French connections with Cork and Ross


[This article first appeared in The Southern Star in 2011.]

The Rugby World Cup has focused some attention on things French this year and we have grown accustomed to hearing more frequent mentions of cities such as Toulouse and Bordeaux as well as Paris.
Connections between these cities and our part of the continent are not new. We are familiar with the part played by the French in Irish national history but there are other local connections which we may forget. Among them are French-Irish connections involving wine-making and the training of priests.
The volume of wine being consumed in Ireland has grown rapidly in recent years – from 1.7m cases in 1990 to 8.2m in 2006 — but wine drinking is not a new feature of Irish life. There is historical evidence that there was more wine being imported into Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than there was into England! Much of it came from Bordeaux, on the west coast of France.
The involvement of the Irish with wine production developed after the Battle of the Boyne and the collapse of the Treaty of Limerick in the 1690s when there was less of a future for the traditional Irish business classes at home. Increasing oppression of Catholic business and activity also made the continent a more attractive prospect for those with the means to emigrate.
The exodus from Ireland among the “wild geese” brought new surnames to businesses in France, including in the wine business. One of the Mac Carthy’s from Clohane Castle, near Skibbereen, established a chateau which still bears the name “Mac Carthy – St Estephe” though the Mac Carthy link with the estate has since ended. His neighbour, a Lawton from Skibbereen, established a wine brokerage in Bordeaux and it is still owned by a Lawton.

label of Chateau Mac Carthy wine.

The label of a Chateau Mac Carthy wine.

The famous Hennessy family, known for its brandy, has its roots in Killavullen in north Cork and settled in the Cognac area in the mid 1700s where they developed their particular style of brandy.
The oppression of Catholicism in Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also increased another kind of migration to the continent. The training of priests in Ireland became impossible and houses of formation for Irish seminarians flourished on the continent – in France and Spain in particular. Some of the colleges were established in the 1500s as France and Spain led the counter-Reformation movement so there is a long history associated with them.
Among the best known of the Irish colleges on the continent were those at Salamanca (Spain), Paris and Bordeaux (France), Louvain (Belgium), Lisbon (Portugal) and the college in Rome which still serves the Irish and universal church.
The colleges established in Lisbon, Nantes (Brittany), Bordeaux and Toulouse hosted many of the students who left from the south-west of Ireland – often on merchant ships which had docked with cargo in the ports of Waterford, Cork and Kerry.

The records of the colleges show several connections with Cork and Ross. Another Cork MacCarthy is linked to the college at Bordeaux. Its first president in 1603 was Fr. Diarmuid Mac Cárthaigh – one of the Mac Cárthaigh Riach family from the Muskerry region. It was supported financially by the French queen (originally Austrian) and it trained many of the priests who served in the parishes of Co Cork until it was forced to close in 1693 in the trauma of the French Revolution when all French seminaries were suppressed.

The plaque on the building where the Irish College at Bordeaux was opened in 1603.

Not far away, also in the south of France, another Irish college was founded in Toulouse in 1659. It seldom had more that 12 students at the time, and one of its most illustrious students was Francis Moylan – who 200 years ago was overseeing the building of the Catholic Cathedral in Cork.
Moylan was born into a well-off family in Douglas, Cork, in 1735 and was educated in Paris and in Toulouse.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1761. After serving for a time in Paris he returned to Ireland and was parish priest of the South Parish in Cork until 1775 when he was consecrated Bishop of Kerry.
He transferred to Cork in 1786 to replace Bishop Butler who had resigned his see.
The appointment of Dr. Francis Moylan to Cork in 1786 marked the beginning of a new era. The most urgent task demanding the attention of the new bishop was to repair the damage done to church and society by the penal laws. When he returned to Cork city there was no Catholic cathedral, no seminary, and Catholics were disadvantaged in many ways.
One of Bishop Moylan’s predecessors, Bishop Tadhg Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, who hailed from between Kilbrittain and Timoleague, and who was also educated at Toulouse, was Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, between 1727 and 1747. He spent most of his life on the run and when in Cork he lived at Eason’s Hill, off Shandon Street and near the modern Cathedral.
Bishop Mac Cárthaigh had flaunted the penal code and built a chapel in his parish in 1730 on part of the site now occupied by the present Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne. It was described in 1731 as a “large and sumptuous Mass-house”. However, the chapel was dilapidated by the end of the eighteenth century and Bishop Moylan laid the foundation stone of the new cathedral in 1799.
The Cathedral was dedicated in 1808. Next year marks its bicentenary and will provide an opportunity to give thanks for all that has transpired in the intervening 200 years. People from across the diocese supported its refurbishment in the 1990s and are part of the story of this landmark.
During his tenure, Bishop Moylan also saw the building of a seminary to train priests in Cork, and he helped establish Maynooth College, of which he became a trustee. He was a supporter of Nano Nagle who had founded the Presentation Sisters in Cork and he continued to support their work for the poor in the city. During his tenure, the Christian Brothers and Ursuline Sisters were also established in Cork.
Another important Toulouse connection in the local episcopacy dates from the period after the aforementioned Bishop Tadhg Mac Cárthaigh. After his death, Cork became an independent diocese again and Cloyne and Ross were joined under Bishop John O’Brien.
Bishop O’Brien was born near Kildorrery in 1701 and studied for the priesthood in Toulouse and did further studies at the Sorbonne.
He returned to Ireland in 1738 and became PP of Castlelyons and was appointed Bishop of Cloyne and Ross in 1748. (His life was researched and chronicled in great detail by the late Fr James Coombes, PP, Timoleague.)
His time as bishop was a difficult one with oppression of the Catholic religion and chaos among the clergy. He worked to regulate and educate the clergy and to ensure the spread of the gospel among the faithful.
These aims were particularly served by Bishop O’Brien’s English-Irish Dictionary which was published in France in August 1768. (Irish was the language of the people at the time but most of the clergy had been educated in France over several years and many had become less fluent in Irish.)
Bishop O’Brien introduced what was probably the first eighteenth-century general mission in Ireland in 1765 when he and a team of priests conducted a mission in two-thirds of the parishes of Cloyne – followed in 1766 in the remainder of Cloyne and all of Ross diocese.
Bishop O’Brien died in exile in Lyons, France, in 1769. His burial was attended by a Fr. O’Hea, a young priest who was born in Kilkerran (Rathbarrym Co Cork) and who joined the Vincentian order of priests in France.
During the recent rugby world cup, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern attended the reopening the library in the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris. This building was the longest serving Irish seminary in France. It was opened in 1578 and was closed with all the others in the Revolution. However, it reopened as a seminary in 1804 and hosted many Irish seminarians more than another century. The late Fr. Jerome Casey, former PP Kilmeen and Castleventry was the last local priest to be ordained in the Irish College in Paris in 1934.
After the war, the college recovered a new role consistent with its history when it was made available for the training of seminarians from Poland – a role which it retained until 1997.
It is now serving as a resource for continued dialogue and exchange between the two cultures which have been entwined in so many ways throughout history.

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