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Home Uncategorized A Champion for the Poor

A Champion for the Poor

Fergus O’Donoghue

Raising Dublin, Raising Ireland: A Friar’s Campaigns – Father John Spratt, O.Carm. (1796-1871), by Fergus A D’Arcy, Carmelite Publications, 621 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-1527221772

In the early summer of 2019, RTE Radio One’s Drivetime programme included an interview about plans to restore the ruins of the Hellfire Club, on a hilltop in Co Dublin. The would-be restorer described the debauched lifestyle of club members, adding that one of their aims was “to oppose the power of the Catholic Church”. Such a suggestion would have astounded the club’s members, because, during the time it flourished (1735-1741), the Penal Laws against Catholicism were at their strictest, so the church was powerless, representing a despised and cowed, if feared, majority.

“Catholic Church” is often used to mean the clerical branch of Catholicism, to the exclusion of everybody else, but, as John Henry Newman said, “The Church would look rather foolish without [the laity].” The Roman Catholic Church flourishes only when enough lay people are committed to membership and are happy to accept some form of clerical leadership in the religious aspect of their lives. Priests and members of religious orders all come from the laity, so cohesion is always within reach. Adversity over many generations had brought Irish Catholic clergy and laity together. In 1801, when the Act of Union came into effect, there was a rapidly increasing Catholic population, a shortage of priests and there were less than a dozen convents in the whole country. All of this changed during the nineteenth century and that can be seen in the life of the man usually known as “Reverend Doctor Spratt”.

John Spratt was born when several Catholic Relief Acts had been passed by the Irish parliament and he died shortly after the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, so he lived through the era of Catholic recovery and the rise of the church to considerable power and even more considerable influence in every aspect of Irish life. Spratt was one of the best-known men in the Ireland of his times, but he has been reduced to a footnote in others’ biographies and is mentioned only rarely in histories of Irish Catholicism. Fergus D’Arcy has set out, with great success, to rescue John Spratt from oblivion. It is significant, however, that the Calced Carmelites themselves have published this biography, rather than publication being risked by a commercial publishing house, because Spratt has been so overlooked that sales of a biography could not be guaranteed.

The book is long, and it is heavy to hold, but there is no heaviness about the contents. The research is excellent, despite the lack of diaries kept by Spratt, or of letters to his family or to his friends. More than just a biography, Fergus D’Arcy has written a social history of Dublin, emphasising the more than forty years that John Spratt was a public figure. The illustrations are so plentiful that they include pictures of every prominent person or building discussed in the text, giving a sense of immediacy to the very detailed narrative. Apart from the years of his formal training for the priesthood and a brief visit to Rome, Spratt lived in Dublin, so there is a focus on Catholic life in his native city.

Born in Cork Street, the son of a manufacturer of parchment and glue, John Spratt entered the Calced Carmelites in 1816 and was sent to Spain for his formation. After five years in Cordoba, he returned to Ireland as a priest, at a time when the Catholic Church was “a challenged and a wary organization”. The legal position of Catholics is summarised in a helpful footnote: series of Relief Acts had removed many legal restrictions, but Irish Catholics were second-class subjects and King George III rejected the further relief implicitly promised when the Act of Union was passed. Offices of state were open to Catholics, but very few were filled by them.

The evangelical revival had touched all Irish Protestant churches and was explicit in the words of Archbishop William Magee, when he was installed at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on October 24th, 1822 and gave a diocesan charge that was a call to convert Catholics to the Protestant faith. This was part of a movement known as “The Second Reformation” and it spread all over Ireland. Churches were built in areas where there had been only ruins and there were vigorous preaching campaigns, most noticeably those of the Society of Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics, founded in 1849.

The Church of Ireland had been united to the Church of England by the Act of Union and this was declared to be fundamental to the Union itself and thus to the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. “Anglican” is a word used in this biography, but, before the Oxford Movement, the Churches of Ireland and England were vigorously Protestant. The assertion of Established and Protestant identity and superiority could happen at any time, despite Catholics being a majority in Dublin itself since 1750. On September 9th, 1823, Catholic prayers were forbidden at the graveside during the funeral of Arthur D’Arcy, a young Catholic merchant who had been thrown from his horse. Such unfortunate incidents worsened an already poisoned atmosphere. In the 1830s, the number of Church of Ireland dioceses was almost halved and the system of tithes, which had to be paid by everybody in Ireland, was changed, but relationships between Catholic and Protestant churches continued to disimprove.

Spratt’s family story was evidence of the increased strength and overt religiosity of the Catholic middle class, but also its insecurity: one of his brothers became an Augustinian friar, and one of his sisters became a Carmelite nun at the advanced age of fifty-six, but the brother who went into business was a failure and went bankrupt. The two siblings who entered religious orders were signs of the coming generations of Catholic men and women who saw membership of a religious order as an admirable option rather than an eccentric lifestyle choice.

Many religious orders are exempt from episcopal authority and the oldest orders are the most ready to take risks, but good communication with bishops is essential. Daniel Murray, appointed to Dublin in 1823, was outstanding. In 1825, John Spratt bought the site of Whitefriar Street Church and began building, despite the uncertain status of religious orders. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829, known as the Emancipation Act, included four clauses (inserted as a salve to strong Protestant opinion) that would have restricted and then reduced religious orders. The clauses were not enforced, but the right of religious orders to receive bequests was not clarified until as late as 1983. Spratt pushed ahead with building a house for the Carmelite community in 1840 and with enlarging the church in the 1850s.

Whitefriar Street Church became one of the busiest in Dublin. Although built somewhat haphazardly, rather than to an initial design, it was a centre of devotion to Our Lady of Dublin (a late medieval statue rescued by Spratt) and to Saint Valentine (whose body had been given to Spratt by Pope Gregory XVI). Post-Emancipation Catholics were assertive, and their churches reflected their changing status. Spratt’s devotional books, though unremarkable, were characteristic of the increase in Irish Catholic publishing as people became more literate in English.

Ordained members of religious orders have always been addressed as “Father”. In Ireland, until the mid-nineteenth century, diocesan priests were addressed as “Mister” (nuns used the honorary title “Missus”). Diocesan priests began to use the title “Father”, but John Spratt sought the title of “Doctor” from his own order in 1855 and used it constantly. Having been chief administrator of the Irish Carmelites, Spratt invented, and used, the title “Ex-Provincial”.

Whitefriar Street was the centre of a district in economic and social decline. Spratt, whose energy seems limitless, enlarged the social services already offered by the Carmelites: an orphanage from 1817; a school for boys in 1820 and for girls in 1824; an industrial school for girls; Saint Peter’s Orphan Society (in which he was involved for forty years); a night refuge, especially for children and dismissed domestic servants, founded in 1861 and closed a hundred years later. Spratt was a leading member of the (nondenominational) Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Association for almost forty years. In 1854, he helped to found the Catholic Young Men’s Society. He was a member of the Board of Irish Manufacture and Industry, which, not surprisingly in an Irish context, later divided into three groups and, eventually, dissolved.

Temperance was one of the liveliest and most urgent issues in Irish life for generations. John Spratt was one of its leading promoters. The Temperance Society was founded in 1830, to encourage moderate drinking, but this developed into support for teetotalism. The Irish Total Abstinence Association was founded in 1839. In the following two years, Spratt helped to organise Saint Patrick’s Day Temperance Parades. The temperance movement, which was interdenominational, revived in the 1860s and Spratt was a strong advocate of the Sunday closing of all public houses in Ireland. This became law seven years after his death, but the Act excluded all towns with a population above ten thousand, which he would have regarded as very unsatisfactory.

Epidemics were frequent. As a young priest, John Spratt became involved in helping cholera patients. Later in life, he helped relieve distress in the West of Ireland. The years of the Great Famine saw a rise in Dublin’s population, an increase in the number of tenements and widespread misery. The worst year was 1849, when there was a sharp rise in mortality. The Whitefriar Street Carmelites and the nearby Saint Peter’s Church of Ireland co-operated in trying to help the suffering poor.

That co-operation, in a dire emergency, was not characteristic of Irish life, where sectarian divisions were the norm. When the Adelaide Hospital, close to Whitefriar Street, opened in 1839, it was policy to allow no Catholic clergy to enter the building, even if Catholic patients requested it. Spratt was in the forefront of Catholic resistance and the problem was not solved until 1864, when it was decided to admit no Catholic patients. Spratt was one of the three founders of the Catholic Defence Association in 1851 and was a supporter of the Friends of Religious Freedom and Equality. He encouraged the new Catholic University in 1854, was interested in antiquarianism and became involved in politics. He was in favour of amnesties for Young Ireland and for the Fenians, but the right of Carmelites to vote, under the restricted franchise of the times, was contested by conservative political agents and was not guaranteed until 1868.

At the Great Exhibition in Dublin, in 1853, John Spratt was presented, rather than “introduced” to Queen Victoria. There may have been some meeting of minds, because he was one of the best-known and most esteemed men in Ireland. Both would have opposed disorderly public behaviour, but neither was a rigid Sabbatarian. Spratt was prominent in the campaign to abolish the ancient celebrations at Donnybrook, and the fair was abolished in 1868. He had already been successful in having the Botanical Gardens opened on Sundays.

Spratt knew that lines of communication with Rome are essential for the administration of any Catholic religious order. He was in the confidence of the various Carmelites elected to central administration and he was Provincial in Ireland once more, from 1863 until his death. Prominent members of religious communities are not always held in high regard by those who live under the same roof. Spratt was not popular with younger Carmelites and he may not have been an easy companion, being too aware of his own talents and achievements.

John Spratt dropped dead, whilst administering the temperance pledge to two women, in a parlour at Whitefriar Street on May 21st, 1871. A very large funeral to Glasnevin was followed by burial in the section occupied by many religious orders, but a large monument was erected near the spot. A High Cross draws attention; the fulsome inscription reflects the spirit of the times, but priests belonging to religious orders are traditionally not so memorialised.

Having been so famous, John Spratt’s very successful career and his many achievements faded very quickly from public memory. He achieved almost everything he set out to do: build a church, organise help for the poor, advance the public position of Catholics and promote temperance. This last continued to be of great urgency and it flourished under other organisations for many generations. It was significant that the Wesleyan Band of Hope played at Father Spratt’s funeral.

The Adelaide Hospital retained its Protestant ethos until it merged and moved to Tallaght in 1998, but the Carmelites of Whitefriar Street were welcomed as chaplains. They visited the hospital every day.


Fergus O’Donoghue SJ was editor of Studies from 2001 to 2011. He lives at Saint Francis Xavier Community, Gardiner Street, Dublin.



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