When the Rev. Edward Spring died in 1880 a brief obituary in the Skibbereen Eagle newspaper stated that ‘he held strong and decided episcoparian opinions’ and at one time his name became ‘famous in a religious controversy’. To understand this controversy we must go back 40 years before his death, to the 1840s, to the time of the Great Famine when Protestant missionaries, such as Edward Spring, were accused of trading food for conversions – an activity that became known as ‘Souperism’.
Edward Spring was born in 1808 to Francis Spring of Castlemaine, Co. Kerry and his wife Catherine Fitzgerald. Educated in Trinity College, Dublin, he was ordained as a priest of the Church of Ireland in 1835. At the time, the evangelical wing of the Church of Ireland was in the ascendancy and many believed that a ‘Second Reformation’ was required in Ireland, one that would convert the mass of the Irish people to Protestantism. After ordination, Spring served as a curate in a number of parishes in counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick. This included a spell as curate at Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula, where his vicar was the Rev. Charles Gayer who had started a Protestant mission in that area.
In 1842 Edward Spring was appointed curate at Baltimore in west Cork, where his salary was paid for by a missionary society called the Island and Coast Society. He immediately commenced missionary activity around Baltimore and in the islands of Roaring Water Bay, particularly Cape Clear Island. His activities did not go unnoticed and very quickly a number of letters appeared in the Cork Examiner newspaper attacking both his mission and him personally. Another form of attack were local ballads which, among other accusations, suggested sexual misconduct. Spring robustly defended himself against such attacks, however in the years before the Great Famine his mission made little progress, with only a small number of people converting.
From the onset of the famine, Edward Spring was very active in local relief efforts. He and the local relief committee raised large sums of money to purchase supplies and set up soup kitchens. At the same time the number of individuals converting increased, and, as before, there were numerous attacks made on Spring’s integrity. Now he was accused of using ‘Indian meal and packages of old clothes’ to obtain converts. He dismissed all such suggestions and in 1849 he was appointed curate to Cape Clear. Here he set about consolidating his congregation by renting a row of houses for converts, by building a new church, St Kieran’s, and by converting the old coastguard station into a parsonage. A pre-existing Protestant school was rehoused in a building close to the church and parsonage. When the new church was consecrated in October 1849 the Cork Constitution newspaper stated that about 150 attended the service and the sermon was delivered ‘first in Irish and afterwards in English’.
In the years after the Great Famine, emigration, falling donations, reconversions and pressure from the Catholic Church all impacted on Edward Spring’s mission. In 1861 the Protestant community on Cape Clear numbered 47, by 1891 is was just 13. The last Church of Ireland curate left the island in 1871. St Kieran’s church slowly fell into disrepair and it was demolished in the 1920s. While the physical remains of Edward Spring’s mission passed away, the period was often remembered with some bitterness locally due to the divisions it caused within the community and for the attacks Spring and his successors made on the traditional religious beliefs of the islanders.
Thankfully today such controversies are a thing of the past, however the activities and impact of Protestant missionaries of the period remain a topic that is still much debated. In 1859, when commenting on the logic behind the decisions that the famine population of Cape Clear Island were forced to make, a Cork Examiner correspondent stated ‘hunger is not calculating, and cannot wait for better times’. Perhaps that simple statement of the pressing needs of the period explains more than those involved in past controversies would ever have cared to admit.
The above blog is a brief synopsise of the life and work of the Rev. Edward Spring. For a fuller account see my article ‘The Rev. Edward Spring and the Protestant Mission to the Islands of Roaring Water Bay’ which was published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol 128, 2023. For more information on that society visit www.corkhist.ie.