The Crotty Schism and Birr

Religious schisms would appear to be a more global than local phenomenon, but in Birr in the 1830's, just such an incident occurred.

The story of the famous Crotty cousins and the church named after the two Roman Catholic priests of that name is well known.

However, an interesting contemporaneous account of the intriguing vignette in church and social history in South Offaly is provided by Baptist Wriothesley Noel, in his account, published in 1837 and entitled “Notes of a short tour though the Midland Counties of Ireland in the Summer of 1836, with observations on the condition of the peasantry”.

The publication is interesting in its own right as one of the few accounts of evangelical Protestantism in Offaly in the years before the famine. However, it is particularly so in its depiction of the Crotty incident.

The section of the Crotty schism begins with the author explaining that he had been keen to make the acquaintance of the Crottys, who, he says, without formally joining any Protestant church were now preaching the Gospel to their former Roman Catholic congregation.

The elder of the Crottys, Michael had been made curate of Birr in 1820 “which situation he continued ‘till, a vacancy then occurring, he was chosen parish priest by one party of the parishioners”.

The account continues: “Meanwhile Mr. Kennedy was named by another party and the latter choice was confirmed by the Roman Catholic bishop. Endeavouring, in possession of the splendid new chapel at Birr, which had been partly built by his adherents, Mr.Crotty found himself excluded by policemen, with fixed bayonets.

Since that time he has been preaching in a temporary chapel to a considerable congregation, chiefly of poor persons.

“Before this he had begun to attack the errors of Popery, but now the process became more rapid and complete. The two cousins have circulated some hundreds of copies of the Bible Testament among their people; they proclaim the word of God to be the only rule of faith; they administer the cup to the laity; they read a selection of prayers from the Roman Missal in English; and they preach salvation through the atonement made by Christ.

“Almost all the profane additions and superstitions of the Christ of Rome they had discarded. The sacrifice of the mass they have denounced, and now profess to offer it alone in remembrance of the death of Christ. They found the people accustomed to pay clay money, that consecrated clay being put into their coffins might save their dead bodies from being polluted by contact with heretics; that superstition they have taught their people to despise.

“They found them worshippers of the Virgin Mary, of saints and angels, and even images, they have taught them exclusively to worship God. They found them confiding in priestly absolution for the pardon of their sins; they told them to expect pardon only through sincere repentance and faith in the blood of Christ.

Later, Noel continues: “They found them cherishing the doctrine that the salvation is to be found in the Roman Church alone; they have led them to hate that unchristian and anti-social bigotry.
“About one thousand persons are still attached to the ministry. But they much want a new chapel. Their hearers are mostly poor and they wish therefore to raise funds elsewhere for the building,” he says.

Noel explains that six hundred pounds had been collected by the time of his visit and the foundations of the chapel, to be 64 feet by 32 feet, were laid.

The author states that it is his earnest hope that ample funds would be obtained to accomplish the final design “as it seems of great importance to Ireland that their ministry should be supported”.

“They have stood a fierce persecution for some years: and if they can bring a whole congregation once Roman Catholics to hear and love the truth, and pay for its maintenance, it will be a most animating example to every priest in Ireland, on whom the chain of Papal falsehood sits heavy. But should they be driven from Birr, what other priest will dare to follow their example?

“They are both intelligent men, and I believe, a perfectly sincere, but they want more meekness. Converts have often a keen temper. Our most violent Churchmen are converted Dissenters, our most bitter Dissenters are lapsed Churchmen. Few Catholics are so hot and eager as Mr. Spencer, and some others I could name; and possibly, the Messrs. Crotty, just emerging from the cauldron of popery, may feel their blood still boiling in the recollection of it. “But the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Already they have boldly grappled with error, and may God give them grace become his devoted ministers, patient and forgiving their enemies, zealous for the salvation of the people committed to their charge, faithful expositors of the New Testament, and the means of external life to many persons in their town and neighbourhood.”

The Crotty schism petered out by 1841 - 42. The best short account is that of Ignatius Murphy in the Diocese of Killaloe, 1800-1850. the old church still stands in Castle Street.

Noel’s account, although shaped by his own religious beliefs, nonetheless, provides a fascinating glimpse into the sort of evangelical fervour of the times as well as shedding light on the famous Crotty schism.

Courtesy of the Midland Tribune