A house divided: when ‘The Kingdom’ was riven by religious conflict

A house divided: when ‘The Kingdom’ was riven by religious conflict
Faith and Fury: The Evangelical Campaign in Dingle and West Kerry 1825-45

by Bryan MacMahon (Wordwell, €20.00/£18.99)

In these ecumenical times it is difficult to make sense of the distrust and hostility which existed between Catholics and Protestants in west Kerry between 1825 and 1845. Locally these years became known as the period of the second reformation and the counter-reformation. The second reformation was driven by zealous evangelical ministers. They were generously funded by donors at home and abroad and had the enthusiastic support of the civil authorities. Rev. Charles Gayer (1804-48) and Rev. Thomas Moriarty were the two leading figures of that Protestant mission in west Kerry.

The word ‘Protestant’ is used advisedly here: for these evangelicals were often a source of embarrassment to rural rectors of the Church of Ireland, who were often opposed to their divisive tactics in a poor society. Many evangelicals were driven by an urge to save deluded Catholics from perdition on the imminent day of doom.

A Somerset man, Rev. Gayer came to Dingle in 1833 as private chaplain to Lord Ventry, the most influential landlord in the area. He immediately set about bringing “the light of true belief to the benighted people of west Kerry”.


He and his colleagues had significant success in their Protestant mission. The number of Protestants in west Kerry in the 1820’s was tiny; in 1830 it was as low as 30. But, by 1835 it had risen to 70 and by the early 1840s more than 250 converts had been added to the Protestant community. Apart from lecturing and preaching during his time in west Kerry, Rev. Gayer supervised the building of churches, schools, parsonages and he provided a row of houses and work for the new converts.

Rev. Moriarty, born in Dingle in 1813, converted to Protestantism in 1831. Subsequently he attended Trinity College, Dublin and was ordained a minister in 1838. He spent 24 years as a minister in Dingle. Apart from their involvement in the second reformation in west Kerry, Revs. Gayer and Moriarty, as well Kerry diocesan de-frocked priest, Denis Leyne Brasbie, frequently featured as guest-speakers on a vile anti-Catholic campaign which was being conducted across England at that same time.

The remarkable increase in the number of converts to the Protestant faith in West Kerry, however, was not entirely due to the evangelical ministers. The seeds for this development were sown earlier by the Irish Society for Promoting the Education of the Native Irish through the Medium of their Own Language. The Irish society had opened schools in the area at which those attending were taught to read the Bible in Irish. Many of those attending those schools were later to become committed members of the established Church.


Rev. Moriarty was fluent in Irish; he was also an effective preacher and public speaker. When he returned to take up his appointment in Dingle, and with increasing numbers from their flock converting to the Protestant faith, the local priests became alarmed. They denounced the new converts from the pulpit. The families of the converts were boycotted and the converts were verbally abused in the public arena.

The abuse the priests and ministers hurled at each other in their respective chapels and churches eventually reached a crescendo. These clashes surfaced in the local press. In partisan fashion the conservative/unionist Kerry Evening Post took the Protestant side, while the nationalist Tralee Mercury and Kerry Examiner supported the Catholic clergy. Inflammatory editorials, articles and letters stoked passions on both sides.

Rev. Gayer won a libel case against Patrick Robert O’Loughlin Byrnes, editor of the Kerry Examiner, in 1845. However, it was a pyrrhic victory. Mr Byrnes received a prison sentence and this evoked widespread sympathy. It prompted the establishment of an influential committee in Dublin “to promote Catholicism in west Kerry”. They raised funds and sent personnel and resources to successfully counter the Protestant mission.

Before concluding, Bryan MacMahon is at pains to point out that Frs Michael Divine and John O’Sullivan, the Dingle priests who were involved in the scandalous events during the second reformation, were exemplary in their dedication to their respective flocks, particularly the poor, sick and the dying. Fr Divine died in 1849 as a result of contracting cholera, while attending the dying. Fr John O’Sullivan was revered for his service to his parishioners in Kenmare during the awful years of the Great Famine.

Mindful of the adage that those who are ignorant of history are wont to repeat the errors of the past it is my hope that this excellent study will have the widest possible readership.