Sunday, June 30, 2019

County Cavan and 1641

I've been 'down south' a fair bit recently, in Cork and in County Cavan. The image here is from an interactive presentation which caught my eye in the multi-narratived excellent Cavan County Museum, about the 1641 massacres. It's not why I was there but it has triggered some thoughts.

Little is said or acknowledged about these events in 'the north' these days. The written eyewitness c. 8000 'depositions' were digitised a few years ago by Trinity College Dublin and are searchable online here. Credit to our southern neighbours for doing so.

Thousands of Protestants were murdered at that time (conservative estimates speculate 4,000–12,000; - some have exaggerated them upwards to over 200,000, whilst others have sought to mitigate and downplay them). The atrocities caused the Scottish Parliament to send a Presbyterian army over to Carrickfergus in 1642.

By that time, among the dead was the Essex-born Anglican, and former Provost of TCD, the Reformation-minded Bishop William Bedell (1571–1642; Wikipedia here), who had translated the Bible into Irish. From 1629 he had been based at Kilmore in County Cavan, and was involved in the layout of the small Cavan town of Virginia. It's an attractive lakeside settlement today. We stayed nearby last week.

• Rebellion and Imprisonment
When the Rebellion and massacres began on 23 October 1641, Bedell's home and property were initially spared from direct attack, but after about eight weeks he, his two sons William and Ambrose, and his Scottish son-in-law Alexander Clogy, were eventually seized. They were imprisoned in Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan (as were many others, including a young Hugh Montgomery III of the Ards) for around three weeks, during which time Bedell was said to have been tortured.

• Release and Death by Fever
He and his children were released on 7 January 1642, but, weakened by his captivity, he succumbed to an 'ague' (a severe fever) and died exactly a month later on 7 February 1642. He was buried next to his wife in Kilmore graveyard, but only after first being rejected by the new Irish (Catholic) Bishop because he had been a (Protestant) 'heretic'. His life story was eventually written up by his son, and also by Clogy around 1660. Clogy's account was further developed and published in 1685 by Bishop Gilbert Burnet, another Scotsman and a close confidante of the future King William III of Orange (online here). The theology throughout is strong; pages 210–14 in particular are worth reading as these are Bedell's last recorded words.

• James Seaton Reid's accounts - 'pestilential fever'
In James Seaton Reid's monumental History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the detailed descriptions of the 1641 events which appear in Chapter 7 of Volume I (online here) also include an account of Bishop Bedell's imprisonment and death.

In addition to the deliberate killings by drowning, fire, sword and musket, Reid's account of the 'pestilential fever' which swept the war-torn regions of Ulster, due to the piles of unburied bodies, is pretty grim reading, suggesting well over 10,000 further deaths. Bedell's son later wrote that his father had died of a 'pestilential and deadly ague'. Another biography directly links this general disease and fever with the condition which killed Bedell –

"... the illness which carried off Bishop Bedell, it is to be inferred that it was a malignant typhus fever. This with other forms of pestilence prevailed in Ireland as an attendant on the political disasters in that country of 1641 and subsequent years ..." source here.

Reid called Bedell 'The Tyndale of Ireland' – an evangelist-pastor first and a translator because of those desires and convictions. Not only did he translate the Bible but also produced a Catechism in Irish. He was respected among the Irish community within which he lived and served, at least until the hostilities became widespread. Despite the sufferings he had endured at their hands, they formed a guard of honour at his funeral and fired a volley of shots - possibly with muskets which had been used for murderous purpose.

A quick speed-read through the biographies present a picture of Bedell as being similar to his contemporary Archbishop Ussher - evangelism-minded and, despite his Anglicanism and the high-level power-plays of denominational politics of the time, fair-minded towards those with Presbyterian convictions. He is also said to have been the actual author of an essay usually attributed to Ussher - a defence of the historicity of the theology of the Reformation - entitled “Where was your Church before Luther?”.

I am not sure if any museum in Northern Ireland goes near the 1641 events. Yet it is surely critical in our polarised society that we should understand as much of our history as possible. Yes it is complex, but that's what we need - airbrushed simplifications serve dangerous purpose.

(NB: A few years ago I suggested that a Blue Plaque be erected to Bedell. I'm not sure if that was ever progressed. It would be worth doing if permissions could be secured, and a simple but comprehensive biography could be published about his life and times.

His linguistic achievement was enormous, but it in itself is not his while story. His context and era were momentous. We have much to learn).

Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of Dr William Bedell by Clogie (c. 1660; 1862 ed) online here
Life of Bishop Bedell By His Son (c. 1670) online here
• Bishop Gilbert Burnet's The Life of William Bedell DD (1685) online here
Mary Hickson's 1884 volumes on the events of 1641 are online here.