Walter Blake Kirwan

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

« Richard Kirwan | Index | James Sheridan Knowles »

Kirwan, Walter Blake, Dean of Killala, a distinguished preacher, was born in the County of Galway in 1754. A Catholic, he was educated at St. Omer's with a view to entering the Church. At seventeen he visited a rich relation in the West Indies; but the trying climate and the miseries of slavery so wrought on his mind and body that he threw up prospects of opulence and returned to Europe. He took orders, rose to distinction at Louvain, and in 1778 went to London as chaplain to the Neapolitan Embassy. Coming to Ireland to visit his relatives, he was converted to Protestantism, received into the Established Church, and appointed rector of St. Peter's, Dublin, June 1787. He almost immediately took his place as the most popular city preacher of the day. Barrington says: "He was by far the most eloquent and effective pulpit orator I ever heard;.. his figure, and particularly his countenance, were not prepossessing; there was an air of discontent in his looks, and a sharpness in his features, which, in the aggregate, amounted to something not distant from repulsion. His manner of preaching was of the French school:.. his tact equalled his talent... In St. Peter's, where he preached an annual charity sermon, the usual collection, which had been under £200, was raised by the Dean to £1,100. I knew a gentleman myself who threw both his purse and watch into the plate." In 1800 Lord Cornwallis advanced him to the deanery of Killala. He died in Dublin, 27th October 1805, aged about 51, leaving a family but poorly provided for.

George III. granted his widow £300 a year, with reversion to his daughters. A painting in the Royal Dublin Society House represents him preaching, while a group of orphans for whom he is pleading sit round the base of the pulpit. Grattan uttered a brilliant eulogium on Dr. Kirwan in the Irish Parliament, on 19th June 1792: "What is the case of Dr. Kirwan? This man preferred our country and our religion, and brought to both genius superior to what he found in either. He called forth the latent virtues of the human heart, and taught men to discover in themselves a mine of charity of which the proprietors had been unconscious. In feeding the lamp of charity, he has almost exhausted the lamp of life. He came to interrupt the repose of the pulpit, and shakes one world with the thunder of another. The preacher's desk becomes the throne of light. Round him a train — not such as crouch and swagger at the levee of princes — not such as attend the procession of the viceroy, horse, foot, and dragoons; but that wherewith a great genius peoples his own state — charity in ecstacy, and vice in humiliation — vanity, arrogance, and saucy empty pride appalled by the rebuke of the preacher, and cheated for a moment of their native improbity and insolence. What reward?.. The curse of Swift is upon him: to have been born an Irishman and a man of genius, and to have used it for the good of his country."[154]

In Notes and Queries, 1st Series, mention is made of his delivering even a shorter sermon than Swift's famous one. Too ill to preach, he mounted the pulpit while the church was crowded to suffocation, and having given out the text, he merely pointed to the orphan children in the aisle, and said: "There they are." It is added that the collection ensuing was one of the largest ever made in Dublin. Dean Kirwan left a son who became Dean of Limerick.

Sources

22. Barrington, Sir Jonah, Personal Sketches of his own Time: Townsend Young, LL.D. 2 vols. London, 1869.

146. Gentleman's Magazine. London, 1731-1868.
Gilbert, John T., see Nos. 110, 335.

154. Grattan Henry, his Life and Times: Henry Grattan. 5 vols. London, 1839-'46.

204. Kirwan, Walter Blake, Dean of Killala: Sermons, with a Sketch of his Life. London, 1816.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850-'78.
O'Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

« Richard Kirwan | Index | James Sheridan Knowles »


Library Ireland Facebook