Fr Kevin Hegarty
The current edition of the history journal ‘Cathair na Mart’ contains an interesting article on the family of George A Birmingham. Birmingham was both a clergyman and a writer – in fact ‘Birmingham’ was but his nom de plume: His real name was Rev Canon James Owen Hannay.
Born in 1865, he served as Church of Ireland rector in Westport for 21 years, from 1892. He wrote 80 books, mostly novels. His list of titles also includes works of spirituality and theology, travelogues and reminiscence. As a novelist he won praise from Graham Greene who claimed that ‘a vanished Ireland of crookery and good humour is preserved as perfectly in Birmingham’s best work as in The Playboy of the Western World’.
Reading the ‘Cathair na Mart’ article led me to peruse again his autobiography ‘Pleasant Places’. It provides a revealing insight into life in a west of Ireland town over 100 years ago.
He liked Westport. He recognised that it had been planned ‘with a certain feeling for dignity and beauty, unlike most Irish towns which were higgledy-piggledy, sordid and mean’. He was pleased with his ‘very gracious rectory’. He was less enamoured of his main church, the Church of the Holy Trinity, though he did admire its mural decorations.
Ninety-five percent of the community were Roman Catholics. Birmingham and his curate had a congregation of 600, spread over four churches. Until the building of a fifth church in Belclare in 1902, a small congregation met every Sunday in a hayloft above a barn where the preacher’s words of wisdom were often drowned by ‘important neighing and trampling from the stalls below’. Birmingham was impressed by the faith of his people, finding ‘a beautiful vein of mysticism in their religion’.
Westport was then a strictly hierarchical society. Even the butcher had a way of reminding you where you stood. The best meat cuts were allocated to customers of the highest social standing, in a strict order of preference. When Lord Sligo was in residence in Westport House no one else could get a sirloin.
Though Birmingham was sometimes deprived of the taste of sirloin, he and his wife, Ada, and their four children lived well. Wages were low and food was cheap. He got possession of an island on Clew Bay with a tiny cottage on it. There the family spent the summers. The children romped, swam and sailed, their idyllic existence interrupted only by the arrival of term time at their Dublin boarding schools.
He employed a gardener and other household staff. Some of the maids he found wild and untrained. He was disturbed by the father of one of his servants, who advised him:
“If Molly doesn’t behave herself take the stick to her and lay it on good and strong. It is the only way to get goodness into girls like that. It is the way I’ve brought her up and she’s well-accustomed to it.”
The ‘Mollys’ of that world had no power and little freedom to choose. Marriages were arranged for them. Love matches were frowned on. A woman had to bring a dowry of money, land or cattle to the marriage.
Birmingham recalled marrying a couple who had never seen each other until the day of the service. After the signing of the register, the bridegroom tried to give his new wife ‘a hearty kiss’. She resisted, whereupon he turned to Birmingham with an aggrieved air and said: “She ought not to be shy now your reverence, ought she?”
During Birmingham’s years in Westport, the old order of deference and subservience began to break up. The Land Acts gave tenants the power to shape their own destinies. The Congested Districts Board helped in the development of fishing and crafts. The introduction of the old age pension in 1909 helped alleviate poverty. In 1918, women were given the vote.
In 1913, Birmingham was invited to lecture in the US. He decided to resign the rectorship and leave Westport. He always remembered it with affection. He had come to know the truth of what someone had told him – that the real Ireland lies across the Shannon westwards.