Admit it! You want a hero in your family tree.
Someone “out where the lightning splits the sea, … a streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds,” at least according to Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, who belted out “Holding Out for a Hero” in the 1984 film Footloose.
My maternal family tree—a blackthorn, I like to think—grows in the Loop Head Peninsula in the southwestern reaches of County Clare, Ireland. Uncle Steve said so—and anyone who knew Stephen Aloysius Collins would never doubt his word, accuracy, or tenacity. A few decades ago, after combing through the cemeteries and vital records of the area, he announced that our family’s hero is none other than Owen Collins, the village carpenter in Carrigaholt.
Hmm, I wondered, how many heroes started out as carpenters?
My great-great-great granduncle had built a movable church, kind of an altar in a wheelbarrow, back when Catholics were not allowed to practice their religion. Everyone in my family who goes to Ireland makes the pilgrimage to the village of Kilbaha, where the mini-church is enshrined in the Little Church of the Ark. I was no exception.
In preparation, I dug into the ban on Catholicism that prompted Uncle Owen to build his holy contraption. Set against the human misery of Ireland in the mid-19th century, his story is one of faith and endurance framed by hunger, evictions, and an evil land agent.
By all accounts—and there are but a few—Uncle O was a humble man whose physical strength complemented the mental acuity of Father Michael Meehan, the parish priest of Cross, Carrigaholt, and Kilbaha. Against all odds, their wiliness out-tricked their nemesis.
In so doing, they brought hope to hundreds of people who had survived the scourge, politely called “the Potato Famine of 1845–1852.” In Irish, it is known as An Gorta Mór—The Great Hunger. It killed at least a million people.
In West Clare, a poor rural area, about a third of the population died from starvation, exposure, and disease.
On July 21, 1847, Father Meehan, then a curate in Kilrush, wrote a letter to the editor of The Tablet, describing the land as “about equal to a surface 20 miles long and as many broad, of which fully one-sixth is waste. Our population is 90,000, all Catholic (except about 3,000), attended by 22 priests.… One-third of our baronial population is in extreme want; about every tenth family is in actual fever. We have only one workhouse built for 800 inmates, and one fever hospital built for 36 patients for the poverty and disease of this populous district.”
There are no firm numbers regarding how many died during An Gorta Mór. In West Clare, most of the dead had no death certificates and many were not buried. Some died in ditches, where their bodies were scavenged by animals. Others were dumped in unmarked mass graves.
Additionally, nearly a thousand were deported for criminal behavior—primarily theft, petty at that. Thousands more moved to other parts of Ireland looking for work, shelter, and food. And then, of course, more than a million from Clare and elsewhere emigrated to other European countries, North America, and Australia.
It wasn’t the potato, a remarkably nutritious food, that killed all these people. Nor was it the potato blight, phytophthora infestans. It was the law.
The calculatingly demonic effects of An Gorta Mór lie squarely at the feet of the British. Case in point—there was enough food grown in Ireland during The Hunger to not only feed the landowners, aristocracy, and royalty, but also to export to England and elsewhere in the world. Yet there was none to feed the Catholics.
Penal laws, first enacted in 1501, barred Catholics from voting, holding public office, and owning land. Violations carried fines, imprisonment, and even death for participating in Catholic worship. Although the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 removed the most substantial restrictions, penal law protocols thrived in rural Ireland. They guaranteed that aristocrats received large estates (lands that centuries before had been confiscated from Catholics) in return for collecting taxes and keeping the local population under control.
West Clare fell under the jurisdiction of the Kilrush Union, one of 130 districts established by another law—the Irish Poor Law. One of the most impoverished areas in the west of Ireland, Kilrush Union was populated primarily by impoverished peasants who rented simple cabins and an acre or so to grow potatoes, oats, and flax.
This arrangement did not benefit the landlords, who wanted to transform their estates from low-rent arable land to profitable grazing pastures. They relied on evictions to accomplish that. Thus, the potato blight was timely. Some called the famine “providential,” as in “sent by Providence” to rid the landlords of unprofitable tenants.
Under the Poor Law, landlords were responsible for paying a “poverty tax,” which was assessed on even the smallest of holdings. The smaller the property, the higher the tax rate. Since the majority of Clare holdings were small, landlords incurred a heavy liability on them. When tenants had no crops, and therefore, no money to pay rent, many landlords saw eviction as the only solution to their own finances.
So, as thousands were dying from starvation and disease, famine-stricken families were regularly evicted for nonpayment of rent.
Abandoned house and eviction notice, Kerry Bog Village Museum, County Kerry.
Photos by Patti M. Walsh
Landlords were callous and sly. They frequently offered to forgive tenants’ debts if they surrendered their land. Or they offered tenants cash to destroy their own properties. These methods of payment allowed the evictions to appear voluntary.
Furthermore, houses were destroyed so that no one could covertly occupy them. Neighbors were threatened with eviction and property destruction if they extended any aid—not a meager meal or single night’s shelter.
By 1849, as many as 15,000 persons in the Kilrush Union had been evicted. With nowhere to live, these starving people sought relief in government-funded workhouses, which were overcrowded, underfunded, and vermin-infested. In the winter, many simply froze to death.
Clergy and non-affected community members were appalled and organized meager assistance camps. The Limerick Reporter and other newspapers regularly reported unfavorably on the evictions, but there was no legal recourse against landlords. Rather, the people themselves were blamed.
According to one report, non-paying tenants were “wretched swarms of people who … prevented the improvement of property so long as they remain[ed] upon it.”
In 1850, as The Hunger waned, the travesty known as Souperism surged. It evolved as a bastard child of The Hunger and the Irish Church Mission Society, whose goal was to lure people away from Catholicism by offering them free food, clothing, and education for their children.
Soupers were reviled by Catholics who had to choose between renouncing their faith and starvation. People who converted for food were ostracized. In the words of their peers, they “took the soup.”
Because they were charged with controlling people, landlords and their agents endorsed Souperism.
One of those agents was Marcus Keane, an avowed anti-Catholic.
A landlord himself, Keane was also an agent for some of the wealthiest landowners in the Kilrush Union, managing almost a quarter of the land area of the county. As such, he lowered his clients’ liability by removing the problem—specifically, the poor people who couldn’t pay their rent. Widely regarded as being indifferent to the misery of the poor, he embarked on wholesale clearances with glee. For that, he was dubbed the Exterminator General of Clare.
“He was unhappy when not exterminating,” reported the Limerick Reporter on November 24, 1848. The story quoted Keane referring to evictees as, “lazy tenants who had lived on in listless idleness from one year to another.”
Keane took advantage of insolvencies to establish his own estate, Dandahlinn, above the village of Kilbaha. Tenants, who lived in the shadows of his lavish lifestyle and terrifying power, were his minions in matters ranging from elections to education.
His ruthless habit of expelling people complemented his support of the Soupers. This directly led to his confrontations with Father Meehan and ultimately with Owen Collins.
Father Meehan had arrived in County Clare in 1839 to minister to the countless peasants dying from cholera. He stayed. Eventually, he assumed jurisdiction over three churches in Doonaha, Carrigaholt, and Cross. But there was a large area beyond Cross in the remote Loop Head Peninsula that had suffered greatly from destitution and emigration. He wanted to build both a church and a school there.
Meehan accused Keane of coerced proselytizing on several occasions, most notably in 1851, when Keane refused to allow the church to be built near Kilbaha. In response, the congregation offered a number of solutions, including makeshift tents and converting abandoned houses to temporary churches. Keane, of course, forcibly removed them. If farmers held Masses in their homes, Keane threatened eviction.
The Priest and the Carpenter
While riding a horse-drawn omnibus in 1852, Father Meehan envisioned an altar on wheels, similar to both the vehicle in which he rode and the Victorian bathing machines in Kilkee that allowed women to change clothes and swim in the ocean without being seen by men.
His version would have to be capable of being rolled onto the beach at low tide. That was crucial, for the shore was considered no-man’s land. Since there was no land during high tide, no law was broken by using it. Such an undertaking was certain to incur Keane’s wrath, for he had no authority over no-man’s land.
That’s when the priest approached the carpenter. For £10 (about $500, today), Owen Collins built what came to be known as “the little Ark” in two weeks. It was a wooden box on four wheels with an open door in front and windows along the sides, which Collins covered with a tarred canvas. Inside was a low altar on which a statue of the Sacred Heart stood. Above the altar was a crucifix.
Too large for the carpenter’s workshop, the Ark was built on the street at Carrigaholt. In a triumphal procession, it was transported about 8 miles to Kilbaha. It was parked on a crossroad that was part of the public highway and thus outside the landlords’ control. Nevertheless, Keane insisted that Father Meehan be prosecuted for placing a nuisance at the crossroads of Kilbaha. The case was tried and dismissed.
For five years, the Ark would be rolled out to no-man’s land, where hundreds of parishioners worshiped in rain and mud, burning heat and winter frost. Kneeling on flat stones, they attended Masses, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
Father Meehan called the Ark a “sentry box.” He wrote in the Muster News on April 4, 1857, “In this, ever since, winter or summer, I have celebrated Mass, while a large congregation kneel around me in the puddle, bareheaded, under the open air.”
Finally, in 1857, permission was granted to build a church.
The first stone was laid on July 12, 1857, at Moneen, about a mile from the site where the Ark stood. The Ark was brought to the site and used until the church was completed. It now rests inside the church to the left of the altar.
The church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, was dedicated on October 10, 1858, with three thousand people attending the ceremony.
Having devoted most of his priesthood to the people in West Clare, Father Meehan died on January 24, 1878, at age 68, in Limerick. His remains were brought first to Kilrush, then to Carrigaholt and Kilbaha by horse-drawn hearse. After lying in repose for a short time on the shore where the Ark first stood, the priest was then buried on the grounds of Our Lady Star of the Sea, on February 1, 1878, within feet of the Ark.
On September 7, 2023, a nearly cloudless day with temperatures in the upper 70s, my husband, Bob, and I trekked west from Limerick, through rolling hills dotted with farms and ruins. Sheep and cows grazed in the fields. Raw, salty air wafted from the northeastern Atlantic. For two hours, we shared narrow country roads with farm equipment, farm animals, and commercial trucks.
The Road to Kilbaha. Photos by Patti M. Walsh
When we reached our destination, however, we still needed directions to the church itself, for the Kilbaha church is actually in Moveen.
A kind waitress at Keatings, Kilbaha’s sole bar and restaurant, directed us to, “take a left at that white building.” She pointed back in the direction from which we came. “Go past the school. You can’t miss it.”
You could miss it. This is not a church you happen upon. Yet the only other visitors there were two older men who had done just that. The shorter, talkative one said they had planned to take a ferry ride on this glorious day, but the boat never showed up. As an alternative, they went in search of the church that his friend had visited long ago.
He then turned the conversation to me.
“Did you plan on coming here?”
“Oh, yes.” I explained that Owen Collins—my great-great-great granduncle—built the Ark. I came to bear witness to a family legend.
As we stood talking in the chancel of Our Lady Star of the Sea, my companion noted the altar cloth and read aloud the words emblazoned on it: The winds and the sea obey him.
“Do you know that song, “Peace Be Still?” he asked. When I said I didn’t, he told me he learned it as a young school lad. Without prompting, he sang it in a clear voice that rang through the acoustically faultless nave.
The winds and the waves shall obey thy will:
Peace, be still. Peace, be still.
They all shall sweetly obey thy will:
Peace, peace, be still.
After the mini-concert, we wandered into the alcove to the left of the sanctuary, where the Ark sits beyond the baptismal font. With simple elegance, the weather-worn wood attests to its history.
After our fellow traveler took our picture, he pointed to a bronze relief of Father Meehan on one wall. Then he pointed to a black-and-white picture on the opposite one.
“Who’s that?” he asked. “Do you know?”
I looked up at the clean-shaven man wearing a black derby, open overcoat, and genial smile. He looked proud, yet humble—a countenance that reminded me of Uncle Steve and his father, Gramp. This man was family.
“It’s Owen Collins,” I said.
I had found the hero of my family tree.
Many thanks to:
My cousins, Mary Ellen (Collins) Banks and Jeanne (Collins) Branch
Liz Greehy, Kilbaha Gallery
The Little Ark—The Story of a People’s Fight for the Faith, published and distributed by the Little Ark Visitors’ Center, Kilbaha, County Clare
“Death by Starvation 36, Evictions and Extermination in Co. Clare,” Irish Hunger Committee
The Dictionary of Irish Biography, a project of the Royal Irish Academy