From Mayo to Uganda: the enigma of Philip O’Flaherty

From Mayo to Uganda: the enigma of Philip O’Flaherty

Felix Wadsworth (University of Edinburgh University) discusses his trip to archives in Birmingham, Manchester and London to study Church of England missionaries.

Thanks to the bursary granted by the BAIS, along with other funding sources and the free accommodation provided by the couches of friends and relatives, I was able to travel to Birmingham, Manchester and London on three separate tours, lasting one to two weeks each. over this year.

Why these three cities? The Cadbury Research Library in Birmingham houses the records of the Church Missionary Society (CMS, today known as the Church Mission Society), the mission agency of the Church of England. Liverpool has the city’s record office, as well as the archives of the University of Liverpool. Last but not least, London boasts the Lambeth Palace Library, and the Norfolk Record Office (in Norwich) is only a stone’s throw away.

Allow me to be more clear, by way of an apology for answering your question: the bursary has allowed me to dig deeper into the life of one Philip O’Flaherty, born in about 1835 in rural County Mayo, who died in 1886 on his home voyage from Uganda to Edinburgh, and was buried in the Red Sea. His life story is not only geographically dislocated but also in terms of religion and language: he was born an Irish-speaking Roman Catholic but died an ordained missionary with the CMS, after having adhered to Presbyterianism from his teenage years until his early thirties.

His is a stunning transformation, but does it warrant a biography? There is the fact that O’Flaherty’s colourful and seemingly disjointed biography has hitherto almost entirely escaped being captured by an historian. He lived through many incarnations, such as: a soldier in the Crimea, a door-to-door missionary in Ottoman Istanbul, a student in the notoriously controversial college of St. Aidan’s (in Birkenhead) on the eve of its bankruptcy. He lived through the Great Famine, the Crimean War, spent years as part of a clique of prominent Anglo-Irish Protestant clergymen in the Merseyside area. He married into a family of other Irish Catholics-turned-Protestant, a family whose members ended up in similarly far-flung places as O’Flaherty, while retaining some connection to Ireland.

It is, therefore, not surprising that only one author, the late Rev. Thomas Simpson, has thus far written a biography encompassing the totality of O’Flaherty’s life which was published in the Bulletin of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, unfortunately (albeit also luckily for my purpose) without footnotes. This dearth of information on O’Flaherty is regrettable, because his nomadic life provides insight into so many aspects of nineteenth-century history: the effect of the Great Famine, Protestant-Catholic divisions in the (then) United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the intersection of the secular and the spiritual aspects of the British Empire, European racism, Christian-Muslim relations in both the Ottoman Empire and East Africa, the African reaction to European colonialism and the changing intellectual and social environment of Christianity in western Europe, to name a few.

My forays have thus far unearthed some very interesting details, but more research is needed to fill the gaps. The most well-documented period of his life is without a doubt his years with the Ugandan CMS (1880-1886), which reveal that three decades after having left Ireland, he did not escape his Irish roots. His writings at times appear to almost painfully avoid any connection to Ireland, vowing, for instance, to defend ‘out dear native isle […] Britannia’ in a poem written during the Crimean War.

In Uganda, however, we witness his colleagues making almost constant references to his accent, mannerisms and speech. If O’Flaherty was at times attempting to deny his Irish Catholic background, he did not attempt to conform to the sensibilities the Victorian ideas of respectability held by his colleagues. In fact, when, exasperated with his fellow-missionaries’ cultural arrogance towards Ugandans, he declared he had no interest in maintaining the airs of an ‘English gentleman’ but had come to Uganda to win over souls to Christianity. O’Flaherty, indeed, frequently clashed with the expectations of English society during his years in England (1865-1880). The papers of one Suffolk parish, to which he ministered in the early 1870s, reveal that he had no qualms about insulting the largest landowner of the parish, the very layman who coincidentally held the benefice of the parish, meaning he could both employ and dismiss the local Church of England clergyman. This man, to whom O’Flaherty owed his curacy, had to read about his supposed negligence of the poor in the parish, accusations which were captured in no unsure terms in the parish books by O’Flaherty. It comes to no surprise that the man in question, a colonel in the artillery, soon rid himself of the Irish curate, and responded to inquiries by the CMS into O’Flaherty’s character with accusations of alcoholism, associating with an unruly ex-convict and foul language. At the same time, the parishioners were reported of still holding their former curate in high esteem, while the colonel had left the parish over being harassed by them over not paying adequate poor rates.

O’Flaherty, thus, appears enigmatic, erratic and (to the researcher looking for consistency) enervating. Was there any substance to the awfully stereotypical characterisations of O’Flaherty by his Protestant detractors as a ‘blarneying sleeveen’? The fact is that, even if O’Flaherty was not the saint he claimed to be, he also had respectable and prominent evangelicals, both lay people and clergymen, vouching for him, such as Eliza Chalmers, Benjamin Philpot, Elizabeth Mary Copley and C. F. S. Money. Perhaps he was indeed too abrasive for some of his contemporaries; he was an alumnus of St. Aidan’s college in Birkenhead, an institution that was commonly met with condescension from the genteel graduates of the old universities of Cambridge and Oxford. The college was incidentally run by another Irish Protestant, the Rev. Joseph Baylee (1808–1883), who had cut his teeth as a missionary on the infamous Achill Island mission, and who frequently expressed his exasperation with the snobbery he encountered in England.

In St. Aidan’s, O’Flaherty possibly cultivated his distinct identity as ‘Irish’ Anglican. The college’s examination papers quite frequently reference Ireland, propagating the idea that the pre-Norman Christianity in Ireland was, in a sense, proto-Protestant, and closer to the Church of Ireland rather than the Roman Catholic Church. O’Flaherty and Baylee probably knew each other quite well, since the latter, as principal, also oversaw most of the teaching. It was perhaps because of Baylee’s tendency to favouritism that O’Flaherty was made co-editor of St. Aidan’s college magazine, and the two might even have conversed in Irish (one of the many languages which Baylee claimed to speak).

Robert Pickering Ashe (1857-1944), a colleague and fierce rival of Philip O’Flaherty in Uganda; coincidentally, although born the son of an Englishwoman, and raised and educated in England, his father was an Irish Episcopalian clergyman.

Independence of mind, aggressive evangelism and a certain disregard for social station appear to have been quite common among the Anglo-Irish clerical ‘cabal’ which settled in the Merseyside area in the early nineteenth-century and was especially prominent in Liverpool. Contact with these evangelicals as a curate probably amplified those qualities in O’Flaherty with which many colleagues found fault. It is fascinating to see how a man who had left Ireland in 1851 (never to return, except for family visits) lived in far-flung places such as Uganda, Turkey and the Crimea, and professed to fully subscribe to the British imperial project and Protestantism, still maintained strong links with his homeland, and somewhat defiantly stuck to characteristics which marked him out as ‘Irish’ to both his critics and admirers.

O’Flaherty forms part of my prospective doctoral thesis, which is a prosopography of Irish-born converts from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in the nineteenth-century. My project seeks to unearth the reasons driving these people to become Protestant, but also to understand how they continued to relate to Ireland and their former co-religionists long after and having left the religion and, in many cases, the country of their birth.

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