Divided Loyalties in a West Cork Parish: the Revd George F Stoney of Berehaven

Sit back, relax, and read the hidden story behind the dismissal of the curate in the parish of Berehaven 150 years ago…

Having discovered that not one but three addresses affirming support for Revd George F Stoney (1826-1869) had been published within the space of 18 months in the pages of the Church of Ireland Gazette, Church of Ireland Historical Society committee member Dr Miriam Moffitt has managed to forensically recover the full background to this intriguing story.

On his departure from the parish in March 1868, Mr Stoney was presented with not one, but two, printed addresses which differed considerably in tone. A third would follow following his death in September 1869. Examination of each of these addresses, supplemented by parish and newspaper records reveals how wealth and social standing exerted considerable influence in this west Cork parish, in the mid-19th century. Printed addresses featured regularly in the pages of the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette since its inception in 1856 (named Church of Ireland Gazette from 1900). These pieces generally lamented a clerical departure, containing the text of a lavishly-printed address which had been presented to the departing clergyman such as the example previously displayed at this link: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6352/illuminated-address-by-renowned-heraldic

Usually written in rather quaint and over-enthusiastic language and signed by persons of note within the parish, such addresses were often accompanied by a response from the clergyman in question. Although a vast amount of personal, family and social history is hidden behind these published sources, few people have investigated the background and development of the stories they reveal. Such is the case of the two addresses presented to the Revd George Stoney as published in the Gazette of 23rd April 1868, offering glimpses of the workings and political interactions of a rural parish, while the third address (published in the Gazette of 22nd September 1869) from ‘The Loyal Orangemen of Shercock’ provides additional insight into his character. As the episode relating to Mr Stoney coincided with the more attention-grabbing disestablishment crisis, it serves as a reminder that while large issues of historical importance capture the attention of the reading public, stories that appear less significant can provide valuable recovery of the complexity of the past.

The former St Peter’s Church, Castletownbere. Image provided courtesy of the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

With the disestablishment debates dominating the newspapers throughout the years 1868 and 1869, it is likely that little notice was paid to the experiences of the Revd George Stoney, who was dismissed from his curacy in Berehaven in March 1868, returning thereafter to ministry in his former parish of Ballyjamesduff in County Cavan until his death 17 months later. While in Beara, Stoney ministered at the chapel-of-ease at Allihies, where the population was largely comprised of the mining families from the nearby copper mines. The former parish church, dedicated to St Peter, was sited in the town of Berehaven (now Castletownbere); Berehaven Miners church (also known as Kilnamanagh church) was located 12 miles further west.

The backdrop to his sudden dismissal was a socio-economic one linked with the copper-mines at Allihies, owned by Berehaven’s leading landowner: Henry Lavallan Puxley of Dunboy Castle. In operation since 1812, Allihies mines had attracted an influx of Cornish miners. Changes introduced by a new manager appointed in the aftermath of a miners’ strike in 1864, combined with a sharp fall in the price of copper, led to a drastic reduction of the workforce. Although there was an attempt to replace some Irish workers with Englishmen, most of the miners were natives of Beara and Roman Catholics. Allegations were frequently made that the better positions were awarded to English workers and that the Irish miners were exploited and forced to live in squalid conditions, charges that were validated by Mr Stoney in a letter published in the Cork Examiner of 4th March 1868 which detailed the ‘real agonising poverty of the people’. A subsequent letter of Stoney’s was published in The Nation on 16th May 1868, and even more direct in its criticism of the mine-owner and more stark in its description of the lives of the miners. Needless to say, the Revd John Halahan, rector of Berehaven, was not impressed to learn that his curate was speaking out, and examination of the full presentation will reveal that the Revd George Stoney came off second in the ensuing conflict.

The uncovering of this episode again confirms the usefulness of the Church of Ireland Gazette as a primary resource for locating, exploring and understanding the experiences of the wider Church community. The stories uncovered in the ‘News Behind the News’ series are typical of those available to us through the pages of the Gazette, the content of which may be explored in full between its foundation in 1856 and 1923 using the search box in the link to the digitized version of the Gazette available here: https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb