On a lovely summer day, 11th July, 1847, George Henry Moore, with the Very Rev. Archdeacon John MacHale and the Rev. Peter Conway, left Moore Hall and sailed over the green waters of Lough Carra, past Castle Island with its remains of an old robber keep, and round the point of Derreenrush, the last of the old woods of Ireland, to the Bridge of Keel; thence into the rough waters of Lough Mask to Tourmakeady, where they landed again on his own property under the bleak mountain Tournasala.
They might have pitched on a more fertile spot in that wild and romantic region, but on none more suitable for the purpose in view.
Thirty acres of undrained land, as Nature left it, extended to the shore, and the site of the monastery was selected on a lofty eminence rising from the dark waters of Lough Mask and commanding a broad expense of mountain and lake. The mountaineers eagerly lent their aid and in a few days the ground was enclosed by a fence.
The foundation stone was laid by Dr. MacHale, Archbishop of Tuam, on the 3rd of October, 1847, and on Good Friday, 1848, two poor monks of the Franciscan Order, Brothers Bonaventure and Sylvester, without five shillings at their disposal, but with the love of God and their neighbours in their hearts, took possession. Adjacent to their farm they hired a cabin for a few pence a week and after a time others of the Order joined them. They drained, they dug, they subsoiled and planted and, after a period, the most barren hill in Partry became the greenest and most productive in the mountains.
It is a peculiar feature of this institution that the Brotherhood of St. Mary's are bound to the trustees, as a strict condition of their endowment, to give food to every stranger who may present himself at their gate in want of bread. While they dedicate their hearts to God, and their minds to the religious education of their children of the district, they devote their bodily strength to the severest labours of the most industrious peasant.
Early in October, 1898, just fifty years after its foundation, I visited the monastery with Miss Fitzgerald Kenney of Clogher for the first time, and found it in possession of the monks of the Third Order of St. Francis. It had not yet grown into the spacious establishment contemplated by its founder, but it consisted of a simple house slightly retired from the main road. The hedges around it were of fuchsia, which grows wild in this district, and were still in bloom in that mild weather.
I met a monk with a long black beard, reading his breviary as he walked in the garden, and there was an air of quiet and contentment, very different from the wild and dreadful scenes of the famine.
The whole face of the country had changed; stacks of corn stood in the fields where formerly only heather or rushes could subsist; the farmhouses are better than in other districts and there is a prosperous village. The object of our visit was to establish a co-operative agricultural society at Tourmakeady and this was satisfactorily done. Brother Leo, one of the monks, was elected a member of the committee.
It happened, as a result of the famine and the heavy poor rates, that many of the landlords were ruined and had to sell their estates.
Among others, George Moore suffered severely, and the large estate of Ballintubber, containing some six thousand acres, was sold in the Encumbered Estates Court. He bought in a large part of it, but the Tourmakeady portion of the property was purchased by Lord Plunkett, Protestant Bishop of Tuam.
There had been Protestant missions established in these wild districts for many years, but they had made no progress whatsoever, and the schools were always empty. The missionaries, however, were obliged to write glowing accounts to London of the number of Proselytes, and the crowds of happy children saved from the clutches of Rome, or the funds would have ceased to come in. Matters jogged comfortably along in this way and there was usually no enmity between priest and missionary; it is even related that a good-natured priest used to lend his congregation to his friend, the missionary, on the occasions of the visits of an Exeter Hall Inspector who, of course, on his return was able to tell his delighted audience of the coming conversion of Connaught. The collection-plates were heaped to overflowing and a bag of gold was transmitted to the west.
But Bishop Plunkett had more practical views on the matter. During the famine free food was distributed as a condition of conversation, and when he acquired the new property he evicted a number of his unfortunate tenants, replacing them by Protestants imported from other districts.
Nice slated houses were offered to those who would adopt the new faith and threats were not omitted if they refused. He forced the children to attend a Protestant school, and his Sisters used to search the houses, often pulling the children from their beds where their parents hid them. One day a party of these unfortunates, who had been turned out of their homes, crossed the lake and appealed for help to their old landlord. He was thunderstruck at their lamentable story. He had heard of such things but had not realised them. Most of his friends and relatives were Protestants and he had been brought up in a period of toleration. But now it came home to him through the suffering of those whom he succoured through the famine, and he was beside himself with anger; it seemed as if the Cromwellian times had been revived in Connaught. He gave them land on his own estate, dividing some large grazing farms among them; and some he took even into his own demesne, where their children live to the present day, and he arranged to attend a public meeting in Partry. His mother besought him to refrain; the Plunketts were personal friends; there were many Protestant electors in the county who would be antagonised, but he was always headstrong and self-willed.
He gave free vent to his feelings and poured out a flood of invective such as O'Connell might have envied. He urged them to resist opposition and to rebel against such a disgraceful traffic of souls. He ridiculed the idea that a few wandering fanatics, the vagabond emissaries of the greedy fanaticism of England, could extinguish with soup and Indian meal in Connemara to the Apostolic and Universal Church, to which, within the last few years, the most learned, the most eloquent, the most gifted and the most pious of the Protestant clergy of England had become converts. He asked them if they believed that those who, generation after generation, made it a deadly crime to teach Catholics to read or write, have now no object but charity and Christian sympathy in bribing them to school. "Will you believe that those who banished your fathers to Hell or Connaught have now no object in following you into Connaught but to redeem you from Hell?" The mission has long ceased to exist. Twenty years after there were only two converted families, and both were those of paid employees. In the west of Ireland Catholics and Protestants now live together in toleration and friendship and these religious animosities seem as far distant as the Inquisition.
(Extracted from 'The Life of George Moore')