There has, over the years, been a variety of Christian fundamentalists who have come west to preach their beliefs to the peasantry and point the way to the straight and narrow. But few have been as short lived as the group known as the Darbyites who, although making a strong impression for a few years, disappeared to be never heard of again.
Founded by a Dublin lawyer, John Nelson Darby, this society of evangelical Christians had two central tenets – a deep-rooted hatred of Catholicism, and a firm belief in the benefits of austerity in all things as the means of salvation.
For whatever reason, the Darbyites seem to have received a warm welcome in west Mayo of the mid 1800s, with Sir Richard O’Donel of Newport as one of their first adherents. Although there is some doubt as to whether Sir Richard personally practised the self-denial that he espoused, he was more than happy to impose his beliefs on the hapless tenantry to whom he was landlord.
So enthusiastic was Sir Richard that he built a conventicle in Newport where he could preach the new religion to his followers, spiced with threats to exterminate every Catholic in the locality, as well as persuading Lord Sligo to open a similar chapel in Westport. (He would hardly have been amused by the irony that the Newport building would eventually become the Catholic Parochial Hall, while his niece converted to Rome, becoming a Presentation sister in Galway).
Commenting on the growth of the Darbyite religion in Newport, the Connaught Telegraph reported that O’Donel was propagating the doctrine of the new sect, abandoning worldly honours, titles and distinctions. He was, it went on, preaching the virtues of subsisting on the smallest possible pittance, wearing the plainest and most humble garments, and dividing all superfluous riches among the poor.
And then, in a final tongue-in-cheek flourish, the Telegraph noted that “he has set up a private chapel in Newport, and has so far abandoned all thoughts of worldly relaxation, as to have sold his billiard table to some unsanctimonious sinner.”
Not that the Darbyites were above a little roughhouse behaviour if the situation demanded. It was reported that, in the election to Parliament of 1852, a number of the electors were carried off by the Darbyites and placed in local bastilles in Castlebar, Foxford and Westport. The intention was to ensure that they would vote for Colonel McAlpine, the avowed local enemy of the Catholic religion, rather than for George Henry Moore, the favoured candidate of the Roman clergy.
Whether O’Donel’s hard-pressed tenants followed the urgings of their landlord is doubtful, but if not, they were made feel the lash of Sir Richard’s zeal for the teachings of the Darbyites.
The historian, Seán P McManamon, as part of his research on the famine in Mayo, came upon 68 undiscovered pages of handwritten tenants’ accounts of their hardships, deposited in the New York Public Library.
The testimonies were transcribed long hand by local parish priests but, after submission to the NY library, seem to have been forgotten. Seán McManamon’s belief is that they were sent to New York to generate support, especially financial, for the Land League.
One in particular, from Michael Keane of Knockmullen on the estate of Sir Richard O’Donel, tells of ‘fifteen tenants of the townland being turned out to make room for the disciples of a new religion called Darbyites’.
But, he went on with what must have been grim satisfaction, ‘the Darbyites as a religious speculation failed, and only one man of them exists there now’.