Rev. John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican priest who, as a student in Oxford, felt drawn to a more intensely religious lifestyle than was common among Anglican clerics of the 18th Century. He soon gathered a small like-minded group around him and, because of their methodical approach to things religious (set times for prayer, etc.) they were soon dubbed ‘Methodists’. Wesley attached great importance to personal conversion which he and his followers began preaching “in season and out of season” wherever they could get a hearing. Their movement soon spread to Ireland and John Wesley visited this country on 21 different occasions. On his last journey here he preached at Rosanna House where he was the guest of Mrs. Tighe, and also in the old Wicklow Court House. A sister-in-law of Mrs Tighe, Mrs Blatchford, who lived in Dublin, had become a convinced Methodist and the Tighe family, as we shall see, sheltered some of the Society’s early preachers in Wicklow.
“On Sunday, 25th June, this year local Methodists hold a service at Rosanna House to celebrate the bicentenary of John Wesley’s visit there on 25th June, 1789”. Wesley recorded the historic occasion in his Journal:
“Thursday, 25th June, 1789 …. I went on to Mrs. Tighe’s at Rosanna, near Wicklow, an exceedingly pleasant seat, deeply embosomed in woods on every side. In the evening, I preached in the great hall, to about a hundred genteel persons. I believe most of them felt as well as heard; some, perhaps may bring forth fruit”.
A plaque was unveiled in August 1988 under a tree in Rosanna where John Wesley is also reputed to have preached. But, to return to his Journal:
“Friday, June 26th -1 went in the afternoon to Wicklow and preached in the Courthouse to a large congregation, civil, though unawakened enough. Yet, a few appeared to be deeply attentive, and I hope will ‘Seek the Lord where He may be found’.”
Much of the remainder of this article has been culled from a three-volume work called ‘History of Methodism in Ireland’, written by C.H. Crookshank, M.A., and published in Belfast in 1885. The author details the growth of Irish Methodism from the days of John Wesley to 1859. Crookshank writes in a style redolent of that of the Acts of the Apostles, and his work contains many references to Co. Wicklow :
“Although Methodism had evidently a footing in Wicklow for some time, the earliest notice of this has reference to this period (1763). In the beginning of May, Mr. Johnson went to this county for the benefit of his health, which continued seriouslyn affected. He remained there for about three weeks, and preached once or twice each day, thus strengthening the cause there.” (Vol. 1. p.168).
Itinerant preachers long remained a characteristic of Methodism. Mr. Johnson was one such. Another oft-mentioned preacher was Mr. Averell:
1797: “During the months of August and September, Mr. Averell was engaged in a tour through the counties of Carlow, Wicklow …. in many parts of which he saw fruit to his labours, and in some instances gracious outpourings of the Holy Spirit.” (Vol II, p. 126).
“Before the year (1797) closed, however, he made a brief excursion to the county of Wicklow, during which he preached at Bray (where) there was no Society.” (Vol II, p. 128).
1798: “About the middle of November, he set out on a tour through the counties of Wexford and Wicklow, which were still in a very unsettled state”. (After the Rebellion). (Vol. II.p. 157).
It was not John Wesley’s intention that his followers form a separate Church: “The Methodists alone”, he wrote, “do not insist on your holding this or that opinion; but they think and let think. Neither do they impose any particular mode of worship; but you may continue to worship in your former manner, be it what it may.” During his lifetime his Irish followers continued to celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion in the Church of Ireland. However, other followers not of Church of Ireland background didn’t feel at home with this arrangement and, soon after his death in 1791, these began to form the separate Wesleyan Methodist Society. This was the case in Wicklow town where Wesleyan Society records were commenced in 1828 with the baptism of a member of the Hopkins family. Many Methodists of Church of Ireland origin, however, continued to celebrate the Sacraments in Church of Ireland churches and became known as the Primitive Wesleyans. The Rathdrum Methodists belonged to this grouping. Eventually both groups coalesced in the Methodist Society, a distinct self-governing ecclesial body.
The area served by a Methodist minister is called a circuit and a minister is appointed for a five year term only. At one stage Wicklow and Arklow formed separate circuits but are now one. Crookshank thus chronicles the appointment of the first preacher to Wicklow:
1799: “Matthew Lanktree was this year appointed to Wicklow, with the venerable John Price as his colleague. Their stopping places were singularly varied. … At Mrs. Tighe’s, Rosanna, the itinerants had richly furnished apartments . … Their labours were severe and incessant. … God blessed the visits of his messengers; several new Societies were formed; others were established and increased, and many souls were converted.” (Vol II. p.177)
However, the itinerant preachers continued to function beside the local men:
1800: “Mr. Averell spent the month of February in visiting the principal places in the counties of Wicklow, Wexford, and Waterford ….”. (Vol. II. p. 185).
“On the Wicklow circuit also, where Mr. Lanktree and John Wilson were stationed, although a severe dearth prevailed, which caused much and general distress (Is this a reference to a food famine?) the good cause prospered blessedly. Efficient assistance was sometimes rendered by the Rev. J. Kelly. On one occasion he visited Arklow with Mr. Lanktree, and on arriving they sent to request the use of a corn-kiln for a service, but were refused. Mr. Kelly then proposed to make it a subject of prayer, after which they applied personally to the owner, who at once consented; and Mr. Kelly preached there with much freedom and power…” (Vol II. pp. 204-5)
Meanwhile, Mr. Doolittle succeeded Mr. Lanktree on the Wicklow circuit in 1803, “and on arriving at Rosanna, was thus accosted by a son of Mrs. Tighe: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘My name is Doolittle’. ‘Doolittle! That’s a queer name to have upon a man. Well, come and preach us a sermon like yourself, short and fat.’ Mr. Kyle, who narrated this incident, considered that the speaker, notwithstanding his simplicity, displayed both wit and wisdom, as he thus humourously claimed from the preacher what should characterise every sermon – brevity and weight.” (Vol II. p. 244).
Thomas Doolittle, probably a son of the above, was a merchant in Wicklow town and a member of the first Town Commission which supplanted the disbanded Corporation in 1842. A brass plate on a bench in St. Patrick’s Church bears the legend “Erected by Peter Doolittle in memory of his parents Edward and Mary Doolittle R.I.P.”.
1802: “Towards the close of November, Messrs. Graham and Ousely set out on an evangelistic tour to the south, during which they first visited the county of Wicklow. At Rosanna, the people were greatly moved, especially a number of children supported and educated by the charity of Mrs. Tighe. At Wicklow, on the congregations retiring from their respective places of worship, the missionaries appeared in the street, and while Graham preached and Ouseley exhorted, the people listened with deep and solemn attention. In the evening, the chapel was filled, the Lord was manifestly present, and the hearers appeared to drink in every word. Entering the house of a Mr. Tackaberry, a young woman, looking first at one of the preachers and then at the other, said, ‘That is the man I remember to have seen in my dream. I saw two, but I recognise his face particularly; and methought that he did me good, and that many were blessed’. So it was. ‘That night God so owned the word that there was a cry and a shaking’. One Catholic girl professed to have obtained peace in believing, and joined the Society. The family of the house also were much blessed. In the market at Rathdrum, there were present a great multitude of Catholics, one of whom, at least, was awakened to a sense of guilt and danger. At Arklow, the audience was numerous; a few Romanists cursed the missionaries, and were about to resort to violence, when some soldiers interfered and secured quietness. A young clergyman listened for a short time, and then tried to get the churchwardens to help him to stop the service, but they declined. Then he applied to the military authorities, and they also refused to interfere. When thus he could get no one to assist him he sent word to the servants of God not to come again to the town, or they would not get off so well.” (Vol II. p.p. 231- 2).
The “market at Rathdrum” referred to above was the Flannel Hall, part of which is now the R.D.A. Hall, erected on the Fairgreen in 1793, by Earl Fitzwilliam for the sale of flannels. It was shared for worship by Catholics and Methodist at one stage in its history.
“In the sping of 1807, there was a very blessed religious awakening at Coolafancy, in the county of Wicklow. Amongst the many then converted, who became members of Society, and subsequently rendered important service to the cause of Christ, were Messrs. S. Sleator, Thomas Morres, and John Buttle. There were raised up in the neighbourhood about half a score of zealous leaders, who travelled the country in all directions, to proclaim the knowledge of salvation by the remission of sins.” (Vol. II. p. 374).
In 1818, the John Buttle mentioned above “was admitted on trial as a preacher”. (Vol. II. p. 440).
1817: “Concerning Arklow, Mr. Andrew Taylor states that his work here prospered greatly, leading to a blessed awakening, during which the old members were revived, many additions made to the Society, and the congregations such that at times the accommodation was insufficient for those who desired to attend. At Carnew, a great change for the better took place. At Rathdrum ‘one of the most wicked places in Ireland, where the preachers had been labouring for years, but the inhabitants could not be brought out to hear, and where Protestants paid the Romish priest for masses,’ now the congregations were large and attentive. Encouraging openings were also obtained at Newtownmountkennedy, Kilcoole and Windgate; while at Newcastle, a schoolhouse was secured for the services, and many attended them.” (Vol. II. p. 420).
1818; “The devoted evangelist, Ouseley, then journeyed southward, until he came to the counties of Wicklow and Wexford, where his labours were greatly acknowledged of God, no less than four hundred and forty being led to join the Society in about six weeks. These new members included some remarkable triumphs of Divine grace. A noted pugilist in Wicklow, named George James, went to hear the missionary on Christmas evening, being under engagement to serve as second to another boxer, in a match arranged for the following day; but the Lord arrested him. That night, George decided for Christ, and at the close of the service set off to see Connor and said, ‘I must not go with you to that bad work. No, no, I must not go. I have put it out of my power for ever; for I have joined the Methodist Society.’ Connor found another second, and fought out his match desperately. But in a few weeks, this man also, with tears streaming down his face, came to the missionary, and requested his name to be entered as a member of the Society.
At the service in Carnew, the people so thronged that they trod one upon another, and two or three were seated on each step of the pulpit. (Vol. II. pp. 446-7).
1819: “The gracious revival in Arklow was followed up by a visit from Messrs. Taylor and Tackaberry, when sixty persons were awakened to a sense of their sinfulness, and joined the Society. Thus the membership, which at the previous Conference had been only forty, was now increased to two hundred. Concerning one of these additions, a sergeant whose backslidings were healed, Mr. Tackaberry states that such a change in the countenance of a man and in so short a time he had hardly ever witnessed. Reilly in writing to Ouseley says ‘I cannot express my astonishment at the work in Arklow, since you and brother Noble were there. The most extraordinary conversions which I have ever seen or heard of, have taken place’.”
1819: “Meanwhile Mr. Reilly continued his devoted and successful labours On one occasion, while conducting a service on the sandy beach, in Arklow, knowing that fish had been scarce for some time, and thus many families had been reduced to destitution, he earnestly prayed that the Lord in His merciful providence, would be pleased to send a supply. Early on the following morning, a man more earnest and grateful in feeling thar. correct in language, hastened to the house of the servant of God, exclaiming, ‘The herrins is come! the herrins is cornel’ The fact was so; and to this day it is gratefully remembered by the people of the town, as a marked answer to prayer.” (Vol. II. p. 451).
1828: “In the county of Wicklow, at Coolafancy, Askakeagh, and Mullans, Mr. John Ramsey having found the congregations small and the people in general cold and indifferent as to religion, resolved to try and secure some new openings. The first place thus obtained was Cunniamstown, where a few persons were collected in a small room; but the number so increased as to fill the largest apartment available. At Preban and Arklow commodious school-houses were placed at the disposal of the missionary, by the rectors, and regular services thus established in each. Access was also gained to Carnew, Rathdrum, and Newtownmountkennedy. But the greatest encouragement was given at Baltinglass, where in a short time the house could not contain the congregations, and application was made to the lord of the soil, who freely gave the use of the sessions-house, and it was generally crowded.” (Vol. III. pp. 125-6)
There was a Methodist chapel in Arklow since 1822. Probably it belonged to the independent Wesleyan Methodists. So we can assume that the Church of Ireland rector mentioned above gave the school to the Primitive Methodists who celebrated the Lord’s Supper in his church and who brought their children to him for baptism.
1829: “The reports from the mission-stations of the Primitive Wesleyan Society were, on the whole, cheering. From the county of Wicklow Mr. Daniel Henderson writes that he had secured four new preaching-places. These were at Rathdrum, to which the missionary had been invited by the Rector, the Rev. William S. Guinness; Cappagh, where there was a good congregation; Tinahely, in which the services were held in the markethouse; and the neighbourhood of Baltinglass.” (Vol. III. p. 139).
In this report we have another example of a Church of Ireland rector assisting the Primitive Wesleyans of Rathdrum who continued to celebrate the sacraments in his church.
1830: “Carnew, on this circuit, remained for a long time
‘unwatered still, and dry,
While the dew on all around,
Fell plenteous from the sky.’
The congregations were large and attentive, but Calvinism being rife, religion became more a matter of opinion or of angry controversy than of personal experience and enjoyment. Edward Kehoe, a plain man, a zealous leader and exhorter and a man of prayer, who lived here, proved a true yokefellow, giving hearty and self-denying co-operation in promoting the work of God. One fruit of his conversion was fervent longing, followed by aggressive effort, for the conversion of his Roman Catholic neighbours. This, of course, roused the ire of the priest, who exclaimed, one day, in haranguing his flock, ‘Good Christian people, what has the world come to? Ned Kehoe, the broguemaker, is turned sowl-saver!’ Carnew was hard soil, and therefore it was arranged that special prayer should be offered on its behalf all round the circuit, and not in vain. The next time Mr. Huston visited the town, at a prayer-meeting after preaching, some fourteen persons, convinced of sin, came forward to the penitents’ bench, crying for mercy. Amongst these was John Walker, who was taught the way of God more perfectly, and obtained mercy under the ministry of the Rev. John Hadden, and subsequently entered the itinerancy. The preaching-place was a large room, stretching over the top of two or three houses. It was at this or a similar meeting, the windows being open, that the people in the street hearing a loud wail of penitence, inquired one of another, ‘Where’s the fight?’, Where’s the fight?”‘ (Vol. III. pp. 152-3).
1836: “Messrs. William Craig and Thomas Wilson were on the county of Wicklow mission, where their labours were much owned of the Lord. On March 20th Mr. Wilson writes, ‘Obtained Tinahely market-house, in which, after a few hours’ working, a large congregation assembled. I spoke from ‘How long halt ye between two opinions?’ The word took effect. A Roman Catholic who was present was convinced of his error, and renounced Romanism. He is the object of persecution, but continues steadfast.’ Preaching-places were secured at Rathdrum and several other places through the county, and the state and prospect of the mission were greatly improved. In autumn the lord of the soil granted the Society, for its services, a large room in a public building in Rathdrum; this was comfortably fitted up, and thus the local prospects became still brighter.” (Vol. III. p. 230)
1844: “From several of the missions and circuits of the Primitive Wesleyan Society there was cheering intelligence of religious prosperity. Concerning the county of Wicklow Mr. William Lendrum, writes, ‘God has poured out His Spirit on several parts of this mission. At Arklow, Rathdrum, and Coolafancy many have been convinced of sin and converted to God. We had a visit from Dr. Singleton, which was made a peculiar blessing to us. Brother Toomath is very actively and zealously engaged in this blessed revival, and so also are the leaders’. On April 16th Mr. Toomath preached at Rathdrum, and such was the Divine influence which accompanied the word and the meeting for prayer held afterwards that fourteen persons were awakened to a sense of their state, and some of them led to the Saviour. On the following evening a large congregation assembled at Arklow, where special prayer had been offered, and the power of the Lord was present to break down and to build up, so that thirty were enabled to rejoice in the God of their salvation”. (Vol. III. p. 346).
1847: “At Tinahely there was a memorable Sabbath, during which the services were rich in Divine power. At Rathdrum, in the market, crowds listened to the message of mercy with deep interest. At Wicklow, in the open air, numbers thronged to hear the word preached, and in the chapel the rails were filled with anxious seekers, of whom several were converted and four joined the Society. At Arklow a new class was formed”.
(Vol. III. p. 377).
The 1850’s and 1860’s were decades of consolidation for Co. Wicklow Methodists during which they built churches and opened two schools.
In Wicklow town the Wesleyan Methodist chapel was situated at 33 Main St.
On 7th November 1853 Wicklow Town Commissioners leased “that plot of ground situate on the North side of the Main St. of Wicklow whereon the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel now stands and the ground in front thereof …”to Edward Byrne of Ballykane, “farmer, a Trustee named for and on behalf of the Society of People called ‘The Wesleyan Methodists’”.
The Wicklow Newsletters 17th July 1858 announced that the Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Abbey Lane (now New Street) had been registered for the solemnisation of marriage on 12th July. In 1862, the Minister’s residence was completed at Bayview, the first occupant being Rev. William Cather, who was also Minister when the new church in Bayview was opened in 1866. The Wicklow Methodist school was opened in 1889. The Headmaster was Mr. Robert Rothwell (1851-1925)
In Rathdrum the Methodists built their second chapel in Main Street in 1857. The Wicklow Newsletter of 6th March 1858 announced that the chapel had been registered for the solemnisation of marriage on 16th February, ‘the old disused Wesleyan chapel, registered 7th August 1849, being de-registered the same day”. The new chapel was closed for worship in the 1960’s and is now Cullen’s Drapery shop.
Cornish and Welsh miners formed the nucleus of the Methodist Society in Avoca where a church was erected in 1856 on a site donated by the Levingstone family. The “Wicklow Newsletter” of 10th July 1858 ran an ad. for a sermon by Rev. Daniel M’Lafee there on 20th July To defray costs”. This church is still in use.
Arklow Methodists erected a church at Ferrybank in 1869, replacing the Chapel on Abbey Land which had been built in 1822. The manse was built in 1872, and the school and teacher’s residence in Briggs Lane in 1891.
With the building of these churches and schools – the “infrastructure” of the Methodist Society in Co. Wicklow – the history of Methodism in this area entered on a newer phase which l leave for chronicling to some other pen.
I am indebted to Mr. Donald Sheane for much of the above information, to Mr. Jim Gift, Chairperson of Wicklow U.D.C., W.C.C., for loaning me the lease of 1853 referred to, and to the De La Salle community, Skibbereen, for loaning me Crookshank’s “History of Methodism in Ireland”.