Hugh Bernard Garry
Franciscan Monk/Superior, Errew Monastery
Franciscan Monk/Superior, Errew Monastery/ Humanitarian /Educator/ Fund Raiser
The Great Famine was a time of inordinate suffering and loss in Mayo. When one reads the newspaper archives on-line as they now are and in local libraries, it is evident that the Catholic clergy of the time played a central and now virtually forgotten role in famine relief, attending to the sick and dying, and in many cases recording the daily horrors that were taking place in the recesses of the dark cabins that the authorities had turned a blind eye to.
Hugh Bernard Garry, a Franciscan, was one such man. Finding details of where he was born or what his family circumstances were has proved difficult. Nevertheless there is more than enough evidence to justify the inclusion of Hugh Bernard Garry in any list of Mayo People and to acknowledge his efforts in education, religious instruction and relief of the poor, sick and dying before, during and after the Great Famine.
Hugh Bernard Garry was Superior at Errew Monastery. Past Pupils of the Monastery have included James Daly, co-founder of the Land League; and Thomas Noel Mitchell the first Catholic to become Provost of Trinity College Dublin by normal process of election (See: http://www.tcd.ie/provost/history/former-provosts/tn_mitchell.php).
Foundation of Errew Monastery
The first stone in the construction of Errew Monastery was set in place on Tuesday 20th July, 1840 by James Hardiman in the presence of a large crowd of dignitaries and local people. Hardiman was born in Westport around 1782. His family had an estate in Mayo. He qualified as a lawyer and took a role as a Sub-Commissioner of public records at Dublin Castle. In later life he became librarian of Queen’s College, Galway.
Those present that Tuesday almost 175 years ago included the Archbishop of Tuam, the Very Rev. Dean Burke; Rev. R. Gibbons, P.P of Castlebar; Rev. James Browne, P.P; Rev. Sheridan; and many other Catholic Clergymen. It was reported that Hardiman placed “one of each of the coins of the realm, and several very ancient coins, some of which were current during the reign of Queen Anne” under the first stone. After this task was completed the Archbishop gave an episcopal blessing and addressed the crown for some 20 minutes in the Irish language. He thanked Hardiman for his generous donation of the 10 acre site at Errew under a lease forever at no rent. Hardiman also made a substantial financial donation to assist with commencement of the works as well as a library and other items of interest and utility. Following the ceremony Rev. Gibbons hosted an event for the clergy and Hardiman. The Monastery was to be under the protection of the Archbishop of Tuam and run by the 3rd Order of St Francis. In addition to the contributions from Hardiman, the construction works were also funded by substantial public donations. Further books, globes, maps and other necessities were also procured. Teaching was to be in the Irish language and the Reverend C. Kelly was appointed Chaplin to the Monastery. Mass was to be celebrated on Sundays.
Brother Garry’s Fundraising
In the autumn of 1841 Brother Garry was in Dublin perfecting the lease James Hardiman had granted. It was reported that he intended appealing to the people of Dublin for charitable donations before proceeding to England to raise funds. In September Brother Garry suffered a near fatal accident when a stage coach he was travelling in while in England was upturned. He soon recovered from his injuries and returned to Ireland. In a letter dated 13 September 1841, Brother Garry, writing to the Rev. J. Middlehurst, Broughton Manse, Skipton, Yorkshire thanked the Reverend for the hospitality, kindness and medical care which he had received during his time there and in particular for the kindness and care he received “when my limb was mangled and my life endangered, by the upsetting of the mail near Skipton.” Brother Garry went on to state: “I pledge myself that upon the walls of our schools shall be a perpetual record of our benefactors’ names – that dead or living may be remembered in the daily prayers of our community and pupils.”
Completion of Errew Monastery
In October 1841 subscribers to the Monastery were informed that the Monastery and school were complete. The school at Errew opened on Monday 11th November, 1842 and was, according to the Freeman’s Journal, ‘thronged with hundreds of poor children of the neighbourhood.’ Notwithstanding that the school was open, much remained to be done, and Brother Garry continued his fundraising campaign to raise money to complete the chapel steeple and the house. Four months later, on Sunday 19th March 1843, the Archbishop of Tuam and James Hardiman were back in Errew. At that time there were 10 Christian Brothers at Errew and they, in their Franciscan attire, together with a large number of clergymen, led a procession with up to 1,000 children who at the time were being educated at Errew, to meet the Archbishop on his arrival. A holy cross was carried at the front of the procession by one of the monks and the children wore “emblems of enlightenment and religious joy.” Two men also took their final vows at Errew on that day. It was reported that:
“His Grace the Most Rev. Dr. McHale received the vows; and, assisted by ten Catholic clergymen invested the postulants with the habit of the Order of St. Francis.”
Thousands of people gathered for the ceremony and after episcopal benediction the large crowd listen to an address given in Irish by the Archbishop together with a eulogy on James Hardiman. After the gathering Brother Garry entertained the Archbishop and clergy at the Monastery.
In the years following the establishment of the Monastery the community focused on education and religious instruction. Through farming and other activities it was expected that the community at Errew would become self-sustaining and there may well have been evidence that this was an achievable objective before the potato crop failed in the summer of 1845. When that happened, the newly established Monastery found itself at the centre of the emerging cataclysmic events that would endure for several years and utterly change the way of life of those that would survive it. There is an abundance of evidence to show that the community at Errew did everything that they possibly could to assist the local population during this terrible time and there is no doubt that the existence of the Monastery saved many lives in the area as it acted as a conduit for the procurement and distribution of food and relief. At this time it is reported that the Brothers helped to educated and feed between 200 and 400 children at their schools. They also gave relief to the most destitute who turned up at their gates at Errew. The Brothers were able to do this with the assistance of donations received from America, England and Dublin. Amongst their benefactors were the Indian Relief Committee, Central Relief Committee, the Society of Friends; and the British Association. With the failure of the potato crop the Monastery could not, from its own resources, support the several hundred children that were being educated at the Monastery and permission was sought from Archbishop McHale to allow the Monastery to seek charitable donations. On 19th October 1846 the Archbishop of Tuam wrote:
“Although determined when once a Monastery is established to require of the inmates to support themselves by their labour, their trades, and the little contributions from their scholars- yet, this year is awful, and the privations of the neighbourhood so great, as appears by the painful recital of the clergy, that I am reluctantly obliged to relax in my resolution, and to allow the bearer, Brother Bernard Garry, to solicit the charity of the benevolent and more affluent members of society to save the lives of the people.”
Despite the charitable donations and the assistance given by the community, men, women and children continued to die in large numbers of starvation. On 5th March, 1847 J. MacManus R.C.C Castlebar, outlined the desperate scenes he witnessed in a village near Errew Monastery. The village is not named but may be Cloonconragh. MacManus watched the children of two houses carried almost lifeless from their cabins. He drew particular attention to the case of a brother and sister who were in a desperate state. They could not speak, move their limbs; they were mere skin and bone. When Father MacManus enquired as to whether there were others in a similar condition he noted that:
“They carried out three old women and an old man, and children innumerable, all unable to walk, or move because they did not eat any more than one little mess of turnips, sprinkled with a spoonful of meal, in the forty-eight hours, this last month.”
According to MacManus the male children who were able to attend the Monastery were able to live solely on the single meal that they received there each day. Father MacManus obtained from the Brothers food for the starving people and noted:
“And be it here recorded to the everlasting credit of this Monastery that, they are rescuing from the jaws of death more human beings this season than all the landlords of the whole country with, perhaps, one or two exceptions, and doing more good, with less noise, than any soup kitchen in the country; every particle of aid put into their hands is brought to bear on the destitution.”
Call for Public Donations
Things had little improved by the summer of 1849 when funds were again running low. When the Freeman’s Journal published a letter from the Archbishop of Tuam calling on the public to make donations to Brother Garry and Brother Elias A. Silke, to enable the Monastery at Errew to continue with the relief of the poor and starving. The extent of the relief received and the numbers seeking and getting relief from the Brothers at Errew is evident from a lengthy letter dated 28 August, 1849 and written by Brother Silke to the Editor of the Freeman’s Journal. Amounts received included 20l from the General Relief Committee, College Green; 10l from the Royal – Exchange General Relief Committee; and 10l from the St. Vincent De Paul. Funds received were applied to ensure that the children received their daily breakfast. Donations were not all monetary and included amongst other things, trailers of fruit. The letter indicates that there were a least 300 families in the area as well as up to 400 destitute children attending the schools every day that were dependent on the Monks. There is an acceptance in Brother Slike’s letter that not all can be saved but he calls on rich Catholics and liberal Protestants as well as the public to give what they can as funds were exhausted:
“All the means we could possibly get in Dublin and England, and other private subscriptions are now exhausted; those limited means could not stand the immense draw upon us. Still if we could rescue but a few, from the jaws of death, all the exertions we could make would be amply repaid. Notwithstanding their unparalleled suffering, the people are very patient, no murmurings, they meekly submit to the hand that scourges them, no complaints against Devine Providence; literally speaking, it is a living death; these are not speculative wants but plain unvarnished facts, which have been witnessed and felt by us these three years past.”
On 23rd September, 1849, in a letter to the Editor of the Freeman’s Journal, Brother Silke, writing from 21, Upper Ormond-Quay, Dublin thanked Messers Lawler and McLaughlin at the Irish Gas Company as well as the English Gas Company for donations of £1 and 1l. 7s raised from poor labourers for famine relief. Brother Silke called for further donations for the support of the children being educated at Errew Monastery and the suffering poor. On 23rd October, 1849 Brother Silke wrote to the Editor of the Freeman’s Journal acknowledging receipt of £1 from the Irish Gas Company and £1. 7s from the English Gas Company.
Controversy Over Funds
In the spring of 1850 Brother Garry had reason to be concerned. Concerned for his own hard earned reputation and undoubtedly the reputation of the community at the Monastery. The source of the anxiety was a letter, published in the Mayo Constitution on 12th February of that year. The letter suggested financial impropriety at the Monastery in connection with charitable donations. It is evident from records of the time that the Monastery was, from the time of its foundation in the early 1840s, heavily reliant on charitable donations from Ireland and abroad and Brother Garry and his superiors had worked hard in this regard.
Against this background it is not surprising that Brother Garry acted quickly following the publication of the offending letter to defend himself and the Monastery. He started by engaging four men; J. Mc Hale, P., Castlebar, Guardian of Errew Monastery; Peter Geraghty, R.C.C., Castlebar ; Michael Curley, R.C.C., Castlebar; and Joseph Mc Guinness, R.C.C., Chaplin Errew Monastery, to conduct an audit of the accounts of the Monastery. The audit was completed quickly and the auditors requested the Mayo Telegraph to publish their findings in a letter to the paper dated 27th February, 1850. The auditors opened their letter by setting the scene:
“Sir – On account of gross slander published in a local journal, and perhaps copied into some other papers, against the monks of Errew monastery; We the undernamed, have carefully audited their accounts and find that since the 3rd of November, 1846, to this date namely, 20th February, 1850 – the following sums have been received for the sustenance of the children of the poor attending their schools and for the relief of the destitute of the surrounding district”
The auditors found that the Monastery had in the period received £475 in donations from English and Irish benefactors. In the same period a sum of just over £632 was received from America. Of the total received (£1074) all but £2 7s had been expended as per the accounts and the balance held by the Monastery leading the auditors to finally conclude:
“We now feel it our bounden solemn duty to bear the fullest testimony to the judicious manner in which those charities have been expended, and to state that public expression of gratitude, rather than slander and calumny, should be the reward of the exemplary and zealous members of the Monastery of Errew, for their unceasing exertions on behalf of the suffering poor during the last four years of awful distress, particularly so in their neighbourhood.”
To coincide with the publication of the auditors favourable conclusions on 25th February, 1850, Brother Garry wrote to Frederick Cavendish at the Mayo Telegraph enclosing a number of letters. These letters were published by the Mayo Telegraph on 27th February and provide further detail on the background of the affair.
In his letter to Cavendish, Brother Garry explains that:
“The Almighty God sometimes confounds the wicked designs of men, by precipitating them into the gulf that they prepared for others.”
Brother Garry had in his possession, copies of letters in the handwriting of a Mr. Swayne, styling himself the “Rev.Richard Swayne, O.S.F., and Chaplin of the Errew Monastery,”and in others “Rev. Richard Swayne.”The letters were not on their own sufficient evidence of the malpractices. Brother Garry explained that he wrote to the Earl of Arundel and Surrey. The Earl had met Brother Garry in the“memorable year 1847” and he had given Brother Garry £10 towards the relief of the numerous destitute children in attendance at local schools. A further sum was given by the Earl in 1849.On 4th February 1850 Brother Garry had written to the Earl again seeking financial assistance and it was this letter that exposed the fraud perpetrated by Swayne. In this letter Brother Garry explained that the Earl’s charity would be used in the “literary, moral, and religious education of the poor children, and their actual relief from the horrors of death by starvation.”
The Earl’s response dated 7 February was no doubt a surprising read for Brother Garry.
“My Dear Brother Bernard Garry- I have received your letter. I am afraid I cannot afford anything more at present. I hope there has been no mistake; but I received a letter some weeks ago from someone purporting to be the present superior of your Monastery, and to whom I sent a cheque for £45. I do not recollect receiving an acknowledgement that the said cheque had been safely received. I hope it did not miscarry. Perhaps you would have the kindness to inform me upon the subject.”
A week later the Earl again wrote to Brother Garry:
“11, Carlton Terrace, London, Thursday, Feb.14th 1850.
My Dear Sir – The letter is destroyed, but I find it entered in my book as £15 to the Rev, – Swayne, and dated 3rd January. I remember now that the writer described himself as Chaplin to the Monastery, and stated that Brother Bernard Garry was no longer the superior;therefore, I hope it is alright after all, and that the only reason you were not informed upon the subject was,that you and the Chaplin were both writing to different people, and did not inform each other of the names of those from whom you had received donations.
Very sincerely yours, Arundel and Surrey”
Five days later the Earl wrote to Brother Garry confirming that Brother Garry could make any use he pleased of the letters he had written to Brother Garry regarding Swayne’s swindling. Brother Garry and the Franciscan community at Errew had been vindicated.
Errew Monastery Today
Brother Garry died on the 29th August 1865, he is buried at Errew Monastery.
There is still a school at Errew but Errew Monastery is sadly no more. I recall as a very small child one of the Christian Brothers calling to our home at Tully asking when I would be starting school at Errew but in the event I attended Belcarra N.S. I also recall sometime in the late 1970 attending a movie there on the life of St. Francis in one of the halls at the Monastery. My father attended school at Errew and has many great stories of helping the Monks on the farm they had at the Monastery.
- O’Connor, Michael M., “Alleged Financial Irregularities at Errew Monastery” Past Lives, The Belcarra Social History Gazette, Issue 2, 25 December,2014.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 24 July, 1840.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 29 October, 1841.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 11 November, 1842.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 23 March, 1843.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser,29 October, 1846.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 9 March, 1847.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 30 June, 1849.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 31 August, 1849.
- Freemans Journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser, 24 October, 1849.
- Mayo Telegraph, 27 February 1850.
© Michael M. O’Connor, LL.B., LL.M (Cantab.) 2015.