A Melancholy Truth

The Travels and Travails of Fr Charles Bourke
c. 1765 – 1820

Brendan Hoban



Chapter Fourteen       Incident at Belcarra, Mayo


‘The blister of suspension’

Two months after Peter Waldron’s consecration as bishop of Killala on 24.2.1815, the priests of the diocese gathered, as  accustomed and as required, on Holy Thursday for the celebration of the Holy Week ceremonies in the chapel in Ardnaree, Ballina.

It is not clear how many clergy were present but Charles Burke, recently appointed to Templeboy, was not among them. The relationship between Burke and Waldron was already strained due to Burke’s efforts to block Waldron’s appointment to Killala, Burke’s reluctance to move from Kilbelfad to Templeboy and not least because of Burke’s previous turbulent history. Burke’s absence from Ballina in Holy Week was noted.

Typically, however, Burke was not unduly worried. He had other business in hand. He had been summoned to give evidence at the Ballinrobe assizes. According to his own account,1 Burke, when he realised that he had to go to Ballinrobe because of ‘the urgent necessity of attending a crown summons’, wrote to Waldron informing him  of his enforced absence from the annual meeting of the Killala clergy on Holy Thursday. On the way to and the way home from Ballinrobe Burke called at Tom Walsh’s of Belcarra and partook of some alcoholic beverages and even before his return to Ballina it was reported to Waldron that Burke ‘was seen intoxicated at Tom Walsh’s, Belcarra.’2

At the time priests visiting public houses or becoming intoxicated or both was regarded as outrageous and scandalous behaviour.2A A Roman Catholic layman writing in 1758 represents a typical response to such behaviour:

If any extravagance can be pardoned in a priest I am sure that of frequenting the ale-house is the least pardonable . . . O how far beneath himself does a priest look in my eyes who deserves the name of tipler, not to say, of drunkard! O how often, to my grief, have I seen a man of some parts lose more credit in the alehouse of an evening than he had gained that morning in the pulpit. Surely it could not but be very (dis)edifying to see this man dispense the most serious truths of the gospel in the morning, and, in the evening in very ordinary company, crack the low scurrilous jests of a tipling house ‘till at midnight, perhaps against his will, he reels home, the scorn of laymen and the reproach of the Church.3

No doubt Burke knew that he was in difficulty and on his way home from Belcarra through Ballina he decided to present himself before Waldron ‘with all the politeness that I was capable of’. However, Waldron was in no humour for compromise:

No sooner did I appear before him, but he immediately suspended me. I asked him the reason. He said he would give none; but on reflection, he replied, he would have no clergymen in his diocese that would appear at an assizes.

I told him I could not suspend the laws of the country; nor could I exempt myself from the obligation of appearing there, after the service of a Crown summons; besides that I was not the only clergyman there; that there were two from the diocese of Tuam there, on examinations as the R.C. ministers of bigamy . . . that my cause was not a scandalous one; that I only  went as an evidence . . .

His Lordship said I was refractory in the College of Salamanca. I said I was not; that I only made a representation of my grievances, to which I had a redress. His Lordship asked me had I any money; I told him that for the present I had not. He asked me if I did not think him entitled to his dues from the clergy? I told him I thought he was. He said I owed him sixty pounds; and that he would forgive the whole amount, if I left the diocese; that at all events I should leave it; and in the most peremptory terms ordered me out of the diocese.4

Accordingly, Burke was verbally suspended, leave to say Mass was withdrawn from him and he was ‘ordered to quit the diocese’.5

Burke believed or at least argued that the suspension was due to Waldron’s prejudice against him and for a month or so bore the ‘the sentence of suspension . . . with the greatest patience’. But Waldron was immovable. Burke asked some of his fellow-priests to be present at a conversation he would have with Waldron ‘but the best of my friends declined doing me this little piece of service, being intimidated by the blister of suspension, the materials for which, and the instrument for spreading it, being always ready at hand’.6

When, a month or so later, the suspension had not been lifted Burke wrote to Waldron on 12.5.1815:

Your Lordship has had . . . leisure to consider the injury done me in my honour and character, etc. I imagined before now that you would repair it; or at least let me know my accusers, in order that I might take defence, and not see myself so far ill-used in the eyes of the public, and my sacerdotal and personal character so much aggrieved. Your Lordship was not even pleased to give me the spiritual advices the Gospel so religiously admonishes with so much precision, and the canon law so punctually prescribes, had I not been an obstinate prevaricator or a scandalous culprit. It is now more than a month since you passed the verbal sentence referred to. Your Lordship will be pleased to revoke it; or at least give it in scriptis.7 You alleged a reason from Doctor Bellew; but at the same time that I pay the greatest deference and respect to your Lordship, I am positive you can have no document from Doctor Bellew to proscribe me from the body of clergy in this manner – but by being yourself judge and party.8

Burke intimated that he had a number of documents – from ten of his fellow clergy in Killala diocese, from parishioners from ‘the unprejudiced gentlemen of the county, my acquaintances’ – references, in effect, that testified to the fact that he was ‘a well-behaved priest’. He enclosed the letter from the clergy:

To the Right Rev. Doctor Waldron, The memorial of the clergy of this diocese of Killala . . . we the under-mentioned Parish Priests and Dignatories of this diocese, do express our sorrowful feelings for the Rev. Charles Burke being deprived of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction in this diocese, and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical function, by your Lordship. These sorrowful sentiments press the harder on us, as we know him to be a good Priest, and a virtuous, amiable, moral learned one. We hope from your Lordship’s goodness, that you will be pleased to revoke the verbal sentence of suspension you passed on him; or at least give him leave to say Mass; or in fine, his exeat.9

The different flocks or parishes that he attended, speak highly in his behalf; and the gentlemen of the county, the most respectable, give him a fair character.10

The letter was signed by James Haran (Castleconnor), Thomas Magee (Ardagh), Daniel McNamara (Easkey), Patrick Flanagan (Kilbride), John Burne (Templeboy), Thomas Munnelly (Dunfeeny), John Kelly (Dromard), James Gilboy (Moygownagh), William Kelly (Skreen), John Magee (Lacken). The letter was, in effect, a considerable challenge to Waldron, then just a few months in the diocese.

Waldron replied to Bourke’s letter and enclosures the following day, 13.5.1815 in a letter, written in Latin, that was terse and to the point. The editor of the pamphlet translated, albeit a trifle awkwardly, the letter:

Reverend Sir,

As you are unwilling to comply with our commands, which had not been issued unless from a pure zeal for the renewing of the faith and promoting the edification of the faithful and with the desire of removing of scandal without noise and the further loss of souls; you have greatly abused both our gentleness and clemency. You now demand in a threatening style, either that the sentence should be rescinded, truly a mild sentence, and in regard to your former course of life too moderate; which we communicated to you verbally before the priests in the course of our visitation, with the loss of particular emoluments, and the voluntary resignation of income, which ought to be paid by you to Us, grieving in our inmost heart that the affair had so demanded; or you demand that this sentence should be given to you again in writing. Since therefore an occasion appeared on your part of a desirous amendment, which it truly grieves us is neglected; for this time to enumerate the many things contrary to the canons of the holy Roman Church and the statutes of this province, which it does not shame you to have done: as also because you stood forth as a notorious drunkard; of which fact, in the greater week itself of the current year, on the road from hence to Ballinrobe, and especially in the house of Mr Thomas Walsh of Belcarra, you exhibited a fresh and remarkable specimen, with the great aggravation and scandal of witnesses. Now because you have demanded it, and lest we should be partakers of the scandal given by you, we, by these presents declare you suspended from every ecclesiastical office and the exercise of every clerical and priestly employment of whatever kind; so that no one should be ignorant that it is not lawful for you in future to celebrate Mass, or to perform any other ecclesiastical duty whatever in the diocese of Killala. Moreover if you do this you will incur the penalties inflicted by law in similar cases. Wherefore we have given these letters, confirmed by our own hand, this 13th of May, in the year of Redemption, 1815.

Peter Waldron, R.C. Bishop of Killala11

Burke had put his letter and the appended testamentaries ‘in the Post Office’ but Waldron asked one of his priests, Edmund Hughes, to deliver his letter personally to Burke, which he did on 22nd May. Hughes handed the letter to Burke: 

. . . with tears in his eyes. I took the suspension, read it while my friend Mr Hughes gave full vent to a copious discharge of a flood of tears, sympathising in my misfortune. I immediately discovered that the suspension did not regard me more than any other clergyman in the diocese, as my name was not mentioned in it, which I stated in my answer . . . I must remark, that though Mr Hughes cried bitterly for my distress, at which his Reverence seemed more hurt than myself, yet he never offered me even a shilling to buy snuff; so that I often thought he only put snuff into his eyes, to make it appear that he really felt the sorrowful pangs of sympathetic grief on the occasion!12

Burke, deftly deflecting the force of Waldron’s letter, replied to Waldron on the same day:

Most Illustrious Sir,

Seeing that there is no mention made of my name in the sentence of suspension fulminated by your illustrious Lordship and delivered to me today by the Rev. Mr Edmund Hughes, it did not rightly appear to me that the sentence conveyed an answer to my letter delivered on 12th May current, in which I had humbly sought that you would kindly name to me the accusers. For as yet the accusers are unknown to me, and my name is not expressed in the sentence of suspension: therefore it did not appear just that that sentence should be obeyed. When, however, the sentence is correct and full, it is necessary that I should comply with it.

I am Your very illustrious Lordship’s most obedient servant,

Charles Bourke, Priest13

The following day, May 23rd, Thomas Walsh of Belcarra wrote to Waldron, intimating that Bourke wasn’t intoxicated on his premises the previous April: ‘The Rev. Mr. Bourke called at my house going to the assizes in Ballinrobe; called for two glasses of wine and water and walked off like any other gentleman who called on his passage without any trouble; and on his return done the same; and gave no scandal, which I understand was alleged to him.’

However there was no response from Waldron – ‘I was not considered worthy of an answer’ – and Burke felt obliged at appeal to the diocesan Chapter.

There was ‘a convocation of the clergy in Crossmolina’ and Burke thought it a favourable opportunity to hand the appeal to the bishop in the presence of the clergy:

I did so, and made them evidences against their will. It would have been worth any man’s while to ride a hundred miles to hear the gentlemen argue that day on theology! Poor old Sancho Panza’s arguments, in the Island of Barataria, occurred to me; and notwithstanding the serious emotions of the most heartfelt dolorous grief, at the oppression under which I laboured, I could hardly leave the house, from the suffocated state I was put into, by the force of their natural logic. One spoke Latin, the other answered in discordant phrases of broken English, so that Sancho appeared to me as truly verified, as the fertile genius of the memorable and ever celebrated Cervantes describes him.14

But Waldron would have none of it and before the assembled priests ordered Bourke to leave the diocese.

On June 4th Burke incorporated the appeal in a letter he wrote from Dereen. It might appear, Burke suggested to Waldron, that the bishop’s commands ‘as is becoming should have been kindly received’. However, he went on: ‘It is not without reason, it appears to me, that those proceedings are to be resisted and exposed . . . when with a hasty mind you commanded before the priests that I should instantly depart from this diocese, without any ceremony or law, which are proper to courts of judicature rightly set forth’. Burke informed Waldron that such sentences ‘are not to be attended to, inasmuch as they are contrary to all laws, natural, human, canonical and civil. For as much as in that sentence, and in the verbal one which went before it, no place of defence is given to the accused, no accuser is named. You pronounce sentence against me, first by word, and secondly in writing, not having heard me in my cause, neither do you wish to hear me.’ Waldron, Bourke suggests, is the judge and sole accusing party in the case and he (Bourke) is not allowed to defend himself, contrary to the unchangeable custom of the Church and ‘militating against all the judicial ecclesiastical statutes’:

Where is your Public Notary? Where is your Secretary? Where, finally, I pray, shall I find the citations which ought to have preceded this irregular form of yours? Where shall I find your Dean? Where shall I find your ecclesiastical Chapter? Where shall I find your circular letters to your parishes and the priests of this parish, announcing your most illustrious Lordship to be really our bishop?15

Clearly Burke was a formidable adversary, intelligent, astute, well versed in canonical procedures and, extraordinary for the time, prepared to challenge his new bishop on a number of fronts. It was clear that he was taking the initiative from Waldron and anxious to press home whatever advantage he saw, not least due to Waldron’s failure to sort out his diocese after Dominick Bellew’s long episcopate, much of which Bellew had spent trying to extricate himself from Killala to more amenable surroundings.

Burke pressed his case:

What therefore is to be said but that your most illustrious Lordship, ruling alone, and alone your own judge . . . without proofs and allegations, should expel me from my native place, no other law being attended to? What more, I beseech you, could a tyrant do? What could the grand Turk do? What could the Inquisitor General of Spain or Portugal do more, than without any other authority to condemn the accused unheard? And even as yet I am ignorant and know not if I am accused or no. To whom I beseech is this to be attributed, for I am entirely ignorant and cannot tell? Therefore God forbid that I should comply with so gross and culpable a sentence; and I appeal to the legal constitutions, against so injurious a sentence, as I ought.16

In a postscript Burke complains that Waldron did not reply to his letter of 22nd May, ‘rendered by me in Latin’ but felt that the appeal, made before the priests of the diocese, had the desired effect in intimidating Waldron. Soon after, Waldron asked the Rev. John Magee, parish priest of Lacken, and a friend of Burke to intervene: ‘to speak to me on the subject of an accommodation, as he now dreaded I would write and expose in the public prints, not only his deficiency in ecclesiastical discipline but the extortion, incapacity, weakness and fraudulent measures of both himself and his clergy.’ For a long time Burke resisted Magee’s ‘expostulations’ as he regarded the publishing of Waldron’s transactions as a way of checking ‘his Lordship’s unlawful and ill-meaning proceedings’. Eventually, though, he yielded to Magee’s advice and presented himself to Waldron in the hope that an agreement could be reached ‘on reasonable and honourable terms’. Burke though ‘more inclined for the olive branch’ believed that ‘it was not any kindness, charitable impulse, or virtuous affections of religion’ that inclined Waldron towards seeking an accommodation but rather ‘the servile fear of being exposed, originating from the poorest and meanness of all passions, that of egotism’.

Waldron asked Burke to go to Lacken with John Magee to do penance, to make a general confession and to ‘go to Loughdanig’ (Lough Derg)

where he would meet the lacrimose Rev. Hughes ‘who went to exonerate himself from his conscience, and to begin in the new’. Waldron suggested that Burke should confess to Hughes so that he might purge away his crimes, sins and guilt. Burke didn’t agree: the journey was too long to Lough Derg and anyway he had a right to choose his own confessor: ‘Too scrupulous a confessor’ Burke commented wrily, ‘would not answer a man, after a heavy law-suit, and long travels through the Hebrides, Hudson’s Bay, London, Dublin, and the greatest part of Connaught.’17

Bourke’s decision was for Lacken and Magee instead of Hughes and Lough Derg. He found Magee ‘a very considerate confessor and a great host’:

This gentleman and worthy clergyman . . . seeing me thin and meagre, judged I was getting into a decay, or that after my travels and multiplied anxieties of soul and mind, from my late episcopal concerns and persecutions, I was getting into a galloping consumption. He very generously plied me with the best nourishment the country could afford; but made me in lieu of this good usage and treatment (which his house evermore furnishes to his friends and those in distress, with real Irish hospitality) redouble my prayers18 . . . I will certify, that anyone in distress, who will apply to Rev. Mr Magee, will have no cause to complain, if good beef, mutton, fowl, fish, vegetables, beer and punch, are materials for doing penance.18

The reason for the penance and indeed for the suspension, as Burke concedes,20 was that he was seen drunk at Tom Walsh’s in Belcarra, even though Walsh himself had asserted the contrary. There was a Major Culkin there too. Burke had ‘asked him to take a glass of wine or a tumbler of punch; and if called upon I am sure as a gentleman of the strictest honour and veracity, he will prove the fallacy of the assertion’. Burke clearly believed that the informer was Pat Kelly of Gallen, ‘a gentleman who is always busy in things that do not concern him’. Kelly apparently had been ‘a great advocate of Mr Mangan in Backs’,21 which would account for his antipathy to Burke. But when Burke wrote to him asking whether he had briefed Waldron, Kelly didn’t answer: ‘I only leave it to God and an impartial public to judge whether or not a gentleman could be guilty of such a breach of truth. A friend of Burke’s, Honoria MacCabe, composed several verses about the episode and, in Burke’s words, paid Mr Kelly for being too impertinently officious’. Burke received a copy of the verses which, he says, were widely disseminated ‘in the county of Mayo’.22

Burke suggested that there may have been collusion between Kelly and Waldron, who was prejudiced against him because he opposed ‘the candidates of Tuam who exerted themselves to be bishops in this diocese. Doctor Waldron now fills the episcopal chair and means to avenge my opposition to the Tuam candidates . . . in all the fury of malice, prejudice and revenge . . . the bishop pretends to chastise me for a crime not proved, committed more than thirty miles from the limits of his diocese; a crime, which in fact was invented by the deepest forged malice of an unknown accuser, if any accuser there was; which I am inclined to think there was not. If there was, why conceal his name, which his Lordship never yet told?’23

Burke now found himself in the worst possible situation: a history of conflict, few options and now suspended. Where could he go from here? Back to his native Ballycastle? Or stick it out in Templeboy, hoping to persuade or bully Waldron into lifting the suspension?