Present”. He refers sarcastically to the following pastoral from the pen of Rev. M.A. Kavanagh P.P. Oughterard:
“ Brethern how are you to deal with these seducers?
Sheep of the fold hear the voice of your pastor, listen to my voice, observe my words in reference to these men.
1. As you meet them on the highways, you will avoid all conversation with them: and even to mark your horror of their purposes, you will pass to the side of the road.
2. As you see them enter your villages, you will call your children to you out of the way, and close your doors against their entrance.
3. Should they effect an entrance to your house, you will use your legal right to put them out, ordering them out at first and, if they refuse, then using the necessary force to put them out.
4. Not to take up any book or pamphlet found on the roads or by-ways through the parish; and to put out of hands immediately any book of heresy that you may accidentally come by, as soon as you notice its character.
5. You will regard these, unhappy men in every respect as as ravening wolves in the clothing of sheep, and you will use all measures that your concern for your own salvation will suggest, to save and protect yourselves.
I regret, in the bitterness of my soul, to be obliged to prescribe to you the same rules of conduct in reference to the unfortunate individuals amongst you who have miserably become the victims of perversion”
It must be remembered that there was no mention of ecumenism in the 19th century. I personally think that the poor people had a lot to contend with – they were torn between the proselytizers and the Missionary Vincentian Fathers. Forced conversions were of little use to any church
Fr Kavanagh’s next step was to hold a mission in Oughterard and he invited the Vincentian Fathers to conduct it. Eight Vencentian priests came to the parish. Rev. Thomas Mc Namara led the mission and under him were the Rev. Fathers Kickham, Kavanagh, Kelly, Dixon. O Grady and Blackwell. They worked diligently from dawn to dusk, teaching doctrines of religion, hearing confessions, praying with the people both in the church and in their villages and homes. The mission lasted five weeks. The church was crowded with people who came from far and near to accept the Sacraments. When Alexander Dallas and his friends, John O Callaghan and George Dalton heard that the majority of the people who changed their religion in time of need and hunger had converted back to Catholicism again, they returned to Oughterard. They nailed notices to walls and scattered pamphlets among the people. The people on this occasion ignored their efforts and as the “ Galway Vindicator” of 5th May 1852 tells us, “ That over 200 communicants presented themselves at the altar, the previous Sunday.”
Confirmation 3rd June 1852
The mission ended with the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation. In the absence, through illness, of the Bishop of Galway, Rev. Dr Lorcan O Donnell, the ceremony was performed by Archbishop John Mc Hale, Archbishop of Tuam. The late Máire Ní Shuilleabháin a native of Loughgannon, Rosscahill, in her book, “ An tAthair Caomhánach agus an Cogadh Creidimh i gConamara”, tells us that from dawn the roads leading to Oughterard were thronged with people, some having spent the night travelling over the hills, dressed as well as they could, with love of God alight in their hearts. A total of 2,375 candidates presented themselves. There was no question of them being accommodated within the church, so they spent the day outside in very wet blustery weather. The Archbishop offered Mass at 10o’clock outside the church door. Even though he was drenched wet all candidates were examined and answered satisfactorily in the Catechism. 830 persons from the Workhouse were confirmed.”
The whole parish, members of parliament, magistrates and thirty-four priests from the dioceses of Tuam and Galway witnessed these wonderful circumstances.
Rev John Mc Hale, Fr Kavanagh and a Vincentian Father preached sermons in Irish and English. Every person who returned to the Catholic Church signed a roll stating that it was with their own free will that they came back to the fold. “ They were reconciled to the Church, confessing publicly, with sorrow and shame that, in the moment of their weakness, from want and starvation, they yielded to the bribes of the tempter,” So wrote Fr. Kavanagh.