Unique 19th century Birr reformation revisited

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Unique 19th century Birr reformation revisited thumbnailBrian Kennedy pictured in the County Arms Hotel with members and friends of Birr Historical Society following his talk on The Crotty cousins and their schism. MT52969JOC

THE memorable lives of Michael and William Crotty, and their splitting of the Roman Catholic community in Birr from the 1820's to 1840's, was a unique event in Irish history. The origins of the schism was discussed at the December meeting of Birr Historical Society by Brian Kennedy.
The story began some years before the arrival of Father Michael Crotty in Birr. In 1818, following an ecclesiastical trial of Father Matthew Corbett in Castleconnell Church, the local mob dissatisfied with the verdict of the trial, threatened to throw Bishop O'Shaughnessy and his carriage into the River Shannon. He was saved by the intervention of Father Michael Crotty Senior, uncle of the man who caused the Birr schism. Michael Junior had been expelled from Maynooth College and the grateful Bishop O'Shaughnessy, as a favour to his uncle, allowed him to go to Saint Suplice Seminary in Paris where he was ordained in 1820. Had this trial not taken place, we would never have heard of Father Michael Crotty or the Birr Schism. Brian outlined how throughout his life, Michael showed signs of paranoia and held it in for Bishop McMahon, biding his time until he could exact revenge because he believed McMahon was against the Crotty family.
On arrival in Birr, Father Michael made acquaintance with the historian Thomas L. Cooke, who was already nursing a grievance, believing that the Chapel committee formed in 1808 prevented him from getting his desired front pew because he was not a native of the parish. Together, the two proved to be a formidable alliance, with Crotty being advised on legal matters by Cooke who often sheltered him in his Emmet Street home.
During a short transfer to Shinrone, Crotty again managed to get into trouble when he struck a courting couple who were advised by a local Orangeman to prosecute him. The case came before Birr Quarter Sessions and when it eventually went to trial, one of the jurors was Thomas Blake, a member of the Chapel committee and father of Thomas Blake who replaced Crotty. Crotty blamed him for influencing the jury against him. A measure of Crotty's popularity was that a collection for the 20 fine raised double that sum. Around this time, Crotty and Cooke accused the Chapel building committee of misappropriating money collected to build St Brendan's RC Church. Following an audit of the accounts, it was found that the books were badly kept but there was no evidence of fraud. This was not accepted by Crotty or his followers.
The dispute grew increasingly bitter and on completion of the new church in December 1826, there was a battle between Crotty and Father Patrick Kennedy PP over who would get control of the building. It is alleged Crotty said the first Mass there. Things became so bitter, that the Earl of Rosse had to bring 200 soldiers from Crinkle Barracks to secure the church for Father Kennedy. In April 1834, the last major riot occurred and the key held by St Peter above the entrance door to the church was broken when the Crottyites stoned the church. On occasion, Crotty's followers numbered up to 6,000.
Following the appointment of Father Patrick Kennedy, PP of Birr as Bishop of Killaloe in 1835, Crotty felt that Kennedy had the upper hand and he decided to build his own church in Castle Street along with his cousin Father William Crotty, who had joined him in his rebellion. William was more radical than Michael. He began to say Mass in English and moved more and more away from Catholic doctrine and practice. The building of Crotty's Church was a big financial undertaking and Michael travelled to England to raise funds. In his absence, William moved closer to the Presbyterian Church and eventually was accepted in the Church with his congregation in May 1839. In the same year, Michael married Martha Holland in Birmingham and was now a Church of England Clergyman. William married Kate Dempsey in Birr in 1841 and the couple had three children.
Following the move to the Presbyterian Church, some people started to drift back to the Roman Catholic Church, however, it was Father John Spain's invitation to Venerable Catherine McAuley and her Mercy sisters, that turned the tide against the Crottyites. Through their gentle works of mercy, they won back great numbers to the Church.
Then in 1856, Mother Anastasia Beckett, invited Princess Diana's relation, Father Ignatius CP to preach a mission in Birr. This was a great success and brought the majority of Crotty's followers back to the Roman Catholic fold. After a very interesting life, Michael Crotty came to a sad end when he died in a mental institution in Belgium at the age of 67. In his final years, it is recorded that he continually complained of the way people had consorted against him and he displayed typical signs of paranoia.
In conclusion, Brian summed up, that the success of the Crotty schism was contributed to by the coming together of diverse group of circumstances. Firstly, there was dispute over the collection of funds to build St Brendan's Church. This was not helped by the intervention of Thomas L. Cooke who was also a man with a mission against the Chapel committee. Add to this mix, an uneducated population who acted on impulse rather than considered thoughts and you had the perfect recipe for the Birr schism. He also stated that we have to accept the Crotty cousins must have been dynamic characters to attract so many followers.
It was interesting to note that the children of both Crotty marriages are a topic in themselves. William had three sons, Richard a resident magistrate, Albert, a Church of Ireland Minister in Mullingar and Leslie, an opera singer. Albert lived until 1936 making a link between the events of the Crotty schism and the lifetime of many people who are still alive today.
Today, all that remains of the Crotty schism in Birr is the building that was once his church on Castle Street. Surrounding this building are the graves of Crotty's followers, one notable headstone in this cemetery is that of William Carlisle, who pioneered National Education in Ireland and replaced William Crotty as Presbyterian Minister in Birr. The Mercy Order still reside in the parish and the Mercy Primary School established in 1841 continues to thrive to this day. St Brendan's Roman Catholic Church has celebrated its bi-centenary in 2017. It still contains the registers with former Crottyites marked with a C after their name.
At the end of the meeting, President Brian Kennedy, thanked the members for their loyalty throughout the year, expressed his thanks to the Loughnane family and staff of the County Arms Hotel for their warm hospitality. He looked forward to seeing members, new and old on Monday January 15, 2018 when noted Portumna historian John Joe Conwell will address the meeting.


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