Anthony  D  Buckley

‘The case of the Cushendall schoolmaster.'

The Glynns: Journal of the Glens of Antrim Historical Society 1992 20, 30-35.


'Things have come to a pretty pass, when religion is allowed to enter the sphere of private life'.

Lord Melbourne's remark was no doubt stimulated by the upsurge of religious activity in the 1820s and 1830s. It was indeed a prophetic statement, for by the end of Queen Victoria's reign, religion had not only entered the sphere of private life, it had become for many almost exclusively a matter of personal private conviction. In the 1830s, however, when Melbourne himself was prime minister, religion was still a political hot potato. It affected not only the great events of Westminster and Whitehall, but also the affairs of quite small places such as the small town of Cushendall in the glens of County Antrim.

Religious controversy in 19th century Ireland (as indeed in England) was interwoven with the topic of education. In Cushendall the issue focused upon the teaching of the Bible through the medium of the Irish language.' In the heated conditions of the 1830s, when evangelical Protestants were attempting to proselytize Irish-speaking Catholics, the teaching of the scriptures through Irish in the schools became a major local political issue where the priest confronted the landlord, Francis Turnly and also the schoolmaster of Court McMartin School in Cushendall, Robert Campbell.

Fortunately for the historian, this controversy is nicely documented in the so-called 'Hamilton papers' stored in the archives of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum archive. These papers consist mainly of letters exchanged between Francis Turnly, the landlord whose estate embraced the town of Cushendall, and his agent Archibald Hamilton who was also a good personal friend of the schoolteacher Robert Campbell.

The story starts when Robert Campbell, an Irish speaking Roman Catholic schoolteacher, came to Cushendall in May 1824, and set up a school in the town, taking fee-paying pupils for instruction. Two years later, he was employed by the Dublin education society, the Kildare Place Society which for a short time supplemented his income. In 1833, Campbell's school was taken over by the National School Board. This school, called the 'Court McMartin School', met in the Court School House and was owned and supervised by the local landlord, Francis Turnly (Hamilton to Turnly 26/4/39).

According to Archibald Hamilton, Campbell was a competent against him by the parents of children under his care. With regard to his ability, I can boldly say that few country schoolmasters have studied so much' (Hamilton to Turnly 24/4/39) Campbell undoubtedly had his faults. He seems to have been somewhat irrascible, and he made enemies easily. Hamilton notes privately that Campbell was a secret drinker. 'when he drinks spiritous liquor he becomes a complete fool' (Hamilton to Turnly 24/4/39). Despite this, Campbell seems to have been well liked, at least by his friends.

In Cushendall in the early 1830s, there was not only a boys' school run by Campbell, but also a girls' school run by a Miss McCaughan. In the townland of Dromore, to the north of Cushendall, there was another boys' school run by a Mr McVeigh, who seems to have been a worthy man, but lacking Campbell's undoubted talents.There may well have been other schools in the more general area.

The more general situation in Cushendall reflected a pattern found throughout the United Kingdom at thattime. Effectively an old world was coming to an end. In the 18th century, especially in England, there had existed a High Tory, High Church ideal according to which the squire, together with the clergyman together exercised a firm but, in principle, benevolent control over the local inhabitants beneath them. This ideal had found a somewhat less convincing echo in rural Ireland, but here, the existence of strong Catholic and Presbyterian churches, often exercising a strict discipline over their members, had long provided a permanent challenge to the authority of the Establishment. By attending what, from a High Church point of view, was an apostate church, tenant farmers had been able at least to call their souls their own.

Conditions, however, had changed by the 1830s. The reform of the Test and Corporation Acts and the emancipation of Catholics not merely ensured that in practice dissenters and Catholics could enter professions from which they had previously been excluded, it also dealt a major symbolic blow to a whole way of life. Far from being satisfied with their achievements, dissenters and Catholics began to assert their equality with the Establishment by demanding the abolition of tithes and, indeed, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland altogether.

The response of the Established Church in Ireland was to turn to evangelicalism, in the hope of quelling the rising sea of rebellion which to them dissent, and more especially Catholicism, seemed to represent. Presbyterians too, fearing the increasing influence of Catholicism, were turning towards an evangelical form of Toryism. While establishment and dissent still had their differences, a new Protestant unity was beginning to emerge. In this cultural crusade, the struggle to proselytize Catholics, and especially to proselytize Catholic children was to have a central part. It is plain that Francis Turnly, and perhaps with rather less caution, Turnly's wife and his land agent Archibald Hamilton, were strongly affected by this new evangelical fervour.

The first shot in this local campaign came in 1832, at a school (of which little is known) in Drumnasole which was also owned by Turnly. It seems that a 'lady', a relative of Turnly's, had left at the school a list of religious questions, to be used in the instruction of the children. The new Catholic priest at the parish of Layd, a Father McKenna, called at the school and complained about this, 'and charged the mistress with attempting to make proselytes of the children ... he (McKenna) finally said he would discourage any parents from sending their children to the school.the consequence was that seven girls left the school the following day' (Turnly to Hamilton 27/9/32).

Turnly was anxious on this occasion to avoid confrontation.  The lady, he said, had acted without his consent, and hewithdrew the offending documents. The peace was therefore restored. This incident, though minor, boded ill for the future.

It seems that during the next few years, the education issue with education in Cushendall. Not only was Irish taught in Campbell's school in Cushendall, but also an Irish school was established after mass in the Chapel with McKenna's agreement. In both the girls' and boys' schools Saturday classes were established at which children were taught to read the scriptures (Turnly to Hamilton 9/11/36). The issue, however, came to a boil in 1837 soon after MrsTurnly began to have contact with the Belfast Town Mission, taking a direct interest in the encouragement of the reading of the Irish scriptures (Turnly to Hamilton 17/11/36).

At this time, the boys' school in Cushendall under the supervision of Robert Campbell held its lessons in the Court School House. It seems that religous instruction took place on Saturdays when there was an arrangement that Protestant boys were taken off to the girls' school where they were both to be given their own separate instruction, while Robert Campbell catechised the Catholic children, both girls and boys in his own school building. The priest attended this class himself on two or three occasions, but then stopped attending (Hamilton to Turnly 1/2/37).

Apparently without warning, the priest in January 1837 made a statement from the altar, condemning the reading of Irish in schools. There may also have been an objection to the use of the Authorised Version of the Bible (see Hamilton to Turnly 27/2/37). The statement specifically condemned 'a certain person' for his participation in this. This unnamed 'certain person' was undoubtedly the schoolteacher, Robert Campbell.

In consequence of this intervention, teaching of Irish in the school was disrupted. 'today only one R.C. little girl stood up with the Protestants to read the scripture. allthe rest walked out' (Hamilton to Turnly 26/1/37). At the girls' school in Cushendall, there was no walk-out, but at the girls' school at Glenariff, all the Catholic girls walked out and the school 'was reduced to Protestants'. Hamilton adds, however, that here, 'by degrees they all came back to her and are reading the testament as usual'(Hamilton to Turnly 26/1/37).

This classroom rebellion was quite spectacular. 'when (Mr Campbell) called for the catechism none rose or made answer. after a pause he took a Bible in his hand and asked if any would rise and read and none did rise. this confirmed his opinion that the children had directions from their parents & they from the priest not to have any religious instruction from Mr Campbell' (Hamilton to Turnly 1/2/37).

Turnly, in consequence of this turmoil, gave Robert Campbell six pounds as a token of his support (Turnly to Hamilton 20/2/37). Despite this, Campbell felt impelled to hand in his resignation, 'that considering his usefulness as a teacher at Cushendall as almost wholly done away by the priest's continued opposition to the use of the authorized version of the scriptures', he should apply for a post advertised in Downpatrick.

The landlord, however, tried to get Hamilton to dissuade him from this rash decision, speculating about the precise reason for his departure. 'is his school for general education under the Board falling off along with the Scripture class & his profits from scholars thereby diminishing & is that an additional reason? - further it is said that a person denounced by a priest from the altar is not safe in his person & that his very life is in danger may be also he feels it irksome as in the light of an attempt made merely to disgrace him with the people' (T-H 27/2/37). As a result of Turnly's protestations of support, Campbell decided to stay on (Hamilton to Turnly 8/3/37).

Because of these problems, the teaching of Irish in the schools on the Turnly estate was suspended. In the meantime, therefore, Hamilton began to correspond with a Mr Caughrane of the Belfast Town Mission, who suggested that they might employ an Irish Scripture Reader. Hamilton liked this idea. 'I gave my candid opinion that as long as the Protestant Clergy enjoyed the tithe, Scripture readers would be useful in almost all places' and he sent down to Belfast for examination a carpenter, John McCormick 'who I believe has taken refuge in Christ' (Hamilton to Turnly 1/2/37).  In the event, it was a man from Cork who got the job, one William Collins, who was placed under the superintendents of a local clergyman Rev. Mr Hinks.

The new scripture reader, William Collins, 'was a small farmer of the south of Ireland & a Roman Catholic by profession. he was converted about 4 years ago, and his wife has lately consented to go to church with him. He acted as master of an Irish school under the Irish society.but having sold his farm & found the remuneration unequal to his support, the society appointed him Irish scripture reader for some islands off the coast of county Cork ...his age is about 35, he is a plain countryman of the southern description & is probably well suited for the people among whom he is going' (Turnly to Hamilton 28/3/37).

Turnly was particularly concerned about the possible repercussions of this  appointment.'he ought to avoid asmuch as possible hurting the prejudices of RC by invectives of an alienating spirit; and this he is well accustomed to guard against. he ought to avoid all ostentatious boasting and publicity; in the latter view shoud avoid fairs and assemblages of the people of every description; his business to be only with individuals or families, hence to expose himself as little as possible to become the object of public talk. such are the principles of the Irish society. '

 ‘in the above views the place of his residence becomes of considerable importance. it ought not to be in the town of Cushendall, because the frequent meeting with the priest woud force him on his observation & make him liable to some personal collision & ground for offence. to which the infirmity of human nature under such circumstances is much liable; superadded to which his exposure to such observations might make it imperative on the priest from regard to his official duties and character with his superiors to take notice of him, and thwart his object. both of which ill consequences might be avoided by a residence removed from the place.

'but as is possible the priest will soon know that place of residence wherever it may be, shoud be found lodged with a R.C. a member of his congregation it woud immediately subject that person to denunciations from the altar. And hence compel him to dismiss his inmates. to be safe from this inconvenience therefore it woud be better for him to be lodged with a protestant' (Turnly to Hamilton 14/4/37).

Turnly was above all concerned that the scripture reader, Collins, should act cautiously and with decorum. He suggested that Collins approach first of all the masters of the late Irish schools, and then their pupils, and that if he had for a time to live in Cushendall, he should be 'retired and reserved'. He should conduct himself with that true wisdom which unites zeal with intelligence & prudence' (Turnly to Hamilton 14/4/37).

Collins duly arrived in the Glens, but did not stay long. Though Hamilton and Turnly both found him agreeable, he seems to have been very shy before his superiors (Hamilton to Turnly 29/4/37) and his Irish language (which was the main reason for his appointment) had a southern dialect which was totally unintelligible in the Glens. 'as I suspected, so I found that his Irish is too hard for us and he says he cannot understand my Irish ... he and I cannot discourse in Irish ... though I can read & understand Irish, I speak a mixture of Galic & Irish.'(Hamilton to Turnly 15/5/37).  One has an impression that the unfortunate Mr Collins appeared a little strange in the Glens, and was out of his depth in a difficult situation. In any event, Collins soon left (Hamilton to Rev. Mr Hinks 11/4/38).

Perhaps one element which precipitated the departure of Mr Collins was a revival of interest in the controversy concerning the teaching of Irish in the two main boys' schools in the Turnly estate. A new priest, Fr JohnFitzsimons, made several complaints to the' National Board including one that, contrary to regulations, the two schoolteachers, Mr McVeigh in Dromore and Mr Campbell in Cushendall were proselytizing through the medium of Irish.

To these charges, McVeigh merely denied them, stating that neither the priest nor his curates had ever complained to him on this subject.

Campbell, however, was much more forthright, showing more than a little irritation. He made several answers to a range of complaints, but the first of these was the most telling.'did anyone ever before hear of R.C. teachers being employed to proselytize R.C. children?' (Hamilton to Turnly 27/1/38).

This was indeed a sensible and compelling point for Campbell to make. Its force is somewhat weakened, however, by the fact that only some two months earlier Hamilton had made clear to his employer that Robert Campbell was secretly converting to Protestantism. Hamilton, in a letter dated 8/11/37, writes, 'I had a strong desire for a long time back to inform you that Robert Campbell is fully convinced of the errors of the Church of Rome & is in faith a protestant of the Church of Ireland, and is directly instructing the children who read the scripture lesson in that doctrine. but he is still a member of the Romish Church as to outward observances, and probably may continue so.for in my opinion he is too weak to venture openly to declare himself ... I am positive that (the previous priest) Priest McKenna doubted his faithfulness to the Church, for he taught Irish in opposition to his mandate & kept the testament in the School. at the worst Campbell always told me that the priest would never speak directly to him, for that he knew he was prepared to reply to him. the priest sent different times to him to come to speak with him at his own home but he would have no private conversation with him. the present priest however may succeed better with him for he has met him on friendly terms. the priest goes every Saturday to instruct the children of his own denomination & proposes to continue it. I am sorry for this but it cannot be helped. If Campbell were suffered to proceed in his own way for some years, through the blessing of God much good would be done (Hamilton to Turnly 8/11/37).

By 1838, it seems that there were both boys and girls schools in the vicinity of Cushendall under the control of the priest. These schools entered into fierce competition to woo pupils from the opposition (Hamilton to Turnly 7/1/38, 28/5/38; 30/4/39).

The rivalry, and increasingly strained personal relationship between Campbell and the priest culminated in Campbell's resignation from his post. As though to offset all attempts to persuade him to change his mind, Campbell also declared himself to be a Protestant, and attended the Church of Ireland church (Hamilton to Turnly 29/6/40).

After this momentous step, Robert Campbell, who was now estranged from his family and from the angry Catholic population of Cushendall, was whisked away. No doubt through the good offices of Mr Turnly, he fell however completely on his feet, gaining employment in Manchester at the (for a schoolteacher) princely salary of £100 per annum (Hamilton to Turnly 6/6/41; Hamilton to Campbell?/5/41).

The effect on this on the Court McMartin School was disastrous.By 1848, Fr Fitzsimons was able to report to the School Board that Mr Turnly's school was 'not in operation' saying  'There is no National School' in Cushendall and 'no Female National School in this part of the District' (PRONI ED1/3, p89). The priest did concede that 'The Cushendall School which was formerly National which had been closed for a considerable time has been lately reopened not as a national school but under the sole management of Mr Turnly'. Nevertheless, the battle had been effectively won. Fr Fitzsimons, therefore, made application that his own school should become a National School under his own patronage (ibid).

For Campbell, now in England, the story then seems to have had a happy ending. Hamilton continued to correspond with him, exchanging mathematical puzzles, and chiding him good-naturedly on his tendency towards heavy drinking. And, indeed, Hamilton suggests that Campbell's relatives and even -his enemies would soon forgive him now that he was a wealthy man. 'but never mind', he writes, 'a hundred pounds a year have wonderful charms. I will renounce all fortune to prophesy if it does not dispel all the dark clouds of their brows. so be it say in your next when I may expect you in the Glens' (Hamilton to Campbell? 5/41).