The Reformation at Birr

Given as a talk to Cashel Historical Society in the 1980s and revised in 2009


The so-called 'Reformation' at Birr refers to the consequences of a dispute between Catholic clergy at Birr, Co. Offaly during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The main characters in the dispute were two cousin priests, Frs. Michael and William Crotty, on the one side and Very Rev. Patrick Kennedy, P.P. and the church committee on the other.

In order to understand the dispute it is important to sketch in the historical background. The events commenced during the depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Catholic Church had just emerged from the period of the Penal Laws and was going through a phase of reconstruction. It was badly in need of reorganisation. Episcopal control of priests and people had suffered greatly during the Penal Laws and it was to take a long time to reassert.

As well as the need for reform in the relationship between bishop and priest, there was also a need for reform in the lives of the clergy. There were many charges against the clergy. They were sensual, arrogant or churlish, fond of the pleasures of the palate, preferred the company of the wealthy and influential people and were too fond of money.

It was the latter failing in their clergy that the people were least willing to forgive. Avarice and greed for money was most resented. Poets and people were quick to seize on the paradox of a clergy, whose business it was to denounce the vanity of earthly wealth but who sometimes appeared to be unduly concerned with pecuniary matters. There were two areas of financial support for the clergy, the payment of the priests and religious and the building of churches. The payment of the clergy was by the voluntary system and this created friction when priests approached the collection in a commercial spirit. There was a big church building program going on during this period and this created an additional financial burden on an impoverished people who, up until 1838, had to pay tithes to the Established Church as well.

When it is realised that at least a quarter of the population in pre-Famine Ireland were subsistence farmers, who did not use money, the grievances of many at the financial demands of the clergy can be well understood. Parish Priests were estimated to earn £150 per annum in 1825. Curates were badly paid. They got board and lodging, a horse and a cash allowance from their P.P.

Appointed To Birr

In April 1821 Rev. Michael Crotty was transferred to Birr as junior curate after a short stay at Toomevara. His stay there from August 1820 hadn't been a happy one. He had a personality clash with the P.P., Rev. John Meagher, who had been ordained at Maynooth in 1817, and he later wrote this about his experience: 'In Toomevara I felt degraded by having to associate with the popish incumbent of the parish, a creature of the Maynooth School, who had just talent enough to say Mass, collect money, and generally mimic the peculiarities of his diocesan.'

Michael Crotty, the son of farmer, James Crotty, and Catherine Drew, was born in O'Briensbridge, Co. Clare in 1795. His uncle was Rev. Michael Crotty, P.P., Castleconnell, and another uncle, Patrick Crotty, was married to Sarah Vaughan, a sister of Rev. Daniel Vaughan, P.P., Scariff, afterwards P.P. of Killaloe, and later bishop of the diocese. They had a son, William, who also became a priest and was later closely involved in the reformation at Birr.

Michael Crotty entered Maynooth College in April 1814 and matriculated in the class of Logic for the diocese of Killaloe. He was expelled from the college in 1817 because of a libellous article on Maynooth 'as a hotbed of sedition' published in the public press. One of the arguments made by Crotty in his book Narrative of the Reformation at Birr, published in London in 1847, was that the students were disloyal. According to the book forty students fought against the King's army in the rebellion of 1798. This may have been the charge against the College in the above mentioned, libellous article. The expulsion coloured his opinion of Maynooth and of the priests who were ordained there.

Returning home Michael Crotty took sides when Bishop O'Shaughnessy of Killaloe charged Fr. Corbett, P.P., Kilrush for having carnal relations with his housekeeper, who happened to be the bishop's niece-in-law . The trial was held in Castleconnell Church and Corbett was found guilty. The case divided the clergy and the people. On the one side were the bishop, Crotty and his uncle the P.P. of Castleconnell while the leading cleric on the other side was Very Rev. Patrick McMahon, P.P., Quin, who made a speech in which he promised that all who supported Corbett would be rewarded, and that Michael Crotty would never be ordained.. He was as good as his word. When he became co-adjutor bishop in 1819, Fr. Corbett became P.P. of Kilrush.

Ordained in Paris

However, he was unable to prevent Michael Crotty getting ordained. Bishop O'Shaughnessy repaid the assistance of young Michael Crotty by recommending him to St. Sulpice in Paris for the Diocese of Killaloe. He did this despite warnings from the Maynooth authorities of the unsuitability of Crotty for ordination because of his rash and disputative nature. Michael Crotty was ordained at St. Sulpice in June 1820 and appointed to Toomevara in August, where he remained until sent to Birr the following April.

Fr. Michael Crotty's appointment as second curate to Birr was because of the poor health of Fr. Philip Meagher, P.P., who had been ordained in 1790 with the future Bishop Patrick McMahon, mentioned above. Fr. Meagher lived in Connacht Street and his curates, Frs. Curtain and Crotty, in Main Street.

The old chapel in Birr was a wretchedly poor building and, as far back as 1808, a committee had been formed to collect funds for a larger and more suitable replacement. The foundation stone of the new chapel was laid by Lord Oxmanstown, son and heir of the Earl of Rosse, on August 1, 1817. He had provided a site and £100 towards the project. A Chapel Committee with Fr. Peter Curtain as chairman held weekly collections to help meet the building costs. Progress was slow and the building work continued at a snail's pace. Delays were caused by alterations to the plans.

Following Crotty's arrival at Birr he soon found fault with the committee and roundly and publicly accused them because of 'their riotous and drunken assemblies' and the 'abandoned profligacy of their morals.' Somewhat of a loner he was further isolated from his fellow-clergy by his stand on the Catholic rent, which was collected by the clergy in support of Daniel O'Connell's campaign. In this he had sided with his uncle and namesake, the Parish Priest of Castleconnell, who refused to collect it. He soon gained support from a section of the people. He had already made an impression on them by his attention to the wants of the poor, by his efforts for the suppression of immorality and by his zeal against Protestantism.

State of Birr

Birr was a garrison town which catered for many religious groups among its population of about five and a half thousand. The main churches were Catholic and Church of Ireland but there were also three independent chapels, two Wesleyan chapels and a Quaker Meeting House.

In 1825 Fr. Francis Kennedy, P.P., Shinrone died. Pending the appointment of Fr. Nicholas Hourigan as Parish Priest, Crotty was sent to Shinrone to take charge of the parish, probably in the hope that matters might calm down in Birr in his absence. Here he changed his attitude to the Catholic rent became 'an agitating and political priest' and collected the rent.

In his zeal he assaulted a company-keeping pair on July 14, 1825. The man was a Protestant, named Kennedy, and he prosecuted Crotty for assault. The trial came on but the jury disagreed and Crotty was bound over to meet the charge under a new jury at the next Quarter Sessions. Having come to the belief in the interval that the prosecution was dropped, he failed to appear at the next Sessions and was consequently fined the sum of £20. 

In the meantime Crotty returned to Birr after his temporary sojourn at Shinrone and at mass on his first Sunday back demounced Mr. Cruise, who had presided at his trial, as 'the intransigent organ of an Orange Bench.' (Incidentally, Cruise was a Catholic.) Shortly afterwards Bishop O'Shaughnessy decided that Crotty should return to Toomevara. He never forgave the bishop for this especially as Fr. Thomas Blake, who was ordained in 1825, was appointed to the 'lucrative living' in Birr. As well Blake's father was a member of the Chapel Committee at Birr. Crotty brooded on his disappointment 'in the wretched and paltry village of Toomevara' and soon applied to Bishop O'Shaughnessy for a transfer. Early in 1826 he was sent as curate to Killaloe.

Soon after arriving in Killaloe, as he hadn't paid the court fine of £20, he was arrested, brought to Birr and had to give bail, himself £50 and two sureties of £20, to stand trial at the April Quarter Sessions 1826 for the original charge of assault. He was sentenced to two weeks in jail but, after he requested that the sentence be changed to a fine, he was fined £10, which was duly paid by his friends. On the Sunday following his trial Crotty denounced the magistrates and the two Catholic members of the jury, one of whom was Fr. Blake's father and returned to Killaloe.

Investigation of Accounts

Crotty's persistent attacks on the Chapel Committee had begun to take effect and on April 17, 1826 a public meeting was held with Thomas Lalor Cooke, a Protestant solicitor, in the chair. Resolutions were passed demanding an enquiry and the election of a new committee. The accounts were handed over to two laymen, John Cassin and John Smyth, for examination. They reported back that the books had not been kept 'in a regular, explicit and correct manner.' However, they couldn't discover any appearance of fraud.

Bishop O'Shaughnessy send his co-adjutor, Dr. McMahon, to Birr to examine the finances of the committee with Dr. Ambrose` O'Connor, P.P., Nenagh. They examined the books and found that 'No charge of peculiarities or fraud of any description' could be found. 

This was not the kind of result the people expected. They had expected that the old committee would be found guilty of fraud. The practice had been that tollgates were erected near the chapel and each Sunday collectors refused to allow 'any person to pass who did not pay one halfpenny at least.' When these tollgates were thrown into the river, they symbolised the end of the old regime.

During his investigations Bishop McMahon was insulted by the anti-committee faction, who shouted: 'We want Mr. Crotty.' Lord Rosse in his account of the events, described matters as follows: 'Thus was their Bishop, who had always before been received with the greatest reverence, that the people fell on their knees to him when he appeared, now met with murmurs, without even a hat taken off to him; and at last hooted and opposed with clamour when he was addressing them in their place of worship. It is this very extraordinary irreverence towards their priests and Bishop, like nothing that has ever occurred except in revolutionary France, in the days of her greatest wickedness, that has induced me to write the account of these proceedings.'

The bishop had been given plenary powers to deal with the Birr situation and he laid the parish under interdict. The parish priest, Fr. Meagher, was relieved of his duties at an annual pension of £130 per year. The bishop appointed Fr. Kennedy, P.P., Lorrha as administrator of Birr. He was given authority by Bishop MacMahon to remove the interdict, which he did in August.

On the first Sunday after his arrival, Fr. Kennedy, who was of a confrontational nature, told the people he would personally supervise the completion of the church. Lalor Cooke then drew up two resolutions 1) that any money collected be placed in the hands of a treasurer acceptable to the people and that the parish priest draw on him for any money required and 2) that each Sunday's collection, plus the treasurer's statement, be read from the pulpit. Fr. Kennedy would not agree with these constraints.

The legality of Fr. Kennedy's appointment was hotly contested by the Crottyites. The anti-committee faction sent another long remonstrance to Bishop O'Shaughnessy in mid-May. On May 17, 1826 Bishop McMahon wrote Fr. Kennedy that, if he so wished, he could have Fr. Tynan as curate in place of Fr. Blake, whom the Crottyites detested and that, if he deemed it prudent, he could remove the ban on the Crottyites. Fr. Kennedy took over the parish finances and retained Fr. Blake.

Crotty's popularity did not wain. Some of the parishioners wrote inviting him to come to Birr and make a collection for the £20 fine, which was still unpaid. Crotty requested permission of Bishop O'Shaughnessy. It was granted but later withdrawn on the objection of Fr. Kennedy.

Crotty Defiant

Crotty returned to Birr in defiance of Fr. Kennedy. When he arrived in the town he was greeted by the Chapel Band playing See the Conquering Hero Comes. On the morning of June 29, 1826 he was handed an order from Bishop O'Shaughnessy by the parish priest at Lalor Cooke's house commanding him 'under pain of suspension ipso facto not to put a foot inside the Roman Catholic Chapel of Birr.'

Crotty ignored the order, went to 12.00 o'clock Mass, where there was uproar and Fr. Kennedy was forced to abandon Mass. Crotty took over and announced a collection for the following Sunday, which realised £40. 

(If one compares this with the normal Sunday collection of £6, or £1 for the Church Fund, one gets some indication of Crotty's popularity. The figure is still more impressive when it is realised that his support is supposed to have come from the poorer section of the people.)

Meanwhile Fr. Kennedy retreated to 'the Shambles', the public abbatoir, and said Mass for several weeks for the Chapel Committee. 

That night Crotty wrote to Bishop O'Shaughnesssy vindicating his position. He reminded the bishop of his support during the Corbett affair, complained about being removed from the curacy of Birr and referred to Fr. Kennedy as 'that little ingenious gentleman who had taken a most decided part against the vast majority of the parishioners with a corrupt and profligate faction, and inflamed the public discontent by indulging in abuse from the altar instead of preaching Christ and him crucified.'

Fr. Kennedy asked lord Rosse about the legal position and was informed that an action could be brought under the 31st Act, George III for disturbance of public worship. He then reported the matter to Bishop O'Shaughnessy. The latter replied on July 2nd saying that Crotty was what the Maynooth superiors represented 'a fool and a madman.' He appointed Fr. Kennedy as Vicar General and authorised him to use canonical sanctions against Crotty.

On July 21, 1826 Bishop O'Shaughnessy deprived Crotty of his priestly faculties. Crotty ignored the decision and continued to celebrate Mass in the old Church.

On July 24 Lord Rosse suggested to Kennedy that proceedings be brought against Crotty on the grounds that the lease of the church belonged to Fr. Kennedy.

The following Sunday Crotty held a special meeting in the Church and drew up a number of resolutions to be presented to Bishop O'Shaughnessy. The resolutions complained of insults from Fr. Kennedy, the confused state of the parish finances and requested Fr. Kennedy's removal. Lalor Cooke wrote a letter to O'Shaughnessy in which he expressed no confidence in Kennedy.

Lord Rosse wrote to O'Shaughnessy on August 17 suggesting a compromise: Crotty should be offered the vacant parish of Doonas, if he would leave Birr. Nothing seems to have come of this proposal. 

The divisions in the town of Birr are described in the Clare Journal on August 21, 1826: 'It is not easy to describe what a scene of animosity that town has become. It is completely divided between Crottyites and Kennedyites, but the former far exceed the number of the latter. On Tuesday the people assailed the Roman Catholic Bishop with hisses and groans and was it not for the timely arrival of the police they would have proceeded to violence. Nothing can exceed the present triumph of the Crottyites. In fact the Bishop's authority is set entirely at defiance both of Fr. Crotty and the people. How all this will terminate, it is difficult at present to ascertain, but now hostility reigns between shepherd, pastor and flock ˆ and the last have thrown off all spiritual control.'

Crottyites Ejected from Chapel

On Saturday, August 26 a meeting was held in the Shambles, in which the fate of Crotty was decided. On September 8 Lord Rosse ordered the 66th Regiment to march to the church and formally evict Crotty. This they did 'with screwed bayonets and loaded muskets . . . brutally and forcibly' expelling Crotty and his congregation. Several of Crotty's followers ended up in Birr Bridewell.

On September 10 Fr. Kennedy had Crotty charged with riot, conspiracy and disturbing public worship. The case was heard at the October Quarter Sessions. Crotty was defended by Sir George Bennett, Q.C. The trial lasted two days after which the jury acquitted Crotty.

He was now prevented by law from using the old chapel so his followers rented a large house for use as a temporary chapel. Crotty claims that Kennedy's congregation was now so small that supporters had to be brought from Roscrea.

On December 2 Rev. Phillip Meagher, P.P. died and Fr. Kennedy was officially appointed Parish Priest the following week. Crotty was enraged. During the night of December 16, the roof of the old chapel caved in. Fr. Kennedy blamed Crotty, while the latter blamed Kennedy.

Next day Crotty and his followers took possession a the new chapel, which at this stage was almost completed. It was roofed but unfurnished. Crotty celebrated the first Mass within the walls to the great annoyance of Kennedy and his followers. He was evicted the following week.

Lord Rosse was unsure of the legal position and wrote to the bishop, Dr. O'Shaughnessy, asking whether Kennedy was officially Parish Priest. The bishop replied: 'I beg leave to inform you that the death of Dr. Meagher makes no change whatsoever in the situation of Mr. Kennedy whom I hereby constitute and appoint Parish Priest of Birr.' Strong pressure was being put on Dr. O'Shaughnessy to have Fr. Kennedy removed. Two letters exist in the diocesan archives from a Birr layman, Patrick Carroll, requesting his removal. They are dated February 25 and March 7, 1827 requesting that Fr. Kennedy be removed and asking the bishop how he will 'account for all the souls that departed this life since 29th June last in the hands of Mr. Crotty.' Carroll later became a violent opponent of Michael Crotty and an ardent supporter of his cousin, William.

Legal Opinion

Meantime Sr. George Bennett had been asked for his legal opinion regarding the new chapel, and he stated on February 28: 'I have already said the the Roman Catholics of Birr have a right to go to the chapel, and I conceive that Mr. Crotty has a right to be there if he pleases, but that right should be exercised with caution, not in a violent manner, or with any circumstance that could induce a jury to believe it was done with the intention of disturbing public worship or of breaking the peace.'

Acting on this Crotty went to the new chapel on March 4 and Fr. Kennedy made no attempt to oppose him. Some of Fr. Kennedy's supporters went to see Daniel O'Connell the following week and he advised them to barricade the building. Any attempt by Crotty or his supporeters to force a way in would leave them open to prosecution. When Crotty came next he found the chapel bolted and barricaded. He went to see John Wetheralt the magistrate to see about getting in. Unfortunately for Crotty some of his supporters were hasty and pulled down the barricade. Immediately Fr. Kennedy had Crotty prosecuted for disturbing public worship, riot and trespass. He was arrested, charged, found guilty and sentemced to three months in jail and bound to the peace for seven years. 

He was jailed in Phillipstown.Two of his leading supporters were sentenced to two months.

While in jail he was visited by J.F.K., Bishop of Kildare and Loughlin, who offered to negotiate his release if he would only submit to the Killaloe authority. Crotty replied that he would 'sooner die of beggary and starvation than be a splendid example of successful servility to popish domination.'

Crotty's followers represented the judgment as a malicious and unjust persecution and refused to return to the pastoral care of the parish priest. They continued to meet every Sunday in their rented rooms in Castle Street. Numbering an estimated two thousand they were content, while deprived of the Mass, with having the rosary said, prayers offered and a collection made for their leader. Every week a parcel of money and provisions was sent to Crotty in jail. Infants were carried the twenty-seven miles distance to be baptised by him and some even died without the last rites rather than have them administerd by Fr. Kennedy.

On the day of his release from jail Crotty was met by a large number of people and escorted to his house. He then resumed his ministerial functions in Castle Street and the hostility between his followers and those of Fr. Kennedy continued as bitter and vehement as before. Crotty concentrated on building up his congregation. He also started what was to become the 'Reformation at Birr' by abolishing clay money, the practice of giving money to a priest at a funeral, when a handful of blessed clay was put on the coffin.

From 1828 until early 1832 there were no more major upheavals at Birr although the tensions between the rival factions occasionally spilled over into violence. During this period also there was a steady decline in the support for the Crottyites. By 1834 it was estimated that there was an overall attendance of 3,750 at the three masses in the Roman Catholic chapel but only 1,550 at the three masses in the Crottyite chapel. As the latter introduced more Reformation ideas many of the members began to drift away. However, the Crotty movement was to receive a major boost with the arrival of William Crotty.

William Crotty

William Crotty, a cousin of Michael's, who was born in 1806, was a student in the Irish College in Paris when Michael started his reforming campaign at Birr. Representations were made to Bishop O'Shaughnessy (who died in August 1829) and to his successor, Bishop Patrick MacMahon, to have William withdrawn from the Irish College, where he began his studies in 1825.

While studying in Paris, William later claimed, he began to entertain doubts of the religious system in which he was brought up. When he saw Roman Catholics burning incense, bending the knee and offering prayers before the statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden of St. Sulpice, he could not help declaring that it was not without reason that the charge of idolatry was brought by Protestants against the Church of Rome.

In 1828, he was summoned to Ireland by Bishop O'Shaughnessy. Having arrived he learned he was summoned for the purpose of using his influence on his cousin, Michael, to induce him to relinguish his attitude of rebellion against the bishop and to submit to ecclesiastical authority. There was also a veiled threat that failure would mean he might never be ordained.

William travelled to Birr but instead of changing his cousin's mind, joined him for a short time. Then he changed his mind and denounced the Birr reformation in a newspaper: 'The day of deception and delusion, with regard to me, is no more and I now resemble the prodigal child returning to his father's house, which he so shamefully deserted.'. The Bishop was none too pleased and it was his successor, Bishop MacMahon, who eventually gave permission for his ordination. William was eventually ordained in January 1832 and appointed curate at Killaloe, where his uncle, Daniel Vaughan, was parish Priest.

Soon after William had a quarrel with Fr. Vaughan. He wrote to Michael at Birr asking the latter to receive him as he was 'sick of Popery and saw the errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome.' Michael received him as a colleague in May 1832 and the two worked together for a while. All the efforts made by his uncle and Parish Priest to get him to change his mind were in vain.

After some time William had a change of mind due to doubts about the direction of his life or, more likely, because a curacy in Castleconnell had become vacant. Whatever the reason he recanted and denounced Michael and the Birr reformation with 'satanic malignity' in a letter to the Limerick Chronicle. He may have expected to get the curacy as a result of his recantation.

He failed to get the position and went to France for a while. He had another change of mind. He wrote to Michael again saying he was sorry for what he had done, that he could find no rest from the accusations of a guilty conscience and promised, that if he were forgiven and sent £20 to bring him back to Birr, he would never again abandon Michael and his flock.

'Notwithstanding the remonstrances of my friends, my easy good nature got the better of my prudence; I sent him a bank order for £20 to bring him home from France and again received him into favour', Michael wrote later.

Development of Reformation

William Crotty was now regarded by Michael as a young, zealous co-adjutor in his crusade of reform as plans were made to establish another chapel in the parish of Lackeen. The foundations of this building are still to be seen not far from Carrig Church for the building seems never to have got further than the foundation stage.

The Reformation now developed under the guidance of the two cousins with the emergence of new practices and observances. New prayers were formulated, the Mass was translated into English, communion in two kinds was offered, the use of holy water and altar candles was abandoned, clerical vestments were discarded and the levying of clerical fees was curtailed. A school was set up where the children would read 'the Protestant bible in its integrity and purity, without note or comment, without mutilation or curtailment and unpolluted by the withering and contamination touch of the adulterous Board of Irish Education.' It was reported that nine hundred people attended Crotty's services each Sunday.

The cousins next tried to spread the word in Castleconnell, where their uncle, Michael Crotty, P.P., was old and infirm. Bishop McMahon wrote a letter to the parish priest denouncing nephew Michael as 'the archschismatic of Birr, going about like a spirit of darkness, seeking those whom he may devour.' Michael threatened a libel action against the bishop, which came to nothing, and wrote three open letters to the bishop in the Limerick Chronicle. The first, which appeared on March 10, 1832, outlined the causes of the Birr troubles. The second developed the theme and stated that peace could be restored if Fr. Kennedy, P.P. was removed. The third was a long tract which ranged over the nature of schisms to the authority of the Church.

Another attempt at reconciliation was made in 1833 through the mediation of a Maynooth contemporary of Michael Crotty's, Fr. O'Loughlin. He found the Crottys ready to co-operate, even to the extent of moving away from Birr, but not prepared to sign a document, which the bench of bishops in Dublin looked upon as the sine qua non of the restoration of normal relations. This document called for their 'unconditional acknowledgement of submission' to episcopal authority and their declaration that all the marriages which they had solemnised for the previous eight or ten years were 'absolutely invalid' and their absolutions during that period 'null and void'.

Final Breach

The Crottys were unable to accept these conditions and this marked the final breach between them and their denominational allegiance. William Crotty publicly declared: 'I am totally unconnected with either Pope or Bishop, and not very partial to Romanism from what I have been made to know of that cruel and degraded superstition.'

Michael Crotty had been bound to the peace for seven years in 1827 and when the time expired on April 13, 1834 he and William 'in a quiet and peaceable manner went to the Catholic chapel at Birr, then in the illegal possession of Priest Kennedy to perform divine service.' It was Sunday and Fr. Kennedy was saying Mass. The Crottys forced their way into the Church and a violent struggle followed before they were finally ejected. The Crottys were arrested and released on bail. Crown Counsel offered that if they left Birr the charges would be withdrawn. They refused and Michael was sentenced to seven weeks imprisonment and fined £10. The cousins never again attempted to take possession of the Church.

In June 1835 Fr. Kennedy, P.P. was appointed coadjutor bishop. The bull of appointment was a long time coming from Rome but eventually arrived and Kennedy was consecrated bishop at Birr on January 17, 1836. He was co-adjutor for only five months as Bishop Patrick MacMahon died in the following June.

Having failed to secure the possession of the New Chapel the Crottys decided to build a new one for their congregation, which had declined in numbers since 1827, and published an appeal in the Dublin papers on November 1st, 1835.

'Having been deprived of all right and title to officiate for our flock in the new Roman Catholic Chapel of Birr by a recorded decision of the laws of our country against us, the only recourse now left us was to make an appeal to the sympathy and generosity of the Christian Protestants of Ireland on behalf of our persecuted congregation.'

The appeal was headed: 'To the liberal, high-minded and Christian Protestants of Ireland. Brought by the grace of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit to see the errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome and to embrace the truth of the Protestant religion, we have been enabled during the period of ten years to resist and withstand the encroachments of prerogative, to struggle against the inroads of arbitrary power and oppose the exercise of opulent oppression . . . .'

'We have discarded the novelties of superstition and reduced Christianity to first principles. . . We consume in the fire of God's Word the hay and the stubble of superstition, such as penances, purgatory, saint invocation and image worship. We have reduced the Sacramants to two ˆ Baptism and the Lord's Supper. We have exploded the damnable doctrine of exclusive salvation. We appeal to the generous and high-minded Prostestants for pecuniary means to build our chapel and rescue 2,000 souls from the snares of Antichrist.'

The appeal met with immediate response and over £400 was subscribed. Trustees were appointed, most of whom were members of the Established Church. A site in Castle Street was leased from the Earl of Rosse and the foundation stone of the new church was laid on July 15, 1836 by Michael Crotty.

Already on June 5, 1836 the Crottys celebrated mass in English for the first time. This new version was radically different from the Latin version. The substance of the mass was changed and 'we have expunged the ceremony of the Elevation, together with all the other nonsensical mummery and cris-crosses of the Romish Mass.' This development maked a clear break in doctrine with the Catholic Church.

Growing Divisions Between Cousins

In the meantime the bishop, Dr. McMahon, passed away and was succeeded by Fr. Kennedy. He was consecrated at Birr on January 17, 1836 before a very small congregation. This fact was gleefully referred to by Michael Crotty the following Sunday. He 'congratulated the people on the stand made against priestly domination the previous Sabbath. No surprise should be felt at the high elevation of a priest who so lately gave them opposition ˆ wicked men have often been raised to the highest station, and a devil was among the deciples of the Lord.' Soon after his consecration Bishop Kennedy wrote to Rome claiming that Crotty was no longer a problem.

In order to continue the fund-raising Michael left Birr on a tour through Ireland and Great Britain, leving the congregation and the building of the chapel to be supervised by his cousin, William. In Belfast the sum of £325 was pledged. From there he went to Scotland and spent a good deal of time there, eventually returning to Birr in February 1837.

While he was busy fund-raising in Scotland William was not idle. As a result of his study of Presbyterian forms and doctrine, he shortly conceived the idea of connecting himself and his people with the Synod of Ulster. He also recruited an ex-student of the Irish College at Paris, Michael O'Keeffe, who wrote a letter to the Evening Packet bitterly assailing the Established Church and also attacking the Presbyterians for accepting the Regnum Donum. William went further when he preached a sermon in Limerick criticising tithes.

The result of these developments was that many Protestants became hostile to the Birr reformation.

Dr. Cooke, the great Belfast preacher, had raised over £300 at a meeting for Michael Crotty but refused to forward the money until Michael repudiated William's views. In response Michael wrote a letter to the Scottish Guardian defending the clergy of the Episcopal Church of England and Ireland, supporting the collection of tithes which William had attacked and saying that William was misquoted and misrepresented in the Limerick Chronicle. Later he wrote of the episode: 'The conduct of my cousin on several occasions has been to me a source of much sorrow and regret but for the good of the cause on which we were embarked, I continued with a kind of desperate fidelity to adhere to him in the hope that time and experience would have produced a reformation.'

In spite of these protestations it was clear by now that a real division had emerged between the Anglican-inclined Michael and the Calvinist William.

Affiliation with Church of England

A meeting of the trustees on May 15, 1838 decided that Michael should go to England to raise badly-needed funds. He did not get on very well as there was suspicion about William's direction. After five months only £270 was raised. One Minister, Rev. Hugh McNeil, wrote to Michael saying 'I cannot support or recommend your cause unless you come in connection with the church, or under ecclesiastical superintendence.' Michael saw the only hope of success lay in affiliating with the Church of England. 

Accordingly, when he returned to Birr in April 1839, he persuaded William to join the Church of England with him. They received testimonials of character from Rev. Marcus McCausland, Rector of Birr and from Rt. Rev. Ludlow Tonson, Bishop of Killaloe. Armed with these testimonials Michael returned to England to raise funds. While there he got married to Martha Holland, the daughter of John Holland, umbrella and furniture maker, of Darwen Street, Birmingham in St. Philip's Church of England, Bermingham, signing himself 'a clergyman of the Established Church.'

Michael's long absences in England had given William the opportunity to take control of matters in Birr. In his book Michael described the developments: 'During my absence in England, the Revd William Crotty violated his compact with me, abolished the English liturgy, changed the mode of celebrating the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, introduced the Presbyterian form of public worship, and thereby banished many of the congregation, who went back to popery.'

When William heard of the marriage he persuaded the congregation to apply to join the Presbyterian Church, declaring its considered opinion that Presbyterianism 'in its doctrine, discipline and government, comes nearest to primitive Christianity and to the original constitution of the Christian Church.'

For some time William had thought of the idea of connecting himself and his congregation with the Synod of Ulster. He was convinced that the constitution of the Presbyterian Church supplied it with peculiar advantages for the propagation of the Gospel in Ireland. He also believed that many of his congregation had a preference for the Synod of Ulster. In the summer of 1838 he wrote two letters to the members of that body explaining his views, but had received no reply. He complained of the lack of response to a Presbyterian acquaintance and was advised to make application to the nearest Presbytery, the Presbytery of Dublin. The Presbytery sent a deputation to Birr in February 1839 to ascertain the moral character and doctrinal views of the two Crottys and how their congregation's views coincided.

By the time the deputation arrived at Birr news of Michael's marriage had become known. It caused such excitement that the deputation decided it was not an opportune time to raise the issue of attachment to the Presbytery of Dublin. So, the Presbytery took no further notice of William's proposal at this time.

Soon after, however, they received a communication from the members of the congregation in Birr containing a copy of resolutions unanimously adopted by them at a meeting previously held in their church. In these resolutions the people declared that the pastoral connection between them and the Rev. Michael Crotty was dissolved, he having publicly declared himself a Minister of the Established Church, and that they thenceforth recognised the Rev. William Crotty as their sole pastor. They also expressed their strong desire to be united to the Presbyterian Church and requested the Presbytery to lose no time in sending a deputation to confer with them on the subject.

Connection with Synod of Ulster

The Presbytery acted with promptitude and sent two members to Birr. A meeting of the congregation was immediately summoned, resolutions were adopted and the following adopted at a formal meeting of the people: 'We, the undersigned, members of the Reformed Church at Birr, beg to state, that we are desirous of forming a union with the Presbyterian Church. We do not at present deem it necessary to mention our motives for preferring your Church to any other section of the Reformed Church in these countries, save that, from the period of our coming out of the Church of Rome, we have been led to think that Presbyterianism, in its doctrine, discipline and government comes nearest to primitive Christianity and to the original constitution of the Christian Church. We, therefore, pray that you will receive this, our aplication, into your immediate consideration, and that you will take such measures as may carry our wishes into effect.'

The application bore one hundred and nine signatures and on the 30th May, 1839, at a specially convened meeting at Birr, before a congregation of about five hundred, Rev. William Crotty and his flock were publicly received into connection with the Synod of Ulster. The following month the Synod decided to afford William an income of £100 per annum.

The Presbyterians were determined to exploit the opportunity of launching a missionary operation in the locality of the new congregation, directly initially at those who had lapsed their connection with the Crotty Church and hadn't yet returned to the Roman Catholic chapel. Rev. James Carlyle, a Scotsman who arrived in Dublin in 1813 and was Commissioner of the Board of National Education, expressed an interest in the Birr Mission and came to the town in August 1839. He superintended the repair of the Church, the formation of schools, the activities of the scripture reader, the publication of tracts and the adoption of any other means he thought might be used to advance the Reformation just begun. He was to stay initially for three, months, then six, then a year and remained until his death in 1853. He is buried at Birr in the Crotty graveyard.

The mission had no easy passage. It was beset by financial problems but more troublesome was a succession of rows in which the Crotty cousins, jointly or separately, were involved. Thus they quarrelled with each other, exchanging mutual accusations of bad faith, lying, intimidation and intention to disturb the peace of the congregation and neighbourhood ˆ and, for good measure, Michael threw in the charge of adultery against William.

William's Removal from Birr

The latter, moreover, was constantly at adds with his congregation, other neighbour clergy, most of the mission's agents and, particularly, with Carlyle, whose presence in the town William increasingly resented. Eventually in 1843, the General Assembly decided that the best interests of the mission would be served by William's removal from Birr and he was sent as a home mission agent to Roundstone in Galway. Here he was employed until his resignation in 1856 as an itinerant preacher and became the author of several polemical tracts denouncing Roman Catholicism.

Before he left Birr William married Kate Dempsey in December 1841 and they had three sons, Albert (1849-1936), a Minister at Mullingar, Richard (1850-1924) a Resident Magistrate in Clare, and Leslie (1852-1903), an opera singer. He was received back into the Roman Catholic Church in 1856 and died the following year.

Meanwhile Michael had not heard of the events of 1839 for a fortnight. He was at Bristol when he received the news and returned to Birr immediately. He had to stay at Dooly's Hotel because William had taken over his house and sold his furniture. He instituted legal proceedings but the matter was settled out of court through the intervention of another cousin, and there was a settlement of £12 on Michael.

Michael Publishes his Memoirs

Abandoned by his friends and unable to get a living in Ireland, Michael crosed to England. His original following was reduced to little over one hundred, following the departure of a large number to William's congregation, the drift away that followed the introduction of Reformed ideas, and the return of some to the Roman Catholic Church. He found it difficult to get a parish until in September 1843 he arrived as curate in Kirkheaton, near Huddesfield, in the diocese of Ripon. 

Here he wrote his memoirs, entitled Narrative of the Reformation at Birr, which was published in 1847 by Hatchard of London and reprinted in 1850. The book has 461 pages and is only partly a narrative of the events in Birr as it descends into a polemic against the Roman Catholic Church and all its works and pomps. Crotty sets out his intention in the Preface: 'The object of the following Narrative is to glorify God and to edify the Christian world by showing how the Almighty was pleased to call me by his grace out of the darkness and bondage of popery into the marvellous light and liberty of the glorious gospel of his Son, while thousands of my clerical brethern are still left in the Church of Rome to perpetuate the errors, superstitions and, it is much to be feared, the soul-destroying delusions of the new, unscriptural and anti-Catholic Tridentine Creed on the credulity and simplicity of their too confiding and unsuspecting countrymen, and to die, in all human probability, in the communion of that great apostasy.'

Towards the end of his Narrative he expresses his intention 'to return to Birr, to recover my Church and congregation from the usurped and illegal possession of the present intruder, Mr. James Carlyle, Presbyterian Minister, and put them as I originally intended to have done under the episcopal jurisdiction of the Protestant Bishop of Killaloe. He remained as curate in Kirkheaton until 1850.

In 1852 he instituted legal; proceedings to recover the church building for the conduct of Anglican services. In this he gained a bloodless victory for, on the advice of Carlyle, the General Assembly did not contest the issue and the building was surrendered to him.

His appeal to the people of Birr, however, wasn't successful and after five years he agreed to return the church to the General Assembly on payment of £100. He found it difficult to accept that his followers at Birr had all deserted him and that he was no longer welcome there.

Misfortunate End

His latter years are shrouded in mystery. On December 15, 1855 the Nation published an account of his arrest in Preston on a charge of obtaining money under false pretences. He stated he had been collecting the money for enlarging and endowing his church at Birr. When his claim was checked out with the Rector at Birr, he stated that Crotty's wife and children were residing there and were receiving money from him on a regular basis.

The next reference to him is in April 1856 when he wrote to Daniel Vaughan, Bishop of Killaloe from Dublin. The letter contained a strong expression of repentance and a plea for reconciliation. The letter appeared in a local newspaper the following month with the comment: 'It is said that the Revd Michael Crotty is at present in Birr, giving the best example in reparation of the scandals of his former life.'

The matter of reconciliation with the Catholic Church wasn't as straighforward as might seem as Crotty had a wife and two children and was torn between his commitment to them and his desire for reconciliation. These difficulties are given expression in a letter in the archives of the Irish College, Rome from Dr. Vaughan, Bishop of Killaloe, dated September 24, 1857, which has reference to Michael Crotty: 'The unfortunate Crotty, who caused such scandal at Birr, now shows signs of repentance. I was thinking of sending him to Rome, as the wicked woman with whom he has lived will seduce him again if he is left in Ireland. He says he has two children nearly grown and cannot get away from her. He is in dire poverty.'

Somehow, he made his way to the continent. In June of 1858 the Prefect of Police at Bruges in Belgium had him committed to a lunatic asylum in Couttrai. It was stated on his certificate of admission that 'the Rev. Michael Crotty is affected since a few months with a mental illness ˆ Lypemania ˆ which necessitates his internment in a specialised house.'

An extract from the Medical Register states: 'This man had a most agitated life following disputes which he had with his superiors. There does not seem to exist any disturbance in the intellectual functions. Michael approaches us only to tell us about his misfortunes and the treasons to which he was a victim, gives gigantic proportions to his sufferings, complains about everyone, asks for death by all his wishes.

Here he died on May 4, 1862 aged sixty-seven years. His death certificate describes him as unmarried. There is no indication whether he was reconciled with the Church

There is no record of the death of his wife or the fates of his two sons. However, a grandson, Richard, who was born in 1910, was received into the Catholic Church in 1954 and was later a Benedictine priest in Broome, Western Australia.


There are various estimates of the number of people who belonged to Crotty's congregation. One source tells us that 900 people were present at Crotty's services each Sunday in 1832. Michael Crotty himself records: 'The women cast away Agnus Deis, scapulars, Friar-blessed habits of the Virgin Mary and committed this superstitious trumpery to the flames, and came to the fountain of the Saviour's blood to be cleansed of their sins.' Another report tells us 1550 people attended the three masses in Crotty's church on a Sunday. A description of his congregation in 1827 mentions the figute of 2,000

What happened to the Crottyites? The changeover to Presbyterianosm alienated many. In 1840 the Sisters of Mercy came to Birr and were responsible for restoring many Crottyites to the Catholic Church. The famine and emigration reduced their numbers. A famous Passionate Mission to Birr in 1853 did much to end the schism. There is a story that after the burial of a man in Birr in 1940 the officiating priest said: 'There goes the last of the Crottyites!.

What were the causes of the schism?

They were numerous and it's difficult to pinpoint the main ones. The general state of things in the Catholic Church at the time contributed. The personality conflict between Michael Crotty and 'Priest Kennedy' played an important part. The desire of Michael Crotty to marry doesn't appear to have been a cause. Michael Crotty disliked spiritual despotism and regarded the attempts by authorities to impose their will as just that. A closeness to the people was a factor. Michael Crotty came to protect them against those better off, as well as the Chapel Committee. This closeness to the people led him to demand the vernacular for them and greater lay participation in the running of church affairs. Michael Crotty's political views came into conflict with those of a growing number of Catholic clergy. Edmund Burke was his hero and he hated O'Connell. In 1824 Crotty's uncle was threatened with suspension by his bishop if he did not collect the O'Connell rent. The uncle, who was Parish Priest of Castleconnell, gave as his reason that he did not wish to mix politics with religion. Later he was charged at a dinner in Nenagh as an enemy of the freedom of Ireland. Crotty, who was at the dinner, defended his uncle and his defence gives some insight into his political views. According to him, attacking his uncle implied supporting those who preached rebellion from the altar, denounced Protestants and their religion, stimulated resistance to the laws of the country and to the constituted authorities, filled the jails and the transports and fed the gibbits, and would end good relationships with Protestants by which the lot of the poor was alleviated. Michael Crotty was probably an ecumenist before his time. Finally, one cannot forget the Evangelical Movement and its influence of 'Back to the Bible' in the first half of the nineteenth century. The chief object was to preach the Gospel to the Irish people. It was strong and produced enthusiastic preachers and probably contributed to the reformation at Birr.

Why was it so sucessful?

Obviously the personality of Michael Crotty played a part. Although the Maynooth authorities regarded him as 'a fool and a madman', he had good leadership qualities and could command a strong following. This following was willing to stand by him in the face of intense opposition from the Church authorities. His following came from the less well-off and he appeared to be their defender against the demands of the Chapel Committee. The idea of tollgates to extract money from the people appears harch and unfeeling and was obviously resented by the poor and underprivileged. When there was a suspicion that some of the money was being alienated it raised their hackles. According to Lord Rosse Michael Crotty was of violent temper but 'he attached the lower orders of the people to him by praising them from the altar and censuring and reviling the upper orders.' Understandably the people came to regard him as their hero and champion.

On the other side the response of the Church authorities was essentially hardline. Fr. Kennedy, who was referred to as the 'fighting cock' of the diocese of Killaloe, was not the kind of person capable of bringing peace to the parish. He was of prickly disposition and seemed to welcome confrontation rather than compromise. He lacked diplomacy and the ability to cope with dissent. It did not help matters that Rody Kennedy, his brother, who had a grocery store on Main Street, was a member of the old chapel committee. As well as Kennedy there were a number of unfortunate coincidences together with misjudgments on the part of the authorities in the early stages of the dispute, which seemed to justify Crotty in his belief that there was a conspiracy against him. The two Catholics on the jury that convicted him at the quarter sessions in April 1826 were members of the Chapel Committee. Also, one of these was the father of Fr. Blake, who replaced him at Birr after he was transferred to Killaloe. The appointment of Patrick Kennedy, brother of one of the chapel committee, as administrator and later Parish Priest of Birr, appeared to Crotty as part of the same conspiracy.