LAST week, we were delving into the board of First Fruits’ and I was introducing you to William Shaw Mason, who was the author of A Parochial Survey of Ireland in three volumes.
The first of his surveys was published two centuries ago and was presented to the Right Hon Robert Peel, chief secretary to the lord lieutenant, through whose patronage and encouragement William Shaw Mason undertook the work.
The idea behind the taking of the survey was, ultimately, to inform government as to the actual state of the country. Sir John Sinclair had undertaken a similar type of survey in Scotland and I think William Shaw Mason was greatly influenced by Sinclair.
The magnitude of the task was not lost on Mason, but his solution, though not foolproof, was quite inspired. In effect, he drew up a template which set out in detail the areas under which parishes should be examined. These templates were then sent to the clergy of the established church in each parish, who, in turn, filled in the information requested.
There are some exceptions to the parochial clergy providing the required information. Aghaboe is a case in point. The parish is comprehended in the first volume and the return was completed by the Rev Edward Ledwich, LLD. This reverend was a noted topographer and the author of many works, among which he edited and published a compendium titled Antiquities of Ireland, compiled by his friend captain Grose.
Ledwich also published A Statistical Account of the Parish of Aghaboe in 1796. It was this document, with some updates to cover the intervening years and with some adjustments to fit Shaw Mason’s template, which appears in the survey.
The Aghaboe section of Mason’s parochial survey runs to some 70 pages, including plates containing maps, and so on. It is a most comprehensive treatment of that parish. By contrast, the parochial return for Ardbraccan, in the diocese of Co Meath, completed by the Rev Richard Moore, rector, and the Rev Thomas Toomy, curate, runs to just 22 pages.
I don’t suggest that the Rev Ledwich should not have been the person to complete the survey for Aghaboe – after all, he was vicar at Aghaboe for quarter of a century, his tenure there ending in 1797. I have to say, though, that I find myself drawn more to the accounts written by those who were the incumbents of the day.
Oftentimes, accounts written by someone with no formal academic background and without any academic agenda, other than to report things as they are, conjure up a better snapshot of the time. A personal view on a walk through history more closely describes the Aghaboe account.
The first volume of Shaw Mason’s survey examines 29 parishes across 17 dioceses and the completed volume runs to some 600 pages of text, augmented with picture plates of maps and sketches of some parishes.
Whatever my views on authors such as the Rev Ledwich, there is no doubt that the entire work is, in effect, a window through which we can peer at life in rural Ireland 200 years ago. Some of the pictures drawn for us may be a bit blurred, others though are in sharp focus and, in some instances, it’s the throwaway comment which can be the most telling.
In terms of the Queen’s county, it is represented on two occasions. Aghaboe, in the diocese of Ossary, enjoys the most comprehensive treatment.
In terms of the poor of that parish, it seems that there was a problem with ‘sturdy beggars,’ who moved from parish to parish intercepting charity destined for those in real need, thereby creating an additional burden on the parish. However, a parish committee appointed to inquire into the state of the poor observed on 1 June 1775 that: ‘since stocks have been erected in Aghaboe, and a resolution made public of punishing strange and sturdy beggars, not one has appeared.’
The other parish in the Queen’s County represented in Mason’s volume 1 (though it is in the diocese of Kildare), is the parish of Lea. Compiled by the Rev John Jones, this quite informative account runs to some 30 pages and includes a map of the parish and a sketch of the castle of Lea.