Fr Kevin Hegarty
In her marvellous book ‘Ingenious Ireland: A county by county exploration of Irish mysteries and marvels’, Mary Mulvihill describes the Foxford Woollen Mills as an ‘early and ambitious rural development programme’. Almost 130 years after its establishment, it continues as a hive of activity in the town. Today, along with the manufacturing centre, the complex includes a fine restaurant using much local produce, a sparkling interiors store and a splendid gift shop. A visit there provides balm for body and mind.
The Woollen Mill is the legacy of a remarkable woman, Agnes Morrogh Bernard. Born and raised in privilege, she devoted her adult life to the alleviation of poverty.
When she and her Irish Sisters of Charity community came to minister in Foxford in 1891, the local people lived on the precarious abyss between subsistence and starvation. Tenants were huddled closely on holdings too small for survival. Landlordism still held sway, though the efforts of Michael Davitt, a native of the neighbouring parish of Straide, to break its hold had begun to bear fruit.
Illiteracy rates were high, housing was squalid, farming methods were primitive and infant mortality was a regular occurrence. In 1880, a Redemptorist priest, Fr Harbinson, who had preached missions throughout the country, called Foxford ‘the most God forsaken place in Ireland’.
At first glance, Agnes Morrogh Bernard seems an unlikely saviour of a depressed west of Ireland community. Born in 1842 in England to wealthy Irish Catholic parents, she grew up on the family’s estates in Kerry and Cork. Her father was a caring landlord who looked after his tenants well. She was educated at expensive convent schools in Limerick and Paris as a preparation, her father fondly hoped, for marriage into the purple of the Catholic aristocracy.
It seemed to be the path that she would inevitably follow. Agnes was vivacious, bright and beautiful. She loved exotic parties and horse riding. She refused a marriage proposal from a Kerry baronet.
At the age of 21, to the dismay of her father, she abandoned her carefree lifestyle and joined the Irish Sisters of Charity, an order devoted to solidarity with the poor. An early childhood experience left an indelible impression on her and shaped the course of her life. She often recalled a woman, tortured by hunger, coming to her door:
“The kitchen maid was mixing a meal for the turkeys which consisted of chopped nettles and bran. The poor creature craved for it. I went to my mother and got relief for her. I have never forgotten this.”
For several years, Agnes worked in the haunts of poverty in Dublin before her transfer as Superior to Ballaghaderreen.
By 1891, she was in Foxford to found a new convent. It was here that she found her forte. She and her sisters took over the local national school, providing children with hot breakfasts. They also established a technical school.
Her arrival in Foxford coincided with the setting up of the Congested Districts Board, a State agency tasked with alleviating poverty along the western seaboard.
Agnes saw the agency as a resource for the social transformation of Foxford. Under its auspices the sisters agreed to oversee the instruction of over 800 farmers in gardening, poultry breeding and improved agricultural methods.
Her greatest achievement was the establishment of the woollen mill, an industry harnessing the power of the river Moy and using indigenous raw materials. Foxford blankets and rugs became iconic items. At its height in the 1940s, the mill employed over 200 workers.
It was not all work and no play. Aware of the truth of the aphorism of St Irenaeus that the glory of God is the human person fully alive, she fostered a love of music, drama and sport among her employees and school children.
Almost 90 years after her death, Agnes Morrogh Bernard’s vision continues to be relevant. It echoes the contemporary concern for the environment. She realised the importance of industries based on local materials. She believed in cooperation between State, community and Church in tackling social and economic problems.
She was ecumenical. She worked closely with a Northern Protestant, John Charles Smith, in the setting up of the woollen mill. She defended the right of her workers to hold political views unacceptable to the Catholic clerical establishment in the controversy over the Charles Stewart Parnell divorce case.
As a Christian witness, she incarnated for a broken people the compassion of Jesus Christ.