Irish Heritage & Culture: Early Irish Methodists
Religion in the Homeland
Do you know much about Methodism in Ireland in the 1800s? I sure didn’t when I started my latest quest. My goal was to learn more about the probable religion of my ancestors during the time leading up to when our James KERR (married to Jane HENDERSON) left Ireland for Canada (which was sometime between 1841 and 1847).
Our KERR ancestors were Methodists in Quebec and I suspect they were Methodists in Ireland.
The Irish Methodist states that the Founder of Methodism, John Wesley first visited Ireland in 1747. John went on to pay twenty-one visits to Ireland, lengthening in time and extent until they covered almost all of it. Samuel Handy offered his residence, Coolalough in the parish of Ardnurcher, as a base from which they might work in the Irish Midlands. Methodist societies were established within a 50 km radius of his home.
“The development in the Midlands encouraged John Wesley to send preachers from England to pioneer in different counties. They tended to visit the cities and market towns, and to attract attention by preaching wherever they could attract a crowd. Wesley began to visit Ireland regularly to encourage the societies they formed, and the growth of the movement can be plotted by his lengthening itineraries, first to south and west, but then to the north. His first visit to Ulster was in 1752.”
A large British garrison, finding themselves in Ireland, considerably strengthened, or even started Methodist societies in garrison towns.
Member of TWO Religions
From the Irish Methodist:
Although there have been Methodists in Ireland since the 1740s, for the first 70 years Methodists usually had dual membership as both Methodists and also members of the parish church. In terms of births, marriages and death the place to look for these will normally be in the local Church of Ireland parish register.
The first tentative step in breaking the sacramental link with the Established Church was taken at the Methodist Conference of 1816 but not finally authorized until 1818 when for the first time Methodist societies and preachers were permitted to have the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion in their own preaching houses. Societies in the north of Ireland were quicker to avail of this facility than those in the south but by the 1830s most societies were recording baptisms in their local chapel or in central ‘circuit’ registers.
Finding the concentrations of historical Methodist societies along with KERR and HENDERSON surname concentrations could narrow my search down somewhat but this could also be equivalent to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Irish Methodist Reminiscences
Add to the search areas of poverty in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine in 1841; the areas where the Great Famine of Ireland hit the hardest in 1845-1847 and regions where the population fell the greatest from the time period of 1841-1851 may lead to a clearer understanding.
One book a genealogy friend suggested was Irish Methodist reminiscences; being mainly memorials of the life and labours of the Rev. S. Nicholson – Thomas, Edward, of Lisburn, Antrim, published in 1889. The full text is available free through Cornell University Digitized Library Collection (under no known copyright).
I downloaded the pdf file of this 268 page book and did a quick search on the word “county” to see what I might find. Mentions were of County Derry and County Monaghan. I also searched for my two surnames and didn’t find a mention. I then went back to the online version of the book so I could ‘flip’ pages like I would if I was reading it. This time I was looking for anything of interest including more county names and any mention of Canada where my ancestors settled after they left Ireland. There was a Mission to Canada mentioned and I had to chuckle at these words:
The Rev. W. McClure, himself a first-class penman, in a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson, from Canada, in 1867, says, Dear Mrs. Nicholson, write yourself, for I can’t read some of Mr. Nicholson’s writing; if he don’t preach better than he writes, it must be awful.”
Talk about getting side tracked…back to the search at hand
I did find this under “Places Missioned” on page 81.
We have examined the letters of the Superintendents
and those of the Missionaries which appeared in the New
Methodist Magazine, from 1825 till 1840, and have collected
the following list of preaching places, with the view of
giving some idea of the extent of the Society’s operations
during those years. The names were transcribed as they
occurred, without reference to geographical situation or
connection. Some names may have escaped our notice :
Belfast Bangor Newtownards
Ballinahinch Lisburn Smithboro’
Newtownbreda Priesthill Downpatrick
Newcastle Broomhedge Selchin
Antrim Moira Blackwater
Ballymuldery Lurgan Tonnycoogin
Cornearney Eichill Largey
Ballymena Gracehill Carnlea
Randalstown Tubbermore Cullybackey
Gloonen Seuford Lanehill
Drumnall Bryansford Killough
Ring-Woody Armagh Lismore
Ardglass Quintin Bay Magerhafelt
Scotchtown Cohan Monagban
Drumnail Anna Cramp Deny Corr
Portadown Ballyhaise Dumnali
Woodburn Xockranagan Innisrush
Derrehalla Tullyserran Loughgall
Stradone Slash Charlemount
Glasslough Crossforth Ballyhay
Clones Bailieborough Ballyhornen
Ballyhulbert Crewe Stonyford
Ballinderry Moyrusk Milltown
More place names are mentioned on page 82 and 89 including mentions of members leaving to emigrate to Canada and the United States. Bangor and Newtownards are mentioned on page 156 and 157.
On page 88:
but migration and emigration were, as they continue to be, a constant drain upon the membership, keeping the numbers down. Young people cannot find suitable or sufficient employment in the small
or rural districts in Ireland, in which most of the mission Stations are situated. All over the Island, the population has been steadily going down. Some of the Irish missionaries were early induced to leave for Canada, and their reports and letters from the “goodly land “attracted many of the Irish members to the Dominion, and these, in their turn, induced others to follow : so that there continued a constant exodus of Irish Methodist New Connexionists to Canada.
Famine, Pestilence and Death
The Irish had additional burdens. Cholera was ‘alarmingly prevalent in 1846-1847. (Irish Methodist Reminiscences, page 155.) The church members attended to the sick, starving and dying.
From page 157:
The years 1816 till 1849 in Ireland were years of famine and disease following upon the “potato blight,” when thousands of sufferers perished. Newtownards suffered from the “famine” more than any other town in the North.
Page 159 by Mrs. Nicholson, wife of Reverend Nicholson.
Oh ! the scenes of filth and wretchedness, hunger,
nakedness and disease which my dear husband witnessed
and tried to relieve. Hundreds had no bed-clothes whatever,
and but an excuse for a bed or none at all ; and they
covered themselves at night with the scant garments
which they wore during the day. I can never forget
many individual cases which came under our special notice.
A poor man came for a ‘ line ‘ to get his wife into the
hospital. The poor woman was ‘ down in fever,’ and had
a baby just six weeks old. The man said he ‘ dooted they
wad both d’e, but he added ‘ a dinna care for ‘am caught
mysel’.’ They were all admitted to the hospital : the
poor fellow himself was the only one that succumbed. We
had meal to give out to the starving ones ; and of a morning
above a hundred poor creatures would be gathered
about our door. One day a poor woman fainted in the
crush. The patients in the hospital were dying daily
These were likely the conditions my ancestors were fleeing when they left Ireland for Canada sometime between 1841 and 1847.
Does this foray into one of the books of Early Irish Methodists give me the answers I am seeking? Not yet, but it does give me a better understanding of the Irish Methodist church and its localities and the horrific conditions of the times. This was the era when my ancestors left for Canada. The more I understand about the times and their religion the more likely I will find my answers.
Please share your thoughts below.
Historical county map of Ireland