Tuesday 1 March 2016

Rare source reveals 19th-century conversions

St Audoen's, the oldest parish church in Dublin
One of my colleagues on the Council of the Irish Genealogical Research Society, Máire Mac Conghail MAGI, recently brought an unusual source to the attention of the Representative Church Body (RCB) Library staff.

A professional genealogist and a regular user of the Library's family history resources, Máire had been consulting the combined register for Dublin's St Audoen’s parish, which comprises baptisms 1837-1917, marriages 1837-1860 and burials 1837-1885*, when she discovered an extensive list of names appended at the end of the run of marriages in the volume.

The list was entitled: ‘A list of Persons who renounced the errors of Romanism in St Audoen’s Church and who afterwards subscribed the roll of converts’, and it covered the period from 6 May 1827 to 31 July 1847.

She asked for further information, which initially library staff were not able to provide, because they had never seen such a list before. However, having researched the background, the true origins of this list have been uncovered and are presented as the March 2016 Archive of the Month on the Church of Ireland website.

While civic convert lists were compiled by the State under the requirements of the ‘Act to prevent the further growth of popery’, and for which Church of Ireland bishops and clergy were, from time to time, called upon to provide evidence in the form of a certificate testifying that a person had become Protestant (evidence kept by the Court of Chancery in the form of Convert Rolls, there was no requirement on the part of the Church of Ireland to keep such information. Indeed, by the time of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, there was no obligatory requirement for a person to account for their religious denomination – attendance at church and belonging was enough.

So in this context, the St Audoen’s list is a rare item deserving further attention. The background appears to be personal, as the list was initially compiled by the Revd Mortimer O’Sullivan (1793-1859) who served as Prebendary of St Audoen’s from 1824-30. Born in Clonmel in 1793, he was the younger son of John O’Sullivan, the Roman Catholic schoolmaster at Clonmel, County Tipperary, where he and his older brother Samuel were educated by Dr Richard Carey, a member of the Church of Ireland who had an influential role in the brothers’ conversion. Both attended Trinity College, Dublin, and won scholarships: Mortimer in 1813 and Samuel the following year. Mortimer received his BA in 1816, an MA in 1826. Ordained in 1823, he served initially in a teaching capacity as Second Master in Tipperary Grammar School, then at the Royal School Dungannon where he was First Master, before his first clerical appointment as curate of the fashionable St Stephen’s church in Dublin where he served from 1824 to 1827.

In December 1827 he was appointed to St Audoen’s, Cornmarket, and it was from here that his active involvement in religious controversies began in earnest. Having been a Catholic, and while maintaining good relationships with the rest of his family who remained so, O’Sullivan became overtly anti-Catholic in his outlook. He belonged to the Protestant Association, a movement that proactively encouraged an ‘Irish Reformation’ especially among Catholic priests. The list that Mortimer began in 1827 accounts for no less than 165 individuals, six of whom were former priests, and two student priests; the remainder are lay people.

This rare source underpins the complexity and fluidity of religious expression in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and records personal faith journeys. It is hoped that the RCBL's online presentation, which includes a digitized copy of the four-page list as it appears in the St Audoen’s register of baptisms, marriages and burials as well as a surname index to all those people featured, will bring their stories to light.

*RCB Library P116/1/4