Hell-fire & Poitín Redemptorist Missions in the Irish Free State (1922-1936)

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Volume 8

Parish missions were a universal feature of Irish Catholic church life until the mid-1960s. The mission usually lasted for two or sometimes three weeks. The daily rhythm of the mission consisted of early morning Mass with a short practical instruction, the principal mission service in the evening with a full sermon lasting about three-quarters of an hour, visitation of homes and the opportunity for a more earnest mission confession. Missions emerged from the seventeenth-century Catholic renewal in France and Italy. As Catholic church life in Ireland conformed more to the European model following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the first missions, given principally by Jesuits and Vincentians, were something of a novelty. As Cardinal Cullen’s ‘devotional revolution’  gathered momentum, the mission became a more regular feature of parish life. The ranks of the missioners were swollen by the arrival of the Italian and French congregations of priests founded specifically for the work of parish missions such as the Rosminians (1848), Passionists (1849), and Redemptorists (1851). The religious enthusiasm generated by the missions did much to counter the spiritual depression which followed the Famine.
The earliest Redemptorist missions have been described vividly in the memoirs of the Austrian Joseph Prost, superior of the first Redemptorist mission band in Ireland and their growth in the later nineteenth century has been studied by John Sharpe.  Less attention has  been paid to missions in the twentieth century, so the records of the mission-giving congregations remain a largely untapped source for an understanding of Irish Catholic life in the early years of the new Irish state.

Mission chronicles

Redemptorist communities were required by Rule to keep a record of all work done outside the monastery. These records were entered in the ‘mission chronicle’ following a predictable formula. They begin with a brief description of the parish, observations on the state of religious practice and numbers attending the mission. Comment was expected on any particular difficulties encountered, ‘the principal abuses of the place’, as well as notable events like ‘striking conversions of sinners, extraordinary reconciliations, divine punishments inflicted on anyone, and generally, anything worth of note that has happened’. For the most part, the comments are bland and predictable. Occasionally, they open interesting windows on Irish church life as it was lived from day to day in the typical parish.

A force for reconciliation  

The Civil War left a legacy of local bitterness especially in small towns and rural communities. In their different ways, the GAA and  the parish missions acted as forces for reconciliation. The first channelled the energies of political opponents into more socially-acceptable rivalries. Missions helped to overcome division which had been backed by church sanctions.
In a pastoral letter of October 1922, the Irish bishops refused the sacraments to members of the anti-Treaty forces, or ‘Irregulars’. This prohibition was enforced with varying degrees of strictness depending on the sympathies of clergy. Since the missioners were outsiders, they were regarded as being above the local rivalries and relatively neutral in political matters, and their message was spiritual rather than political. Tensions arising from the Civil War were evident during the Killarney mission (Lent 1923), but both sides were welcomed without distinction in the confessional:

The most glaring abuse were the results of the ‘Irregular campaign’  of warfare on the citizen [sic] population and the disregard of episcopal authority. Having suffered much from the rebels, the people turned for consolation to religion…Despite many difficulties, arising from the conditions of weather, roads, commercial depression, military activities and political propaganda, the work was blessed by God. Both Nationalists and Republicans attended well, and all sections approached the sacraments, not withstanding the temporary estrangement between the extremists and the clergy who had openly denounced the wickedness of the Irregular campaign. (Limerick)

The chronicles of the following years chart the beginnings of an uneasy peace. In Emly, County Tipperary, ‘the Irregulars just released from internment camps made the mission and peace seemed quite restored. Sometimes, the lack of enthusiasm for the mission was put down to ‘differences between people and priests in politics’: one priest was described as a ‘violent imperialist and unsociable’, and the missioners sometimes feared that political feeling had ‘weakened the lever of the clergy’. Bitterness in places like Dunhill, County Waterford, was exacerbated by land disputes:

There had been a class-war in this and surrounding parishes—a strike of labourers against farmers—fomented from without and led to many outrages. This had died away before the mission which helped to heal the wounds. (Limerick)

The Gralton affair

Given their political sympathies, the missioners were more troubled by the manifestation of socialism than by republicanism. A mission in Gowel, Carrick-on-Shannon, in 1922, is of  interest as the story has a sequel on the occasion of the next mission ten years later.
The chief players in the drama were James Gralton, a returned emigrant, and his sister. Gralton was apparently a popular man of considerable talent and intelligence. When the Black and Tans had burned down the local hall, he built a new one at his own expense where he organised dances and educational activities, including discussions on social questions. His sister gave music lessons and was reported to advocate divorce. Both had formerly attended Mass, but had adopted a more critical stance towards the church, and ‘then openly denied the existence of God’. The Dundalk chronicler records with evident horror:

It is almost incredible, but it is an absolute fact—that whilst preaching these doctrines night after night, the hall was crowded to the doors, and even respectable women, and mothers of families (wearing shawls on their heads to hide their identities) went to hear him.

The missioner leapt into the fray, with the opening sermon based on the biblical injunction ‘Beware of false prophets’. Public response was so strong that Gralton had fled by the second night.
Gralton had returned about a year prior to the next mission in 1933. He was rumoured to have twenty-four adherents, mostly relations of his own, apart from another returned emigrant  who professed ‘not to believe in the divinity of Christ’.  The missioners targeted him with the same results: on his departure, all his adherents, except the returned emigrant, ‘went to the mission and approached the sacraments’. According to Tim Pat Coogan, Gralton’s case was taken up by the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (soon to become the Communist Party of Ireland) who launched a ‘Keep Gralton here’ campaign. The Leitrim IRA refused to become involved in the affair, as popular feeling was running in the opposite direction.
Following the hierarchy’s 1931 condemnation of Saor Éire as ‘frankly communistic and working for the overthrow of Christian civilisation in Ireland’, the missioners joined battle with that organisation. It was so strong in Tralee in 1935 that ‘their activities had to be denounced  and the people warned against them’. One of the achievements of the Kilkenny mission in the same year was the submission of ‘a little band of communists who were causing a great deal of worry’ but publicly abjured their errors and were admitted to the sacraments. The Esker chronicle for the same period records that in quiet rural parishes in East Galway ‘communism was beginning to creep into certain quarters, but it was stopped’.

‘Ballrooms of Romance’

Political differences became less of a burning issue with the passing of the years and the missioners’ attention was taken up increasingly with matters of sexual morality. The public declaration of penitence in a case of ‘incestuous concubinage’ which came to light during a mission in a small town in the midlands was a rare occurrence. Dramatic public confession of private sins was never a regular part of mission-preaching, except as a step to ending local faction fights.
The Redemptorists  were not unique in opposing the growth of dance halls in the 1920s. They seem to have conducted a running battle with dance hall promoters, especially in the Cork-Kerry area. A dance hall was regarded as the cause of the spiritual lassitude in Kilgarvan parish, County Kerry:

A dance-hall in the village was denounced as an occasion of sin, and when the owner refused to close the hall—by express command of the bishop—he was denounced nominatim [by name] at the close of the mission. A stiff and obstinate people. (Limerick)

One gets the impression that the people did not share the indignation of missioners or bishop.
Some idea of what the missioners regarded as the depravity of the dance halls can be gleaned from the account of a mission in Ballyvourney:

There was a dance hall there to which hundreds of people come long distances by motors. The hall was a scandal. There are sixteen shareholders in the hall, some of whom created difficulties. Although the bishop had come and spoken against  the evil of all-night dancing, after that the committee defied him by holding two all-night dances. Over fifty motors from Cork city, Kinsale, Bantry, etc. invaded the little village and held dances for two days and two nights from Whit Sunday to the following Tuesday. Over 750 strangers and natives celebrate Pentecost in that way. (Limerick)

By the close of the mission, the majority of the shareholders had given promises to abide by the bishop’s guidelines. The traditional solemn blessing of parish and people at the end of the mission was framed so as to exclude the obstinate shareholders and the congregation was invited  to pray for their conversion. This was to all intents and purposes a declaration that those concerned were public sinners. Elsewhere, the missioners effectively closed the dance halls for the duration of the mission by making the people pledge to avoid them.

Ballybunion: much public immorality and ‘marriages of necessity’

Alongside the battle with the dance halls, the missioners campaigned against immodest fashions in women’s dress and immoral literature. ‘Immodest dress’ included swim-wear, as well as the new fashion of women wearing slacks. There are some references in our records to a campaign for ‘modesty of deportment and dress’ which originated in Mary Immaculate teacher-training college in Limerick. The motorcar put day-trips to seaside resorts within the reach of the young. For the missioners, resorts such as Ballybunion had a reputation for  ‘much public immorality and “marriages of necessity”’. Even in quiet places like Roundstone, abuses were noted such as

Mixed bathing by strangers, all night dancing in farm houses, company keeping…The parish priest formed a vigilance committee to stamp out mixed bathing. Visitors had introduced men’s dress for women but the Legion of Mary is going to deal with this scandal. (Esker)

English Sunday newspapers were regarded as another danger to Irish Catholic morals. A promise not to sell bad books and papers was exacted from newsagents during a mission in Navan in 1928, and

A secret vigilance committee was formed of seven men whose business it will be to see that the promise is faithfully kept and report to the priests any information they may obtain about bad literature coming into the parish. (Dundalk)

Seen from this distance, a prurient and unhealthy attitude is manifest in some Redemptorist attitudes to matters like these, or in the way that modern inventions like the car are seen as threatening morals. Opposition to the dance halls was not confined to missioners. Widespread concern about their running culminated in the controlling legislation of the Public Dance Halls Act (1935). The same might be said of their opposition to ‘English newspapers’. The Free State government had introduced a series of censorship acts—films (1923), and publications (1929)—which gave the censor powers to ban books deemed obscene,  indecent or liable to pervert public morality. De Valera’s government introduced a tax on imported newspapers in 1933 in order to check the flow of English papers into the state.

‘Poitín missions’  

The Free State government was preoccupied from an early date with containing the alcohol problem. The Intoxicating Liquor Act (1924) reduced the opening hours of public houses. Three years later, another act reduced the number of licensed premises. The Redemptorists were no strangers to promoting the values of sobriety through the pulpit. They had played a leading part in the ‘great western temperance campaign’ in 1909. The distilling of poitín in remote rural areas made control more difficult. Early references to the poitín problem appear in the Esker records for Carraroe, County Galway, in 1926 and in Pullathomas-Ahoos, County Mayo, the following year. A series of so-called ‘poitín missions’ from Esker was led principally by two Redemptorists, Frs Stíophán Conneely and John Gorey, with occasional assistance from several others, from 1931 until about 1936. It was centred for the most part on Connemara, Mayo and Clare.
The opening salvo of the campaign was fired in Carraroe (Jan-Feb 1931).

Poitín was the abuse, and there was a lot of drunkenness as a result of it. We made the people bring down the poitín and on the last Sunday, we had a bonfire with about fourteen gallons or so. The mission cross was planted and there was a big procession the same day…Apart from the poitín, everything is fine. In Tír an Fhiaidh, the out-church, thirteen stills, six worms, thirty-five gallons and six bags of malt were handed in, and everyone took the pledge around the bonfire on the last Sunday of the mission. In Leitir Mealláin, most of the people involved in poitín making again handed over thirty gallons, fourteen stills and worms and five bags of malt.

Flushed with success, the missioners moved on to Rosmuc:

The blessing of God was on the work of this mission. The parish was destroyed (millte) with poitín. The people handed up every drop they had and every worm. We had a bonfire in all the places. In Litir Mór, fifty gallons of poitín, fifteen stills and worms, a ton of malt. In Camus, up to seventy gallons, twenty-four stills, eighteen worms, two tons of malt. In Rosmuc, five stills, five worms, four bags of malt and ten gallons of poitín. All the men took the pledge. The people showed strong faith. All the people came to the mission. Totally in Irish: not a word of English.

Returning to Connemara in August, they found little evidence of poitín-making in Carna, except around Derryrush and Cashel and a little in Rossaveel, but there was no public burning. In Moygowna, County Mayo (August 1932)

Young people making poteen. Ten stills were given in. The year before, two men died from the effects of poteen. Men, women and children were drinking it.

Poitín was mentioned as a problem in Kilfinan, County Clare, Moycullen and Ballycastle, County Mayo, where ‘every poteen maker gave up the trade. All took the anti-poteen pledge. One hundred and seventy became pioneers, four stills given up’.
Pullathomas had its next mission in September-October 1933. The abuses of the parish are painted in lurid colours. Apart from poitín making, drinking at wakes, Mass missing and neglect of the sacraments were observed. Boys and girls of twenty-two years had not been to Mass since their confirmation, and ‘the people were destroyed with poitín’. Twenty-three stills and seventy-seven barrels were handed  up. The ‘renewal’ of the Ballycastle mission the following year brought heartening results, as only two new cases of poitín making came to light and those who had broken the pledge came to renew it. The nearby parish of Lacken was untouched by reform:

People gone wild. Poteen, dancing, Mass-missing rife. Sheebeens abundant. People would not come out. Missioners spent Monday and Tuesday ‘raiding’ and afterwards there was no trouble…Eleven stills publicly burned. All the parish took the anti-poitín pledge.

At the Oughterard mission in July-August 1934, sheebeens were reported in some outlying areas, but all took the pledge. Culnamuck posed a greater challenge:

A stubborn and ignorant people debauched by poteen. They told barefaced lies and only with great difficulty did they surrender four stills. All but four took the anti-poteen pledge, but their earnestness is doubtful. The neighbouring parish of Killanin spoils them.

Gorey and Conneely returned to Rosmuc during Lent 1935, and began by calling in the stills for ‘there is no point of giving a mission here unless they hand in the stills’. The renewal of the Lackan mission in June showed a place transformed:

Last year people in a bad state with poitín. Renewal most consoling. People kept the pledges against poitín which abuse has been rooted out.

The campaign was pursued with greatest vigour in the Gaeltacht areas of Connemara, probably because Conneely, a native speaker from the Aran Islands, believed that he had his finger on the pulse of the people of the Gaeltacht. Assessing its impact accurately at this distance is difficult. It never totally eradicated the poitín trade, but there is evidence that its manufacture and sale were greatly reduced as a result of the missions. The Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Garda Siochána wrote to the superior of the Esker monastery:

18 August 1934
Dear Father Superior,
I am directed by the Commissioner to refer to the missions given by the Reverend Fathers Conneely and Gorey of your order in the parish of Lacken, County Mayo, during May and June of this year.
The area in which the reverend fathers preached is one in which poteen-making is a long-established practice and consequently, their very successful efforts towards the suppression of illicit distillation were all the more meritorious: in fact, they did more in a short time than the Gardaí could hope to accomplish even over a considerable period.
The Commissioner desires me to thank you and through you Fathers Conneely and Gorey for the valuable and praiseworthy work they have done in the Lacken area. The continuation of this very excellent work by these missioners would, I beg to suggest, be very much appreciated in other western districts where the poteen traffic still thrives despite all Garda efforts.
Yours very sincerely,
E. Coogan
Deputy Commissioner

Apart from dramatic burning of the stills and poitín making equipment, the missioners administered a solemn promise not to make, distribute or to use the illegal spirit. This was done with much solemn, if improvised, ritual. One gets the impression of a certain roughness in the missioner’s manner. The Catholic Standard (9 March 1931) reports how Fr Conneely

placed his crucifix against the wall of the church and asked would any poteen maker in the congregation go as far as to trample on it, and yet when they were making poteen they were guilty of that act.
An editorial praised the destruction of the poitín as a ‘notable testimony of the people’s devotion’ and concurred in the missioners’ assessment of the danger which poitín drinking posed to the health of the nation:

How much harm poteen drinking formerly wrought may be learnt from some priests of long experience, who can tell of districts that bear the mark of the abuse in weakened manhood and in lowered character.

The leader writer drew a parallel between poitín making and the more fashionable custom of cocktail drinking and asked ‘cannot all Ireland put down the cocktail habit and the worse evil of the jazz-dancing room with which it appeared among us?’

This account has ignored important aspects of the parish mission, especially its influence for good on the every day lives of the ordinary folk who made up their congregations. They presented the essentials of Catholic faith in simple, direct language and through the ritual of the mission, strengthened the sense of communitas and shared identity. Few parishes escaped their influence for long. Redemptorists gave ninety-one missions in 1922, 145 in 1924, 164 in 1933, just to take a few years at random. In the popular imagination, ‘the missioners’ gained an iconic status as hard-hitting preachers of stern morality. Much of their moral agenda was narrow, at variance with the more generous morality of Alphonsus Liguori, their founder. Like the Catholic Church of the time, they reflected uncritically the puritanism of the new state. Austin Clarke’s poem The Redemptorist makes them a symbol of all that is oppressive in the Irish clerical world. Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn describes a mission in his native parish given by two Redemptorists ‘who were such specialists in sex sins’. It is scarcely a flattering portrait yet the effect of the preaching was to inject a sense of new life into the place:

The crooked old men sat up and took notice when they heard of the mission; they began to dream themselves violent young stallions who needed fasting and prayer to keep them on the narrow path.

The mission brought into the grey lives of rural Ireland an air of celebration, a hint of a larger, more colourful world. The mission stalls around the church were tended by ‘fantastic dealing women with fluent tongues and a sense of freedom unknown in Dargan. They had an easy manner with God—like poets or actresses’. ‘It was’, says Kavanagh perceptively, ‘the story of life in a townland of death.’

Brendan McConvery teaches scripture at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and is archivist of the Irish Redemptorist Province.

Further reading:

‘Missions, Parochial’
in New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 1966).

J. Sharpe, Reapers of the Harvest, the Redeptorists in Great Britain and Ireland 1843-1898 (Dublin 1989)


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