There is a story which appeared in several Irish newspapers this week that reminded me of Father Michael Meehan and the “Little Ark”. I came across the story whilst researching for Called to Account. Like Arthur Kennedy, Father Meehan was at pains to expose the activities of landlords and agents who evicted the poorest of their tenants, thereby exacerbating the suffering of Irish paupers during the famine. Meehan, in fact, preceded Kennedy with such investigations. He did, however, accompany Kennedy to present evidence to the Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry chaired by George Poulett Scrope in the summer of 1850.
Meehan is one of the nine individuals who played significant roles in the suffering of the people of West Clare and who are featured in Ciarán Ó Mucharda’s book Figures in a Famine Landscape.
Another is Marcus Keane, a land owner who also performed the function of land agent for absentee landlords. Keane also attended the Scrope enquiry, initially denying that many evictions took place. Faced with incontrovertible evidence, he changed his testimony, instead attempting to justify the land owner’s behaviour.
Keane was an Evangelical Protestant, Father Meehan a Roman Catholic priest. Towards the end of the famine, and for several years afterwards, the Evangelicals established schools, insisting that the children of tenants attend to be indoctrinated in their own brand of Christianity. Treasured practices of the Catholic Church were condemned in these institutions and in public discourse. It is hardly surprising then to learn that in 1852 Keane refused permission for Father Meehan to build a chapel in the village of Kilbaha on the Loop Head peninsula. The two men had, by then, been at loggerheads for at least 5 years.
Ever resourceful, if over protective of his own fiercely held beliefs, Meehan created the ‘Little Ark’, a wooden shed on wheels from which he preached every Sunday from the beach at Kilbaha. The area of sand exposed by the retreating tide was not subjected to the strict rules applied by Keane to the rest of the peninsula. Just before noon every Sunday between 1852 and 1857 a group of parishioners trundled the Ark onto the foreshore. From within this structure Father Meehan would say mass to a congregation of upwards of a hundred individuals.
But there is a remarkable coincidence that links the two stories. The man conducting outdoor mass from the Popemobile is Father Malachy Conlon, parish priest of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Boher, Cooley, County Louth. Father Meehan’s Little Ark is commemorated by a painting in the Chapel of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Moneen, Kilbaha. The painting is featured on the cover of Ciarán Ó Mucharda’s Book.