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in County Clare 1534 - 1911
Rev John Wesley, Visits to County Clare, 1756-73
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, came to preach in Ireland on no fewer than twenty one occasions between 1748 and 1789. Educated at Christ Church, Oxford, he was ordained in 1728. Following a spiritual conversion in 1738, which centred on the realization of salvation by faith in Christ alone, he devoted the remainder of his long life to evangelism. He travelled on horseback and preached constantly in Britain and in Ireland. He journeyed to County Clare on five occasions between 1756 and 1773, usually at two yearly intervals. There were no preaching houses in Clare so meetings were held in the open street or in the chamber of Ennis courthouse. Initially Wesley was received with enthusiasm and many Catholics attended his sermons. Gradually numbers dwindled and on his fourth visit in 1767, he found that ‘the preaching had been discontinued and the society was vanished away’. Catholics no longer came to the meetings, perhaps on the orders of their priests, and local Protestants showed little interest in his evangelical zeal. Wesley left declaring that ‘at Ennis the god of this world has wholly prevailed’. It was another six years before he returned to County Clare and then he came only as far as Clarecastle to preach to the soldiers stationed in the barracks there. Wesley met with much opposition in Ireland and despite valiant efforts, failed to bridge the sectarian divide. He was, however, an informed observer and his journals are of particular interest for the insights they provide into religious practice and affiliation in the eighteenth century. They are also of value for the light they shed on contemporary modes of travel, weather conditions and life in provincial towns. Following his experience in Clare, Wesley avoided the county in his subsequent Irish tours. He died in 1791 at the age of eighty eight, still travelling and still preaching.
Wednesday 23 June, 1756. I took my leave of Limerick and rode to Six Mile Bridge. There I left Mr Walsh to preach in Irish and went on to Ralahine.
Thursday 24 June, 1756. I went on to Ennis, a town consisting almost wholly of papists, except a few Protestant gentlemen. One of these (the chief person in the town) had invited me to his house, and walked with me to the courthouse, where I preached to a wild unawakened multitude, Protestants and papists, many of whom would have been rude enough, if they durst.
Friday 25 June, 1756. Mr Walsh preached at six [a.m.], first in Irish and then in English. The papist priest had contrived to have his service just at the same hour; and his man came again and again with the bell, but not one in ten of his people would stir. At eight I preached to a far more serious congregation and the word seemed to sink into their hearts. We took horse about ten and rode through the fruitful and pleasant county of Galway.
Thursday 29 June, 1758. I rode to Clare, and at six [a.m.] preached in the street to many poor papists and rich Protestants, almost all the gentry of the country being assembled together. Thence I went on to Ennis, and at ten the next morning had another genteel meeting in the courthouse. In Ennis many suppose there are not less than fifty papists to one Protestant. They would have been very ready to show their good-will; but the sight of Mr Bindon kept them in awe. A report, however, was spread of some terrible things they were to do in the evening; and many were surprised to observe that more than nine in ten of the congregation were papists. But none spoke an unkind or uncivil word, either while I preached or after I had done.
Friday 11 July, 1760. I preached in the new house at Clare to a genteel congregation. What a contrast between these and the poor people at Killeheen? We had still a more genteel congregation the next morning at nine in the courthouse at Ennis, to whom I spoke with all plainness. I did the same on Sunday morning; so, if they hear me no more, I am clear of their blood. I took my leave of them at Clare in the afternoon, and in the evening returned to Limerick.
Thursday 27 May, 1762. We had another Georgian day; but having the wind again full in our face, after riding about fifty English miles we got to Ennis in the afternoon. Many being ready to make a disturbance at the courthouse, I left them to themselves and preached over against Mr Bindon’s house in great quietness.
Friday 28 May, 1762. I was informed that two days before, two of Mr Bindon’s maids went to bathe (as the women here frequently do) in the river near his house. The water was not above a yard deep, but there was a deep hole at a little distance. As one of them dashed water at the other, she endeavouring to avoid it, slipped into the hole, and the first, striving to help her slipped in too. Nor was either of them seen any more, till their bodies floated upon the water. Yet after some hours, one of them was brought to life. But the other could not be recovered.
Saturday 29 May, 1762. We had a pleasant ride to Limerick. The violent heat, which had continued for eight days was now at an end, the wind turning north.
Thursday 6 June, 1765. Between five and six we reached Ennis, after a warm day, which much exhausted my strength; but it was soon repaired, and the serious well behaved congregation (though many of them were people of fortune) made amends for the turbulent one at Galway. Such is the chequered work of life.
Friday 7 June 1765. I rested at Ennis; and it was well I did; for even in the house the heat was scarce supportable.
Saturday 8 June 1765. I rode to Limerick and found the preaching house just finished.
Saturday 9 May, 1767. I rode to Ennis, but found the preaching had been discontinued, and the society was vanished away. So having no business there, I left in the morning and preached at Clare about eight and in the evening at Limerick. The continued rain kept me from preaching abroad this week; and I was scandalised by the smallness of congregation in the house. I am afraid that my glorying touch of mark of these societies is at an end. In Munster a land flowing of milk and honey, how widely is the case altered! At Ennis the god of this world has wholly prevailed; at Clare there is but a spark left; and at Limerick itself, I find only the remembrance of the fire which was kindled two years ago.
Wednesday 12 May, 1773. I took my leave of this affectionate people, in the evening preached at Clare. What a contrast between Clare and Limerick, a ruinous little town; no inn that could afford us either meat or drink or comfortable lodging; no society and next to no congregation, till the soldiers came. After preaching I spent an agreeable hour with the commanding officer; and having procured a tolerable lodging in the barracks, slept in peace.
Thursday 13 May 1773. We went on through a most dreary country to Galway.
Taken from The Works of Rev John Wesley, 4 vols.,
Journals 1735-70 (London 1872), ii, pp 379, 452; iii, pp 10, 95, 223,