moveable sentry box that became the little ark
The Clare priest who outwitted local
The way Fr Michael Meehan saw it in 1852, he had two choices:
to leave his congregation without the rites of their Catholic
faith or to get up a portable chapel. His choice of a movable
"sentry box" for Sunday Mass has gone down in
history as the Little Ark and it is the anniversary of its
arrival in Kilbaha which local people will celebrate later
The ark was brought in triumphal procession from Carrigaholt
to Kilbaha in 1852 so, on Sunday, June 23, a replica will
be brought in pilgrimage over the same route, a distance
of about eight miles. The original was placed on the shore
between low and high watermarks so the replica will come
to rest in the same place. And, at four o'clock in the afternoon,
three hours after the pilgrimage sets out from Carrigaholt,
Fr Pat O'Neill, parish priest of, Cross-Kilbaha, will once
again celebrate Mass on the shore at Kilbaha.
Though it took Carrigaholt carpenter, Owen Collins, just
two weeks to make, the Little Ark has survived the past
century and a half as much a monument to the struggle against
oppressive landlordism as religious conviction. For not
only did it give Fr Meehan and his congregation the freedom
to worship as they pleased but its location in a sort of
no man's land outside the control of the local landlord
also meant they couldn't be evicted.
In its construction, it was said to bear a striking resemblance
not to Fr Meehan's original idea of a sentry box but to
a large bathing box in Kilkee. Known as the Lady Chatterton,
it was the first bathing box erected in the West Clare resort
in the 1830s. The ark, now kept permanently in Kilbaha Church,
was slightly larger with windows on each side and a short
stepladder leading to an open doorway. The altar was at
the furthest end could be seen through the windows and doorway.
According to historian, the late Fr Ignatius Murphy, it
was the custom on Sundays that the portable chapel be placed
on the green patch at the crossroads leading to the quay.
On wet days, the people went down to the beach and picked
up flat stones or pieces of board to keep their knees dry.
Fr Meehan himself wrote in 1857, "In this, ever since,
winter or summer, I have celebrated Mass while a large congregation
kneel around me in the puddle bare-headed, under the open
A contemporary observer described it as "an old omnibus"
on four wheels. "The sides were glazed and I saw a
rough old table inside and this was the altar and this was
the sanctuary where the priest and his clerk stood during
the celebration of Mass. Before Mass was commenced, the
old omnibus was drawn to the centre of the public road for
more accommodation: and here the poor persecuted congregation
of Kilbaha kneeled on their bare knees."
And persecuted they were. As parish priest of Moyarta and
Kilballyowen, Fr Meehan had jurisdiction over three churches
- in Doonaha Carrigaholt and Cross. But there was a large
area beyond Cross in which he was also keen to prove a church
and national school, an area suffering badly by destitution
and emigration. However, appeals for a site to Westby, the
absentee landlord, met with repeated refusals.
The situation was complicated by the fact that during the
1850s, Fr Meehan's parishes were torn by religious conflict.
The friction had erupted in the aftermath of the Famine
with a drive on the part of the Irish Church Mission Society
to lure people away from Catholicism by offering them free
food and clothing and free education for their children.
Soup kitchens were set up and schools established with the
backing of landlords and their agents.
The campaign of proselytism soon became known as souperism
and got under way in the Loop Head peninsula at about the
same time Fr Meehan took up duty in the district. Soup kitchens
were set up and hot meals were served free to those who
undertook to send their children to the newly established
schools where a new catechism was gradually introduced and
where the children were taught that their Catholic practices
were superstitious and idolatrous.
The prevention of Sunday Mass was the next logical step
in the campaign and warnings were duly issued that evictions
would follow in the event tenants allowed their homes to
be used for worship.
But, in the early 1850s, Fr Meehan bought two adjoining
houses from widows going to America. He wrote, "I threw
them both into one house and had room at least to shelter
my congregation of about three hundred people every Sunday.
"I was not a month under the miserable cover of this
little chapel when I got peremptory orders from Mr Marcus
Keane to give up instant and clear possession. In vain,
I besought him, in the most humble terms, to leave me in
for a time, under any rent and until he should want the
houses for some other purpose. No use - out I went and the
houses remained idle and locked up for nearly two years."
It was then he hit on the idea of the portable chapel. While
it was under construction, he continued to say Sunday Mass
in the open air beneath the tilted shafts of two farmers'
carts over which large sheets were thrown to protect the
altar. However, the candles were generally blown out several
times during Mass.
The arrival of the Little Ark banished these inconveniences
but further trouble was ahead. Before long, Fr Meehan was
prosecuted for having a "nuisance" on the public
road and though he won the case at Kilrush and again on
appeal in Dublin, Westby's agent, Marcus Keane, and his
brother, Henry, continued to harass the priest.
According to Fr Murphy, the portable chapel was initially
placed in the shelter of a house belonging to the Brennans
who were pilots on the Shannon. When they ignored orders
not to give it shelter, they were evicted and their house
knocked. It was replaced by a large slated house occupied
by a retired coastguard and it was there, according to contemporary
accounts, that the agent's men would gather to jeer and
scoff at the people kneeling around the Ark.
Nonetheless, the little portable chapel served as a church
for a period of five years. Sacraments were administered
there, marriages were celebrated and children baptised.
Finally, in 1857, a site for a church was secured at Moveen
with the foundation stone being laid in July of that year.
The church was dedicated in October of 1888.
Courtesy of Mark Scanlan and The Clare Champion